If you read the passage above silently, go back and read it again out loud, blessing yourself and anyone else in hearing distance (Yes, I am going to mention that every week! – Revelation 1:3).
The sea was a scary place in the ancient world. A place of darkness and mystery, a power that could not be tamed or resisted. So it became known as the gateway to Hades and the place from which all that is evil comes from. So when Jesus calms the storm in Luke 8, it wasn’t just seen as a display of power over nature, it was seen as complete authority over all that is dark as well. Which is why it is no surprise that the storm Jesus faced could perhaps have been trying to prevent him from reaching the demon-possessed man on the other side of the lake. Those dark forces couldn’t stand in Jesus’ way either.
So here, in Revelation, John reaches into his culture and uses the sea (remember the sea of glass in the throne room, the presence of wickedness that is controlled) to illustrate that the next character in his story is born out of evil and wickedness. And it is quite an incredible looking beast that he describes, a poly-headed amalgamation of a leopard, lion and bear – but it is a beast created not out of John’s imagination, but the prophet Daniel’s dreams.
In Daniel 7 we read of Daniel’s dream of four beasts. First was like a lion, the second like a bear, the third like a leopard, and the fourth a poly-headed beast with iron teeth. These four beasts represent four pagan kingdoms that will rule, ultimately culminating with the Roman Empire. It was prophesied that during this last kingdom, God would sit in judgment and give all authority, glory and sovereign power to the Messiah, to Jesus. John is taking the four beasts of Daniel 7 and rolling them into one, as a great symbol of the pagan rulers and empires that have wreaked havoc on the lives of his Christian brothers and sisters.
On one hand it represents pagan empires in general, and then on the other carries traits unique to that of the Roman Empire currently ruling. Every Caesar that had ruled Rome up to this point had fashioned coins after themselves, and inscribed them under their heads with the phrase “son of god”. This is what John is referring to when he talks about each head of the beast having a blasphemous name.
One of the heads in John’s picture receives a fatal wound, and threatens the life of the entire beast. Just before this letter was written, Nero, Caesar of the Roman Empire, died. For a little while, it was uncertain whether the empire would be able to survive the wars between rival replacements that ensued afterwards, until Vespasian managed to secure control and bring stability to the empire. Shortly after rumours began to appear that Nero had risen from the dead, some men even appeared claiming to be Nero’s resurrected self, but they didn’t seem to manage to stay alive very long.
But if all this was about was to describe the way the Roman Empire persecuted Christians and blasphemed God, there would be no revelation in this picture. The revelation that John is making clear is that the force and power behind the beast, fuelling and guiding the Roman Empire, is none other than Satan himself. It is the dragon that has given this pagan empire its power and authority, and therefore it is the dragon that is being worshipped through this empire.
This could be what John was talking about back in Revelation 2 when he described Pergamum as the place where “Satan has his throne”. Pergamum was not the capital of the Roman Empire, but it was the centre of the imperial cult (the worship of Caesar as god) for the whole empire. John’s message is that by worshipping Caesar, they are in fact worshipping Satan. Which places these early Christians in a difficult position, because as we’ll learn in the coming chapters they won’t make it very far in life if they refuse to worship Caesar, which is of course exactly what the Christians (those whose name is written in the Lamb’s book) must refuse to do.
John’s revelation comes to a sobering conclusion with a quote from Jeremiah, which is an attempt to say that the suffering these Christians will experience at the hand of the Roman Empire is “just the way it is”. There is no avoiding it or escaping it, they will be taken captive and even killed. However, the climax of chapter 11 remains just as true, God will use the witness of the suffering church to bring the full reality of his kingdom into the hearts and lives of everyone. For now, they need to be patient, keep walking this road (enduring), and maintain their faith in God and his rescue plan that is working.
There are two lessons I believe we need to take from these truths today. The first is that we must not be naïve about what is behind the evil, wickedness, and pain we are experiencing in our lives. And we must be careful that it doesn’t draw so much of our attention away from God that it draws our worship as well. The second is that God’s rescue plan is in motion, and whatever pain or suffering you are experiencing today (which is just the way it is right now), God will be faithful to put it right. Keep walking the road you are on, keep seeking to encounter God’s presence in the midst of those difficulties, and keep being His witness through your pain to the hurting world that surrounds you.
This is a continuation of our series on Revelation at Birchfield Church. So if you want to listen to my talks (and others as we go along), please feel free to visit our website here and do that. Also, Tom Wright’s book, “Revelation for Everyone”, has been a big help in understanding this book; so go and buy it now and then read it. Grace and peace to you all.