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Revelation 5 - Seven Signs From Heaven (11:19 - 15:4)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Also available:

Introduction Four main views of Revelation
1: Prologue (1:1-8) 2: Letters to seven churches (1:9 - 3:22)
3: Seven Seals (4:1 - 8:1) 4: Seven trumpets (8:2 - 11:18)
5: Seven signs (11:19 - 15:4) 6: Seven Bowls (15:5 - 16:21)
7: Prostitute / Babylon (17:1 - 19:10) 8: Seven judgements (19:11 - 21:8)
9: Bride / Jerusalem (21:9 - 22:9) 10: Epilogue (22:10-21)
Millennium Rapture and tribulation
Jesus the Lamb

Outline: (Seven times: 'And I saw')

Setting (11:19): God’s temple in heaven was opened
Sign 1 (12:1-18): A great portent in heaven: the dragon, woman and male child
Sign 2 (13:1-10): The beast from the sea, with healed wound
Sign 3 (13:11-18): The beast from the earth (the false prophet)
Sign 4 (14:1-5): The Lamb and 144,000 on Mt. Zion
Sign 5 (14:6-13): Messages from three angels
Sign 6 (14:14-20): Harvest of redeemed and of wicked
     Preview (15:1): Seven angels with seven plagues to end the wrath of God
Sign 7 (15:2-4): Sea of glass and those who have conquered

Introduction

With the start of the seven signs, the perspective changes and John is given an understanding of the spiritual battle taking place in the invisible realm. Causing the persecution of the saints and the deception of the unbelievers is a powerful enemy, the dragon, aided by his two beasts. This section describes the ongoing battle between the devil and Christ. Just as the devil tried to destroy Christ, so he now tries to destroy his church. John and his readers are being shown that the persecution coming through the Roman government is actually of satanic origin. However the good news is that the enemy has been defeated and his time is short, therefore there is hope. In the meantime, the believers are called to maintain their faithful witness to Jesus, and endure the persecution with patience.

As we study this difficult section, it is particularly important that we maintain the distinction between observation, interpretation and application. We need to read the description of the dragon and the two beasts carefully, noting all the details, then be asking what they represented to John and his first readers, before attempting to identify what or who they represent today. The table below gives a summary of the description of each of the evil powers, together with a suggestion of what they particularly represented to John, and for all time. As already noted in the description of the structure, each of the seven signs is introduced with the phrase 'And I saw'.

Who Observation
What the text says
Interpretation
For John and first century Asia
Application
For today and all history
Dragon
(ch 12)
Tried to devour male child (v4)
Devil and Satan
Accuser of brothers thrown down (v9-10)
with great wrath (v12)
Pursued woman (v13)
poured water after woman (v15)
Angry with woman
war on her children (v17)
Devil and Satan
Accuser of brothers
Enemy of saints
Defeated on cross
Thrown down
Devil and Satan
Accuser of brothers
Enemy of saints
Defeated on cross
Thrown down

Setting (11:19): God’s temple in heaven was opened

As before, the new section begins with a short setting, describing the heavenly temple being opened, and the ark of the covenant being seen. This is the heavenly temple which was seen by Moses on Mt. Sinai, when he was told to make a physical tabernacle according to the pattern shown him on the mountain (Heb 8:5, Ex 25:40). The temple in the OT was the place where the glory of God dwelt in the midst of his people, so here it represents the very presence of God in heaven. The ark of the covenant was placed in the holy of holies first in the tabernacle and then later in the temple built by Solomon. God promised that he would meet with his people from between the two cherubim above the mercy seat on the top of the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:22). However, only on the day of atonement could the high priest enter the holy of holies, where he sprinkled blood on the mercy seat to atone for his own sins and the sins of the people (Lev 16:14, Heb 9:7). In the ark of the covenant were the two tablets on which God had written the ten commandments, together with an urn containing manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded (Heb 9:4). The ark of covenant was hidden by the veil, until it was torn open on the day of crucifixion (Mt 27:51). The ark in this heavenly temple is also visible, reminding us that the way into the presence of Gd is open following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Again the setting concludes with the characteristic manifestations of God’s glory: lightning, thunder, earthquake and hail.

Sign 1 (12:1-18): A great portent in heaven: the dragon, woman and male child

The first sign has three sections: the three characters (12:1-6), the heavenly battle and expulsion of the dragon (12:7-12), and the dragon’s wrath (12:13-18).

The three characters (12:1-6)

This first portent or sign introduces three characters, and then describes a war in heaven. The first character is the woman clothed with the sun, with a crown of twelve stars, in the agony of giving birth. The woman is the most difficult character to identify with any certainty. She gives birth to a male child who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron. The child is clearly Jesus who will later rule with a rod of iron (19:15). In a way typical of apocalyptic writing, the symbolism is rather fluid here, as the woman gives birth, but then later flees into the wilderness being pursued by the dragon (12:6,13). The woman also has other offspring or children, who are defined as those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus (12:17). Her offspring are easier to identify as the believers in Jesus. However we are still left with the question of who the woman represents. The woman is often identified as the virgin Mary, particularly by Catholics. She is often portrayed with a crown of twelve stars, as in the description here. However in the prophetic writings of the OT, the nation of Israel is regularly described as a mother in the agony of giving birth (Is 26:17, 66:7-8, Micah 4:10). The apocryphal book of 2 Esdras describes Zion as the mother of us all (2 Esdras 10:7), and Paul describes the Jerusalem above as our mother (Gal 4:26). So it may be best to suggest that the woman represents the people of God in a corporate or ideal sense, meaning both the people of faith in the OT, who eagerly anticipated the coming of the Messiah, and the continuation of the people of faith in the NT, who now worship Jesus.

The second character is the dragon, who is clearly identified as the Devil and Satan (12:9). The dragon has seven heads and ten horns, symbolising his great authority and strength. He has seven diadems on his horns. Diadems are the crown of a ruler, which should be contrasted with the victor’s crown worn by the woman, the twenty-four elders (4:4), and by Jesus (6:2, 14:14). Jesus, as the returning conquering king, does wear diadems (19:12), but the forces of evil never wear the crown of victory. The strength of the dragon is shown when he swept one third of the stars down to earth. This is an allusion drawn from the power of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, represented by the little horn, who threw some of the stars down to the earth (Dan 8:10). In Daniel the stars represent the wise who lead many to righteousness (Dan 12:3).

This passage is often used to teach that sometime before the beginning of human history Satan fell from glory taking one third of the angels with him, who then became the demonic forces. This interpretation is doubtful if the context of the passage is taken into account. This first portent or sign is not describing events before the beginning of time, but is portraying the incarnation of Jesus and his great victory on the cross. The Bible does not tell us much about the origin of Satan, perhaps we don’t need to know. Far more importantly - his defeat on the cross and ultimate destiny in the place of eternal torment is made very clear.

The dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, waiting until he can devour her child. This reminds us of Herod killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the real King of the Jews (Mt 2:16). Through all of history, the dragon’s intention has continually been to thwart God’s plan of salvation, particularly by attempting to kill Jesus, or to prevent him from dying on the cross. Through the OT, the dragon continually tried to destroy the Messianic line, through Pharaoh killing the sons of Israel (Ex 1), Saul trying to kill David (eg. 1 Sam 18:11), Athaliah killing all the royal family of Judah (except baby Joash) (2 Kg 11:1), Ahaz and Manasseh sacrificing their first-born sons to Molech (2 Kg 16:3, 21:6), and Haman trying to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire (Est 3:6). A number of times the dragon tried to kill Jesus, tempting him to jump off the pinnacle of the temple (Mt 4:6), or when people tried to throw him off a cliff (Lk 4:29). Satan even tried to tempt Jesus to come down off the cross (Mk 15:32), knowing that when Jesus died on the cross he and his works will be defeated. Ultimately Jesus laid down his own life, when he gave up his spirit to the Father (Lk 23:46, Jn 19:30). Jesus remained in control to the end, and the dragon failed.

The third character introduced is the male child who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron - the Lord Jesus. When the child is born, he is snatched away to God and his throne. This is a very brief summary of the incarnation and exaltation of Jesus. The dragon was not able to kill him, but he was taken up into the presence of God. The focus now turns to the woman, who flees into the wilderness. She now represents the corporate people of God in the NT, as her offspring are the believers (12:17). The wilderness is described here as a place prepared by God. The wilderness wanderings described in the Book of Numbers are often used as a picture of the life of believers in the NT. Just as Israel had come out of her place of bondage in Egypt and were on their way to the promised land, so the NT believers have come out from the bondage to sin, and are on their way to their promised land - heaven. This analogy is particularly seen in the Book of Hebrews (Heb 4), and 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 10). The wilderness is a place of testing, where faith and trust in God are needed to make the right response to the testing. It is also the place of meeting God, as well as seeing God’s miraculous provision, but it is not our final destination. The woman is nourished in the wilderness for 1260 days, which is the same time period as the trampling of the holy city (11:2) the prophesying by the two witnesses (11:3), and the time of the beast’s authority (13:5). The next section will help us see when this time period begins and ends.

The heavenly battle and expulsion of the dragon (12:7-12)

John now witnesses a great battle, with Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon and his angels. Michael attacks the dragon, and the dragon fights back, but is defeated and thrown out of heaven together with his angels. Michael is the great prince, the protector of God’s people (Dan 12:1). He is one of the chief princes who battled against the prince of Persia in Daniel’s vision (Dan 10:13). So Michael must be one of the most important and powerful of the angelic beings, with a particular responsibility to protect God’s people.

The dragon is identified here as the ancient serpent, the Devil and Satan, so we are left in no doubt who the dragon is. He is given four names or descriptions. Firstly, he is the ancient serpent, the serpent that tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-5). It is not until this point in the Bible that the identity of the serpent is revealed. For the whole of the Bible until here, the true identity of the serpent has remained hidden. Secondly, he is the Devil, meaning the slanderer or accuser, and thirdly, he is Satan, meaning the adversary or enemy. Fourthly, he is the deceiver of the whole world. It is the dragon who keeps unbelievers from seeing the truth of the Gospel, blinding them so they remain in darkness. We are reminded here of the spiritual battle that takes place over each person as they hear and respond to the Gospel.

The dragon was defeated and thrown out of heaven. The question is when did this happen? When was the dragon Satan defeated? The answer comes in the great proclamation from heaven declaring the defeat of the dragon. John heard a loud voice in heaven proclaiming the coming of salvation, the power, the kingdom of God and authority of his Messiah, because the accuser has been thrown out. From the consistent teaching in the rest of the NT we see that this happened through the ministry and death of Jesus. John is given an insight into the spiritual battle that took place during the incarnation of Jesus. Because Jesus died and rose again, the dragon was defeated and thrown out of heaven. During his ministry, when the seventy were sent out to cast out demons, Jesus said that he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven (Lk 10:17). This was not describing Satan’s fall from glory at the beginning of time, but the effect that the ministry of the seventy has having on the kingdom of darkness. Jesus also told his disciples that when he is lifted up (on the cross), he will draw all people to himself and the ruler of the world (Satan) will be driven out (Jn 12:31). Paul described Jesus as triumphing over the rulers and authorities on the cross (Col 2:15). Elsewhere John declared that the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the devil (1 Jn 3:8), and that the ruler of this world has been condemned (Jn 16:11).

In the wider context of the whole book, there is a significant contrast between the dragon and God the Father. Back in chapter four, God the Father was introduced as the “one seated on the throne”. He is enthroned as king of the universe with all his creation standing before him in worship. He is the sovereign ruler, with all things under his control, even when it appears not to be so. By contrast, the dragon had lost his place and been thrown out, defeated by the blood of the Lamb.

Because Satan has been thrown down he can no longer bring accusation against God’s people. As Paul wrote, “There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1), and no one can bring a charge against God’s elect (Rom 8:33). Jesus took all condemnation on himself, and declared that his people are righteous before God, without guilt, so no charge can be brought against them.

It is the blood of the Lamb, the death of Jesus on the cross, that conquered the dragon. So the believers continue to conquer the dragon by trusting in the death of Jesus, and maintaining their faithful testimony to Jesus in the face of persecution and threatened death. John himself was suffering tribulation on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (1:9). Through this book, John is showing believers that death is not the end, and not to be feared because we have the hope of future glory. At death, we leave this life on earth, but continue our life with Jesus in an even better way. So believers also conquer the dragon through not clinging to life in the face of death, trusting that death itself will ultimately be destroyed (20:14).

The voice from heaven calls the heavens to rejoice at the defeat and expulsion of the dragon. The defeat of the dragon is good news for the believers, but bad news for the world. The dragon knows his time is short and has come down to earth in great wrath. He is like a cornered animal, active and vengeful. Satan ultimately destroys all who reject Jesus and unknowingly follow him, and his wrath against Jesus is expressed through the persecution of the church. Through the next chapters John is shown that the dragon inspires the beasts and the whore Babylon to persecute the church.

The dragon’s wrath (12:13-18)

When the dragon realised that he had been thrown out (as if he hadn’t noticed!), he turned his vengeance against the woman by causing the persecution of the church. He attacked the woman in two ways, and both attempts were thwarted by God. First he pursued the woman, but the woman was given wings to flee to the wilderness. Then secondly he tried to sweep the woman away with a flood of water from his mouth, but the ground swallowed the river of water.

As noted earlier in the chapter, the woman probably represents the people of God corporately rather than individually. It is the offspring or children of the woman who represent the individual believer (12:17). So Satan attacks the church in two different ways, and each time the church sees God’s protection. All through history Satan has attempted to destroy the church, but will never succeed in doing so.

The dragon firstly attacks the church by pursuing it. This would include deliberate attempts to destroy the church through persecution. Through history this has been done by destroying church buildings, imprisoning, torturing and killing church leaders and general believers, and enacting laws which forbid religious conversion or the preaching of the Gospel. However God protects his church by taking her to the wilderness. This is an allusion to the exodus from Egypt, when God said that he bore the Israelites on eagle’s wings and brought them to himself (Ex 19:4). He took Israel out of bondage in Egypt into his presence in the wilderness, where he supernaturally nourished them with manna and quails. Similarly he will protect and nourish his church in the wilderness, the place both of testing and meeting with God. The nourishment of the church comes through the word of God. Even though individual believers may be martyred, God will never allow the light of the Gospel to be extinguished or his church to be totally destroyed. The period of nourishing in the wilderness is the same period as before (12:6) - time, times and half a time, meaning three and a half years.

The second attack from the dragon comes through a flood of water from his mouth, trying to sweep away the woman. It is difficult to be entirely sure what this represents, but as the water comes from the mouth of the dragon, it could represent the words of the dragon. Perhaps this represents the dragon attempting to drown the church in a flood of false teaching, religious cults and secular thought which swamps the Gospel message and leads people into deception. God protects the church by the earth swallowing the water, just as the earth swallowed the Egyptians in the Red Sea (Ex 15:12), and the leaders of Korah’s rebellion (Num 16:32). The main way God protects his church today is through the systematic teaching and study of his Word, the Bible, so believers know the truth of the Gospel and can recognise and reject any false or unbalanced teaching.

The dragon’s two-fold attack on the church and individual believers comes through the activity of the two beasts who are about to be introduced (13:1-18). The first beast directly attacks the church, making war on the saints and conquering them (13:7), and the second attempts to deceive people through an alternative religious system (13:14). However, God provides a means of protection in response to both forms of attack.

Chapter twelve introduces the first of the great enemies of the church - the dragon, who represents the devil and Satan, and the serpent from the Garden of Eden. Satan was active in John’s time, and continues to be active today, as the leader of the forces of darkness, the evil spiritual forces opposed to God and his people, who attack the church and attempt to deceive it through false teaching. However the good news is that the dragon was defeated by the blood of the Lamb (the death of Jesus), and his destiny is the lake of fire and sulphur (20:10).

Sign 2 (13:1-10): The beast from the sea, with healed wound

John now sees the first of the two beasts, the beast rising out of the sea. In Jewish thought, the sea was always a hostile place, also the armies of the Roman empire came to conquer Asia from over the sea. This first beast has a similar appearance to the dragon with horns and diadems (12:3), but the beast has diadems on his horns. Later we will see that the whore Babylon rides on this beast (17:3). On its heads were blasphemous names, names claiming deity. It had the speed of a leopard, the strength of a bear and the ferocious mouth of a lion. It is a combination of the four beasts seen by Daniel in his vision of successive empires (Dan 7:3-6), so perhaps this beast represents all governments opposed to God through the centuries. The beast is given power and authority by the dragon, so is clearly an evil power.

This beast is a pseudo-Christ. Like the lamb (5:6), it seemed to have been slaughtered, but is mortal wound had healed. In amazement, the whole world followed and worshipped the beast, but at the same time they were unknowingly worshipping the dragon who had given its power to the beast. In Revelation, as in the rest of John’s writings, the world is a description of the unbelievers. Only unbelievers worship the beast. The unbelievers seem to believe it is futile to try and fight against the beast and accept his power with resignation.

Several explanations have been given to the healing of the mortal wound. One is that the beast is merely a manifestation of evil power which will come back again and again. Another may be that John is referring to a myth about the emperor Nero that was widespread in the first century. In his early years Nero had been a good emperor, but around AD 60 he went mad and introduced crazy and unjust laws. As a result, he became hated and despised by the people of the empire. He eventually committed suicide in AD 68, bringing great rejoicing. However a story went round that he was not really dead, but had fled to the Parthians in the east, where he was raising an army to invade the empire and regain his throne. At least two impostors had claimed to be Nero, and one tried to persuade the Parthians to invade Rome. As Domitian was the second emperor the persecute the church, some believers talked of him as a second Nero. It is probably better to think that Nero was just one manifestation of the beast, but that the beast will come in different forms until the final judgement, when it will be thrown into the lake of fire (19:20).

Several times in this paragraph we see that the beast was given authority, and allowed to exercise authority. This gives a suggestion of the continuing sovereignty of God, without declaring it explicitly. Through all the troubles for the world and the church, God remains in control. He is still sitting on the throne, as introduced back in chapter 4. He is still the Lord of the universe, so the activities of the dragon and his beasts remain under His sovereign control, just as God put limits on the activity of Satan in the life of Job (Job 1-2).

The beast uttered haughty and blasphemous words, claiming to be God, just as the emperors claimed to be divine, and Domitian insisted that he was addressed as 'Lord and God'. The beast blasphemes the name of God, and his dwelling (or tabernacle), which is defined as those who dwell in heaven (v6), who are the saints. The tabernacle was the place in the OT where God dwelt in his glory among his people. In the NT God dwells through his Holy Spirit in his new temple, his church (1 Cor 3:16).

The beast was given authority over “every tribe and people and language and nation”. This phrase or a similar one appears seven times through the Book of Revelation (5:9, 7:9, 10:11, 11:9, 13:7, 14:6, 17:15). It describes the world - all the different peoples of the world, the unbelievers, out of whom God ransoms the saints by the blood of the Lamb (5:9). They are also described as the inhabitants of the earth (13:8, 14:6). Everyone whose name is not in the Lamb’s book of life will worship the beast. Here we see the great distinction. The only people who will worship the beast are the unbelievers, the inhabitants of the earth, from every tribe, people, language and nation. True believers will never worship the beast, because they will only worship the Lamb - Jesus.

As a wonderful encouragement to the believers we are told when our name was written in the Lamb’s book of life - before the foundation of the world (also 17:8). Here is a great statement of the security of believer. It is clearly taught in the NT that believers are chosen by God. We should enjoy that privilege, rather than arguing about the theology of election. The Bible does not teach that unbelievers are not chosen, but that they need to repent and believe the good news.

This passage is the last time the three and a half year time period is mentioned, when we are told that the beast exercises authority for forty-two months. This is the same length of time that the nations trampled over the holy city (11:2), the two witnesses prophesied (11:3), and that the woman was nourished in the wilderness (12:6,14). Many people suggest this is describing a literal three and a half year period during a great tribulation in the future. However, this would suggest that this section of the book had no particular relevance to John’s readers in the first century, or to any believers since then, until the times of the end. We would then be left with the question of why did Jesus tell John to write all this down and send it to the seven churches? Instead, we should take into account the apocalyptic style of writing in the Book of Revelation, in which numbers have meanings rather than being exact statistical values. Three and a half years was the time of the drought in the time of Elijah (James 5:17), and the persecutions by Antiochus IV Epiphanes when the regular offering was stopped (Dan 8:14). So three and a half years represent times of trouble, which last through the whole period between the first and second comings of Jesus. As noted in the introduction, Jews often thought of the whole of span of history as seven years, divided into two parts of three and a half years by the coming of the Messiah. So the church, represented by the two witnesses, preaches the Gospel, but also suffers persecution from the beast for the whole period from the first century until the second coming. This has been the experience of the church through history.

This description of the beast finishes with a call to the saints to endurance and faith. Because the beast was allowed to exercise authority, believers need to accept the fact that they may be persecuted or martyred. They are called to remain loyal to Jesus, and not to fall to the temptation to worship the beast. There is also a warning to the persecutors, that they will in turn come under judgement.

Conclusion - to identify the first beast

As suggested earlier, the dragon and the two beasts are all spiritual beings, which form the evil trinity, named together when the three foul demonic spirits like frogs come their mouths (16:13). The dragon is clearly a spiritual being - the devil and Satan. To be consistent, I would suggest that the beasts are also spiritual beings, but are manifested through human beings. The main characteristics of the first beast are that it rules by the power of the dragon, it demands that people worship it, and persecutes those who refuse, especially the Christians. For John and his readers, this demand for worship was coming through the Roman government. So in the first century the beast was being manifested through the Roman emperor and government. John is being given the revelation that Satan has given his authority to the Roman empire, and he is behind this attempt to destroy the church. So to worship the Roman emperor is actually to worship the dragon.

For all time, the beast is manifested through any secular government that demands that its subjects worship it or give it unquestioning obedience, and persecutes the church. This has happened many times through history, in all centuries. Examples in the twentieth century would include the Soviet Union and other communist governments, as well as Nazi Germany. Both were totalitarian governments inspired by the dragon Satan, which demanded exclusive allegiance and worship, and persecuted the church.

One day the last manifestation of the beast will come. Whether or not it will be worse than all of the others, time will tell. Each manifestation of the beast will seem like the worst for those living through that time. The only way we will know it is the last will be afterwards, when Jesus has returned. It is a mistake to say that any particular evil government is the beast or the antichrist. Many such claims have been made through history, and so far all have been wrong, and only serve to confuse or even deceive people. One danger of only expecting one final antichrist is that is removes any meaning of this passage to John’s readers, as well as to the thousands of believers who have suffered persecution through the centuries. We should notice also that the word 'antichrist' does not appear at all in the description here. To identify the beast as the antichrist is an interpretation, not an observation from the text. The NT does speak about antichrists, but only in the context of false teaching (1 Jn 4:3, 2 Jn 7), referring to those who deny that Jesus came in the flesh.

So to summarise, for John and his first readers in Asia, the beast was currently being manifested through the Emperor and his Roman government, which was demanding worship and persecuting the church. However for all time, the beast is manifested through any political system that demands unquestioning allegiance and persecutes the church.

Sign 3 (13:11-18): The beast from the earth (the false prophet)

The second beast is also called the false prophet (19:20). This beast rises out of the earth, perhaps because it represents a power local to Asia. It had two horns like a lamb, but spoke like a dragon. Outwardly this beast looks attractive, even harmless, trying to imitate Jesus as a false lamb, but its true nature is devilish. It represents a lie of Satan dressed like the truth, just as Paul said that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, and his ministers disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness (2 Cor 11:14-15). Jesus also warned of false prophets coming in sheep’s clothing, but who are inwardly ravenous wolves (Mt 7:15).

This second beast exercises the authority of the first beast, forcing the earth and its inhabitants (the unbelievers) to worship the first beast. It does not demand that people worship itself, but points their worship towards the first beast. Essentially it is an evil version of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit encourages people to worship Jesus and glorifies Jesus (Jn 16:14), so this beast forces people to worship the first beast. It also performs miracles, as a parody of the work of the Holy Spirit, through which it deceives people, and forces them to worship the beast.

This beast is a religious figure, able to perform miraculous signs, including bringing fire down from heaven. Through these signs he deceives the unbelievers, the inhabitants of the earth. These signs should not deceive the saints, as we should have the ability to discern the source of the signs. Followers of other religions and people involved in the occult are able to perform signs, as seen in the Book of Acts (Acts 8:9, 13:6, 16:16). The Israelites were warned to ignore false prophets who promised signs and portents (Deut 13:1). We should always seek to determine whether a miraculous sign comes from God, or whether it has an evil source. The unbelievers made an image of the beast which had supernatural powers, including speech. Anyone who refused to worship the image of the beast is killed. In the early centuries there were a number of claims that people could make statues speak. Simon the Magician, who Peter rebuked (Acts 8:9), later claimed to make statues move (Clementine Recognitions 3:47).

The effect is to divide humanity into two distinct groups - one who would worship the beast, and one who would refuse. Those who worship the beast receive its mark, without which they cannot buy or sell. The mark of the beast is mentioned a total of six times through the book (13:15-17, 14:9, 11, 15:2, 19:20, 20:4). Remember that in apocalyptic writing the number six had a negative or evil connotation. In all six of these places it is connected with worshipping the beast. There is great debate over whether or not the mark is a physical mark. There is tendency today to focus on the physical mark, the buying and selling, and the number 666, but unfortunately to ignore the most important thing - the worship. There is a complete connection between the mark of the beast and worshipping the beast, you cannot have one without the other.

In the OT, the Passover was described as a sign on their hand and a memorial between their eyes (Ex 13:9). The Passover was certainly not a physical mark on the body, especially as tattoos on the body were forbidden (Lev 19:28), probably because of their connection with pagan religion. Because of the connection with worship, it is better to think of the mark of the beast as the counterpart of being sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13), which is certainly not a physical seal. A seal is a sign of ownership or the guarantee of a quality product. So the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers is God’s mark of ownership. This is yet another distinction between the saints and the unbelievers: the saints are sealed with the Holy Spirit, contrasted with the unbelievers being marked with the mark of the beast because they worship the beast, and are effectively owned by the beast.

John gives the definition of the mark of the beast as the name of the beast and the number of its name (v17). There is a call to wisdom (also found in 17:9), calling the readers to think about this and to calculate the number of the beast, perhaps because John was being deliberately cryptic. Many ancient languages, including Latin, did not have separate characters to represent numbers, so letters were used instead. People would use this numerology to make cryptic messages. In the ruins of Pompeii there is some graffiti saying, “I love her whose number is 545". One interesting observation is that the Roman numerals (omitting M for a thousand) add up to 666. D (500) + C (100) + L (50) + X (10) + V (5) + I (1) = 666. Many have suggested that John may be referring to Nero the first persecutor of the church, as his name 'Nero Caesar' adds up to 666 in Greek. However a precise identification is very difficult to make. When writing about a hundred years later, Irenaeus, the church father, said that the meaning of 666 was unknown, but said it could refer to the Roman empire.

There have be innumerable attempts through the centuries to identify the beast from the number 666. These include many of the popes by the Protestants, and Martin Luther by the Catholics. During the American wars of independence, some Americans called King George III of England the antichrist, after someone calculated that in Greek and Hebrew the numerical equivalent of the letters in the words, 'Royal Supremacy in Great Britain' equalled 666. There were a number of suggestions in the twentieth century including Adolf Hitler, as well as the American presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Hardly a year passes without the suggestion of some current political figure being the beast because his name adds up to 666. The passing of time has proved most of these to be wrong, so it is inadvisable to attempt to do this, because it causes many to be deceived.

Conclusion - to identify the second beast

In summary, for John and his first readers, the second beast, the false prophet, was a spiritual power which was manifested through the priests of the emperor worship cult in Asia. These were a group called the 'Concilia' who were chosen from the Asiarchs, the civil and religious leaders of first century Asia. One of their duties was to enforce emperor worship. For all time, this beast is manifested through any anti-Christian religion or ideology, which forces people to obey and worship a particular political power or leader. Through history we can see that political power is often supported by an ideology or religion. Communism and Nazism are powerful examples of the dreadful consequences of mixing these two. Both demanded worship, idolised their leaders, deceived multitudes of people, and persecuted the church.

In these last two chapters we are introduced to three great enemies of the church - the trinity of evil spiritual powers, consisting of the dragon and the two beasts. The dragon is the devil and Satan, the enemy. The first beast represents political power, especially anti-Christian government; and the second beast represents anti-Christian religion. These three work together to demand allegiance and worship from the ordinary people, and persecute the church or any others who do not follow them. Through all of history Christians have contended against this evil trinity. Sometimes the opposition and persecution from the government and religious system is particularly intense, all inspired by Satan. But the church continually faces the temptation to compromise with the world, rather than maintaining their faithful witness to Jesus.

Sign 4 (14:1-5): The Lamb and 144,000 on Mt. Zion

Directly following the vision of the two beasts John saw a vision of the Lamb and 144,000 on Mt. Zion, giving a great contrast between those who worshipped the beast and received its name or mark (13:15-17) and those who worship the Lamb and receive its seal, the name of God (14:1). The Lamb is seen on Mt. Zion, the mountain of God, the place where God made his dwelling in the OT. These are probably the same 144,000 seen earlier (7:4), representing the saints on earth, both Jew and Gentile. These have the name of the Lamb and of the Father on their foreheads because they belong to God, worship him alone, and follow the Lamb, in contrast to the followers of the beast seen in the last paragraph.

The 144,000 sing a new song in the presence of the living creatures and elders in heaven. In the OT, a new song was a song praising their Creator God for his wonderful deliverance from their enemies (eg. Ps 33, 40, 96, 98, 144, 149, Is 42:10). Here the saints are singing a song of praise to God the Father because he has delivered them from their enemies, the dragon and beasts. It is only the 144,000, the saints who are able to sing this song because they have been redeemed from the earth, bought by the blood of the Lamb.

There now follows a series of phrases defining who the 144,000 are: Firstly they are described as 'virgins', who have not defiled themselves with women. To take this literally would mean that they are all unmarried men who have never had sexual relations with a woman. However Revelation follows the themes of both the OT and the NT in describing the saints as the pure bride of Christ. In both testaments those who remain spiritually faithful to God are his bride, who abstain from spiritual adultery with idols. Judah was called God’s virgin daughter (Lam 1:15). Paul even referred to the saints in the immoral city of Corinth as a chaste virgin to Christ (2 Cor 11:2), even though many would have lived the most immoral lives before coming to Christ. Therefore it is better to think of them being spiritually virgins, who have not worshipped the dragon or his beast. Secondly, “they follow the Lamb wherever he goes”. This is a wonderful definition of Christian discipleship, to obey Christ, following him even to martyrdom, by denying self and taking up their cross (Mk 8:34). Thirdly, “they are redeemed from mankind as first-fruits”. In the OT the first-fruits of the harvest, as well as the first born sons, were dedicated to God (Ex 13:1 23:19). James describes the believers as the first-fruits of his creatures (James 1:18). Fourthly, “there is no lie in their mouths”. They resist the pressure to speak the lie that the emperor is god, and worship only Jesus. Finally they are blameless, because their sins have been forgiven and have been declared not-guilty by Jesus.

Sign 5 (14:6-13): Messages from three angels

The fifth of the signs consists of messages from three angels that John sees flying in mid- heaven. These three angels warn unredeemed mankind that judgement is coming, calling them to repent before it is too late.

The first of the three angels has the eternal Gospel to proclaim to the unbelievers (14:6-7). They are described here in two familiar ways. First, they are those who live on the earth, in contrast to the saints who live in heaven. Secondly, they are in every nation, tribe and people. We saw earlier that the saints are redeemed out of every nation, tribe and people (7:9). The Gospel is summarised as calling the unbelievers to fear God and give him glory, because soon it will be too late. Instead of worshipping the beast, they are called to worship God, who is the Creator of everything: heaven and earth, the seas and waters.

The second angel proclaims that Babylon the great has fallen (14:8). Babylon, the great city, will not be introduced to us until chapter 17. So its fall and destruction is announced before it is introduced! One of the most characteristic descriptions of Babylon is that it seduces the nations with the wine of its fornication. In chapter 17 we will see that Babylon is alluring and seductive, and lures the nations into idolatry.

The third angel announces that those who worship the beast and receive its mark will drink the wine of God’s wrath (14:9-11). Twice in this paragraph the mark of the beast is linked with worshipping the beast. There are several allusions to judgement passages in the OT, especially drinking the wine of God’s wrath (from Ps 75:8, Is 51:17,22, and Jer 25:15), as well as the fire and sulphur (Gen 19:24, Ps 11:6, Ezek 38:22). Those who reject the Gospel and continue to worship the dragon will face eternal torment in the lake of fire, together with the dragon and the beasts (20:10,15).

The sign concludes with a call to endurance to the saints (14:12), and the second of the seven blessings (14:13). The saints are defined here as, “those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith”. They are those who follow the eternal Gospel, who love and obey Jesus the Lamb, and who show their endurance by refusing to worship the beast. This is the last of seven times that the endurance of the saints is mentioned (1:9, 2:2,3,19, 3:10, 13:10, 14:12). Once we come to the seven bowls, which represent the final judgement, no more endurance from the saints will be needed. The blessing is to those who die in the Lord, because endurance may lead to martyrdom. The martyrs are promised a place of rest in the presence of the Lord, where they will be rewarded for their faithful service to Jesus because their deeds follow them.

Sign 6 (14:14-20): Harvest of redeemed and of wicked

The sixth of the signs portrays two scenes of harvest, first of the righteous (v14-16), then of the wicked (v17-20). The description parallels the parables of the wheat and the tares (Mt 13:24), and of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25:31-46), as well as other teaching Jesus gave describing the separation of the righteous from the wicked at the final judgement. The reaping of the righteous from the earth is pictured as a grain harvest. Jesus receives the word of command from the temple, the presence of God, to start the reaping of the harvest of the earth. The hour to reap has come, because the harvest is fully ripe. The church has grown to its fullness, so the complete number of saints are ready to be reaped. Only God the Father knows the time of the final harvest, even the Son does not know (Mk 13:32), so we certainly do not know either, and must resist the temptation to speculate about the timing.

At the same time, the clusters of grapes are fully ripe, and it is time for the judgement of the wicked, because wickedness has come to its fullest. The harvest of the wicked is pictured as a grape harvest, but the grapes are gathered to be trodden in the wine press of the wrath of God. The image of treading the wine press was used by the prophets to portray the wrath of God (Is 63:3, Lam 1:15). Later we will see that Jesus himself treads the winepress of wrath (19:15). The angel also brings the word of command from the temple, from God himself. The reaping angel came from the altar, where the martyrs are waiting, asking how long it will be before God avenges their blood on the unbelievers? (6:9) Their question is finally answered here. John uses hyperbolic language to describe the blood flowing. Blood flowing as high as horse’s bridle was an expression used in Roman times to describe great bloodshed. The two hundred miles is 1600 stadia or furlongs. This could be a large number to represent complete judgement of the wicked, as it is four times four (the number for the earth), times a thousand (a number for human completeness).

Preview (15:1): Seven angels with seven plagues to end the wrath of God

Between the sixth and seventh signs there is a brief preview of the next section. John sees an amazing portent in heaven of seven angels with seven plagues. These are described individually in the next section of the seven bowls (15:5 - 16:21). With these seven plagues the wrath of God is ended. This is because they represent the final judgement, after which there is no more wrath.

Sign 7 (15:2-4): Sea of glass and those who have conquered

In the seventh sign John saw the sea of glass. This is the same as he saw before the presence of God in the vision of the throne-room (4:6). Standing beside the sea of glass were those who conquered the beast. These are the saints, who have conquered the beast by maintaining their faithful witness to Jesus, and who have refused to worship the beast and receive its mark. They are now standing in the presence of God himself.

They sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb. This alludes to the song sung by Moses following the great victory over Egypt achieved by the crossing of the Red Sea, in which they praise God for the great deliverance he gave them over their enemies (Ex 15). Moses was the leader of the old covenant, and the Lamb is the leader of the new covenant, so this song brings both together. In this song they praise God for his great deeds in defeating the dragon and the beasts. The judgement is past, they “have been revealed” (past tense), so this is the victory song following the final judgement. Now all fear and glorify God, and come from all nations to worship Him.

Conclusion to the seven signs

This concludes the section of the seven signs, which reveals the spiritual battle which is taking place in the current time, whether for John or for ourselves. During this age, the dragon and his beasts are attacking the church, and trying to destroy it. Through the centuries the beast is manifested through political leaders combining with a religious system to demand worship and who persecute those who refuse. The saints are called to maintain patient endurance until the time of the final judgement. The death of Jesus on the cross defeated the dragon, therefore those who follow him can be confident that whatever happens to them in this life, they will be with him forever in glory in the presence of God the Father.

Also available:

Introduction Four main views of Revelation
1: Prologue (1:1-8) 2: Letters to seven churches (1:9 - 3:22)
3: Seven Seals (4:1 - 8:1) 4: Seven trumpets (8:2 - 11:18)
5: Seven signs (11:19 - 15:4) 6: Seven Bowls (15:5 - 16:21)
7: Prostitute / Babylon (17:1 - 19:10) 8: Seven judgements (19:11 - 21:8)
9: Bride / Jerusalem (21:9 - 22:9) 10: Epilogue (22:10-21)
Millennium Rapture and tribulation
Jesus the Lamb