The message of the book of Revelation is not “The world is coming to an immediate end,” but, rather, “The world is not coming to an immediate end, so you must learn to cope.”
We’ve been away from our study of Revelation for a couple of weeks now and so as we pick up the thread and start a new year of study together, let’s take a minute to review.
We’re looking particularly at chapter thirteen and the wild images of the beasts we see there. We’ve already spent some time talking about the first beast – the sea beast – and we have followed the lead of our commentators and are persuaded that the similarities between the description of the sea beast here in the New Testament and the beasts described in the seventh chapter of Daniel are very hard to ignore.
While much of the book of Revelation may be mysterious, there are aspects of the book that are very clear. We can be sure of who wrote the book; we can be sure of whom it was written to; and we can be sure what kind of world the original audience lived in and what kind of resistance they were to face. All of these facts are expressed in the book itself.
This book was written by the Apostle John while he was in exile late in the first century on the Island of Patmos just off of the east coast of Asia Minor. The book is expressly addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor: real, historical churches in real, historical cities. And there can be little doubt that these churches were caught in the throes of governmental persecution. Rome, in that day, demanded that its subjects actually worship the Emperor as a deity. This the Christian could not do.
John wrote the book to prepare these churches for what they were about to face. It may have been that many Christians in that early day believed that Jesus would return any moment and set up perfect justice and that life would be paradisiacal when that occurred. Any sober reading of the book of Revelation will correct that error. Thus, it has been said that the message of the book of Revelation is not “The world is coming to an immediate end,” but, rather, “The world is not coming to an immediate end, so you must learn to cope.”
This has everything to say about how you and I, here in the twenty-first century, should approach the book. The book is written and is intended to encourage Christians in the face of life’s struggles. Despite its sometimes mysterious form and language, it is practical advice. And that’s how you and I should read it. We don’t read it to gain some esoteric or secret knowledge about when and how the world will end. (This, of course, has been the mistake of so many in our time.) Rather, we should read the book with an eye to what it tells us about what we will face, here and now. It depicts the dynamics of human life and history and it tells us something about the nature of evil.
All of that being said, we also are told that John would have written to the churches in Asia Minor well knowing that they – these churches – were well-versed in the scriptures – what you and I would call the Old Testament. This, then, was their common culture; their common vernacular. Thus, when we consider the impressive similarities between the sea beast in Revelation and the beasts described in Daniel chapter seven it is very easy to accept the notion that John was making a conscious reference to that Old Testament passage.
If we accept what the commentators tell us about that, several things happen. First, we gain some idea of how deliberate John’s composition is here. A single, superficial reading of the book might lead us to believe that it was written in a fit of ecstasy and that John himself might not even have known the significance of what he “saw” and what he wrote down. If, on the other hand, we accept the idea that John, in setting up this image of the sea beast, was referring directly to ancient writings that he and his intended audience were familiar with, then we see that John’s composition was calculated, conscious and purposeful.
With this background, we also come to see that the image in Chapter 13 is not the kind of thing we should try to get a realistic picture of. No, this is intended to be viewed as a symbol, not a literal beast. Thus, we think not in terms of what Steven Spielberg might do with this image – how horrible and frightening he might make it look in a movie. Rather, we should view the image more as we would look at pictorial symbol a political cartoon.
Moreover, we then understand that the sea beast in Revelation is an image or symbol of governmental power. The beasts in Daniel are images or symbols of kingdoms. How do we know that? Daniel comes right out and tells us:
17 These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth.
23 Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces.
24 And the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise: and another shall rise after them; and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings.
Thus, we come to understand that the beast out of the sea represents governmental power that is corrupted by Satan and that may act against and injure God’s saints.
So much for review. As we take up our study again on Sunday morning, January first, we’ll begin an examination of the second beast, this one from the land. To prepare for this week’s lesson, then, take a look at the verses describing the land beast. Do you see characteristics of this beast that might have scriptural or other antecedents in the culture of that day? How does the land beast differ from the beast from the sea? What are its powers? And what is the relationship between the land beast and the sea beast?