The anti-trinity of Revelation - Revelation 13
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~~The Anti-Trinity of Revelation
Revelation 13 is dominated by monsters: the beast rising from the sea, the creature coming out of the earth and the dragon which stands behind them both. And just in case anyone is tempted to smile condescendingly at this, dismissing it as belonging to a more primitive and mythical age, it might be worth pausing to ask why is it that monsters figure so prominently in all cultures throughout the world and down the ages, including our own?
Could not the reason be that deep down we are profoundly conscious that there is such a thing as evil, but we can’t see it? Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer, submerging himself in cannibalism and necrophilia. He looked like the boy from next door- sweet and polite. The Milwaukee jury who tried him concluded that he wasn’t insane, he was- evil. We look for visible signs of evil on their faces or in their eyes but we don’t see any- they seem to be, well, just like us. It is baffling that evil can reside within a person without leaving a visible mark.
So perhaps it is because we know that evil is real enough and we expect to see realities, that we give it form in our imaginations in order for us to see some shape of it in the real world? In other words, monsters are a way of saying evil is real, evil is terrible and evil is dangerous. Monsters have distorted features because evil distorts, monsters are strong because evil has power, monsters fly because evil is quick as a flash of temper. Monsters may not actually exist but the evil they represent certainly does. And so in the Old Testament Leviathan is described as the coiling and twisting serpent in one place and as a dragon in another. Elsewhere Rahab is the name given to both the serpent and the dragon. The Old Testament uses the imagery of monsters for a very significant reason, not because they exist but because what they depict exists. Here in the Bible monsters signify creation gone wrong, chaos reigning, God’s good world spoiled. Sometimes they represent nations in their aggression and idolatry. At other times they stand for satanic powers and the ultimate conflict that will lead to the new heavens and the new earth. In biblical thinking it is not a matter of light versus darkness in the abstract but God versus evil powers in personal form.
So what John does in this vision is to take some of these traditional materials regarding monsters, including the references to multiple heads and horns, to depict not only the Roman empire of his day but the growth of other world powers throughout history until Christ comes when he shall finally judge all evil. John the seer points beyond the human instruments to the demonic powers that manipulate them.
So let’s take a look at each of these three creatures in turn- and the fact that there are three of them is very significant as we shall see.
First, the dragon by the shore, v1, ‘The dragon stood on the shore of the sea.’ We have already been given the identity of the dragon in verse 9 of the previous chapter, ‘The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.’ Whilst there is no second god, there is a supernatural creature operating behind the scenes. He has the title ‘Satan’ which means accuser. He is also called the ‘devil’, meaning the one who makes false accusations. This is a creature which lies, which corrupts, which loves the stench of death and will use whatever means at its disposal to take forward its programme of destruction. And here we find it standing on the shore of the sea poised to engage in something sinister. What is that?
Well, in the previous chapter we were told that this dragon had been waging war on Christians, those who ‘keep God’s commands and hold fast to the testimony of Jesus.’ (12:17). Now he is about to ratchet up that war further by summoning up from the sea, which for the Jews was the place of chaos, danger, and evil, a beast of such immense power that the peoples of the world are overawed by its stature and intimidated by its strength, v4, ‘Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?’
And so we turn to the beast from the sea- vv 1-10.
Whatever this beast is it has great strength. It has the speed of a leopard; the might of a bear and inspires the terror of a lion. It has tremendous authority too, for it has a throne and wears ten crowns. Furthermore it has been through many a battle, having at one point receiving what appeared to be a fatal wound, -vv 3 and 12, but pretty soon recovered and was back again displaying greater ferocity and prowess than before and so appears unbeatable. This is what happened with ancient Rome. After one Caesar died, he was replaced with another and then another, until you get to Domitian at the time of John and the reign of terror begins all over again.
Not only so but the beast sees itself as answerable to no one, least of all God for it acts as if it were God- uttering blasphemies and demanding allegiance- worship which belongs to God alone, vv5-6. And so what we have is a world power for the whole world is astonished by it in v3 in awe of its greatness; its might is formidable, its influence irresistible as every people’s group coming under its sway according to v7.
So if you were living in the first century and you came across this passage, you would pick up on the symbolism straight away- it is Imperial Rome. Here we have the arrogance of the Caesars who took to themselves divine titles. In the 60’s the Emperor Nero had coins minted on which he was referred to as ‘the Saviour of the World’. In the 90’s, which was probably when this book was written, the Emperor Domitian insisted people address him as ‘Our Lord and our God’. So what is being described here in the first instance is the gruesome reality of the only Empire to have lasted a thousand years- the Roman Empire.
And will you notice that people go along with this not simply because they are coerced, but deceived- they fall for the lie that this kind of government has divine qualities. John deliberately has the beast parodying, mimicking, Jesus. The beast with its seven heads and ten horns takes on the image of the dragon and receives the dragon’s throne and authority. This runs parallel to Jesus receiving all power and authority from the Father and being seated on his throne (2:27). According to verse 3, the beast had a head (leader) who was literally ‘slain unto death’ which mimics John’s description of a Lamb standing as though slain (5:6). The beast is then said to have ‘lived’ (ezēsen) after being mortally wounded (v14) which parodies Jesus’ resurrection, 1:18, ‘I was dead but am now alive for ever.’ Also, having seen the beast restored to life, the whole earth worships the beast and the dragon, aping the heavenly praise which ‘every creature’ gives to God and the Lamb in 5:13. So do you see how the beast is like Christ and unlike him at the same time, in other words it appears as a cheap, but effectively deceptive imitation?
The dark, brooding scenario which the Book of Revelation paints is that a world in rebellion is a world without hope. It is a frightening world, a brutal world, a dangerous world. One thing which stands out above all else in this apocalyptic nightmare is the dominance and abuse of power- hence the reference to thrones and crowns. It is by power the nations have been subdued. It is people and political systems which in abandoning God become agents of a supernatural evil power- such that they take on features of ferocious animals- like leopards, bears and lions. When God is banished from his world, at least in thought, then literally all hell breaks loose sooner or later. There is no way of deciding what is right or wrong- so might becomes right. If there is no God to whom men and women are accountable- then it is dog eat dog and make sure you are the bigger dog. Think for a moment about what is being brought out into the light concerning the depth and extent of sexual abuse in our country and the church which has been going on for years, at root it is about the abuse of power. Politicians, media personalities, gangs of men, even priests, all have power over the weak and the vulnerable and feel they are accountable to no one. What is more they have been colluded with by those whose duty it was to protect such people. Well, that’s the dragon at work for sure. Worst still is when such corruption and abuse becomes institutionalised and the State wields its power to suppress truth and the Christian religion because it can’t brook any rivals. This is happening in Muslim countries all around the world, in North Korea, in China and increasingly our own country. Whether it be Islam, Communism or any other ideology, they all have the appearance of something unnaturally powerful, little wonder that the world is cowered and resignedly says, ‘Who is like the beast?’
But the beast from the sea is aided and abetted by the third creature, the beast from the land, vv 11-18.
With the first beast the emphasis is on power, with the second beast the stress is on deception.
The second beast has many of the characteristics and goals of the first because both beasts are different aspects of the same thing: totalitarian powers who insist on commanding the spiritual and physical lives of those under their control. Oppressive powers often need deception to reach their goals and fulfil theirs programs: always the end justifies the means for ideology.
This ‘other beast’ is spoken of as ‘coming out of the earth’, rather than the sea, as a way of showing the spread of this evil through the human population. He looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon, that is, he has the appearance of a benevolent, even a religious force, but his so called ‘truth’ is a lie and his words lead to the worship of evil disguised as good, the first beast who is himself the ‘front’ for the dragon. Here the focus moves from power to propaganda. In a parody of true religion he represents false religion. He has all the paraphernalia of the religious practitioner and signs and wonders too-v14, he will dazzle you. His work is to turn the inhabitants of earth into the willing worshippers of the first beast and behind that, of the great dragon, Satan.
In our society there is a new totalitarianism at work. It masks itself as being concerned with inclusivity and tolerance, but challenge it and it immediately excludes and is brutally intolerant. The ideology is cultural Marxism, the cutting edge of what has become a culture war is alleged LGBQT+ rights. Remember that we are dealing with deception with Satan’s aim of destroying that which is God-given and good. Occasionally the beast slips up and lets the cat out of the bag. And so the Lesbian author and activist Masha Gessen has said, “Fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we’re going to do with marriage when we get there. Because we lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change, and that is a lie. The institution of marriage is going to change and it should change, and again, I don’t think it should exist.” Doesn’t that have the whiff of sulphur about it?
Now let’s just think how Revelation 13 is working itself out today- the use of the power of the state, the effective communication of false ideologies, and the cooperation of organised religion.
First, there is the interference of the State in education which seeks to normalise same sex relations. The Minister for Schools in a letter to the Times wrote, ‘The protests outside a primary school in Birmingham which teaches the fact that same-sex relationships are normal and are as loving and supportive as any heterosexual relationship are in my view wrong. I support the city council’s decision to secure an injunction against those protests taking place near the school. It is bizarre and horrific that we allow protesters outside primary schools with placards to target those who teach what is legal and wholly appropriate in today’s society.” Notice what is says. He speaks of teaching ‘the fact that same sex-relationships are normal’. That this is ‘wholly appropriate in today’s society’ and he objects to parents exercising their right to protest.
In some schools, lobby groups are being brought not to educate but indoctrinate as we see with the Mermaids on transgender, and Educate and Celebrate on LGBTQ, and Drag Queen Story Time readings in Primary Schools involving transvestites. These are means of grooming our future citizens- our children- get to them when their minds are at their most vulnerable.
And when there is religious sanction for anti-God ideology, even when made with good intentions, the new cultural totalitarianism is almost complete, which is what we are increasingly seeing happen in the Church of England, it becoming the religious mouthpiece for the progressive agenda.
And if one does not go along with the prevailing ideology which is given religious backing- life soon becomes intolerable, v 16, ‘It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.’ There may be economic sanctions. But limits can also be imposed in other areas too- the right of free speech, the right for parents to decide what is best for their children, the right of assembly. Of course such prohibitions will be made in the name of high sounding principles such as inclusivity, tolerance and equality, but the actions taken betray the deception for what it is producing opposite results. Rather than having a liberal society illiberality becomes the order of the day. Those who do not conform could lose their living as is already happening.
To sum up, what we have being presented in Revelation 13 is a kind of anti-Trinity- a grotesque parody of the real thing.
Just think about it. As Christ received authority from the Father (Mtt. 11:27), so the first Beast, the Antichrist, receives authority from the dragon (13:4); and as the Holy Spirit glorifies Christ (Jn. 16:14), so the second beast, the false prophet glorifies the Antichrist (13:12).
But what are we to make of v 18, ‘This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.’? Actually, the answer is given to us, for although it could be translated the ‘number of a man’, it could equally be translated the ‘number of man or humanity’. Why should 666 be the number of fallen humanity? Well, we have seen that the number seven is the complete number, the number of wholeness. It follows that 666 is the number which never quite makes 7, it just keeps falling short. This means that humanity will always fall short, whatever its political programmes, and ideals, it will always come short of God’s original plan and never arrive at bringing heaven on earth, only God can do that- which he does at the end of this book. But whenever that is attempted as we have seen with the 2 great ideologies of the 20th century, Marxism and National Socialism, it is not heaven that is experienced but hell- individuals always ends up being sacrificed on the altar of the ideology- millions of them.
So is there any Good news? Yes there is. Let’s be Trinitarian and mention three.
First, God is in control even when it looks as if he isn’t. In v7 we are told that the first beast was ‘given’ or better still, ‘allowed’ power to wage war on the saints and to have authority over all people. Who allowed this? Why, God of course! His enemies can go so far but no further- even when Christians are persecuted and the people follow false ideas, it is only because of divine permission and so there is hope because he is still sovereign.
Secondly, not everyone worships the beast. Those who do surrender to the anti-God powers are those whose names have ‘not been written been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.’ V8. The implication is that those for whom Christ died, whose love was fixed upon them in eternity past, will be taken into eternity future because their names are written in his book and so he won’t abandon them, how could he when he has died for them?
Thirdly, in the light of this knowledge of God’s sovereign saving love for his people we are to ‘patiently endure’ and be ‘faithful’- v10.
What might that look like? Well, let me be personal with you for a moment and show you how.
My grandson Jeb is 9 years old. A few weeks ago his teacher told his class that they had to write a story either about a King marrying a King or a Queen marrying a Queen. Jeb knowing his Bible, knew this wasn’t right. And so he came home and talked to his parents. They sat their three children down and gently explained that there are times when Christians must be willing to stand up for what they believe is right and accept the consequences. In fact the parents shared with them the story of Bonhoeffer in Hitler’s Germany and the idea of civil disobedience. And so he went back to school the next day. The following evening I phoned Jeb to find out what happened. Rather excitedly he said, ‘Well Grandad, in front of the whole class I said to the teacher, ‘I am afraid that for religious reasons I can’t write that story, but I am happy to write a story about a King marrying a Queen.’ And the teacher said, ‘Alright then.’ There we have an example of what to my mind is an abuse of the classroom subtly promoting an ideology without the parent’s knowledge. But it is also an example of what we need to be teaching our children of what it will mean being a Christian in today’s world- it is going to call for patient endurance and faithfulness. Let us pray.
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