God’s Political Cartoon
Revelation 10 of 16
We’re going to be in Revelation 13 today.
Last night… I had a really weird dream.
In my vision, I saw a great grey beast—
with tusks and a trunk like an elephant.
The beast was standing like a man.
Stars girded its waist,
and Its front feet readied for battle
Then I looked and saw another great beast—
with hooves and ears like a donkey.
It too stood like a man—
like a warrior ready for battle—
and around its waist it wore white and crimson stripes.
In my dream, these two terrible beasts
approached each other—their faces touching,
their eyes fixed on each other, their ferocity terrible.
They both bore
wounds and bruises from endless battle
but—this calls for wisdom—
they are preparing to struggle once again.
When I woke from my dream,
I sketched out the vision so that I could remember to tell you about it.
I put it on a slide:
This vision feels important.
It feels like it might be something…
impacting all of our lives… very soon.
Alright, you caught me—
I didn’t draw this picture or have that dream,
but that doesn’t change the fact
that this cartoon WILL be impacting our lives this week.
Most of us know what this is called—it’s a cartoon.
A particular kind of cartoon—a political cartoon.
Sometimes we see these online or in a magazine or a newspaper.
If you didn’t know much about
the United States or its culture or its political world
this vision would be really hard to understand.
But because most of us know something about those things
we understand this strange vision, don’t we?
Most adults in America are familiar with
the Republican and Democratic parties.
Most of us know that these two political parties—
these two groups of people—are often represented
as an elephant and a donkey.
Most of us know that stars and stripes
are symbolic, patriotic emblems of the United States.
And most of us know that there is an election this week.
This is a cartoon but it’s also serious business.
It’s a way of capturing in an image
realities that have nothing to do
with literal pachyderms or actual donkeys.
That’s the kind of thing God gives us in Revelation 13.
We said last week
that John—the author of Revelation—
has shifted his storytelling in chapter 12.
For the first 11 chapters of Revelation
he told a fairly straightforward story.
But beginning in chapter 12,
Revelation shifts into something like mythic animation.
John begins animating something like a cartoon for his churches:
In chapter 12 he introduced us
to a dazzling Woman and a terrifying red Dragon (with seven heads and ten horns1),
and a child whose very life seems to have defeated all darkness.
He’s painting with bright primary colors,
he’s describing grand, exaggerated characters,
to try to give us perspective.
Last week we heard John saying something like:
“There’s this guy—this real, literal guy—Jesus—
whose very coming into the world
has defeated the powers of darkness.
“If you want to know
what kind of world our world is,
I’ll tell you:
“Our world is a fairytale.
“A place where evil and darkness and dragons DO exist
AND a place where all of it has been defeated.”
And then we saw something like a Roadrunner cartoon.
The forces of evil kept chasing God’s people—
the Dragon kept chasing the Woman—
kept trying tricks, kept opening Acme boxes to capture the Woman—
but the Woman always gets away.
The people of God—John seems to be saying—
are safe in some kind of ultimate sense.
But then chapter 12 ended with a frustrated and furious Dragon
storming off to make war on the Woman’s offspring:
(12.17) …the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.
It’s like John is saying the people of God are safe—
the Woman herself is safe—in an ultimate sense,
but individual churches and individual Christians
may still be living through some rough stuff.
Evil has been defeated,
but it’s still lashing around
with it’s dying breaths.
That’s where we left things last week.
John has shifted into animation
and described the events and reality of Jesus’s birth
almost like a political cartoon.
Keep that in mind this week.
Because this week—chapter 13 of Revelation—is a doozy of a chapter.
In clumsy imitation of the Woman from last week,
this week the Dragon calls forth its own offspring.
Spawn of Satan… quiet literally.
The Dragon calls forth Two Beasts
to wage war against God’s people.
That’s how the Dragon wages war… with Two Beasts.
One from the sea, one from the land.
Almost everybody—I mean everybody—
even if you have nothing to do with church—
has heard at least part of this chapter.
There’s a rather famous number
in verse 18, at the end of the chapter.
The chapter is incredibly controversial.
Lots of people have understood chapter 13
as coded descriptions of events just before the end of the world.
And so it’s fertile soil
for conspiracy theories
For watching for a one-world government
led by two literal people—the Antichrist and the False Prophet.
And then the number at the end—666—
has been used to declare a lot of people to be the Antichrist:
People all over the map:
from countless popes to Martin Luther
from JFK to Adolf Hitler,
from Barack Obama to Ronald Wilson Reagan.
(Reagan is interesting…
there are six letters in Reagan’s first, middle, and last names…
and it didn’t help that after retirement
Ron and Nancy moved into house located at 666 St. Cloud Road.)
My point is this:
Christians throughout the centuries are all reading the same chapter.
but then thinking about, speculating about, talking about,
wildly different things.
There’s a long, rich history of making this chapter
about people or places or events
that it’s probably isn’t about.
And I don’t have any special or secret knowledge about any of this.
How can we hope to make any sense of chapter 13?
I’d like to trying something a little different this week.
Most weeks I do the most talking
AFTER we’ve read the passage.
This week I’m doing most talking
BEFORE we read the passage.
Because I think our best hope
of making sense of this chapter is
to try to read it through the eyes of its original audience.
We need to remember that
Revelation originally came in the mailbox.
The entire book—even chapter 13—is ancient mail.
So how would someone
in Sardis or Laodicea or Ephesus
have understood this letter?
How would they have understood this chapter?
Just like knowing something
about twenty-first century politics and culture in America
helps us make sense of what would otherwise
be a puzzling cartoon,
it’d probably be helpful to know something
about first-century politics and culture in the Roman Empire
may help us make (some) sense of this chapter.
So the next couple of minutes look like this:
Quick history lesson,
read the passage,
and then a brief reflection
as we come to the table.
Alright—quick history lesson.
What kind of world
does John on the island of Patmos
writing to seven churches in present-day Turkey—
What kind of world does he live in?
The short answer is that John and his churches
live in a world dominated by the Roman Empire.
If you’re interested at all in any kind of history
and start browsing through documentaries or books,
there’s a reason why there’s so much on Roman history.
On the Roman Empire and the Caesars.
For century after century after century,
Rome ruled the known world.
In the early centuries
Rome had grown as a democratic republic,
but by the first-century—by John’s day—
it has evolved into a dictatorship led by a king called Caesar.
From the perspective of an average
Jew or Christian or resident of Asia Minor
Rome was this unstoppable, power
ruling the world from across the Mediterranean.
The power of Rome had traveled from across the sea
and dominated every bit of their lives.
Picture standing on the shore
and seeing a ship seeming to rise from the horizon.
Now imagine a fleet U.S. battleships
rising like a monster to come to conquer your land.
Jews and Christians read the scroll of Daniel
that described world empires as beasts and monsters
and that’s the way they felt about Rome.
The great city on seven hills—
the city of Rome—ruled the world
like a powerful lion ruling the savannah.
You don’t mess with that animal.
It will kill you.
“Have you seen the teeth on that thing?”
Don’t mess with those seven heads—
I mean, those seven hills.2
As a monarchy,
Rome had seen a relatively stable succession of kings—
or as they called themselves, Caesars.
King after king, caesar after caesar,
horn after horn (as Daniel would have called them3)
had come and gone in relative peace.
From Octavian—called “great king” or “Augustus Caesar”—
had stabilized the empire in the years
after his uncle Julius Caesar’s assassination,
to Tiberius who had ruled when Jesus was crucified.
down through Caligula and Claudius…
but then… then things started going south.
But by John’s day,
the world seemed about to fall apart.
There had recently been a certifiably crazy king named Nero
who had been genuinely bad for the entire Empire,
and who committed suicide in AD 68.
And that left the world in chaos.
You had a single year where
four people sat on the throne of Rome.
There was a lot of bloodshed—
you had four dead caesars in the span of 18 months.
Think about that.
From the perspective of everyday citizens,
it probably felt like this bear of an government
had been given a death blow—a mortal wound.
But everything stabilized when
someone finally took the throne and managed to not die.
It happened to be a guy named Vespasian.
The king of jungle is back—
fully recovered, stronger than ever.
Rome probably felt stronger than ever
to Jews and Christians especially
because within months of Vespasian taking power
Jerusalem and the Temple had been completely destroyed.
He sent his trusted general Titus—heir to the throne—
to squash a rebellion that that had been boiling for a handful years.
Suddenly Jerusalem—the great city of David—was destroyed.
The Jewish people’s second Temple—
the place where Jesus visited and taught and drove out money-changers—
the promised dwelling of the God of Israel—
the Temple was literally gone.
In pieces. Torn apart.
Burned to the ground.
If you lived at the time,
you would probably look Rome—
with its technology and power and long history—
“Who is like Rome? Who can wage war against it?”
This brand new Caesar (Vespasian)
who was really dead-set on making sure
that Rome continued to be a great and powerful empire.
His slogan might have been
“Make Rome Great Again.”
And so whatever decade John happened to write this letter,
Vespasian had very recently been restoring parts of Roman past—
including what was called “The Imperial Cult.”
That basically means that the official—the required—
religion of the entire empire was the worship of the Caesars as gods.
Other Caesars had been worshipped as a god.
We still have coins that call Caesar Nero “a Son of God.”
There are still inscriptions in stone
were we can read Caesar Augustus hailed as
“the Savior of the world.”
There had been plenty of heads of state
who had called themselves gods before him.
Vespasian was just bringing back a tradition
and making it official state policy.
From a Jewish or Christian point of view, however,
it doesn’t matter how many kings—how many heads of state—
had called themselves god…
They’re just giving themselves blasphemous names.
They’re all speaking blasphemy.
They’re all defying the one true God.
They’re convincing people to worship human beings.
They’re persuading people to worship the Roman Empire
as the ultimate hope of the world.
And the people who refuse—
those who refuse to worship Caesar and Rome—
were punished and persecuted.
But not usually directly by Rome itself.
Even to this day—even with modern travel and technology—
the federal government doesn’t do much law enforcement.
Law enforcement tends to be local.
Culture and beliefs and policy enforcement
are maybe a bit like plants.
They’ve got to take root locally
before they’re really going to stick around.
The Roman culture and beliefs and law enforcement
needed to start growing out of—rising out of—the local soil.
Because once that starts growing locally—
once it starts rising up out of the earth—
then it becomes hard to stop.
And by the time John is writing,
that’s what was happening.
The people in Pergamum4
had really begun to worship
Caesar as a god.
Local cities would throw festivals
to rival the Super Bowl
in honor of the Emperor.
Local patrons would set up statues honoring Caesar
and sometimes they would hire the IT experts of the day
to engineer the statues so they would “magically” move.5
(“Look at the power of the gods! What a miracle”)
Much of the meat you buy in the marketplace
had already been religiously dedicated
to the Emperor as a sacrifice.
That’s assuming you could get into the marketplace.
A lot of local governments had begun requiring people
to make a small sacrifice to the emperor
before they could even get into the marketplace.
“Loyal to the Emperor? Make your sacrifice.
OK. Here’s your stamp.”
This is the world in which John lived.
A world ruled by Rome.
And a world where the locals everyday
were giving life—giving breath—putting into practice—
all of the ideas of Rome.6
This is the world of John’s churches.
They could buy into Rome too—sacrifice to the Emperor—
fly under the radar—go about the everyday business of life.
But they’d be losing all of their integrity.
They’d be selling their soul for the sake of convenience.
That’s a short history lesson…
now let’s read our passage—let’s examine the cartoon—
and see if recognize anything familiar.
(13.1-18) The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”
The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.
Whoever has ears, let them hear.
“If anyone is to go into captivity,
into captivity they will go.
If anyone is to be killed with the sword,
with the sword they will be killed.”
This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.
Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.
I think this might be something like
God’s political cartoon.
It’s not a silly cartoon;
it’s serious business.
There’s a challenge here for all of us.
But I don’t think its the challenge of
figuring out exactly WHO is the Antichrist.
Despite all of the mystique surrounding it,
the number 666 isn’t all that mysterious.
John challenges his original readers to figure out this number.
The original readers of Revelation
didn’t know about Reagan or Obama or any popes
but they DID know about a recently dead, certifiably crazy king.
And if you spell Caesar Nero’s name in Hebrew
and then add up the numeric values of the letters…
what do you think you get?
“Six hundred sixty-six”
is a cryptogram
for “Caesar Nero.”
The math works just as well today
as it did for John’s original readers.
(I’ve included this slide in the notes today.)
But I think there’s a reason why John writes the way he does.
He’s warning us about something
way bigger than just one person.
Jesus through John
is always making things strange
with the hopes that we’ll see clearly.
He’s challenging us to recognize
a pattern more than a person.
It’s a challenge
not only for John’s generation—
not only for history’s LAST generation—
it’s a challenge for EVERY generation.
He’s calling us to wisdom.
He’s calling us to “figure out the number.”
I don’t think
he’s merely inviting people
to decipher a cryptogram.
He’s inviting them to be on the lookout for this pattern.
Triple 6 is not just a cryptogram for “Caesar Nero,”
it’s also falling short of seven three times.
We’ve seen that John uses seven
as a number of fullness and completeness and perfection.
And so 666 falls short of that in triplicate.
Figure out—calculate—what falls short of perfection—
and have nothing to do that.
If you embrace that (v8)
you’re embracing something that is Death—
that has nothing to do with life or the book of life.
I think more than wanting us to ask
“WHO is the Antichrist?”
Jesus is wanting us to begin to discern—to figure out:
“WHAT is anti-Christ?”7
What is anti-Jesus, anti-Lamb,
anti-giving to others,
anti-Love to the point of death?
What are things that promise us safety—
promise us security, promise us fulfillment—
(in all honesty, they promise us salvation)
but they also demand our worship?
Those things that demand to be ultimate?
Through a vision to John,
Jesus is calling us into good news—calling us to himself.
“Use your minds, my people—
think these things through.”
“There a lot of stuff—
from far over the sea and even growing locally—
that doesn’t line up with my Life…
and I don’t want you—my Church—to miss it.
“The Enemy doesn’t only wage war with the sword…
he also deceives with counterfeits life.
“He likes to lure people into things
that look like Life—that look like the Lamb (v11)—
but in reality its the Dragon’s voice… its the voice of death.”
It might be the imperial cult of the first century—
yes, I’m pretty sure John is warning against that.
But this calls for wisdom—
I think the Dragon is still waging war.
Still hurting people through big systems.
Still tempting us with counterfeit life.
People sometimes worry
that a credit card or the latest technology
might be the mark of the beast.
But I think a better question might be
about the large patterns of our lives and our world.
When we’re knowingly sell our integrity
for the promise of momentary pleasure.
We’re courting the beast.
When we buy into a system
that tells us that more money will bring more security,
that more debt is worth some quick pleasure,
that more income should be used for us,
when that’s the pattern, maybe
we actually SHOULD examine our credit cards.
That sounds a bit anti-Christ.
It sounds like “a six.”
Like it falls short of perfection—like it’s less than alive.
Maybe we’re buying counterfeit life.
People sometimes worry
that the United Nations or the latest political leader
might be The Antichrist.
But despite the impression
we may get from the news or social media,
our safety and security does NOT hinge on an election this week.
That’s a lie from the Dragon.
If we’re losing sleep over current events,
if we find ourselves angry or fearful over politics,
if we’re far concerned
about whoever is living in the White House
more than loving whoever lives in “the next house,”
If we are speak hatefully or unfairly about people
because they’re voting for the “wrong person,”
I think the Dragon is deceiving us.
And today we’re challenged to KNOW his number—
to HAVE his number—and to refuse to buy what he’s selling.
So may we have patient endurance and faithfulness
while evil still lashes about in the world,
may we have wisdom to recognize every beast
that the Dragon unleashes on the world
and resist their violence and seduction
and may we have ears to hear the Spirit calling us
into the true and lasting life
that no mind can imagine,
that no Enemy can counterfeit,
and that absolutely all are invited to join.
- There’s a “family resemblance” between the Dragon (12.3) and the Sea-Beast (13.1).
- John shows his hand a bit in 17.8-9 where he explicitly connects the seven heads of the beast to the seven hills of Rome.
- Daniel explicitly clarifies his image of horns (cf. Dan 7.7-8,11,20) as symbolizing kings (7.24).
- John comments in his letter to Pergamum that it is “where Satan has his throne” (2.13). This is likely in reference to the fact that Pergamum was “the official cult center of emperor worship in Asia” (Mounce, NICNT, 79).
- “Belief in statues that spoke and performed miracles is widely attest in ancient literature… Ventriloquism was practiced by the priests of Oriental cults, and sorcery had found a place in the official circles of Rome” (Mounce, 258). So too Wright, 120: “There were several tricks commonly employed to enable the statues of various gods to move about, to breathe, to weep and even speak. Sophisticated pagan writers of the time mention many such devices, pouring scorn on their trickery.”
- “‘It was given to him to give breath’ is a metaphorical way of affirming that the second beast was persuasive in demonstrating that the image of the first beat (e.g., of Caesar) represented the true deity, who stands behind the image and makes decrees.” (G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGCNT, 711)
- The word “antichrist” never appears in the book of Revelation. The word is used five times in the New Testament (1Jn 2.18 (2x), 22; 4.3; 2Jn 7). All five of these references refer to a category that people or spirits/attitudes can fall into.