Summary: Evil is so seductive, so easy, so clothed in plausible promises of free lunches and quick fixes, that if we are not vigilant we will find ourselves in slavery to the enemy of God.
Monsters coming up from the deep have a long and colorful history. From Leviathan to the Loch Ness Monster, from the giant squid in 10,000 Leagues under the sea to the “here be monsters” with which mapmakers once marked the limits of the unknown, the sea has been the source of fear for earthbound humans. Of course nowadays whatever fear factor Nessie ever had is now gone for good, frittered away in tourist traps the length and breadth of Scotland while King Kong and Godzilla are cute, or camp, or cuddly. The beasts in Revelation and Daniel hardly rate a token shiver from today’s audience. What new horror could possibly compete against Freddy, or Hannibal Lector?
But for John’s readers in the first century, these images would have had power. The sea all by itself was the symbol of cosmic evil, a vast unruly and untamable source of danger, and the fact that this monstrous figure came out of the sea would be the verbal equivalent of spooky music, signaling the audience that something scary was about to appear.
It could have been anything. Remember, in the last chapter we saw the dragon, symbolizing Satan, cast down to earth after being defeated by Michael and his angels. We’ve been alerted to the fact that his task from now on would be to wage war against God by proxy, that is by targeting the people of God. So it could have been demons with forked horns and tails or grotesque armies of rotting corpses or - what’s your worst nightmare?
But John presents his hearers with a figure that seems to come right out of the Old Testament, from Daniel’s vision five hundred years before. John 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." [v. 1-2]
Daniel’s four beasts were a winged lion that became somewhat human, a devouring bear, a four-headed flying leopard, and finally a ten-horned beast much more dangerous than the others. Jewish tradition understood this fourth beast as Rome, the fourth world empire to subdue Israel, after Babylon, Persia and Greece, and it was a signal also of the coming Son of Man.
This beast is a little different than the one Daniel describes, but the audience would still probably interpret the figure as representing not only Rome, but more specifically, Nero. Nero died before John has his vision, but many people believed he still remained alive. Somewhat more ominously than today’s Elvis sightings, several false Neros had already popped up in various parts of the empire, providing a focus for rebellions as well as a bogeyman to scare your children into obedience. So Christians heard this prophecy as heralding a new Nero. The tradition that Nero would come back as the Antichrist was in fact so strong that in Armenian, the name Nero actually is used to mean Antichrist.
But what do we need another monster for? Isn’t the dragon terrible enough? What’s the point of bringing in another figure on the scene? Remember that Satan cannot create anything new, he can only distort or copy what God has already made. So what we have in this chapter is the beginning of a dreadful mockery of the gospel. Where Jesus came to earth to save, Satan comes to earth to destroy. Where Jesus the Christ is the son of God, the beast - the antichrist - is the offspring of the enemy of God. And in the next passage the Holy Spirit’s evil twin shows up as a false prophet. In addition, the wound in the
beast’s head and his return from death is a parody of Jesus’ resurrection. And finally, the response of the people to the beast is eerily like the response of people to their first view of Jesus - they were astonished, and followed him. [v. 3]
There are two main approaches to this chapter of Revelation. One is to nail down the meaning of each specific item and confidently assign contemporary events and persons to what John is describing. The other approach is to ignore it, which is what I had done with John’s vision until the Thursday morning Bible study challenged me a couple of years ago.
But we can’t afford to take that approach. We need to understand what this chapter is about not just for its own sake but also because the public - even people who will tell you they don’t believe in the second coming - are still fascinated by accounts of The End. Of course the big one is Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, but it’s hardly alone. One series of films that came out a few years ago was the “Omen” trilogy. The first film deals with the birth and childhood of the antichrist. His parents suspect there is something different about their creepy little son, but they find out the awful truth when they discover 666 tattooed on his forehead. The second film, “Damien: Omen II,” showed him as a teenager and what happened when his identity was revealed to him by satanic agents. I haven’t seen the movies myself, as you know I don’t find fear entertaining, but the reviews made them sound like a nightmare waiting to happen. But even films like “End of Days,” “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact,” and “Independence Day”, which don’t consciously point to Revelation, still reflect an interest in how it is all going to end. We entertain ourselves with themes that should be taken much more seriously.