10. God’s Political Cartoon
The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”
The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.
Whoever has ears, let them hear.
“If anyone is to go into captivity,
into captivity they will go.
If anyone is to be killed with the sword,
with the sword they will be killed.”
This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.
Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.
Ever had a bizarre dream that you just couldn’t shake? I had precisely one of those kinds of dreams in late 2016 when I preached through Revelation for the first time.
In my vision at night, I saw a great beast with white tusks and a grey trunk… a beast like an elephant. Except this beast was standing like a man. Stars girded its waist; Its front feet readied for battle.
Then I looked and saw another great beast with terrible hooves and long ears brown ears. Almost like a donkey. It too stood like a man… like a gladiator ready for battle. Its waist was painted with white and crimson stripes.
These two terrible beasts approached each other, their faces touching, their eyes fixed on each other, their ferocity terrible. They bore bruises and wore wounds from their endless conflict. But—and this calls for wisdom—somehow I knew they were readying themselves for another brutal brawl.
When I woke from my dream, I sketched out what I saw so that I could remember the details. I include the sketch below so that you too, dear reader, can see the strange:
Alright, you caught me.
I didn’t draw this picture, and
I didn’t dream that dream.
The impact of this cartoon on the world in late 2016 remains certifiable. Most of us know what this particular kind of cartoons called:
A political cartoon.
Sometimes we see these online or in a magazine or newspaper.
Stop and see the strangeness of the image: the intensity, the beasts, the symbolic clothing, the lack of an explanation. This “vision” would be really hard to understand if you didn’t know much about the social, cultural, and political landscape of the United States.
But precisely because most of us DO know about our wider culture, we automatically understand this strange vision. Most adults in America are familiar with the Republican and Democratic parties. Most of us know that these two political parties are often collectively represented as an elephant and a donkey. Most of us recognize that stars and stripes are symbolic, patriotic emblems of the United States. And we resonate with the intensity of a boxing match as an appropriate analogy for an election.
It’s a way of capturing in an image
realities that have nothing to do
with literal pachyderms and actual donkeys.
This cartoon has everything to do
with literal political powers and actual difficult decisions.
This is a cartoon. And it’s quite serious business.
I think this is the kind of thing
God gives us in Revelation 13.
Let’s remember where we are. John shifted his storytelling in chapter 12. Through the first 11 chapters of Revelation, the story remained fairly consistent in tone and style. It may have been a strange movie, but at least all of the movie felt like a similar kind of strange.
But as we saw last chapter, Revelation shifts into something like mythic animation in Revelation 12. John paints something like a cartoon for his churches: a dazzling Woman, a terrifying Dragon (with seven heads and ten horns1), a Child whose very existence seems to defeat all darkness.
He paints with loud, primary colors.
He animates with grand, exaggerated characters.
John saying something like:
“There’s this guy—this real, literal guy—Jesus—whose very coming into the world has defeated the deepest powers of darkness. If you want to know what kind of world our world is, I’ll tell you: our world is a fairytale where evil and darkness and dragons DO exist—AND where all of it has been defeated.”
We saw that Revelation 12 ends with something like a Roadrunner cartoon. The forces of evil keep chasing God’s people—the Dragon keeps chasing the Woman—opening Acme boxes of tricks to kill or capture her—but the Woman always gets away.
The people of God are safe
in some kind of ultimate sense.
And then chapter 12 ends with a frustrated and furious Dragon storming off to make war on the Woman’s offspring:
(12.17) …the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.
It’s like John is saying the people of God are safe in an ultimate sense, but individual churches and individual Christians are still living through incredibly rough stuff. Evil has been defeated, but it still lashes about dangerously with its dying breaths.
That’s where chapter 13 begins.
John has shifted into animation and described the security and peril of following Jesus in the first century (and any century!) with stylized animation. Keep this in mind, because Revelation 13 is where things start to seem like a political cartoon.
Let’s start with an uncontroversial statement: Revelation 13 is one of the most controversial chapters in the entire Bible.
It’s doozy of a chapter. It begins with the Dragon calling forth its own offspring in grotesque imitation of the Woman and her child. Monstrous offspring. Spawn of Satan… quiet literally.
The Dragon calls forth Two Beasts to wage war against God’s people.
One from the sea (13v1),
one from the land (13v11).
It’s like he’s unleashing the legendary anti-creation chaos-monsters of Leviathan and Behemoth.2 At a most basic level, that’s what Revelation 13 is about. The Dragon calls forth two monsters war against God’s people. That’s how he goes about waging war against the Woman’s offspring (12v17).
Dragon and monsters. Sea and land.
Horns and crowns. The number 666.
What does it all mean? Well, that’s anyone’s guess.
This chapter is controversial. Understatement alert. This chapter is a candidate for the “Most Controversial Chapter in the Bible” award.
There’s a long tradition of people understanding it as cryptic codes about people and events at history’s twilight, just before the end of the world. It’s fertile soil for conspiracy theories and controversies. Many have heard the descriptions of these two monsters that rule (v1-10) and deceive (v11-17) and watched vigilantly for a one-world government led by two literal people—the Antichrist and the False Prophet.
Practically everybody everywhere has heard about the infamous number at the end of the chapter (v18). Careful, creative analysis of this number (six hundred sixty-six) has definitively revealed any amazing number of people to be The Antichrist. People from all over the world and people you would never suspect: countless popes and Martin Luther, JFK and Adolf Hitler, Barack Obama and Ronald Wilson Reagan.3If you manage to get famous enough in your life, perhaps you’ll discover that on someone’s YouTube channel you’re the Antichrist too.
Here’s the point—Christians throughout the centuries have read the exact same chapter and then speculated about wildly different things.
There’s a thrilling history of making this chapter about people or places or events that it’s simply not about. Revelation 13 has become a sad Rorschach test: “Stare at this blob of ink and tell us who the Antichrist is.” But who we see (and who we accuse) reveals more about ourselves than anything on the page.
If the best scholars, saints, and Bible-readers throughout the centuries have fallen victim to Revelation’s Rorschach, what hope can there be for us in interpreting it? I promise you—I don’t have any secret insight into this chapter. How can we hope to make any sense of it?
Perhaps our best hope for beginning to understand this chapter lies in remembering that Revelation originally arrived in the mailbox. This is all ancient mail—including Revelation 13. What we said in an earlier chapter needs to be reemphasized especially as we think about dragons and monsters:
Whatever Revelation is, it’s something that these seven churches would have (mostly!) understood. Jesus didn’t send a coded puzzle originally meant for comfortable Christians in the twenty-first century. Jesus sent a stylized letter originally meant for struggling Christians in the first century. If we can’t imagine the original hearers of Revelation understanding our interpretation of this letter, then our interpretation probably needs to be rethought.
Someone from a different time or culture might be confused by a drawing of a boxing match between an elephant and a donkey. But a native of twenty-first century Washington or New York or Chicago could probably help them make sense of it. In similar fashion, perhaps we should ask a native of first century in Sardis or Laodicea or Ephesus how they would understand this part of John’s letter?
Rooting Revelation 13 in its original hearers’ context seems to be our best hope of beginning to understand this strange cartoon rather than projecting our fears on it like an inkblot.
It’s essential that everything we explore be held humbly with open hands. No amount of scholarly research can nail down everything about the world of John’s churches or what this letter originally meant to them. And space only allows us a brief beginning in a particular direction.
But this brief beginning will hopefully open an invitation to us—an invitation less concerned with information about the world’s super villain and more concerned with dedication to the world’s hero. I suspect this is near the heart of how the native churches of Asia Minor heard this letter.
The next few pages will try to give a crash course on the history, politics, and culture of the first-century world that can help us make sense of this “cartoon.” And as we crash-course, I’ll use bold italicize words to try to help make potential connections to the language of John’s vision.
Quick history lesson.
What kind of world does John on the island of Patmos writing to seven churches in present-day Turkey—what kind of world do they all live in?
The short answer is John and his churches live in a world dominated by the Roman Empire. If you’ve ever cracked a history book or watched a documentary on Netflix, you’ve probably heard it. There’s a good reason why so much is made of Roman history: the Roman Empire and their Caesars made much of history.
Rome ruled the known world for century after century. In its early centuries Rome grew as a democratic republic, but by the first-century it has evolved into a dictatorship led by a king called Caesar. For the average peasant in Jerusalem or Asia Minor, this foreign force billowed in from the western horizon and rained down its rule on every corner of their land.
Imagine yourself standing on the shore, your toes in the sand, and watching the horizon. Suddenly a ship breaches the blur of sky and sea. You see ships, Roman battleships, rising like a monster to come to conquer your land. This Superpower is a Supermonster—that’s the way it felt. And that’s exactly the way the incredibly popular scroll of Daniel had described world empires—they’re nightmarish beasts.4
The great city on seven hills,5 the city of Rome, ruled the world like a dreadful lion ruling the savannah. By sheer, fearful force. Don’t mess with that animal. It’ll kill you. Those seven hills have seven heads… it will eat you, your family, your village, and never break a sweat.6
Since shifting into a dictatorship, Rome had experienced a relatively stable succession of kings. King after king, caesar after caesar, horn after horn (as Daniel would have called them7) had come and gone in relative peace:
From Octavian (called “great king” or “Augustus Caesar”) who had stabilized the empire after his uncle Julius Caesar’s assassination, to Tiberius who had ruled when Jesus was crucified, right down through Caligula and Claudius. But in the late first century things started going south.
By John’s day the line of Caesars seemed on the verge of falling apart. There had recently been a certifiably crazy king named Nero who had been a disaster for the Empire and who committed suicide in 68 CE. His catastrophic reign and catastrophic death left the Roman world in chaos.
All kinds of people wanted the throne. The problem with sitting down on the throne as dictator is all the people who still want your seat. Over the course of 18 months, there was a lot of blood and a lot of corpses—four of them caesars.
Think about that.
From the perspective of everyday citizens, it probably felt like this bear of a government had suffered a death blow—a mortal wound. But the world stabilized again when someone took the throne and managed to not die. It happened to be a guy named Vespasian. Suddenly, the king of jungle is back—fully recovered, stronger than ever.
Rome seemed stronger than ever especially to Jews and Christians. Within months of Vespasian taking power, Jerusalem and its Temple were been completely destroyed. Vespasian sent his trusted general Titus (an eventual caesar himself) to squash a rebellion that that had been boiling for a handful years.
Suddenly Jerusalem, the great city of David, lay in ruins. The Jewish people’s second Temple, the place where Jesus visited and taught and drove out money-changers, the promised dwelling of the God of Israel, was literally gone. In pieces. Torn apart. Ashes. Smoldering. Gone.
If you lived at the time, you would look at Rome, with its technology and power and long history, and say: “Who is like Rome? Who can wage war against it?”
Vespasian was deathly serious to ensure that Rome continued to be a great and powerful empire. His slogan might have been “Make Rome Great Again.” Seriously—he wanted to tap into Roman patriotism and bring back the magic of years gone by.
Regardless of what decade of the late first-century John wrote this letter, it had only been recently that Vespasian reviving and spending what was called “The Imperial Cult.” Think of it as a devout religious patriotism in which everyone must participate. The official, required religion of the entire empire mandated the worship of the Caesars as gods on earth.
Other Caesars had been worshipped as a god. Google can show you coins calling Caesar Nero “a Son of God.” Inscriptions in stone still survive in Ephesus hailing Caesar Augustus “the Savior of the world.” There had been who had been called gods before him. Vespasian was simply bringing back a tradition and establishing it as state policy.
Just making Rome great again.
From an early Christian perspective, however, it didn’t matter how many kings—how many heads of state—called themselves a god…they were just claiming blasphemous names for themselves by defying the one true God. And so the earliest Christians refused to bend their knee in religious patriotism and found themselves persecuted.
But not usually by Rome itself.
To this day—even with modern travel and technology—the federal government usually doesn’t do much law enforcement. Law enforcement tends to be local. If officials in Washington D.C. or London or wherever want something to last, it’s got to go local. Lasting changes are like plants. Culture, beliefs, and policy enforcement have to take root locally if they’re going to stick around. And it was the same in the first century. The Roman culture, beliefs, and policy enforcement needed to start growing out of the local soil. Because once something starts growing locally and startsrising up out of the earth, it becomes nearly impossible hard to stop.
And that’s exactly what is happening by the time John is writing. The locals of Pergamum had fully embraced the worship Caesar as a god.8
Often without mandate or command, local cities would throw festivals to rival the Super Bowl in honor of the Emperor.
Wealthy locals would set up statues honoring Caesar, sometimes even hiring the IT experts of the day to engineer the statues so they would “magically” move.9 (“Look at the power of the gods! What a miracle!”)
Much of the meat you buy in the marketplace had been religiously dedicated to the Emperor as a sacrifice before it ever hit the counter. That’s assuming you could get into the marketplace. Many local officials had begun requiring people to make a small sacrifice to the emperor before they could even get into the marketplace. (“Loyal to the Emperor? Make your sacrifice. OK, here’s your stamp.”)
That’s the world in which John lived. A world ruled by Rome. And a world where everyday locals were giving life to—giving breath to—putting into practice—the convictions of Rome.10
This is the world of John’s churches. They too could buy into Rome, sacrifice to the Emperor, concede to culture, fly under the radar. But they’d be losing all of their integrity—selling their soul for the sake of convenience.
That’s the short history lesson. We need to remember that Revelation 13 is ancient in this kind of world. It doesn’t answer every question we might have about it, but it helps us move past conspiracy theories to recognize the seriousness of the Enemy already at work in the world. The Dragon is waging war already… not merely preparing for the end of days.
I think Revelation 13 might be God’s political cartoon.
It’s not a silly cartoon; it’s serious business.
There’s a challenge here for all of us.
It’s a more challenge
to be dedicated to the world’s king
than to decrypt the world’s supervillain
Perhaps it’s the challenge to trust, celebrate, and embody the life of Jesus in the world… even when life ignites as hellish war. Maybe it’s the challenge to embrace Life and resist Death in all its monstrous shapes.
I think the challenge consists in discerning and resist WHAT is anti-Christ more than finally cracking the code of WHO is “the Antichrist.”11
I think that’s John challenge with 666.
Despite its wild reputation, this infamous number isn’t an impenetrable mystery. In fact, John tells his original readers to figure out this number (v18). The original readers of Revelation didn’t know about Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama or any medieval pope. But they DID know a recently dead, certifiably crazy king named Nero. And it turns out… if you 1) spell Caesar Nero’s name in Hebrew12 and then 2) add up the numeric values of those letters… what do you think you get?
“Six hundred sixty-six”
is a cryptogram
for “Caesar Nero.”
The puzzle solves just as easily today as it did for John’s original readers. But there’s a reason why John creates a simple puzzle and doesn’t just name drop. We’re being warned about something bigger than just one person. This is another instance in Revelation where something is made strange with the hopes that we’ll see more clearly.
We’re being challenged
to recognize a pattern
more than a person.
“This calls for wisdom,” writes John (v18).
And it’s not only a challenge for John’s generation.
And it’s not only a challenge for history’s last generation.
This invitation to wisdom is a challenge for EVERY generation.
We’re being called to wisdom, to “figure out the number.” And I don’t think he’s merely inviting people to solve a silly number puzzle. He’s inviting them to be on the lookout for a particular pattern…
Triple 6 is not just a cryptogram for “Caesar Nero,” it’s also a repeated, patterned falling short of seven. We’ve seen that John uses seven as a number of fullness and completeness and perfection. And so 666 falls short of that in triplicate.
Figure out—calculate—what falls short of perfection. And have nothing to do that. Because if you embrace it (13v8) you’re embracing something that is Death—that has nothing to do with Life or its “book.” I think more than wanting us to ask “WHO is the Antichrist?” Jesus wants his church (of all people!) to discern “WHAT is anti-Christ?”
What is anti-Jesus? Anti-Lamb? Anti-giving-to-others?
Anti-sacrificial-love? What is anti-Christ?
What are ways we unquestioningly follow culture in worshiping the monstrous? Who are the leaders promising us security if we’ll give them an ultimate allegiance? Where are the systems of violence or nationalism or commerce or technology or religion that promise us salvation at the price of our integrity?
One of the primary war strategies of the Enemy involves counterfeiting life. The Enemy devastates the word by looking like the Lamb but speaking as Dragon (13v11). He lure us into things that look like Life but whose substance is death.
It might be the imperial cult of the first century—yes, I’m pretty sure John was warning against that. But following the Lamb calls for wisdom. The Dragon is still waging war. Still trampling down through dehumanizing systems. Still tempting us with counterfeit life.
Sometimes people worry that a credit card or the latest technology might be the mark of the beast. But I think a better question might be about the large patterns of our lives and our world. When we buy into a system that tells us that more money will bring more security, that more debt is worth some quick pleasure, that more income should be used for us, when that’s the pattern, maybe we actually SHOULD examine our credit cards. We’re entertaining the lies of the beast.
People sometimes worry that the United Nations or the latest political leader might be The Antichrist. But despite the impression we may get from the news or social media, our ultimate security does NOT hinge on politics or policies. That’s a lie from the Dragon.
If we consider a particular policy or political party to be our only hope, if we hate people because they’re voting for the “wrong person,” if we believe that the world’s hope come by conquering with violence rather than serving with love, then I suspect the Dragon may be deceiving us.
None of that sound like the way of the Crucified… like the way of Christ.
It sounds a bit anti-Christ.
It sounds like “a six.”
Like it’s less than alive.
Like it falls short of perfection.
Jesus—who has already pledged his allegiance to us—is asking for ours. He’s calling us to be loyal to Life itself. His call is endlessly creative and even takes the shape of something like a political cartoon.
That’s the way I can make sense of the mysterious, controversial, confusing Revelation 13 and hold it with open hands.
It’s like Jesus is saying: “Use your minds, my people… Think the details of your life through carefully. There are many things—from far over the sea and even growing locally—that don’t line up with my Life. And I don’t want you, my beloved, to miss it.”
And the Church—let’s start with us, of all places—
is challenged to KNOW the Enemy’s number—to HAVE his number—and refuse to buy what he’s selling.
So, Lord Jesus, may you grant us patient endurance and faithfulness even as evil lashes about in the world. May we have wisdom to recognize every monster unleashed by the Dragon and resist their seduction and violence. May we have ears to hear your Spirit calling us into the true and lasting life that no mind can imagine, that no Enemy can counterfeit, and that all are always invited to join.
- There’s a “family resemblance” between the Dragon (12.3) and the Sea-Beast (13.1).
- Eugene Peterson (Reversed Thunder, 122-123) points out that these beasts would have resonated with the corporate mythological imagination of the ancient Jewish worldview (Leviathan = Job 40.15 – 41.26; Ps 74.13-23, 104.26; Isa 27.1, Amos 3.4; Behemoth = Job 40.15-24; 1 Enoch 60.7-8).
- There are six letters in Reagan’s first, middle, and last names. It didn’t the President’s detractors that after his retirement, he moved into a house located at 666 St. Cloud Road. His wife, Nancy, eventually had the address changed. Weird, huh?
- The importance of Daniel 7.1-14 in Revelation cannot be overemphasized. Daniel’s dream is as strange and puzzling as some of our own dreams. Daniel 7 involves a succession of beastly, sub-human kingdoms finally being replaced by the kingdom of “one like a son of man.” The world is full of vicious rulers and kingdoms that are less-than-human, that are like animals and beasts. But they will one day be replaced by God’s kingdom—a reign that will reveal what true humanity is all about.
- John shows his hand a bit in 17.8-9 where he explicitly connects the seven heads of the beast to the seven hills of Rome.
- For example, Judas of Galilee led a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in 6CE and attacked the regional capital of Sepphoris. His rebellion was crushed and more than 2,000 people outside that city. This incident happened 4 miles north of Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth when he was boy.
- Daniel explicitly clarifies his image of horns (cf. Dan 7.7-8,11,20) as symbolizing kings (7.24).
- John comments in his letter to Pergamum that it is “where Satan has his throne” (2.13). This is likely in reference to the fact that Pergamum was “the official cult center of emperor worship in Asia” (Mounce, NICNT, 79).
- “Belief in statues that spoke and performed miracles is widely attest in ancient literature… Ventriloquism was practiced by the priests of Oriental cults, and sorcery had found a place in the official circles of Rome” (Mounce, 258). So too Wright, 120: “There were several tricks commonly employed to enable the statues of various gods to move about, to breathe, to weep and even speak. Sophisticated pagan writers of the time mention many such devices, pouring scorn on their trickery.”
- “‘It was given to him to give breath’ is a metaphorical way of affirming that the second beast was persuasive in demonstrating that the image of the first beat (e.g., of Caesar) represented the true deity, who stands behind the image and makes decrees” (G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGCNT, 711).
- The word “antichrist” never appears in the book of Revelation. The word is used five times in the New Testament (1Jn 2.18 (2x), 22; 4.3; 2Jn 7). All five of these references refer to a category that people or spirits/attitudes can fall into.
- Hebrew letters had numeric values attached to letters in a similar way to Roman numerals. We could spell the word “mix” in Romans numerals like this: MIX. Tricky, huh? And then if you convert the letters to numeric values (M = 1,000, I = 1, X = 10), you could add up the values to 1,011 and share that number with all your puzzle-solving friends. That’s as clear as I can make a cryptogram.