Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The Two Beasts (Rev. 13)

In this chapter, John describes two ferocious beasts. One came from the sea and the other from the earth. I would suggest that John in referring to their origins says they belong to this creation, to the fallen world, rather than having a heavenly origin. The details given of each beast indicate that the first is mainly political and the second is mainly religious. Both beasts together control all human life at that time and they are opposed to the reign of Jesus.

As we look at the beasts we should remember that John was given this vision to help believers make sense of the times in which they lived. They were undergoing fierce persecution and no doubt they often asked why this was the case. John’s answer was, or we should say that the revelation of Jesus was, to use the vision of the two beasts to explain what was taking place in the world

The First Beast
The first observation to make about the first beast is his similarity to the dragon described in the previous chapter. Both have seven heads and ten horns and prominent diadems. We know that the dragon depicts the devil and John tells us that the dragon gives power and authority to the first beast.

We can observe in passing that this endowment of power and authority reminds us of the claim that the devil made when tempting the Saviour in the desert and asserting that he could give universal authority to Jesus. Jesus refused the offer, but here John describes some who do accept it.

The first beast has additional features which are said to be like wild animals. Leopards were noted for swiftness, bears for strength, and lions for dominance. They showed no mercy to their prey. Anything that they attacked would be destroyed. It is likely that the three earthly kingdoms mentioned in Daniel 7 are joined together to show the unity of this beast. In Daniel 7, the leopard represented Greece, the bear represented Medo-Persia and the lion represented Babylon. They were great political powers in their time and they were opposed to the kingdom of God.

John notes that one of the heads of the beasts had a mortal wound, but made a surprising recovery. Since this beast describes political rulers, this feature of recovery pictures ideas or movements that seem to have had their day, but then return with new power and energy. For example, the powers represented by the lion, bear and leopard had gone, yet their influence continued. This ability causes everyone to marvel at the resilience of the earthly rulers and they accept that together the system is invincible. They also recognise where the earthly power comes from, and in one way or another they are led to worship the dragon, the devil.

How long will this system of earthly rule last? John says it will exist for forty-two months or three and a half years, which is the same length of time that the two witnesses are witnessing, that the martyrs are suffering. We noticed that this period is a way of describing the time between the two comings of Jesus. So John is being told that this power will exist on earth for that period.

What will this system of earthly rule do? It will be marked by pride, by blasphemy and by opposition to God’s cause. I suppose we can say that the essence of pride is self-confidence, and self-confidence defines all types of earthly leaders. In John’s day, the expression of political power was Rome and it acted as if it was divine. Such claims are not confined to history. Many political systems attempt to remove the requirements of God and replace them with their own ideas.

Who will this system of earthly rule govern? The answer to that question is everyone apart from those whose names are written in the book of life. John is not denying that these political forces will not be against one another. But he is stressing that what will mark them all is opposition to the kingdom of Jesus.

What will be its focus? The answer to this question is that it makes war on the saints with the aim of conquering them. In one sense, this purpose is a testimony to the progress of the church because the war takes place in every country. This means that when the gospel comes to a country it is inevitable that it will be opposed. The methods will be different, but the aim is the same. Conquer the church.

What makes the difference? John tells his readers that Jesus makes the difference because he is determined to keep those whose names were written in his book of life before the world was created. It is his book because of his death and resurrection and ascension – when he returned to heaven at his ascension he was given this book and he is in the process of securing the salvation of each name written there. Their names were written there by the persons of the Trinity from eternity. This is an incredible wonder.

We need to bear this reality in mind when we read that the trouble Christians endure is allowed by God. He could easily prevent it happening. Instead, he uses the suffering of the saints to spread the increase of his kingdom. We see that happening throughout the world. Although the gospel is opposed, the kingdom of God grows.

What should be their response? They should persevere in their commitment to Jesus and retain their confidence in him. In John’s time, the commitment may have led to captivity (exile) or to death. They had to count the cost, and we have to as well, even if the price today is not as stark as it was then.

The Second Beast
The role of the second beast is to ensure that the first beast remains in charge. It looks like a lamb, yet speaks like the devil (the dragon). The main function of the second beast is deception and it does this by a combination of the miraculous and the oppressive. We can see the miraculous in the signs it performs and we can see the oppression in the way it compels and prevents people from doing anything without its permission. Three activities of the second beast are mentioned. As we think about them, we should recall that John is describing details in a vision and not literal events.

First, the second beast could perform great signs. We know that throughout the Bible this was the case. The magicians of Pharaoh could imitate some of the signs performed by Moses and Aaron. Simon the sorcerer used signs to deceive the inhabitants of Samaria. John observes that all the signs are done in the presence of the first beast. This is not a suggestion that the signs only occur in the physical presence of a ruler. Instead it is an acknowledgement that the presence of the first beast covers everywhere, and wherever the first beast is acknowledged, the second beast will perform signs in support of whoever is in charge. Christians then had to face hostility from the combination of political and religious powers everywhere.

Next, the second beast encouraged idolatry. In the vision John saw, we can see an allusion to the great statue that Nebuchadnezzar had erected and by which Daniel’s friends found themselves in trouble for refusing to worship it. The method of idolatry in John’s vision was for the second beast to make an image of the first beast and to give it powers such as speaking and murdering. We are not to imagine that such an idol ever existed. What we have is a reminder of the effects of idolatry. Followers imagine it can speak and they will dedicate themselves to kill those who oppose it. One example of devotion to an idol is seen in the account of Paul in Ephesus when he was opposed by the craftsmen who were devoted to Diana. Christians suffered martyrdom and other consequences because of their refusal to participate in idolatry.

Third, the second beast also enabled the first beast to have economic control of everyone. In John’s day, the common sign of ownership was to brand a slave with a mark on the hand or the forehead. The second beast and the image of the first beast bring about a form of universal slavery that includes everyone whether they were literally free persons or slaves, whatever their age or social status. This is a picture of how the whole world is enslaved through the activities of the second beast to the first beast, and through him to the devil. Christians knew that this was the real situation. The whole world, as John says elsewhere, lies in the evil one. Paul reminded the Ephesians that the devil blinded people to their spiritual state.

What is the significance of the number 666? John expects wise believers to be able to work out who or what is intended. We can see that the mark of worldwide slavery in this vision is 666 and that the vision is not describing a slavery that is only future or one that is only past. Moreover, the number covers everywhere and every activity apart from what is done by the people of God. The wise suggestion that appeals to me is that this number falls short of perfection, that it describes human attempts to create society without the influence of God. In other words, it summarises sinful mankind’s political and religious activities.

Who will not worship the image of the beast? It is clear from the vision that those who refused to acknowledge either of the beasts were Christians. In a simple way, all that the early Christians had to do was say ‘Caesar is lord’ and participate without causing trouble in the temple feasts in which most of society participated. But many of them knew that they could not do so.

What does this mean for us?
It does not mean that Christians cannot take part in the political world – Paul tells us to pray for rulers and we know that some Christians in the Bible had positions of authority. It also means that sometimes Christians will use things that their original owners dedicated to false religions. Paul gives instructions about how Christians should participate when invited to a meal of which some of the courses have been dedicated in a pagan service.

We have to see that we are involved in a cosmic, spiritual battle between the Saviour and the enemy of our souls, the devil. The goal of the Saviour is to gather in his people detailed in the Book of Life and the aim of the devil is to attack them once they acknowledge Jesus as Lord. So those who are converted through responding to the Gospel can expect opposition and persecution.

Further, we need to recognise that at certain levels the whole world lies under the authority of the evil one. This is allowed by God for his own purposes. The influence that the devil has is very extensive and shows itself in lots of areas of life. Although he works behind the scenes, two of the areas he manipulates are the political and the religious, which is a reminder that the devil works through people. They may oppose one another, but those in both areas are blinded by him. It is easy for us to see this with regard to false religions, but we should also see this with regard to rulers as well. 

We need to see the true spiritual condition of those without Jesus. In previous chapters of Revelation, visions were given of them being attacked by hostile demonic powers determined to destroy them. And in this chapter, they are described as slaves of the two beasts. Jesus told the people of his day that they were enslaved by the devil. We should be full of compassion for them.

No comments:

Post a Comment