The Problem: Beastly Worship

Revelation 13:1-4; 11-18

The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. 2 The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. 4 People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”

11 Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. 13 And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. 14 Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. 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, 17 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.

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.

 

I just want to be honest up front: that was a tough passage of scripture upon which to base a children’s time.

I am so glad that you have come back for the second installment of our sermon series on the book of Revelation. I feel that I need to clarify a few things for you all this morning before we move forward. Last Sunday I questioned a common interpretation of Revelation and presented different framework for understanding this text. Often we hear how Revelation is about the end times and that if you know how to read this book and know what to look for, you will see God’s plan unfolding as we anticipate the return of Jesus Christ. If that is how you prefer to read this text, that’s fine. I’m not going to get too worked up over it. This is way out there on the spectrum of things that matter the most to our faith. It’s not unimportant, but neither is it essential. Let’s be honest, if our salvation hung upon us getting this book just right, we would probably all be in a lot of trouble because this is likely the most confusing book in all of the New Testament! If you want to explore the four different main interpretations of Revelation, I would invite you to look at a book appropriately named Four Views on the Book of Revelation, which has four different writers, so you aren’t just reading one theologian giving support to his/her own interpretation while poorly representing the others, which is what I tend to do.

While I do not believe that all of the book of Revelation is about the end times, I do believe the end times are discussed. Revelation 21 is the clearest example of that. However, much of Revelation is about something that took place in the lifetime of the original audience to whom John was writing. John was writing a letter to the seven churches of Asia which he based on the vision that God had given to him. And the reason for the images and the cryptic language is because John was writing to these churches in a period of intense persecution. So he wrote, inspired by God, in images and using language that would have been familiar to the 1st century Christians, but not to the average Roman soldier who might stop a messenger along the street as he delivered a letter to these seven churches. If you need more background than that, I encourage you to look at previous sermons in this series at: https://kgbuckeye.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/im-not-sure-i-understand/

Revelation is ultimately a book about worship and faithfulness to the King of kings, Lord of lords in times of extreme persecution while revealing a vision of eschatological hope with the renewal of all things. Last week we focused on the persecution of Christians under the rule of a Caesar named Nero. Nero was Caesar from 54-68 AD. But we need to go back a little further than Nero in order to understand the religious atmosphere in Rome during Nero’s reign.

Rome was a superpower in the 1st century, dominating much of the known world, including what we call The Holy Land. The Roman military leaders developed a powerful army that marched up and down the Mediterranean, defeating city after city, nation after nation. But rather than annihilating these nations, the Romans allowed the people to live if they would pay a tribute or tax to Rome and give their allegiance to the Roman emperor and his empire.

As we have seen time and time before, this kind of power goes to a person’s head. And when a country is as successful as Rome was at defeating their enemy and taking the land that nation begins to believe that God must be on their side. The idea of God giving his divine blessing to Rome further developed from God being on their side to God being in their midst. Soon titles were being applied to Caesar like “son of God,” and “lord.”

The Romans were pantheists, meaning that they worshiped many different gods. So it wasn’t a big deal to add one more. So when a successful and beloved Caesar would pass away the Romans would often erect a temple dedicated to the worship of that Caesar. Then, in the year 29 BC, Caesar Augustus did something new, starting a new trend, when he authorized temples to be built in the cities of Pergamum and Nicomedia where he would be worshipped while he was still living. The man obviously had a pretty humble opinion of himself (see Kraybill, pg. 64).

Pergamum, you may recall, is one of the seven churches to whom John writes this letter. What good and affirming things do you think John has to say to those Pergamites who built a temple for the worship of Caesar Augustus? Chapter 2, verse 13a: “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne.” This could very likely be a reference to the temple built for the worship of Caesar Augustus and it isn’t meant to be affirming.

Emperor worship was a real concern for this Jewish sect known as Christianity. There are many statues, inscriptions, and plaques that remain today in our museums around the world. Coins with pictures of the caesars bear witness to this belief system. Now imagine a 1st century Jewish Christian, who had been taught from a young age to have no engraved image being forced to buy and sell using coins with the image of a Caesar and an inscription that read “son of god,” or something of that nature upon it. Imagine being a 1st century Jewish Christian who from a young age learned to have no other gods before Yahweh, being forced to give their unwavering allegiance to Rome and her “divine” Caesar. And imagine you are a follower of Jesus in the 1st century and you believe that he, Jesus, is the one true Lord of lords and King of kings. You can begin to see the issues the churches in Revelation had to deal with.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Whoever confesses with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes that God raised him from the grave will be saved.” To which church did Paul write this? The church of Rome right in Caesar’s backyard (Romans 10:9).

This is the setting for the book of Revelation. John and the other Christians refuse to participate in the worship of the emperor, even though they know that if they don’t, they will be exiled to Patmos, or worse, tortured and put to death. This is why Revelation uses codes, images, and cryptic language that would have been absolute mumbo-jumbo to a Roman guard who intercepted a letter meant to be circulated among the churches, but would have made perfect sense to a person who had spent a significant amount of time studying the Hebrew scriptures. A Hebrew scholar would quickly recognize the symbols being used by John.

I hope everyone knows that when we look at this text that we probably should not interpret everything literally, but instead as being symbolic. For instance, Revelation 6:13 talks about the stars in the heavens falling to the earth like figs falling from trees. First of all, the reference to the stars falling to the earth like figs falling from a tree shows the 1st century mindset. They understood the stars to be small glowing balls up in the sky, just a bit out of reach. They didn’t have telescopes and rocket ships to explore outer space. So they had a limited understanding based on what they could see. Today we know that the next closest star to the earth, after the sun, is 4.3 light years away. And these stars aren’t the size of figs. Our sun is an average-sized star. And when comparing the mass of the sun to the mass of the earth, we find the sun to be 1.3 million times the size of the earth. So if the stars of the sky literally fell to the earth like figs falling from a tree, we would be in serious trouble.

It is pretty obvious that this is symbolic — of what, I’m not sure. But if we look at Revelation 8:10, it is pretty interesting that after all of the stars fall from the sky John refers to another star in the sky. Now wait one second, I thought the stars had all fallen to the earth like figs falling from a tree.

N.T. Wright reminds us of the nature of imagery used in Hebrew literature when he writes, “language about the sun turning black and the moon becoming like blood, the stars falling from heaven, and so on, was regularly employed as a way of speaking about what we would call ‘earth-shattering events…’”

Knowing that the images in Revelation are often symbolic helps us to begin to understand what in the world is going on in chapter 13. Chapter 12 ends with a dragon standing on the sand of the seashore. We are told in chapter 12 that this dragon is Satan, the devil (v. 9). But this dragon is not working alone. As he stands on the seashore a second beast rises from the water. And this is some beast! It has seven heads and ten horns. Each of these 10 horns has a crown upon it.

This beast has the appearance of several animals: a leopard, a bear, and a lion. Verse three tells us that one of the heads appears to have received a fatal blow, but this wound had healed. John notes that the dragon gave power, authority, and a throne to this multi-headed beast and that people worshipped the beast.

This is a scary scene, straight out of a horror movie. But like the stars falling like figs from a tree, these images stand for something else. Remember that these confusing images were meant to mislead the Roman persecutors, but be clear to anyone that had spent a significant amount of time studying the Hebrew scriptures. When a Hebrew scholar read these words they would quickly think of the book of Daniel, specifically chapter 7. Daniel describes four different beasts that come up out of the sea – like the beast in Revelation 13 – with ten horns. The beasts in Daniel represent four different kingdoms and the horns represent ten different kings.

It isn’t much of a leap to assume that the beast in Revelation 13 with its seven heads and 10 horns with 10 crowns represents the Roman Empire and her caesars who claimed divinity. But what about this one head that seemed to have been dealt a fatal blow?

We keep coming back to Nero. In 68 AD Nero’s reign as Caesar came to an end when he forced an assistant to take his life. But rumor soon spread that Nero was not dead, that he had come back from the dead because he was divine. This may be why in this vision one of the heads was dealt a fatal blow, but had recovered.

The parallels to the book of Daniel are quite clear. Daniel and the other Hebrews were forced to worship foreign gods, but when they refused, they were punished. Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a fiery furnace. And the Romans put Christians to death on the cross or by burning them alive. And just a side note: the apostle Paul and Peter are both believed to have been martyred during the Christian persecutions ordered by Nero.

Let’s jump ahead to this idea of the mark of the beast. John writes that nobody could buy or sell without this mark on their forehead or their right hand. Remember that Jewish men wore boxes on their foreheads and arms that contained scripture, usually the Shema, “Hear o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” and perhaps other texts as well. This was a reminder to them and to others who their God was. Every time a right-handed person reached out to do something, they were reminded just who their God was. Every time you looked at another believer, you were reminded that they, too, followed the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But the beast of Revelation 13 requires that all people have a different mark on their heads and/or hands. Without this mark, which declared their loyalty to the beast, the person could not participate in commerce; they could not buy and sell in the market place.

I’ve heard stories about the sign of the beast my entire life. I recall hearing in Elementary School about how the government wanted to put microchips in the hand of every person containing their medical history that way if you were in an accident they could scan the chip and find out if your are allergic to penicillin. I was told that this was the mark of the beast and that under no circumstance was I to allow anyone to put anything in my hand or on my forehead.

In Middle School, we heard how Mikhail Gorbachev was the antichrist because he bore the mark of the beast…on his forehead. Gorbachev has a birthmark on his head, which caused some people to take a huge interpretive leap and call the mark of the beast.

And in High School, I recall when we were all given email addresses in the mid 1990’s and a classmate came to me and proclaimed, “Do you know that the Hebrew number ‘six’ looks like the English letter ‘w?’ www is the sign of the beast!” That’s www, like the beginning of every web address (eg, http://www.mennochurch.net).

This seems so silly to me today, but I’ll be honest, I’m just a little bit uneasy with the idea of letting anyone put anything on my forehead or my right hand. But verse 17 tells us that the mark is “the name or the number of the beast.” Evidently the beast has a number.

There is an interesting system that was used in the biblical days to put a numerical value on words. I will not try to explain it, in large part because I don’t fully understand it myself. But an example of this can be found in the ruins of Pompeii, where graffiti was found that said, “I love her whose number is 545” (see Kraybill, 66).

This can be done with any name; the numerical value for the name “Jesus” is 888 when translated from the Greek. And when you assign a value to the name “Nero Caesar,” guess what the number comes to? 666. And there have been other findings that have strengthened this interpretation of the sign of the beast. There was an ancient manuscript of Revelation that was found with the mark of the beast listed as 686, which is the numerical value for Domitian Caesar, a later Caesar who also claimed divinity and persecuted Christians who refused to worship him. It appears as if someone took the original copy of Revelation and adapted it to 686 to show who the current “beast” was.

To have the sign of the beast on your forehead or right hand showed your allegiance to Caesar, much like having a phylactery affixed to your head or hand would show your allegiance to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is obvious that it was to one’s advantage in a number of ways to worship the emperor. However, Christians weren’t about to do that.

But there is a counter narrative to this story of the beastly worship.

I’ve shared the story of Clarence Jordan a number of times in this congregation. Jordan began Koinonia Farm in Americus, GA, in 1942, during some of the ugliest times of racial segregation. Koinonia Farm was a place where people worked together, ate together, and lived together as equals, regardless of their race. Of course, this wasn’t always accepted, especially in the south.

Jordan soon found that he was no longer welcome to buy his seed, fertilizer, and other products at the local co-op. Even worse, he couldn’t sell his products there, either. He we told that his business was not welcome there. And there weren’t a lot of options in those days, so his crops were rotting, wasting away on the wagons, and would soon become useless if he couldn’t sell them.

But there was a group of Christians that had a similar understanding of the Kingdom of God who believed that God really did create us equally and that Jordan needed support. This group was an entire Hutterite commune which together owned more land and did more commerce with the local agricultural businesses than some of the small cities in the area combined.

The story goes that one day the leader of the Hutterite commune, let’s call him Jacob, walked into the co-op and asked to speak to the boss. Jacob said to the guy in charge, “I hear you don’t think too much of our brother, Clarence Jordan, and don’t wish to do business with his kind. I’m sorry to inform you that we are his kind.”

Jordan sold his crop the next day.

The problem presented in the book of Revelation is beastly worship, forced worship of a false deity. But there is good news as well. There are others who worship the King of kings, Lord of lords as well. There are others who are “our kind.” And we will turn to them next week.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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One Response to The Problem: Beastly Worship

  1. Dwight says:

    That was the first time I ever read your sermon before you had the chance to deliver it. Being the pragmatic person that I am, I really liked the last story about selling and buying crops from Jordan. Thanks for helping us understand all these things so much easier. What would my code # be?

    Dwight

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