Revelation: The Time is Near
On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur headed for Beijing, China. Or at least that’s what most people thought. It never landed. 240 people remain unaccounted for. Months of searching turned up some debris in the Indian Ocean that likely belonged to the aircraft. But what happened to the flight is still a mystery.
Some questionable official announcements at the time sparked many conspiracy theories. The plane was hidden, disguised, and then redirected to be shot down by Russia over Ukraine. Or, the Israeli prime minister orchestrated a large-scale kidnapping. Or, terrorists seized control of the plane by hacking into an auto-pilot system and flying the plane remotely to Antarctica. That’s three of the theories according to Wikipedia.
Conspiracy theories often promote the presence of sinister, unseen powers operating secretly in the world you and I experience. Christians, as people who love the truth, must be very careful about any theory and insist on solid evidence before passing it along.
There is one conspiracy active today in our world that is not a theory. God’s word validates it and the evidence of history supports it. It is the conspiracy behind the hostility that God’s people experience in this world. It is a conspiracy that we cannot ignore. It is a conspiracy that every person either resists or reinforces. It is the conspiracy that comes to life in the vision of Revelation 13.
The chapter falls in the middle of a description of the cosmic conflict between Satan and God. 12:1-6 summarized the whole conflict. In 12:7-17 a replay focused on how Satan left heaven to continue his war on earth. In Chapter 13, we learn more details about Satan’s strategy for this war. As I read these verses, identify the main culprits in this conspiracy.
1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. 2 And 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 to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. 4 And they 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?” 5 And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8 and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. 9 If anyone has an ear, let him hear: 10 If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
11 Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. 16 Also 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, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (Revelation 13:1–18)
From one perspective, this is an incredibly difficult passage to preach. Symbolic numbers and strange images, echoing various OT passages require interpretation. Do they point to historical figures alive when John wrote? Do they represent kinds of people throughout history? Do they predict characters that will emerge in the future that might be alive even now? Many answer “Yes” to all three questions. Sorting it all out is a monumental challenge.
But from another perspective, John, the human author who saw and wrote down this vision made it simple to preach. He provides the application right in the text. We read it in vv. 10 and 18. The vision of the dragon and his two beasts should move Christ’s people to faithful endurance (v. 10) and wise understanding (v. 18). Whatever their circumstances, Christians (“saints” as v. 10 refers to them) must endure faithfully by applying wise understanding.
These four terms – endurance and faith, wisdom and understanding are a pair of twins in the same family. You cannot separate endurance and faith. Endurance requires faith and faith requires endurance. For the Christian, you cannot experience one without the other. If you have genuine faith, you will endure. If you are enduring it is only through faith.
Also, wisdom and understanding are twins. Those who get wisdom get understanding. Those who have understanding have wisdom. And wisdom and understanding strengthen faith. True faith will be growing in wisdom and understanding. So, the purpose of interpreting the vision of the dragon and his two beasts is to move Christians to endure with a wise and understanding faith.
It has always been difficult to be a Christian in a world where, behind the scenes, Satan is conspiring to overthrow God’s purposes. Christ’s people have always had to endure. He warned his disciples,
21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:21-22)
Paul visited several churches on his first mission trip,
22 … strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)
In the opening chapter of Revelation, John introduces himself to Christians this way,
9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus…. (Revelation 1:9)
The vision of Revelation 13 calls those who are loyal to the Lamb to endure in a world in which an ugly enemy conspires to make sure that they do not endure. I want you to endure. I want Riverbend to be a church full of committed Christ followers who endure to the end with a wise and understanding faith. How will that happen? This chapter points to four requirements.
Recognize Your Enemy
First, recognize your enemy. Know who’s behind the conspiracy.
Most importantly, recognize the Dragon. We’ve already met it in 12:9.
9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
At the end of Chapter 12, the dragon stands on the shore at the edge of the sea. Chapter 13 now tells us that Satan not only has fallen angels cooperating with his conspiracy, but he also has help from human beings symbolized by two beasts.
His Two Beasts
We meet the first beast in vv. 1-8. We meet the second beast in vv. 11-17. The first beast rises from the sea (v. 1). The second beast rises from the earth (v. 11). The first beast looks hideous with multiple horns and heads and a mixture of animal parts for a body (v. 2). The second beast appears innocent like a lamb but speaks like a dragon (v. 11), a dragon in sheep’s clothing. The first beast has the throne (governmental authority) and gains a following by amazing and coercing people with its power, especially as it receives a mortal wound but recovers (v. 3). The second beast gains a following by deception and encouraging false worship (v. 14).
The First Beast
The first beast is associated with the antichrist. He is a false Christ. A fake king. Jesus submitted to and received authority from His Father. This false Christ receives authority from the Dragon. Jesus died and rose again, drawing his followers to worship Him as they worship the Father. This false Christ receives a death wound and yet recovers, leading his followers to marvel at and worship him. Jesus Christ has ascended to the Father’s throne and is destined to rule the nations with a rod of iron. This false Christ has a throne from the dragon and has authority over the people of the earth who do not belong to Christ (vv. 3, 7-8).
This first beast represents the authority of the state. It is a symbol for governments under Satan’s influence to coerce those on earth to reject Christ and to harass those who follow Christ. Not every government is as bad as it could be. Sometimes hostile governments are wounded and cease their hostility for a time. But the power of the state to oppose God’s purposes on earth always comes back.
In John’s day, the first beast was the Roman government. It expected Christians to acknowledge Caesar as Lord. Governments throughout history have to varying degrees used their coercive military power to pester or persecute those who are loyal to Jesus the Lamb. As this opposition increase with time, a great anti-Christ will arise before the end to unite world governments against Christ’s rule. This is why John could write,
18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. (1 John 2:18)
The people in the world who do not recognize Jesus as Lord look at the power of government and ask as v. 4 does, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” They do not recognize the Satanic conspiracy going on behind the human government nor will they give their allegiance to Jesus Christ.
The Second Beast
The second beast encourages worship of and shares authority with the first beast. He is a fake Holy Spirit. He gives breath to the image of the first beast that people worship (v. 15). In the original language of the NT, the word for breath is the word for spirit. The Holy Spirit performs signs and wonders to validate the representatives of Jesus Christ. The second beast does signs and wonders to deceive people to worship the first beast (v. 13). The Holy Spirit seals those who belong to Christ. The second beast marks those who belong to the first beast. In later chapters of Revelation, this beast is called the false prophet.
The second beast is a symbol of false religion that works alongside the power of government to oppose Christ. It deceives with error disguised with some truth. In John’s day, the local cults encouraged emperor worship. Throughout history, false leaders in the church and other religions have allied with the state to turn people from the truth. Before Christ returns, a great apostasy or turning away from the faith will occur exposing the hypocrisy of many. Paul describes this in 2 Thessalonians 2. Revelation 13 applies in every era between Christ’s first and second coming.
The False Trinity
Therefore, our enemy is a sinister counterfeit. Satan, the Dragon, wants to take the place of God the Father. The Anit-Christ is a false Christ. The False Prophet is a fake Holy Spirit. Christians must recognize that we face a conspiracy masterminded by a false Trinity, a direct challenge to the one True and Living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Chapter 13 reveals that all human beings fall under the authority of one of these godheads, the false or the True. Human leaders and those who follow them may not know that they are in submission to God’s challenger. They may appear kind and innocent but work for Satanic purposes. No wonder Peter calls the church to sober-mindedness in response to the Devil’s dark tactics.
A runner has to know the length and difficulty of her course if she is to endure to the end. A farmer has to know a weed down to the root so that he can buy and apply the right herbicide. Endurance with wise faith requires that you know your enemy.
Resist the Lure of Power
However, knowledge cannot be enough for endurance. There must be a response. So let’s add to the requirements for endurance from this chapter that draw implications from the threat of these two beasts.
To endure to the end with a wise and understanding faith, refuse the lure of power.
This is a response to the threat of the first beast. Christians are called to endure under not compete with or compete for political power. It is tempting for Christians to lust for political power. It is tempting for Christians to think that if we can find the right leader we can turn human government into a weapon that will establish Christ’s kingdom. It is tempting to think that my party is God’s party and the other party is the devil’s party. It is tempting to think that my country is God’s country and the others are Satan’s domain. Think about these things before the next election cycle kicks into higher gears.
Power and control are dangerous. Human beings and human governments abuse them. People abuse each other to get power and control and abuse each other when they get power and control. That’s true in governments and families. Satan has proven that he will work behind the scenes to use all human government to challenge and resist God’s purposes.
Those who are loyal to the Lamb do not put their trust in government. We understand that the Bible calls us to submit to human authorities. That’s Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-17. In a fallen world, government is necessary. And it is noble to serve in the government. But the Bible also teaches that we must defy human authority when it requires that we disobey God. V. 10 admits that this may mean that many Christians are destined to be taken captive or killed. We must be ready for that possibility.
There may have been times in the United States when human power and control favored the cause of the gospel. And the church is called to pray for government leaders that they will make decisions that encourage godliness and the growth of the gospel. But we see that government in the United States in many ways hinders and opposes godliness and the gospel. We have had leaders say blasphemous things against Christ and his people.
Christians insist that the church remain separate from the power and control of the government. We cannot use government power to advance the gospel. Taking over the government has not gone well for Christians in history. And we cannot lend our heavenly authority to legitimize a government’s plans. Do not forget how many churches in Nazi Germany bowed their knee to Hitler.
Christians are called to endure not take over. We are not here to exercise power but to serve. We are not loyal to the Dragon but to the true Lamb who was slain (v. 8). He lay down his life. He set aside his power to serve. If God gives you authority of any kind, treat it carefully. Use it for the good of others as God defines that good. As we have seen throughout Revelation, Christians endure by both declaring the gospel in their words and displaying the gospel in their works.
Resist the lure of power.
Reject the Love of Money
If the first beast’s abuses warn us against the dangers of power and control, the second beast’s deceptions warn us against the love of money. To endure to the end with a wise and understanding faith, reject the love of money.
The second beast uses religious ideas to con people into taking the mark of the first beast to make money and buy stuff. Worship a false Jesus in order to prosper. This is a sick vision of what Paul warns about in 1 Timothy 6:5 when he describes false teachers who imagine that “godliness is a means of gain.” It is religion to get rich. The vision of the second beast pictures compromising the truth for the sake of treasure.
We can come to the end of Chapter 13 and get all wrapped up around arguments about what the mark of the beast is and how people wear the mark. Remember that this is symbolic language. This is not describing a tattoo on the forehead. It is symbolizing lives marked by the number six-hundred sixty-six.
The number may mean many things. But John here calls it the number of man (no “a” in Greek). It is the number of human beings. If seven is the number of completeness, six is the number that is short of completeness. And the six is repeated here three times. It is continually incomplete.
Those who compromise the truth to gain treasure never have enough. Their lives are marked by a constant craving for more – more stuff, more money, more spending, more pleasures – trying to find some satisfaction. And they never get there. They will break God’s law to bring in more money but it is never enough.
Christians endure by rejecting the love of money. As the last days continue, Christians may have to quit jobs or lose jobs to remain true to the truth. We may have to sacrifice more to help a brother or sister out of work because he or she refused to compromise. Next week we will talk about the mark of the Lamb. Today’s message warns us against the mark of the beast which at least involves living for the love of money.
Remember the True Lord
We cannot turn away from the vision of these two evil beasts without noting that in the center of Chapter 13 is a reference to the Lamb who was slain. Let’s conclude by adding: To endure to the end with a wise and understanding faith, remember the true Lord.
Who has the real power? Who allows the Dragon and his beasts to operate? Who limits their time? Who truly satisfies the human desire for worship? It is the Lamb who was slain.
Translations struggle with verse 8. It may be saying that the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world. Or it may be saying that the names of the Lamb’s people were written in his book before the foundation of the world. The Bible teaches that both are true in some sense.
Let me focus on the first. Before God even created the world, he provided his Son as the sacrifice for sin. Even before Adam plunged the human race into misery through his rebellion against God, God ordained the slaughter of his Son to redeem human beings from the judgment of death and renew them to life. His book is the Book of Life.
And if your name is in his book of life it is because he chose to die your death for you. He accepted the punishment for your sin so you would not have to bear it. He received the mortal wound that you deserved. But then He rose again to secure life for all who will ever believe in Him.
The only people who can endure are saints (v. 10 says). And the only way to be a saint is to turn from your sin and loyalty to Satan and receive the righteousness of Christ as a gift, not a reward.
Jesus Christ endured the cross so that you can endure. He is not merely the example of endurance that we should follow. His endurance makes possible our endurance. Without his sacrifice, we remain under the domination of a false trinity. But through the slain Lamb, we receive the life of the true God.
And that eternal life will endure.