Episode 38: The Book of Revelation (5) Fantastic Beasts!
This episode continues our exploration of the book of Revelation. Paul and Dan consider the middle section – chapters 12-14 – the section with the weird and wonderful beasts! By focusing on the characteristics of 3 symbolic creatures; the dragon, the beast of the sea and the beast of the earth, they uncover a subversive message for Christians in the 1st century but also relevant for any age of history. And yes, they discuss the mark of the beast and the number 666 – finally!
After a brief recap Paul highlights one of the structural markers in the text. At the end of chapter 11 there’s a scene with God’s temple open in heaven. The same scene appears again in chapter 15:5 as though to say that the text is now picking up where it left off at the end of chapter 11. That indicates that chapters 12 to 14, which lie in between, are a separate section dealing with a different subject and putting across a different message. This conclusion is reinforced by noting that, up to chapter 11 we have seen a sequence of 7 seals, then 7 trumpets and then chapter 15 and 16 continue that framework with another sequence, this time of 7 bowls.
So what is this middle section of chapters 12-14 doing? Paul outlines that there are 7 signs in this section but it’s helpful to focus particularly on the 3 fantastic creatures – the great dragon, a beast that comes out of the sea and then a beast that comes from the earth. Paul and Dan look at each in turn and concentrate on the characteristics of each that are highlighted in the text.
Its description as the ancient serpent, the devil and satan, takes us (and we assume the first audience) back to the opening scenes of the Bible story in the garden of Eden. Working through passages in the Psalms, John’s gospel and the New Testament letters, Dan and Paul identify that this ancient serpent is not some literal thing, but is a way of representing the deceit, conflict, aggression and oppression that human beings are capable of. In Revelation 12 though, this dragon that seeks to rule in human beings’ hearts and minds instead of God, is thrown down. This is the victory achieved by Jesus and shared by those that follow him.
The Beast from the sea
In the next scene, the dragon, having been thrown down, calls a beast out of the sea. Paul and Dan identify that its description evokes the visions of Daniel and probably would readily have been identified by the original audience with the Roman power. Paul, however, points out that the strangest feature of this beast is that it has a head which looks like it has recovered from a mortal wound. This appears to deliberately parallel the description of the lamb (which had been slain) in chapter 5. Whatever this represents, it is being shown here to be a grotesque caricature of the Son of God himself. But there is one more creature to come.
The Beast from the earth
This creature described in chapter 13, is said to be able to perform signs and its role and purpose is forcibly to persuade people to worship the first beast. But again Paul and Dan identify a parallel – the two witnesses in chapter 11 were also said to be able to perform signs and their role, as discussed in the last episode, is to bring people to give glory to God. These two witnesses were linked with the followers of Jesus, so this 3rd beast, whatever it is, represents something that encourages people to worship something that is not the real God, and something that is not the real Son of God.
What’s the meaning of these fantastic beasts?
The immediate hearers and readers of this message would readily have seen the Roman emperor represented here in the first beast – powered by the dragon (i.e. human nature) and they would have experienced the very real and sometimes deadly power of the imperial machinery in each city of the empire which tried to force them to sacrifice to the emperor. John’s revelation is showing these for what they are – human structures set up to replace the rule of God in people’s hearts and minds – but Christians are to see through this and recognise that the true power lies with God and his son.
The mark of the beast
Chapter 13 ends with an infamous warning about “the mark of the beast”! Dan notes that this phrase gets a huge amount of attention, not least during recent world events, and all sorts of interpretations have been suggested. Paul points out that there is another parallel within the book: the mark of the beast on foreheads is contrasted with the sealing of the faithful 144,000 seen in chapter 7. Both ideas seem to be about allegiance and belonging. They are part of the overall message of this section to Christians: be clear that your allegiance is to where the true power lies, rather than giving it to counterfeit human power structures, even if this brings hardship (as it certainly did for early Christians). Paul finally explains that the number 666 linked with this uses gematria (using numbers assigned to letters in Greek and Hebrew) to point at the Roman emperor as an example of such abuses of power.
So, nothing sinister about the mark of the beast other than yet another warning about humanity’s tendency to willfully serve itself over God.