The greatest call for a follower of Jesus is faithfulness and Revelation sets the context for what this means. When faced with hardship, compromise, persecution and martyrdom we are called to live as a faithful witness of Jesus.
This is the issue that John's hearers faced. Dominated by the opposing might of the Empire they felt deeply the pressure to conform. In fact, they felt the pressure of the ‘beast of the sea’ all too strongly in their church communities. This coupled with the fact that the ‘beast of the land’ was trying to destroy them it is clear the pressure they were under, as the letter to Smyrna shows: 'I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.' (Revelation 2:9-10).
Stepping into Revelation brings you into a world of imagery and metaphor. Its purpose is to reveal that the visible realm is only part of the truth; another world exists alongside this one and John's intention is to allow his readers to see it, so they understand what is happening. There's a war going on - and the more you understand the better equipped you will be. As C.S. Lewis said, ‘There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.’ Our response? Faithfulness. Or as the Apostle Paul said, ’Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.' (Ephesians 6:13).
NT Wright says: 'As the early Christian movement grew, and developed momentum, further questions emerged. What was God doing now? What were his plans for the little churches dotted around the Mediterranean world? Where was it all going? In particular, why was God allowing followers of Jesus to suffer persecution? What line should they take when faced with the fastest growing ‘religion’ of the time, namely the worship of Caesar, the Roman emperor? Should they resist?’
It's in helping the believers to know what to do that chapters 12 to 14 of Revelation come into play. They are best seen as the cosmic struggle and understanding some of the symbolism behind the chapters brings to light this intention. (If you unfamiliar with these chapters it would be good at this point to read them before continuing).
'The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.' (Revelation 13:1).
The dragon is enraged because it's not been able to destroy the child at the point of birth: 'The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.' (Revelation 12:4).
The dragon then turns its anger towards the off spring of the child. The build up to this scene had started earlier in Chapter 12:1 when we read:
'A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.'
The mother is seen to be a symbol of Eve, the mother of all living, or Israel the Messianic line of Christ or indeed, Mary herself. Whichever one, or indeed all these images, set the drama for a big showdown as the dragon comes onto the scene: ‘An enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its head.' (12:3). But the child is protected and 'snatched up to God and to his throne.' (12:5).
And the dragon is thrown out of heaven and begins his pursuit of the child's offspring.
‘When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the snake’s reach. 15 Then from his mouth the snake spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. 16 But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring – those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.’ (12:13-17).
And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea to wait for the beasts to arrive.
Peterson writes, ‘He [the dragon] recruits help from the underworld, two beasts, one out of the sea, the other out of the earth, to execute his malign will within the believing community, these people whom God commands and saves. St John’s scripture reading congregations have no trouble recognising the animals; the beasts are Leviathan and Behemoth portrayed in God’s whirlwind speech to Job as the ultimate in ferocity (see Job 40-41), but also known to be crushed and disposed of, no longer any threat to God’s rule.’
'And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. 2 The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. 4 People worshipped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshipped the beast and asked, ‘Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?’ (Revelation 13:1-4).
The beast is powerful, and, 'given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling-place and those who live in heaven. 7 It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. 8 All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast – all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.' (13:5-8).
And so, from the sea he comes to make war against the people of God, which he does - and many of them are killed - martyred for the cause of Christ - and this is John's urgency.
'This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.' (13:10).
But the sea beast is not alone.
'Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. 13 And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. 14 Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honour of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. 16 It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, 17 so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name' (13:11-16)
Most people worship the sea beast and receive his mark and are allowed to trade - others refuse and as a result are either conquered or captured.
What Does This Mean?
So, what does all of this represent for these seven churches situated on the edge of Roman Empire?
The image of the Sea Beast is drawn from Daniel 7
‘2 Daniel said: ‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. 3 Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. 4 ‘The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it. 5 ‘And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, “Get up and eat your fill of flesh!” 6 ‘After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule. 7 ‘After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast – terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns.’ (Daniel 7:2-7).
So, Daniel sees this 4 beast sequence which immediately gets defeated by the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man. (Daniel 7:8-14). These beasts are now combined together in John's apocalypse.
Again, we go back to Peterson, ‘Leviathan and Behemoth were awesome, but there is also an unmistakeable touch of the ludicrous in John’s description. The sea beast is a patchwork job, assembled from left over parts of leopard, bear and lion. The land beast is a fake lamb, a clumsy counterfeit of the magnificent true Lamb (Revelation 5:6, 7:17). John allows for their capacity to strike terror still, but he also shows them as considerably shop worn. The old beasts have been around too long and are starting to lose their stuffing.’
In Daniel’s vision the lion represents Babylon, the bear, Persia and the leopard with four heads is Greece which splits into four after the death of Alexandra the Great. The fourth beast, with iron teeth and ten horns is Rome.
In John’s vision, he takes those images and applies it to his day by saying what we have now is a terrible fusion of the all the other world empires expressed in this one beast - Rome. It is the amalgamation of all the empires that have threatened God's people in the past that now finds new power in the form of the present Empire.
For John’s first audience, the allusion to Roman imperial power in the beast from the sea is made clear by the continuity of the character of the dragon, which connects this chapter with the Python–Leto myth in Revelation 12. It is also confirmed by the close links between this passage and Daniel 7, where the beasts are symbolic of kingdoms (Dan. 7:23). But the symbolic description and the combining of Daniel’s four beasts into one have a further effect for subsequent audiences. Rather than focus on the fourth beast alone, John draws on the characteristic of all the beast-empires, as if to say, ‘This is the threat of Roman imperial power – but it is actually the threat of any human empire which claims what only God can claim.’
For them the beast was Rome - for us, for you and me - the beast is something else, but its' still coming up out of the sea - from the chaos to cause havoc on the people of God.
The beast out of the land - the one who speaks and works miracles on behalf of the beast of the sea we understand as a Jewish or Pagan beast that represents religious power in support of imperial power. It lines up with imperial power to say: You should worship the beast. And so, religion and empire come together in a horrible fusion that attacks the church. As Ian Paul writes, ‘If the image of the first beast evoked the power of imperial Rome for John’s audience, then the image of a beast coming out of the land (or ‘earth’) would evoke the local power structures in Asia on which Rome depended for the exercise of its rule, and which in turn benefited from Roman rule in the consolidation of their own power'.
Paul continues, ‘The emphasis appears to be that this second beast looks harmless enough as a parody of the lamb on the throne, but in fact (like the beast from the sea) shows its real character by speaking like a dragon. It is a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ (Matt. 7:15).
The beasts from the sea and earth are the images by which John shows us the satan, covertly at work in these large areas of government and religion. John is lifting the lid for his readers showing them what is really taking place. ‘With the sea beast the dragon will frighten us into disobedience (‘make war on the saints and conquer them.’ [Rev 13:7]); with the land beast he will deceive us into illusion (‘deceives those who dwell on earth’ [Rev 13:14]).
The dragon - with this unholy trinity has come to wage war on the saints - and this, 'calls for endurance and faithfulness on the part of God's people.' (13:10).
If Revelation 13 shows the reality of persecution that was coming to the Church over the next two centuries, Revelation 14 shows the victory on the other side. It shows how the story ends for the persecuted Church of Christ.
Chapter 13 - the people are Captured / Conquered / Killed
Chapter 14 - the people are Redeemed / Rested / Reaped
We can endure the former - because we have seen the latter.
Endurance and faithfulness is the call to the church as Revelation remind us, ‘This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.' (Revelation 14:12).
For the Church today what we are faced with is the task of discernment. In what way does this evil manifest in our midst, and particularly where do we see empire in collusion with religion forming an unholy alliance against the people of God? As Paul notes, 'For later hearers and readers, the challenge is to discern where similar patterns of authority are at work and – knowing that we too are living in the forty-two months or 1,260 days or three and a half years, when we too will know both suffering and victory, when we too are in a time for testimony and patient endurance – to make hard decisions about our own loyalty and faith.'
So where does our faith and loyalty lie? What does it look like to live as a faithful witness for Jesus?
The Early Church understood that living for Jesus things wouldn’t always be easy, as the Apostles reminded them in the book of Acts. ‘Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said.’ (Acts 14:22).
For us today our faithfulness to Jesus can be seen as expressed in the following ways
Faithful In The Time We Live
We each have to serve as faithful witnesses for Jesus in our own time and generation. This means looking what shape our witness takes as we go about living our life on a day by basis. Living faithfully means living consistently – it’s not about waiting for that big moment, when everything aligns and we have the perfect opportunity to share our faith. Rather it’s about each of us showing faithfulness in our relationships, actions and attitudes.
When we go to the shops, out to the pub, clocking on at work – these are the places where faithfulness to Jesus is shown. Faithfulness to Jesus is living the same in private was we do in public – faithfulness to him is not about wearing our Sunday best – but about being true to Christ each day of the week. Our faithfulness to Jesus is a lifestyle choice.
Faithful with The Talents We Have Been Given
The second area where we can show ourselves faithful is with the talents we have been given. If we look at our talents as simply our own provision – to make our life better, more successful then we are not showing faithfulness in what we have been given. Our gifts are exactly that gifts that are given to be used as a blessing to others.
We can recall the story of the talents as told by Jesus. The two who were blessed were the ones who took their talents and put the to use for the master. The one who was rebuked was the one who did nothing – he just took the talents and buried them in the ground.
As Jesus said, ‘To he who is given much, from him much is required. We need to show faithfulness with what we’ve been given.
Faithful to The Body of Christ
Finally, we need to show ourselves faithful the body of Christ – the church. Jesus is building his church and we are called as ‘Co-workers together with him.’ We have a responsibility to show faithfulness to the Body – as Paul writes: ‘Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.’ (1 Corinthians 12:12-15). After he has finished explaining how each of us together forms what the body is, he writes: ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’ (1 Corinthians 12:27).
Serving and living faithfully for Jesus is our highest call and most important task. This was the charge laid by John – the central message of his Apocalypse. What we do in the face of opposition and persecution; how we live in times of plenty and abundance all matters to God. It matters not only what we have – but also the means by which we received it. Faithfulness is not only about what happens on the surface – it’s about what happens beneath the surface. John is keen for his hearers to know this – keen that they see that what appears is not the total of all that there is. We must be aware of the Schemer, the one who seeks to rob, steel, kill and destroy, who appears as an enormous dragon in his vision but can also masquerade as an angel of light somewhere else. Faithfulness is the key - we know this deeply and fully from our own life and relationships, we know it clearly from the Apocalypse. There is great promise in faithfulness – great reward, as the parable of the Talents reminds us: ‘“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (Matthew 25:23).