by Daniel Harrell
As odd as it sounds, dragons and multi-headed incarnations of evil are appropriate for the holiday season. Christmas can be a beast. Advent is the season of the church year traditionally devoted to apocalypse in the Bible. This morning’s passage is also devoted to math, which for me has always meant the end of the world. Nobody likes being reduced to a number, though numbers represent important aspects of reality. Take the number pi, for instance, one of the single most important numbers in history. Or Google—a 1 followed by 100 zeros—where would we be without it? There’s 186,000 miles per second (speed of light and the limits of space and time), 98.7 degrees Fahrenheit (a healthy temperature), 365 (days in a year), 24/7 (hours and days), 10, a perfect score and the basis of metric, and for those who came of age in the 80s, 867-5309 the Tommy Tutone one-hit wonder. Even zero is an important number; it serves as the cornerstone for modern mathematics. Known to be an “absorbing’ element,” you can multiply anything and everything by it and still end up with nothing.
Even people who know nothing about the book of Revelation know about the famous number that shows up in Revelation 13 (13 being an ominous number all its own). We read, “let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.” In ancient times, letters of the alphabet each were assigned a numeric value (think Roman numerals). Deciphering a number from a name was easy. Deciphering a name from a number was harder. This explains why 2000 years later we’re still guessing.
Most scholars believe that John, Revelation’s writer, was referring to the ruthless Roman emperor Nero. The only problem is that for Nero Caesar to add up to 666 requires a Hebrew transliteration of the Greek form of a Latin name—and that with a defective spelling. The normal spelling of Nero produces the number 616, the area code for Grand Rapids, MI. Bad news for Calvin College and numerous Christian publishing houses. Mathematical finessing of the numeric 666 has produced other candidates. After Roman persecution of Christians ended, some early church fathers thought the beast to be an apostate Jew from the tribe of Dan, since Dan is missing from the tribal list in Revelation 7. The later Middle Ages turned their attention back to Rome and to the corrupt occupants of the Papacy. By the Reformation, every occupant of the Vatican was suspect. On the other hand, Roman Catholics had their own name for the Antichrist: Martin Luther. Since then we’ve had Hitler, Stalin, Ayatollah Khomeini, Prince Charles, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama as candidates, as well as American Airlines, Microsoft and Facebook. Back in 2008 it was Wall Street. Steve sent in his own calculation: Three previous world empires—Babylon, Greece and Rome—are represented by the number 6. “VI” is the number 6 in the Roman numerals, “S” is the Sigma in the Greek alphabet whose value is 6, and A in the Babylonian culture is 6, revealing the source of so much desolation during Christmas. Janet offered the number 25.8069, which is the square root of 666. Turn to Paul’s epistles and this root of all evil is none other than the love of money, which in cahoots with VISA creates a whole world of misery. [off]
It turns out my first name has six letters. Slide just one letter from my last name over to my middle name and you get a sequential 666 (which may come as no surprise to some of you).
If 666 referred to a specific individual, we assume that John and his persecuted readers knew who. Therefore 666 may be not so much about deciphering an identity as about describing that identity. Throughout Revelation, the number 7 is the Lord’s own signature—signaling completion and goodness. Days, months, and years derive from the sun, moon and earth, but seven—unrelated to anything in nature other than creation itself—is all God’s doing. Revelation’s seventh seal and seventh trumpet and eventual seventh heralded God’s blessing and coming kingdom, the realm of the faithful. By contrast, the sixth seal and the sixth trumpet and sixth signaled judgment and doom, the destiny of evil.
Last Sunday’s sermon introduced us to the dragon, the very devil of hell and ancient enemy of humanity. He shows up to finish what he started back in the garden. Revelation 12 offered a twisted take on Christmas, where like the wicked King Herod, the dragon tries to devour the newborn king. But as with Herod at Christmas, God foiled the dragon. The newborn child was snatched up to heaven while the dragon got hurled down from heaven. Satan falls to earth eliciting cheers from above, though the news on the ground was not so good.“Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you filled with fury.” Though the devil does get hurled the rest of the way down into an eternal lake of fire by chapter 20, earth is his pit stop. The dragon attacks the faithful, those Christians “who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” For early persecuted and martyred believers, this explained everything. Though saved by the blood of the lamb, they suffered like sheep led to slaughter because they were not ashamed of the gospel.
Undeterred, the spiteful dragon recruits henchmen. This morning’s passage opens with the dragon looking out on the sea, the ancient abode of chaos and disorder. From its depths ascends another monster, a chip off the diabolical block. Note the family resemblance: both dragon and beast have seven heads and ten horns, complete and perfect numbers that emphasize complete and perfect wickedness. Old Testament readers will also recognize the resemblance to Daniel’s vision of four beasts, which here John rolls into one ferocious fiend. We read how one of the heads of the beast “seemed to have received a death-blow” now healed. A more literal translation has the beast looking “as if it had been slain,” the exact same expression used to describe Christ as the crucified Lamb back in chapter 5. Suddenly you recognize the beast from the sea as a demonic parody of Jesus, an intentional anti-Christ. Toss in the dragon who grants almighty power and authority to the beast, as well as the second beast-to-come who inspires hearts to worship the antichrist, and what you have is a complete anti-Trinity. 666.
The contrasts are obvious: Our Father who art in heaven sent Christ the lamb from heaven to suffer and die for others. Satan, kicked out of heaven, sends the beast to make others suffer. God grants power to the Lamb, who uses it only for good. The dragon grants his power to the beast, who wields it only for violence. The Lamb endures death for people from every tribe, language and nation. The beast inflicts death on people from every tribe, language and nation. The Lamb establishes a heavenly kingdom to bless God’s people. The Beast operates behind worldly kingdoms to oppress God’s people.
Like Daniel’s beasts that represented historic earthly regimes hostile to God, John likely views the beast as manifest in the Roman Empire which claimed religious sanction for its gross injustices. Caesar decreed that he alone was “Lord and God.” We saw similar arrogance on display this week out of North Korea. Despotic leader Kim Jong-un declared his own name divine, meaning not only are parents forbidden from naming their babies Kim Jong Un, but that people who already have the name are required to change their names and alter their birth certificates. Like ancient Rome, North Korea grossly persecutes Christians. Citing Jeremiah, who spoke to persecuted Jews in Babylon, John informs believers how being faithful only makes matters worse. Jesus said it would be this way: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”
Whether this provides any comfort probably depends on your perspective. We spent this past Wednesday night in the Hearth Room talking about heavenly rewards with resident theologians, Kyle Roberts and Christian Winn. (We’re back at it this coming Wednesday and next—it takes forever to talk about eternity). Against the tendency to assign rewards heaven solely to the afterlife, Kyle and Christian stressed heaven as currently present on earth in part, already here in ways that matter. Everlasting life launched at Easter, reducing our own deaths to mere bumps in the road to eternity. The Holy Spirit dropped down at Pentecost as downpayment on this reality, a preview of the New Jerusalem that drops down to earth at the end to make all things new. In the meanwhile the church abides as a harbinger of hope, the visible body of the invisible Jesus, a foretaste of new creation to come. In church, as in heaven, God’s will gets done. Resources are shared so that none hunger or fear. Socially marginalized outsiders find dignity and worth inside, suffering gets redeemed and gratitude gets fueled by grace. In church, failure and defeat serve as fertile ground for resurrection.
However, with so much heaven already here, you’d think we’d see more peace on earth. Decades have passed since Martin Luther King Jr. preached racial reconciliation for America. Those not viewing President Obama as antichrist point to his two elections as proof of progress. And yet the acts and decisions of recent days—actions of a system we depend on for justice—deeply disrupt that dream of judging others solely by the content of character. Revelation narrates a real world in which things always get worse before they get better. The dreadful sixth seal is followed by a sixth trumpet and eventually a foreboding sixth bowl. Six follows six follows six.
The second beast rises out the muck with horns like a lamb and the voice of a dragon. But instead of a fire-breathing rant, this voice slithers with the hiss of a serpent. This second beast will be called “the false prophet” later; its lamblike appearance the classic “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” It bleats enticing words and fancy fireworks, tempting illusions of glory, more heaven on earth, all you want for Christmas, good times without hard times and “your best life now.” The beast preaches everything you want to hear, and constructs an impressive talking idol of the first beast, a foreshadow, perhaps, of the personal technologies in our own day that so effortlessly entertain and distract. Marked on our heads and hands—Google Glasses and Apple Watches—economic leashes that constantly yank, an acknowledgment to money’s pull to which we so readily succumb. The talking beast is also a parody of Jesus, and sometimes we prefer the parody: A Jesus we construct in our own image who blesses what we already believe and feel, a Savior who only saves people like me, and who hates the same people I hate.
Jesus warned of “false christs and false prophets who arise with great signs and wonders, to lead my sheep astray—if that were possible.” He added if that were possible, to assure against deception. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” he said. “No one can snatch them out of my hand.” These sheep are the same faithful Revelation described earlier as having the mark of God on their foreheads—in direct contrast to the mark of the beast.
The scene is an epic good-versus-bad battle, a fight between right and wrong, light and darkness. The implication is that evil is its own separate power, strong enough to combat goodness with measurable success, capable of deceiving even those sheep who know Jesus’ voice. Like every Christian, I struggle to reconcile the existence of such evil in the presence of God. How can the devil ever go toe-to-toe with the Lord? How can a dragon ever dominate? Dragons aren’t even real!
The famous fourth century church father, St. Augustine, argued that evil is in reality unreal—a non-entity—unreal in the sense that it has no essence all its own. Like a vile parasite, evil sucks all its energy from the goodness it perverts, it subtracts from seven to make six, its strength is derivative strength, it’s vice a distortion of virtue. We define it mostly by what it is not: injustice, iniquity, ungratefulness, disorder, disobedience, faithlessness, lawlessness, godlessness, antiChrist. Like the zero it is, evil absorbs whatever values you throw at it and sucks out its life. And like a tick, it burrows in ever deeper as you try to remove it.
The problem with evil as essentially nothing is that you cannot destroy it with harming the good from whence comes its power. You can’t pull out a tick without ripping out skin. You can’t kill a parasite without affecting the food on which it feeds. You can’t kill a cancer without killing healthy cells too. You can’t defang sin without somebody getting crucified.
The Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world: his body and blood leaving evil to be the true nothing it is—zero, zilch, nada—ultimately empty and already defeated. Zero can never be the winning score.
Sally sent along a blogpost from Steve Hayner this week, the former President of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and current President of Columbia Seminary. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last Easter, Steve will die soon. He writes how “…this final season of my life is all about waiting. It is not a waiting that I want to hurry along. But neither is it a waiting which is without hope. Waiting is its own kind of tension and hardly ever comfortable or resolvable. There is a pull between what is and what is to come. My only choice is whether to be grateful. So I am thankful for today and for all that comes with it. I am grateful for every day that I still have energy and strength. And I am thankful that there is a tomorrow which includes a glorious hope.”
Hardship wrests from our clutches any misplaced confidence we might have for this world. The apostle Paul wrote, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Molly reminded us Wednesday night how hardships of life—whether cancer or persecution or simply aging itself— get us ready for glory—a glory so great, Paul wrote, that our present sufferings cannot compare. The tight tension that pulls between today and tomorrow, between now and then, between here and there, between already and not yet, between who we were and who we will be, between longing and recognition, between poor reflections and seeing face to face, pulls us onward and upward. Revelation calls “for the endurance and faith of the saints.” We clutch onto Jesus who hold tightly onto us: No one can snatch us out of his hand.