Revelation 17 Unmasking Babylon

Revelation 17

1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.” 3 So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; 5 and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” 6 And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.

When I saw her, I was greatly amazed. 7 But the angel said to me, “Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.

9 “This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, 10 of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; 14 they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”

15 And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. 18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”

The language here is potent, and the subject matter below may be difficult for some readers, particularly those who would be triggered by imagery of sexual violence and the metaphorical use the word whore. Rhetorically this is a powerful use of satire to subvert many of the images of strength and piety that were a part of the portrayed identity of Rome. Interpreters across the generations have used this passage as a basis for satire in their own time. For example, Lucas Cranach the Elder in his initial edition of illustrations for Revelation portrayed the woman on the beast wearing a papal tiara, which visually reinforced that for many followers of Luther in their time they viewed the pope and the Roman catholic church as a reading of the text for their time. In later editions Cranach would modify the woodcut to have a simpler crown and a less political reading. Even though the initial readers of Revelation would have seen the imagery pointing satirically to the Roman empire of their day instead of the Roman catholic church, the understanding of the satirical intent of the text has been consistent.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Whore of Babylon

The Roman empire portrayed itself as a virtuous, strong and benevolent empire. The peace of Rome, while it may have been a bloody peace as mentioned in earlier chapters, was enforced through the might of the legions, the alliance with local powers and in some cases the use of fear and terror to keep populations in line. The Romans did not invent crucifixion, for example, but they did perfect it as a tool to shame those who were crucified as they died a slow painful death exposed for the rest of the population to see. I have frequently heard people say that John in writing Revelation was encoding his message so that the Roman empire would not understand what he is saying but this is simply not true. To his readers the images he used would be as readable as most political cartoons in a newspaper would be today. For example, Rome was commonly known as a city on seven hills, or mountains, and by explaining the details of the seven heads being seven mountains and seven hills where the woman would be clear to any reader of the time who he was referring to. Especially when Roman coinage of the time portrays Rome the city as a goddess reclining upon the seven hills. The satire begins by taking the Roman image of their virtue and reversing it: Rome the goddess becomes instead personified as the whore dressed in opulence. As Craig Koester can state:

Such transparent allusion to Rome means that John does not use imagery to conceal his message but to reveal the opulence, arrogance, violence and idolatry of the world’s ruling power. (Koester, 2014, p. 690)

Auction coins from http://www.icollector.com showing a Sestertius from 69-70 with Vespasian on the front and the goddess Rome reclining on seven hills on the back

The emperor cult in the Roman empire was often embraced willingly by the people of the empire. Patrons would compete for the ability to dedicate a temple or a structure to the empire to show their loyalty and to curry favor. Since to many people the ruler cult was popular, even early Christians appeared to look for how they could participate in the economic and social benefits as we learned in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation two and three, and in the image the angel has to tell John not to be amazed by the portrayal of Rome. The people of Rome who actively participated in the emperor cult had either become numb to the violence of the empire, kept themselves distant from it or had become intoxicated with it themselves. John wants us to understand that the power behind Rome is not the God of Israel or any benevolent god, but instead by placing the woman on the beast we met in Revelation thirteen John wants his readers to understand that the empire is instead a beast created in the image of the great dragon, Satan, and a “demonic counterpart to the slain and living Lamb.” (Koester, 2014, p. 687)

For all the Roman empire’s talk of piety, they had no trouble using images of women being abused or raped by the emperor in military garb as a metaphor for the military conquest of nations. For example, in the excavations at Aphrodisias we can see in two reliefs emperor Claudius conquering Britain and Nero conquering Armenia portrayed as a soldier who is overpowering a woman.

Emperor Claudius Portraying the Conquest of Brittanica in AD 43 as the Rape of a Woman from Aphrodisias Excavations Sebasteion South Building http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html#prettyPhoto

Emperor Nero portrayed conquesting Armenia rom Aphrodisias Excavations Sebasteion South Building http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html#prettyPhoto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The imagery of Rome as the conquering and overpowering essence of masculinity is now reversed as Rome becomes the prostitute who will be torn apart by the very ones that she has given her favors to. This imagery is similar to the end of Jeremiah four where the woman, representing Judah, prepares herself to receive lovers:

 30 And you, O desolate one, what do you mean that you dress in crimson,
that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
 that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
Your lovers despise you; they seek your life.
 31 For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
anguish as of one bringing forth her first child,
the cry of daughter Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before killers!”

Much as the imagery of Rome the conqueror shows that conquering soldiers in this time did not pay for a prostitute but instead took women against their will, now Rome itself is torn apart by the very powers that once paid it homage and honor. Revelation understands that the forces aligned against God are indeed a house divided and they will devour one another even before Christ arrives. The violence that created the empire will become its undoing in John’s vision.

 

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Revelation 16 The Final Cycle of Judgment

Ruins atop Tel Megiddo, Israel. The modern highway to Haifa is visible in the background. Photo by Joe Freeman, Shared under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License 2.5

Revelation 16

1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”

2 So the first angel went and poured his bowl on the earth, and a foul and painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image.

3 The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died.

4 The third angel poured his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. 5 And I heard the angel of the waters say,

“You are just, O Holy One, who are and were, for you have judged these things;
6 because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!”

 7 And I heard the altar respond, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!”

8 The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch them with fire; 9 they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory.

10 The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, 11 and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.

12 The sixth angel poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east. 13 And I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. 14 These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. 15 (“See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.”) 16 And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.

17 The seventh angel poured his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” 18 And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. 19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath. 20 And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found; 21 and huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.

The final cycle of judgments begins with the seven bowls held by the seven angels. There are many similarities in this scene with the seven seals in Revelation 6-8:4 and the seven trumpets in Revelation 8:5-11:13 which I explore in greater depth in the exploration of Revelation 6, but with this cycle there are several parallels with the signs and wonders, or plagues as they are commonly known, from Exodus 7-12. The Exodus is the defining narrative of the Hebrew people and one thing we have seen from Revelation is John’s deep familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures. As I mentioned when I wrote about the plagues in Exodus and as I have mentioned throughout this exploration of Revelation one of the often-unnoticed portions of these passages is the divine restraint that is exercised. Throughout Revelation there has been a desire for repentance, for those who have allied themselves with the forces opposed to God and creation to change their allegiance. Revelation operates under the prophetic hope that every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that God is the Lord and master of the earth. But here, echoing the language of Jesus with Nicodemus in the gospel of John we will find that ‘this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3: 19)

The pouring of libations as an offering to a god was practiced by cultures throughout the Greco-Roman world including in Jewish worship at the temple, but here we see the practice inverted: instead of the faithful devotees of a deity pouring out wine or blood to appease a deity now it is the God of Israel who has the angels of God pour out the wine of God’s wrath upon God’s adversaries on earth. In chapter fourteen God trod the winepress of the harvested grapes and what came forth was blood, now we will see the harvest of the earth returned to the earth. The angel of the sea will proclaim that God is just for what God is doing, and those in the altar can also celebrate the long-awaited justice as the final bowls are poured and God’s judgment is finally ended.

The first bowl causes those who have the mark of the beast to have a painful sore. Much like the boils of Exodus 9: 8-12, the plague is painful but not fatal and still allows people a time to change their allegiance. There is time for repentance and in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures the expectation would be that plagues like the ones throughout this chapter would be divine judgment and the proper response would be to seek out how to reconcile oneself with the offended deity.  As Craig Koester can state about this first bowl:

Yet there is a divine restraint. Those who received the beast’s mark seemed to escape the threat of death under the beast, while those who refused the mark were to be killed (13:15). God’s plague is not a simple reversal of this practice. Painful though it is, the sore that God inflicts on the followers of the beast is less severe than the death that the beast inflicts upon the followers of the Lamb. (Koester, 2014, p. 654)

The second and third bowls cause the waters of the earth (first the sea and then the streams and springs) to become blood. There is a sense of justice that those who have poured out the blood of the saints and martyrs are now forced to drink blood from their own wells. Their own actions which forced the creation to drink up the blood of the fallen now sees the creation returning to the people the drink which the soil has drunk on the field of war or from sites of execution and coliseums throughout the empire. The Hebrew people often associated angels with being associated with elements like fire, water, thunder and here the angel of the water proclaims the justice of the command of God to cause bloody waves to come upon the shore and bloody rivers and springs to provide an additional sign of God’s judgment. Yet, even here there is not death. Much like the transformation of the Nile River to blood (Exodus 7: 14-25) there is a chance for life to continue and for repentance to occur. Yet, God has heard the suffering of God’s people and God is now judging those who have oppressed the people and the creation.

The fourth angel’s bowl being poured upon the sun does not have a parallel among the signs and wonders in Egypt, but it continues the use of the creation as an instrument of God’s judgment. Yet, even this fiery wrath does not bring about repentance, in fact it brings about the opposite. Those who remain aligned with the beast and with Satan will not change their allegiance at this point so instead of pleading for God’s forgiveness or mercy they curse God. Similarly, the darkness which plunges the empire of the beast into darkness may cause people to gnaw their tongues in agony (a phrase with a similar meaning to gnashing of teeth) and for a second time to curse God. In the signs and wonders in Egypt darkness was the penultimate sign and it showed the powerlessness of the Egyptian gods (particularly Ra) to oppose the Lord, the God of Israel (Exodus 10: 21-29). Here the beast and the forces of the beast are also powerless in comparison to God’s might.

Like Egypt gathering its forces for a decisive elimination of the people of God after the signs and wonders in the Exodus, the first six bowls cause the forces opposed to God to assemble for a final conflict. The drying up of the Euphrates can allow the people of God to remember how God would allow the people of God to pass through the Red Sea under Moses (Exodus 14), the Jordan River under Joshua, (Joshua 3), or how Elijah and Elisha could pass through the Jordan in 2 Kings 2. Another level of memory may associate the Euphrates with the Assyrian and Babylonian empires who conquered Israel and Judah respectively, since both empires were based along the Euphrates. Finally, the Euphrates formed a barrier between the Roman empire and the Parthians empire to the east. The kings from the east may refer to the fear that the Parthian empire would someday invade Rome, or it may refer to a tradition that emperor Nero would return with a large force from the Parthians were some believed he had fled to, or it could refer to the idea of a great gathering of the kings of the earth for a final war to end all wars against each other and the forces of God.

The frog like demonic spirits which come from the mouth of the dragon, the beast and false prophet and speak with their words to deceive in opposition to God. On the one hand, the frog like spirits link this passage with the frogs of Exodus 8:1-15 but these take a much more active role in the movement towards the final conflict. In Revelation they are the response of the adversaries of God in response to the judgment being poured out upon the kingdom of the beast. They rally those loyal to the beast to remain unified in their opposition to the reign of God. To the early Christians the military might of the empire must have seemed to be an indomitable force and yet, amid the assembling of military might we are reminded that Christ is coming at a time when we do not expect. Christ breaks in like a thief in the night and these followers of Christ are to remain faithful even when they may appear to be powerless.

Armageddon, or Harmegedon, most likely links the Hebrew word for hill or mountain (har) with Megiddo. Megiddo is located on the Jezreel plain on the route linking Egypt with Syria and is a place of several conflicts in the scriptures including Deborah’s victory over Sisera and the Canaanites (Judges 5: 19) and it is the region where King Ahaziah (2 Kings 2: 27) and King Josiah of Judah (23:29) die in battle.  The connection with Revelation, particularly by the spelling and content, is most likely Zechariah 12: 11 where God intervenes to provide victory against an enemy who is threatening the people of Judah:

On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plains of Meggido.

As Zechariah continues to move towards its climax the nations will gather against Jerusalem and as half of the city is cut off God finally intervenes and goes forth to fight against the nations. John frequently joins multiple passages together in Revelation’s imagery and here the mountains probably come from the invasion of the forces of Gog and Magog, which will be referenced in Revelation 19.

Regardless of geography or scriptural references the progression of the narrative is easy to follow: in response to the actions of God in judgment the forces opposed to God’s reign unite in a common location for a final stand. The dragon, who was already thrown out of heaven in Revelation 12, and his allies prepare for a final act of defiance against God’s will.

With the final bowl poured out and the declaration of the completion of the cycle the earth and skies react in judgment against the city and the forces opposed to God. The metaphorical telling of the judgment of Babylon (Rome) will continue in Revelation 17-18, but here in a hailstorm far more violent than the lethal thunder and hail of Exodus 9: 13-35 and an earthquake unlike any the world had recorded the power of God’s among the creation is unleashed and the great city along with the cities of the nations fell. The disasters in the vision would be rightly called ‘acts of God’ showing God’s judgment upon those who continue to hold to the dragon and the beasts in their allegiance. Yet, unlike Pharaoh who can declare after the hailstones, “This time I have sinned; the LORD is right, and I and my people are in the wrong.” (Exodus 9: 27), the people who have received the mark of the beast curse (literally blaspheme) God for a third time in the chapter. With the nations assembled for war the time of waiting is finally ended. Those who still resist the oncoming reign of God now have come to the end of God’s restraint. It is a time of great reversals, which reminds me of the language of the extended judgment of Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51, particularly:

Flee from the midst of Babylon, save your lives, each of you!
Do not perish because of her guilt, for this is the time of the LORD’s vengeance;
he is repaying her what is due.
Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD’s hand, making all the earth drunken;
the nations drank of her wine, and so the nations went mad. Jeremiah 51: 6-7

Now Babylon, the beast, the dragon and all the other forces opposed to God have gone mad and now they must drink the cup of God’s fury, the justice of the slain. In the following two chapters as Babylon falls and the princes and merchants mourn for her they will, in the language of Jeremiah 51: 8-9 find that there is no balm that can heal the fallen city. The cry for her judgment has reached the ears of God, the harvest of their actions has been turned into the bloody waters they drink, and their opposition to God is leading them to their destruction.

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Revelation 15 A Song Before the Wrath

York Minster, Great East Window, 4a, The Plague Angels and the Harpers (1405-1408)

Revelation 15

1 Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.

2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:

“Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty!
 Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!
4 Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.”

5 After this I looked, and the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, 6 and out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues, robed in pure bright linen, with golden sashes across their chests. 7 Then one of the four living creatures gave the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever; 8 and the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were ended.

Chapter fifteen provides a transition into the final cycle of plagues and a metaphorical telling of the collapse of the forces opposed to God’s will. The seven angels with the seven bowls should remind us of the seven angels with the seven trumpets in Revelation 8:6-11:13 and the seven seals in Revelation 6:1-8:5. Since the seven bowls are actually poured out in the following chapter I’ll look at the parallels between the bowls, trumpets and seals as well as the similarities with the plagues in Exodus at that point. For this brief chapter I’ll focus on this brief pause to worship prior to the unveiling of the judgment of God upon the earth.

Throughout Revelation there is this pause and restraint that interrupts the descent into judgment. While these portions of Revelation may not occupy the imaginative space of the horsemen of the apocalypse, the great dragon, the beasts and the numerous other images of the book of Revelation they are important to the rhythm and understanding of the book. Amid all the chaos that appears to be unleashed upon the earth they are continual reminders to the faithful that God is in control and that their faithful witness is how they will conquer the seemingly unconquerable forces that are arrayed against them. They will stand with Moses and the faithful of all ages proclaiming the praise of God and the Lamb.

The sea of glass follows the image of the rivers of blood up to the horse’s bridle, and as the faithful gather to sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb we are reminded of when Moses and Miriam and the people of God sang on the far side of the Red Sea as Pharaoh and his armies were submerged in the sea in Exodus 14. The song which the faithful sing is not the song of Moses, recorded in Exodus 15, even though it reflects some similar themes but instead the song of Moses and Lamb. The Lamb is joined to the messenger of God who told the people how to celebrate the first Passover. In the story of Exodus there is an extended pause for worship and ritual prior to the final judgment on Egypt. Here the faithful gather around the glass sea to sing songs of praise before the seven golden bowls are distributed.

The song reflects the most hopeful vision of the prophets where all nations will come and worship before God. Texts like Isaiah 2: 2-4, Isaiah 66: 23, Jeremiah 16:19 and Zechariah 8:22 all point hopefully to the time when all the earth realizes the Lordship of the Creator. A time when no one worships the beast or the dragon or any other idol, but all can realize that God alone is holy.

In Revelation 8: 3-5 the prayers of the saints are offered up with incense to God and earlier in Revelation 6:9-11 when the fifth seal was opened the martyrs had cried out “how long will it be before you judge the earth.” God sees, hears and now responds to this earlier offering. God’s wrath at those who have oppressed not only God’s people, but God’s creation will no longer be contained. Earlier the prayers of the faithful were offered on the altar, now from the temple come the seven bowls filled with God’s wrath.

The language of the temple of the tent of witnesses also harkens back to the tabernacle created for the journey through the wilderness. While earlier we have heard the temple referenced we now are referred to the central portion of a heavenly tabernacle. The tabernacle was built on a model given to Moses in the book of Exodus and many Jewish people believed it was an earthly model of God’s heavenly temple. Yet it is also the place of worship for a people and a God on the move and as the movement of Revelation continues we will see that God is on the move to have God’s kingdom dwell on earth. The tabernacle on earth and the tabernacle in heaven are temporary structures to serve until the time when there is no longer a need for a temple in the city of God for God dwells in the midst of the city.

 

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Revelation 14 The Harvest of God

Wine Press in Shivta, photo by Avishai Teicher file licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5

 Revelation 14

1 Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, 3 and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth. 4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, 5 and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless.

6 Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth — to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7 He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”

8 Then another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.”

9 Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, 10 they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

12 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.

13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”

14 Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! 15 Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, “Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” 16 So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.

17 Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 18 Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” 19 So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. 20 And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.

The triumphant tone of this chapter can be both jubilant and unsettling. For those who have undergone suffering and who are awaiting God’s decisive action they perhaps hear the distant refrain of the new song of the 144,000 proclaiming the victory of the lamb and an end to their tribulations. Yet, the image of a bloody harvest and the trampling of the great wine press of the wrath of God highlights the destructive power of God. The chapter has a militant tone which echoes in the lyrics of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the faithful lightning of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on

There are a number of contrasts between this vision and the vision that immediately precedes it in Revelation 13: while the dragon may stand upon the seashore the lamb stands upon the high ground of Mount Zion; while those who worshipped the beast were marked with its number the followers of the lamb bear the name of God upon their foreheads; the previous chapter showed the social cost of not conforming to the demands of the beast (or the empire) while here conformity’s cost is revealed as drinking the undiluted wine of God’s wrath. The chapter also looks forward to remaining chapters of Revelation and tells through one set of images the judgment of Babylon (Rome) what will be developed in two additional sets of images in chapters 15-16 and chapters 17-18 respectively. Much like the dragon’s defeat in heaven foreshadows the final defeat in Revelation 20, here Rome’s derivative rule will be announced here but told through the story of the harlot and the beast in Revelation 17-18. For those who have waited for God’s action the time of their waiting has ended and the time open to the possibility of repentance is quickly closing as well.

The one hundred and forty-four thousand, introduced in chapter seven, are reintroduced here. The number is a number of completeness, twelve times twelve thousand, where every tribe of Israel is sealed. They are purchased or redeemed out of humanity as a first fruit of the larger harvest that is expected and which will happen metaphorically below. As chapter seven remined us they will eventually be a part of the multitude beyond counting of every language, tribe, nation and people. These one hundred forty-four thousand are described as male virgins who have no family commitments and are free to follow the lamb wherever he goes. The old nursery song is now reversed where instead of Mary having a little lamb who follows wherever she goes the Lamb of God has these men who follow it regardless of where it goes. The virginity of these first fruits of humankind may be literal representing people unencumbered by familial ties but it also may be metaphorical referring to those who have not compromised their relationship with God or indulged in practices which Revelation views as immoral. There is a parallel with how Jeremiah uses bridal imagery for Israel in Jeremiah 2: 2-3

Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, “Thus says the LORD: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, the first fruit of his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them.

The figures of the one hundred forty-four thousand as chaste males also contrasts them strongly with not only those who have compromised in their faith but also sets them diametrically against the way Revelation views Rome (Babylon). Now in a striking use of language reminiscent of Jeremiah 2, the one hundred forty-four thousand represent an Israel that has remained faithful and now instead of Israel ‘playing the whore’ it is Rome (Babylon) who has made the nations drink the ‘wine of her fornication.’ This also contrasts with the public image that post-Augustan Rome tried to craft for itself being a nation of piety and law. Revelation continues to unmask the true character of Rome from the perspective of the early followers of Christ.

Three angels come announcing an eternal gospel. While many people are used to the word gospel being used to describe books out of the bible or its typical English translation of ‘good news’ the Greek word euangellion which we translate as gospel typically in Roman culture a ‘gospel’ is a proclamation on behalf of the emperor. There were gospels proclaiming the celebration of a victory (proclaiming to a people conquered their liberation by the forces of Imperial Rome) or to celebrate a birth or birthday or assumption of power related to the emperor. The language of the early Christians is full of political implications but they are people whose allegiance is to Christ, which means Messiah or King, and not to Caesar. The gospel proclaimed here is truly good news for those whose allegiance has been to Christ and who have resisted accommodating to the ways of the empire, but for those whose allegiance rests with the beasts, wittingly or unwittingly, it is the announcement of judgment. The purpose of Revelation is to encourage those who are among the faithful to continue in their perseverance even in the midst of persecution and to trust that the time of God’s action is approaching. Here the faithful have their reward and rest announced while those who have allowed the beast to have their allegiance and worship must drink the cup that has been prepared for them.

Talking about the judgment of God or the wrath of God has become unpopular in many churches and yet it is an essential, if uncomfortable, thing for Christians and the church to wrestle with unless we also want to, often unwittingly and unthinkingly, proclaim a God who either is unable to help people in the midst of their struggles or who always stands on the side of the oppressor. Christianity and Judaism before it has always believed that God takes sides, that God acts, and that God expects certain things from those who become covenant partners with God. For me one of the passages that reoriented how I think about Revelation comes from Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace

Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1: 51-52) seems responsible; the God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so, violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover it takes the quiet suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Volf, 1996, pp. 303-304)

The harvest image that concludes this chapter and foreshadows the narrative of the coming chapters. The first harvest can be read as either a positive or negative image. On the positive side the harvest of wheat, barley and other grains, which were typically harvested by the sickle, indicate the end of the growing season and the gathering of the long-awaited harvest into the barns. There is no indication of the sifting of the wheat away from the tares, only the ingathering of the grain. However, the two harvests can be read together as a common bloody harvest. The images do pair the Son of Man image from Daniel 7:13 with the language of the harvest of grain and the winepress in Joel 3: 13:

Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full.
 The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.

Yet, I do read the first harvest as a positive image. The first reaping brings together the harvest from across the earth. The second reaping comes from the temple, which in the next chapters will be a place where judgment will come from. Although grapes are not typically harvested with a sickle, Revelation continues the metaphor to describe the harvest of the vintage of the earth. The image ends with the winepress of the wrath of God and blood flowing for two hundred miles to the depth of a horse’s bridle. On first reading it is easy to think of the God who treads this winepress as a blood thirsty God and more like the beasts than the Lamb, and while those who have undergone oppression may want to see the blood of those who shed their blood I don’t believe that vengeance is the primary function of this image, instead it is unveiling the way things are. The image of God treading the winepress echoes the beginning of Isaiah 63: 1-6

“Who is this that comes from Edom, from Bozrah in garments stained crimson?
Who is this so splendidly robed marching in his great might?”
“It is I, announcing vindication, mighty to save.:
“Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?”
“I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in anger and trampled them in wrath; their juice spattered on my garments,and stained all my robes.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come.
I looked and there was no helper; I stared, but there was no one to sustain me;
so my own arm brought me victory, and my wrath sustained me.
I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath,
and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth

As violent as this passage is, I always imagine tears in the eyes of the personified figure of the LORD treading the wine press alone, abandoned by the world. Anger and grief are frequently close cousins and the prophets often portray an image of a grieving and wounded God seeing the state of the world or the people of God and desiring a solution. I also think it is important to pay attention to the construction of the metaphor. Ultimately, I believe this passage, like several other places in Revelation are not about prophesying some horrific scene of judgement but rather about revealing the reality of the bloodshed already present in the world. God does not transform the juice of the grapes into something it was not but rather in the press shows what the harvest of the world is in contrast to the harvest of Christ that has been brought into the barns.   As Craig Koester can insightfully state:

This scene, as in 19: 11-21, envisions an end to the injustice that has plagued the world (cf. sec. 39 COMMENT). The river of blood, which flows as high as horse’s bridle, show the magnitude of the violence that has been done on earth (14:20). It reveals why divine justice cannot be delayed indefinitely. As Christ tramples the grapes, the amount of blood that is squeezed out shows how full of brutality the world has become. From this perspective the question is not, “Why is God’s judgment so severe?” Rather, if one sees the earth as a vineyard already filled with blood, the question is like that of the martyrs: “Why has God not judged the wicked sooner?” (6:10) (Koester, 2014, pp. 630-631)

God may have desired a different harvest from the vineyard than the bloody one which was reaped, God may have desired not to tread the winepress alone and yet, the bloodshed of the earth was present even when it was not unveiled. The cry of the martyrs, “How long, O Lord” has remained unanswered until this point in Revelation. From this chapter onward the answer of the Lord is, “I will wait no longer, the time of harvest has come.” And the eyes of those watching will see the glory and the terror of the coming of the Lord, for the glory of God reveals and confronts the terror of the way things are on the earth and will soon put an end to those who have used their power to oppress and destroy the earth.

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Anfechtung

Roland H. Bainton’s classic, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, is one of several Luther biographies I have on my shelf and it is a classic work, even if it is a little dry to read. I want to focus in on an insight from one of the last chapters called ‘The Struggle for Faith’ in most of what I write below but first I’m going to indulge a bit of nostalgia since this was also the first book on Luther’s life that I read many, many years ago while I was in middle school. I remember giving a presentation, it was required that we do a biography on a historical figure, and since I knew very little about this person so important they named the denomination I grew up in (and continue to be a part of) I remember finding this book and choosing it from the library. I also remember my verdict on the book, it was boring (to a middle schooler much of the impact of the theological debates was lost). Still over three decades later I find myself once again returning to this classic bio of Luther and finding a new insight from it.

Anfechtung, the spiritual struggle that Luther endured throughout his life which included both elements of depression and self-doubt combined with a struggle for faith, was a continual if frequently unwanted partner in Luther’s life. Luther’s struggle to find a gracious God would provide strength and hope for many people but it also came at a high cost for Luther. Luther’s impact and talent were prodigious and he became an inspirational figure of faith for countless people and yet in his personal life he was in a continual struggle for faith. He proclaimed that God was always good and yet he struggled to accept this gospel for himself. He until the very end felt unworthy of the grace he proclaimed. A quote from Luther and then Bainton that I found helpful:

 

If I live longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen, for without them no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. He does not know the meaning of hope who has never been subjected to temptations. David must have been plagued by a very fearful devil. He could not have had such profound insights if he had not experience great assaults. (Luther)

 

Luther verged on saying that an excessive emotional sensitivity is a mode of revelation. Those who are predisposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. Yet it is a true angle; and when the problem or the religious object has been once so viewed, others less sensitive will be able to look from a new vantage point and testify that the insight is valid. (Bainton, 283)

 

I have sometimes admired those for whom faith is simple, who seem to be unquestioning in their trust but that is not my experience of faith. I have often questioned my own struggles of faith, depression and have occassionally viewed them as crippling to my ministry. Yet, perhaps what may be an excessive emotional sensitivity may also be a critical part of my hermeneutical insight, my pastoral presence and my preaching’s relevance. Perhaps it is the vulnerability that allows questions and doubt that allows grace to enter in through my own weakness. Perhaps it is this quality that makes the Lutheran theological tradition resonate with me even today.

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Why Story Matters: A Reflection Based On Love Never Dies

I had the opportunity last week to see Love Never Dies, designed as a sequel to the Phantom of the Opera and it prompted this reflection on story. The cast did a wonderful job performing, the music was great, I really enjoyed the scenery and the idea of the phantom working within a circus amidst a collection of grotesqueries was very intriguing and yet it didn’t work. The story didn’t line up with the identity of the characters that came in the original Phantom of the Opera. In the original Phantom the relationship from Christine’s perspective is one of fascination at times, at times she conflates the identity of the phantom and her father, she frequently fears and is at times confused by her relationship to this character but from her side there is never any indication of love. Even in the final act there is a song where Christine defiantly states “Have you purged yourself at last of your lust for blood, am I now to be free to your lust for flesh” to which the phantom answers “this fate which condemned me to wallow in blood has also denied me the joys of the flesh.” Christine can express compassion and pity but there is never an indication of romantic or sexual love. Yet in Love Never Dies the assumption is there that there was a) romantic love from Christine’s side b)that the phantom fled from her when he had a chance at the relationship and c) (spoiler alert) that it produced a child who is a central to the plot of the second musical. In short here (and in other places) the story didn’t work and so everything else couldn’t make the production anything more than a flawed story with good music and some good elements. Story matters. I had some thoughts that a story set ten years later when the relationship between Raoul and Christine has cooled and nostalgia set in had some possibilities to become something but in this case the disjunction between the original story and the sequel were too great. The original story has the privilege of setting up the rules, the nature of the characters and the storyline which the sequel must be compatible with. Love Never Dies could only be successful in my view by taking a long look at the story and the characters who are a part of it.

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Revelation 13 Rome Portrayed as a Beast

Emperor Claudius Portraying the Conquest of Brittanica in AD 43 as the Rape of a Woman from Aphrodisias Excavations Sebasteion South Building http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html#prettyPhoto

 Revelation 13: 1-10 The Beast from the Sea

1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. 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 the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. 4 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 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. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8 and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.

9 Let anyone who has an ear listen:
10 If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

The scene begins at the conclusion of Revelation 12 where the dragon stands upon the shore of the sea and then we enter our chapter with the first beast arising out of the sea, the second member of an unholy trinity opposed to the will of the Creator and an agent of the destruction of creation. These scenes are meant to be an unmasking of the powers, to use the title of Walter Wink’s book, but for many people unfamiliar with the rich tapestry of interweaving echoes and allusions present the beasts become an obfuscation of a simple message in John’s time: Rome’s power is not benevolent or divinely bestowed but rather is demonic and derives from the power of the devil. This is where there is a prophetic bite to the words of Revelation and where it becomes undeniably a reference to the Roman empire that seven churches in Asia found themselves living within. In contrast to the imperial claims of piety and security John uses metaphor to parody the seemingly unstoppable power of Roman might by proclaiming it is a savage beast subservient to the dragon who is the Devil and Satan.

From the Roman side the beast in particular embodies many traits that allude to Rome generally and to Emperor Nero (who will appear frequently in the explanations of this and coming chapters) in particular. John writes in the time after Nero’s death, but for the message John writes in Revelation Nero is the embodiment of the true character of the empire. In addition to the seven heads (which alludes to the seven hills around Rome and seven emperors) and the ten crowns (although emperors did not wear crowns the kings that ruled provinces on behalf of the Roman empire often did) as a representation of the empire (see also Revelation 17: 9-13) it is also helpful to know that the Jewish word for the Romans, the Kittim, also refers to people who come from the sea. The Kittim as they are mentioned in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 2:10) and Ezekiel 27:6 are the people of Cypress, an island people who came across the sea but by the time of the New Testament the Kittim is a way of referring to the Romans. The head who received the death wound is almost certainly a reference to Nero who either committed suicide or was killed by a knife to the throat but rumors would persist of his remaining alive because few had seen his body.

Even some Greco-Roman authors could refer to Nero’s reign as that of a beast as Craig R. Koester can illustrate by quoting Philostratus saying,

“as for this beast, generally called tyrant, I have no idea how many heads it has,” but “its nature is wilder than the beasts of the mountains or forests” because “this beast is incited by those who stroke it” so that flattery makes it even more savage. (Vit. Apoll. 4.38.3; cf. Sib. Or. 8:157) (Koester, 2014, pp. 568-569)

Nero’s reign is also famous for the great fire that consumed much of Rome. Many believe that Nero was responsible for the blaze desiring to rebuild Rome in his own vision and even in Revelation it will be this Nero-like beast that will destroy its own city with fire (Rome as the harlot is burned by the beast in Revelation 17: 16). After the fire in 64 CE, Nero deflected criticism away from him by burning the Christian community in Rome. Tacitus records the persecution of the Christians by saying:

“Accordingly, and arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sot was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight expired…it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed. (Tacitus, Ann. 15.44) (Koester, 2014, p. 586)

Even though the churches in Asia were not on the receiving end of the persecution that occurred in Rome in 64 CE it probably remained a continual reminder of their vulnerability in the midst of the empire. Revelation wants its readers to understand that the Empire is not a benevolent and benign force but rather a beast whose trues character is revealed in its persecution of the people of God. In contrast to Christ who conquers through the cross the beast conquers through violence. Although the beast may inspire awe and fear by its military strength so that people may say, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” the early church know that they serve the Lord who has cast the great dragon out of heaven and Rome’s power is derivative from this already beaten Devil.

Those familiar with the book of Daniel will also hear a number of echoes from this book as well. Daniel and Ezekiel seem to provide the background for many of the images of Revelation and here we have a modification of the four beasts of Daniel 7, a chapter that has already appeared multiple times in our reading of Revelation. The relevant portion for our current discussion is Daniel 7: 1-8:

1In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: 2 I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, 3 and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. 5 Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” 6 After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. 7 After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. 8 I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.

In Revelation the aspects of the four beasts (which represent four empires in Daniel) are combined into the image of the beast of the sea integrating the lion, leopard, bear, ten horns all into one chimera-like combination of animals into one monster. Now instead of a single horn uttering blasphemous names all seven heads have blasphemous names in addition to the mouth uttering blasphemous things. The blasphemous names refer to the claims of divinity that were made for the emperors and the worship they received through the emperor cult. The Roman Emperors, from a Jewish or Christian perspective, were claiming titles that were reserved for God alone and in their persecution of the early Christians placed them in opposition to the coming kingdom of God and the Lamb. Just like the beasts of Daniel’s dream, the time when this beast would be destroyed was coming quickly in the vision.

Emperor Claudius portrayed astride allegories of the land and sea from
the Aphrodisias Excavations Sebasteion, south building. Image from http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html

Revelation 13: 11-18 The Beast from the Land

11 Then I saw another beast that rose 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 on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been 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 could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 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 who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.

I mentioned in the section above how the two beasts and the dragon form an unholy trinity opposed to the will of the Creator and bent upon the destruction of the creation. The beast from the land becomes the third member of this alliance deriving its power both from the beast from the sea and, by extension, from the dragon who stands behind the first beast. Where the first beast represents Rome, the second beast represents the cult of the emperor and the forces that proclaimed the message of Rome. The image of a beast that in many ways resembles a lamb but speaks like a dragon points to the reality that it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing-it may appear to be harmless but it is not. This metaphor of a beast like a lamb with a dragon’s voice causes those who resist its proclamation of the first beast to be put to death. The ruler cult here is placed in opposition to the people of God. Using several resonant images combined it unmasks the destructive character of the forces at work in economic, religious and social pressures designed to make people conform to the desires of the empire.

On the one hand the two beasts may allude to Leviathan and Behemoth, great chaos creatures from the land and sea that appear as threatening beasts to the ancient people and who appear as figures in the poetic imagery in the Psalms and Isaiah. A stronger correlation in Jewish tradition would be the traditions about false prophets who lead people astray and here the beast is a false prophet who leads people to deify the beast and turn away from the King of kings. Yet, even stronger for me, is the resonance with two familiar stories from the book of Daniel (as mentioned above Daniel and Ezekiel seem to provide background images that many of the images of Revelation resonate with). The first story in Daniel is from Daniel 3 when King Nebuchadnezzar has a golden statue erected and declares, “Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” (Daniel 3:6) and the heroes of our story, three Jewish exiles renamed in Babylon Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, refuse to worship the golden statue. A central to Jewish (and later Christian) faith was the statement that there are no gods that are to be worshipped before the LORD the God of Israel and in keeping with this central portion of their faith they refuse and are cast into the flaming furnace. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are rescued by God in the midst of the fiery furnace and the people are reminded to remain steadfast in their faith in the midst of the oppression of Babylon. Later in the book of Daniel (Daniel 6) the current king, Darius, is tricked into making a proclamation that all must pray to him for thirty days. Daniel knows the document has been signed and is the law and yet he continues to pray to God. Daniel is cast into the lions’ den, but God closes the mouth of the lions and Daniel is safe while those who accused Daniel, along with their families, are thrown into the lions’ den and are consumed by the lions. Both of these stories helped people of faith remain faithful during times of persecution and to trust that God would ultimately deliver them from the empire of the day and the claims made on behalf of rulers.

The action of the second beast to make others worship the first beast is accompanied by violence, false signs, and social and economic pressures. Violence is used against those who do not comply, who will not worship the emperor and by extension Rome. For these false prophets there is to be no alternative gospel. There was no freedom of the press nor separation of church and state in the ancient world and the imperial cult, as well as most other religions in the empire, were viewed as being in service of the state. The gospel of Rome may have fashioned itself as the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but it was a bloody peace spoken with a dragon’s voice and enforced through the violence of both the legions and the local authorities. While we are not aware of any miracles claimed by the imperial cult there is the continual demonstration of the power and might of Rome and as mentioned in the previous section, ‘Who can fight against it.’ Finally, is the social and economic pressure particularly highlighted by the mark of the beast.  Being a part of the imperial cult could bring a feeling of belonging, but it also allowed people the ability to participate in commercial opportunities. The mark may have been an allusion to the requirement to be a part of a trade organization, many of whom may have required people to demonstrate their allegiance to the emperor, or it may refer to Roman coinage, who many Jewish and early Christians viewed as containing blasphemous messages even though it was the medium of trade for the empire, or it may have referred to other types of pressures that Christians felt to demonstrate they were loyal.

The number of the beast which is a number for a person. In the ancient world gematria, adding up the numerical values of a word, was commonly used. Most historical readers assumed the name would have been known to John’s audience and the most common reading is Nero. Nrwn Qsr, as it is written in Greek (the language of the New Testament) is 666. When transliterated into Hebrew it comes to be 616 which is a common alternative to 666 in some ancient manuscripts. The number has been used to represent many individuals by different interpreters across time, but Nero was probably the individual that the first readers of John’s letter were to hear in this number.

Finally, a brief word about a word that does not appear in Revelation but is commonly linked with this chapter: Antichrist. The Antichrist appears as an opponent in 1 & 2 John which replace the true faith with a faith that is, from the author of the Johannine Epistles perspective, false. Matthew, Mark and Luke can mention false messiahs and 2 Thessalonians develops a theme from the book of Daniel about ‘the man of lawlessness’ who receives power from Satan but it is only in 1 & 2 John where the word Antichrist is used. The term is helpful in thinking about Revelation in the understanding that the second beast is in many ways the opposite of Christ and against Christ (what the anti- prefix means). But historically there is a desire to locate in one figure the role of an Antichrist: so, for Luther the pope could be the Antichrist, others would point to figures like Hitler or Stalin as the Antichrist or look for some futuristic figure. While I am uncomfortable when people use the term as an absolute title, searching for the Antichrist, as an adjective I find it is helpful. Is a concrete person acting in a way that is the opposite or opposed to Christ? Then the adjective can be illustrative. Yet, I still wouldn’t throw it around casually. Nor would I commonly refer to someone as a beast, as Revelation does, yet metaphor has its power. Revelation uses images both for illustration and parody, it wants its readers to see the world in the way that John is being enabled to see but it also wants to demonstrate the difference between the claims of, in this case, the Roman empire and its servants and its reality. Revelation continues to be powerful because its metaphors and parodies continue to resonate for people in multiple times, places and experiences to make sense of the reality of their world and to be reminded that whatever savage beasts that they are facing, no matter the bellow of the dragon and its servants that their God is ultimately able to allow them to persevere no matter the oppression they may experience.

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