This is our fifth sermon on John’s Revelation and we have made it half way thorough the book, however, the second half moves quicker and I plan to finish next week, before Pentecost. If you missed any of the previous sermons and want to hear them, they are available on my sermon blog. We ended last week with what seemed like it should have been the end of the Revelation, but John now makes a second pass, so to speak, revealing additional information.
In the second part of John’s Revelation he begins by re-working a number of old pagan myths and putting a Christian twist to them. I don’t have time to tell each of the myths this morning, but for those who are interested, the story of Tiamat the great seven headed sea monster of Babylonian myths, the story of the winged goddess Isis from Egypt, and the story of the birth of Apollo from Greek mythology were stories John’s audience would have known and images John utilizes.
John sees portents, great signs that foretell something important in the sky. The first is a woman described in mythological proportions who represents both the nation of Israel and the young church. She is pregnant and in labor as the story opens. There is a great seven headed dragon that John will tell us is Satan that is waiting to devour her child the minute she gives birth, but the child is magically snatched up to heaven where the dragon cannot reach him. The child is clearly Christ because we are told that he is “a son, a male-child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” This is a paraphrase of Psalm 2: 8-9 about the Messiah. He is snatched up to heaven through his death, resurrection and ascension. The woman on the other hand must flee into the wilderness where she is to be protected for 1260 days or 3.5 years. This is all highly symbolic, drawing on images familiar to John audience is for the purpose of revealing a current truth.
Next comes a great battle in heaven between Michael, the angel named in the book of Daniel and Satan. Satan is thrown out of heaven and he and his rebellious angels are cast down to earth. Jesus says he saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening. (Luke 10: 18). Keep in mind that time is not relevant in heaven. Don’t expect things to happen chronologically. The dragon takes out his anger on the children of the woman described earlier, in other words, Satan is taking out his anger on those who continue in the true faith here on earth. This is the great battle of good and evil on a cosmic level.
Chapter 13 draws heavily on Daniel 7. Daniel has a vision of 4 beasts a winged lion that morphs into a human, a tusked bear that devours everything, a 4 headed 4 winged leopard, and a ten horned beast with iron teeth and human eyes. John merges these 4 beasts into 2 having one come from the sea like Leviathan and one from the earth like Behemoth, the monsters of the Old Testament. These are not a whale and an elephant, they are frightening mythological creatures not large endangered species. The dragon and the two beasts form a hierarchy of evil, the lesser directing people to worship the greater.
So, how does this apply to 1st century Asia Minor? Local civil and religious authorities (the beast from the earth that looks like a lamb with two horns) were falling all over themselves trying to impress Rome, getting permission to build bigger and more impressive temples to the Roman Gods and encouraging the people to worship the Roman gods, (the beast from the sea – the pseudo-dragon that also had seven heads and wore ten diadems.) Rome claimed to have authority over all the earth, but John is saying that in reality the authority belongs to the dragon or Satan. When Satan tempted Jesus he offered him all the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down and worship him. John is saying those who worship at the Roman temples are in fact worshiping Satan who is a parody of the true ruler of the world, the crucified and resurrected Jesus.
Until recently, tattoos were associated with slavery. Slaves in the ancient world were tattooed or pierced branding them as belonging to a particular person, during WWII the Nazi’s tattooed the people they put in concentration camps, tattoos were also used by some military groups, pirates, and street gangs for the same general purpose – you now belonged to the gang and it was hard to deny it. The mark of the beast, 666 was symbolically saying that those who worshiped at the feet of Rome were marked as slaves to Rome whereas Christians are sealed at baptism with the sign of the cross and marked as Christ’s own forever. There is a particular type of numerology called Gematria which assigns numbers to letters. You can add up the number value of a word to get its number; “beast” is 666, so is Nero Caesar, (Witherington 2003) which may have been who John was speaking of when he said, “the number of the beast is the number of a person.” (Rev 13:18). Nero had redirected blame for the disastrous burning of Rome off himself and on to Christians exacting cruel and public torture and executions upon them.
Then in Chapter 14, John describes the opposing army, the holy army. This one is 144000 again 12 X 12 x 1000 celibate men who have received the mark of the lamb and the lamb’s father. Ancient pagan fertility rituals which were supposed to ensure good crops generally involved some kind of temple prostitution. One of the reasons sexual purity is so important in the bible is that it was a sign of being in a right relationship with God. In the context of marriage it was being obedient to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. Outside of marriage it was considered a form of idolatry and disobedience, a broken relationship with God. Both marriage and sexual misconduct are frequently used to describe the holy or broken relationship of God and a group of people. This army of God had been obedient to God and kept themselves holy, just as God is holy. A commandment from Deuteronomy. He states they sing a song that can only be learned from them, possibly a reference to false prophets and alternative Christian theologies such as Gnosticism which was prevalent at that time. I frequently hear people stating that they have discovered that were many forms of Christianity in the first and second century as though they have just discovered a lost piece of art by one of the masters, but during the first and second century the faith was spread mostly by word of mouth. People were wresting with questions that are not always explicit, even in the scriptures as we have them today, and coming up with their own answers, often outside the accepted norm of the church, and they wrote them down and shared them with others. The ancient Christian Fathers wrote volumes against heresies. Not unbelief, but distorted and harmful belief. Embracing these unauthorized texts as authoritative is like trying to cheat on a test from someone who has the wrong answers.
John is still following Daniel. After Daniel describes his vision of the beasts, he describes the “Ancient One” on his throne and says, “I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Dan 7:13) God and the Messiah, or in Christian terms – the Father and the Son.
Next, three angels come bearing warnings. The first says, “Fear God and give him glory” (Rev 14:6) and warns that the time of judgement has come and reminds the world that it is God the creator that deserves worship. The second angel says, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev 14: 8) Babylon will be a code word for Rome throughout the rest of the book. The angel is predicting the demise of Rome and accusing it of leading the world astray. The third angel curses those who “worship the beast” (Rev 14:9) the idols of Rome, which included Caesar and describes the eternal torment they will endure.
John then gets very practical and states explicitly, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.” An angel responds affirming that those who “die in the Lord…will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”
Finally chapter 14 ends with “the one like the Son of Man,” Christ, initiating the harvest. Jesus often used the image of a harvest because it was something the people understood. They knew when the time was right you went out and collected the fruit of the harvest and you then cleaned up the field so it could be planted the next year. This is a symbolic image of the end of the current age and the final judgement when the sheep are separated from the goats, the wheat from the tares, or any of the many other biblical images that says the faithful are blessed and those who worshiped – not God – in this case Roman idols, reap the fruits of their evil deeds.
John’s audience were living in times of terrible hardship and persecution for being Christians in the middle of a world of opulence and excess for those who cooperated with Rome. Judgement for them meant justice.
We don’t like to think about a final judgement. Perhaps we worry we won’t measure up. Perhaps we worry someone we love won’t measure up. I believe in a merciful God. I don’t know how God will work everything out in the end. I believe God’s mercy is greater than God’s wrath, but I trust God will ultimately defeat evil and bring about a new creation that we will hear more about later in John’s Revelation.