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Sunday School Notes: Revelation 14:12-13

12 Here is the steadfastness of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and faith in Jesus.” 13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write! Blessed are the dead who die in [the] Lord from this time.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “in order that they might have relief from their hardships [or labors], for their works will follow with them.”

We started this week with a recap and an answer to a question raised last time, namely whether “mark” in 13:18 is the same Greek word used in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), in passages such as Ezekiel 9:4, 6. Without spending too much time on that here, the answer is no. The word in Revelation 13:18 is charagma, which, by the way it is used, refers to a stamp, or a mark of ownership. The word in Ezekiel 9:4, 6 is sēmeion, commonly translated elsewhere as “sign.” This same word is used in Genesis 4:15, speaking of the “mark” of Cain. In those contexts, it seems that “mark” is being used in the sense of a symbol pointing to something significant. In Genesis 4, the “mark” of Cain is symbolic of the protection of God.

We also spent a little more time talking about the “rest” promised to believers in verse 11. Hebrews 3:7-4:11 talks of the rest that is for those in Christ as symbolized by Israel entering the Promised Land. The “Sabbath rest” of God is like that, where God takes His people to a place of security. Of course, there is a “now-and-not-yet” aspect to this promised rest. We do indeed have that rest in Jesus right now, even in the midst of our daily trials. However, we have not come fully into that rest. We are constantly assailed by our own sin, the demands of the world, and the temptations of the flesh, which all conspire to draw us away from that rest. The day is coming, however, when we will fully rest in God, free from the sin within us and the snares around us.

Verse 12 has a structure very similar to the opening of 13:18 in the Greek: hōde hē hupomonē tōn hagiōn estin. 13:18 begins: hōde hē sophia estin (“here is wisdom”). It bears an even closer resemblance to 13:10: hōde estin hē hupomonē kai hē pistis tōn hagiōn (“here is the steadfastness and faith of the saints”). This construction with hōde estin is calling our attention to something significant. In 13:10, it was the fact that steadfastness and faith is required of God’s people in the midst of the persecution happening at the hands of the Beast. The use in 13:18 is to alert us to the identity of the Beast, and the fact that, with wisdom, we should be able to identify him. The vision John sees now is one of the saints at rest, so the heavenly voice is reminding us that this is the reward of the faithful. Those who, by the grace of God kept the commandments, and were firm and unwavering in their faithfulness to the gospel. While the Beast-worshipers received unending torment without rest, God’s people will fully enter into that blessed rest.

John then hears a voice from heaven commanding him to write, just as he was commanded to write the seven letters in chapters 2 and 3. This time, it’s a blessing: “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from this time!” And the Spirit responds, “Yes, such that they will rest from their labors.” This begs the question: From what time? From the time of the End, the Last Day? But surely all who die in Christ enter into eternal rest? Maybe it’s from the time of John’s writing (whether during the reign of Nero or Domitian–whichever you subscribe to). But what then of those who died before that time?

I believe there are two ways to understand “from this time” that make sense in the immediate context, and the context of the book. The first has to do with the way we split the sentence in English. The original Greek text, at least in the earliest manuscripts, was written all in uppercase, and with no spaces or punctuation. This sounds like it would be confusing, but if you know Greek well enough, you can decypher what it says easily enough. For example, ifiwritewithoutanypunctuationorspacesallinlowercaseyouknowenoughenglishtofigureoutwhatimsaying. It may take you a moment or two to figure out that last sentence, but I don’t doubt you’ll understand it without too much difficulty. Even placing proper punctuation marks shouldn’t present much of a problem. Though sometimes it can be a challenge knowing when one sentence ends and another starts. Knowledge of grammar, syntax, and common practice helps a lot. But on occasion, even the best minds will differ.

This could be one of those places. If “from this time on” could be the beginning of a new sentence. “From this time on, yes, such that they will rest from their labors.” However, the Greek phrase ap’ arti (“from this time on”) doesn’t usually stand at the beginning of a sentence. And making that a new sentence doesn’t really change the meaning. But, what if it’s not ap’arti, but aparti? The apostrophe after ap is a later convention indicating a dropped vowel (strictly it’s apa arti). Most translators assume it’s ap’arti, because it’s more common than aparti, and it fits the context. However, aparti, which means “certainly” or “exactly,” while less frequent, would equally fit the context. The following “yes” might support this: “Certainly, yes, says the Spirit…” I think that reads better than if the sentence starts with ap’arti.

Another possibility is to understand ap’arti as “from that time on,” that is, from the time of the believer’s death onward. The point of this is to remind and encourage those who die in the Lord during these days of oppression, persecution, and judgment, that death is not the end, and their labors for the Lord are not in vain. This is consistent with the overall theme of Revelation as a letter of hope to the suffering church, both in John’s time, and ours.

I’m torn between “certainly” and “from that time.” Ultimately, however, I think the message is clear: Those who reject the Lord, and are marked for ownership by the Beast, will suffer at the hands of God. They will receive the full measure of His cup of wrath. And even though His people have endured much under the Beast’s reign of oppression and persecution, they will see the reward for their endurance and their faithfulness. Theirs is the rest that is denied the Beast-worshipers.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 14:8-11

8 And another, a second angel, followed saying, “Fallen, fallen [has] Babylon the great. She has made all the nations drink from the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality. 9 And another angel, a third one, followed them, speaking in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the Beast and his image, and receives the mark upon his forehead or upon his hand, 10 also he will drink from the wine of God’s wrath poured out undiluted in the cup of His wrath, and he will be tormented by fire and by sulphur before [the] holy angels and before the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment rises up forever and ever, and they do not have relief day and night, those who worship the Beast and his image, and if anyone receives the mark of his name.”

John now sees a second angel following right on the heels of the previous one. The last angel proclaimed an “everlasting gospel,” which we said was the judgment side of the gospel message. The call to fear God and give Him glory is not restricted to Christians. It is the duty of all mankind to do that, and the depravity of the human heart is revealed in its refusal to obey this command. In verse 8, the second angel declares the fate of “Babylon the great”: she has fallen, having made all the nations drink “from the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.”

We first looked at that last line, because in the Greek it could be taken a couple of different ways. One way of understanding the grammar says that Babylon made the nations drink “from the wine consisting of the passion produced by her sexual immorality.” Another way says Babylon made the nations drink “from the wine leading to passion, or desire for sexual relations with her.” In the first sense, the wine is full of Babylon’s passion which comes from her sexual immorality. In the second sense, Babylon’s wine leads to a desire to have intimate relations with her. Do the nations drink in order to partake of the passions of Babylon, or does their drinking of the wine lead them to desire intimacy with Babylon?

A clue to our interpretation of this passage lies, perhaps, in Revelation 18:1-3. This passage seems to parallel 14:8, only with a bit more detail, and it includes this same line. We will study 18:1-3 in depth when we get there, but it says that the kings of the earth have committed porneia, sexual immorality, with Babylon. The way that is described in 18 supports the understanding that the wine the nations are made to drink causes them to desire “passionate relations” with Babylon.

It is good to note that while the 14:8 suggests the nations have been forced into drinking this wine, there is no hint of any objection. The nations are glad to drink Babylon’s wine, again, as chapter 18 makes clear.

Who is this “Babylon the great“? That phrase in the Greek is only found one time in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Daniel 4:30, where Nebuchadnezzar is boasting about the great kingdom he has built. He did not fear God and give Him glory, and God humiliated him, driving him from the city, and reducing him to grazing in the fields like an animal. Given that we’re talking about the fall of Babylon in 14:8, “Babylon the great” is being used here, I think, sarcastically. Just as Nebuchadnezzar was humbled, so will be his great city.

I have little doubt that in John’s day, “Babylon” was code for Rome. In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter makes reference to “she who is in Babylon.” The “she” there is most likely a church (a possibility that the KJV translation takes for granted), and since there wasn’t a church in literal Babylon, it could only refer to another prominent city known as a center of oppressive power: Rome. The name is a symbol, so it can also be applied to any such city in any age. We understand “Babylon,” therefore, to be any city, or perhaps any world power, that hates God and persecutes His church. And maybe also the demonic forces at work behind that world power.

Looking ahead to chapter 17, there we see a prostitute holding in her hand a cup of “impurities of her sexual immorality.” On her head is written, “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes.” This, again, associates the city of Babylon with lustful, passionate immorality. Chapter 17 is, indeed, a very strong condemnation of the evil city, or evil empire. We’ll get to it eventually. 🙂

The imagery of wine is, no doubt, intended as a negative. Wine is not in itself a bad thing. The cup of the Lord’s Supper contained fruit of the vine, and Paul encouraged Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). But in excess, wine becomes an intoxicant, something that dulls the senses and, perhaps, the conscience. Wine is also addictive. This is why, I think, the symbolism of wine is used here. Not only are the nations drunk on the power and pleasure that comes with intimacy with Babylon (18:3), but they are addicted to it. They are willing to turn against God and His people to hold on to all that Babylon offers. Which is why, when Babylon falls, the nations despair instead of repent. Their source of power has been removed, and all they see is emptiness and unfulfillment. This is the same difference we see between Judas and Peter after Jesus’s arrest. When Judas’s plans went awry, so consumed was he by his sin, he didn’t seek repentance. Instead, he despaired and hung himself. Peter, on the other hand, after betraying the Lord three times, felt convicted of his sin and repented. Those who belong to the Lord will never be intoxicated by Babylon’s wine, though the temptation to will be real. However, they know the way of true fulfillment and joy.

In verse 9, John receives the third of these three angelic visions. This angel declares what will happen to those who have the Beast’s mark and worship him, drawing a contrast with what we saw in 13:15-16, where we were told of the penalties for not worshiping the Beast and receiving his mark.

There seems to be a progression in the angelic messages, from the general to the specific. The first message was a call to fear God and worship Him, because judgment is coming. The second announced the fall of Babylon, the judgment of the evil city and those nations that likewise disobeyed the call. Finally, we have here the punishment of those people who ran after the Beast and received that mark.

Verse 10 is another contrast, this time with verse 8. Instead of Babylon’s wine of passion, we have here the wine of God’s wrath. The same word is used for “wrath” as for “passion” in verse 8. That Greek word, thumos, refers to strong feeling, and takes its specific nuance from the context. “Wrath” would not fit the context of verse 8, so “passion” is a better translation. In verse 10, it isn’t God’s passion that’s on display, but his intense displeasure manifest in His judgment, which is why “wrath” is the better translation there. By using the same word in these different contexts, the angel is drawing our attention to the parallel. Babylon’s cup is full of wine that leads to desire for her, by which she leads the nations into idolatry and greed. The Lord’s cup, however, is full of the wine of his wrath, which leads to punishment upon those who deny Him, who prefer Beast-worship. It is those who received the mark of the Beast on their foreheads (and not the mark of the Lord) who will drink the wine of God’s wrath.

The angel says God’s wine is poured out–literally, having been poured out, poured out in the past but with lasting effect–and is “undiluted,” i.e., full-strength. These words are used in the Old Testament also within judgment contexts. Jeremiah 25:15 (32:15 in the LXX) uses the term “cup of the wine of wrath” in the context of God’s judgment on the nations, including Jerusalem and Judah because of their disobedience. He promises to send Babylon against them, and will then punish Babylon. The Greek translation of this verse uses the word for “undiluted” instead of the word for “wrath” (i.e., “the cup of this undiluted wine”). It’s possible that by using both “wrath” and “undiluted” in Revelation 14:10, the angel is drawing our attention to Jeremiah 25, and the cup of God’s wrath that he promised to make all the unfaithful, sinful nations drink.

Psalm 75:8 (74:9 in the LXX) speaks of how God will bring judgment upon all the wicked of the earth. The Hebrew says that the wine in the cup which is in God’s hand “foams,” is fully mixed, and he pours it out so the nations can drink it down to the dregs. The Greek, however, uses “undiluted” instead of “foams,” no doubt intending the same understanding–God’s anger, which he pours out on the nations.

The judgment proclaimed by the angel isn’t, therefore, simply something that God is doing in reaction to the latter-day rebellion of the nations. This is something that God has been doing from Old Testament times, and has promised from of old to do finally on all the wicked of the Earth.

The torment of God’s wrath will be by means of fire and sulfur. These two elements have a long history as instruments of judgment, going all the way back to Genesis 19:24 and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Psalm 11:5-6 says that the Lord hates the wicked and the one who loves violence, and “fire and sulfur and scorching wind will be the portion of their cup.” Perhaps most significantly, we saw fire and sulfur used to describe the color of the breastplates worn by the horse riders in Revelation 9:17-18. Also, their horses breathed fire, smoke, and sulfur. This was the sixth trumpet, which takes place directly before the Lord’s return, and resulted in the death of one-third of the people of Earth. The rest refuse to repent of their idolatry, murders, sorceries, immorality, and thefts. (SPOILER! We will see the Beast and the false prophet thrown into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur in 19:20. See 20:10 and 21:8 for other judgments to come involving fire and sulfur.)

The sentence structure of verse 11 is a little awkward in the Greek, because it puts the judgment itself ahead of naming the recipients of that judgment. This is a common literary device in languages like Greek and Latin, where word order is flexible, to draw attention to the most important part of the sentence by putting it first. In this case, we understand that those who received the mark of the Beast, and worshiped him and his image, will suffer torment, and the smoke of their torment will rise up forever. They will have no relief, or rest, day or night.

Once again, we have Old Testament background to this picture of the smoke of judgment rising forever in Isaiah 34:10, and mentioned also in Joel 3, Obadiah, and Malachi. The image is of total destruction, as God intended to do to Edom. Verse 9 of Isaiah 34 says that streams will be turned to pitch, soil to sulfur, and the land will be like burning pitch. There we have sulfur and fire, and verse 10 says the smoke from Edom will go up forever.

In Revelation 8:3-4, we saw the smoke of incense rising with the prayers of the saints, which we took to be a symbol of the fragrant prayer offerings of God’s people. The smoke in 14:11 is similar in that it rises up, but it is not the prayers of the saints. Rather, it’s the torment of the unbelievers, the earth-dwellers. I think this is another deliberate contrast.

We recalled the locusts in Revelation 9:1-12, the fifth trumpet, that looked like horses with women’s hair and lion’s teeth, and tails and stings like scorpions. These locusts rose up from the bottomless pit, out of the smoke from that pit, and were directed to damage only “those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” Another use of smoke in the context of judgment, perhaps pointing to what we see in 14:11.

The angel says that those receiving judgment will have no rest “day and night.” The use of this phrase underscores relentless restlessness. In other contexts, “day and night” is used to indicate on-going, perpetual activity. The proclamation of the four living creatures in 4:8, for example, or the ministry of the multitudes before God’s throne in 7:15. Even the work of the Accuser of the saints before God’s throne in 12:10.

The idea of “rest” makes us think, perhaps, of spiritual, salvific rest in Christ (e.g., Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” or the Sabbath rest spoken of in Hebrews 3:7-4:11 that is the reward of those who are in Christ). The lack of such a rest for the earth-dwellers is in contrast to the rest that is promised to the heaven-dwellers in verse 13. There it speaks of them having “rest from their labors,” which makes it sound like a physical, not a spiritual rest. Indeed, it goes on to say that “their works will follow them.” However, if we understand these “labors” in terms of gospel faithfulness, then their works do indeed follow them, in the sense that God’s people are known for their faithfulness (they are the “overcomers” of the seven letters), and those works which they do because Christ redeemed them and enabled them, qualify them to enter into the rest and joy of their Master (Matthew 25:21-23).

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 14:4-7

4 These are those who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are pure. These [are] those who follow the Lamb wherever he may go. These have been redeemed from mankind, [the] firstfruit to God and to the Lamb. 5 And in their mouth no falsehood was found; they are without blemish.

6 And I saw another angel flying high in the sky, having an eternal gospel to proclaim upon the earth-dwellers, and upon every nation and tribe and tongue and people, 7 saying in a loud voice, “Fear God and give Him glory, for the hour has come of His judgment. And worship the One who made heaven and earth, and the sea, and springs of waters.”

Jesus, the Lamb, is on Mount Zion with the 144,000. The opening passage to chapter 14 seems focused on telling us about these people. We’ve established before (see the notes on Revelation 7) that the number 144,000 is figurative, and represents all of God’s people, Old and New Covenant. The way they are described in the first three verses underscores this. They have the Lamb and the Father’s name on their foreheads–they belong to him, something we know is true for all believers. They, and they alone, are able to sing the new song, a further distinction between them and those who belong to the Beast (i.e., unbelievers, or “earth-dwellers”).

In verses 4 and 5 John continues his description of these people. He states four specific things about them:

  1. They are parthenoi, literally “virigins”–they haven’t defiled themselves with women.
  2. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
  3. They are a “firstfruit” to God and to the Lamb, as a result of being bought by God.
  4. They are without blemish; there is no falsehood in their mouth.

We looked at each of these in turn:

They are virgins. Some might want to take this literally, i.e., that they have abstained from sexual relations. This view would go along with taking the 144,000 literally, as a sub-set of believers who have kept some kind of vow of chastity. I see a couple of problems with this. First, since their virginity is based on the fact that “they haven’t defiled themselves with women,” the 144,000 would have to be male. Second, it seems to elevate those who abstain from sex as being better than the others, especially since there is a connection drawn between being a virgin, and not being “defiled.” Such a negative view of sex is unbiblical.

I think there are two ways we can see the “virginity” of the 144,000. First, we can take parthenoi in this context to mean the opposite of molunō, to make unclean or defile, and hence mean “pure” or “clean.” This would include not only abstaining from sexual immorality, but also refraining from idolatry, and other practices that would compromise their moral integrity as they try to stand for Christ and show themselves to be his people. We should also bear in mind that no believer could stand “pure” and “clean” before the Lord in their own strength. They are able to do this because they are washed in the Lamb’s blood, and clothed in the white robe given to them (7:9-10; 6:11). Secondly, there is a contrast here between the “virginal” people of God, and the Great Prostitute, who we’ll meet in chapter 17, and also the nations who “have drunk the wine of the passion of Babylon’s sexual immorality” (14:8 and 18:3). The symbolic prostituting of the nations is in contrast to the symbolic sexual integrity of God’s people.

They follow the Lamb. This is not in the sense of simply calling oneself a Christian and doing things Jesus would do. Remember the context of Revelation: these are churches under persecution. They aren’t just following Jesus’s teaching; they are following Jesus’s example of servant living, perseverance under persecution, and personal sacrifice for the sake of the gospel–even unto death. This is what it means to wear the name of the Lamb and the Father.

They are the “firstfruits” to God and the Lamb. The “firstfruit” is usually that which is offered to the Lord as the best pickings from the harvest. One might reasonably assume that if there is a first-fruit, there’s more fruit to follow, which some believe supports the idea that the 144,000 are a sub-set of God’s people. Again, however, this sets up an elite group of believers that are somehow better than the rest, which doesn’t correspond to the egalitarian nature of the gospel. We are all redeemed in Christ; our holiness is not our own but his. We derive our purity from him. So any redeeming good in us is of no credit to us, but to Christ. And nowhere in the New Testament do we get the idea that some people are “more saved” than others.

A better understanding of “firstfruits” here is to relate the use of the term back to Jeremiah 2:2-3, where all of Israel is called “the firstfruits of [God’s] harvest.” There isn’t a group within Israel that is God’s “firstfruit,” but rather the nation of Israel is God’s choice “crop” out of all the nations. The emphasis is on God’s people as being chosen, special, set apart from all the other peoples of the Earth. To underscore this, John says that the “firstfruit” were bought, or redeemed, from mankind. The same Greek verb, agorazō, is used here as in 5:9, in reference to those who were bought, or redeemed, with the blood of the Lamb.

They are without blemish and with no falsehood in their mouth. Similar language is used of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:9, which we understand to be speaking of Jesus (see 1 Peter 2:22). Those who “follow the Lamb” will strive to follow his example, and, by his grace will display the same kind of purity and integrity as their Savior. This integrity may go beyond simply not telling lies, and speak of their faithfulness in proclaiming the gospel. There is a consistency between the proclamation of their mouths and the lives they lead. In the letters of chapters 2 and 3, we have seen that there are those in the church who may profess faith in Christ, but they wander into idolatry, and seem more concerned with not offending the culture than being faithful to the Lord. Just as Christ was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and was found without deceit, so we too, under the same circumstances, should be true to our Lord, and be prepared to accept the consequences.

In verse 6, John sees “another angel.” This is the first of three angels in this chapter. Why “another”? Probably in addition to the other angels John has seen so far; this is not an angel he has seen before. The angel is flying “high in the sky”–literally, “in mid-heaven.” John used the same term to describe the location of the eagle in 8:13. This is significant because that eagle spoke with a loud voice proclaiming woes upon the “earth-dwellers,” warning about the final three trumpet blasts. In other words, it appears that the eagle in John’s vision was the mouthpiece of God, declaring judgment upon the nations. Similarly, this angel, and the two following, will bring warnings of judgment from God to the nations.

If the angel is proclaiming judgment on the earth-dwellers, why is his message called “an eternal gospel“? Surely this implies some kind of evangelistic call to the unbelieving people on Earth, with, implicitly, the opportunity for them to repent and be saved? That the message goes out to every “nation, tribe, tongue, and people” seems to suggest there are those marked out for redemption among them (see 5:9, where those bought by the Lamb include the same type of people).

We’ve discussed before (e.g., in the notes on chapter 11) the fact that there are two sides to the gospel message. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul says that the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but the power of God to those who are saved. He goes on in verse 22 to declare that we preach Christ crucified, “a stumbling block to Jews, folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jew and Gentile, it is Christ, the power and wisdom of God.” The gospel is life to the elect, but to the non-elect, those who are dead in their sins, it is death and judgment. When believers proclaim the gospel, it is a reminder to unbelievers of the knowledge of God that they are trying to suppress (Romans 1:18).

This is why the angelic “gospel” is a proclamation of judgment. Notice the content of the message: Fear God, give Him glory, and worship the One who made heaven, earth, sea, and spring of water, because the hour of His judgment has come. Fundamental to the gospel message is the fact that, by nature, we disobey this very basic command of God, to fear Him, glorify Him, and worship Him. We would sooner fear our neighbors or our politicians, glorify those who give us what we want, and worship ourselves, our work, our money, our TV/film/music idols. One’s response to this angelic call reveals one’s core sinfulness and the need for a heart-change that only comes through Christ. We already know how the earth-dwellers respond, because we’ve seen it in 9:20-21: they don’t repent of their evil deeds, or their idolatry. This why they are judged.

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 14:1-3

1 And I saw, and behold, the Lamb standing upon Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 having his name and the name of his Father written upon their foreheads. 2 And I heard a noise from heaven, like a noise of many waters and like a noise of great thunder, and the noise which I heard [was] like harpists playing on their harps. 3 And they are singing a new song before the throne, and before the four living creatures, and the elders, and no-one is able to learn the song except the 144,000–those having been bought from the earth.

In the previous chapters, John described his vision of a dragon (Satan) persecuting God’s people, then giving power to a Beast who rises up from the sea and draws people to himself. It’s our view that this vision speaks of an authority figure who will rise up under the influence of Satan, and will give power to a subordinate (the second Beast). Together, these Beasts will ensnare the world to worship that which is not God, and actively persecute those who do worship the true and living God. We’re not convinced this is only speaking of one authority figure at one time in history (or the future), but rather we believe this is a description of Satan’s activity during the time since Christ ascended to heaven. Throughout church history, powers and authorities have risen to promote the ungodly and suppress the godly, whether in Rome, Italy, Germany, or Syria. And this is a pattern that will continue until the Final Judgment.

Chapter 13 ended with the church suffering under the rule of the Beast, with no hope in sight. Chapter 14 isn’t so much the beginning of the vindication of the church, but it’s more the other side of the coin. God has not been asleep while the dragon’s been busy. If we’ve seen anything from the previous chapters, we’ve seen God’s sovereign hand in control of everything that’s going on. The chapter opens with John’s vision of Jesus, the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion with the 144,000. The verb in the Greek is a perfect participle, which means we should understand that Jesus was already standing on Mount Zion prior to John seeing him. He didn’t just show up when things were looking bad. He’s been there all along.

Mount Zion represent the city of God, the symbolic dwelling place from which He rules. This is established in a number of Old Testament passages including 2 Kings 19:31, Psalm 2:6, Psalm 48, Psalm 74:2, Psalm 78:67-68, Psalm 125:1, Isaiah 24:23, Isaiah 29:8, Joel 2:28-32, and Obadiah 15-21. From these we get the picture of Mount Zion as God’s fortress (symbolically), the eternal stronghold where God reigns and where His people have protection. It is where God has installed His Messiah, and will keep His people from the judgments that will befall the rest of creation.

Perhaps the most striking New Testament passage relating to Mount Zion in terms of what we read here in Revelation 14:1, is Hebrews 12:18-24. There, the believer is described as having come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, where the “firstborn” are gathered, the spirits of the righteous made perfect. Also there is God, the judge of all, and Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant.

Along with the Lamb are the 144,000. As we have previously discussed (see Chapter 7), this number represents all of God’s people, Jew and Gentile, from all time (12x12x1000–Israel’s tribes multiplied by the Apostles multiplied by a very large quantity). This is not just those martyred, or some remnant. This, I think, is established by the context. These 144,000 are standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion, and in the OT passages we looked at, God’s people in total are protected on Mount Zion. Also, the passage says the 144,000 have “the name of the Lamb and his Father” on their foreheads. John has only seen two classes of people in his visions: the earth-dwellers who bear the mark of the Beast, and the heaven-dwellers, who bear the name of the Lord. There is no other group, so these must be all the heaven-dwellers (i.e., believers). The passage also tells us that these people are the only ones who can learn the “new song.” As we will see, this is a song sung by those in heaven–how could it only be a sub-group of Christians? Finally, the 144,000 are described as those who have been “redeemed” or “purchased” by the blood of Christ. Is this not true of all believers? Again, the number 144,000 is symbolic, representing all of God’s people.

These 144,000 have the name of the Lamb, and the name of His Father written on their foreheads. The Greek verb there is singular, in other words it literally says of these two names that it is written on their foreheads, treating the two names as one. John is saying the two names belong to the same being. They are of equal status. And just as the Beast’s followers have his name on their heads, so Jesus’s followers bear his name on theirs. The significance of the name on the forehead is twofold. First, it indicates ownership. Those who bear the name belong to that person. Second, it is a bold declaration to the world that they belong to that person. If you have something written on your forehead, you cannot face another person without them seeing it. Everybody will know to whom you belong. There is, perhaps, an underlying criticism here of those in the church who are trying to hide their faith by conforming to the world. If you truly belong to Christ, you cannot keep it a secret. To proclaim Christ on your forehead is to follow him, even if it costs you.

John then hears a sound from heaven like many waters, and mighty thunder, and like harpists playing on their harps. Some translations prefer to render the Greek word phōnē as “voice,” but I think that’s a bit too interpretive. The word refers to a generic sound, and often takes its meaning from the thing emitting the sound. In reference to a dog, you would translate it as “bark,” or “miaow” if it’s a cat. What John hears, however, is a mix of sounds, or a noise that is hard for him to pinpoint exactly. It’s loud, it flows, and it’s musical. Perhaps they get “voice” from the “new song,” which is fine–it’s a legitimate translation. I prefer to leave it at “sound” or “noise.”

Calling the noise a new song takes us back to the throne room of Revelation 5:9, where the four living creatures and the elders sing this song, proclaiming the Lamb’s worthiness to open the scrolls, since he has redeemed a people for God from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Now the 144,000 are singing this song before the throne and the elders and creatures. The reference back to 5:9 further supports the fact that the 144,000 represent all the redeemed. The same verb is used in 5:9 as is used of the 144,000 here in verse 3 (agorazō). These are those Christ has purchased with his blood from all over the world. And only these can sing the song, proclaiming Christ’s redemption, power, and victory.

We will see in 19:6 a similar victory cry like “many waters and mighty thunder” at Babylon’s fall and the marriage supper of the Lamb. This reminds us that those we saw persecuted in chapters 12 and 13 are, in fact, the ones who have the victory by virtue of their standing in Christ. He has bought them with his blood, so rather than suffering the spiritual torment that comes at the hand of God’s just judgment, they stand with their Redeemer on Mount Zion, proclaiming the glories of his grace.

We started verse 4, but didn’t finish, so I will provide the complete notes for verse 4 next time.

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.