Beasts and Dragons (Revelation 12-13)

When Sarah asked the young people what they knew about the book of Revelation, she got the answer “It’s full of beasts and dragons and cool stuff like that.”

Well, for those of you who have just been looking forward to the “beasts, dragons and cool stuff.” We have arrived! “Here be dragons!”

For those of you who have not so much been looking forward to this bit as dreading “the really weird bits” don’t panic. You see, the language of Revelation may be colourful, confusing and even seemingly weird to our modern ears but it is designed to help us focus on what God is doing.

Throughout history, we’ve tended to tell stories about monsters and dragons. Those stories reflect the fear that we all have of a world where evil is present, where monsters lurk. Of course, there may not be literal monsters out there but sometimes the faceless bureaucratic systems and bullying, powerful people seem to have that power to cause fear and harm.

Against that backdrop, we come to Revelation 12-13 where a great play, pantomime or pageant is about to be acted out in the heavens.

What’s the story?

Scene 1   – The woman and the Dragon (12:1-9)

–          John sees the image of a woman clothed with the Sun, moon and stars. We see here  both a potential allusion to Joseph’s dream of the Son moon and stars bowing down to him representing God’s people Israel and  at its simplest a vision of the  radiance, dominion and rule with which God has adorned his bride, his chosen people.[1]

–          She is pregnant and experiencing labour pains. She gives birth to a son who will rule with an iron rod (cf Psalm 2). This son is the Messiah.

–          A red dragon appears on the scene to attack. No, it’s not a reference the Welsh flag but the colour red is associated with war and bloodshed. “

–          The dragon imagery is an allusion to “Leviathan” a mythical Canaanite monster. The OT uses the imagery of Leviathan and Behemoth (another monster) to describe Israel’s enemies (cf. Psalm 74:14; Isaiah 27:1; Ezekiel 29:3; Job 40:18)[2]

–          It has Seven heads and ten horns “seven as a number  of completeness…depicts universal power.” [3] The ten horns alludes to Daniel 7

–           Note, the imagery may also suggest Rome (seven hills) and her Emperors. Satan exercises power and causes trouble through earthly powers and means.

A third of the stars are brought down to earth (nb stars often associated with rulers/powers). This may suggest cosmic tragedy, the fall of angels with Satan or political upheaval. However, I’m tempted to see this  as possibly a focus on the attack on the woman, stripping away her authority/power.

–          The attack is as she is about to give birth to her son

–          She flees into the wilderness for 1260 days (the same time as the two prophets).

–          There is war in heaven and the dragon has been cast down.  Remember how Jesus says “I saw Satan fall.”

–          The woman flees into the wilderness. This is primarily about God’s provision and protection but also echoes the OT story of Israel in the wilderness during the Exodus[4] and metaphorically during The Exile and return.

–          The dragon is identified as Satan, the deceiving serpent, cast down to earth.

Interlude -a salvation Song (12:10-12)

–          The defeat of the dragon is linked to Christ’s victory

–          The dragon is “the accuser” -Satan’s power

–          Victory is through “the blood of the lamb”

–          Security in Christ leads to willingness to lay down your own life for the Gospel. Beleivers can even face physical death because they have already died and been raised in Christ.

–          There is a sense of now and not yet. Judgement is still to come and so there is terror/woe in the meantime.

Scene 1 (Act 2) The Dragon pursues (12:13-18)

–          The dragon continues to pursue the woman – but his plans are thwarted

–          She is given wings to escape

–          He tries to use the forces of nature such as floods against her but the earth helps defend her by swallowing the water

–          The dragon declares war on the woman’s offspring -all who obey God and witness faithfully about Jesus

Scene 3 The Beast (13:1-10)

. The This beast is part leopard, bear, lion imagery links to OT composite animals of Ezekiel’s visions.

–          It has Seven heads and  ten crowned horns  alluding to Rome and its emperors again.

–          The dragon gives the beast power.

–          It suffers A fatal wound to a head but then experiences apparent miraculous healing lead to its worship. This is a counterfeit resurrection. This may link to rumours of Nero’s return from the dead or Caligula who recovered from a serious illness. However, the focus is more on the empire itself that at times may have looked in danger but manages to recover and renew itself from the centre.[5]

–          The beast is used to draw people into worshipping the dragon

–          It wages war on God’s people

“This means that God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently and remain faithful.” (Revelation 13:10)

Scene 4 The second beast (13:11-18)

–          Another beast comes out of the earth with horns like a lamb but who speaks like the dragon

–          It has the appearance of gentleness but is a fierce deceiver[6]

–          We see in it “a parody of the lamb of God.”[7]

–          He exercises authority and power, the same as the first beast.

–          We may note here an alliance of the state’s power with false religion and ideology.

–          It presents a statue of the first beast and draws people to worship it.  False religion often plays into our own needs, superstitions and longings including when it is employed to stoke up nationalistic pride

–          There is forced worship

–          People receive a mark which is  required for them to buy and to sell.  The mark is 666. It numbers a man

Suggestions

666 is a coded clue to a specific person’s identity, possibly Nero and therefore the type of power/terror he represents.[8]Alternatively, to someone only known to John and his immediate associates. Useful for them to know but less vital for us. Later Christians simply need to be aware of the evil typified and which they will see typified in the opponents of Christ in their day.[9]

A possible hint back to 1 Kings 10:15 Solomon receives 666 talents of gold each year. His wealth turns him from God and causes pride.  NB this is the only other use of the number in the Bible however, this approach is very mucha  minority veiew and it is generally seen as co-incidental

666 is the number of man (made on the 6th day and falling short of God’s glory (represented by 7). It represents “failure upon failure upon failure.”[10]

The key thing here is probably to think about sealing/marking functions. We saw that God’s people are sealed or marked out by their faith and life as belonging to him and being under his protection.

Similarly, the people of this world are marked out as belonging with the beast and looking to it for protection.  To succeed requires that you buy into the World/Satan’s agenda and trust in it and Him.

We may find that this is increasingly so throughout history as we move towards the final showdown and there will be times and places where this is more obvious and requires a greater level of sacrificial choice.

A triple layered story

This is really a triple layered story.  The ancients had their myths about beasts and dragons and the Old Testament often used that imagery to retell Israel’s story. The nations and powers around them may have at times seemed to have the power of mythical monsters but God was at work to preserve and protect his people. The very reason God does that is because Israel’s purpose was to bring blessing to all nations and that blessing would very specifically happen through the Messiah who would come from her.  The powers of this world were serving Satan’s purpose when they tried to oppose, supress and destroy Israel. They wanted to stop the Messiah from coming.

The third layer is this. The story of God preserving and protecting his people in the face of evil opposition is our story, the story of the Church. God has called us to be his people and given us the job of proclaiming the Gospel about Christ. He will preserve and protect us.

How do we live faithfully in a beastly world?

The beasts we face

So, this world may at times feel chaotic, full of beasts, dragons, monsters. Sometimes it will be frightening, the devil will use brute force to bully us into fear. He does this when he uses tyrannical powers to persecute believers, churches burnt down, pastors arrested, young Christians murdered. He does this when we look and see the lawmakers and enforcers here undermining Christian faith, marriage re-defined, preachers arrested etc. He does it on a personal level when we feel crushed and oppressed by powerful bureaucratic institutions, difficult neighbours, bullying bosses etc. We learn to live in fear.

So often, his attacks are subtler and we may miss their beastly nature -but these things are just as monstrous. Religious deception will include false teaching. This might include the attempts of liberals to undermine our confidence in Scripture and in the atonement. It also includes the deception of prosperity teachers offering material gain in return for faith and money.

Another subtle attack is when we become moulded to the worlds values. We believe that financial security must come first.  We learn to compromise, to keep quiet about our faith, to use ungodly methods to get along.

What should our response be?

–          Keep trusting. God has promises to keep us safe in him

–          Keep obeying – trusting means that we will obey God even when it seems hard, even when choosing to do things God’s way will lead to mockery, discrimination and even persecution

–          Keep witnessing – this is the very reason why God is protecting and preserving us. We have a calling to obey, a job to do.

Conclusion

What is it that you are most afraid of going into the week ahead?

What will it mean for you to be faithful, trusting and obeying this week? Where will the challenges come? Where might you be asked to compromise?

What opportunities will you have to witness this week?

A prayer

Lord God, help us to trust you alone. Take away our fear, help us to be faithful in obeying you and courageous in witnessing for you. Amen

[1] Mounce, Revelation, 232.

[2] Mounce, Revelation, 232.

[3] Mounce, Revelation, 233.

[4] Mounce, Revelation, 233.

[5] Mounce, Revelation, 247-248.

[6] Mounce, Revelation, 256.

[7] See Kistemaker, Revelation, 388.

[8] Although there are significant challenges with getting the code to match the name. See Kistemaker, Revelation, 395.

[9] Mounce, Revelation, 262-263.

[10] Hendrickson cited in Kistemaker, Revelation, 396.

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