Dr. Barb Isbell, registrar and Professor of Theology, gave a chapel message on January 18, 2017 reflecting on Revelation 13.
Modern culture insists that there is no absolute truth – that what is true for you may not be true for me, and what is true today may not be true tomorrow. According to Oprah Winfrey, “there are certainly many more paths to God other than Christianity”. All roads lead to heaven, so it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe something. And Christians, and Christianity, are intolerant and exclusivist because they think they have a monopoly – that their way is the only way, that salvation is only available through Christ.
I want us to keep these challenges in mind as we delve into Revelation chapter 13 today. Because Scripture is very clear on this matter – JESUS was very clear on this matter – and it is one of the most important issues you and I will have to face.
Up to this point in Revelation, the majority of the action has come from one individual, and most of the focus has been on one individual – God. God, and by extension the Lamb, is the revealer, the redeemer, the one who holds the keys to Death and Hades, the one who sits on the throne, the only one worthy of worship, the Holy one, the protector, the judge, the one who metes out wrath on mankind, the conqueror, the sovereign one who is in control of all of salvation history.
But all of a sudden in chapter 12 last week, we were introduced to another actor – “the great dragon… that ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” And that dragon becomes a major player in the remainder of the plot line of Revelation, including chapter 13, our focus today. Let’s start by reading the text: (Read Revelation 13).
We see in these verses that the dragon, Satan, has given his authority to these two beasts – it is because of his power that they are able to perform great signs and wonders, conquer believers, control commerce, rule over every person on earth, and compel all of mankind to worship the dragon and the beast.
With the introduction of the dragon in chapter 12 and the two beasts in chapter 13, John has brought into focus a dichotomy that has existed since the beginning of time and is at the heart of all of salvation history. John consistently uses the theme of imitation to contrast the influence of the dragon and the beast with the authority of God and the Lamb. The beast is depicted throughout Revelation as a fraud who imitates the actions and persona of the almighty God, assumes divine characteristics, disguises himself as the true bearer of power and authority, and confuses people into worshiping a false god. And nowhere in Revelation is this seen more clearly than right here in chapter 13. Take a look:
The very first title given to Jesus in the book of Revelation is “the faithful witness” in 1:5. We are told multiple times in Revelation that he is trustworthy; his actions are just and his testimony is true. In contrast, we see here that the beast “deceives those who dwell on earth” and the dragon is identified as the one “who deceives the whole world” (Rev 12:9).
And did you notice the goal of this deception? Everything the beast does is intended to confuse people, to cause them to turn away from God and worship the beast and the dragon instead. He does this by performing great signs, such as “making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people”, which is similar to what takes place in several of the trumpet and bowl judgments. In other words, just like Pharaoh’s magicians tried to prove they were just as powerful as God by reproducing the first two plagues in Egypt, here the beast tries to deceive mankind about his true identity by performing great acts that look a lot like the judgments God has already sent; they were just not quite as grand.
The theme of imitation highlights the distinction between the beast and the one true God. As we read through Revelation, we become aware of an “unholy trio”, made up of the dragon and the two beasts in chapter 13 – chapter 16 makes this even more explicit, calling them “the dragon. . . the beast and . . . the false prophet”. This is very clearly an imitation of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit. Just as the One on the Throne and the Lamb are worshiped together, so too the dragon and the beast share man’s adulation. Notice the description of the beast rising from the earth in 13:11 – it “looks like a lamb!” By the way, this is the only occurrence of the word “lamb” in Revelation that does not refer to Jesus. But this isn’t the only important comparison between the beast and the Lamb. Look at 13:3—the beast rising from the sea received a mortal wound but was healed. Just like the Lamb who was slain yet lives in Revelation 5:6, the beast appears to have survived a deadly injury of some sort, and the purpose of this imagery could not be clearer. It is this imitation of Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection that forms the basis for man’s worship of the beast.
One last point of imitation from chapter 13 – and by the way, this theme is not isolated to this chapter, but is found throughout Revelation. But take a look at verses 16-18. The beast causes people to take his mark on the right hand or forehead in order to buy or sell goods in society. Notice how the mark is described – “it is the name of the beast or the number of its name… and his number is 666”. Just as God seals his people on their foreheads with his name as a sign of belonging to God and a source of protection from his coming wrath, the mark of the beast is an indication of ownership, of possession.
A quick side note – numerology is quite important in the book of Revelation, and most of you probably realize that the number 7 is the number of completion, perfection. It is a number frequently associated with God, with his divine perfection. So if you had to give a number to the Trinity, it could be 777. But did you know that the number 6 represents the exact opposite of 7? It is a number of falsehood, of imperfection. So the beast’s number, 666, could be a way of highlighting that the beast is FAKE FAKEFAKE; he is a phony, a fraud, a deceiver. Unlike God, who is perfect and TRUE TRUETRUE, the beast is FALSE FALSEFALSE.
The overarching theme of the book of Revelation is allegiance – where does your loyalty lie? Who will you worship when faced with persecution or even death? Throughout Revelation, John repeatedly challenges genuine believers to take a stand against idolatry and pledge their loyalty to Christ, whose sacrificial death and resurrection is highlighted in the figure of the Lamb who alone is worthy to receive worship. At the same time, there emerges a beast who is in direct opposition to the Lamb, believing himself to be divine and demanding that all mankind worship him as such. The counterpoint between “Jesus Christ the faithful witness” (Rev 1:5) and “Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9) confronts the reader with a choice to worship either the Lamb or the beast.
Did you catch that? There are ONLY TWO options – two paths, two choices. There is no neutrality in Revelation—you are either a follower of God or a follower of Satan—there is no middle ground.
And this choice is not to be taken lightly, for it affects one’s entire existence, both on earth and beyond. Choosing to worship the Lamb does not mean that life will be all sunshine and roses, a life of prosperity and ease. No, Jesus guarantees that this world will bring troubles with it, persecution and hardship and suffering and trials. Choosing the Lamb is not an easy choice, nor is it a popular choice. But it is the RIGHT choice! You see, those who take the mark of the beast are permitted to participate in commerce – they experience blessings in society, at least for the present time – but they are also subject to God’s wrath and eternal judgment. Yes, those who worship the Lamb and are sealed as God’s servants may undergo temporary persecution at the hands of the beast and his followers, but it is just that – temporary. They will ultimately experience the presence of God, living and reigning with him through all eternity.
There are two ways, two paths, a choice between only two options. As Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Robert Frost put it this way:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
You see, there is absolute truth, and life is best when lived in harmony with that truth. It may not be easy, it may not be the most travelled path, but it is available to you, if you will just choose it. Will you choose to worship the beast, the great deceiver, and face eternal judgment as an enemy of God, or will you choose to worship Christ, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” and receive eternal life with Him?
I end with a paraphrase of Joshua’s petition to the Israelites as they renewed the covenant at Shechem: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the Lamb or the beast. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lamb.”