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).
I have a confession to make (lean in closer to the screen so that you can hear me whisper) – I don’t like the film, “Frozen”.
It is so good to get that off my chest!
Despite my distaste for its one-dimensional storyline and unimaginative characters, I cannot escape its presence. It is everywhere! My kids sing “Frozen” songs in their classrooms, and therefore an unholy proportion of their time at home is doing the same. At least every third present they were bought at Christmas by others was something “Frozen” themed. We now are the much less than proud owners of “Frozen” puzzles, “Frozen” books, “Frozen” snakes and ladders, “Frozen” go fish, “Frozen” bingo, “Frozen” memory card, “Frozen” hair bands, “Frozen” clothes, the list truly does go on and on.
And if the commercialising isn’t sickening enough for you, it takes a very small number of clicks on YouTube to find the general public increasing its fame through parody songs. Because that’s what people do when something gets popular, they imitate it for their own promotion. A quick search and YouTube comes back with 115,000 results to “Frozen Parody”.
Really? 115,000 people had nothing better to do than that?
Parodies are a funny beast, because on one hand they are exaggerating the traits of a genre or style, in an almost mocking manner, to create comedy. On the other hand, parodies are rarely funny, and often confusing, if you are unaware of what the original was like. Artists like Mel Brooks or Weird Al Yankovich have been finding a great deal of success and money in imitating and exaggerating the most well-known artists and genres of films and music for a long time.
I mention all of this because a parody is the best way to describe what John is trying to say is going on here in the second half of Revelation 13.
So far in John’s latest vision we’ve had two “bad guys” introduced to us: a dragon representing Satan and a beast representing pagan empires, particularly the Roman Empire. Now John wants to hit a bit closer to home, to the day by day experiences of the Christians he is writing to; so he creates another beast.
This beast comes out of the earth, it is something that has arisen locally to the Christians, unlike the empire that rose out of the sea or Satan who came from heaven – the beast represents the local Roman leaders, the sort of town mayors and governors in charge. Straight away John tells us that these local leaders are parody rulers of the true king, Jesus. They have horns like a lamb, as if they carry his authority, but they speak like a dragon, who is the true source of their being and power. John wants the Christians to realise that these rulers are nothing like Jesus, just a comical exaggeration and imitation of what a true leader is like.
John goes on to describe what these local leaders do. They force everyone to worship the Roman Empire and Caesar, sometimes through the threat of death and sometimes by employing cheap tricks to make statues of Caesar appear to breathe, weep, and move. But the threat of death and the use of tricks was nothing compared to the threat of starvation they used to force people to worship. The leaders would force all those wishing to buy or sell in the marketplace to make a sacrifice to Caesar, usually an amount of money, before they would receive a mark on their head or hand that told everyone in the market that they had been given permission to buy or sell. Without this mark, the marketplace was not a source of food or wages.
John finishes talking about these marketplace experiences by saying the mark was the number six hundred and sixty-six, commonly known now as the “mark of the beast”. However, John clearly says that it is a mark belonging to a man and that it has a meaning that can be calculated. As we have seen a lot in Revelation, Hebrew culture used numbers to mean things a lot. Here, John is using a common Hebrew coding system where numbers represent letters to spell out for us who is behind this form of persecution (persecution because the Christians couldn’t and wouldn’t sacrifice to Caesar, so were left unable to make a living or buy food in the marketplace). That system spells out the words, NERO CAESAR, from the number six hundred and sixty-six.
As a side note, 777 was seen as a “perfectly complete” number in this system, so Nero was one short of being perfect. 888 translated into JESUS CHRIST, and showed that he was a step above perfection and completeness.
Enough with the numbers, it is time for some application!
The common misinterpretation of Revelation to be a list of chronological future events that will one day take place has created a scarily large number of people, especially Americans, looking for this mark throughout society. This unnerving number of conspirators who see the “mark of the beast” in all the latest technological advances (and have done so for the last, well, for as long as technology has been advancing!), make it hard for us to see the real point in a passage famous for the wrong reasons.
In the western world, we do not face persecution like these Christians who are unable to buy food or make money if they refuse to offer a sacrifice to false gods and idols. However, we are very susceptible to being deceived, by the parodies of our time, into compromising our integrity and character. This could be something that looks and sounds like the gospel on a “God Channel”, but is far from the salvation by grace that the gospel actually declares. It happens by masquerading sinful and/or harmful habits and lifestyle choices under the guise of “culture” or what is uniquely special about being British. Sometimes it comes in the form of theological and doctrinal debates that place our flawed understanding of justice and force it onto God’s desires for our lives in a way that attempts to free us from Biblical mandates of how we should and shouldn’t live. Or it happens through the compromise of consumerism as we buy clothes sewed by a child being forced to pay off family debts, use energy that pollutes our world, and expend a disproportionate amount of wealth on needless things while others in the world starve to death because we’ve been convinced we don’t have a choice.
There are “marks of the beast” all around us today, choices to either buy into the deceptions and cheap imitations of true kingdom life, or in some way go without what our culture deems as necessary for life.
John’s invitation to these early Christians, and therefore to us as well, is to think carefully, remembering that it is the dragon himself that is behind this beast. So when we choose to follow the beast, we worship he dragon.
This is a continuation of our series on Revelation at Birchfield Church (and the last one for a few months). 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.