16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible.
There are, for example, poetic works, prophetic works, histories and letters. If we are to understand a biblical text; if we are to get the most out of it; we must come to it recognizing the kind of writing it is. Thus, we don’t come to the Psalms expecting a lesson in physics. The Psalms are songs and thus are often poetic and use metaphor to convey truth. When we read in the Psalms that God “rides on the wings of the wind” we do not conclude that the wind actually has a set of wings. Because we know we are reading poetry we recognize that the description is metaphorical and communicates the swiftness and majesty of God at work in the world.
Another type of writing we see in the Bible is so-called “apocalyptic” writing. When you hear the word “apocalypse” these days, what is the first image that comes to mind? I’m willing to bet that for most people, that first thought has to do with disaster of unimaginable proportion. You know, like the ending of the first Ghostbusters movie:
Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
Mayor: What do you mean, “biblical”?
Dr. Raymond Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.
Dr. Raymond Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…
Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!
Mayor: All right, all right! I get the point!
In fact, even Merriam-Webster defines the word “apocalypse” as “a great disaster: a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.”
But – and you must have known I was going to say this – that is not the original meaning of the word. The word “apocalypse” is Greek in origin and it literally means “uncovering.” Thus, an apocalyptic writing, such as the biblical Book of Revelation, is one that aims to draw back the curtain on obvious and superficial appearances and expose the spiritual realities beneath it all. Thus, the primary focus of such a work is on revealing the true nature of what is present or immediate, with far less emphasis on what may happen in the distant future.
While it cannot be denied that the Book of Revelation does speak of the end of history and the final consummation of God’s perfect kingdom, if we treat that as the sole focus of the book and lose sight of what the book had to say about the immediate circumstances the original audience of the book – the churches to which the book is expressly addressed –faced even as they read the letter, then we are far from doing justice to the work and far from receiving the insight and encouragement it may provide.
We must admit that there are mysteries about the Book of Revelation. The precise meaning of many of the individual symbols used in the book has been lost over the centuries. But the point is not to speculate about the meaning of this or that detail, but instead to focus on the central and overarching message of the book.
One thing that is not mysterious about the book is the identity of its original audience. In fact, we may fairly think of this book as a letter that is still in its postmarked, addressed envelope. We have the advantage of knowing who wrote the letter, who it was written to and the approximate time that the letter was sent.
The book itself identifies the writer as the Apostle John and the intended recipients as the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). There can be little doubt that the book was written late in the first century A. D. It may have been the last of the New Testament books to have been written.
What does that well-established information do for the contemporary reader? I suggest that it does a lot. For the first principle in interpreting and understanding the book is the principle of original intelligibility. That is, we must begin our study of the book with the idea that it would have been intelligible – it would have had obvious meaning – to its first audience.
Many of the contemporary and popular interpretations point to passages in the book as references to this, that or the other historical event, all of which occurred long after the churches to whom this Book was written were history themselves. It is almost as if they assume that when the first-century churches received this letter from John that they could not have had any real idea about what the book was talking about. You can imagine a bunch of first-century Christians in Philadelphia or Laodicea puzzling over the letter, saying to each other “Okay, we understand bits of this, but a great amount of it is totally impenetrable for us. It must be aimed at generations hundreds of years in the future.”
I hope you see how silly this is. This Book, by its very terms, is written directly to particular churches and if we are to begin to understand it at all, we must start by thinking about what John intended it to convey to them.
We’ve spent a good deal of time talking about that very thing in this class. We’ve referred to the works of Eugene Peterson (Reversed Thunder) and Vernon Poythress (The Returning King) that approach the book in this way and offer compelling explanations about what many of the symbols in the book would have been immediately recognized as by those Christians in Asia Minor, to whom the book was addressed.
Two of those symbols – the “Land Beast” and the “Sea Beast” we recognized as – in reverse order – coercive government power and the apologists who supported that power. In the first century, the coercive government power would have been Caesar, the Roman Emperor, who in that day demanded to be worshipped as a deity. The Land Beast represented the magicians, false religionists and other sycophants who worked hand in hand with the government to project the image that the Emperor was in fact divine.
If we understand the book in this way, we can apply its meaning to every age, including our own. For although the names and flags change over the generations, it is the recurrent impulse of leaders and governments to demand more than is legitimately theirs: to demand absolute allegiance from citizens and subjects.
Such a knuckling under to coercion is symbolized in the book as the taking on of the mark of the beast.
In this week’s passage we read that those who refused to bear the beast’s marking; in other words, those who refused to compromise their faith in God and their loyalty to him were forbidden to “buy or sell.”
If we understand the book in this way, we can see that the spiritual forces John describes play out in every generation.
During the twentieth century the great Sea Beast reared its head in the ideologies of Fascism and Communism. Both movements demanded total control – the total commitment and subservience of the men and women under their jurisdiction
Whittaker Chambers, an American intellectual, fell under the spell of Communism early in the 20th century. After more than a decade in active service to the Beast, he realized the error of his ways and his own need for God. He thus deserted the Communist party and converted to Christianity. He knew there would be repercussions. He writes in his autobiographical book, Witness:
One form of attack the Communist Party invariably makes upon all ex-Communists, big or little. It tries to make it impossible for them to live by preventing them from getting a job. If they succeed in getting one, the party tries to make it impossible for them to keep it. This is very easy [for them] to do.
There we have it. Chambers removes from his forehead the mark of the beast – his membership in the Communist party and his total allegiance to the revolution – and the penalty the Beast tries to impose is to deny him the means of a living – the ability to buy and sell.