Lighting Up the Apocalypse 24: The Dragon, the Beast, and the Lamb Slain

Rev 13:1-10, Dan 7:1-8, 11-12, 1 Peter 1:18-20, Isaiah 14:4-15

Chapter 13 of the Apocalypse is not PG approved. Full of suspense, violence, and bloodshed, it fulfils the picture that many hold generally concerning the book of Revelation.  After the persecution of the noble woman and her children, the Dragon has ensconced himself on the shore of the sea, in a stance prepared to master both the depths and the earth itself.  He will watch over the arising of two great beasts, the first from the sea, and the second from the land.  In this episode, we will concentrate on the first beast from the sea, described in the first ten verses of chapter 13:

And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads.  And 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. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.  One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven.  Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation,  and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear:

If anyone is to be taken captive,

to captivity he goes;

if anyone is to be slain with the sword,

with the sword must he be slain.

Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

The final phrase is left ringing in our ears, as we recognize that the story is not intended to terrify, but to act as a warning and a call for perseverance. The vision is similar to that seen by Daniel (chapter 7:1-8, 11-12), who in times of turmoil saw four beasts rise from the sea—a lion, bear, leopard, and unnamed but talking monstrosity.  The last of Daniel’s four beasts had 4 heads and 10 horns, with one horn that spoke great and proud things. Even this last tyrant, however, is no match for the “Son of Man” who is given authority over the evil, and brings unending peace to God’s people (Dan 7:9-11, 13-14). His unending reign comes about through heavenly judgment, where books are opened, and justice is done.

In Daniel’s vision, there is a swift movement from the four malignant beasts, interpreted to Daniel as “kings” (7:17), through to the benevolent dominion of the one like a “Son of Man,” who brings all to a satisfactory and godly conclusion.  Revelation’s visions, however, are far more extensive, and not so quickly sketched, and so we are led as readers to concentrate, for some time, on the Dragon’s beasts.  It is helpful to remember, though, that we have already met the eternal Lamb, slain but standing, and in the midst of the throne;  we have seen the triumph of the 2 witnesses, despite their struggles for 42 months; we have see the persecution of the heavenly woman for the same length of time, and the war in heaven that has arranged the downfall of a vengeful Satan.  In the back of our minds, then, we keep the promise “now have come the salvation and power and kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ,” as well as the “joy” of heaven, though for now we will see and experience the “woe” of earth at the dragon’s “hands” (Rev 12:10-12).

It would seem, indeed, that the dragon has two “hands” for the domination of  humanity—the two beasts—just as the Father was said by St. Irenaeus to have two “hands” for our salvation, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In every way the Dragon seeks to mimic the true God, calling the frightened and simple, as well as opportunists, to worship him, and appearing in a kind of twisted trinitarian form. We have heard already, at 11:5, that the dragon is “the beast that rises from the bottomless pitwhose plan is to “make war” on God’s chosen, and “conquer them and kill them.”  This is a distortion of our God who is exalted in heavenly places, and whose delight is to extend heaven’s joy to earth and its inhabitants, raising us up to be in communion with Him—to be, as John has reminded us at the beginning of his vision “kings and priests” with Him.  Jesus, our high priest, wears the signs of his communion with human beings on his very person, named with a human as well as a divine name, and crowned willingly by all who worship him;  the beast from the sea, the Dragon’s first lieutenant, parades his power, and wears blasphemous names on his head, pretending to be God, and showing the brutality of powerful but dumb beasts.  His power is given to him by the dragon to rule, at least for a time, and he hoodwinks the whole earth in his demonic parody of the God of truth. Key to his power is that the beast from the sea “appears” to have been revived from a fatal wound, in pale imitation of Jesus’ glorious resurrection. And so, as we rejoiced in the worship of heaven which centered on the Father and the Lamb, the Son, so we cringe to hear about the “worship” of the dragon and the beast.  “Who is so great a God is our God, the one who does wonders?” is replaced by “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”  His raw power and malevolence commands submission.

But he also can reason—for three and a half years (that is 42 months) – his mouth speaks abominable things against God, against God’s rule, against those who worship the Living One. As the fourth century theologian Tyconius puts it, his “seven heads [are] a sign of the universality of that earthly kingdom that is hostile to the Lamb” (Comm on the Apocalypse 13.3). A little later, Caesarea of Arles sees a sign of this universal acquiescence to the Dragon in the ascendency of the Arian heretics (Exposition on the Apocalypse). Despite the seeming universality of this demonic and god-defying rule, however, there are signs of hope.  The first is the limited time of this authority. Oecumenius (sixth century) reminds us: “We earlier noted that ‘forty-two months’ indicates a short period of time, for compared with the unending ages, all time is short, even if it should seem to be very long.”  The other glimpse of light is the embedded reference to the “Lamb’s book of life” and to Jesus’ redemptive death for those whose names are written there: “And authority was given to the beast over every tribe and people and language and nation,  and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written …. in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.”

There are those, however, who do not bow the knee, for their names are inscribed in the heavenly book, that same book which the prophet Daniel mentions in chapter 7, opened at the judgment.  There is a bit of an interpretive problem here, because it is not clear where we are supposed to put the “before” or “from the foundation of the world.”  Should we attach this to the Lamb slain, or to the writing down in the book of life?  Some have argued that since in Rev. 17:8, John speaks of those “whose names are written from the foundation of the world in the book of life,” that this must be the meaning here also in Rev. 13. Certainly, there are passages elsewhere, even outside the biblical canon, that speak about the eternal significance of being written in this great book—for example, in the novel, Joseph and Aseneth,  we hear about this eternal record when the bride of Joseph converts to the true faith. However, there are other verses in the New Testament that speak about the eternal significance of Jesus’ death, as in Hebrews 4:3 and 9:26, and especially 1 Peter 1:18-20: “[Y]ou were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold,  but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot, who was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake.”

We could say that John doesn’t need for us to decide whether the record in the book of life is eternal, or whether the effect of Jesus’ sacrifice is eternal—both are as ancient, in God’s plan, as the foundation of the world, and give to us a light shining in the darkness. Indeed, there are many things that we witness happening in history that are connected, in a great mystery, with eternity.  A quick perusal of many verses in the Bible will show this concept concerning those things established at or even before the foundation of the cosmos: Psalm 78:2 LXX, Matthew 13:35 and 25:34, Luke 11:50, John 17:24, Ephesians 1:4, Hebrews 4:3 and 9:26, I Peter 1.20, Revelation 13.8 and 17.8.  Knowing that there is a connection with eternity does not take away from the significance of the cross and resurrection, or our repentance and sanctification, in earthly time: Jesus’ incarnation makes these events timeful, and not timeless, bringing heaven into earth. It is because of God’s mighty eternal strategy that we can hope to have a share with Him, written in His book, and kept safe in the heavenlies, rather than with the demonic destroyer and pretender whose only intent is to wreak havoc wherever he can.

Persecution and death may come: but the time and the power of the enemy are limited.  We may remember, as one ancient theologian (Oecumenius) does, that the downfall of this Dragon is prefigured in the prophet Isaiah:

How the oppressor has ceased,

the insolent fury ceased!

The LORD has broken the staff of the wicked,

the scepter of rulers…

Sheol beneath is stirred up

to meet you when you come;

it rouses the shades to greet you,

all who were leaders of the earth;

it raises from their thrones

all who were kings of the nations.

All of them will answer

and say to you:

You too have become as weak as we!

You have become like us!’…

How you are fallen from heaven,

O Day Star, son of Dawn!

How you are cut down to the ground,

you who laid the nations low!

You said in your heart,

I will ascend to heaven;

above the stars of God

I will set my throne on high;

I will sit on the mount of assembly

in the far reaches of the north;

I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;

I will make myself like the Most High.’

But you are brought down to Sheol,

to the far reaches of the pit.

Those who see you will stare at you

and ponder over you:

‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble,

who shook kingdoms,

who made the world like a desert?’

(Isaiah 14:4-14)

Whichever human ruler in Babylon that Isaiah had in mind, this poetic picture is apt for the great Dragon, who began as an angel of light, has pulled down a third of the stars of heaven, and is trying to usurp God’s rule among us.  He may seem to have universally succeeded, but his time “is short.”  His very fury testifies to this, as he desperately and foolishly seeks to exert control by means of human leaders. The slain Lamb, seemingly weak, is the very trap by which he falls.  As St. Paul puts it,

[T]he rulers of this age… are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Cor 2:6-9)

Dragon and Beast may conspire:  but the slaughtered and standing Lamb alone                                                is LORD.



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