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This is a continuation of Applying Revelation 12: Miss Israel & Devil Dragon.
Imagine how the citizens of your country would react today if some great fire burned down half of your country’s capital. When disasters like this happen, everyone fears that it was some kind of terrorist attack. Today, who would the primary suspects be for such an act? In your country, who are the usual scapegoats? In our introductory lesson to this series, we learned about how Emperor Nero officially blamed Christians for starting a fire which did great damage to the empire’s capital city of Rome. At the time, Romans had already developed a strong dislike of Christians. Nero simply took advantage of prejudices that already existed and fanned those hostile feelings into an all-out war. Suddenly it became totally acceptable to treat Christians like the scum of the earth. Once a government legalizes any kind of perverse behavior, humans quickly run amuck. It’s sick and twisted to assault, torture, and kill people just because of their religious beliefs. But the ugly truth is that we’re all bullies by nature, and it just isn’t hard to talk us into participating in the wide scale persecution of other humans. Soon Christians were being viciously targeted everywhere and it was all thanks to that creep Nero.
Now when you refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and recognize His involvement in your life, you blame humans for your problems. When one particular human seems to play a key role in making your life a living hell, you obsess over that one individual with a mix of hate and fear. This is what happened with the Christians and Nero. Nero became a legendary figure in the Christian community, much like Adolf Hitler is in the world today. And just as there are some today who try to say that Hitler never really died and that the original Nazi machinery of World War II is still going strong in underground fortresses all over the world, Christians came up with some pretty ludicrous stories about Nero. After Nero was dead and gone, wild rumors spread that he might one day return. Years later when another particularly evil emperor came to power, rumors began to circulate that Domitian was a reincarnation of Nero. Ridiculous? Yes, but this is how foolish people get when they aren’t listening to God.
Now all of this absurdity about Domitian’s relationship with Nero is going to play an important part in shaping the imagery of Revelation 13. In our last chapter, we met a red, seven headed dragon who we are calling Devil Dragon because he is supposed to represent Satan. At the end of our last chapter, Devil Dragon declared war against all of God’s people—which means all of the Christians in Rome, even though we’re especially focused on Jewish Christians in this letter. At the end of Chapter 12, we left Devil Dragon standing by the shore of the sea. In our discussion of Chapter 9, we learned that the ancient peoples strongly associated the sea with evil. God is intentionally playing on this superstitious view of the sea by making the sea the source of His next evil beast character.
Then I saw a beast rising up out of the sea. It had seven heads and ten horns, with ten crowns on its horns. And written on each head were names that blasphemed God. This beast looked like a leopard, but it had the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion! And the dragon gave the beast his own power and throne and great authority.
I saw that one of the heads of the beast seemed wounded beyond recovery—but the fatal wound was healed! The whole world marveled at this miracle and gave allegiance to the beast. They worshiped the dragon for giving the beast such power, and they also worshiped the beast. “Who is as great as the beast?” they exclaimed. “Who is able to fight against him?” (Rev. 13:1-4)
This second beast represents the evil Emperor Domitian, and he’s covered in leopard’s spots, so we’ll call him Spotty Domitian.
Now the fact that Spotty Domitian comes hauling his mean, furry self out of those wicked waters of the sea makes it quite clear that he’s an evil fellow, but just to emphasize the point, John sees that Spotty Domitian has tattooed himself with names that blaspheme God. What a rude dude. Next John sees Devil Dragon and Spotty Domitian have a little beast-to-beast chat in which Devil Dragon gives Spotty Domitian a whole bunch of power and authority. Devil Dragon even tosses in a throne, and now Spotty Domitian is sitting pretty.
Now clearly having seven heads would make for a complicated life and at one point John sees that one of Spotty Domitian’s heads has acquired a deadly wound. Uh-oh. Is Spotty Domitian going to die so soon? The whole world is watching as Spotty Domitian goes around looking kind of sickly, but then, miraculously the wound is healed! Wow! Clearly that power download from Devil Dragon must be what saved Spotty Domitian’s life. The whole world marvels at Spotty Domitian’s apparent invincibility.
So what is all of this weirdness about? Well, this is an intentional tie in to that wild idea of the real Domitian being a reincarnation of Nero. In real life, a panicking Nero forced his personal secretary to help him commit suicide when Nero erroneously thought the Roman Senate was planning to bludgeon him to death. Nero’s secretary gave him a fatal wound and despite others’ efforts to try and stop the bleeding, Nero died. But does evil incarnate ever really die? Some superstitious Christians decided that it doesn’t, and that Satan had finally brought his servant Nero back in the form of Emperor Domitian.
Then the beast was allowed to speak great blasphemies against God. And he was given authority to do whatever he wanted for forty-two months. And he spoke terrible words of blasphemy against God, slandering His Name and His dwelling—that is, those who dwell in Heaven. And the beast was allowed to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And he was given authority to rule over every tribe and people and language and nation. And all the people who belong to this world worshiped the beast. All those who live on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name was not written from the foundation of the world in the Book of Life of the Lamb who was slaughtered. (Rev. 13:5-8)
Be careful with this predestination language that John throws in. God teaches us that salvation is a choice which is made available to us on this earth. John makes it sound like Jesus blacklisted certain people from ever getting saved before He even created them. This idea that some of us were created simply as “objects of wrath” is an idea that Paul hints at as well, and it is one which is going to lead you into all kinds of problematic thinking if you accept it. Realize that all of the New Testament writers had a very poor understanding of Yahweh’s Old Covenant requirements, and their understanding of His New Covenant was even worse.
Now as we go along, we keep seeing that period of 3 ½ years (or 42 months) popping up as God keeps re-describing this period of intense persecution of Christians. Here Spotty Domitian is portrayed as endlessly blaspheming God and stomping all over the Christians. Meanwhile, his empire is so massive that he’s ruling over the entire world. Are you getting a feel for how limited John’s definition of “world” is? He’s only talking about the Roman Empire, for that is the extent of the real Domitian’s reign. But from John’s perspective, the Roman Empire is so massive that Domitian might as well be ruling the whole world. John doesn’t hear about any other nations rising up to challenge Rome in any major way. It seems like Domitian really has become the king over all the earth. He’s got this massive empire, he’s exalting himself as a divine being, and everyone in the Roman Empire is going along with it—everyone but the Christians that is.
Now this is how John sees things, but remember that John’s views are extreme and biased. Not every Roman liked Domitian. In fact most Romans hated him because the man was a murderous tyrant who was even butchering members of the Roman Senate by the end of his reign. John is living in the height of Domitian’s three year “reign of terror”, but the irony is that Domitian died in AD 96, which is the same date that we attach to Revelation. So at the time John is writing this, God knows that He’s going to kill Domitian off in a matter of months, yet He’s intentionally portraying the man as some invincible force because He knows that that’s how these Jewish Christians see him.
Have you ever been convinced that the world was falling apart all around you only to have everything suddenly resolve in an unexpected way? Why doesn’t God just tell John, “Hey, don’t worry. The man will be dead by the end of the year”? When we’re panicking over our circumstances, we want God to talk to us in terms of circumstantial solutions, yet so often He directs our focus onto general principles instead. God wants us to practice trusting Him, and trust has to work the hardest when there is no logical solution in sight. If you’re hungry and you know that someone’s in the kitchen cooking your lunch for you, how hard is it to trust that God will provide for you? But if God promises that He’ll provide for you when you’re sitting alone in some desert wilderness with an empty water canteen and not a crumb of food, that’s a whole different kind of challenge. “Don’t worry, everything will be alright,” is an easy assurance to accept when you’re all safe and warm in your comfortable bed. But it’s much harder to put your faith in those words when you’re lying in an alley with a knife wound in your gut and no way to call for help. God doesn’t want these Christians to trust Him because they can see a specific date on the calendar when Domitian will croak. He is pushing them to practice a deeper trust: one that stands on general truths about God’s Character and abilities instead of on prophetic insights about what His next move will be. Today, God is still pushing us to practice that deeper kind of trust. Maybe you’re in the middle of some major crisis right now. Maybe God knows He’s going to fix everything tomorrow, but He’s not going to tell you that today. Instead He’s going to keep saying, “Trust Me. I’m for you, I’m doing what’s best for you, and I have everything under control.”
“Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand. Anyone who is destined for prison will be taken to prison. Anyone destined to die by the sword will die by the sword.
This means that God’s holy people must have perseverance and faith.” (Rev. 13:9-10)
Again, God reminds these Christians that more of them are going to be arrested and killed, but none of their trials are purposeless, and Spotty Domitian isn’t really the guy in charge. It is God who controls the destinies of individual humans, and the destinies that God chooses for us are ones that we can trust to be the best for our souls in the long run.
Then I saw another beast come up out of the earth. He had two horns like those of a lamb, but he spoke with the voice of a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast. And he required all the earth and its people to worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. He did astounding miracles, even making fire flash down to earth from the sky while everyone was watching. And with all the miracles he was allowed to perform on behalf of the first beast, he deceived all the people who belong to this world. He ordered the people to make a great statue of the first beast, who was fatally wounded and then came back to life. He was then permitted to give life to this statue so that it could speak. Then the statue of the beast commanded that anyone refusing to worship it must die.
He required everyone—small and great, rich and poor, free and slave—to be given a mark on the right hand or on the forehead. And no one could buy or sell anything without that mark, which was either the name of the beast or the number representing his name. Wisdom is needed here. Let the one with understanding solve the meaning of the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. His number is 666. (Rev. 13:11-18)
This third horned beast is always telling people what to do, so we’re going to call him Bossy Horns. Bossy Horns functions as the ultimate assistant for Spotty Domitian, who has given Bossy Horns all kinds of power. Bossy Horns is a ruthless promoter of Spotty Domitian, demanding that the whole world worship his boss.
Bossy Horns helps to promote Spotty Domitian by putting on miraculous shows of power. In real life, false prophets and sorcerers abounded in Bible times, and many of them gathered fans by performing supernatural stunts. Way back in the days of Moses, the Pharaoh of Egypt had a staff of demon worshiping sorcerers who imitated Yahweh’s first plague on Egypt by turning water into blood. Before that they made sticks of wood turn into snakes. In both cases, the humans themselves had no power, but God allowed demons to perform miracles that made everyone think the humans had power. Here in John’s day, the same thing is going on: a ton of so-called prophets who obsess over dark arts are performing all kinds of impressive miracles. When you see a man call down fire from the sky or make a corpse get up and walk or cause someone to levitate, naturally you’re impressed with his supernatural hookups. So when that same man then starts telling you a bunch of lies about who you ought to worship, you believe him. Here in Revelation 13, Bossy Horns is putting on shows of miracles to help persuade everyone that they ought to all worship Spotty Domitian. To help focus their worship, Bossy Horns has a statue of Spotty Domitian constructed. This is the same idea as Christians going into a church and bowing down to an image of a cross or to some statue of a saint. It’s not the object you’re worshiping but the being that the object represents. And when Bossy Horns makes his special statue actually talk out loud, it confirms that Spotty Domitian is some kind of divine being.
This talking idol thing is another reference to real life practices in the Roman Empire. False prophets would wow people with shows of inanimate idols seeming to come to life. Today we hear the occasional story of some statue of Jesus bleeding from its hands or some statue of a saint having tears running down its face. We humans are much too impressed by these demonic parlor tricks and we Christians are really outraging God with our obsession with saints, sacred objects, and angels.
Now once Bossy Horns does his sorcerer thing to make the statue of Spotty Domitian speak, what does the statue say? It demands that everyone worship it, of course. Then it says anyone who doesn’t ought to be executed. How demanding.
Bossy Horns is the one who comes up with the idea of marking everyone with the infamous 666. Notice that there are three 6s. We know how much the Jews love their repetition, and we know that to repeat something three times is to say the ultimate of that thing. God is holy, holy, holy, and Spotty Domitian is assigned a number of 6, 6, 6. What does 6 symbolize to these superstitious Jews? Evil, of course. In their ancient number foolishness, 5 represented completely human and 7 represented completely Divine. But 6 is neither of these things—it’s in the evil middle. So when these ancient Jews hear John say that the spotty beast who came out of the sea really stands for a real live human whose code name is “6, 6, 6”, they hear John saying that someone’s code name is “evil, evil, evil.” Who could it be? Domitian, of course. But John can’t just write out the name “Domitian” in his letter because Domitian has passed laws that anyone who slanders him in print must be exiled or killed. John is already exiled, and he really doesn’t want to be killed, so he’s going to stick with calling Domitian “evil, evil, evil.”
So what’s with this marking business? Well, a reference to marking the right hand or head would make these ancient people think of slave branding. Slavery was all the rage in Bible times, and a vital part of the Roman economy. So what’s really being said here in Revelation is that we become slaves of what we worship. This is quite true, if our worship is sincere. When we worship money, we become controlled by it. When we worship Satan, we become controlled by him.
Now worship is a soul attitude, not a fancy mark on your epidermis. These fools in the Church today who terrorize you with the idea that you’ll one day be forced to get some satanic mark or have some microchip installed in your body are being ridiculous. This passage has nothing to do with prophesying the future, it’s describing the current situation of John’s day. Domitian was a controlling tyrant who was trying to force his citizens to conform to his religious views. If Domitian said Apollo ought to be revered, everyone had to fall in line. If Domitian said dead emperors had to be revered as gods, everyone had to obey. If Domitian said he himself was divine, everyone had to get on board. There were public worship ceremonies in which everyone had to prove their alignment with Domitian’s religious views. Obviously Christians couldn’t participate in such things, and this resulted in them being denied permits to operate in Roman marketplaces. Today it would be like you being told that you have to be publicly observed kissing a statue of Satan and declaring Satan to be the greatest being in the universe before you could be eligible for employment. Domitian was really making these Christians’ lives hell with his nasty rules.
Now let’s think about this. Let’s say you’re a Christian who is refusing to go along with Domitian’s satanic agenda. You’re refusing to participate in the public worship ceremonies, and as a result, you can’t work. So now you’re dirt poor, you’re living on handouts from other Christians, you’re always ducking and running from Roman soldiers, and the only thing keeping you going is the hope that God is thinking you’re some kind of awesome for staying so loyal to Him. But meanwhile, you’ve got other Christian friends who just don’t have the guts to take your kind of stand. So these other Christians go through the motions of worshiping Domitian’s dumb idols, but they say that they don’t really mean it in their hearts. Because they’re willing to compromise like this, their lives are a whole lot smoother than yours. What is your attitude going to be towards these other Christians? It won’t be anything nice. You’ll be seriously jealous of the fact that they’re getting out of so much trouble, but you’ll turn that jealousy into hateful disgust and you’ll look down on them as inferior. You’ll refuse to acknowledge that they are true believers because you just can’t stand the fact that they could end up in the same Heaven as you without making half of the sacrifices you’re making. Is your attitude pleasing to God? Not at all. It’s not your place to tell God who He can and can’t be gracious to, yet in this book, we’re going to pick up a real theme of hatred towards those who worship Bossy Horn’s statue. The Jewish Christians who are being intensely persecuted for God want to think He sees them as a hundred times better than those dirt bag compromisers. The Jewish Christians who end up martyred for taking a bold stand against Domitian want to believe that they’re going to get extra piles of rewards in Heaven because of their amazing devotion. But will they?
Divine judgment is a far more complex and gracious process than we want to accept. When it’s hard for you to do the right thing in some area of your life, yet you are able to do it, you are swift to take all the glory for your success while looking down your nose at the fellow who can’t get his act together. But what does God see? He sees that without His help, you can’t do anything good, therefore you don’t deserve the glory for anything. God sees that the fellow you so enjoy condemning isn’t receiving anywhere near the amount of supernatural help that you’re receiving, therefore the comparisons you’re making are utterly unfair. It was the same in John’s day. Not every Christian who went through the motions of publicly worshiping other gods were Satan worshiping rebels. Some of them just didn’t have the guts to do better. Sure, there were a lot of Christian posers at this time—Jesus addresses that issue in His seven letters. But we need to be cautious whenever we start using some outward set of behaviors to draw clear lines between the righteous and the damned. One Christian man who is desperate to provide food for his children attends the emperor worship ceremony, mumbles the required phrases, but in his heart he’s declaring his loyalty to God. Is this valid or not? It’s not our place to judge. God is the Judge, and God takes every factor into account.
When Christians read this 666 passage today, they often come away panicked that one day God will demand some specific kind of external behavior from His people—a behavior which will put their lives in danger on earth. They then think God is saying that He will base His entire judgement of them on that one action. If they fail to succeed at that action, God will either throw them into Hell or He’ll hate them. Well, anytime we start buying into the idea that God judges us by our actions instead of our internal soul response to Him, we’re being deceived.
The reality is that apart from God, you have no hope of scraping up some external evidence of your devotion to Him. In real life, it is not God’s will to empower us 24/7 to act as devoted as Christ did in the Gospels. In real life, God frequently withholds empowerment from us and allows our flesh to win the day. As a result, we find our souls groaning in repulsion as we act like carnal beasts on the outside. This is how things really work. But God isn’t talking about how things really work in Revelation. This book was written to Jewish Christians who are bogged down in stress, ridiculous superstitions, and a whole lot of arrogance about how awesome they are just because they’re being martyred. Well, simply having your head chopped off by a Roman soldier doesn’t turn you into a sold out Christian in God’s eyes.
Things were no different 2,000 years ago than they are today: devoted Christians come in a wide variety of packages. So do carnal Christians and rebels. In His seven letters, Jesus pointed out that both carnal Christians and non-Christians were putting on grand displays of devotion which were causing everyone around them to think that they were far more serious about God than they actually were. We see this same pattern today. Among all of these title bearing, righteous talking, works producing leaders in the Church today, how many are even saved? How many holy sounding sermons are actually pleasing God and how many are annoying Him because the preacher is refusing to be led by the Holy Spirit? Righteous behavior is no guarantee of soul devotion. A lack of courage is not evidence that no love for God exists. As we continue through this book and hear the ancient world being divided into the camps of those who always worship the beast and those who never stumble in any way, we need to realize that this picture is utterly false. God isn’t describing the way things actually are in this book. Instead, He’s describing the way that His audience thinks things are—complete with their ridiculous superstitions about Domitian being a reincarnation of Nero.
There is a core of ancient Christians who have obviously been given supernatural empowerment to take some very bold stands for Jesus in this time. The problem is that they’re taking all of the bows for that empowerment and condemning everyone who isn’t able to do what they can do. Being beheaded is exalted in this book as some ultimate badge of honor. In Chapter 20, we’ll actually read about those who were beheaded getting to rise early from the grave and reign for a special period with Christ before all of those other subpar Christians get to join in the fun. Is this how things actually work? Does God hand out special rewards based on the ways He killed us? “Let’s see, you two were shot, you three were hit by cars, and you four died of cancer. Nope, it’s the back of the line for all of you. Only guys who had their heads chopped off get to come in for this special preview of Heaven.” Can you imagine God saying anything so ludicrous? These ancient Jews can. They’ve decided that they are God’s star pupils on the earth, and they aren’t open to Him drawing any other conclusions. They’ve decided that they are the standards by which every other Christian must be measured. This is nothing more than human ego run amuck, yet it is an attitude which we continue to slip into today as we condemn our brothers for struggling in areas which we personally excel at.
We need to be guarded against such arrogance and realize that these ancient Christians were not nearly as great as we say they are today. There is an ugly, underlying theme running through this book of Christians greedily demanding exaltation on the other side. “God, we were so faithful to You on earth, and now You owe it to us to heap on the rewards and glory.” Where is the humility? Where is the acknowledgement that we are merely servants? Jesus harshly condemns self-exaltation and a greedy demand for rewards in the Gospels (see The Parable of the Unworthy Servant). Yahweh does the same throughout the Old Testament, and He really gets livid whenever some dot of a human starts trying to take the glory for the things that He has empowered them to do. So this “we’re awesome” attitude that is coming through from these ancient Christians is quite repulsive and one that we want nothing to do with. If we receive rewards in Heaven, those rewards will be entirely undeserved.
Our Gods teach that it is only the truly humble who will be exalted on the other side, and we get the feeling that these ancient Christians didn’t have the first clue about humility. In his letters, the apostle Paul frequently speaks of how great it will be when we all get to rake in the glory in Heaven. In the Gospels, we find Jesus’ twelve disciples beefing about which one of them is the greatest and trying to get Jesus to guarantee them positions of highest honor in Heaven before they even get there. In his longest epistle, John makes the outrageous claim that any true Christian would never even experience a desire to sin—the obvious implication being that John thought he was perfect (see Salvation According to 1 John). In his epistle, James orders Jewish Christians to just stop sinning, as if the matter is that simple. James, Paul and John all condemn those who are struggling with sin or doubt as being unacceptable in God’s eyes. These guys are not who you want to be looking to for education on how to please your Makers. They were so blinded by their own arrogance that they never figured out how Divine judgment actually works under either Covenant (see Divine Judgment Q&A). If you want to know the truth, you need to look to God Himself.
Okay, so let’s recap. We now have a three beast hierarchy set up. Devil Dragon is the big boss who Spotty Domitian works for. Bossy Horns works for Spotty Domitian. Bossy Horns has built a statue of Spotty Domitian that everyone is being ordered to worship, and Bossy Horns is branding everyone with Spotty Domitian’s name, which John has encoded as “evil, evil, evil.” So what now? Well, as we get into Chapter 14, the arrogance of these early Christian Jews will be put on display as those 144,000 who we met back in Chapter 7 return to soak up the glory for being blameless and never telling any lies while they were on earth. Right. As if there is any adult on the planet who has never told a lie. But hey, it’s Revelation.
UP NEXT: Applying Revelation 14: Harvest Time