The Lamb and the 144,000 – Revelation 14:1-5

Just as Revelation 13 ended with the beast writing his name on the forehead of his followers, Revelation 14:1-5 describes God writing his name and the name of the Lamb on the heads of the 144,000 witnesses introduced in Revelation 7. John intentionally contrasts those who have the mark of the beast with the 144,000 witnesses. As Gordon Fee observes, “this passage has had as rocky a history of interpretation as any other in the book, and maybe more than most” (Revelation, 189).

lamb of god at dormition abbey jerusalem

John sees the Lamb and the 144,000 witnesses on Mount Zion. Is this scene in heaven where the Lamb is seated on the throne with God, or is this on earth in literal Jerusalem? Zion is a Hebrew word which means “citadel”, and probably first referred to the fortress of David in Jerusalem (2 Sam 5:6-10).  The name became associated with the temple mount after Solomon’s reign, Psalm 2:6, 46:4, 78:68-69. In the Psalms, Zion could refer just to the temple mount or to all Jerusalem, and eventually Zion was idealized (Psalm 125) and became an image for heaven (Heb 12:22). Since this is the only place in Revelation where Mount Zion is mentioned, it is difficult to be sure what John has in mind.

Robert Mounce, for example, argued John refers to a heavenly Zion, citing Hebrews 12:22 and Galatians 4:26, the “Jerusalem above.” Like Revelation 4-5, the “entire scene is one of praise before the throne of heaven” (Revelation, 267). It is possible this passage indicates the 144,000 have already been put to death and are in heaven at the throne of God.

On the other hand, George Ladd argues this gathering is on the earth; the 144,000 are those who have been preserved through the great tribulation and are in the messianic kingdom when the heavenly Jerusalem descends to earth (Revelation, 188-90). Dispensationalist John Walvoord took the reference to Zion as looking forward to Christ’s reign from Jerusalem in the Millennium (Revelation, 214-15). Buist Fanning refers to this paragraph as a “preview of judgment and victory for the Lamb” and argues it “anticipates the scene, soon to be presented in full (19:11-20:6), when Christ will return to earth…to conquer the beast and his armies and establish his rule from earthly Zion” (Fanning, Revelation, 388).

There are several references to an eschatological pilgrimage in the Old Testament. Isaiah 4:5 and Joel 3:5 describe the nations streaming to Zion, In Isaiah 24:23 the Lord almighty will reign from Zion and “in Jerusalem there will be deliverance (cf. Isa 31:4; Micah 4:7; Joel 2:32).

Other Second Temple period apocalypses developed a similar idea of eschatological victory over God’s enemies on Mount Zion:

Jubilees 1.28 And the LORD will appear in the sight of all. And everyone will know that I am the God of Israel and the father of all the children of Jacob and king upon Mount Zion forever and ever. And Zion and Jerusalem will be holy.”

2 Baruch 40:1 The last ruler who is left alive at that time will be bound, whereas the entire host will be destroyed. And they will carry him on Mount Zion, and my Anointed One will convict him of all his wicked deeds and will assemble and set before him all the works of his hosts.

4 Ezra 13:35–39 But he will stand on the top of Mount Zion. 36 And Zion will come and be made manifest to all people, prepared and built, as you saw the mountain carved out without hands. 37 And he, my Son, will reprove the assembled nations for their ungodliness (this was symbolized by the storm), 38 and will reproach them to their face with their evil thoughts and with the torments with which they are to be tortured (which were symbolized by the flames); and he will destroy them without effort by the law (which was symbolized by the fire). 39 And as for your seeing him gather to himself another multitude that was peaceable. This song is unusual in that it is the only song mentioned in Revelation that is not quoted (in full or in part.)  Aune 2:808 says that this indicates that wither John cannot understand the song, or that he is not a part of the 144,000 who are singing the song and therefore does not know the song.

Two additional features of this scene are unusual. First, the “harpers are harping their harps” (KJV, the NIV avoids the redundancy by translating “playing their harps”). This is a rare case were popular images of heaven have some support in Scripture, but there is nothing here to imply everyone who goes to heaven plays a harp!

Second, the Lamb is standing. In Revelation 5 the Lamb was seated on the throne. It is likely this an allusion Psalm 2:6. There the Lord says, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”  George Caird thinks much of Revelation is an exposition of Psalm 2 as Christian Scripture (Revelation, 178). In Acts 7:56 Stephen sees the heavens open and “the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” That the Son of Man is standing is usually taken as a sign of impending judgment.

I think this scene on Mount Zion needs to be read along with the actions of the second beast in Revelation 13. Even though there is another “and then I looked” signaling another unit, John’s intent is to contrast the followers of the beast and the followers of the Lamb.

What is the Mark of the Beast? – Revelation 13:16-18

The second beast causes all people to be marked on their right hand or forehead. If they do not have the mark of the beast they cannot buy or sell. One of the most tantalizing aspects in the New Testament is the meaning of the mark of the beast. John tells us it is the name of the beast, but it is converted into numbers: 666. John then invites the readers to use wisdom to calculate the number of the beast, inadvertently beginning 2000 years of speculation of what the number 666 means.

Two Beasts medieval apocalypse

I will start by disappointing some readers: The number of the beast does not refer to any American politician. It does not calculate to Obama or Trump, nor does it refer to the mega-wealthy pulling the strings of the government (Soros, Gates, Bezos, etc.) It does not refer to a Visa card implanted in your head or a chip secretly hidden away in the new flu vaccine. Feel free to leave a comment with your favorite modern interpretation of the Mark of the Beast. In fact, 666 is not an “unlucky number.” It is not the devil’s number and there is nothing to fear. One famous Christian owned hobby store will give you a penny discount if your total comes to $6.66. I will admit there was a house near where i grew up that had the street number 666; we called it “the devil’s house,” but that was (mostly) a joke. Readers of Revelation need to check their modern conspiracy theories and focus on what John intended to communicate by the mark of the beast and the number 666. Here is an older post with more on the number.

Like everything else in Revelation, any attempt to understand what the mark of the beast is (or is not) must start with the Old Testament background. In Ezekiel 9 the Lord instructs a man clothed in linen to “pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.”  Those who do not receive this mark are slaughtered. The mark is the letter tav, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Moshe Greenberg points out similarities to the mark on the doorpost in Egypt at Passover (Exod 12:23) or the mark on Aaron’s head the forehead (Exod 28:38; Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20; AB, 177).  It is also possible this marking is a parody of the Jewish practice of binding scripture on the hand or forehead during prayer (phylacteries).

The beast is not the only character in Revelation marking his followers. In the very next paragraph after the beast marks his followers his name, the Lord marks the 144,000 with the name of the Lamb and his Father on their foreheads (14:1). Later in the book, the servants of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem have his name on their foreheads (22:4). The Great Whore has a name tattooed on her head (Mystery Babylon), just as Christ bears a name no one knows but he himself (19:12). The words “King of kings and Lord of Lords” are written on his robe and thigh of the rider in 19:16 (Aune, 2:734).

What is the Mark of the Beast? People were marked in the ancient world for any number of things. For example, runaway slaves or captured soldiers might be branded or tattooed with a mark indicating their status.  Third Maccabees 2:27-29 describes steps taken against Alexandrian Jews, including being branded with an ivy leaf, a symbol of the worship of Dionysus. (See also these posts on Apostasy in Third Maccabees and The Incident with the Elephants.)

Third Maccabees 2:27-29  He proposed to inflict public disgrace on the Jewish community, and he set up a stone on the tower in the courtyard with this inscription: 28 “None of those who do not sacrifice shall enter their sanctuaries, and all Jews shall be subjected to a registration involving poll tax and to the status of slaves. Those who object to this are to be taken by force and put to death; 29 those who are registered are also to be branded on their bodies by fire with the ivy-leaf symbol of Dionysus, and they shall also be reduced to their former limited status.”

The noun translated mark (χάραγμα) refers to something that is engraved stamped or etched, such as an inscription or a coin (BDAG). Acts 17:29 uses the word for an idol, “formed by the art of men.” But it is also used for written letters or an endorsement on a document, like an official signature or stamp (BrillDAG). As a modern analogy, this is similar to an officially embossed notary stamp. So the physical mark could be a brand or tattoo, or an official endorsement of some kind.

Because the mark permits buying and selling, many commentators on Revelation see the mark as limiting participation in economic life to those who have completed their obligations of emperor worship. Greg Beale, for example, states “The mark is clearly figurative of the ways in which the state keeps check on whether people submit to compulsory idol worship” (Revelation, 715).

Regardless of the background, the mark represents the final act of loyalty to the beast. By marking themselves, the people are accepting the Beast as their lord and savior and rejecting God. Those that refuse the mark are making their declaration for God and against the system of the Beast. And like the examples of Daniel and his friends, those who refuse the mark must be willing to die on account of this refusal to acknowledge the power and authority of the beast and his kingdom.

The mystery of this passage is in verse 17-18. The mark of the beast is the name of the beast, or the number of his name, 666. There are no numbers in many ancient languages, so letters sometimes substituted as numbers.  A=1, B=2, etc. For example, there is a famous graffiti in Pompeii that reads “I love her whose number is 545.”  Jewish Gematria found all sorts of meanings of words scripture by converting words to numbers and back again.

John invites the reader to figure this out, knowing that the name adds up to 666, who might this be? In the early church there were several suggested names, including a Greek word meaning “to deny,” meaning that the name of the Beast was denial of the Lord. The full Latin title used on coins of Domitian, the emperor at the time of John, allegedly adds up to 666. But the most common suggestion is the number 666 refers to Nero Caesar, but in the Hebrew spelling of the name.

It may be best to conclude that John and his readers knew the clue that unlocked the mystery of the number and who it referred to, and that we are unable to figure it out with any certainty today.

Whatever the mark is, it represents a final declaration of loyalty. At this point in the plot of Revelation, one is either for God or against him.

Who is the Lord of Earth and Sea? – Revelation 13

Over the last few posts on Revelation 13 I have argued the two beasts apply the imagery of the four empires in Daniel 7 to the Roman Empire. Both depict a final empire led by an arrogant ruler who demands worship as a god. In Daniel, that is Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3) and the arrogant little horn, undoubtedly the Seleucid Antiochus IV Epiphanes who persecuted the Jewish people leading to the Maccabean Revolt. In Revelation, John’s first beast is led by a parody of Jesus Christ who demands worship from the whole world and is supported by wondrous signs performed by the second beast. Setting aside the exact identification of the blasphemous horn in Revelation 13:1-4 (Caligula, Nero, or Domitian), John certainly is equating the final empire in Daniel to Rome.

In both cases, the empire persecutes the people of God who refuse to worship the empire. Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego are sentenced to death in the fiery furnace; Daniel is sentenced to death in the Lion’s Den. In Revelation 13, the first beast wages war on God’s people. Some of those who refused to worship the beast or take his mark were beheaded. They are raised from the dead and reign with Christ for 1000 years (Rev 20:4-5). John says they were beheaded on account of their testimony, or witness for Jesus and for the Word of God. Earlier in the book John refers to Antipas of Pergamum as a “faithful witness” who did not deny his faith and was killed as a result. The letters to the seven churches indicate some Christians were already suffering and some were killed because of their refusal to worship the empire.

John is doing a kind of prophetic exegesis. He reads Daniel in the light of current events and highlights certain similarities between Daniel’s view of the empires and Rome. This is not unusual. There are many examples of Exodus language used in this way in the Old Testament. Many scholars consider Isaiah 40-55 calling for a new Exodus, this time out of Babylon at the end of the exile. It has become quite popular to describe the Gospel of Mark as presenting Jesus’s ministry as a kind of New Exodus. The seven trumpets re-used the plagues to describe judgment on the world (Rev 8-9).

But John also has imperial propaganda in mind. Like any political power, the Roman Empire used propaganda to create a narrative about itself in order to maintain control over a massive territory. The art and architecture of the Roman world told the story of a great world empire which brought peace and prosperity to the world. Even the coins used by everyone in the marketplace declared the emperor as a divine son of God or associated the emperor with a god. One could not enter a city in the Roman world without being overwhelmed with the awesome power of Rome. That Rome is the beast in Revelation is clear. Perhaps this is veiled in chapter 13, but by Revelation 17 it will be obvious John is describing the empire as a great whore drunk on the blood of the saints.

Trajan Inscription, 2018

In Pergamum there is an inscription which illustrates Roman imperial propaganda. It is after the book of Revelation was written, but it is a remarkable background for Revelation 13. Pergamum had a massive imperial cult center. It is possible there was a temple on the acropolis dedicated to earlier emperors, but the one excavated and restored for tourists today is dedicated to Trajan. This inscription begins with the word, αὐτοκρᾰ́τωρα and is followed by a series of imperial relationships (son of Nero, divine Caesar). The third line begins with Τραϊανὸς, Trajan, the one worthy of worship, σεβαστός. σεβαστός is the title given to Augustus. The fourth line has a few of Trajan’s titles, Γερμανικός and Δᾱκία refer to his conquest over German and Dakia (a region in eastern Europe).

The fifth and sixth lines declare “of the earth and the sea, Lord.” The “earth and sea” is to say, the whole world. Revelation 13 has a beast from the sea and earth. Notice κύριος is on the sixth line by itself, emphasizing the claim that Trajan is the Lord of the whole world. This inscription declares Trajan is the son of the divine rulers of Rome and conqueror of Rome’s enemies, the lord of the whole world. It is placed in a massive temple dedicated to the worship of Rome and the emperor. This is not some graffiti scratched on a wall in an obscure location, this inscription was placed in a prominent location to be seen by people as they honored the empire.

How would a Jewish person react to this inscription claiming that Trajan is the Lord? Who might a Christian react to the assertion a human emperor is the Lord of the whole world? At the beginning of Revelation, God declares himself to be the Lord, the almighty (παντοκράτωρ, 1:8). In Revelation 4:8 the angelic creatures worship the one seated on the throne day and night saying “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty” (κύριος ὁ θεὸς ὁ παντοκράτωρ, 4:8, cf. 11:17, 15:3, 16:7, 19:6, 21:22). God is the Lord of all the earth (τοῦ κυρίου τῆς γῆς, 11:4). Revelation 17:14 declares the Lamb will overcome the beast because he is the “Lord of lords and King of kings” (cf. 19:16).

Any Christian hearing this kind of propaganda would be forced to make a choice. Could they bow their head and appear to honor Rome while silently praying to Jesus? Would that kind of compromise endanger their faith? In the case of Daniel, he was willing to die rather than worship the empire. That is the case for the faithful witnesses in Revelation as well.

This is a problem all Christians must face at some point. Modern governments still used propaganda to promote a narrative, and they are just as likely to demand worship (although we call it patriotic loyalty now). How can Christians today (in what ever country they live) maintain their faith and not worship the empire?

Book Review: David deSilva, A Week in the Life of Ephesus

deSilva, David A. A Week in the Life of Ephesus. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2020. 169 pp. Pb; $17.  Link to IVP Academic

The Week in the Life from IVP Academic asks New Testament scholars to imagine a story illustrating various aspects of Jewish or Greco-Roman culture. In this case, David deSilva sketches life in Ephesus in the final years of the first century. Domitian is the emperor and the city is building an imperial cult center dedicated to the emperor.

deSilva Week in EphesusdeSilva’s has a wide range of scholarly publications which form the background to this novel. For example, his 1991 Trinity Journal article on “The ‘Image of the Beast’ and the Christians in Asia Minor” examined the imperial cult as background for Revelation 13. His Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (IVP Academic, 2000) is a detailed study of the pursuit of honor (and avoidance of shame) which motivates the characters in this novel. In addition to these, deSilva published Introducing the Apocrypha (Second Edition; Baker 2008), New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (InterVaristy, 2004), Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation (WJKP, 2009) and commentaries on Hebrews (Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Eerdmans, 2000) and Galatians in the NICNT series (Eerdmans, 2018). Finally, he wrote a novel published by Kregel, Day of Atonement: A Novel of the Maccabean Revolt (2015).

Both John Byron’s A Week in the Life of a Slave and Holly Beers’s A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman featured Ephesus, but during Paul’s time in the city (Acts 19). James Papandrea’s A Week in the Life of Rome took place before Peter’s arrival in Rome. deSilva’s book focuses on the struggles Christians in Ephesus faces to remain loyal to the one God who sent his son Jesus in a culture thoroughly dedicated to other gods.

deSilva sets his story just prior to Ephesus receiving the title neokoros, temple warden. The city rulers are finalizing plans to dedicate a temple to Domitian. The artificial plateau for this temple is just inside the Magnesian gate, only the foundation and stairs remain at the site today. The base of the altar and parts of the colossal statue of Domitian are in the Ephesus museum. Although some suggest the massive head and arm is actually Titus, the image serves to illustrate the awe-inspiring architecture of an imperial cult center.

The story begins with Serapion, a priest of Artemis, leading a sacred procession through the streets of Ephesus on the holy birthday of the divine Caesar Augustus. To be the priest of Artemis was a great honor for Serapion and his family, an honor Serapion has paid well for. Christians absent from the procession, including Serapion’s slave (who later received a severe beating for shaming his master in this way) and Amyntas, Serapion’s neighbor.

Both Serapion and Amyntas both in the terrace houses. Visitors to Ephesus ought to pay the extra ticket to visit these restored and preserved homes in order to understand how the wealthy citizens of Ephesus lived. There are several photographs in the book illustrating the design of these townhouses. When I first visited Ephesus with Mark Wilson, he pointed out the closeness of the homes meant the activities of a Christian congregation would be known to the neighbors. He suggested this may explain Paul’s reaching on tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. In deSilva’s story, Serapion knows his neighbor Amyntas is hosting a church since the meeting could not be hidden from the neighbors.

Serapion’s hatred for Christians leads him to a plot to shame publicly Amyntas. Serapion nominates Amyntas to serve as a neopoioi, an official of the imperial cult responsible for the administration of the cult center. This is an exceptional opportunity for Amyntas and would result in additional wealth and honor for his family. Amyntas has a tough decision to make. If he turns down the offer, he would dishonor Ephesus, the emperor Domitian and the imperial cult, putting his life in danger. Could he accept this honor as a Christian, knowing the gods are nothing?

deSilva introduces Nicolaus of Pergamum, an elite citizen who serves in the imperial cult in that city. Although it is not explicit in this novel, perhaps deSilva wants us to think of Nicolaus as the target of John’s condemnation of the Nicolatians in Revelation 2:6 and 2:15. Nicolaus encourages Amyntas to accept the position since it would give him great opportunity to share the gospel with other wealthy people. However, when Nicolaus visits the church in Amyntas’s home he is soundly condemned by many in the gathering.

This conflict illustrates two ways of expressing one’s Christian faith in the late first century. On the one hand, a Christian could attend an Artemis festival or serve the imperial cult knowing full well that Artemis is not an actual god or that the imperial cult is propaganda for the empire. Others refused any participation in cult activities. The final line of 1 John tells the readers to keep themselves from idols. One character in the book refuses to honor the gods of his trade guild. The master of the agora publicly ostracizes him and forbids him to practice his trade in Ephesus. Amyntas’s son expresses his monotheism at his philosophy class in the gymnasium and is soundly beaten by his peers.

There is a subplot in the book concerning Zeuxis, a Jewish wealthy shipowner and his old friend Demetrius, a Christian merchant selling wool in the agora. This gives deSilva opportunity to illustrate the similarities and differences between Jews and Christians at the end of the first century. The rapaciousness of Roman merchants is a cause for the Christian to reflect on economic justice.

The climax of the book is the arrival of a messenger delivering what we call The Book of Revelation to the Christian community. After the church gathers and hears the worlds of the Apocalypse they are shaken, knowing they have indeed forgotten their first love. This is not overplayed in the novel and deSilva does not deal with any of the details of the apocalypse. The recipients of Revelation understand the great whore is Rome and that the book is a solid condemnation of Christians who take part in the imperial cult.

Does Amyntas accept the honor of service in the imperial cult like Nicolaus of Pergamum recommended? I will not spoil the plot here, read the book and consider how this applies to modern demands for loyalty to the empire.

Scattered throughout the novel are text boxes with historical details on various aspects of the story. For example, deSilva discusses musical instruments in the Roman period, the title neokoros, the Jewish community in Ephesus, the staff in an imperial cult center, Christian worship, and many others on Roman culture. The book is illustrated with black & white photographs. Perhaps the book could have included a glossary explaining Greek and Roman terms scattered throughout the book.

Conclusion. That three books in this series use Ephesus as a backdrop underscores the importance of Ephesus as an archaeological site. Like Pompeii, what has been excavated at Ephesus illustrates many aspects of life in the Greco-Roman world. I highly recommend this novel as a way to understand how Christian and Culture often clashed in the first century.

For reviews of other volumes in this series, see my reviews of:

Although not part of this series, these are books are also in the genre “scholarly novel.”

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

The Beast out of the Earth – Revelation 13:11-15

John sees a second beast, this time rising from the earth. The second beast is called a deceiver (13:14).  This second beast is called the false prophet in Revelation 16:13, 19:20; 20:10. Along with the red dragon and the beast from the sea, this third character introduced here is part of a “satanic trinity.” Irenaeus referred to this false prophet as the “armor bearer” of the Antichrist, Adv. Haer. 5.28.2).

Who Is the Antichrist?

As with the first beast, many commentators think this is an allusion to the two primordial beasts in Job, Leviathan and Behemoth. In several Second Temple period texts, God separated Leviathan and Behemoth on the fifth day of creation (1 Enoch 60:7-101, 24; 4 Ezra 6:47–54; 2 Apoc. Bar. 29:4). These two beasts are prepared for the “great day of the Lord” when they will be turned into food (1 Enoch 60:24).

1 Enoch 60.7–10  On that day, two monsters will be parted—one monster, a female named Leviathan, in order to dwell in the abyss of the ocean over the fountains of water; 8 and (the other), a male called Behemoth, which holds his chest in an invisible desert whose name is Dundayin, east of the garden of Eden, wherein the elect and the righteous ones dwell, wherein my grandfather was taken, the seventh from Adam, the first man whom the Lord of the Spirits created. 9 Then I asked the second angel in order that he may show me (how) strong these monsters are, how they were separated on this day and were cast, the one into the abysses of the ocean, and the other into the dry desert. 10 And he said to me, “You, son of man, according (to the degree) to which it will be permitted, you will know the hidden things.”

The second beast has two horns like a lamb, but it speaks with the voice of the dragon. The dragon has already been identified as Satan. The two horns are unusual since they are the usual number from a lamb; usually animals have many horns. It is possible, then, the horns do not represent rulers (as with the first beast), but rather suggest the appearance of harmlessness. But when the harmless looking beast speaks it is communicating the word of the Dragon, Satan. In the opening paragraph I suggested John has created a satanic parody of the trinity. If that is the case, then this second beast is like the Holy Spirit. Rather than communicating the word of God, it speaks the word of the Dragon.

What does this “false prophet” do? Unlike the first beast, John gives a series of activities associated with the false prophet and many evoke the activity of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. (Note I am using masculine personal pronouns here because they are in the Greek text; this is a possible argument against a parody of the Holy Spirit since the Greek for spirit is neuter.)

First, the false prophet causes the inhabitants of the whole world to worship the first beast. If the first beast refers to the Roman empire, then worshiping the Roman empire naturally brings the imperial cult to mind. Most commentators understand this as an allusion to Daniel 3; Nebuchadnezzar set up an image and demanded everyone worship it or be put to death.

Second, he performs great signs which help convince the first beast has power. In the Gospel of John, Jesus did seven signs (σημεῖον) which were to convince people he was the Messiah (John 20:30-31). This false prophet does great signs (σημεῖον) in order to convince people that the Beast of the Earth has great power, and (perhaps) that the injured horn is the messiah.

Third, he heals the near-fatal wound of the first beast. This is the greatest of miracles, a parody of the resurrection of Christ. In Revelation 13:3 the first beast appeared to have died and was brought back to life, now in 13:14 it is the power of the false prophet that did this great miracle. It is important to observe the first beast was not actually dead, so this is a false-resurrection.

Fourth, he makes the image of the first beast speak.  This was a belief of the first century, that statues could magically be made to talk. Certain cults would use ventriloquism to make statues appear to talk. In this case the statues will pronounce judgement on all who do not worship it.

Fifth, he requires that all men receive the mark of the beast on their hand or forehead. This may allude to increasing pressure on Christians in Asia Minor to participate in the imperial cult. I will deal with the Mark of the Beast in another post.

John’s description of the first beast is consistent with warnings against false prophets in Deuteronomy 13:1-3, Jesus’s warnings about false prophets and false messiahs (Mark 13:21-23, Matt 24:23-25), as well as Paul’s description of the coming Lawless one (2 Thess 2:9-11). The Lawless One is empowered by Satan and will have “all power and false signs and wonders” in order to deceive those who have refused to love the truth. People believe these deceiving signs because God has sent a “strong delusion” so that they believe what is false. Similarly, here in Revelation 13 the second beast does great signs to convince the whole world of the power of the first beast.

Other Second Temple period texts describe the coming evil one as doing many great signs. Aune points to Sibylline Oracle 3.63-74 since it combines the Return of Nero myth with the satanic Beliar performing great miracles, including raising the dead:

Sib. Or. 3.63–67 Then Beliar will come from the Sebastēnoi and he will raise up the height of mountains, he will raise up the sea, the great fiery sun and shining moon, and he will raise up the dead, and perform many signs for men.

In summary, the second beast in Revelation 13 is the religious support for the empire and emperor described by the first beast. Although many in the modern west think of the separation of church and state as good and normal, the Roman world did not think of the political world as separate from the religious. The emperor demonstrated proper piety toward the gods and was deified and worshiped in the imperial cult. The imperial cult served to unified the empire and served to broadcast imperial propaganda throughout the Roman world.

Although little is known about the function of the imperial priesthood, John appears to be describing the function of the imperial cult and its priesthood. (Aune, 756; Beasley-Murray, 216). If the first beast is the Roman empire and the horns are various emperors, then the imperial cult was the religious support system for the empire, especially in Asia Minor. This will be clearer with the final activity of the second beast, forcing all people to take the mark of the beast.

Revelation as Resistance Literature

Despite the fact the book of Revelation is usually mined for what it has to say about future events, it is not a “roadmap for the future.” It is, rather, an exhortation written to very real churches to encourage them to live a different kind of life in the shadow of the Second Coming. This life means enduring persecution for their belief in Jesus and their non-belief in an imperial system that was becoming increasingly hostile to that faith. In Revelation the church is called to resist the culture, not through underground military action, but by being faithful witnesses to Jesus despite persecution.

There are many examples of this in Revelation, but I will offer one from the letter to Pergamum (Rev 2:12-17). In Rev 2:13 the church is commended for not renouncing their faith even though one faithful witness was put to death.  The city is described as the place where Satan has his throne (v. 13) and “where Satan lives” (v. 14). There are several suggestions for what is meant by “Satan’s Throne” (in fact, David Aune lists eight major possibilities). The Temple of Zeus Soter overlooked the city, and this throne was well known in the ancient world. On the other hand, this may refer to the Imperial cult represented by two temples to emperors Augustus and (later) to Trajan.

In support of this view, it is observed that the term “throne” is used as an “official seat or chair of state” in the New Testament, Pergamum was the center of Satan’s activities in the province of Asia much the way Rome becomes the center for Satan’s activities in the west. The Temple of Augustus in Pergamum was built in 29 B.C., and was the first of the imperial cults in Asia Minor.  In TJob 3:5b pagan temples are called “the temple of Satan.”

Antipas of PergamumEven though the imperial cult is strong in their city, the church of Pergamum remains true to the Lord’s name, even to the point of death. Nothing is known from scripture about the martyr Antipas, which is a shortened form of Antipater.  The title given him is “faithful witness,” title given to Jesus in Revelation 1. Eventually Pergamum will become known for several important martyrs.  The fact that the city was the center of the imperial cult would make the Christian refusal to accept the cult a serious crime.

There is a principle running through several of the letters in Rev 2-3 that the witnessing church will be a persecuted church (Beale, Revelation, 427).  Since the church has had a reputation for being a strong witness in the community, the church has had to face persecution, perhaps in the form of financial hardship and other social complications; but more importantly, members of their community have been killed for their faith.

Let me draw this back to the application of Revelation to the present church. How should the modern church “resist” the culture of this world? In western, “first world” countries this would look different than in some parts of Africa or Asia where the church is illegal and being persecuted for their faith. It is possible that the lack of persecution in the west is an indication that we have embraced culture and are no longer “faithful witnesses” like Antipas?

The Roman Cult of Emperor Worship

Many scholars see worship of the emperor as the background for the worship of the Beast in Revelation 13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4.  If this is true, then we need to know when emperor worship became an empire-wide phenomenon.  The standard view of Emperor worship found in many popular commentaries comes from William Ramsay, writing at the turn of the 20th century:

“…in no part of the world was there such fervent and sincere loyalty to the emperors as in Asia. Augustus had been a saviour to the Asian peoples, and they deified him as the Saviour of mankind, and worshiped him with the most whole-hearted devotion as the ‘present deity’.” W. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909) 115.

Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped as a god, but his successor Augustus only allowed emperor worship outside of the city of Rome.  Augustus is known in some inscriptions  as  CAESAR DIVI FILIUS, Son of God, that is, Son of eternal Caesar.  Oaths were taken on the divine spirit of the emperor. His image was publicly adored. Worship of the image was a regular military duty.   Caligula was the first emperor to demand to be worshiped, he demanded that citizens everywhere bow to his statue.  Nero also claimed to be divine, although in neither case was there a requirement to worship the emperor.  As Augustus had been Zeus incarnate, so Nero was Apollo incarnate. Even Seneca called him as the long-awaited savior of the world.

Domitian took the title “lord and god” and ordered people to confess he was “lord and god” as a test of loyalty (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Book 8: Domitian 13).  Marital says the “beasts in the arena” hailed him as a god.  While this is clearly legendary, it does reflect a contemporary writer implying divine honors for Domitian.  Dio Cassius (Roman History 67.14)refers to Domition exiling a Flavius Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla for “atheism.”  Atheism is the charge made against those who drifted into “things Jewish.” Dio Chrysostom reported that Domitan liked to “be flattered” as “master and god.”  Those who refused to flatter him in this way risked trouble. (In Oratorio 45:1, see also First Discourse on Kingship, 1.14-15).

How prevalent was the imperial cult in Asia Minor?  Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3, five have imperial priests and altars (all but Philadelphia and Laodica) and six have imperial temples (all but Thyatira).  At Pergamum an imperial temple was established as early as 28 B.C.  The city was so central to the imperial cult that Revelation describes this city as having the “throne of Satan.”  In short, a Christian in Asia Minor could not avoid the Imperial Cult.

It was during the reign of Domitian when the imperial cult became a factor in unifying the empire in Asia Minor. The provincial cult allowed the Roman network of social obligations to be extended to virtually the whole population.  If you lived within the empire, then you were a social client of the Emperor and owed him supreme allegiance.  It is not hard to see, therefore, the struggle which Christians in the late first century would have showing allegiance to Rome – if that allegiance required worship of the Emperor, then the Christian must refuse or compromise their faith.

Some Bibliography:

Ethelbert  Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars. Translated by K. and R. Gregor Smith. (Philadelphia: The Westminster, 1955).

David A. deSilva, “The ‘Image Of The Beast’ And The Christians In Asia Minor: Escalation Of Sectarian Tension In Revelation 13” TrinJ 12:2 (Fall 1991) 185-208.