A Church Opposed: Part 2 (Rev. 13:1 – 14:5)
‘KNOW YOUR ENEMY’ is a good adage, and here John gives Christians an important insight into the enemy they face. The imagery of vv 1-2 is startling, yet OT readers will recognize the features of the beasts seen by Daniel (Dan 7:1-8). Those beasts were revealed as human empires (Dan 7:17), and we should assume that to be the significance of the first beast here in Revelation. The power of these empires, however, comes from Satan (13:4), so that to worship this power is to worship Satan himself (cf Matt 3:8-9).
The first beast has been mortally wounded in one of its heads (13:3) yet it has recovered so that it seems to the world to be all-powerful. And did not Jesus crush Satan’s head (Gen 3:15)? Yet in our own day the State seems to be king. We forget that all power is given by God (cf Rom 13:1-7), so that there is something particularly pathetic when the State exalts itself against God (cf Rev 13:5-6). Yet while this is happening it can seem that Christians are powerless against the State (13:7). We should therefore not be surprised if the laws of our secular society or the standards it encourages force Christians into a corner (cf v 8). The one thing we must not do, however, is to resist this power on its own terms (13:10a, cf Matt 26:52). Our weapon is the gospel, not the sword, but in such circumstances Christians need particular encouragement to persevere (13:10b).
There is, however, another way in which Satan wages war against the church and this is far more subtle. The second beast in John’s vision looks right, having ‘two horns like a lamb’? (13:11a). It is only when this beast speaks that we realize it sounds like Satan (13:11b). This is the beast of ideological deception, which can even mimic Jesus himself (cf Rev 5:6) and perform miracles which, in the OT are the prerogative of God (13:13,15 cf 1 Ki 18:24; Psa 115:4-5). When this beast combines with the first beast of political power (13:11), then hell breaks loose on earth and woe betide anyone who opposes this combination. Believers find themselves economically marginalised at best (13:17), and at worst facing martyrdom (13:15).
It is easy to see examples of this all around us. Until recently, Christians in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe faced exactly this problem. Now, Christians in Muslim countries frequently find they are denied the privileges of full citizenship and endure the wrath of the mob or the courts.
But an ideology on its own cannot have this effect. When Hitler was drinking in the Bier Kellers, or Khomeini was plotting in Paris, they were just disaffected intellectuals. It is only when ideology combines with State power that it poses a physical threat to Christians. Moreover, it is notable that in all such situations a human personality dominates the society, taking on a godlike significance, which helps us understand John’s literally cryptic remark in v 18. If we were to represent God using the number symbolism of Revelation then seven hundred and seventy-seven would be a good choice, since seven is the ‘perfect’ number and three the number of emphasis. Six, however, is a number which just falls short of seven. Six hundred and sixty-six is thus a good way of indicating the character of these human ‘figureheads’ who nevertheless fall short of divinity.
Yet John has a final word of reassurance, for when he sees the Lamb on Mount Zion (14:1a) all the 144,000 are still with him, because the ‘mark of the Lamb’ (14:1b) precedes the ‘?mark of the beast’ (cf 7:3; 13:16-17). Unperturbed, they are still singing the ‘new song’? of the heavenly throne-room (14:2-3, cf 5:9-10). And like the followers of David on his expeditions (1 Sam 21:4-6), they are ‘consecrated virgins’ (14:4), perhaps indicating also that they are ready for battle (cf 19:14). They represent all Christians, who, in the face of Satanic opposition, are those who follow the Lamb and are kept secure by him (cf John 10:27-28).
John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London and author of Revelation Unwrapped