REVELATION #28: THE BEAST

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To our suffering brothers and sisters today, and to future generations, this passage contains a powerful message. No matter how strong the Beast is, no matter how absolute his authority appears to be, his time is limited. We need to know that there may indeed be terrible consequences to being a Christian. But our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. The long-term future that is coming far surpasses any suffering that comes before it. If you are in the midst of suffering understand this: God has not forgotten you. What you are experiencing will only bring you closer to the New Heavens and New Earth. It may seem for a time as if Evil has conquered, but it has not; it cannot!

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There is a lot of biblical prophecy that seems to be “now, but not yet.” What I mean is, sometimes prophecies include information about the near future, the far future, and the end of time, all jumbled up together. For instance, the prophet Isaiah prophesied about the return of God’s people from captivity in Babylon. That return actually happened. But in the same prophecies about the return from exile, Isaiah also prophesies about the coming of the Messiah. Of course, that also happened when Jesus came to earth, but it was several hundred years after the return from exile. And in those same texts which speak of the return from captivity in Babylon, and the coming of the Messiah, there are also images and ideas that seem to be about the end of the world, and the New Heavens & New Earth.

I think this sort of jumbling of different time frames also occurs in the book of Revelation. John’s visions include information about what is happening while John himself is still alive. They also include information about things to come, possibly things that will happen, and go on happening, before the end of the world. And, of course, there are some things that are unmistakably about the very end of the world.

I believe that John’s vision of “the beast” in Revelation chapter 13 contains elements of all three time frames. Some parts of this vision were already happening when John first wrote it down. Other parts likely refer to the very end of time. There are still other aspects of this vision that I think have been going on throughout history, and are still happening today.

Now, I want to say that a certain amount of focus on the future is a good thing. If the people of Israel had never considered the promises about the coming of the Messiah, no one would have followed Jesus when he came. Those promises also gave them hope in hard times. So, prophetic promises are meant to keep us alert, looking for God’s work in the world. They are in the scripture also to give us hope about the future, and comfort when we experience difficult times.

However, too much focus on the future is not good. Time and time again, I have met Christians who study Daniel and Revelation and pore over timelines and charts; they listen to endless podcasts from speakers who claim to know, in detail, what will happen at the end of the world. Very often, these Christians use their obsession with the end times as a way to avoid actually living as disciples of Jesus Christ. It can be a way of “being into” the Bible without actually obeying the Bible. Let’s apply that in a general way to our passage today: It is helpful to know that we are in a spiritual war, and that at times, it may seem like everything is against us; and yet, God is still in control. It is not nearly so helpful to “know” the specific details of who the beast is ahead of time. Theorizing that he will come from the area around the Black Sea, and that he will institute a one-world government doesn’t actually help very much in your day-to-day walk with Jesus. The first sort of attitude helps us cling to Jesus, the second sort of thing is not true Biblical prophecy at all, and it does not help us in our walk with Jesus.

Here’s another for instance. In our passage today, one of the heads of the beast looks as if it had been killed, but was not. Now for decades, the Soviet Union was considered by the West to be the biggest threat to world peace and individual liberty. President Regan called it “an evil empire.” Many Christians thought that the end of the world would probably involve the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, the new premier of the USSR appeared: Mikhail Gorbachev. He had a huge birth mark on his head, and many Christians wondered if he was part of the Beast: the Head that “seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed.” This speculation did not help us grow closer to Jesus. Instead, we wasted a lot of time and emotional energy speculating about something that turned out to be nothing. This is what I’m trying to avoid as we go through the Book of Revelation.

So, let’s briefly consider the strange description of the Beast from a spiritual standpoint. Remember that the dragon, with seven heads was imitating the sevenfold spirit of God, and with ten horns, God’s mighty power, and the crowns, God’s ruler-ship and majesty? Well, the Beast is the representative of the Dragon. He has seven heads, again imitating God’s “sevenfold spirit.” Like the dragon, he imitates the majesty and power of God with ten horns, and ten crowns. The wounded/recovered head appears to be a mocking representation of Jesus, the lamb who was slain. Let us remember how John first described Jesus as the Lamb of God:

6And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Rev 5:6, ESV2011)

So this Beast, as Satan’s representative, tries to imitate the Lamb, to take his place, and lead people astray. In the book of Daniel, Daniel has a vision of four different beasts: one Like a lion, another like a bear, a third like a leopard, and a fourth with massive teeth. Many commentators believe that what Daniel saw was a prediction of future empires; many scholars agree that Daniel’s prediction was largely fulfilled by the time of Jesus. Here in Revelation, John seems to be borrowing from the same imagery, however, it is all mashed together into one beast, not four different ones. Perhaps then, this one beast represents all of the empires throughout human history that set themselves up in opposition to God, or in place of God.

With these things in mind, let us once more ground ourselves by understanding how our text would have sounded to those who lived in the time of John. These Christians were faced with a culture that was hostile to them. There was tremendous pressure in some of the seven churches to conform to the culture’s immoral sexuality. There was pressure to compromise “just a little bit,” and worship idols, so that they could have certain careers. Above all, there was the Roman Emperor, Domitian. He was the ruler of the entire world, as far as anyone knew. He required that everyone worship him as a god, by offering a pinch of incense at altars dedicated to him. This worship was compulsory, and those who refused were severely persecuted. They lost property, homes, freedom, and sometimes, their very lives.

Now, does that sound like anything we just read…like our text, perhaps? The beast is fearsome and powerful, and everyone was saying: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The whole earth worships the beast. The Beast has authority over the whole world, and even to make war upon the saints and conquer them.

I am quite certain that John’s first readers would see the beast as the Roman Emperor. This passage, for the original readers of Revelation, explained what was going on. In real life, for those believers, the emperor Domitian had set himself up to be worshiped as a God. In real life, their friends and family had been arrested, imprisoned, sometimes even killed. In their actual lives, the whole world went along with emperor-worship, and rejected Jesus and his followers.

This passage explains what they are going through as part of the ongoing, cosmic, spiritual war between the Dragon (Satan) and the followers of Jesus. Those first readers would have read this, and thought, “Ah, so that is what is happening. We are in the middle of a great spiritual war. God knows we are being conquered physically. It isn’t random. This vision (Revelation) shows us that God is aware of what is happening, and that even this hardship is part of his plan to bring about the end of evil, and to make everything right.

The beast is given authority for “42 months.” Remember 42 months =1,260 days=3.5 years. This isn’t a literal amount of time. It represents half of seven years, that is, half of God’s perfect timing to accomplish his purposes. So, for half of God’s time, it seems that his people are protected. The witnesses prophesy without hindrance for this amount of time (chapter 11). The woman is protected in the wilderness for that amount of time (chapter 12). But there is another “half of God’s perfect time,” and during that time, it appears as if Satan and his minions are winning. We are told that time frame, however, to assure us that the evil days will not go on forever. God is still in control, and there is a limit to the time allowed to the devil.

So, John’s first readers would understand that what they were facing would not be the fate of God’s people forever. But in the meantime they might be imprisoned, or even killed. They must endure with faith and patience. Above all, they must remember that their names have been written in the Lamb’s book of Life since the foundation of the world.

I think there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit inspired John to write this vision to communicate to those first believers in the way I just explained. So, then, how does the Spirit want to apply this passage to us?

In the first place, let’s not forget that we Christians are part of a 2,000 year old global movement. In our history as a people there have always been places where this sort of terrible persecution has happened. In some cases, the persecution even came from those who claimed to be Christians. Martin Luther was more than half-convinced that Pope Leo the Tenth was the antichrist, or the beast, since he had worldwide authority, and used it to blaspheme against the truth of God. For German Christians in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, Hitler would have been the obvious choice for the Beast. And like those first Christians in the Roman empire, many believers were imprisoned and executed for defying Hitler. In the 1920s-1990s, many people lived under the terrible, Beast-like authority of Soviet communism. Millions upon millions are still in a similar situation in China, even today. Millions more live under the cruel oppression of radical Islam, where the culture around them demands that they worship a false and distorted image of the One True God; the consequences of refusing are catastrophic. It is happening to Christians also in India. In fact, apart from a few places like Korea and Brazil, the only places where Christians don’t face a clear “Beast” are in the Western world. We live in a unique bubble, but the bubble is very near to bursting. Our culture is changing rapidly, and it won’t be long, historically speaking, before we begin to face severe negative consequences for faithfully following Jesus. I expect in my lifetime to suffer hardship simply for being a Christian. I think it is best if we are forewarned:

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (ESV)
1 Peter 4:12-14

But let us not make the mistake of thinking if this comes to America or Europe, that it must mean the end of the world. Millions of Christian brothers and sisters have lived under Beast-like conditions throughout history. This passage is far more about encouragement and endurance than speculation about the future.

To our suffering brothers and sisters today, and to future generations, this passage contains a powerful message. No matter how strong the Beast is, no matter how absolute his authority appears to be, his time is limited. We need to know that there may indeed be terrible consequences to being a Christian. But our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. The long-term future that is coming far surpasses any suffering that comes before it. If you are in the midst of suffering understand this: God has not forgotten you. What you are experiencing will only bring you closer to the New Heavens and New Earth. It may seem for a time as if Evil has conquered, but it has not; it cannot!

One thing this passage should do for us who are not under persecution is to remind us to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who are. I strongly encourage you to visit the website of Voice of the Martyrs, and use the information there to pray for those who live under persecution.

Let the Spirit Speak to you today.

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