A Journey through Revelation. #7 – Evil Exposed Revelation 12:13 – 13:18
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf D. Svanoe
We have been on this journey through the book of Revelation, and today we come to one of the scariest parts of the book with the mark of the beast. People may not know much about the book of Revelation, but this is one symbol that seems to have worked its way into popular culture. Most everyone seems to know the number 666. Twelve years ago, the movie called, The Omen, was released on the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year of the new Millennium.
The Omen was a remake of the 1976 classic film about a young boy named Damien, who was discovered to bear the mark of the beast in his scalp. His family was unaware that Damien was destined to become the Antichrist and lead the world to the events of Armageddon.
In typical fashion, Hollywood has co-opted religious themes and twisted them for commercial purposes. Unfortunately, what people know about the ‘mark of the beast’ is largely what they learn from pop culture or from those end-time predictors who misinterpret Revelation. And, since this is probably the last passage in the Bible that many of us pastors would ever choose to preach on, there is often no one to set the record straight. No wonder people are afraid to read Revelation! When we actually read the book, we find that there are two groups marked on the forehead–those who follow the beast and those who follow the Lamb. Why don’t we ever hear about the followers of the Lamb in the movies? Both are marked on the forehead with a name. Those who follow the beast are marked with the number of its name–666. Those who follow the Lamb are marked on the forehead with his name. And the book of Revelation is very clear who the Lamb is–the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Revelation is also clear who the beast is–the Roman Empire that demanded worship of its subjects and threatened death for those who refused to cooperate. The mark on the forehead symbolizes our values and priorities in life. And the question Revelation asked its first readers was this: whose name is on your forehead? Who do you follow, the beast or the Lamb?
Over the years there’s been a lot of speculation about the symbol 666, much of it just plain wrong. Most scholars think that 666 is a form of alphabetical code where letters of the alphabet are assigned a numerical value. Add them up and you have the number of someone’s name. And that name is Caesar Nero. Before his death in 68 AD, Nero captured Christians and rolled them in pitch, then hung them on poles, and lit them on fire to light the coliseum at night. Other Christians were sown into animal skins to be torn apart by wild dogs. No wonder John describes Nero as a beast. It’s a revolting image meant to give us insight into the true nature of the Roman Empire and its idolatrous claims.
But there is another way we could look at this number- 666. Numbers function as symbols in the book of Revelation. Six is the number for humankind. Human beings were created on the sixth day. The number seven is perhaps the most significant number in Revelation. Seven is the number for completeness or perfection. Therefore, six is not quite complete, not quite perfect, one short of seven. We human beings always fall short, don’t we? That’s what the six represents. And when you have three of them, which is the number for God, you have a symbol that represents the human attempt to be god. 666 is Adam and Eve reaching for the apple because they wanted to be like God. 666 represents the claims of any institution or government for the ultimate allegiance and obedience that only God deserves.
Our reading today starts a new section in Revelation. And John wants to give his churches an answer to the questions- Where does evil come from? Why are Christians being persecuted? John gives us an answer. The evil we experience in the world, whether from individuals or institutions or governments, comes ultimately from Satan. Satan lost a battle in heaven and now is making trouble on earth accusing Christians before God. In chapter 13, Satan is joined by two beasts, one from the sea and one from the land. The beast from the sea is Rome and its armies which literally came across the sea to conquer and impose its will on nations. It used violence and threat to control and dominate. The beast from the land is those local officials who want to promote Roman culture and power to curry favor with Roman officials. Together these three represent an “unholy trinity” that John wanted to expose as counterfeit. Instead of Christians buying into the Roman propaganda that they were the saviors of the world bringing peace to the nations, John wanted Christians to know that was a lie. John wanted them to know a deeper reality, that peace comes only through Jesus Christ.
Most of you have seen the movie, The Wizard of Oz. There is a scene at the end of the movie when Dorothy and the others finally get in to see the wizard and ask him to keep his promises to them. They were intimidated and frightened by the smoke and lights and the powerful voice, cowering in fear, duped into believing whatever the Wizard told them. That was what the wizard wanted them to believe. It was Dorothy’s little dog, Toto, who pulled back the curtain to reveal the true nature of things. The great and powerful wizard was a fake, a phony, just an old man pulling levers who had no power to do anything. In a way that is what John is doing with the image of the beast, pulling back the curtain and showing Christians the true nature of the society they lived in. He was telling them that Rome was not worthy of their worship, their allegiance and love. Rome was built on a foundation of violence and injustice. The Roman peace came only at the end of a sword, and that peace was kept only at the threat of death. It was a peace that benefitted the powerful and the wealthy.
So who is the beast today? One scholar has said that the church in every age must name the beast, must speak out against those things in our world that are beast-like. The beast isn’t necessarily any one individual. The beast is any government or movement that claims the ultimate loyalty that should only be given to God. The beast is anything that asks us to sacrifice our values in order to follow it. The beast will ask us to live a lie. The beast cannot stand the light of truth and will persecute those who are the truth-tellers and whistleblowers in society. The beast will stand up and boast of its accomplishments and demand that we bow down and worship at its altar.
Let me give you a few examples. In Germany in 1934, a group of Christians gathered in Germany to oppose the Nazi party and the growing influence that they had over the Christian church. They issued a declaration saying that the movement Hitler had started was antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They pulled back the curtain to try to show German Christians that they were following the beast. They tried to convince the Germans not to be seduced by the Nazi movement. Hitler promised to improve their lives and make Germany great again. But Hitler’s movement was built on lies and violence.
The same thing happened in the 1980s when church after church issued condemnations of the South African Apartheid government, saying that it was established on lies that were contrary to the gospel. God has created all people and all races, and God loves them all equally. Again, the church was pulling back the curtain to expose the beast-like lies of the South African government.
Are there beast-like elements in our world today? If John were here today, what curtains would he want us to peek behind, what lies to expose? Are there governments or movements that want to buy your soul and get you to live a lie- especially the lies they want to promote? Are there movements that tempt us to sacrifice our values and compromise our faith as followers of Christ? It amazes me when I see some Christians in our country today so quickly leave behind their values in order to gain political power. The bottom line for Christians is not what leader or political party is going to make us richer. The bottom line for Christians is following Jesus Christ, the Lamb that was slain, and living out Jesus’ values in our world today.
One of the values enshrined in our country today is that of a free press. It’s really the idea that the government should not control the information we receive, but that the press should be free to report the truth, even if that truth is critical of the government. But that can be dangerous in governments run by dictators. Just look at what happened last week to Jamal Kashoggi, who was trying to tell the truth about the Saudi government. When governments seek to control the press, then news easily becomes propaganda, lies they want you to believe. And then governments become beast-like demanding our worship or threatening death.
The beast dresses in many disguises today. It wins every time we lose our prophetic witness to the truth and compromise our faith. The beast wins every time we grow complacent or afraid to speak out. The book of Revelation is a call to Christians of every age to reject the idolatrous claims of the beast in whatever contemporary form they appear. The book of Revelation is a call to worship God alone, and to conquer through our faithful witness to Jesus, the Lamb who was slaughtered.
As we Christians participate in our society as responsible citizens, we do so as followers of Jesus Christ. We love and serve our country, but our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus Christ. The values that we live by are Jesus’ values. And when we see individuals or governments behaving like a beast, we must say “no!’ and follow Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, even if it comes with a cost.
Jesus Christ is the true source of life, of love and joy and peace. Follow him alone.