Part V of “The End of the World as We Know It: The Book of Revelation”
I was browsing the web this week looking at some books when I came across a web site titled “Books by the Foot.” For a bibliophile, that sounds like the way to buy books—by volume! When I clicked on the site, however, I discovered that this is a site that sells fake books for use on decorative shelves—you know, like in a hotel lobby or some such place. You can literally buy fake books by the foot, whether they are designed to look like old books, modern books, or law books.
There’s something wrong with this, however. Ever tried to pull a fake book off the shelf? It’s not a satisfying experience. It’s a parody of the real thing. What looks promising fails to deliver. Personally, I’ll take the reality over the parody every time!
One of the basic understandings of Christian theology we glean from the main book, the Bible, is that the nature of God is expressed in the Trinity: one God in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is the creator, the one who sits on the throne as John envisions him earlier in Revelation. The Son proceeds from the Father – he is the Lamb who was slain who died and rose again for our sake. The Spirit is the on-going presence of God, the Spirit of God that moves us to faith, to acknowledge the Son as our Lord, and that orders the life of the believer. We come up with many different ways of trying to explain the Trinity, but the bottom line is that the Trinity is God for us in every way.
But what if there was such a thing as a parody of the Trinity—an “anti-Trinity,” if you will. A force that is also one but with three different personages—a force that is actually against us. This is the parody that John gives us through his vision in Revelation 12 and 13. In this case, it’s a Trinity of Evil and John gives the churches a vivid description of how that evil was at work in the Roman world of their day. The dragon of Revelation 12 and the two beasts of Revelation 13 work in concert with one another, just like the Trinity, but their work is all about destruction—a parody of the goodness of God.
To John’s readers, these three persons of the trinity of evil would have been fairly easy to recognize because of the symbolism. In chapter 12, John describes a cosmic conflict between a woman “with the sun and moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” and “a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns on his head.” The woman giving birth is an image familiar to Christians both then and now. We might instantly think of Mary giving birth to Jesus. That’s certainly implied in the vision, but there’s even more. The twelve stars seem to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. In the Old Testament, Israel was often portrayed as a virgin bride—a symbol later applied to the church.
The woman is giving birth to a son, while a “great red dragon with seven heads” waits to devour her child. The dragon conjures up another Old Testament image—the serpent in the Garden in Genesis 3. John tells us in verse 9 that the dragon and the serpent are one in the same—the one who is called “the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” As we learn in the Gospels, Satan was always trying to devour Jesus, whether it be via the threat of the murderous King Herod or the temptations in the wilderness. John tells us, however, that the child was “snatched away” before he could be devoured. One the cross, Jesus was in the grip of the serpent and his greatest weapon, death. But Jesus rose again from the dead and ascended to the Father where he awaits the fulfillment of God’s promise to Eve in Genesis 3—that he will return to “crush the serpent’s head.”
In the meantime, however, the dragon is in hot pursuit of his people, the new Israel embodied in the woman. The scene switches to a battle in heaven, where the great dragon and his angels are defeated by the angel Michael and are thrown down to the earth. There the dragon continues to pursue the other children of the woman, or as John identifies them in 12:17, “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.”
Christians are usually of two minds about Satan. On the one hand are those who see the devil under every rock and in every aspect of human life, while on the other hand you have Christians who believe the devil doesn’t exist. Revelation reminds us, however, that an evil force does prowl the world looking to devour God’s children. Jesus spoke plainly about the threat of Satan, the accuser of humanity (that’s what the word “Satan” means). Jesus called him “a father of lies” and much of the New Testament warns us to be wary of the devil’s schemes. Peter warned the church that “like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). It’s clear from the Scriptures that Satan is real, an anti-creation force, and we ignore that at our peril. It’s like the line from the movie The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
At the same time, however, we shouldn’t think that Satan is the evil equivalent of God with the same amount of power. Indeed, Satan is a parody of God, the anti-creation force that appears to be all powerful but is not. Look at 12:12 – the voice in heaven looks at the dragon and proclaims, “Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows his time is short!” The parody is ultimately defeated by the reality, but before that happens the dragon will still be at work chasing after the children of the Lord.
Which leads us to the second part of the unholy trinity. A beast rises out of the sea, a beast with various animal parts, wearing crowns—a beast whose authority and power comes directly from the dragon. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have received a mortal wound, but it was healed over, and “the whole earth followed the beast.”
Here again, John borrows some images from the Old Testament. In Daniel 7, the prophet describes the evil Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes in a similar way. Antiochus was the one who, in the intertestamental period, had conquered Jerusalem and set up blasphemous pagan symbols in the temple. John picks up that image to describe another evil king who is a threat to the people of God—a king who, though dead, represented to John and his churches the incarnation of evil on the earth.
That the beast comes from the sea is sign that it comes from Rome to the west, and that it requires the worship of the whole earth equates it to a Roman emperor—in this case a specific one. Remember that we said at the beginning of the series that Revelation is likely written during the reign of the emperor Domitian, but that Domitian was considered by many to be a kind of incarnation of Nero, who ruled a couple of decades before him. The specter of Nero’s rule and its consequences hangs over Revelation like a blanket, for it was Nero who was really the first to persecute the Christian church in a systematic and brutal way.
Nero was a young man when he came to power. His reign started out looking like it might be a good thing for the empire, but he soon devolved into debauchery and murderous paranoia. He killed off most of his family, thinking they were plotting against him. He spent lavishly on building projects and made sure that his name was worshipped everywhere in the empire. Indeed, he considered himself to be divine and the cult of the emperor became the main Roman religion. One incident, however, came to define Nero for the rest of popular history.
In 64AD, a fire broke out in Rome. There are a lot of theories about how the fire got started, the most famous of which is that Nero started the fire and played the fiddle while the city burned. That famous image is likely not accurate, but it’s clear that some in Rome thought that Nero had set the fire in order to create room for a new palace he wanted to build. Rumors ran rampant. To dispel the rumors, Nero blamed the start of the fire on the Christians, who were considered to be an odd, outlaw sect given that they did not worship the emperor or the other Roman gods.
As a result, Christians were arrested—many killed in the arena by being covered with cattle skins and being devoured alive by predator animals. Others were covered with oil and set afire to light some of Nero’s many orgiastic feasts. For the early Christians, Nero was the incarnation of Satan on earth—the one who sought to devour them.
Nero became so debauched that Rome turned against him. In the year 68, Nero committed suicide (or, more accurately, ordered his secretary to do the deed) after it became clear that his reign was over. Nero’s death was celebrated in Rome and his name erased from many monuments, but such was Nero’s evil that rumors began to fly that Nero hadn’t really died, or that he had risen from the dead. As late as the year 422, St. Augustine wrote about the legend as still being a popular belief.
This would seem to explain the beast in Revelation 13 having received a “death blow” but not dying. Nero’s legacy, even though he was gone, still lived on in a succession of emperors like him, most notably Domitian. The beast continued to blaspheme against God and “make war on the saints and to conquer them.” The beast was given “authority over every tribe and language and nation” and all those who worshipped it were those whose names were not written in the Lamb’s book of life (13:6-8).
Lots of people in every generation have pointed to this text as evidence that the ruler du jour is the beast of Revelation. It’s a moniker that has been attached to everyone from Hitler to the Soviet Union to Saddam Hussein to even the President of the United States. Such is the symbol of the beast—a symbol of the kind of ruler that the world often produces. Some contemporary “beasts” are more deserving than others, given the comparative portrait of Nero. The truth is that evil is incarnated not just in those who are in power, but in a variety of people over a long history of time.
But again, the beast is a parody—in this case a parody of the Son, the second person of the Trinity. Jesus is the one who truly received the death blow, but who actually still lives—unlike Nero who was the first century equivalent of Elvis (in more ways than one, if you read the history). The Son of God is the one who defends the saints, the one who dies on their behalf. This is the world’s true king.
The question that we must deal with is thus not so much about identifying the beast in our time, but rather comparing the behavior of the parody to the behavior of the reality. Beastly behavior is everywhere. We see it in politics, in business, in culture. We see the worship of sex and violence. We can see ourselves marginalized for our faith and hear the blasphemies against God that become ever more shrill in our culture. We might say with those who worship the dragon and the beast, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
But remember, the beasts’ days are numbered. It is the Lamb who was slaughtered who will defeat him, the child who will crush the head of the dragon. We need to call out beastly behavior when we see it in our work places, our schools, our homes, and our neighborhoods. We need to identify the parody and live out the reality. Like those early Christians, we must continue to refuse to worship the beast and the dragon, refusing to compromise our faith with the evil in this world. We must hear John’s call “for the endurance and faith of the saints” in verse 10.
But endurance will be especially difficult, given that the dragon and the beast tend to work more subversively through the things and people who may be quite close to us. The third member of the evil Trinity, the beast from the land, is a parody of the reality, the Holy Spirit, who inspires prophecy and orders the lives of believers, enabling their faith. The parody, however, inspires false prophecy and subtly and not-so-subtly enables worship of the beast and the dragon. Many scholars think that the “beast of the land” refers, in John’s day, to the local Roman officials who promoted the Roman government and especially the worship of the emperor. The false prophets spread the message that accommodation to the prevailing culture is the way to safety and security. John implies that some of these false prophets may have even been church insiders—a view that some of the letters to the seven churches clearly supports.
The third beast, the parody, encourages support for the cultural religion. The Holy Spirit, the reality, enables the worship of the true God. The choice between following the beast and following the Spirit is a difficult one, particularly because it’s so easy to compromise. Those who worship the Trinity, however, need to always be asking questions. To whom or what do I pledge my ultimate allegiance? What or whom do I worship? Where have I compromised with the beastly forces of violence, sexual license, greed, power, and blasphemy in what I think, or what I say; what I listen to, what I read, or what I watch? What or who are my idols? What or who is it that I can’t seem to live without? Where is the Holy Spirit pricking my guilt and calling me to turn away from the beast?
Indeed, John’s vision is always calling us to look carefully at the world around us to identify the parody and resist it in favor of the reality. In the end, whose mark will be on us? This section closes with John identifying the “mark of the beast,” the mark by which people will be either in or out in the beast’s kingdom. In the ancient Jewish world it was common to assign a numerical value to names. In this case, the number 666 corresponds to “Nero Caesar.” We’re afraid of that number. I’ve been in stores where people were charged $6.66 for something and gave an extra penny just to avoid the number. We used to have a license plate that was KNM-666 and people always looked at us funny when we parked next to them, even at church.
It’s not the number, however, it’s the mark—sometimes visible, often invisible, that marks people as belonging to the beast. It’s often subtle, often attractive, but it’s always a parody of the real thing.
Christians are to bear different marks—indeed, as John suggests throughout Revelation, we bear marks that are scars. These are the marks of the cross on our hearts—a cross-shaped life lived without compromise, with full allegiance given to the one true God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The way of the cross is our mode of life, not the mark of the beast.
Oh, the parody is all around us. We need the real book to help us recognize it. Let us settle only for the real thing, and follow the Lamb!
N.T. Wright. Revelation for Everyone