Mark 13:21-27, 32-33
21And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’ —do not believe it. 22False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23But be alert; I have already told you everything.
24“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven… 32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
As you’ve probably noticed, Revelation is a strange book. It’s visually stunning; it’s also highly symbolic. One of the books I’ve been reading warns that it’s not meant to be read literally as a textbook for how the world will end. And while some figures in Revelation refer to historical people or places, we shouldn’t limit the book to those meanings. Sometimes one symbol stands for several differet things. And sometimes the main point isn’t exactly what happens, but the overall feel and atmosphere.
Last week Carl talked about the Revelation Christmas story. Satan in the form of a dragon tries to snatch Jesus from his mother as soon as he’s born. The woman is Mary, but she’s also the church and the force of new birth too. The dragon is Satan and the serpent from the Garden of Eden and the force of evil in the world.
Last week we also read about the defeat of Satan in heaven and how Satan was then cast down to earth where he would unleash persecution and terror against God’s people. In today’s passage we’ll find out more about that. As we read along jot down anything that confuses you. I’ll get to some of it as we read, but then I’d love to hear your questions and stumbling blocks before we get into what the passage says to us today.
(12:18) Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore. (13:1) And I saw a beast rising out of the sea having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. 2And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority.3One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed.
Let’s take a quick pause for a little explanation. We met the dragon, Satan, last week. Today his ally appears. The beast that comes out of the sea looks bizarre with ten horns and seven heads. The main thing John’s readers would have thought of when they heard the beast described was the Roman Empire.
Later on in the book (Chapter 17 to be exact) an angel reveals to John the mystery of the beast by saying the seven heads are seven mountains on which the beast sits. Rome was known as a city sitting on seven hills. The different animal features John notices reflect the beasts Daniel saw in his visions from 400 years earlier. In Daniel’s vision, the different animals symbolized different empires, so this fits the same trend.
Chapter 17 says the seven heads are not only seven mountains, but also 7 kings. One of those heads had a deadly wound that had been healed. The Emperor Nero, who ruled about 30 years before Revelation was written, was the first Emperor to persecute Christians. He killed himself, but there was a widespread belief that he had or would return from the grave. The beast’s wounded head is a reference to Nero.
Scholars say when John uses symbolic language about the rulers of his time the point isn’t to communicate who they are, John’s audience already knows who the rulers are. His point instead is to show what they are in the spiritual and cosmic sense. The Roman rulers are not just political overlords. John argues they rule by Satan’s power and authority. That why John sees the beast (Rome) receive its throne from the dragon (Satan). The blasphemous names John talks about on the beast’s heads probably refer to the Emperor’s claims to be divine. And now, back to the story.
In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. 4They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” 5The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.
It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered. 9Let anyone who has an ear listen: 10If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
11Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. 13It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed.
16Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.
We’ve got a dragon and two strange beasts in our story for today. We talked about the dragon as Satan and the first beast as Rome. One writer points out that from where John lived in Asia, Roman power would come from the sea since Rome was across the Mediterranean from Asia Minor, so the first beast rises up from the sea. The second beast comes from the land because it is local power.
We talked a few weeks about how the Roman Empire used religious language and ritual to support its power in the provinces. Asia was an especially important area for emperor worship. The second beast, also know as the false prophet, would be the local rulers, both religious and political, who supported the religious worship of the Emperor.
When we read this passage we don’t need to imagine an actual image with the power to speak and kill. Instead, think about the power of images to shape thought, and enforce common belief. Likewise, we don’t need to imagine an actual time when people will be forced to tattoo a number on themselves to buy or sell. Instead, we can think about how hard it would be for Christians to participate in the economy since many economic and social events happened along with pagan worship.
Is there anything you want to know about the passage? Any part of it that makes you say, “I don’t get it,” or, “what is John trying to say?”
The point of the passage is to show the world as a battleground. Both God and the devil claim authority over every people and nation and language. Both God and empire claim to offer peace, but only one claim is true. You can belong to God or belong to Satan and the Empire.
This passage shows how powerful, and therefore how tempting the Empire is. He says the whole world worshiped the beast for its power. There’s a sense that the global superpower has to be obeyed. In a hard world, people are drawn to power.
The beast and its false prophet demand worship. John knows the temptation to take part in emperor worship is already strong. He imagines a time when the temptation will become force. He sees persecution coming so he warns the churches. He doesn’t sugar coat the reality: the beast will try to kill those who stand against it. The empire will make war on the church, to kill its enemies.
John thinks most people in the empire will worship. Whether from the desire for power or wealth or the fear of persecution, most people will go along. Those who will not are those who truly belong to Christ. He calls them those who are written in the slaughtered lamb’s book of life. We can either be in the lamb’s book of life or the beast’s list of approved buyers and sellers. John reveals the truth he sees: worse persecution is coming; the saints will need endurance and faith to stand firm.
John’s prediction was accurate. Rome went from occasional harassment to a fully organized and devastating persecution of the church in the third century. As he hoped, many Christians did stand their ground and bear witness to God’s loving rule even in the face of death.
Then, something surprising happened. In 313 Christianity was legalized by Rome, then favored; in 395 it became the official religion of the Empire. From then on, Christianity and empire went together in the West. The first major ruler in Europe after the fall of Rome was crowned by the Pope and called the Roman Emperor.
Empires, conquering nations, have a strong sense of their importance. Often, they imagine themselves bringing peace to the world by spreading their values and civilization. That’s part of why they are so powerful: they think they are doing the right thing, so forcing others to fall in line is ultimately doing them a favor. Peace will come when everyone accepts the empire’s way of doing things.
The Greek Empire of Alexander the Great felt like it was blessing the areas it conquered with philosophical thinking, education and enlightened culture. Rome saw itself as continuing the virtues of Greek civilization. Later empires saw themselves as spreading the blessing of Christianity and civilization as they increased their reach.
The Bible has a consistent message about empire: every empire eventually falls. History tells the same story: no human power lasts forever. Whether it’s the Roman peace or the “thousand year Reich” of Hitler’s Germany or the British Empire on which the sun was said to never set because it was so big, every empire falls.
No matter whether the empire is pagan or Christian, empire is empire. The more people and groups and nations pursue power, the more likely they are to ultimately stand against God. We can be a part of several groups at the same time: nation, church, family, football team, etc. But when anything pushes for ultimate allegiance, when it demands the sacrifice of integrity or justice or faith, it stands against God. In the end, only God’s power and rule are ultimate, and in our lives there can be only one Lord.
In our time many things demand our attention, and that’s OK. Work hard, but don’t compromise your principles for a promotion. I don’t mean quit your job if they make you to work Sunday; I mean quit your job if they force you to treat people like objects. Be dedicated to your family, but don’t sacrifice the lives of other children to push your child ahead. Serve your country, but remember it is not always right, and God’s kingdom is where we ultimately belong.
There will be times it feels like you can’t hold all your commitments together. There will be times when the world tries to take first place in your life and make your forget your faith. That’s one of the reasons we come together. That’s why we come to Christ’s table, to remember that true love and power are made perfect in sacrifice. We remember where we truly belong, and we are given strength for the journey. We live in challenging times, but the gospel still calls us forward. No matter how the beasts and dragons roar, we are written in the Lamb’s book of life; we are invited to the Lord’s table. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
Thanks be to God.