We normally run a teens discussion group alongside our 11:15 preaching and when we started studying Revelation a few years back, my wife asked the teens what they knew about the book. One teen responded
“It’s full of beasts and dragons and other cool stuff like that.”
I like that summing up and it’s great that the group thought the book was “full of cool stuff like that” but the risk is that if that is our impression of the book then it may also come across as a little esoteric, difficult to follow or make sense of and of little relevance to us.
This has led to a situation where most Christians avoid discussion about Revelation and the second coming whilst a small minority obsess over detailed and conflicting schemes and codes, soon falling out with each other. Part of my desire in revisiting the book on Faithroots is to see it recovered for the wider church. I believe that it is designed to show us the whole of history, viewed from the end, from the perspective of heaven, in order to enable us to know how to live now.
So, as we approach these Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings like scenes, what is going on and what does that have to do with us? Well, what we are seeing here is another retelling of history with dragons, beasts and a Queen representing some of the key players. It is the story of God’s defeat over evil. The fact that we are seeing things from heaven’s eternal perspective means that the aim may well not be to deliver a chronological account but a logical account through a story to show how different things are related
The Dragon and the Queen (12:1-6 & 13-18)
This part of the vision starts with a description of a woman who is clothed with the sun and stands on the moon. This is a vivid image that suggests this person represents the pinnacle of creation. Who is she? Well the next part of the description describes her as having a crown of 12 stars. In other words, as the 12 stars represent the twelve tribes of Israel, this woman represents the people of God. We often see that God’s people are portrayed as his bride, if God is king, then his bride is the Queen.
The woman is pregnant, she is about to give birth to a child. Remember that the Old Testament consistently points to the hope of a child that will come, the seed of Abraham, the descdendant of David. The Messiah, the saviour will come from Israel.
However, the woman and her child have a dangerous enemy, the dragon. The imagery of seven horns and ten heads probably alludes to Rome, a city set on seven hills and its emperors. Rome therefore represents this world and its opposition to God and God’s people. However, our battle is not with flesh and blood but the powers of this world when opposing Christ, The Gospel and God’s people, choose to serve Satan. This is emphasised by the portrayal of this enemy as a dragon or a serpent like creature. It was Satan from the beginning who appeared as a serpent in the Garden, pursuing the first woman in order to destroy God’s plan for his people.
The Dragon attacks bringing war and destruction, seeking to devour the woman. She finds herself at times forced into the wilderness, a reminder that at times God’s people faced exile. All the while though, God’s true people of faith are kept safe and the child is delivered safely. Jesus is the one who lived, died, was buried, raised from the dead and ascended back to Heaven.
All Out War (12:7-12)
The Dragon is now explicitly revealed to be Satan. He is seen as at war with heaven. He has a legion of his own rebellious angels. Satan however loses the battle and is thrown down to earth. This is one of the areas where I think we shouldn’t assume linear chronology. We know that Satan’s fall from heaven predated the incarnation and led to humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden. However, the narrative shows that his battle and fall was a consequence of his hostility to and jealousy of the Son (the child).
Notice that Satan is the one who accusers God’s people. His main weapon is the ability to bring condemnation, whether false or true.
The important thing to see here is that not only does this passage tell us of Satan’s fall but also of his defeat and the victory of the lamb at calvary. This is seen in the song sung, or in fact shouted across the heavens by a loud voice (12:10-12).
Beasts Rising (13:1-16)
We then are shown a vision of two beasts, one rising from the sea and the other from the land. The first has seven horns and ten crowns, once again pointing us to Rome and reminding us that whatever it does, is in service to the dragon. It receives what should be a fatal wound but recovers. Some have associated this with Nero who it was constantly rumoured would return from the dead, making him a fitting anti-Christ figure. However, the language of wounding and surprising recover may rather refer to the ability of kingdoms, powers and ideologies to recover from what look like knock out blows. At times, the powers of this world can appear to have supernatural durability and invincibility, though as we see soon, all powers must eventually fall before The Lamb.
The first beast seems to represent political power whilst the second carries the authority of the first but exercises it differently with the performance of miracles and the encouragement of idolatry, this suggests a form of religious authority. We often see that worldly power and worldly religion join forces to defy God and enslave humanity.
People are forced to take a seal on their hand and their head. This marks them out as being under the beast’s authority. The imagery of marks on hands and heads should remind us of Deuteronomy 6 where God’s people are encouraged to where the commandments on their foreheads and their hands. This suggests that we should not think so much about physical branding but more about how we can either live our lives with our minds renewed by the Spirit and our actions serving God or we can allow our minds to be conformed to this world leading to ungodly actions.
Those who lack the mark are barred from work and trade. We sadly discover all too often that we are under pressure whenever we engage in work, trade and culture to fit in and conform to the expectations of our society which are often far away from what God requires of us.
The beast is also given a coded number, 666. The best explanation of this code is that it replaces the number 7 with a recurring 6. If 7 represents God, perfection and rest, 6 represents man, created on the 6th day and through the fall consistently falling short of God’s glory.
Lessons for today.
Seeing this vision helps us to locate ourselves in the great story of history. It is a story about God’s victory over evil. It shows us that so often we are going to face opposition because of our loyalty to Christ. Human institutions including governments, religions and business fall short of God’s ways and try to squeeze us into a mould so we adopt the thought patterns, priorities and actions of the world around us.
This is often seen as we learn to hold the truth lightly, to selfishly put ourselves first and to do whatever it takes to look after number one. It is often sacrificially costly for Christians to stand out alone from the crowd and to live Christ’s way. However, even in the fiercest storm, we know that present trials are temporary and that God has already won.