The satanic trinity
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Let us pray. Speak, O Lord, as we come to you…
Typically, a single-family home is assigned one number in the numbering sequence of that street. We live at #49; to one side of is #47 and to the other side #51. Larger buildings occupy more space and can choose which number to use. To the east of this building is #88 and to the west #64. I presume we could have chosen anything from 66 to 86 as the street number for the church.
One of the churches I served, Temple Baptist in Windsor, was located at 664 Victoria Avenue. One of our members who was always looking for something that was a little catchy or would attract some attention wondered why we didn’t use one of the unused numbers that belonged to space we occupied. Why not list our address as 666 Victoria Avenue? I said I thought we likely didn’t want to do anything that would suggest a new nickname for us—Number of the Beast Baptist Church.
Understanding chapter 13 of Revelation begins with looking back at chapter 12. We are told in verse 7 that war broke out in heaven. Years ago I heard a sermon by The Rev. Dr. Gardner Taylor, one of the great Baptist preachers of his generation. Dr. Taylor used this verse as a proof-text for his statement that Baptists, no matter what is said about us, are the only denomination with Biblical proof that we have a place in heaven. If a war broke out in heaven, of all places, that was surely proof that we were there. I take you back to that verse because the dragon, identified as Satan, is defeated and thrown out of heaven. In chapter 13 they continue their war but this time that war is on the earth.
Let me say from the start, as I suppose I could say about any part of this book that is rich in imagery and symbolism that my opinion, my interpretation, is not the only one that you can find regarding this chapter. For example during the time of the Reformation the beast was identified as Martin Luther by Roman Catholics and as the Pope by the Reformers.
Let’s have a look then at what John says to us. At the end of chapter 12 he tells us the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore. There is no need to do any guessing or speculating as to who the dragon is. According to 12:9 the dragon is the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. This beast stands on the shore of the sea. On the screen behind me you will see a map of what was known of the world in first century Palestine. Where then does the beast come from? Spain was thought to be the western edge of the world, but my guess is that John and the members of his churches in Asia would have thought that this beast came out of the sea right here—near Rome.
One of the things that I have discovered in my study for this series is there are times when John is specific and times when he is vague. As I said, no need to guess about who the dragon is; the dragon is Satan. But who is this beast that comes out of the sea?
Have a look at verse 3 of chapter 13. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. One of the great enemies of the church in the first century was that scoundrel and supposed amateur fiddle player, Nero. In the final days of his reign, open revolts had broken out in Gaul and Spain and he lost the support of the Roman Senate. After taking refuge at a friend’s villa outside the city, he heard the Senate had declared him to be a public enemy and that soldiers were approaching his hiding place. He took matters into his own hands, cutting his own throat with a sword.
Lest any of us think that conspiracy theories are anything new, soon after his death rumours began to spread that he had not died but had fled to the eastern edge of the empire where admittedly he had been more popular and that soon he would return to Rome at the head of any army large enough to quell any opposition. There were others who believed that indeed he had died but would come back to life and again lay claim to the throne in Rome. It is possible then that the beast with a mortal wound that had healed was none other than Nero. Except Nero’s reign ended in AD 68 and John is writing more than 20 years later. John tells us the vision given to him is of what must soon take place (Revelation 1:1), not what took place a generation before. Is this beast Nero? I think the answer is yes and no, and I will explain what I mean before we finish.
For now, let’s go to the beginning of our text and the appearance of another beast that rose out of the earth. I am not sure why this would be but the land beast is seen as subservient to the sea beast. There are all sorts of things to notice about this beast. First of all the addition of a second beast completes this Satanic trinity. The first beast gets its authority from the dragon, which is Satan and the second beast exercises its authority on behalf of the first beast. Like the Musketeers, it’s all for one and one for all among these malevolent creatures.
Notice also in verse 11 that this beast had two horns like a lamb. In Revelation to speak of a lamb is to call to mind from chapter five the lamb that is worthy to open the seven seals on the scroll. In other words, the intent of this second beast is to deceive not only the ordinary citizens of Asia but as many Christians as possible. The second beast calls on everyone to worship the first beast. Here is part of the answer to our question about whether or not the first beast is Nero. My conclusion is the best answer to this question is that the first beast is any emperor who demands for himself the worship that should only be given to our God and Creator and the Lord, Jesus Christ.
The second beast, doing the bidding of the first, is then “everyone who encourages and fosters emperor worship. In the provinces, an elaborate system supported the imperial cult, involving priests, sacrifices, festivals, statues, and temples”(Reddish, Revelation, 258).
Part of what we are talking about are conspiracy theories and I suppose a general mistrust of what we are told to believe. For example, in 2013 a poll revealed that 28% of Americans believe a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, or New World Order; 29% believe aliens exist; 51% believe a larger conspiracy was at work in the JFK assassination; and 15% say the government or the media adds mind-controlling technology to TV broadcast signals (the so-called Tinfoil Hat crowd). Therefore, it would not be the hardest thing in the world to foster a sense of reverence regarding the emperor by continuing to tell stories about a former emperor who was expected to come back to life.
In addition there were tricks, what we might call sideshow acts. This description comes from a 2nd century AD writer named Lucian, but it helps to explain what is being said in verse 15 of our text. A statue of Asclepius, the god of healing, was constructed of canvas by self-styled prophet named Alexander. The symbol for Asclepius was a snake so that’s what Alexander made and it is hard not admire his ingenuity. The snake was basically a puppet, with its mouth and black forked tongue made to open and dart out and back by means of horsehairs attached. Here’s where the con really gets creative. Alexander took a number of crane’s windpipes, passing those through the head of the snake and then out of the body. Alexander’s able assistant, unseen of course, spoke through the tube making it appear that the god was speaking to worshippers who came seeking its gifts.
There is one last detail to notice about this second beast. Those who worship the beast are given a mark on the right hand or forehead. Only those with the mark can buy and sell in the marketplace. The important thing here is not the mark. (In case you are wondering, I do not think this is a prophesy predicting the Universal Product Code that now marks everything we buy and which is scanned by the cashiers in every retail outlet from Holt Renfrew to the convenience store on the corner.) The important thing is the recognition that being faithful to Christ sometimes has economic consequences. It reminds me of the professor from whom I took a Canadian history course at Laurier. He loved to tell stories from the bad old days of Canadian politics, of how a highway that ran through two constituencies would be only half-paved because the Grits in power decided they needed to teach a lesson to the voters in the one riding who returned a Tory member, or vice-versa. The point here is for the believers in these Asian churches and for us to understand that when an emperor, a president, a prime minister, when any leader attempts to claim such loyalty that they are in fact asking for your worship, then know such a person will do anything to weaken your commitment to the true God and Father of us all.
Now we come to what is perhaps the best-known bit of The Revelation. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six. “Among the various suggestions that have been made, the most likely explanation for 666 is that it is an example of the practice of gematria, a numerical riddle in which words or names are coded as numbers. This is made possible because in Greek certain letters have a numerical value. If this 666 is referring to a particular person, the best guess is the emperor Nero. But I would go back to my earlier comment about this book being a vision of what must soon take place. Let me try out another idea with you.
According to our text it is going to take wisdom and understanding to discern the identity of this person. I think John has given us a clue not simply to the identity of one person but to a characteristic of this beast that has been given the authority of Satan. In the ancient world certain numbers were thought to have particular significance; for example seven is thought to be a perfect number. Six then would be less than perfect; 666 is three times imperfect.
I believe the message here, despite the descriptions of beasts and other horrors, is actually straightforward. Until the return of Christ, until the new heaven and new earth is brought about by God, it is as if a spiritual war is raging on earth. Satan will do whatever he can to turn Christians away from their allegiance to God and to God’s Christ.
Christian, examine your life, your priorities, examine who or what it is that claims your worship. If you settle for anything less than God, if you are bowing before any 666, what you worship is not worth it. When all is said and done, remember this: Paul was the one who stood in chains before Nero—20 centuries later people name their sons after Paul and their dogs after Nero.