The apostle John records a fourth perspective of the panoramic picture of God's reign throughout the "enigma of the interim." It is another "overlay" that provides a different "filter" on God's activities during that period between the two physical advents of Jesus Christ. This fourth "camera-angle" illustrates more clearly the conflict that continues to take place between God and Satan, between Christianity and religion.
The Christians at the end of the first century, and Christians in every period prior to Christ's return, find it necessary to recognize the spiritual conflict that is transpiring in the universe and upon the earth. In this fourth vision John records for us an expanding and escalating hostility. First there is the conflict between a woman and the dragon (12:1-6), followed by conflict between the angel, Michael, and the dragon (12:7-16), and between the woman's children and the dragon (12:17). Then the woman's children are engaged in battle with the sea-beast (13:1-10) and with the earth-beast (13:11-18). Inherent within these symbols is the message that the forces of evil will continue to come against Christian peoples. This is in fulfillment of what Jesus said, "If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you" (John 15:20).
It was the evil forces of Satan acting through religion that persecuted Jesus, and likewise it is primarily through the "front" of religion that the Evil One continues to harass and do battle against Christians. Will Christians endure and persevere in their faithful reliance upon the victory that Jesus Christ won at the cross, or will they revert to religious practices that effectively deny Jesus Christ? This is the issue being addressed throughout the Revelation, and even more particularly in these chapters.
John begins by indicating that he saw a "great sign appear in heaven" (12:1). A "sign" signifies something of spiritual significance, and a "great sign" is something of special significance. It is important to note that the setting is "in heaven," so as not to interpret earthly events as directly equivalent to that which is being pictured, though such events may correlate as counterparts to the activity in the heavenly realm.
In the heavenlies John saw "a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars" (12:1). The identity of this woman has long been debated. Since she bore a male child (12:5) who is apparently the Messiah, Mary the physical mother of Jesus has often been the earthly identification given to the woman. This is particularly true in Roman Catholic interpretation with their undue emphasis on Mary. Others have identified the woman as Eve who was promised that she would have "enmity with the serpent" and her "seed would bruise the snake" (Gen. 3:14,15). Eve thought that she had borne "the manchild of Jehovah" (Gen. 4:1) when she gave birth to her first son, Cain. Others have identified the "woman" as the physical nation and race of Israel, since Jesus was born into their ethnic group as a Jew. Another opinion is that which identifies the "woman" as the Christian church. One variation of this latter view is the liberal idea that the birth and life of Jesus is but a "myth" that was spawned by the early religious community of Christians. Another variation is that which explains that it is through the activity of the church that the life of Jesus is given birth regeneratively in Christian people. All of these interpretations, seem to be earth-based explanations which relate the symbol to events on earth, rather than "in heaven." Some more abstract interpretations identify the "woman" as God's creative activity which gives birth to the Messiah, or as God's perfect intent for man which gives birth to the need for a reconciling mediator. Although precise identification of the "woman" is not necessary to understand the picture-show being presented, it might be beneficial to consider the contrast of this "woman" and the "mystery of the woman" who is "Babylon the great, the mother of harlots" (17:4), the "woman who is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth" (17:18). If the "woman" who is the mother of religion is identified as a city, perhaps the heavenly Messianic maternity is also to be identified in a city or a community. What some have called the "Mother Zion" concept, might be what Paul was expressing when he wrote, "the Jerusalem above is our mother" (Gal. 4:26). The heavenly community, identified as the City of Peace, Jerusalem, can be understood to provide the spiritual maternity of the Messiah.
If we accept this latter interpretation of the "woman" as "Jerusalem above" in heaven, then it is easy to understand that she is "clothed with the sun" (12:1), in the garment of God's light. The "Jerusalem above" is a spiritual reality that is above physical phenomena, and therefore the "moon is under her feet" (12:1). Since the number twelve is representative of God's people, the woman is symbolized as having "a crown of twelve stars" (12:1), for the "Jerusalem above" is comprised of the totality of God's people.
The heavenly "woman" was pregnant "with child" (12:2). Isaiah uses similar imagery of physical Israel being pregnant, but they could not give birth to a deliverer, only "to wind" (Isa. 26:17,18). The "Jerusalem above" provides heavenly maternity for the Messiah, and does "give birth to a son" (12:5). "Zion travailed and brought forth a boy" (Isa. 66:7-9).
Many varied attempts have been made to link the birth of the male child (12:5) to physical and historical phenomena. The most obvious is the incarnation of Jesus Christ when "in the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, born of a woman" (Gal. 4:4); the "virgin bore a son" (Isa. 7:14); the Son of God "was made in the likeness of men" (Phil. 2:7). The resurrection of Jesus Christ is also referred to as a "birth" for by "life out of death" Jesus provides the availability of the "birth of life" for all mankind. Quoting the Messianic psalm (Ps. 2:7-9), Paul explained that by the resurrection God had "begotten His Son" (Acts 13:30-35). As the "first-born from the dead" (Col. 1:15; Rev. 1:5), Jesus allows for the regenerative birth of His life in Christians, "first-born among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29), "born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (I Peter 1:3). Paul also referred to his travailing "in labor until the life of Christ was formed in" the Galatian Christians (Gal. 4:19). Perhaps no historical event is being indicated by "the birth of the male child," but merely the general presentation of the life of Jesus Christ to the world by the heavenly community of the "Jerusalem above." On the other hand, perhaps all of the above explanations can serve as a comprehensive earthly counterpart to the woman giving birth.
In the meantime, John saw "another sign" signifying something of spiritual significance. He saw a "great red dragon" (12:3), who is later specifically identified as "the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan" (12:9). Monster-dragons were often employed in prophetic picture-language. Isaiah refers to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, as being "like a monster" (Isa. 51:34), and Ezekiel refers to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, as "the great monster" (Ezek. 29:3). Evil is often portrayed as personified in dragon-form (Ps. 74:13,14). The Satanic dragon is pictured as having "seven heads and ten horns," for he masquerades and disguises himself as representing the perfection of thought and completion of authority. "On his heads were seven diadems" or royal crowns, for the devil misrepresents himself as the perfection of royal power as he tries to parody and usurp the "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (19:12,16). Despite his rebellion against God, he has only a limited effect as illustrated by "his tail sweeping away a third of the stars of heaven" (12:4).
The diabolic dragon stands by the woman who is about to give birth so that he might devour her child (12:4). If the birth of the child had its counterpart in the incarnation we might think of Satan's effort through King Herod to kill the baby Jesus (Matt. 2:13-16). If the resurrection of Jesus is the counterpart then we might consider Satan's activity in the temptations of Jesus as well as his murderous efforts leading to the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. Perhaps the birth pictured in the vision comprehends both counterparts in its signification of the heavenly presentation of the life of the Son of God, which Satan always seeks to deter, abort and devour.
In the imagery that John describes, the woman gives birth to a son "who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron" (12:5). The obvious reference to Jesus Christ as the "son" is apparent by the allusion from the Messianic psalm wherein God says, "I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain. Thou art My Son. I will give the nations as Thine inheritance. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron" (Ps. 2:6-9). Isaiah prophesied that "a child will be born, a son will be given, and the government shall rest on His shoulders" (Isa. 9:6). Later in the Revelation Jesus is explicitly identified as the One who "rules with a rod of iron" (19:15).
Immediately after the birth of the son in the vision that John saw, "her child was caught up to God and to His throne" (12:5). This is difficult to "square" with a particularized identification with the incarnational birth of Jesus. If the "birth" unto life in resurrection is accepted as the interpretation, then the subsequent ascension of the Lord Jesus when He was "lifted up" (Acts 1:9) into heaven seems to apply more easily. Then again, from the heavenly perspective of eternity the presenting of the life of Jesus unto the world of mankind was soon followed by the return of the physical Jesus into the heavenly presence.
John then records that "the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that she might be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days" (12:6). Viewed from the historical counterpart of Jesus' incarnational birth, some have suggested that this corresponds with Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt, but this interpretation lacks an allegorical alignment for the child of the woman being "caught up to God and His throne" (12:5). If the heavenly "Jerusalem above" is the spiritual mother of the Messiah, then the "wilderness" may represent the place of divine protection, safety and sustenance. The "wilderness" served as such for the Israelites in the Old Testament. The "wilderness" to which the woman flees may symbolize the place of spiritual refuge outside of the predominant religious community, where she remains until the "New Jerusalem" is fully consummated as the unhindered "City of God" in the heavenly realm. The fact that the "woman" remains there for one thousand two hundred and sixty days, which is forty-two months or three and a half years (cf. 11:2; 13:5), indicates that this is an abbreviated time which is divinely restricted. It does not last forever!
The combatants in the spiritual conflict within the heavenlies then changes from the woman versus the dragon to "Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon" (12:7). This is similar to Daniel's vision of Michael guarding the people of God in the "time of distress" (Dan. 12:1). Many of the ideas utilized in interpreting these verses are based on concepts of heavenly warfare between good angels and Luciferian angels which are derived from Milton's Paradise Lost, rather than from the Scriptures. We must beware of imposing an unbiblical grid upon our interpretation.
Within the heavenly realm John records the picture of a conflict between "Michael and his angels" and "the dragon and his angels" (12:1). Perhaps the battle was over the work of Jesus Christ and what He would accomplish in His redemptive mission on earth. The dragon and his angels "were not strong enough" (12:8) and were "thrown down" (12:9). They were defeated and knocked out! This is certainly true when it comes to the soteriological work of Jesus Christ, for the victory cry is issued when Jesus exclaims, "It is finished" (John 19:30) from the cross. The Satanic forces lost the spiritual battle as it was acted out on earth. The "works of the devil were destroyed" (I John 3:8) and the "devil was rendered powerless" (Heb. 2:14) when Jesus "disarmed the rulers and authorities, triumphing over them" (Col. 2:15). It was the beginning of the end for the dragon who is identified as the "serpent of old" (12:9) linking him with the "serpent" in the garden (Gen. 3:1,14,15), and also identified as "the devil" meaning "slanderer" and as "Satan" meaning "adversary." He is also the deceiver who "deceives the whole world," having done so ever since he deceived the whole world of mankind through Adam and Eve, and he continues to lie (John 8:44) and deceive through false religious workers (II Cor. 11:13-15). The important thing for Christians to remember is that Satan has been "thrown down" and defeated by the victory of Jesus Christ.
That is the reason for the victory announcement being exclaimed by a "loud voice in heaven, saying, 'Now the salvation, and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come'" (12:10). By the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ salvation has come to mankind. "Now is the day of salvation" (II Cor. 6:2). We are "made safe" from the misuse and abuse of our humanity by Satan, in order to be restored to functional humanity by the indwelling life of the risen Lord Jesus. By the resurrection Jesus became the "Son of God with power" (Rom. 1:4), the spiritual power (Acts 1:8) that works within every Christian (II Cor. 12:9; Eph. 3:20; Col. 1:29). By the acceptance of His vicarious death and the reception of His resurrection life, Christians are "transferred to His kingdom" (Col. 1:13), and "made to be a kingdom" (Rev. 1:6) over which Christ reigns. "The authority of Christ has come" (12:10), "all authority in heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18), for "God has made Him both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).
The diabolic slanderer, "the accuser of Christian brethren" (12:10) has been overcome. The one who seduced man to sin in the first place (Gen. 3:1-6), then began to accuse mankind of their sin to induce shame and increased religious performance. But "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). By "the blood of the Lamb" (12:11), the death of Jesus Christ, Satan's endeavors to control mankind were overcome. When Jesus was "lifted up" on the cross, judgment came upon the world-system, and "the ruler of the world was cast out" (John 12:31,32).
It is true that Satan continues to "come down" (12:12) to us in temptation. He still seeks to counterfeit and undermine the life of Jesus Christ in Christians (II Cor. 11:13-15). As the "god of this world" (II Cor. 4:4), he is still the deceitful destroyer, the "adversary who prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (I Peter 5:8). Despite his "great wrath" at having been defeated by Christ, he "knows he has a short time" (12:12) to engage in his destructive activities, for the time of the end has been determined by God (Acts 1:7).
In the meantime, as Christians identify with Christ, the Overcomer (John 16:33), they continue to overcome (2:7,11,17,26) Satanic activity, united with Christ in the "word of witness" (2:11), "the word of the cross" (I Cor. 1:18). They recognize that the spiritual life which is in Jesus Christ is of ultimate value, and are willing to lose their physical lives, "even to death" (12:11), in order to proclaim the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death and evil. Jesus said, "He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to eternal life" (John 12:25). Paul could thus write, "I do not consider my life as dear to myself" (Acts 20:24), for Christians are not engaged in self-preservation of their physical lives but in witness to the eternal life of Jesus Christ, "faithful unto death" (2:10). In confidence we can "rejoice as heaven-dwellers" (12:12), "citizens of heaven" (Phil. 3:20), because we know the victory of Christ over Satan and his "earth-dwellers" who specialize in religion.
John continues to relate the heavenly picture-show, explaining that "when the dragon saw he was thrown down" and defeated by the victory of Christ on the cross, "he pursued the woman who gave birth to the male child" (12:13). Unable to attack the "Jerusalem above", he attacks the earthly counterpart and representation of such in the Christian community. With a "river" of lies and a "flood" of hatred and violence, the devil pours forth his rage. In that divinely limited period of crisis and suffering which will not last forever, symbolized by "a time and times and half a time" (12:14), three and a half years, Satan does his work, but God's people are protected. Just as the Israelites were portrayed as having been "borne on eagles wings" by divine protection from the Egyptians (Exod. 19:4; Deut. 32:10,11), the "two wings of the great eagle were given to the woman" (12:14), to the people of God in the "Jerusalem above," indicating God's protection. This does not mean, though, that Christians are protected from or exempted from Satan's destructive activity. "The dragon went off to make war with the rest of the woman's offspring, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus" (12:17). These "offspring" of the "Jerusalem above" are obviously Christians who in the "enigma of the interim" suffer the effects of conflict with Satan and his agents. The church of Jesus Christ will not be destroyed (Matt. 16:18), but Christians do experience much pain and suffering as the devil in his death-throes seeks to thwart the finished work of Christ. Meanwhile Christians "keep the commandments of God" (John 14:15,21; 15:10), recognizing that God is always the dynamic of His own demands, and they "hold to the witness of Jesus" even unto death.
The ongoing conflict of the dragon and the Christian offspring of the woman is illustrated when John sees the devil standing on "the sand of the seashore," and "a beast coming up out of the sea" (13:1). The sea is often represented as a great reservoir of evil from which monsters arise in symbolic imagery. Satan recognizes that he is going to have to take a different approach and employ a different ploy in the spiritual battle against God. He attempts to establish a beach-head by employing the technique of "religion." There is no greater "beast" than religion! It is a real monster! Previously referred to as killing the Christian "witnesses" (11:7), the beast from the reservoir of evil is now represented as "having ten horns," a parody of complete power or authority, "and seven heads," a presumption of perfect wisdom. "On his horns were ten diadems," a pretense of full royal regency and a parody of Jesus who is "King of Kings" (19:16). Religion has certainly engaged in the presumption of royal power and perfect knowledge. On the heads of the beast were "blasphemous names" whereby it misrepresented itself as God. Religion loves to put "titles" on all its "heads," calling them "Holy Father," "Righteous One," "Most Honorable," and "Reverend," among others.
The beast is described with characteristics of different animals (13:2), similar to the "four beasts" who are likened to animals in Daniel 7:2-7. One must beware of the deceiving leopard spots of religion, the strong and surly bearishness, and the lion-like mouth that would kill and devour. John has already referred to the religious tendency of Balaam (2:14) which "devours man." It is further explained that "the dragon has given to the beast his power and his throne and great authority" (13;2). The beast of religion drives its authority and empowering from Satan, "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 14:20; 16:11), "the god of this world" (II Cor. 4:4), who had the audacity to offer Jesus some of his authority when he tempted Him in the wilderness (Luke 4:6).
On one of the heads of the beast was a "fatal wound, as if it had been slain and was healed" (13:3). Religion constantly portrays itself as a "victim" of unfair persecution. They develop a "martyr-complex" which complains that "everybody is out to get us." In this case it appears that the beast of religion is attempting to parody the death and resurrection of Jesus. The phrase used to describe the beast "as if slain" is the same Greek verb construction used to describe the Lamb in 5:6. The preterist interpreters who seek to find a counterpart in the first century point to the suicide of Nero on June 9, 68 A.D. and the subsequent myth of his resurrection, which is known as the Nero redivivus legend, but it is not necessary to find a particular historical event to fulfill the symbol since this diminishes the transgenerational and translocational application of the Revelation.
"The whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast" (13:4). "The whole world lies in the Evil One" (I John 5:19). Religion is man's natural propensity. In their devotion to man-made religion, mankind is really "worshipping the dragon." In parody of God's people exclaiming, "Who is like Thee, O Lord?" (Exod. 15:11), sinful men extol satanic religion, saying, "Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him?" (13:4). Natural men are awed by and convinced of the invincible power of religion, and are willing to worship such taking no account of its evil character.
The beast of religion "speaks arrogant words and blasphemies against God" (13:5,6). Paul explained that the "man of lawlessness, the son of destruction, opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object or worship, displaying himself as being God" (II Thess. 2:3,4). Religion continues to arrogantly proclaim that it speaks for God, making moral pronouncements and political directives that are contrary to the ways of God. The religious beast "blasphemes God's name and His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven" (13:6). Religion cannot tolerate the character of God nor the tabernacling of the presence of God within Christian people in like manner as God tabernacled in Jesus when "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14). This is why religion constantly misrepresents and berates the indwelling presence of Jesus in Christians.
Genuine Christianity, the life of Jesus Christ functioning in Christians, is always in conflict with religion, which "makes war with the saints to overcome them" (13:7). "Saints" are Christians, "holy ones" in whom the Holy One, Jesus Christ, lives. Religion always seeks to "overcome" Christians, to "conquer" them. The Greek word used in this verse is nike, which we have noted previously in reference to the Nicolaitans (2:6,15) and the rider of the white horse who "went out conquering and to conquer" (6:2).
As "the whole world lies in the Evil One" (I John 5:19), they will all worship the beast (13:8) of religion, except for the Christians "whose names have been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain" (13:8). By the foreknowledge of God the names of Christians have been entered in the heavenly register of those who have eternal life in Jesus Christ. Presently these Christians must be discerning and faithful. "If any one has an ear, let him hear" (13:9), just as the risen Lord Jesus told the seven churches, representing all Christians. Part of Christian discernment is the realization that the demonic warfare and the deception is but for a limited duration. The beast of religion has "authority to act for only forty-two months" (13:5), a divinely limited time which will not last forever. This prompts the "perseverance and faith of the saints" (13:10) in order to "abide under" the painful present circumstances by being receptive to the divine indwelling activity of the Savior.
On the other hand, those "gathered together for captivity, to captivity they will go, and those who kill with the sword, with the sword they must be killed" (13:10). This is similar to the language of God threatening His judgment on Israel and Egypt through His prophet Jeremiah (Jere. 15:2; 43:11). Religion "gathers people together" for captivity. In fact, religion is the greatest of captivities as it captivates men's thinking and behavior and "binds them up" in rules, regulations and rituals. The etymological root of the word "religion" is the Latin word religo meaning "to bind up." The risen Lord Jesus declares that religionists who captivate others will be captives forever in hell. During His earthly ministry Jesus said that those who "live by the sword, will be killed by the sword" (Matt. 26:52). Religion has certainly been marked by militaristic warfare, "living by the sword" as they fight for their cause celebre of moral or doctrinal correctness. They will be killed in like manner as they have killed.
Sensing his ineffectiveness in seducing Christians by the general "beast of religion," Satan sees the need to become even more deceptive by presenting another form of the beast. "From the earth," out of his world-system, Satan brings forth "another beast" (13:11) who is in the form of a counterfeit lamb. Some have attempted to link the two beasts with the ancient legend of the two beasts, Leviathan from the sea and Behemoth from the earth. Others have suggested a diabolic trinity of evil in the dragon, the sea-beast and the earth-beast, representing the devil, the world and the flesh. Tri-unity is to be reserved as an attribute of God alone; never to be attributed to evil. These suggestions are questionable and without much merit. The symbols seem to point to another form of the beast of religion, who will later be identified with "the false prophet" of religion in 16:13; 19:20 and 20:10.
This second form of the beast is described as having "two horns like a lamb" (13:11). This is an obvious attempt to portray itself as Christ-like. It is a satanic subterfuge to parody the Lamb, Jesus Christ. Religion often seeks to project itself as Christ or His representative. Jesus said, "Beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing" (Matt. 7:15), while Paul mentioned those religionists who "disguise themselves as apostles of Christ or servants of righteousness" (II Cor. 11:13-15).
As this second form of the beast of religion is somewhat re-formed to better deceive Christians, some might want to identify the first beast as Roman Catholic religion and the second beast as Protestant religion from the Reformation. In this case some will identify the "two horns" of authority either as Luther and Calvin, or perhaps as Calvin and Arminius. It is best, however, to avoid such attempts at precise historical and personal identification, and to simply recognize the deceitful attempts of religion to parody the reality of Jesus.
Disguised as a lamb, this second beast of religion belies his disguise, for "he spoke as a dragon" (13:11). His voice is that of the one who activates all religion, the devil. This is a "dragon in sheep's clothing." The authority of this second beast (13:12) is also derived from Satan (13:4) with the intent of causing men to worship Satan through religion.
The second beast "performs great signs and deceives people by those signs" (13:13,14). It is indicative of religion to attempt to justify its power by manifestations of miraculous "signs and wonders." Moses explained to Israel that "if a prophet or dreamer arises giving you a sign or wonder, saying, 'Let us go after other gods,' do not listen to the words of that prophet, for the Lord your God is testing you." (Deut. 13:1-3). Throughout the earthly ministry of Jesus the religionists were constantly asking Jesus to "show them a sign" (Matt. 16:1), and Jesus explained that they should seek Him "not because they saw signs" (John 4:48; 6:26). In like manner as this second beast, Paul refers to "the lawless one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders" (II Thess. 2:9). Religion employs the deception of the diabolic deceiver by deceiving men with alleged "supernatural signs" supposedly attributable to God, but really derived from the power of Satan. Many have been duped into believing in religion because having seen a supernatural manifestation of the miraculous, they concluded it was God at work, when it was actually the devil. The beast of religion "even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men" (13:13). This is a parody of Pentecost. Religion will try to counterfeit every supernatural expression of Christianity with false Pentecostal "signs" and pseudo-charismatic gifts.
The idolatrous intent of religion is evidenced as the second beast tells people "to make an image to the beast" (13:14). The Greek word for "image" is eikon from which we get the English word "icon." Religion specializes in making external and idolatrous "graven images." Unable to accept that "Christ is the image of God" (Col. 1:15; II Cor. 4:4), and that God desires that His divine character be visibly expressed in the behavior of man, religion instead seeks to construct an external visible expression. These may take the form of tangible likenesses of creatures or men as well as religious buildings, or they may be intangible constructs of belief-systems and morality, or the ecclesiastical organizations of institutional religion. Idols all the same! Religion proceeds to attempt "to give breath to the image of the beast" (13:15), to make it "come alive," and invest it with spiritual life and activity, while also making it "speak" (13:15) with pompous pronouncements of piety. Those who "do not worship the image of the beast are killed" (13:15). Religion will tolerate no refusal to conform to its tenets. The intolerance of religion is well documented in its destruction and death of nonconformists.
This second beastly form of religion "causes all to be given a mark on their right hand, or on their forehead" (13:16). Conformity of outward identification is important to religion. Religious adherents must be identified by what they do with their "hands" in moral activity and by what they think with their "heads" in an epistemological belief-system. Religion "brands" people so that the whole of society will be "stamped" by their religious adherence and it will "mark" everything they do. This includes the right to economic exchange, for "no one should be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, of the name of the beast or the number of his name" (13:17). Religion creates an in-bred favoritism for conformists who bear the "mark" of the "name" of the beast, perhaps by expressing the diabolic character of the one who energizes religion, for "name" often represents character. The "number of his name" also represents the character of the devil in "self-effort." Those who do not share the "mark" are stigmatized for economic ostracism and boycott. History adequately records these repressive economic actions of religion, and such can still be seen today in the exclusivistic economic practices of evangelicals with their "sign of the fish" on business cards and advertising.
Christians constantly need the wisdom of Christ (I Cor. 1:24,30) to discern Satan's activity from Christ's activity, to distinguish between religion and genuine Christianity. "Here is wisdom," declares the risen Lord Jesus. "Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six" (13:18). Throughout the Revelation numbers have symbolic significance. Seven is the number of divine perfection, and if the number seven were triplicated as seven hundred and seventy-seven it would represent the triune perfection of the Godhead. The number six falls short of that which is of God. Man certainly falls short of that which is of God and brings glory to God (Rom. 3:23). Six hundred and sixty-six is a number that comes short of perfection. It is a parody on the divine trinity of perfection represented by seven hundred and seventy-seven. It is a number that represents the beast of religion, which though inspired and energized by the self-oriented, rebellious activity of Satan, is evidenced by man's self-effort to appease and please God apart from Jesus Christ. Religion is man's best efforts to construct moral systems and theological formulations and institutional structures. It is the best that man can do as he tries to reach God, just as he did at Babel (Gen. 11:1-9).
The "number of the beast" is explicitly identified as "the number of man" (13:18). Many translations and interpretations of this text supply an indefinite article which indicates that the number of the beast is "a man." The original Greek language of the Revelation has no indefinite article, and proper hermeneutic principles allow us to supply such in English translation only if the context demands such for clarity of expression. Such is not the case in this instance. When the indefinite article is supplied it gives the impression that the second beast is to be identified as a singular and particular individual man. This has led to much religious obsession with decoding the cryptographic number of "six hundred and sixty-six" in order to identify a particular person. Speculations have included Nero, Caligula, other Roman emperors, Mohammed, various Roman Catholic popes, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, various United States presidents, leaders of Russia, etc. The numbers can arbitrarily and subjectively be twisted in order to apply to anyone! When such a procedure is employed the primary emphasis of the vision is missed. There is no need to identify this number as a particular historical individual. When the indefinite article is not supplied, a consistent contextual meaning is evident as the "number of the beast" is explained to be the "number of man" or the "number of mankind" as he engages in religious endeavors. Those who would demand a translation and interpretation that supplies the indefinite article identifying the number of the beast as "a man," must also allow the Jehovah's Witnesses to do the same in their translation of John 1:1, wherein they indicate that the Word was "a god." Few Christian religionists would want to allow such, but equity of translation technique would demand such.
In this fourth vignette of the vision, like the others of the Revelation, Jesus encourages Christians in every age of the assured victory for those who persevere and do not succumb to religion. The conflict with religion will be intense and the present experience may be painful unto death, but the participation in victory will be even more pleasant than can be imagined.
John looked and saw Jesus Christ, "the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion" (14:1). Jesus was standing as Victor on top of the mountain. This was not physical Mount Zion in Palestine, but the "heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb. 12:22), the "Jerusalem above" (Gal. 4:26). The prophet Micah foretold that "the house of the Lord (Jesus) would be established in the top of the mountains,...where He would judge many people, ...and the Lord shall reign over the people of God in mount Zion forever" (Micah 4:1-7). Likewise, the Psalmist expresses that God "has set His king upon the holy hill of Zion" (Ps. 2:6). John sees the fulfillment of these Messianic prophecies in Jesus Christ.
Accompanying Jesus on the victory hill is the full complement of God's people from both old and new covenant periods, the "one hundred and forty-four thousand, who have the name of Jesus and the name of the Father written on their foreheads" (14:1). These are Christians who have identified in thought and behavior with the character of God. They have the "mind of Christ" (I Cor. 2:16) in order that the character of God might be exemplified in their behavior unto God's glory. This is in contrast to the identification of unbelieving religionists (13:1,6,8,17).
John hears a combined "voice from heaven" that conveyed the divine presence in "the sound of many waters like the sound of loud thunder" (14:2). At the same time it was the voice of melodic praise "like harpists playing on their harps," as noted in 5:8. The people of God were singing "a new song" (14:3; 5:9) which only the people of God, represented by the number of full complement, "one hundred and forty-four thousand," could learn, "who had been purchased from the earth" (14:3). Only Christians who "have been bought with a price" (Acts 20:28; I Cor. 6:20; 7:23) by the redemption of Jesus Christ, and received the Spirit of God so as to "appraise spiritual things" (I Cor. 2:12-16), can understand and appreciate the agony and the ecstasy of this "new song" of praise to God for the eternal blessings in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3).
These people of God are further identified as those "who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste" (14:4). This does not mean that the full complement of God's people in heaven are males, nor that they are celibate males or "virgins," nor that they have never sinned (Rom. 3:23), especially sexually (I Cor. 6:11). What it does imply is that Christians have been made pure in heart by the presence of the purity of Jesus Christ and are to allow the purity of His character to be expressed in their behavior in order to be presented to the Bridegroom "as a pure virgin" (II Cor. 11:2), "holy and blameless" (Eph. 5:27).
They are "the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes" (14:4). Christians are disciples who are to follow Christ's direction wherever He leads as Lord. Denying themselves and taking up their cross, they follow Jesus (Matt. 10:38; Mk. 8:34), "following in His steps" (I Pt. 2:21), even unto death (John 13:36).
They "have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb" (14:4). Christians are redeemed so as to be dedicated to God as His rightful portion in the first-fruits of the harvest (James 1:18).
The heavenly people of God are further identified as having "no lie found in their mouth" (14:5). They are not as those who "have exchanged the truth of God for the lie" (Rom. 1:25), and have the indwelling spiritual "liar" operating in them (John 8:44). These who "love and practice lying" will be outside of the heavenly city (Rev. 22:15). Rather, Christians have received the Spirit of Christ who is the Truth (John 14:6), and are to represent His truth in all they say and do (Eph. 4:25; John 3:21). This does not mean that they have never spoken a verbal falsehood, but that the One who is Truth is expressed through them.
These victorious people of God singing a new song in heaven are finally described as "blameless" (14:5). All Christians have been made "holy and blameless" in Christ (Eph. 1:4; Col. 1:22). "If the root (Jesus) be holy, so are the branches" (Rom. 11:16).
John then begins to describe a sequence of angelic activities which serve to encourage Christians in every age of the eternal victory that is in Jesus Christ in contrast to the judgment that befalls those who are not identified with Jesus Christ and are involved in religion.
The first angel "has an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth" (14:6). During the difficult trials that Christians experience during the "enigma of the interim," many may wonder whether the gospel is really "good news" since it brings with it "bad news" of suffering, persecution and pain. This angel declares that the gospel is truly the "good news" for all mankind of the vital indwelling dynamic of the life of the risen Lord Jesus restoring mankind to function as God intended, of which we should not be ashamed (Rom. 1:16). The angel also admonishes all to "fear God, give Him glory, and worship the Creator" (14:7), because His hour of judgment has come by the sending of His Son into the world (John 3:19).
The second angel declares that "Babylon the great has fallen" (14:8). This was historically pre-figured in the Old Testament as the prophets indicated that "Babylon has fallen" (Isa. 21:9; Jere. 58:8,9). On the spiritual plane, Babylon, the city of religion, the religious community, has fallen by the victory of Jesus Christ over all of Satan's activities (I John 3:8). The angel further explains that the femininely personified city of religion "has made all the nations drink of the wine of the passion of her immorality" (14:8). This will be repeated in a subsequent vision (17:2; 18:3), of which this angelic statement seems to be a precursor. The city of religion will be identified as "the mother of harlots" (17:5). The entire practice of religion is immoral and contrary to the character of God. Religion fosters and encourages intoxication with unfaithfulness, self-indulgence, self-gratification, sensual passions, and with false loyalties and liaisons. The "deeds of the flesh" which include "immorality, impurity, sensuality, drunkenness and carousing" (Gal. 5:19-21) are indicative of religious behavior.
The third angel exclaims that "if anyone worships the religious beast and the visible expression thereof, and identifies with religion in thought or action, marked on forehead or hand, they will partake of the full undiluted strength of the wine of the wrath of God" (14:9,10). The Psalmist used similar judgment terminology, referring to "a cup in the hand of the Lord, and the wine is well mixed, and the wicked must drain and drink down its dregs" (Ps. 75:8). The prophets used the same imagery, even in reference to Babylon (Isa. 51:17; Jere. 25:15-17). This third angel amplifies the imagery of judgment by declaring that religionists "who worship the beast and his image and receive the mark of his name, will be tormented with fire and brimstone forever and ever, with no rest day and night" (14:10,11).
The purpose for this trilogy of angelic announcements is to provide an incentive for Christians to persevere and remain faithful. "Herein is revealed the necessity for the perseverance of the saints," says John (14:12). We must "keep the commandments of God" by recognizing that God is the dynamic of His own demands, and continue to have "faith in Jesus" which is the response of our receptivity of God's activity.
A loud voice then tells John to write down what is the second of the beatitudes in the Revelation. "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord" (14:13). All Christians who are "faithful unto death" (2:10) are "blessed" of God rather than cursed with the wrath and judgment of God. The "from now on" phrase can be attached to several of the verbs in this verse. It can mean "blessed from now on," "die from now on," or "rest from now on." The Spirit of God concurs with the unidentified voice, indicating that Christian martyrs who die because of their identification with Jesus Christ, "will rest from their labors" and from the difficulties of living in this hostile world.
The next scenario that John sees is a "white cloud" representing the presence of God, with "one like a son of man" sitting on the cloud (14:14). The identification is similar to that described by Daniel of "one like a son of man" whose kingdom would not be destroyed (Dan. 7:13,14). In both passages the reference seems to be to Jesus Christ, though some have interpreted the personage here in the Revelation who is "sitting on the cloud" as but another angel. The "golden victory crown" (14:14) on His head, though, would better signify Jesus and His "everlasting dominion" (Dan. 7:14).
The fact that the person pictured also wields a "sharp sickle in His hand" also seems to illustrate the divine action of harvest imagery, which becomes the primary theme of the remaining verses of this chapter. The interpretive question is whether this is the harvest of judgment or the harvest of the ingathering of God's people. Both symbols are used throughout the Scriptures. The harvest of judgment is referred to as "a threshing floor" (Jere. 51:33), and as the "wine press of God's wrath" (Isa. 63:2-6) upon wickedness (Hosea 6:11; Joel 3:11). On the other hand, the idea of harvest is used more particularly in the New Testament to refer to the gathering of people into God's fold, as Jesus explained that "the fields were white unto harvest, but the workers are few" (John 4:35-38; Matt. 9:37; Lk. 10:2), but we are to "put in the sickle, because the harvest has come" (Mk. 4:29).
Those who would interpret the imagery of 14:15-20 as that of judgment point out the similarity of terminology with the Old Testament statements of harvest judgment. They also note that "the hour having come to reap" is similar to the previous mention in this same chapter of "the hour of His judgment having come" (14:7), that "the power over fire" (14:18) is often associated with judgment (Matt. 18:8; II Thess. 1:7), and that the wine press is that of "the wrath of God" (14:19).
Those who interpret the action of these verses as the ingathering of God's harvest of souls will note the previous reference in this same chapter of Scripture to the imagery of Christians being the "first-fruits" of the harvest (14:4). They will point out the similarity of the "harvest being ripe" (14:15,18) to the statements of Jesus (John 4:35).
Perhaps the imagery is broad enough to encompass both concepts of harvest as is seen in Jesus' parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:36-43). The wheat is gathered along with the tares, but the tares are "burned with fire." The predominant emphasis of this passage (14:15-20) here in Revelation still seems to be that of judgment, especially when we note that the action of the wine press takes place "outside the city" (14:20), meaning outside of the New Jerusalem where God's people dwell. The extensive blood-bath that results from the wine press outside the city seems more representative of God's judgment upon non-Christians and religionists than the blood-bath of martyrs, though that has been quite extensive as well.
John then saw "another sign in heaven" (15:1) with "seven angels who had seven plagues" representing the perfection and completion of God's judgment of wrath. This might also indicate that the foregoing harvest imagery what that of judgment.
Then John saw the contrast of those who were "victorious over the religious beast" (15:2), those who are "conquerors through Christ" (Rom. 8:37), who had not identified with the visible expression of religious ecclesiasticism and that numerical equivalent of human effort energized by Satan. The people of God were "standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God," the tranquil setting of melodic worship before God's throne. They sing "the song of Moses" (15:3), for the song that the Israelites sang in their pre-figurative deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 15:1-18) is like unto "the song of the Lamb" (15:3) celebrating Christian deliverance over sin, death, Satan and religion. God's "righteous acts" and His victory in Jesus Christ have indeed "been revealed."
What is the purpose of this perspective of the Revelation? Christians in every age must understand that the spiritual source of earthly conflict against them is to be traced back to Satan, the devil, the serpent, the dragon (chapter 12). The "beasts" through which Satan acts to administer his evil is in varied forms of religion (chapter 13). But we must ever be reminded that "the victory is ours in Christ Jesus," and that there are dire consequences of judgment for those who succumb to temptation and religion (14:115:4).
Interspersed throughout each of these chapters
is a call for Christians to respond with faithful perseverance.
"Rejoice, you who dwell in the heavenlies, for the devil
only has a short time" (12:12). "Be discerning (13:9)
and understanding (13:18) about the activity of religion."
"Recognize the necessity and incentive for perseverance
in keeping God's commandments and responding in faith to Jesus
Christ" (14:12). Can you sing the song of those who have
"come off victorious from the beast of religion" (15:2)?
Every day is decision-time for Christians to decide if we will
remain faithful to Christ. Whenever we might lapse into religion,
we need to repent of our sin and turn again to the receptivity
of the activity of Jesus Christ.