Tag Archives: revelation

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.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:1-2

12:17b/12:18 And he [the dragon] stood on the sand of the sea. 13:1 And I saw a beast rising up from the sea, having ten horns and seven heads, and upon his horns ten diadems and upon his heads blasphemous names. 2 And the beast that I saw was similar to a leopard, and his feet like [those of] a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. And the dragon gave to him his power and his throne and great authority.

We started our discussion picking up where we left off last time on the subject of the latter part of 12:17, which in the NA28 Greek New Testament is 12:18. There are two versions of this verse in the Greek manuscript evidence:

1: kai estathē epi tēn ammon tēs thalassēs

2: kai estathēn epi tēn ammon tēs thalassēs

The first line translates to: “And he stood upon the sand of the sea” (referring to the dragon from chapter 12). The second line translates to: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea” (referring to John). If you look closely at the two lines, you’ll see the only difference between them is the “n” (Greek letter nu) at the end of the second word. The manuscript evidence is split between the two verses, and both make sense. The first version follows from the description of the dragon chasing the woman, becoming enraged because the woman escaped, and now turning his attention to the woman’s seed. We’re about to see a beast rising up from the sea who is operating under the dragon’s authority, so it seems natural that the dragon would stand on the shore watching his minion rise. The second version goes with the start of chapter 13, where John says “I saw a beast rising up…” Since we see the beast from John’s first person perspective, it makes sense that the narrative would start with John standing on the beach.

In situations like this, it seems likely that someone copying the manuscript came across one reading and decided it was in error, so he corrected it to the other. But which is most likely? To read “he stood” and correct it to “I stood,” or vice versa? The majority of scholars and translators seem to think that “he stood” is a little more awkward, and given how 13:1 starts, a scribe would be more likely to correct “he” to “I” than the other way around. Following the text-critical principle of “the harder (i.e., most difficult or awkward, either linguistically or theologically) reading is often (though not always) original,” this speaks for “he” rather than “I.” And while the manuscript support is split, some of the manuscripts supporting “he” are quite important (e.g., p47, a third century papyrus document containing Revelation 9:10-17:2, and Codex Sinaiticus, a very important fourth century codex), which further tilts the balance in favor of “he”–at least for most scholars. Since this isn’t a theologically significant verse, I’m willing to accept the view of most translators. Also, the vision of the dragon standing on the shore, anticipating the coming of the beast, having just declared his intention to pursue the church, makes sense to me. Especially when we understand who this beast is, and what it will do.

John sees a beast rising up out of the sea. This is the first of two beasts we will meet in chapter 13. The second beast comes in verse 11, except that one rises up from the earth. There’s something significant about this, and we had a couple of suggestions as to why one comes from the sea and the other the earth. Perhaps the first is to do with some kind of political influence, while the second is more religious? Given what we’re told about these beasts, I think the answer is broader. The sea refers to foreign influence, especially since most foreign travel in John’s day would have been conducted by ship. Remember, Ephesus was a major sea port in Asia Minor, the region to which Revelation was originally written. Ephesus was probably John’s home base, too. In the first century, this region was under foreign rule, i.e., the Roman Empire. And this was an oppressive rule, especially for Christians. The second beast coming up from the earth, therefore, represents the local outworking of the first beast’s power. By local, I don’t mean just in terms of a town or city, but regional–provincial, even. As we know from the New Testament, the Romans set up ruling authorities in the regions they dominated to administer those areas on their behalf. These authorities, like King Herod in Judea, for example, had the appearance of power, but were really only puppets of their Roman overlords, which is why they were generally hated by the people they governed. We’ll consider this further when we get to verse 11. For now our attention is with the first beast.

He describes this beast as having ten horns, seven heads, and with ten diadems on the horns and “blasphemous names” on the heads. As we’ve already observed, the horn is a symbol of power, so a horn with a diadem, or crown, on it is symbolic of ruling power, some kind of powerful government. We’ll consider why there are ten horns in just a moment. The seven heads represent a fullness of authority (remember, seven is the number of completion or fullness), and on those heads are “blasphemous names.” (Don’t get hung up on how seven horns are divided among ten heads–this is a vision, so it matters more what these things represent, not how it all practically works.) The last time we saw the term “blasphemous” in Revelation was when the Lord wrote (via John) to the church in Smyrna about the insults thrown at them by people claiming to be Jews but are, in Christ’s words, a “synagogue of Satan.” We know that Satan is the accuser, and a slanderer. He is also a usurper of power, and one who operates by means of lies and deception. Notice that the blasphemous names are on the beasts heads. In 14:1, we will see the 144,000–those sealed by God in chapter 7 (i.e., the church)–with the name of the Lamb and his Father’s name on their foreheads. In 13:16, the mark, or name, of the beast is on the foreheads of his followers. Just as the Lord has His people, so Satan has his, marked in the same way. But the beast isn’t marked by who “owns” him, but by his character. He is a blasphemer, one who presents himself as the savior, a substitute Messiah, a false Christ. And I think what we see of him in chapter 13 bears this out. We’ll look more at the meaning and usage of “blasphemy” later in our study of this chapter.

Why are there ten horns on the beast? To answer this, we need to look at Daniel 7. Indeed, Daniel 7 is very much in the background of Revelation 13. Daniel has a vision of four beasts, and he describes each of the beasts. The fourth is very different to the others. This beast has ten horns, which 7:24 interprets as ten kingdoms. He goes on to say that this beast will rule for a time, times, and half a time (7:25), after which time judgment comes (7:26-27). This fits what we’ve seen in Revelation regarding the use of “time, times, and half a time.” Daniel’s ten kingdoms had meaning to Daniel in his day, though I’m not sure they mean the same thing to John, or to us. But that’s the beauty of symbols: the beast has ten heads recalling to us Daniel’s fourth beast, not necessarily to Daniel’s ten kingdoms. The specific meaning for Daniel in his day doesn’t have to be the same for John, or for us. John’s point is not that the ten kingdoms relate to us, but that this is a fulfillment of Daniel’s beast vision. But Daniel saw four beasts–what about the other three?

In Revelation 13:2, John continues his description of the beast. It is similar to, or bears resemblance to a leopard. If we flip back to Daniel 7:6, we see that this is how he describes the third beast he saw. John goes on to say that his beast has feet like a bear. Daniel’s second beast is like a bear. John says his beast has a mouth like a lion. Daniel says his first beast is like a lion. It seems fairly obvious that the beast John sees is an amalgamation of all four of Daniel’s beasts. To what end? To make the point that John’s beast is the fulfillment of Daniel’s vision, a vision that would have meant something to Daniel in his day about Babylon and the situation of the Jews in his time, but also pointed forward to something that was hazy to Daniel (Daniel 7:22; 26-27), but clear to John and to us in light of the gospel, and the revelation of Christ.

The beast is given his power, his throne, and great authority by the dragon. There is no doubt who is in control of this beast, and on behalf of whom the beast operates. Satan grants the beast all this power, rule, and authority, but only insofar as Satan can grant such things. God is still in control, and any power Satan has is only because it is given to him by God. And here is the message of hope: first, God is ultimately in control. But second, the beast–i.e., the ruling power on the earth–has a power derived from the dragon, Satan. And what happened to the dragon in chapter 12? He was cast down from the heavenlies, having been defeated by Christ on the cross, and unable to overcome Michael. In other words, the earthly authorities that oppress the church and persecute God’s people are in the control of one who has been defeated, and whose days are short. God’s people, on the other hand, while beaten and crushed by earthly authorities, are in the hands of the One who defeated the dragon. We have nothing to fear, for our Lord is victorious.

We finished up our time beginning a discussion on the nature of Satan. What kind of creature would keep going after having been defeated? Why wouldn’t he just give up, knowing he’s not going to win? Then there’s the broader question of how a being such as Satan could be created by a holy God. As Christians, we can’t understand Satan, and what makes him tick, because there is no love of God in him. Nor is there any sense of justice, mercy, or right. He is the poster boy of the rebellion against God. He is the very embodiment of hatred to God and all that is of God. It seems to me that he wouldn’t care that he had been defeated. He has no desire to be in the presence of the Lord, no desire for things of God, and no desire to turn to Jesus and be saved. Despite being conquered, it bring him joy and satisfaction to inflict whatever damage he can to God’s people. We know that’s futile because this world is not our ultimate home, and we are not so concerned with our lives that we would not be prepared to give them up for the sake of Christ. Satan doesn’t get that, just as we don’t get Satan.

As for how Satan can even exist as a creation of a good and holy God, I think there is an element of mystery there, along the lines of how the Trinity “works.” Yes, we can understand in principle the idea of one being consisting of three co-equal, co-eternal persons. But how that actually operates logistically is not something we can comprehend, because we are not trinitarian, and there is nothing trinitarian in the whole of creation. The fact is, Almighty God can indeed make a creature who hates Him and rebels against Him, just as He made us, knowing–indeed ordaining–that we would fall into sin and need a savior. How God is able to do this is not really the important question. The important question is why? And the reason given in Scripture is for His glory, to demonstrate the heights of His justice, and the depths of His grace and mercy. Satan is a foe we cannot overcome on our own. Indeed, without Christ, we are at Satan’s mercy, as we see every day in the news and in our interaction with the world. Without sin, we wouldn’t know God’s holiness and justice the way we do. And without sin, we wouldn’t know the grace and mercy of God the way we do.

We might pick up this discussion again next time. At the very least, we hope to continue in Revelation 13!

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 12:7-12

7 And there was a war in heaven, Michael and his angels had to make war with the dragon. And the dragon made war, also his angels, 8 but he did not defeat [Michael], nor was a place found for them still in heaven. 9 And the great dragon, the serpent, the Ancient One, the one called Diabolos and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown to the earth, and his angels were thrown with him. 10 And I heard a great voice in heaven saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God has come, and the authority of His Christ, for the Accuser of our brethren, the one who accuses them before our God day and night, has been cast down. 11 And they defeated him on account of the blood of the Lamb and on account of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life as far as death. 12 On account of this, rejoice, heavens, and those who dwell in them! Woe to the earth and the sea, for Diabolos has gone down to you having great anger, knowing that he has a short time.”

Last time, we read about a woman giving birth to a son, and a dragon who wanted to destroy the child, but the child was taken to God. The dragon then turned his attention to the woman, but she fled to the wilderness where she was given a place of nourishment for three and a half years. Referencing back into the Old Testament, and even into the Gospels, we understand the woman to represent God’s people (Israel, fulfilled in the church), and the son is Jesus, the Messiah, born out of Israel after centuries of struggle. The dragon is Satan (as we’re told explicitly in this week’s passage). Jesus’s escape from the dragon came at his resurrection, and the pursuit of the woman by the dragon is what has been happening to God’s people ever since. Spiritually, God’s people are secure in him, spiritually nourished with eternal promises, even if physically the church is beaten and oppressed.

John is now shown a war in heaven between Michael and his angels and the dragon. It’s important to remember this is a vision. We mustn’t get distracted with questions over how literally to take Michael and an actual conflict. That’s not to say there isn’t a heavenly being named Michael, and that there wasn’t an actual conflict, but we need to remember John is here presented with a picture of spiritual realities behind physical events. Our primary concern is to understand what the Lord is telling John through this vision.

Daniel chapters 10 and 12 speak of a Michael, and given that Daniel forms the background to a lot of the visions in Revelation, this is where we ought to turn for our understanding of who he is. In 10:6, Daniel sees a vision that compares in many ways to the vision John has of Jesus in Revelation 1:13-16. This man is said to be the “son of man”–a title applied to Jesus in the New Testament. In verse 13, the man tells Daniel of Michael, a prince who fights with him. He reiterates this point in verse 21, saying that no-one contends against Persia and Greece by his side except “Michael, your prince.” Daniel 12:1 describes Michael as the “great prince” who has charge of Daniel’s people, that is, it is his duty to protect Daniel’s people. So, this “son of man” and Daniel fight together for Israel, God’s people, against the wicked hosts of Persia and Greece (or perhaps the spiritual forces at work behind them–see Daniel 8).

So Michael is a co-fighter with the Son of Man, looking out for God’s people. Can’t Jesus fight his own battles? Why include Michael? Perhaps because Jesus, the Son of Man, was fighting a different battle, an earthly one for which Michael’s battle is the spiritual counterpart? In Revelation 12:7-8, Michael and his hosts fight against the dragon, and the dragon and his hosts fight back but do not prevail. Notice, the text does not say that Michael won, but that the dragon wasn’t able to defeat Michael. Could this be because Jesus won the victory over Satan on the cross? The dragon was not able to get the better of Michael in heaven, because Jesus defeated him on earth.

Verse 8 says that there was “no place found still in heaven” for the dragon and his angels, meaning they no longer had a place in heaven. The idea of Satan having a place in heaven may strike us as a little strange. But this isn’t saying Satan has a mansion in glory; rather, from the context this seems to be referring to Satan’s place as the accuser of the saints before God. Since Jesus defeated Satan at the cross, there is no longer anyone accusing God’s people before God’s throne. Satan has been cast down; there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). The message for John’s readers (and to us) is that the Satanic force behind their oppressors and all those that work against God and His people has been defeated. Whatever might be going on physically, the real battle in the heavenlies has been won. Their Accuser has been cast down, and no longer has a place before God bringing charges against His people. All this happened at the cross, so there is some overlap between these verses and verses 1-6. When the woman’s child was taken up to God, and the dragon pursues the woman, behind that scene was this battle scene, where the dragon and his host was defeated and cast down.

There’s a voice from heaven (literally, a “sound”–the Greek phonē is a generic word for noise or sound that takes its precise meaning from the context in which it is used; here, where words are being produced, the sound is clearly a voice), declaring that the salvation, power, kingdom of God, and the authority of His Christ has come. Not that these things weren’t a reality prior to this moment, but now they are coming to bear. This power and authority has been demonstrated in the fall of the Accuser. An interesting cross-reference at this point is John 12:31-33, where Jesus tells his disciples that the judgment of this world has come, and the ruler of this world has been cast out.

The conquest of God’s people over the dragon has been won by the blood of the Lamb, and the word of their testimony. We understand that the latter is dependent upon the former; without the blood of the Lamb, there is no testimony. And it is that testimony, that confession of faith from God’s people that demonstrates they belong to the Lord, and are covered by the redeeming blood of the Lamb who was slain on their behalf. This testimony is not simply words, however. These people were prepared to be martyred for the Gospel because they “did not love their lives as far as death”–which is to say that they didn’t cling to life, but were willing to give up their lives for the Gospel’s sake. Christians are not required to become martyrs, but we are to love the Lord more than life itself such that, should we have to, we would be willing to be with the Lord rather than deny him.

Verse 12 is an exhortation to the heavens to celebrate the casting down of the dragon, but a woe to the earth because that’s where he has gone, and the dragon knows his time is short. Verse 13 will pick up on this: knowing his time is short, having been unable to defeat the mother’s child, the dragon will go after the mother–i.e., the church. God’s people are now under attack from Satan, and that attack will be vicious because he knows his days are numbered. This is a picture of church history from the Resurrection until now, and who knows how much longer. Not that Satan hasn’t been behind the persecution of God’s people prior to the coming of Christ, but that persecution has an added urgency and intensity now that he has been defeated. Satan has lost, and he is going to go out inflicting as much damage as possible. But God’s people need to remember: the battle is won, they are secure in the heavenlies, and there is no longer anyone to accuse them before God.

Next time: Revelation 12:13-17… or 18…?

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 12:1-6

1 And a great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 And she was pregnant, and she cried out, suffering greatly and in agony to give birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven, and behold a great fiery dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and upon its heads seven diadems, 4 and its tail drags [down] a third of the stars of heaven and casts them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, so that when she gives birth, it might devour her child. 5 And she gave birth to a child, a male, who is about to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. And her child was caught up to God and to His throne. 6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has there a place prepared by God, in order that there they might feed her [or “she might be fed”] for 1,260 days.

In chapter 12, John sees a vision of a battle between a woman and her offspring, and a fiery, or red, dragon. In order to unpack this vision, we need to start with some fundamental questions:

  • Who is the woman? Is her offspring who is seems to be (i.e., Jesus)? Is she Mary? If so, what’s the significance of the sun, moon, and stars, and the birth pangs? If not, then who else could it be?
  • What does the dragon represent?
  • What does all this mean in relation to the rest of Revelation?

We began, however, with a reminder about the chronology of Revelation, i.e., there really isn’t one. Sure, we get the idea that the ends of chapter 6 and chapter 11 are at the very end of time, but beyond that, we can’t be certain when anything happens. Nor can we assume that because one vision follows another sequentially, that they also follow each other chronologically. Such is evident by the fact that chapter 11, depicting the Christ’s final return, is followed by chapter 12, where Christ clearly has not yet returned (as we will see).

John describes the woman as being clothed with the sun, and having the moon under her feet, and she has a crown of twelve stars on her head. She is also pregnant, about to give birth. This child is male, and will shepherd, or rule, the nations with a rod of iron. Clearly this child is someone the nations ought to fear, and the dragon definitely fears–enough to want the child dead. This “great dragon” is fiery (or “red”), with seven heads and 10 horns. I interpret the seven diadems on the seven heads to mean a diadem on each head, not seven diadems on each head. This dragon swipes down one third of the stars with his tail.

It seems quite obvious by the description of the child that this male offspring is supposed to Jesus. Indeed, the ruling with “a rod of iron” is a direct reference to Psalm 2:7-9, a Messianic psalm. Given who the dragon is (see verse 9, and below), it’s not surprising that he would want to destroy this child as soon as he is born. However, he is snatched up to God and His throne. This is a reference to Christ’s ascension and exaltation (as in Philippians 2:9). Verse 5, therefore, gives us the ministry of Jesus in a single verse, starting with his birth, and ending with his being raised to the Father.

If the child is Jesus, doesn’t that make a strong case for the woman being Mary, his mother? This view is held by the Roman Catholic Church, and while it has the appeal of fitting the physical reality of Jesus’s birth, it doesn’t fit the symbolism. First, she is clothed with the sun, has the moon at her feet, and is crowned with twelve stars. One place in the Old Testament where these symbols all come together is in Genesis 37:9-10, where Joseph dreams that the sun, moon, and eleven stars all bow down to him (presumably the twelfth star). In Joseph’s dream, the sun and moon are his mother and father, and the twelve stars are the twelve sons, who went on to become the twelve tribes of Israel. If we look back also at Revelation 1:16, Jesus has seven stars in his right hand. Verse 20 explains that these stars are the angels of the seven churches to whom John will write. Those angels represent the churches. If we take these symbols together, they seem to point more to the woman being God’s people, Israel in the Old Testament, and the church (i.e., Old and New Covenant believers) in the New Testament and beyond.

If the woman is the church, or God’s people, in what sense does she “give birth” to Jesus? In the sense that the Messiah was born out of Israel, of David’s line. And the woman’s suffering in childbirth speaks to the suffering of God’s people in the years leading up to the Messiah’s birth, under oppression from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and then Rome (see Micah 5:2-4 for an interesting parallel to what John describes here). The woman’s flight into the wilderness mirrors Israel’s escape into the wilderness in the Exodus, after crossing the Red Sea. In Scripture, the wilderness is a place both of temptation, or testing, and of deliverance. Israel encountered many trials in their wilderness wanderings, but during that time they were fed and protected by God. Jesus spent forty days and nights in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, and he was sustained by his Father (Matthew 4:1-11). David escaped to the wilderness when pursued by Saul (1 Samuel 23:15 ff.). Elijah also fled from Jezebel in the wilderness, and the Lord was with him (1 Kings 19:1-8).

What of the “place” prepared by God? The big giveaway here is the number of days the woman is nourished in this place: 1,260. This is the same number of days the witnesses prophesied in chapter 11. We determined from the symbolism surrounding them that the witnesses represented the church, which we had just seen as the temple. The inner court of the temple was “measured” (i.e., protected by God), meaning that the church spiritually is secure, though physically (the unmeasured outer court) the church will suffer–just as the witnesses did. Jesus told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them (John 14:2-3). This “place” is, therefore, representative of God’s spiritual protection. The dragon wanted to destroy the church spiritually, but God preserves His people, and will continue to preserve them until Christ returns for his bride.

We already noted that the dragon is Satan, Diabolos–or the devil–the “ancient serpent.” We will see the serpent referred to later in the chapter, so it is well to note here that the dragon and the serpent are the same thing: Satan. The dragon has seven heads and wears seven crowns. Seven is the number of completeness, and the diadem is a crown indicating rule and authority. (The head can indicate something similar, which is why I think the heads and the crowns share the same symbolism and should be considered together.) This dragon has complete rule on earth, perhaps mediated through earthly kings or rulers. His red, or fiery coloring puts us in mind of the red horse in 6:4, whose rider takes peace from the earth, setting men against one another. Red is also the color of blood, and symbolic of oppression and violence. There are ten horns on the dragon, which represent power. In his vision of Jesus as the Lamb of God in chapter 5, the Lamb had seven horns (5:6). We also see similar imagery in Daniel 7:7 and 20. This passage in Daniel is important for Revelation 12, and we’ll be coming back to it later.

The dragon’s tail drags down, or sweeps away, one third of the stars. If the stars represent the church, then does this mean one third of the church will become apostate? Is this saying there will be a large number of believers who fall away because of Satan’s influence and power? This seems a very plausible interpretation, however it flies in the face of everything we’ve said about the church in the preceding verses. These “stars” are God’s people, the true church, those who are saved and spiritually protected by Him. If we’re now saying God will fail to protect one third of them, then either our interpretation of verses 1-3, and 5-6 is incorrect, or that’s not what John is saying about that one third of the church. Naturally, I’m inclined to think the interpretation of John’s vision thus far holds together, so there must be another way to see this “swiping down” of one third of the stars.

I think that way is to remember God never promised the church physical protection. While He will preserve His people from ever falling away, there will be many in the church who will suffer physical persecution, even unto death, at the hand of Satan and his proxies on earth. It’s possible the reference here is to the suffering of Israel prior to the coming of the Messiah, since Jesus’s birth comes after the swiping of the stars. Daniel 8:10 speaks of a horn that grew to great power such that it threw down some of the stars and trampled on them. That could be seen as a reference to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, whose persecution of the Jews led to the Maccabean revolt in 166 BC. However, we need not be limited to a specific time frame since this is a vision. Whether speaking of Old Testament or New Testament believers (or both), this is a reference to the suffering of God’s elect, His church, due to persecution and Satanic oppression. We’ve seen “one third” used a couple of times already. One third of the earth and the trees were burned up in the first trumpet (8:7), and a third of mankind was killed by the four angels in 8:15. The point is that the disaster doesn’t fall upon the whole, but upon a large portion of the whole. Likewise, Satan will cause physical harm to a large number of God’s people, but not all.

Yes, there will be those within the church (and even entire churches) that will show themselves to be not truly of the Lord by falling away (1 John 2:19). Some of the churches addressed in the seven letters of chapters 2 and 3 seem to have such people in their midst. And, indeed, we’ve all known people that used to sit beside us in church who are no longer following the Lord. They went out from us because they were not really part of us. But the people John is talking about here in Revelation are those who are truly the Lord’s, and yet suffer for His name’s sake. To those, as to all Christians, are the promises of eternal life, security in Christ, and the glory that is to come.

Lord willing, we’ll continue next time with 12:7-12.

 

Sunday School Notes: Revelation Recap (Chapters 1-11)

We’re getting ready to start a new semester of Sunday School at church, and this semester, we’ll be getting back to our study of Revelation. I’ve posted the notes for chapters 1-11, but for the sake of those who haven’t had the opportunity to read them, and need a quick summary, this past Sunday I reviewed where we’ve been and what we’ve seen.

I have observed two common approaches to the Book of Revelation:

  1. Fear. It’s full of scary stuff about the end of the world, death and destruction. It presents a doomsday scenario people don’t want to think about.
  2. Confusion. It’s full of beasts and giant locusts, numbers and symbols, and there are so many conflicting views on what it all means. Maybe we should just pick out the nice verses (e.g., Revelation 3:20), and leave the rest.

As Christians who believe that all 66 books of the Bible are the inspired Word of God, however, we have no choice but to recognize Revelation as part of that canon, and, therefore, as much God’s Word as Matthew, Romans, Genesis, or the Psalms. As such, we ought to study it as much as we would the rest of Scripture. And I’m convinced, the more we study it correctly, reading it as it was meant to be read, the more we will come to appreciate it for the divinely inspired work it is.

The key to studying Revelation correctly is found, I think, by asking the text two questions:

  1. What did this mean to John and his audience? The Lord did not reveal these things to John, tell him to write them down, and then say, “Sorry, but no-one in the church will understand these things for another 2,000 years, so you may as well ignore them.” Revelation was intended to be meaningful to its first audience.
  2. What does it mean to us? Because Revelation is God’s Word, it not only has meaning for John and his readers, but for the church throughout history. By using signs and symbols, the Lord has ensured these things will communicate to His people in every age. For example, John refers often to “Babylon.” The church in his day, knowing their Old Testament, understood this to refer to the evil, oppressive governing authorities, since Babylon was the empire that destroyed the First Temple and led the Jews into captivity. For the church in John’s day, Babylon would be code for Rome. But other churches in later times would see their own oppressive government as “Babylon.”

These questions form the basis for our approach to Revelation.

Revelation opens with John in exile on the island of Patmos. He’s there because of his faithful witness to the gospel. While “in the spirit” on the Lord’s Day, he sees a vision of Jesus. He’s “in the spirit” meaning that this was a spiritual, not physical, experience. That doesn’t make it any less real, but it helps us understand the strange nature of the vision. The description of Jesus is a mix of imagery from Daniel 7, which describes the “Ancient of Days” and the “Son of Man.” In Daniel’s vision, these two appear separately, with the Ancient of Days seated on a throne. He is clearly meant to represent God. In Revelation, these two characters merge in Jesus. He is both the Son of Man, and God. There is no ambiguity in Revelation about Jesus’ divine status. He is the conquering Lamb who holds the keys to Hades, and unleashes judgment upon the Earth. The meaning of “Hades” in the New Testament is often as a world for “Hell,” but sometimes it refers simply as the abode of the dead, as it did for the Greeks. Jesus holding the keys to Hades indicates that he controls entry into Hades. That’s not a role for a mere prophet.

Jesus then dictates letters to seven churches, all of them in the region known then as Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. The letters give us insight into the state of the church at that time (which, by the way, is either the mid-sixties, during the time of the Emperor Nero, or the mid-to-late 90s, during the reign of Domitian; which view is correct is up for debate–see the full study notes for details). These churches are suffering persecution from without as they face pressure to conform to the surrounding pagan culture, and participate in cultic worship of various deities. They also face financial pressure as economic benefits are only for those who conform to the world. There are various places in the world today where Christians face a similar kind of oppression. And we shouldn’t be so comfortable and arrogant to think such oppression would not spread, even to the US.

The churches also face trouble from within. In some churches, there’s a faction of people who want to join in with the world to avoid suffering, and cause trouble among the faithful. With some churches, the entire congregation has caved in to the social and economic pressure, and are going along with the pagan practices to avoid the penalties. Again, there are places in the world–even in the US and Europe–where churches have done this exact same thing in order to be considered socially acceptable, respectable, and “enlightened.”

For the church, both then and today, Revelation offers hope. Indeed, hope is the main theme of the book. The events John sees and describes paint a pretty bleak picture for Christians, and one that will only worsen and intensify over time until Jesus returns. The visions of seals and trumpets present to us persecution, devastation, and destruction leading up to the End Times. In the midst of this, at a poignant moment, when people are crying out, “Who can save us from the wrath of God and the Lamb?” John is permitted a peek behind the heavenly curtain. In chapter seven, he sees how people will be saved as he gazes upon multitude upon multitude of believers, sealed by the blood of Jesus, praising God. This is the future hope of the church. Whatever happens on earth, they have been sealed, and they will enjoy the Lord’s presence. Indeed, each of the seven letters closes with a promise to “those who overcome”–i.e., those who don’t cave in, and stay true to Christ, even unto death.

Through Revelation, Jesus is telling his church that, despite all the terrible things going on, and that will go on, the church will prevail because Christ is Lord of all. Christians may lose their lives, but their home is not here. We are not building a kingdom on Earth, but our inheritance is with the Lord in his Father’s house, where rooms have been prepared for us all.

Numbers play an important part in Revelation. When we see the same number crop up time and again, we know it has symbolic significance. So far we’ve encountered the following numbers:

  • Four. This represents the whole of creation. The designation probably stems from the idea of the four points of the compass, the four “corners” of the Earth, etc. So the four creatures John sees are representative of all created life.
  • Seven. The number of completeness or wholeness. It is often used for spiritual completeness, though it can simply represent fullness or totality in general.
  • A Thousand. Simply, 1,000 is used to represent a large quantity. The Psalms tell us that God owns the cattle on 1,000 hills. That doesn’t mean He doesn’t own the cattle on the 1,001st hill. It means he owns the cattle on all the many hills there are.
  • Twelve. There were twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve disciples. So the number twelve represents God’s people. We see this number doubled (24) and also multiplied by itself (144) to represent all of God’s people, both Old and New Covenant together.

In the visions the Lord shows John, there are many points of similarity with visions and prophecies in the Old Testament, particularly in Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the Psalms. We can look at these allusions and references as fulfillments of things that the former prophets saw dimly. God revealed these things to them, and they had relevance in their day, but their future meaning was veiled because Christ had not yet come. In Christ, the Old Testament is fulfilled, and all these visions and prophecies find their ultimate meaning.

In chapter eleven, John sees a vision of the Temple being measured. “Measuring” is symbolic of God’s protection, so the picture is one of God guarding His people, while those outside the Temple suffer judgment. There are two “witnesses,” which represent the faithful church, who are dressed in sackcloth and minister for 1,260 days. That number crops up a few times in various forms (3.5 years, 42 months). This same quantity appears in Daniel 7:25 and 12:7, and also seems to correspond to times of persecution in Israel’s history. The number also crops up in chapter 12, so we’ll look at it again there.

These witnesses are then beaten to the point of death, but then, to the dismay of their persecutors, are raised back to life by the Lord, and ascend to be with Him. John is being shown here the vindication of the church, that though she may suffer greatly to the point of extinction, the Lord will raise up His people and they will be vindicated. At the end of chapter eleven, the Lord returns, which is a bit strange since we are only half-way through the book. But there’s more to understand, as we will see when we dive into chapter 12…