(Revelation 12-14)

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With pride and a heavy hand the Roman Empire had brought peace to the world. It wasn’t freedom or happiness, but simply peace meaning the absence of war. Of course there was no war. Who would dare challenge the power of mighty Rome? Who would dare take on an empire whose supreme ruler was also a supreme being? All around the empire there were reminders of the emperor’s divine authority. Even coins served as propaganda reminding the people of the empire that the Roman emperor was Lord and God. He wielded the thunderbolts of Jupiter and was the son of Isis.

In the city of Ephesus, where the apostle John had shepherded the congregation of Christians, the Emperor Domitian built his temple. His statue, over 20ft tall, was on display in the temple. His priests made sure that the people of Ephesus all came to show reverence to the Emperor. And why not? After all, they had peace through the strength of the Roman Empire. There was no war ... or was there?

In his vision, the apostle John tells Christians that there is a war. In fact, there has been a war going on for a long, long time. He doesn’t let them in on his vision in order to terrify them or scare them with scenes of a horrifying future. In fact he reveals to them what has happened so that they might understand what is happening now. They want to know why this bold and arrogant emperor who claims the honor that only God is due is able to continue his assault against the people of God. Why hasn’t God done something? Why is the world like this? John reveals that there was a war in heaven and it spread to earth ...

Read Revelation 12 – 13

I am sure that if John had known about football he would have said that “It is the fourth quarter and Satan is behind by 1000 points. He has definitely lost the game but he has decided to hurt as many of his opponents as he can.” And John introduces us to some of Satan’s “team mates.” The unholy trinity of the Dragon and the Two Beasts.

The first Beast is the Dragon’s “man on earth.” This is the ruler who inspires such terror and awe among the people of earth. “Who can stand up to the Beast? Who can fight him?” John’s little flock understood that the Beast was Domitian. Some of the older ones remember the stories of Nero. Domitian was a later-day Nero in their minds. A powerful and oppressive ruler inspires such fear and anxiety in people that they always fear he might return – even from death. There are many in Iraq today who still remain loyal to Saddam Hussein for fear he will regain power.

The second Beast is part of that fear. The second Beast is the spokesman, or prophet, for the first beast. He isn’t just a single person – he stands in for all the agents of the Dragon and Beast who persuade us to worship the power and strength of the first Beast and the Dragon. Through trickery and gossip they promote stories of Domitian and his divine power. They animated the statue in Ephesus to fool people into thinking that it can speak. Why? So that the influence and fear of the Emperor would reach even to the outermost edges of the empire.

Domitian and his cult are long gone and dead. The Dragon has lost, but the clock on the fourth quarter is still ticking. The Dragon is able to recruit other Beasts – and he has. I am not talking about an Anti-christ. (Notice that the term Anti-Christ doesn’t even appear in these chapters in Revelation). I am not even talking about individuals, but the Beast remains among us as a representation of powers. Those powers that fill us with obedience rooted in fear and oppression. The arrogant boasting and posturing of any authority that demands our absolute allegiance. This is the Beast.

And this Beast is always served by another Beast – not just individuals but institutions – that convince us that the Beast is worthy of our worship. That no one should dare take a stand against the Beast. The worship of the Beast is worship of power, strength, might, and superiority. And like the late first century Christians we sometimes don’t see the harm in going along with it all because the Beast can look like a lamb.

John’s vision reveals what is really going on. It exposes the powers of this age and let’s us know that there is a war that started on heaven. He shows us the few, the 144,000, who did not stain themselves by worshipping the Beast and his power. They stood their ground. They died for it. They suffered for it, but their suffering did not last forever. They are with the Lamb. They have won. “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on: how blessed to die that way!”

John is opening our eyes to the world as heaven sees it. He encourages us first: “Don’t get duped into fighting the Beast on his own terms.” Those who kill with the sward will be killed by the sword. John says this (13:9) in a near repeat of what Jesus told Peter. We are always in danger of becoming like the enemy or worse than the enemy when we are motivated by fear of the enemy. The church in Ephesus is praised by the risen Christ for taking a stand against the false prophets among them. But in the process they became so paranoid and suspicious in their stance against wickedness that they lost their capacity to love.

John also encourages us not to worship the Beast. It is so tempting to put our faith in the security that power and strength represent. But John says that during the time the Beast is in power the saints of God will need to endure and be patient. Because the faith and security that the powers of the beast offer will never last. Stand your ground, says John. Like the 144,000 – stand your ground. Don’t fight – don’t give back – but don’t give in!

We worship a different kind of power and strength. In our baptism we connect with the blood of the Lamb who did not give back but did not give in. In our baptism we join Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. We place our security in God who has the power to give new life. In the Lord’s Supper we worship sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus who did not try to secure his own life but surrendered it for us. When we eat his flesh and drink his blood how can we do anything else than become sacrificial in our love? How can we refuse to follow the Lamb and keep his commandments to love each other – and even our enemies?

But that’s hard isn’t it. And I know that some of us have bowed down before the power of the enemy. It is tempting. But surrender yourself to God. Be washed in the blood of Lamb.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 9 July 2006

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