Peace Mennonite Church
May 2, 2010
Revelation 13: Of Christ and Antichrists
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–or something else–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 seem to represent the two “types” of antichrists.
The first type–those who are overtly against Christ–are fairly easy to spot. This antichrist is the beast at the beginning of Revelation 13 that rises from the sea. 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 also of the beast in Daniel’s vision who rose from the sea. Those beasts who had component parts of lion, leopard, bear, just like the beast in Revelation.
There is no question in the minds of the first readers and hearers of Revelation that this 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.
In our text, 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 in opposition to the ways of Jesus and the people who seek to follow Jesus.
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 power of the beast is brutal.
In the presence of this beast, the writer of Revelation calls for “the endurance and faith of the saints.” In the face of brutal oppression, sometimes endurance is 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 it “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 a lamb, 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 spiritually 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. Its weapons are more subtle. Two are mentioned specifically here: it’s ability to perform “wonders,” and it’s power to control who participates in the marketplace.
This beast from the land “performed great and miraculous signs” and thus “deceived the inhabitants of the earth.”
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, there are still plenty of people who 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 television audiences. He would call strangers out of the crowd 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.
Popoff’s “great and miraculous” signs deceive people into believing that he is an agent of God, when the one he is really serving is himself.
In addition to the dazzling theatrics, this beast from the land also manages to manipulate the economic system. Rather than using its superior military might to wage war against the saints, as the sea beast does, the land beast 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.”
Even if you’ve never read the book of Revelation before, you have probably heard of the mark of the beast–the numbers 666. There are all kinds of theories out there about what this mark is. Most of the contemporary notions have to do with UPC codes or implanted microchips.
But John did not write about the mark of the beast in an era of supermarkets and computers. He wrote in an era when the Roman Empire controlled the economic activities of all of its subjects. In the first century context, the “mark of the beast” is most likely a reference to the fact that Roman coins were imprinted with the image and title of the Roman Emperors–many attributing divinity to the rulers.
Whatever your political affiliation, I hope we would all be terribly uncomfortable carrying around coins that said “George Bush Saves” or “Obama is our god.” Some of the most staunch first-century Jews refused to carry or use such money–which indeed made life very difficult for them.
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. Especially if you consider that the worship of money includes the worship of those 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 or Kohls or Target with the amount of time we spend in church.
To worship something is to delight in–to take great joy in–that which we worship. You may have heard the report on NPR about some experiments that have been done to try to determine how money affects the brain. One group of researchers had two different groups of subjects count paper. One group counted plain paper. One group counted paper money–bills. Now nobody got to keep the paper or the money, they just had it in their hands and counted it. A few minutes later, both groups of subjects put their fingers in bowls of hot water. The group who had counted the money experienced less pain than those who had counted only paper. Based on this, and other experiments, some psychologists have concluded that, in terms of brain function, money acts as a substitute for social acceptance, even a substitute for love.
To worship something is to give ourselves in service to that which we worship. In 2008, Democracy Corps conducted a survey of young adults, aged 18-29. They asked them to rank how important various personal goals were to them. The top goal, with 80% responding “very important,” was paying off all debts.
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, with the help of advertising, 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. 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.
As I listened to the news this week of the “massive oil slick spewing from a well” in the Gulf Coast waters, as the reports of how much oil was getting into the water kept increasing, as the oil kept moving closer and closer to the coast, I thought about my contribution to this disaster. I thought about how many times I have filled a vehicle with gasoline. Life would be very difficult for me if I were not allowed to purchase gas because of my faith. But having to discern faithful ways of participating in the Empire’s economy is just a different kind of difficult.
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.
With the beast from the sea, the against Christ antichrist, John calls for the endurance of the saints. After revealing the beast from land, the in place of Christ antichrist, John calls not for endurance, but for wisdom.
Not wisdom to decode the Bible and find the name of the Antichrist. Not wisdom to manipulate the number 666 in relation to people we don’t like. But wisdom to discern the danger–particularly the spiritual danger–that surrounds us.
Are the signs and wonders of our world leading us to worship someone or something other than God?Are we abandoning the way of Christ in order to participate in the Imperial economy?
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.
The antichrists surround us. Always. So may the love of our Creator, the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, dwell deeply and eternally within us. Amen.