And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. 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 the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’
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. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.
Let anyone who has an ear listen:
If you are to be taken captive,
into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,
with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a tourist who was out fishing off the Florida coast and somehow managed to capsize his boat. Luckily he could swim, but his fear of alligators kept him clinging to the overturned craft. Spotting an old beachcomber standing on the shore, the tourist shouted, “Are there any gators around here?!” “No,” the man hollered back, “they ain’t been around for years!” Feeling safe, the tourist started swimming leisurely toward the shore. About halfway there, he asked the guy, “How did you get rid of the gators?” “We didn’t do nothin’,” the beachcomber said. “The sharks got ’em.”
That poor tourist, something was gonna get him one way or another! Fortunately he was only scared of alligators and that fear kept him from swimming to shore only briefly. Imagine if he was afraid of both gators and sharks…he would have never left his capsized boat for fear of running into either! Well, fear is a mighty force to contend with in this world. Most of the time it’s even mightier than whatever it is we’re afraid of. Alligators and sharks are worthy to be afraid of but what about darkness or spiders or tight spaces? Darkness or tight spaces never killed anyone and rarely do spiders kill anyone. And yet we easily develop these seemingly irrational fears of them. The fear itself paralyzes us from action or causes us to act stupidly. Fear is indeed a mighty force to overcome. It’s no wonder Jesus repeatedly told those around him to not be afraid. Fear keeps us clinging to the boat or lets us swim through shark-infested water, albeit unknowingly.
So what does fear have to do with today’s reading? Well, John’s vision has been leading us down a pretty frightening path for quite some time now. It started out with John simply approaching the heavenly throne with the Father and Son seated upon it, surrounded by elders and creatures worshiping them. But then the Son opened the scroll and unleashed the so-called “four horsemen of the apocalypse” who brought nothing but famine and pestilence and war and death to the world. In the subsequent chapters, a mighty dragon entered the world representing the Devil himself and he created two mighty beasts of which we heard about in today’s reading. The first beast was not only terrifying in appearance but also had a wicked mouth that blasphemed against God. The second beast was less terrifying but acted as a sort of hype man for the first beast. It went around proclaiming, “Look at that first beast and how terrifying it is! Look at how someone tried to kill it but failed. Its mangled head just healed itself. It is undefeatable so just stand in awe of it and worship it.” Two beasts working to instill paralytic fear and faithful worship in those around them.
Now just like everything we’ve encountered so far in John’s vision, these beasts represent something else. The Lamb represented the Son or Jesus, the horsemen represented particular woes, the elders around the throne, the various tribes of Israel, the creatures around the throne, angels. Many believe these beasts represent the first great enemy of the Christian faith, the Roman empire. And perhaps rightly so! During the time of the early church, the Roman empire was such a mighty, frightening ruler over Europe and the Middle East. Its powerful control of the government and economy in that area was, well, monstrous to those who didn’t agree with and abide by the Roman order. Attempts had been made to destroy it but like a multi-headed beast, it just healed whatever head was attacked. And we know that the Roman empire sought to defy God and blaspheme against God. It declared its own leader, Caesar, to be God! As to the second beast being the hype man and branding people with the mark of the beast, perhaps that was the empire’s way of controlling the economy. Some have suggested that that number, 666, represented the Roman emperor, Nero, who was a great enemy of the early church. To be branded with that number meant you were also an enemy of the early church.
Of course, these are all interpretations of what the beasts represent. And they are very specific to a specific time, the early church. I think John’s vision is more effective as a reflection on larger forces at work in the world. There will always be beasts in this world that seek to defy God. They will be mighty and powerful, even seemingly undefeatable. And they’ll be alluring! Remember, they’ll come in a pair, one doing the defiance and one promoting the work of the other. “Look at how powerful the beast is! Look at how undefeatable it is! Come, be a part of it!” Sometimes I wonder if the growing number of people who are “spiritual but not religious,” those who refuse to affiliate with any organized religion, is the beast that the modern church has to contend with. Regardless, faith is always tested in this world by a variety of beasts, some larger than others. Which brings us back to fear…
Just because we have beasts to contend with in this world doesn’t mean we are to live in fear. God created this world, God put us in this world, and God equipped us to be of courage in this world. Recall the words of God spoken to the prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (41:10) Friends, we are never alone in this world. No matter what beast we find ourselves up against, whether financial or healthwise or relational or otherwise, God is always with us in that fight. God always provides strength and assistance to defeat that beast. Deuteronomy tells us, “be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” (31:6) God is always with us, He never abandons us to our fights. God is always right there alongside us, fighting right beside us. Never think you’re alone in fighting your beasts!
Sometimes the beasts we fight are mighty indeed. A lot of the time they’re not. It’s fear that turns them into much greater beasts than they actually are. So listen to Jesus…do not be afraid! Don’t let fear paralyze you or make you do stupid things. Be of great courage and know that God fights alongside you. And take comfort in David’s words from psalm 34, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” (vs. 4) Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.