The people who were taught to pray, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven” have just been told, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15). But when they walk out the door to work the next morning, they will deal with the kingdom of Rome that hadn’t “become” anything, except maybe worse. What does John have to say to that?
Jesus announced the presence of the Kingdom of God. He clearly intended that everyone know that the rule of God was comprehensive, established over body as well as soul, over society as well as individual, in our external behavior as well as our internal disposition, over cities and nations as well as in homes and churches. He just as clearly repudiated the accustomed means by which that rule was exercised: he rejected the devil’s offer of a position in government, rebuked the brothers Boanerges for wanting to call down fire from heaven to incinerate their enemies, ordered Peter to put up his sword, reassured Pilate that the governor’s job was in no danger, and finally, to make sure no one missed the point, arranged that his coronation take place on a cross.
All the same, people, Christians among them, keep missing the point. In the next two chapters, John reveals the underlying cause for the hostility about to break upon the Church. John begins with an imaginative retelling of the nativity of Jesus. A woman appears, dressed in a diaphanous garment woven from the rays of the sun. Twelve stars, pulsating white and red fire, are a crown on her head. She stands on the moon. And she is pregnant. In the immediate context, she is Mary, but as the story develops she is the entire Messianic community – both Israel and the Church.
Suddenly a dragon appears, ugly as the woman is lovely. The reptile’s seven are heads poised to devour the infant coming from the womb. The moment the child appears, the dragon lunges. At the last possible moment, there is rescue. The infant is lifted to the throne of God. The mother escapes to a place of safety and is cared for.
The immediate consequence of the birth is not Christmas carols, but a great war spread across the heavens. Michael, captain of the angels, joins battle with the dragon and his demon horde. Back and forth across the skies the contest rages and then, as suddenly as it began, it is over. The dragon and his hosts, no match for Michael and his angels, falls out of the sky in a heap. “Bounced” is more like it – the word John uses means “unceremoniously tossed out.” Isaiah’s vision is confirmed: “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!” (Isaiah 14:12). Jesus’ perception is elaborated: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18).
Grounded, the hapless dragon tries again. The assault this time is on the mother. The snake vomits a cataract of water towards the woman to drown her. But the earth is no more hospitable to the dragon’s designs than the heavens had been: the ground opens up, swallowing the river that was to have swallowed the woman. The dragon is deprived a second time of its victim. Is there anyone left to attack? As a matter of fact there is – we Christians “who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 12:17). Is there any reason to suppose that he will be more successful with us than with our Lord and his mother? Hardly.
The failed dragon contemplates his failures. Obviously, he needs help. If he is going to wage war on the people who “keep the commandments of God and bear the testimony of Jesus,” he needs a means by which he can either conquer or subvert their life of faith. He will attempt both. He will attempt to frighten them into disobedience; or he will deceive them into illusion.
He recruits help from the underworld, two beasts, one out of the sea, the other out of the earth, to execute his malignant will within the community of people whom God saves. The sea beast is assembled from left-over parts of leopard, bear, and lion. The land beast is a fake lamb, a clumsy counterfeit of the magnificent true Lamb.
The beasts from the sea and earth are the images by which John will show us the satanic will covertly at work in these large areas of government and religion, force and faith. With the sea beast, the dragon will frighten us into disobedience – “make war on the saints and conquer them.” With the land beast he will deceive us into illusion – “deceives those who dwell on earth.”
The sea beast makes great claims for itself, and so speaks blasphemy against God, the one true ruler of all. Ironically, it is God who allows it to do so – John says the beast “was allowed” or “was given authority” for 42 months. One of the things Revelation teaches is that God allows evil to run its course so that he might bring good out of it, and let the evil destroy itself.
After presenting this “man of lawlessness,” this “anti-Christ” in his all of his violence, John counsels: “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rev. 13:10). There is no question but that we may lose our lives by violence in this world. But death is not defeat. Death is not the worst thing that can be done to us. This is difficult counsel to follow. John, knowing how difficult, introduces his counsel by repeating Jesus’ attention-arresting formula: “If anyone has an ear, let him hear!”
When John wrote Revelation there was a popular belief that Nero, who had died at his own hand – a head wound – slitting his throat – would be resurrected. Nero was the worst tyrant of the First Century, feared even by Romans. He set fire to Rome and blamed it on the Christians, and set off the first major persecution. By the time John writes, Domitian is the emperor, but John is telling his readers, “Domitian is just another Nero, but God is in control!”
John must fortify his people to face the worst. In a political world of sea beast violence, he must bring into the open what may be ahead for any one of them: exile, death, persecution, torture. He will make sure that no disaster inflicted by the evil power will be unheard of in his congregations. Knowing what to expect, they at least will not be surprised into cowardice.
Next is the land beast, characterized by the capacity to deceive. After painting a picture of the animal, John gives his counsel: “This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six.” John expects the deceit of the land beast to be penetrated by the Christian mind: hard, critical thinking. The land beast is, more than anything else, religious. It has a Christ-like quality; it is “like a lamb,” but it is a false prophet, a parody, not a derivation, of Christ.
Its main task is to get people to worship. In order to subvert our religious life, it uses religious means with all the trappings of the miraculous. When a person or movement is religious, appears to be on good terms with the supernatural, and urges us to engage in religious acts, we let our guard down. For people whose habit is faith, whose disposition in matters of God and the supernatural is towards acceptance, it is easy to be deceived by religious leaders.
John’s readers lived in a society in which pagan temples guaranteed trade deals, hosted merchant guilds, and formed a deep-seated part of the fabric of society. Withdrawal from that part of life could affect the business interests and the social life of Christians.
Pressure to conform to the world’s expectations has always been the Church’s greatest temptation. How do we protect ourselves from organized deceit? John is blunt; use your heads. Figure out what is going on.
Most of the conspicuous religion that is in vogue at any one time derives from the land beast. Expose these religious pretensions. This religion has nothing to do with God. Get its number: it is a human number. It is religion that makes a show, religion that vaunts itself, religion that takes our eyes off of the poor and suffering and holy Christ.
John uses a system of numbering and identification that was well known to his readers called, “gematria” [guy-MEY-tree-uh]. In a system of writing that had no numbers, letters became numbers, each one having a value. In English, “A” would be 1, “B” 2, and so on. In the Greek/Hebrew lettering system 666 = Nero. Some manuscripts have 616 – and in Latin, that equals Nero.
We continue to try to figure out what was clear to John’s readers. Popes, and kings, and dictators have all been identified as the man of the 666. Someone said it was Ronald Wilson Reagan – 6 letters in each name. Someone said it was Barney the Purple Dinosaur – using each letter in that name that is also a Greek number. Barak Hussein Obama only equals 151. Sorry!
In the language of numbers, 666 is a triple failure to be a 777, the three-times perfect, whole, divine number. It is a recurring characteristic of this land-beast religion that it is commercialized – you cannot buy or sell without that number. It manipulates us economically, getting us to buy and sell at its bidding, marketing advice, solace, blessing, solutions, salvation, good feelings. The devil’s strategy here is not the black mass, but the mass market.
Israel’s basic creed, taught to her by Moses and passed on to Christians, was “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). This was the barebones belief and behavior of God’s people – the confession of one God and the command to love him. They were taught this belief and trained in this action.
One way they maintained attentiveness to this shema (“hear!”) was to take parchments on which these words were written, roll them into small capsules (phylacteries) and fasten them with a thong to their foreheads and on the backs of their hands (Deut. 6:8). These brief, simple yet profound words ordered the content of their minds and directed the action of their hands. Belief and behavior were commanded and coordinated by the word of God: the Lord is one . . . love the Lord. But when the summary creed (mark) of the land beast replaces the shema on forehead and hands, religion becomes consumption – people become gross parodies of the gospel, buying all they can to show they are blessed by God, bowing down before every display of success. The buying and selling of religion is the mark of the beast.
Dragon, sea beast, and land beast are a satanic trinity that infiltrates the world in order to deflect our worship from the God whom we cannot see to the authorities that we can see, and to deceive us into buying into a religion that has visible results in self-gratification. John presents this infiltration as fearsome but not indomitable; the dragon was bested by Michael, the sea beast can be resisted, the land beast can be figured out.
From the very beginning Satan has been under God’s control. He has never not been under God’s control. He is a dog on a leash and when ever God desires to change his direction and yank him back, he can do so without breaking a sweat. Satan has been cast out of heaven, and now he is working in the only arena he has left – here on earth. He fights as if he does not know that the Resurrection of the Lamb has sealed Satan’s totally defeated.
Chapters 12 and 13 warn John’s readers not to have a false sense of optimism, thinking they can in themselves overcome evil. He is saying don’t take your enemy lightly. Realize who you are fighting. Although his fate is sealed, the Lamb is standing, the enemy is fighting as if he still has a chance to win the battle. The pressure for John’s readers would be to give in and engage in emperor worship – a temptation that would have been difficult to resist. But John says we are not talking about Rome, we are talking about the dragon. Don’t fear him. He is defeated. Hold on to the Lamb! The victory has already been won!
Today, we are opposed by great power and deception. All the same a lot of it is sheer bluff, and the caricaturing visions reduce the Satanic trinity from what it puffs itself up to be, to what it merely is. This is the power of a defeated foe. Trained by John’s pastoral imagination, we are equipped to stand fast and discern.