Peace Mennonite Church
May 2, 2010
In our sharing time two weeks ago, after I preached on the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7, Thomas mentioned that a recent poll showed 24% of Republicans believe President Obama is–or could be–the antichrist. This fact frightened and fascinated me at the same time. And I thought that this upcoming sermon on Revelation would be a good opportunity to look at what the Bible says about the antichrist.
Much to my surprise and disappointment, I discovered that the term “antichrist” is not used in Revelation at all. It is only used in the letters of I and II John–where it seems pretty clear that the warnings are not about a single super-villain named “Antichrist,” but rather about the many antichrists that Jesus’ followers will encounter.
The writer of John’s epistles brings out the two meanings of the Greek term for “anti” in his discussions of the antichrist. “Anti” can mean, as we traditionally think of it, “against.” So antichrists are those who refuse to acknowledge the lordship of Christ–those who speak against Christ. And “anti” can also mean “in place of.” So antichrists are those who set themselves up in place of Christ–they are false saviors, false prophets.
Even though the term “antichrist” is not in Revelation, many people–including the reputable scholars who wrote the footnotes in my NRSV Study Bible–associate the beasts in Revelation 13 with the antichrist. And it is interesting to me that the two beasts in this chapter represent the two “types” of antichrists.
First, we have the beast from the sea. This is a common mythological figure, emerging from the danger and chaos of the ocean. The Christians in Asia Minor would have thought immediately of the Roman powers coming over the Western Sea to their shores. And anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures would immediately have thought of the beast in Daniel’s vision.
*We heard about them two weeks ago . . . Now, all of Daniel’s beasts seem to be combined in this one beast from the sea: “The beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.”
There is no question in the minds of the first readers and hearers of Revelation that this first beast is associated with the oppressive Roman Empire. That it is indeed anti-Christ, anti-Christian. Christian persecution at the time (around 95) was not universal, but there were pockets of oppression, even martyrdom. The beast makes its opposition to Christ clear by blaspheming against God and making war on the saints–those who believe in Christ.
The beast from the sea is indeed an antichrist, using its vast power and its ability to terrify in opposition to the ways of Jesus and the people who seek to follow Jesus. John, the writer of Revelation, says that the presence of this first beast is a call for “the endurance and faith of the saints.”
During World War II, a young Scottish officer named Ernest Gordon was taken prisoner by Japanese forces and forced to work on the so-called “Railroad of Death” between Thailand and Burma. War is brutal in and of itself, but these Japanese work camps were particularly brutal. About four percent of war prisoners held by Germans and Italians died while imprisoned. The death rate for Japanese prisoners was twenty-seven percent. Gordon was forced to work long hours under harsh conditions. When he fell ill, he was simply taken to the “Death House” to die. Food rations were not wasted on the sick. Money and resources were not wasted on medical care for prisoners.
In our own country, of course, the United States government “relocated” over 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans. Families were forced to leave their homes and move into internment camps where they likely lived in ill-constructed barracks without plumbing or cooking facilities. Many were forced to leave with just the clothes on their backs–a particular problem for those moved from balmy California to spend the winter in Wyoming.
True, the relocated Japanese Americans had it much easier than the prisoners of war in Japanese work camps. But in both cases, the government–the imperial powers–objectified an entire group of people, failing to recognize the people’s God-given humanity.
The antichrists of this world who are against Christ–who dominate and destroy and blaspheme–tend to be obvious. Hitler; Stalin, Mussolini. These men have all been equated with the beast of Revelation. The powers of empire who persecute the innocent for the sake of their own egos. The power of the beast is brutal. And faithful endurance is sometimes all Christians can manage.
After witnessing the war that the first beast wages against the saints, John turns his attention to another beast. This one rises not from the sea, but from the land. And this one is not portrayed as a terrifying monster, but “has two horns like a lamb.” This beast, then, is an antichrist in the sense of being in place of Christ. It looks like the Lamb–the symbol for Christ throughout the book of Revelation. But while this beast may look like Christ, it speaks like a dragon–the symbol for Satan.
Its power comes not from brute force, but from deception and manipulation. While the first beast, the “against” antichrist, is the more terrifying, I would argue that this second beast, the “in place of” antichrist is the more dangerous.
It is dangerous because it is not obvious. This beast does not force people to stop worshiping God at the point of a gun or the tip of a sword, but rather it performs “signs” that lead the people into worshiping a false god.
I was surprised to learn that in the first century, the leaders of the imperial cults had the technology to make statues talk, call down fire, do all sorts of “wonders” that would draw people into worshiping false gods.
Today, antichrists–those trying to place themselves in the place of Christ–still will use technological wonders to draw people into false worship.
Back in the 1980’s, a TV preacher named Peter Popoff performed wonders in front of live and TV audiences. He would call strangers out of the audience by name, declare their diseases, tell them their addresses, and lay hands on them for healing. He claimed his secret knowledge about people came from God, but an investigator showed that the information actually came through an earpiece from his wife who had talked with people before the show.
After he was exposed, Popoff’s ministry suffered and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. But now he’s back with his signs and wonders, driving a $100,000 Porsche, living in a $2.1 million house, and convincing many poor, desperate, sick people to send him their life savings.
This second beast is attractive. It’s slick. Many people don’t even realize it’s a beast at all. At least not until their bank accounts are empty.
Yes, the “in place of Christ” antichrist is definitely more dangerous, more spiritually dangerous, than the “against Christ” antichrist.
This second beast from the land does not use its superior military might to wage war against the saints. It simply embeds the worship of the Empire and the Emperor into the daily economic fabric of society. “No one can buy or sell who does not have the mark of the beast.”
There are, of course, all kinds of theories out there about the mark of the beast. Most of the contemporary ones have to do with UPC codes or implanted microchips. In the first century context, this is most likely a reference to the fact that the coins were imprinted with the image and title of the Roman Emperors–many attributing divinity to the rulers.
Our currency today may not attribute divinity to our government officials, but it has attained a state of near divinity in and of itself. One could make a pretty good argument that, as a society, we are more apt to worship money than to worship God. We worship money right along with the things that money can buy.
Think about what it means to worship something.
To worship something is to devote time and spiritual energy to being in the presence of that which we worship. I don’t have the numbers, but it would be interesting to compare the amount of time Americans spend at the mall with the amount of time we spend in church.
To worship something, is to acknowledge that that which we worship has more power than we do. That it has power over us. And, indeed, we attribute a great deal of power to money–power to make us healthy and beautiful and intelligent and happy. Even power to make us safe as individuals and as a nation.
To worship something is, ultimately, to give ourselves in service to that which we worship. Does anyone else remember being told by our national leaders to go out and shop after 9-11?
Toni Morrison laments the fact that, after this great national tragedy, “we were not to be called on as citizens, only as consumers.” The economic system becomes the subject, the end, and the people involved become the objects that can be used as a means to that end.
“No one can buy or sell who does not have the mark of the beast.” In Revelation, those who follow Christ also have a mark, it is the seal of God. In traditional apocalyptic fashion, there are only two groups of people–those with the mark of the beast, who participate in the economy of Empire; and those with the seal of God, who participate in the divine economy.
This, of course, is something akin to a fairy tale. But I wish at times it were true. That I could accept a mark that would prevent me from participating in the economy of empire. That I were simply unable to purchase goods made from child labor or invest my money in companies that destroy the environment.
Contemporary Christ-followers do not have the burden or the benefit of visible seals on our foreheads. The marks, instead, are in our minds; and we must use our minds along with our spirits to discern how to use money without letting it establish itself in Christ’s place. How to participate in the economy without worshiping it. How to recognize the ways that our culture’s obsession with wealth is one of the great antichrists of our time–one of the things we are tempted to put in the place of Christ as an object of devotion.
With the beast from the sea, the against Christ antichrist, John calls for the perseverance of the saints. After revealing the beast from land, John calls not for endurance, but for wisdom.
When Ernest Gordon was thrown into the death house at the Japanese work camp, he actually did not die. He survived because of the care provided to him by two men. Because of their faith in God, these two men continued to care for others and act out of sacrificial love, even as the brutality of their captors had forced most of the prisoners into a self-focused survival mindset. The loving actions of these men inspired a new spirit within the camp. The prisoners realized, writes Gordon,
that the law of the jungle is not the law for man. We had seen for ourselves how quickly it could strip most of us of our humanity and reduce us to levels lower than the beasts. Death was still with us—no doubt about that. But we were slowly being freed from its destructive grip. We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between the forces that made for life and those that made for death. (105-106)
Through this experience, Gordon embraced Christianity and even became a Bible study leader within the prison camp. In the midst of violence, hatred, and oppression, the prisoners connected themselves more and more deeply with Jesus of Nazareth–the man of peace, love, and freedom.
Toward the end of the war, as Gordon and other prisoners were being transported to a different camp, their train pulled alongside a train full of wounded Japanese troops. Gordon says,
Without a word, most of the officers in my section unbuckled their packs, took out part of their ration and a rag or two, and, with water canteens in their hands went over to the Japanese train to help them. Our guards tried to prevent us…But we ignored them and knelt by the side of the enemy to give them food and water, to clean and bind up their wounds, to smile and say a kind word. . . . I regarded my comrades with wonder. Eighteen months ago they would have joined readily in the destruction of our captors had they fallen into our hands. Now these same men were dressing the enemy’s wounds. We had experienced a moment a grace. (197-198)
What wisdom–and grace–these soldiers had to not let hatred for their enemies establish itself in their hearts. Bitterness and revenge could easily have taken over the place they had so carefully carved out for Christ. Revenge would have been a very attractive antichrist, but they were not deceived.
Efforts to figure out who the Antichrist is are terribly misguided. There is not one antichrist, but many. Empire after Empire rises out of the sea to demand worship. False saviors–religious, political, and economic–constantly try to lure us into worshiping someone or something other than the true and Triune God.
As followers of Christ, the call on our lives is not to point fingers at those who act and speak against Christ. Our call is to remain faithful to Christ, even if that faith puts us in a position of being persecuted.
As followers of Christ, the call on our lives is not to search everyone’s forehead for the mark of the beast or the seal of God. Our call is to exercise wisdom in the midst of so many people and ideas that seek to take the place of Christ in our lives and in our worship.
The antichrists surround us. So let the Christ dwell within us. Then we need not fear the beast from the sea or the beast from the land.