Category Archives: Theology

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:18 Follow-Up

We took this class time to digest all we discussed previously concerning Revelation 13:18, the number of the Beast, and the various possibilities as to who it could represent. We also pursued a few conversational bunny trails, but that’s normal. With regard to the identity of the Beast, based on what we presented last time, I think if John had someone contemporary in mind, Domitian is the best supported. Nero requires too much special pleading. But even Domitian is not without problems. Unfortunately, we don’t have anything from the time of Revelation that tells us irrefutably and conclusively who Christians would have thought of when they saw “666.” As it is, we are left to conjecture based on applying the kind of reckoning familiar at the time, along with our understanding of the history and culture of John and his audience. We saw how names can be manipulated by careful transliteration to make the math work. But just because we can make a name fit by certain linguistic gymnastics, we can’t prove that John’s readers would have done the same.

I believe the best we can do is to say:

  1. There’s a good probability John was pointing his contemporary readers to the Emperor Domitian.
  2. However, the Lord has left the precise meaning of the number veiled to everyone outside of John’s audience (as is evident from the writings of the Early Church Fathers, even within 100 years of John writing Revelation). This speaks to the fact that the number is a symbol, representative of the Beast–whoever that might be in any particular age. For John, probably Domitian. But each generation will recognize their Antichrist and False Prophet. Given that “6” is one short of the number of completion in Revelation, there must be some significance to a Trinity of sixes.
  3. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that someone may come at a future time for whom the number “666” fits effortlessly, somehow. We don’t believe the events of Revelation are all history. The End has not yet come, and there will be final representatives of Babylon and the Beast around when Christ returns. I think it would be presumptuous to assume we know all there is to know about this passage, when there are events in Revelation that have yet to transpire (i.e., the Lord’s return).
  4. This brings us to the most important point of Revelation 13:18: those who belong to the Beast carry the number of his name. Those who belong to Christ bear his name. While things look good for the Beast’s people in Chapter 13, this situation will not last, as we will see. Whose name do you wear?

I quoted a section from Ireneaus of Lyons, who wrote a work called Against Heresies around 180 AD, within a hundred years of Revelation. In Chapter 30 of Book 5, he discusses Revelation 13:18, noting how there are so many names that could apply, making it difficult to be sure which one is intended. He gives his best guess, but concludes:

It is therefore more certain, and less hazardous, to await the fulfillment of the prophecy, than to be making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves, inasmuch as many names can be found possessing the number mentioned; and the same question will, after all, remain unsolved. For if there are many names found possessing this number, it will be asked which among them shall the coming man bear… But he indicates the number of the name now, that when this man comes we may avoid him, being aware who he is…

I don’t agree with all of Irenaeus’s thoughts, but I think his general approach is worthy of note. Whoever this Beast is, if we are in Christ, we will know him. And we need not fear him because we are Christ’s and not the Beast’s.

We only have a few more classes left before we break for the summer, so we might make a start with Chapter 14, but I doubt we’ll dig too deeply at this point. We’ll see.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:18

18 Here is wisdom: the one who has understanding, let him count the number of the Beast, for it is a human number, and its number [is] six hundred and sixty-six.

Revelation 13:18 is one of the most famous passages in the entire Bible. It has been at the center of theological debates since the second century, and is firmly fixed in popular culture, especially in occult circles, and within popular horror literature and movies. With all the baggage this verse has accumulated over the last two thousand years, it’s hard to look at it dispassionately, or without some preconceived notion as to what it means. However, if we are to honor this verse as part of God’s word to His people, we need to keep our eyes fixed on the two questions we apply everywhere else in Revelation: What did it mean for John and his audience? What does it mean for us, the church, today? As part of God’s eternal word, this verse meant something to John and those to whom he wrote in Asia Minor, and it has had abiding meaning to God’s people ever since, even to this day.

Before we get to “666,” we need to recall the context. John has been describing two “beasts”: a main beast, and his minion beast who is drawing the “earth-dwellers” (i.e., unbelievers) to worship the main beast by means of wondrous signs and a talking idol. As with all the other visions in Revelation, John is being shown spiritual realities by means of symbols. The main beast is some kind of overarching authority working under the power of Satan (the dragon in chapter 12). He is a false Messiah, as we see from his horn that dies and rises again, and the fact he has horns, like the Lamb in chapter 5. The second beast is some kind of subordinate power, operating like Jesus’s apostles. He’s a false prophet, drawing people away from worship and allegiance to the true God, so they might be under the dominion of the main beast. Among the second beast’s activities is to apply a special mark on the earth-dwellers that enables them to buy and sell. Those who do not have this mark, i.e., the heaven-dwellers (God’s people), are not able to buy and sell. Just like the name of God that is written on the foreheads of the heaven-dwellers, the mark of the beast is placed on the head of the earth-dwellers. This indicates ownership and loyalty. The mark can also be placed upon the right hand, which calls to mind Deuteronomy 6:8, wherein God instructed His people to carry His commandments on their foreheads and their hands. It seems the beast is also parodying this command of God, such that the earth-dwellers will have the beast’s name as part of their everyday life.

This is the situation for the persecuted church. Having lost the heavenly battle by failing to destroy the Messiah (chapter 12), Satan is going after the church. Since he can’t touch God’s people spiritually, he’s going after them physically. We’ve seen this played out in broad strokes with the seven seals, and here we’re getting more detail. Those who do not have the beast’s mark are those who carry the name of the Lord: the church. The beast has been empowered to act against them, both financially and mortally. Failure to carry the beast’s mark carries at least financial punishment, and at most, capital punishment.

Now, in verse 18, John calls us to apply “understanding” or “discernment” (Greek nous) to figure out, “count,” or “calculate” the number of the beast’s name. The Greek verb here is psēphizō, which is associated with accounting. The psēphos was the name they gave to the small stone or pebble they would use to represent numbers or votes. The reason the beast’s name is calculable is because it is a “human number.” Some translations might render this “the name of a man” or “a man’s name” which is not accurate. The Greek is arithmos anthrōpou, using the word often used to indicate mankind in general, anthrōpos, as opposed to the word for a person of the male gender, anēr. I believe what John is saying is that this is not an esoteric, heavenly number that is beyond man’s reasoning. Rather, it is a regular number, and as such, its meaning can be ascertained by use of “wisdom,” “understanding,” and “discernment.” John then gives us this number: Six hundred and sixty-six.

Given the way John introduces the number (“his number is”), most scholars and students of Revelation agree that “666” is a form of gematria called isopsephy. “Gematria” is simply representing words, or names, by using their numerical values. “Isopsephy” literally means “equal count,” and refers to a kind of number game that was popular in the first and second century. Essentially, you come up with a number that can represent equally two different words. Since in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, numbers were represented by letters of the alphabet, one “word” would be the letters that constitute the number. That number, however could also be derived using letters that make up a name.

Here is a chart showing letters of the Greek alphabet and their corresponding number values:

(Note for those familiar with the Greek alphabet: the letters representing 6, 90, and 900 are pre-Classical letters that fell out of use except to represent numbers. The two letters that can be used for 6 are stigma or digamma. For 90, I have given two forms of the letter koppa, and the letter for 900 is sampi)

This is a real example of ancient graffiti that uses isopsephy:

For those that don’t read Greek, it’s pronounced philō hēs horithmos [which is a misspelling of “arithmos”] ‘Atē. “Atē” is not a real Greek word, but the “word” that makes the number 1,308 (A + t + ē). If you want to know who the mysterious “Atē” is, you would try various female names until you come up with one whose letters make up 1,308. Of course, there could well be more than one contender, in which case, unless you knew the person who wrote the graffiti and his social circle, you may never know. Classical Greek scholars, who clearly have more time to spend pouring over ancient graffiti as opposed to Revelation 13:18, think the lady in question is Tuchē (but spelled with a lower-case “t”). This was a popular female name for the period, and the math works (t = 300, u = 400, ch = 600, ē = 8).

This form of gematria could also be used with phrases. For example:

(Again for the non-Greek readers: neopsēphon: Nerōn idian mētera apekteine, which translates to “A calculation new: Nero his own mother slew.”)

This is a very famous example cited by the historian Suetonius as a “new calculation” that was going around Rome during Nero’s reign. If you add together all the Greek letters in the name “Nero” (Nerōn), you get 1,005. And if you add together the Greek letters in the words following (idian mētera apekteine), you get… 1,005! This was actually cited as proof that Nero killed his own mother.

Now we know what gematria is, and what isopsephies are, we can apply this to Revelation 13:18 and the number/name of the Beast. Of the possible meanings derived using gematria, there are three that seem most likely.

NERO

The most popular contender, even among scholars, though I can’t say I find the reasoning overly compelling. As we saw above, Nero’s number, using the Greek form of his name (Nerōn) is 1,005, not 666. If we transliterate the Latin “Nero” to Greek (Nerō), we get 955. At this point, those that argue for Nero turn from Greek to Hebrew. We can do gematria with Hebrew letters using a table like this:

If we transliterate the Greek Nerōn into Hebrew, we get 50+200+50 = 300. We could use a defective spelling, with a waw standing for the “o” sound (which it often does in Hebrew). That gives us 50+200+6+50 = 306. Still not there. But what if we include Nero’s title: Nero Caesar, which in Hebrew could be written :

That makes 50+200+6+50 + 100+60+200 = 666!!!

However, that transliteration of “Caesar” isn’t accurate. A better transliteration would be:

Indeed, that form of “Caesar” can be found in various Jewish writings (e.g., the Talmud), whereas the other form has little or no attestation anywhere. Unfortunately, with that extra letter added, the math comes out to 676. Another point to consider is the fact that the “s” sound in “Caesar” could be made with either the letter shown (a samek), or with a sin (the letter designated 300 in the chart above). The only reason for using the samek is because the Talmud used it, but if you wanted to play with the math, you could just as easily substitute one for the other.

So “Nero” is possible, but you have to do some special pleading to make the math work. As an interesting side-note, if you transliterate the Latin Caesar Nero into Hebrew, you get:

which works out to 616. There are two manuscripts that read “616” as opposed to “666,” and this may be why. A scribe, assuming the number represented Nero, used the Latin spelling in Hebrew and “corrected” the verse accordingly. We don’t know this for sure, of course, but it’s possible.

DOMITIAN

There is a case to be made for “666” representing Domitian, whom we have discussed previously as one of the first to “officially” persecute the church, and to do so quite mercilessly. We’ve noted how the situation in the churches described by John fits a Domitian time-frame, so could his be the name of the Beast?

The Greek form of his name, Domitianos, comes to 755, so we know from the start this isn’t going to be obvious. But John did say the number required “wisdom” and “understanding” to figure out, so we could expect to have to work a bit. But will it require as much of a stretch as with “Nero”?

Domitian’s official Imperial title in Latin was: Imperator Caesar Domitianus Augustus Germanicus. If we translate this to Greek we get:

Clearly all those letters are going to add up to a lot more than 666! But we have evidence of those titles being abbreviated like so:

If we add up the lower-case forms of those letters, we get 666. How popular were these abbreviations? Would John’s audience have known them? If they used money, then it’s very possible. Various of these six abbreviated titles have been found on coins from the time of Domitian, though, admittedly, there’s no evidence (yet) that all five were used on a single coin. This means that Christians buying and selling in the marketplace would be familiar with these abbreviations. Don’t forget the context of Revelation 13:18–we’ve just been talking about how only those with the mark will be able to buy and sell, so one could argue John is giving a clue to the context in which the number is to be understood.

BEAST

The Greek word for “beast,” thērion, adds up to 247. However, if we transliterate the Greek into Hebrew letters, we get 400+200+10+6+50=666! This would mean the name behind the number of the Beast is… beast! While this is appealing because it keeps the symbolism vague, and therefore applicable to anyone (or anything) that might be identified with the characteristics of the Beast in Revelation (e.g., the Roman emperor, or Hitler), it seems a bit like bait-and-switch. John is telling us that the number is human, and with wisdom and understanding we can discern the name represented by that number. For it simply to be “beast” would mean that John’s actually told us nothing. He needn’t have bothered with 13:18 at all. And if there’s anything we’ve learned about Revelation, it’s that numbers have significance. So there must be more to “666” than simply “beast.”

There is another way to approach “666” that has merit, and does not involve the use of gematria. It can be argued that the term “calculate” isn’t talking about math, but about simply figuring out, or reasoning, the number. And when John tells us it’s a “human number” he might not be talking about playing number/word games, but rather telling us the number refers to something in the earthly realm, not the heavenly.

Numbers in Revelation have symbolic meaning: 7 is the number of completion; 12 and 24 both represent God’s people; 1,000 speaks of a large quantity of something, and so on. If “7” is the number of completion or perfection, “6” is one short of that. We recall that the sixth seal was a vision of destruction prior to the Second Coming. Likewise, the sixth trumpet showed plagues and idolatry, just prior to the seventh trumpet–the Second Coming. In chapter 16, we will see seven bowls of God’s wrath, the sixth of which shows false prophets and demons assembling at Armageddon, just prior to the seventh bowl, when judgment falls. Three sixes, all looking to a time when the clash between Satan and God’s people reaches a climax.

Alternatively, the Greek name for Jesus, Iēsous, comes out as 888, using our gematria chart above. As you can imagine, this was a very popular number among Christians in the first few centuries of the church. The number 777 could, therefore, be used to represent the Trinity, in which case 666 would be an “unholy” Trinity, representing the height of Satanic evil.

There are a couple of Old Testament uses of the number “666.” Perhaps most notably, Solomon’s gold is said to have weighed 666 talents (1 Kings 10:14, 2 Chronicles 9:13). This was not the sum total of all his gold, but it is the number mentioned in the text. After describing Solomon’s great wealth, we then read of how he turns away from the Lord. The text ascribes his backsliding to the foreign women he married, who led him into idolatry. This isn’t directly associated with his wealth, but no doubt the power accorded to him as a result of his riches played a big part in his ability to attract the attention of women from other lands. With regard to Revelation 13:18, however, I’m not sure this helps beyond underscoring the power of earthly desire to lead people away from the Lord, just as the Beast was using the desire for wealth to entice those with the mark. The quantity of Solomon’s gold doesn’t leave us with a “name.”

So, what do we make of all this? Personally, of the three possibilities given using gematria, I think Domitian is the most likely–and I don’t say that simply because it strengthens my case for Revelation being written during Domitian’s time period. I think it’s less of a stretch than Nero, since the necessary abbreviations were known at the time, and were on the coins everyone used to buy and sell. The fact we haven’t found all five abbreviations on a single coin is problematic, but I don’t think it’s a show-stopper. People would have known all five abbreviations, even if they hadn’t seen them all in one place, and the fact we haven’t found a coin containing them all doesn’t mean such coins were never made. We just haven’t found any yet. I also think the number “666” is, itself, important as a symbol of that which is Satanic and evil. While Domitian is long in his grave, there have been other “Domitians” that represent the same Satanic power in operation against God’s people ever since. This is why John leaves the Beast’s name as a number that the reader is to reckon. We can play math games and make just about any name fit (Nero, Stalin, Hitler…), so whether or not John had a specific person in mind (e.g., Domitian) is beside the point.

As we come to chapter 14, we’ll see that the issue of greater concern for us is not so much the identity of the Beast, but that we don’t wear that name. Chapter 14 will present to us a contrast. While the Beast’s people have his number on their heads, God’s people do not. Rather, they wear the name of their Lord and Savior. And as we shall see in the coming chapters, in the end, that’s what will make the difference between the lake of fire, and eternal glory.

Since I used up all our time going through this material, we’ll take time out in our next lesson to discuss as a group. I’ll update the notes with any interesting insights.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:16-17

16 And he makes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free and the slaves, so that he might give to them a mark upon their right hand or upon their forehead, 17 and so that no-one may be able to buy or sell except the one having the mark–the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

We covered these verses very briefly last time, so before launching into verse 18, which will take all our time when we next meet, I thought it would be good to go back and look at them a little more fully. Verse 18 is one of the most famous (infamous?) verses in the entire Bible, which is why I’ll be devoting a whole lesson to it, and why it’s important we set it up properly.

As we noted last time, the Greek word used for “mark” here, charagma, was the word used to describe the Emperor’s seal on business contracts, and the imprint of the Emperor’s head on the coinage. So in its most basic usage, it denotes some kind of seal of approval. We also mentioned the libellus, which was a document given to those who proved their loyalty to Caesar by renouncing all other gods (especially Jesus), and paying homage to, or worshiping, an image of Caesar. This would serve as a “seal of approval” that people could show to suspicious officials to demonstrate they are good citizens of the Empire.

The mark of the Beast is to be carried upon the right hand or the forehead. It’s very possible this is a parody of the injunction in Deuteronomy 6:8, where the Lord exhorted His people to bind His commandments upon their hand, and as frontlets between the eyes. What was possibly intended as a poetic exhortation to make God’s commandments a part of one’s daily activity (hand) and thinking (forehead), was taken literally by Jews in later years with the practice of wearing phylacteries. These are small boxes strapped to the right hand and the forehead within which are portions of Scripture. As the Lord wants His commands to be ingrained into the lives of His people, so the Beast wants his name, his identity, to be in the deeds and minds of his people.

The intention of the Beast is for his mark to be worn by people of every societal strata: rich, poor, important, insignificant, free, and slave. The Beast is inclusive in his deception, discriminating against no-one, well, almost no-one. As we saw in verse 15, the second beast has authority to kill those who don’t wear the Beast’s mark. The fact that the mark is given without regard to social or economic privilege is, perhaps, a reflection of the way Christ has sealed his myriad of people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (see chapter 7). An important point to notice here is that there is no middle ground. You either have the mark or you don’t. And if you have the mark, you have the protection of the Beast, and the ability to buy, sell, and function fully within society. If you don’t have the mark, you are denied the marketplace, and risk execution. Those who carry the mark are the earth-dwellers, those who look to physical security and worldly progress over faithfulness to the Lord. The ones who refuse the mark are the ones who belong to Christ, the heaven-dwellers, those who would rather die than deny the Lord. There are no “heavenly earth-dwellers,” or “earthly heaven-dwellers”–you’re either one or the other.

The economic sanctions on the heaven-dwellers may reflect what we saw with the church in Smyrna: “I know your poverty,” Jesus told them, “but you are rich…” (2:9). We noted back then how participation in the trade guilds would require devotion to the trade’s deity, which, of course, would be anathema to the faithful Christian. As a result, allegiance to Christ would bar the believer access to the guild, and hence to the reputation and business contacts that would come as a benefit of membership. We also saw in 6:5-6, the third seal, where the rider of the black horse carries scales, accompanied by a voice saying “a quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius!” Each of these items would cost a laborer his day’s wage, and would barely be enough food. This is the third “Horseman of the Apocalypse” bringing economic privation, a picture of the “poverty” experienced by the believer for whom the regular avenues of trade are prohibited.

Verse 15 says that everyone not bearing the beast’s mark would be killed. However, verse 17 clarifies for us that this is not a hard-and-fast rule. There will be those without the mark who will want to buy and sell, but can’t because they are not Beast-worshipers. This indicates that the Beast has granted the second beast authority to kill them, but he has not mandated that they must be executed.

But what is this mark? Verse 17 says it is “the number of his name.” So the number of the Beast is some kind of numerical representation of the Beast’s name. And this is where we get into a whole world of speculation, and not without some warrant, since verse 18 says that understanding the number of the Beast requires “wisdom,” or “discernment.” However, that doesn’t give us license to be reckless in our reasoning. It requires some “special thinking,” perhaps, but it must be thinking that would make sense both to John’s readers and to us. This is a number that can be “reckoned.” The Greek word there is psēphizō, which is an accounting term, used for the act of calculation. The psēphos, from which the verb is derived, is the name the Greeks gave to the small pebble they would use to help keep count.

It seems, then, John is inviting the reader to reckon, or figure out, the name of the Beast from this number. Next time, we shall explore and evaluate the ways people have tried to do just that, and see if we can draw some conclusions of our own about the meaning of this number.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:14-17

14 …and that he might lead astray those dwelling on the earth on account of the signs which were given to him to do in the presence of the beast, telling those dwelling upon the earth to make an image to the beast who has the wound of the sword and lived. 15 And it was given to him to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might speak and act [so that] as many as might not worship the image of the beast may be killed. 16 And he makes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free and the slaves, so that he might give to them a mark upon their right hand or upon their forehead, 17 and so that no-one may be able to buy or sell except the one having the mark–the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

Last time we started talking about the ways the second beast leads astray the earth-dwellers such that they worship the first beast. John gives us two principal tactics used by the second beast. The first is with a show of miraculous signs, particularly calling fire from heaven, the purpose of which is to make the people believe the beast has some kind of divine status and authority.

The second method employed by the beast’s underling is to have the earth-dwellers create an image of the first beast. It seems a natural follow-up to the miraculous signs to have them create a tangible form of the beast that they can then worship. In essence, the second beast is drawing the people into idolatry. When we consider this in terms of John’s social context, we immediately think of the Roman Empire, and the practice of emperor worship. It’s commonly believed that all Roman emperors were regarded as gods, however this is not strictly true. There was an official mechanism by which an emperor could be recognized as a god. First, the Senate had to approve the designation of divus to that emperor. Second, the emperor needed to be dead. This means most of the emperors, at least prior to the second century, that were considered divine, were designated that way posthumously. This didn’t prevent emperor cults rising up locally, however. Given the fact that the emperor rarely got to visit all regions of his empire, these local cults formed to pay homage to their ruler and show loyalty in his absence, not necessarily because they really thought he was a god (though no doubt some did). The first emperor temple built in Asia (the broad region in which John’s churches reside) was constructed in Pergamum in 29 BC. By the end of the first century AD, all of the seven cities in Revelation 2 and 3 had both a temple and an emperor cult proclaiming Caesar’s divinity. I said there weren’t many emperors who were officially considered divine. The first to assert his own deity, and to do so in official documents, was Emperor Domitian, and his official imperial cult was in Ephesus, which we presume was John’s home city. Domitian actually used the title “dominus et deus” (“lord and god”) in imperial documents. This is another reason why I think the period of Domitian’s rule is the most likely time frame for the writing of Revelation–it fits well with the situation John appears to be describing.

So, when John speaks of a beast that leads people into idolatry and worship of a false Messiah through making an image, his audience very likely would have seen the emperor cults and statues in their own cities and understood. But that doesn’t mean this is only relevant to John’s day. We have seen government structures like this throughout history, where idols are made of leaders, and people are expected to follow and obey, or face dire consequences–and we will continue to see power-hungry authorities rise up and claim dominance. But there are other more subtle ways this kind of idolatry seeps into our lives. Hollywood has a long history of immortalizing and near-deifying its idols. We see the same kind of thing happening more and more in politics, where in America the political pantheon consists of JFK, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama. Both entertainment and politics wield extraordinary power in the lives of many people, influencing how people spend their money, what they do with their time, and how to think about social issues. Anyone who takes worship away from the one true God is guilty of idolatry, whether or not the idols are made of stone.

In verse 15, John tells us what happens to those who refuse to worship the beast: they are killed. This is reminiscent of Daniel 3, where Nebuchadnezzar erects a golden image 90 feet tall, and commands everyone to worship it. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down to the statue, and so they are consigned to the furnace. We have said that those led astray by the second beast are the “earth-dwellers”–those who are not of God’s people. One might be tempted to infer from verse 15 that the earth-dwellers did not wish to worship the image but were coerced, or that some of the earth-dwellers didn’t comply with the beast’s demands. I don’t think this is what’s being said. Rather, I think John is simply telling us that the beast had authority to execute those that refused to worship the image of the beast. We know that the “heaven-dwellers”–God’s people–will not, so they are under threat of death. I say threat because the beast has authority to execute. Verse 17 implies that not everyone who refuses to worship the image will die, but they certainly will suffer economic sanction.

The beginning of verse 15 says that the beast was given the ability to put breath into the beast’s image to make it talk. Is this a supernatural phenomenon, or is this symbolic? There’s a long history of supernatural acts happening in association with idolaters. In response to Aaron’s staff turning into a serpent, Pharaoh’s wise men and sorcerers do the same thing (Exodus 7). In the early church, writers such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus speak of false teachers who do “mighty acts” which include exorcism, incantation, and making love potions. “Pseudo-Clement” speaks of one individual who could make statues walk, could fly, and turn himself into a serpent or goat. As sophisticated, 21st century Western Christians, we might be tempted to dismiss such things. However, as Christians we believe in the supernatural, so we mustn’t rule out these kinds of phenomena. Indeed, “Pseudo-Clement” advises Christians to discern miracles by asking what end the miracle serves: is it to convert and save, or to admonish and deceive?

That said, while we are open to the possibility that this could be speaking of a literal miracle whereby idols are made to talk, it would be strange to have something literal in the midst of all this symbolism. If the beasts, the horns, and all the other aspects we’ve discussed are symbolic, then the talking image is also more than likely symbolic. Perhaps it refers to some kind of representation of the “beast” (i.e., the global authority) that can speak and act on the beast’s behalf. Perhaps this is a false version of Christ (the second beast) and the church (the image)? The image could therefore represent local officials, or the military, or some other arm of government that does the beast’s bidding. “Worship” of these entities (obedience and submission) would be seen as worship of the beast himself.

Verses 16 and 17 speak of the scope of the beast’s influence: everyone great and small, rich and poor, free and slave is included in the beast’s worship. Worship of the beast checks all the diversity boxes, and is fully inclusive. And to make sure everyone complies, a mark is put on the forehead or right hand of all those who participate in this idolatry. This mark is the name, or number, of the beast.

We’ll get into these verses more next time, but in finishing, we made a few observations. First, the word for “mark” (Greek: charagma) is also the Greek word used for the emperor’s seal on business contracts, and also his image on a coin. It signifies his authorization, an official stamp of approval. During times of persecution, people had to prove their devotion to Caesar. It was not uncommon to have someone suspected of being less than loyal to the emperor declare “Caesar is lord,” or perform an act of worship to an image or representation of Caesar as proof of their devotion. Those that did this were then given a document, called a libellus, that certified they had proven themselves to be a devotee of the emperor. Many Christians refused, and suffered as a result. Similarly, this “mark” is proof of devotion to the beast.

In Deuteronomy 6:8, the Lord tells His people to bind His commandments on their hands and their foreheads, a practice which is taken literally by orthodox Jews to this day in their use of phylacteries–small boxes tied to the hand and forehead containing portions of Scripture.

We’ll dig more into what this means, and discuss the nature of this mark next time…

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:11-14

11 And I saw another beast, one rising up out of the earth, and it had two horns similar to a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 And it acts [with] all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and it makes the earth and those dwelling in it such that they shall worship the first beast, whose fatal wound was healed. 13 And he does great signs, in order that he might make fire come down from heaven to the earth before men, 14 and that he might lead astray those dwelling on the earth on account of the signs which were given to him to do in the presence of the beast, telling those dwelling upon the earth to make an image to the beast who has the wound of the sword and lived.

The first ten verses of Revelation 13 concerned the beast who rose up out of the sea. But then John sees another beast, this one rising up out of the earth. Exactly how this happened, again, is not the point. This is a vision, so logistics don’t matter; what matters is what this means. We’ve already established that the first beast is a symbol of some kind of governmental or ruling power, under the authority of the dragon (i.e., Satan–see chapter 12). From the description John gives us, it looks as if this second beast is subordinate to the first, since he derives his power and authority from that first beast. The significance of where the beasts arise may have something to do with this. “Rising up out of the sea” could signify some kind of foreign, international power–an authority that rules over many nations. If that’s the case, then “rising up out of the earth” could signify a local authority, ruling either a single country, or a specific area. This regional authority would, therefore, be subservient to the international power. Such a scenario certainly fits the Roman Empire of John’s day, and could describe other authoritarian structures in history. The sixteenth century Reformers certainly viewed the Roman Catholic Church in these terms, with the Pope ruling in Rome, exercising dominion over churches in many nations, and those local churches and parish priests doing his bidding. We might also consider Nazi Germany as an example of a powerful, dictatorial rule over a number of nations, with forces at the local level carrying out the leader’s commands. There may be others that come to mind in our present day, which is why, I believe, the Lord showed these things to John in visions. If John had seen the Emperor as opposed to a beast, his vision would be locked into a specific place and time. As it is, the vision transcends time and speaks to us now.

John describes this second beast as having “two horns, like a lamb” and speaking “like a dragon.” As we’ve established before, horns represent power. The first beast has ten horns, so while this second beast is powerful, it is definitely a lesser authority. But why two horns, and not eight or nine? In Daniel 8:3, Daniel has a vision of a ram with two horns, and this ram charges west, north, and south, and no beast can stand against it. The significance of this “two horns” connection may simply be to indicate fulfillment of Daniel’s vision. On the other hand, the two horns may be a symbolic parallel to the two witnesses of chapter 11. These witnesses represent the faithful church, God’s people, those who follow Christ, who minister the gospel message, which is life to those who are saved, but judgment to the lost. I think we have good reason to suggest that this second beast is the counterfeit to the true church, a false prophet representing false prophets, a false apostle representing false apostles. More about that in a moment.

The next notable description of this beast is that he speaks with a voice “like a dragon,” indicating in a way that leaves no doubt where his true allegiance lies. This beast may be a servant of the first beast, but he, like his master, is a pawn of Satan, ultimately doing his bidding, and ultimately acting by his authority. This gives us a basic organizational structure, with the dragon/Satan as the head, under whom is the first beast acting as global ruler, and then the second beast representing local authorities. In this way, satanic power and influence filters down to all the regions of the earth, to fulfill the dragon’s ultimate objectives: the destruction of his enemies (i.e., the church) and the subjugation of the earth under his power. This is why it seems to John’s readers (and us, for that matter) that the whole world is succumbing to evil influences, and the church suffers as a result.

We will see in 16:13, 19:20, and 20:10 references to the devil, the beast, and the “false prophet.” Indeed, 19:20 says this “false prophet” had done signs by which he deceived those who worshiped the beast and received his mark. It seems that this “false prophet” and the second beast are one and the same, which supports the idea that it is the counterfeit to the two witnesses who prophesy in chapter 11.

The purpose of this beast is to make all the earth-dwellers (i.e., those who are not God’s people, the church) worship the first beast. Everything the second beast does serves that end, and, indeed, we can treat verses 13-17 as John unpacking what it means for the beast to lead the earth-dwellers into idolatry. Notice the tag added to “the first beast”: “whose mortal wound was healed.” It seems John is reminding us of the fact that the beast was healed from a “wound of death” to make sure we don’t forget that he is a false messiah, a counterfeit Christ, just as the second beast represents the counterfeit apostles of the counterfeit Christ.

John tells us two ways specifically the second beast seeks to fulfill his commission. The first is by way of “great signs,” namely making fire come down from heaven in the presence of the people. By producing such a wondrous spectacle, as the first beast’s representative, the second beast leads astray the earth-dwellers into worship of the first beast. This is consistent with John’s use of the word “sign” in his Gospel. In John’s Gospel, he doesn’t refer to Jesus’s supernatural acts as “miracles” but “signs.” He also limits the number of signs he records, always accompanying each one with teaching of some kind that gives further light on what the sign indicates. After all, a sign points to something. A sign pointing the way to a city isn’t the city, but something that directs you toward the city. Jesus’s signs aren’t the Messiah, but they point his audience to the Messiah. Again, as a counterfeit to Jesus’s signs, the second beast performs signs that point to the counterfeit Christ. And just like the apostles in Acts performed miracles to point people to Jesus, and not to themselves, so the false apostle performs signs to point the earth-dwellers to the false Messiah.

Fire from heaven is quite an impressive sign to perform. Such fire is usually a sign of judgment, as we see in the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, where the Lord consumed Elijah’s offering with fire from heaven. Also in 2 Kings 1:10-14, God consumes 50 of the king’s men by fire from heaven when they come to arrest Elijah. And, of course, there’s the fire that comes from the mouths of the two witnesses in Revelation 11:5, which symbolizes the gospel message which judges the hearts of those who reject it. But the second beast’s fire is not a fire of judgment. Its purpose is to impress the people, and to lead them to the first beast.

Jesus warned of false Christs and false prophets coming and performing signs and wonders, such that they would, if possible, lead even the elect astray (Matthew 24:24). Of course, God’s people are secure–if nothing else, that much has been made abundantly clear in Revelation so far! But Jesus’s words help us to appreciate the power and draw of the miraculous that even God’s own can be tempted to follow after such miracle-workers.

In Revelation 2:2, Jesus warned the church in Ephesus about “false apostles.” It seems these were people within their own congregation that called themselves “apostles.” Which reminds us that such people don’t always come from outside the church wearing t-shirts that say, “I’m a false prophet–watch out for me!” Sometimes, perhaps often, such people are within our churches. In his first letter, John talks about the coming of “antichrist” and the fact that many antichrists have already come (1 John 1:18-23). But these antichrists revealed themselves for who they really are by being unable to remain within the fellowship of the faithful. For whatever reason, they left. Such antichrists “deny the Father and the Son.” This could mean that they reject the doctrine of the Trinity, but it could also mean that they refuse to submit to the Lordship of Christ and worship the triune God. This might be made apparent in a rejection of the authority of God’s Word, Scripture, which in turn would lead to a denial of the fundamental truths of the Christian faith (including the Trinity, and the fact that “Jesus is the Christ”–1 John 1:22).

Is the “antichrist” of 1 John the first beast of Revelation 13? Quite possibly, given that any authority that denies Christ his rightful Lordship, and persecutes his people, is acting as “antichrist.” It seems as if Revelation is pointing to a time at the end, prior to the Christ’s return, when the earth will be dominated by evil in such a way that the church will be on the brink of total demise. The ruler at that time could be the final, and perhaps worst, antichrist. Or it could be just the last of a long line of antichrists. I don’t think we have to take John’s words in 1 John 1:18 as predicting the coming of a single antichrist. He says his readers have heard of a coming antichrist, and John reminds them that, in fact, many antichrists have come, and that’s how we know it’s the last hour.

We ran out of time, so we’ll look at the second way beast number two fulfills his commission next time…

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:9-10

9 If anyone has an ear, let him hear: 10 If anyone is [taken] into captivity, he departs into captivity. If anyone [is] to be killed by a sword, he is to be killed by a sword. Here is the steadfastness and faith of the saints.

We spent our time discussing these difficult verses. It’s not the meaning of the verses that makes them difficult. The Greek is a little awkward when rendered literally into English, but the intention of the Greek is quite clear. And that’s what makes the verses difficult: the implications of these words not only for John and his audience, but for us today.

Verse 9 should sound familiar. In the letters to the churches (chapters 2 and 3), the Lord uses the phrase, “he who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” near or at the end of each letter. Jesus also used a similar phrase after delivering the parable of the sower (or, better, the parable of the seeds): “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9). This is a call for those to whom it has been given to understand to pay attention. After Jesus gave the parable, his disciples came to him asking about its meaning, and Jesus explained it to them. In the letters to the churches, Jesus calls on the members of those churches, and all who read the letters (including us) to pay attention to his words. He gives encouragement to those who are his own, those who “overcome,” that they will have an eternal reward. But these words are not for everyone. They are only for those that will hear them–i.e., his elect.

John is using that phrase in the same way here, I believe. Having just talked about the first beast, his blasphemies, and his intent to destroy God’s people, he calls on the church to pay attention to what’s being said. The gist of verse 10 is, if you’re being led into captivity–arrested, or otherwise taken away against your will–then go into captivity, and if you are to be killed by the sword, then be killed. If the reader doesn’t have the context of the letters, and all that has preceded chapter 13, this sounds bleak, hopeless, and fatalistic. But we must recall that Revelation is a letter of hope. John has been reminding us through his visions that our goal is not world domination. This physical world, as good and pleasant as it is, cannot be the final focus of our lives. We are not kingdom building here on earth. Our focus is on the eternal. God’s promises to us are heavenly rewards. This life is but a fleeting breath. Our few years here are nothing compared to eternity. If we suffer here, it’s a small thing compared to the glory that is to come. That thought shouldn’t make us negligent about the physical world. We ought to care about the planet, and our bodily well-being, since these are good gifts from God (see Genesis 1). But our hope is not here; our salvation and security is not in the things of this world.

With this thought in mind, John tells his readers that they should be willing to accept whatever comes their way as a result of their faithfulness to the gospel, and to Christ. If that means being led away, perhaps into exile as John was, then so be it. Or if it means paying the ultimate price, then Christians should be willing to face death for the Lord’s sake. And this is, indeed, the steadfastness, or the endurance, and the faith of the saints. By this willingness to take the consequences of standing firm in Christ, God’s people bear witness to their faith, and shine the light of the gospel broadly. And that steadfastness glorifies God.

This leads to some interesting questions, which we spent the rest of our time discussing: Does this mean we should offer no resistance to authorities when we are punished for our faith? Should we just lie down and passively take what comes our way? Is there a place for taking action against evil and injustice at the hands of the civil authorities? I’m not going into everything we discussed, but these are some thoughts we considered. First, we are privileged in the West to even be able to ask these questions. There are still countries in the world where ruling authorities wield absolute power, and private citizens have no legal mechanism to oppose them. In the West, particularly in the US, we have a Constitution and system of laws that can be used to make our case and uphold justice. We also have the ability to change bad laws and promote just legislation. As God has given us such privileges, we ought to make use of them, rather than try to subvert them, even in a good cause. For example, abortion is clearly a practice condemned by Scripture, and abhorrent in the sight of God. It is, therefore, right and proper for Christians to oppose the practice of abortion, and to try to influence governmental powers to work to protect life from conception to death. However, it is clearly wrong, indeed, hypocritical, to murder abortionists–one sin does not justify another. And it is also not biblical to destroy abortion clinics, even if there’s no loss of life, since such destruction of property is a criminal offense.

But what if the law of the land is contrary to the command of God? To what extent must the Christian obey the ruling authorities? I think this is the situation Revelation 13:9-10 describes. If the beast represents the government, whether it’s the Roman government, or some other oppressive regime that opposes Christ and his church, then this is what faithful Christians can expect. If the Christian has recourse within the bounds of the law to state his case and try for justice, I see nothing in Scripture to prevent him. However, if the state rules against him, then he must accept the punishment, knowing that divine justice is on his side, and divine judgment awaits those who rule unjustly against God’s people. Again, our fight is not against the rulers of this world, but against spiritual powers and principalities, and they have already been defeated at the cross.

This is how the saints endure. This is our testimony to the world, that our hope is not in political leaders and government, but in the Lord who is truly God of all.

We’ll start at verse 11 next time.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:8

8 And all those dwelling upon the earth will worship him [i.e., the beast], whose name has not been written in the book of life of the Lamb, the one who was slain, from the creation of the world.

“All those dwelling upon the earth” is, again, a reference to unbelievers. We’ve noted before a distinction between “earth-dwellers” and “heaven-dwellers” in Revelation. There is no third group; everyone belongs to one or the other category. The earth-dwellers are those who serve and worship the beast, while the heaven-dwellers serve and worship the Lamb. The earth-dwellers do not have their names in the book of life, whereas the heaven-dwellers do (see chapter 14).

The verb “worship” translates the Greek proskuneō, which is sometimes used in the sense of bowing in respect, or pleading before an authority. It’s most common use in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and in the New Testament, however, is in reference to worship, i.e., what the Israelites did in the Temple in Jerusalem, what the elders do to the One who sits on the throne in Revelation 4:10, and what the earth-dwellers ought to be doing before the Lamb. But they won’t because their names are not in the Lamb’s book of life.

We talked for a little while about the fact the “earth-dwellers” are all non-Christians, and hence worship the beast. In other words, they don’t follow after the Lord, nor do they worship him. Instead they place their trust in the secular world, in the ruling authorities, and, perhaps by default if not overtly, worship idols and false gods. We were reminded of the passage in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12, which says:

The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. [ESV Translation]

As we have seen, and will continue to see, this beast is certainly out to deceive by means of signs and wonders. He attempts to imitate Christ, posing as a false Messiah, just one of the ways he commits blasphemy against God and His people. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul reminds us that the refusal of the “earth-dwellers” to love and worship the Lord is not because they are stupid, or lack the necessary information or evidence. They have been overcome by a strong delusion, and are unable to believe the truth. This is a fact we must remember as we reach out to our unbelieving family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. It’s so easy to become frustrated with people, and wonder if we’re saying the wrong things, or we’ve overestimate their mental abilities. There are a lot of smart atheists in the world, and there are good things we can learn from them. By what we call “common grace,” the Lord has allowed those who are His enemies to gain a measure of insight and wisdom, and to attain knowledge and expertise that is valuable. It is foolish for us to dismiss all unbelievers as worthless and ignorant. We must recognize that though they have understanding and intelligence, they are also under a delusion, so they will not give glory to the One who has so gifted them. In Ephesians 6, Paul says that our battle isn’t against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers. It’s not the people we’re battling against, but the delusion. This is why our evangelism must be with love and compassion, with the desire that our fellow creatures, made in the image of God, might be set free from the bondage of deception and come to embrace the truth in Christ.

We then tackled a couple of translation questions. First, the passage literally says “those dwelling upon the earth will worship him, he whose name has not been written…” The “he whose name” is not in reference to the beast–obviously his name hasn’t been written in the book of Life! And, as we’ll see in chapter 14, this is in contrast to God’s people whose names have been written in the book. But “those dwelling upon the earth” is plural, so shouldn’t it say, “those whose names have not been written…”? One of the principles of textual criticism–the process by which scholars attempt to determine what the author actually wrote from a group of differing manuscripts–is that the “harder” reading is usually the original reading. More often than not, a scribe will attempt to correct a hard reading (hard either grammatically or theologically). Scribes don’t usually try to make easy to understand passages more difficult. For that reason, scholars tend to favor the singular verb here. I think John intends us to see that each one of those in the group of worshipers is accountable for his action. Those who worship the beast are excluded from the book of life not as a group, but as individuals. Each person in that group has a name, and that name is noticeably absent from the book.

The second translation question has to do with the way the verse is to be understood. The Greek can read two ways. Either the beast-worshipers’ names have not been written in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world, or the beast-worshipers’ names have not been written from the creation of the world in the Lamb’s book of life. The difference is subtle, but important. In the first, we have the emphasis on the fact that the slaying of the Lamb was foreordained from the creation of the world; in the second, the emphasis is on the fact that the names in the slain Lamb’s book of life were determined and written from the creation of the world. The first reading seems the most natural way to take the verse, and it’s certainly true that the cross was planned from the beginning of time. However, we have seen the phrase “the Lamb who was slain” already in Revelation 5:12. The second part of the phrase, “from the creation of the world,” is not part of the Lamb’s description in 5:12. Indeed, for John it seems the fore-ordination of the Lamb’s death is not as important as the fact he was slain. It’s a point of encouragement to the suffering believers in the churches to whom John writes that the Lord of glory, the one who has overcome and redeemed them, was one who also suffered, even unto death. Christ identifies with his people, and has invested himself in their salvation. This is the one who is in control of the beast and all that he does. Does it not make better sense that John would want to remind his readers that, a) the names in the book of life have been settled from the beginning, so Christ’s followers can be secure in their salvation, no matter what happens to them physically, and b) that it’s the slain Lamb, the one who died for them, that superintends their persecution, and who will ultimately see them rise victorious? I think so. 🙂

Lord willing, we’ll continue next time with verses 9 and 10 of chapter 13.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:7

7 And it was given to him to make war against the saints and to have victory over them, and authority was given to him over every tribe, and people, and tongue, and nation.

Again, this time we didn’t make a lot of progress, partly due to a late start, and also due to the conversation, largely around the concept of God granting authority to evil rulers to persecute His people. Verse 7 confronts us with that very idea. The beast is given permission to war against the saints, and not only fight them, but be victorious. We noted previously that the Greek of verse 5 says the beast was given authority “to act.” Some manuscripts replace “to act” with “to wage war,” and while that’s probably not the original reading, it is a legitimate interpretation, anticipating verse 7.

We understand that it is God who is granting such authority to the beast on account of

  • The use of the passive voice, which is often used in Scripture to denote divine activity.
  • The dragon not being in the immediate context, so the authority is unlikely to be of Satanic origin.
  • The fact that the speaking and the action were for a limited time, something that only God would do (surely Satan would want to speak and act against God and His people forever?), and only God could do, since only He knows how long it will be between the Resurrection and the End.
  • The fact that no-one could successfully wage such a devastating attack against God’s people unless God was behind it, commissioning and authorizing it. Just as God limited Satan with regard to his activity against Job (see Job 1 and 2), God restricts His enemies with regard to the extent they can afflict His church.

I won’t reproduce the entirety of our conversation on the subject of suffering, and God’s role in it. However, I will highlight a couple of points that came out in the discussion. First, it is hard to conceive of God actually actively commissioning suffering for His people. When we see pictures of persecution, like the Christians in Syria who suffer death for their faith at the hands of ISIS, we can’t imagine what it’s like to face death so bravely. Here in the West, we haven’t had to face persecution like that, and hopefully we never will. In fact, given the state of the church in the West, it’s hard to imagine many standing up for Christ, so diluted it seems the gospel message has become in many places. And yet, that is what we are called to do. The letters in chapters 2 and 3 show churches facing such compromise with society, and Christ’s warnings to those who would deny him to befriend the world. There may be hope in the fact that these were warnings, and there is yet opportunity for such churches to return to the saving gospel of grace. But ultimately, Christ’s message to the church is that the church will always suffer, and that suffering won’t diminish until the end. The promise we look forward to, however, is not earthly victory, or an earthly kingdom, but to an eternal promise. Christ has already won the victory for us through his death and resurrection. Whatever might happen to our bodies and our property in the meantime, we know our souls are secure. This may not make the suffering any easier to bear, but it should give us hope that this is not the end, and on the other side of suffering there is glory, and the Father’s eternal presence. And behind all this suffering is the loving hand of our Lord, who is working all things for His glory and our good.

We recalled in verse 6 how the beast “blasphemes” the “heaven-dwellers.” In other words, the beast not only reviles God, but also God’s people, the church. This is a timely reminder to us (and to the world) of the way God views His people. The church is the Lord’s, and as such, it seems He takes any and all attacks against her very seriously. To attack the Lord’s church is to slander the Lord. There is Old Testament precedent for this in that the Lord did not take kindly to those that attacked Israel. Isaiah 10 tells of how the Lord punished Assyria for what they did to Israel, even though the Assyrian invasion was something God planned as punishment on Israel for their sin. God did not make the Assyrians act contrary to their desire, and the fact that desire existed in the hearts of the Assyrians was enough to condemn them. But this is also a reminder to us to beware speaking ill of fellow Christians and other churches with which we may have theological disagreements. Yes, there are serious and essential doctrinal truths and practices that define a true Christian church, but these are relatively few (the Trinity, justification by grace through faith alone, the Lord’s supper, baptism, and church discipline cover many of the main ones). But most issues that pit Christian brother against Christian brother are of relatively minor importance: mode of baptism, Bible translations, music style, theologically Reformed or Arminian, and so on. These are important issues for discussion, but they don’t determine who is and is not a true Christian, or what is and is not a faithful, gospel-preaching church. Could it be that to accuse true brethren of being unbelievers is slander on the level of the “blasphemy” that comes from the mouth of the beast? I think that’s worth prayerful consideration.

There appears to be a connection between 13:7 and chapter 11, with the measuring of the temple and the witness of the church. John told us in that passage that the two witnesses (i.e., the faithful church) ministered for 1,260 days (i.e., 42 months), after which time a beast rose up from the abyss to make war on them and conquer them (11:7). It seems very possible, maybe even probable, that this is the same beast we are talking about in chapter 13. We’ve said before that the visions in Revelation are not necessarily chronologically sequential, and, indeed, there seems to be a lot of overlap and repetition. It’s more likely that the visions each show a different aspect of the same time frame, or the same event. In which case, chapter 13 is an elaboration on the events in 11:7.

Finally in verse 7, John tells us the beast is also given authority over every tribe, people, tongue, and nation. If this list seems familiar, it should be: we saw this same list in 5:9, and the declaration that the Lamb is worthy because he was slain and by his blood he redeemed people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. The purpose of this list is to say “everyone, everywhere regardless of national, racial, or societal barriers.” In Revelation 5, it means that God’s people, those redeemed by the blood of Christ, come from every sector of humanity. In Revelation 13, it means that the beast has likewise drawn followers from every sector of humanity. The fact the same terms are used in both is a further indication of the beast’s attempt to mirror the work of Christ. The beast is, essentially, a parody of Christ–a false Christ.

Lord willing, we’ll start with verse 8 next time!

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:6

6 And his [the beast’s] mouth opened unto blasphemies toward God to blaspheme His name and his tabernacle, those dwelling in heaven.

We got a late start this time which is partly why we only managed to cover a single verse. The main reason we didn’t get far is because I started with an examination of “blasphemy.” John has told us that this beast has blasphemous names on his heads, and that he has been given a mouth to speak great, or haughty, and blasphemous things. Now in verse 6, the beast opens that mouth and out come blasphemies against God, His name, and His tabernacle. Most Christians have an idea of what blasphemy is, but I want to be sure we’re on the same page with what we mean.

The Greek word blasphēmia, where we get our English word, was originally a compound of the terms blax and phēmē, so the initial idea was that of lazy or careless (blax) speech (phēmē). Of course, words change their meaning over time, especially compound words which often take on a life of their own, such that the one word means something that only vaguely relates to its parts. A good Greek example is the word ekklēsia, which we commonly translate “church” or “assembly.” The word is made up of the words ek and kaleō, giving it a meaning along the lines of “called out.” While “the called out ones” is a nice Reformed way of referring to the church, the fact is the word ekklēsia quickly came to refer simply to an assembly, and then, by New Testament times, to the gathering of God’s people, the church. When the New Testament writers use the word ekklēsia, they are simply using the word for church, and are not making a theological statement regarding election. Perhaps we can use “pancake” as an English example. These were originally “cakes” made in a “pan.” By our time, however, the word “pancake” conjures up thoughts of IHOP, and warm flat cakes with butter or maple syrup drizzled over the top. They might be cooked in a pan, or on a griddle, or heated up in a microwave. We don’t give a second thought to whether or not they are strictly “cakes” as we understand that word, or how they were cooked.

The primary idea behind the Greek word blasphēmia is that of disrespect. It refers to speaking in a way that demeans or denigrates someone, especially in a religious sense, when God is the one being slandered, reviled, or put down. Here are some biblical examples of the use of the word blasphēmia, and the verb blasphēmeō:

  • 2 Kings 19:4 (in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament): Here the Lord will “revile” or “rebuke” the words of Rabshakeh, who was sent by the king of Assyria to mock the living God. The word “revile” translates blasphēmein in the Greek–“to blaspheme.”
  • 1 Maccabees 2:6: Not Scripture, but useful history. In this section, Mattathias sees “the blasphemies” being committed in Jerusalem. These blasphemies are the atrocities that came upon Jerusalem and the Jewish people as a result of the rise of Anitochus Epiphanes, just before the Jewish Revolt led by Judas Maccabeus. The atrocities included the defiling of the Temple, and leading the Jewish people to sacrifice to pagan gods, and adopt the king’s religion. Antiochus Epiphanes even used divine names of himself (Theos Epiphanēs–God Epiphanes–for example).
  • Daniel 3:29: Nebuchadnezzar decrees that anyone who speaks against (“blasphemes”) the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, will be torn limb from limb.
  • John 10:33: The Jews accuse Jesus of blasphemy because, at least from their perspective, being a man he made himself God.

So “blasphemy” covers slandering, reviling, demeaning, and showing no respect. In John’s context, it also includes elevating oneself to the status of God, or putting God down and elevating oneself above Him, becoming God’s judge.

Someone asked whether “blasphemy” had a secular use, or if it was always used in a religious context. In class I wasn’t 100% certain, but I thought it might have had some secular use in terms of reviling or slandering other people. I’ve double-checked, and indeed there are instances of that use of the word in classical Greek literature. In fact, there are some New Testament examples. In Titus 3:2 Paul admonishes his reader to “speak evil of no-one,” or blaspheme no-one. Paul uses the verb again in Romans 3:8, referring to the “slanderous” accusation that he teaches that Christians should do evil so that good might come. Acts 13:45 speaks of the Jews “reviling” Paul out of jealousy.  So there is precedent for use of the term with regard to people. However, it does seem most of the time, the accusation of “blasphemy” is leveled against someone who reviles, slanders, or disrespects deity, or someone who assumes equality with, or elevates themselves above, the deity in question. Certainly, as the term has passed into English usage, it would be strange to talk about “blaspheming” another person. I think this is reflected in the English translations of those New Testament passages mentioned, where words like “revile” or “slander” are preferred over the literal “blaspheme.”

So, in Revelation 13:1, where John says the beast has seven heads, and upon those heads “blasphemous names,” we can assume these are names that either mock or slander God, or names that ascribe to the beast titles that rightly belong to God. The fact these names are on the beast’s head perhaps reflects the brazenness of his blasphemy. He wants the whole world to see his disrespect for God, and he doesn’t care about the consequences.

Continuing with 13:5, the passage not only says that the beast was given a mouth to speak blasphemies, but he was given authority “to act.” Some manuscripts say, “to make war,” which, given the context and what happens over the next few chapters, is not an unreasonable interpretation of “to act.” This authority to act, however, is not indefinite. The beast has 42 months, which is the same as the time, times, and half-a-time of Daniel 7:25. Given what we’ve said elsewhere about this time period, we understand the beast’s actions to last for the duration of the church age.

When the beast opens his mouth to speak these blasphemies in 13:6, John tells us his words have two principle targets: God–His name, that is, His very person and all He is, and God’s tabernacle, which John further defines as those who dwell in heaven. Is this a reference to martyred Christians? Some commentators think so, but I’m inclined to believe this refers to all believers. We’ve already seen an association between the Tabernacle/Temple and God’s people at the beginning of chapter 11 (see the notes). Also, since “those who dwell in heaven,” is a further elaboration on “tabernacle,” this gives the impression that it’s not just God’s tabernacle on earth that’s the target, but all those who tabernacle with God. However, I think the strongest argument in favor of “those who dwell in heaven” being a reference to all believers is the fact that it contrasts “those who dwell on the earth”–a phrase we’ve encountered more than once already (3:10, 6:10, 8:13, 11:10) in reference to unbelievers. These “earth-dwellers” are the objects of God’s judgment. So the “heaven-dwellers” are God’s people, whereas the “earth-dwellers” are not.

So the beast speaks blasphemies against God and against His people, the church. And it’s not that the church is divine such that to speak against the church is itself blasphemy, but the church is God’s people, God’s earthly representation. The church is made up of God’s adopted children. To revile God’s chosen people is to revile God Himself. This is how much God identifies with His people. And inasmuch as all that the beast does is only because God enables him, we can take comfort that the God who loves us, and who so closely aligns with us, has our best interest at heart, even in the midst of trial and persecution.

Lord willing, we’ll continue from 13:7 next time.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:3-5

3 And one of his heads was like [it was] wounded unto death, but the mortal wound was healed. And the whole land marveled before the beast. 4 And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given the authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast saying, “Who is like the beast? And who is able to wage war against him?” 5 And a mouth was given to him speaking great and blasphemous things, and authority was given to him to act for forty-two months.

Last time, we read John’s account of the beast he saw rising up from the sea, and his description of this beast. He said the beast had ten horns and seven heads–we presume the ten horns were on the seven heads in some configuration. Exactly what that configuration might be is not at all relevant since this is a vision, so what the horns and heads symbolize is more important.

John goes on to tell us that one of the beast’s heads had a wound “unto death,” or a mortal wound. Some translations say the beast had “what seemed to be” a mortal wound. The Greek is a little awkward to render literally into English: “And one of his heads was like it was wounded unto death.” He uses the same particle for “like” that he uses when he says the beast had feet “like” a bear, and a mouth “like” a lion. I think the reason why that “like” is there is because the wound was healed, so while it looked to all intents and purposes as if the wound was fatal, it turned out not to be. I think we have to appreciate that John was not mistaking a mere flesh wound for something more serious. To John’s eyes, this wound ought to have killed the beast, but it didn’t–the wound healed. And the reason for this lies in the purpose of even mentioning this wound, which I think is twofold. First, it calls to mind Genesis 3:15, after the Fall, when God curses the serpent. He tells Satan’s representative that He will put enmity between the serpent and the woman, and their offspring too. The Lord tells the serpent that the woman’s offspring shall bruise his head, and the serpent will bruise his heel. Satan received a mortal blow on the cross, when Jesus defeated him through his death and resurrection. But, as we’ve already seen in the imagery between the woman and the dragon, while Satan is defeated, he is not done for yet. He will continue to be active, attempting to undermine the work of God and rob God of the worship and glory He is due, until the Lord returns. Second, the beast’s head receiving a fatal wound that is then healed parallels Christ’s death and resurrection. As we will see, this beast wants to be seen as a replacement for Christ, and so we will see him attempt to mirror the Lord in a number of ways, this being one of them.

All the earth marvels and wonders at this beast, and there is a sense of worship here that is made explicit in verse 4. They worship the dragon, because he’s the one who gives the beast his authority and power. But they also worship the beast himself, proclaiming, “Who is like the beast?” We recalled that the name Michael, the name of the heavenly being who fought the dragon in chapter 12, means “Who is like God?” This sounds like an attempt to draw attention away from God, and give His glory to the beast. The exclamation continues: “Who will wage war against him?” Michael waged war against the dragon, and the dragon was unable to defeat Michael. Again, the beast is stealing glory from the Lord.

It’s worth noting that while John says “the whole land” engages in this adoration of the beast, the coming verses indicate that not everyone was party to this. By “the whole land,” John means all those on earth who are not believers; those who are truly of the world, and not of the Lord. This distinction will be more explicit as we read on.

The beast is given a mouth to speak “great and blasphemous” things. Also authority is given to the beast to “act.” Some translations render the Greek here “haughty” or “boastful and blasphemous,” which, in context, is an appropriate translation of the rather broad word megas. The interesting point here is the use of the passive voice: a mouth was given, and authority was given. By whom? There are two possibilities:

  1. By the dragon/Satan. The dragon gave the beast its power, throne, and great authority, so it’s possible the dragon is now giving the beast the ability to speak boastful and blasphemous things, as well as the authority to act in some way (possibly to make war) for forty-two months. One has to wonder, however, why the dragon would limit the time frame of the beast’s power. Indeed, considering the time frame stated (forty-two months = 1,260 days = time, times, and half a time), it seems the beast’s activity is to last only until the Lord’s return. Which leads to the second possibility…
  2. The Lord. Since the dragon is not mentioned here as the one giving (as he was in 13:2), it’s likely this is a “divine passive.” This kind of passive is common throughout Scripture, where God’s activity is spoken in the passive voice (e.g., “And this was done…” “This was given to him…”). If God is the one giving voice and power to the beast, then this verse emphasizes God’s sovereign control over all things, including the persecution of His people. But it also reminds us that the beast’s time is limited, a fact the dragon knows all too well (12:12). Who is it that sets the times, and is the only one who knows when the end will come? Surely the precise duration of the “forty-two months” is God’s and God’s alone to determine.

The “great and blasphemous things” puts us in mind of Daniel 7, verses 8 and 25, where one of the fourth beast’s horns had a mouth that spoke “great things,” and that same beast “will speak words against the Most High… for a time, times, and half a time.” Again, there a strong fulfillment connection between John’s beast and the four beasts of Daniel.

Verse 5 raises the subject of blasphemy, which we’ve encountered before already in 13:1, speaking of the “blasphemous names” on the heads of the beast. I wanted to spend a little time exploring what the Bible says about blasphemy: what is it, and what does it mean in the context of the beast and Revelation? However, we ran out of time, so that discussion will have to wait until next time.