I’m in the process of refinancing my house. I’ve done it all over the telephone. And midway through the process, I started getting nervous. The web page they gave me had their name but a different address, long distance information gave me a different number for that name in NJ, I kept talking to different sales people, a second web page was unavailable. We’ve heard so much in the news about things like identity theft and other frauds and rip-off’s that I started wondering if I weren’t getting scammed... You know, they say that a con only work because people get greedy, and want something for nothing, and here was I trying to get my mortgage reduced from 6.5% to 5%.
Well, anyway, I kept pushing and to make a long story short wound up with a copy of the head honcho’s mortgage banker’s license and a clean bill of health from the state, and unless something else happens or the Lord returns I will be signing the papers some time next week.
But it really underlines the fact that you can’t just take someone’s word on the questions of identity any more, can you. DMV clerks sell ID’s to terrorists, there’s a thriving street business in phony green cards in every major metropolis in the U.S., and internet chat rooms are famous for their anonymity and the ease with which a false name and identity can lure the innocent and unsuspecting into danger.
Whom can you trust? How can you tell who to listen to? Whose word is good? It’s easy to say that you can trust God, that God’s word is good, and that you should listen to people who quote the Bible and say “Thus says the Lord.” But these chapters of Revelation show us as clearly as anything in Scripture that the tool that leaps most readily into the hands of Satan and his followers is deception. Jesus himself warned his disciples of this, saying “For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Messiah!' and they will lead many astray.”
[Mt 24:5] There are several kinds of falsehoods which Satan uses to undermine faith in Jesus Christ.
The first kind of deception is a straightforward contest between religions: the resurgence of militant Islam is tops on the news, but Hindu nationalists in India to and Buddhists in Vietnam and Laos are both growing more and more hostile Christians. In this country, desperate to preserve the illusion of safety which we lived in prior to 9/11, civic and religious leaders alike try to tell us that “the three great monotheistic religions” can all co-exist. But of course this is not true,
because although Christians know that the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament is also the word of God, Islam denies both the truth of the Bible and the deity of Christ.
The second kind of deception is the distortion of the gospel itself, from cults which lead to physical death by the likes of Jim Jones and David Koresh, to cults which become almost mainstream like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Christian Scientists.
The third kind of deception turns turn people away from God altogether, substituting false ideologies like fascism and communism, which deified human power and promised to deliver paradise on earth to their followers. We focused on that particular deception last week, seeing how susceptible we all are to political promises that are based on the illusion that fixing human institutions can cure sin and reverse the fall, that we can, as the great poet T.S. Eliot wrote, create “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”
One of the most important means Satan uses to deceive is to try to convince people that he doesn’t exist. And of course it’s easy to ridicule a belief in little red imps with horns and hooves. But Satan is simply the name for the spiritual being who is the chief enemy of God, and he is all too real.
Yet another kind of deception gets us to waste our energy fighting the wrong things. Some people think that we’re destroying our denomination with a misguided focus on sexual morality, while people around the world are dying of AIDS and wars and starvation. I think they’re wrong, because sexual behavior shaped into family forms the foundation of civil society. But there is another very different kind of misdirection which is dangerous.
How many of you have gotten caught up in the LaHaye and Jenkins Left Behind series? Not too long before those came out, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness got a similar outpouring of interest. It’s really a terrific read, but some people were taking Peretti’s fictional scenarios as the authoritative text on spiritual warfare. Of course a lot of the material comes right out of Revelation,
and of course anyone who cares about the word of God wants to know what it means, and so when someone comes along who seems to speak authoritatively about this very difficult material it’s very easy tempting to swallow it whole. Some people - I even know some Presbyterians who got into this, believe it or not - started to build a whole system of spiritual exercises around Peretti’s vision of the
nature of the conflict between Jesus and Satan, and started demonizing people who didn’t buy into their system.
And this 13th chapter of Revelation contains one of the most tempting bits of misdirection anyone could possibly ask for. I don’t know how many people have gotten spooked or sidetracked and eventually spiritually derailed by getting obsessed with trying to nail down an authoritative interpretation of this passage.
Now, let me set the scene: the second beast comes up out of earth and mimics Christianity - symbolized by the lamb - but speaks with the voice of the dragon, who is, of course, Satan. The chapter ends with the ominous threat that this second beast will have the power to “brand” everyone with his mark “the name of the beast and the number of his name.” [v. 17]
But who is this beast? What does this number symbolize? That’s the $666 thousand dollar question. Ever since Revelation was written there has been speculation about who the beast is and what the number means. One of the peculiarities of Jewish and Greek writing is that names can be given certain numbers based on the numerical value of the letters found in those names. That’s because the old Greek and Hebrew used letters to represent numbers. So did Latin, but in a slightly different way. Remember Roman numerals? Well, nowadays Jews and Greeks both use the standard arabic numerals, but those
hadn’t been invented when this was written.
For example: the numerical value of the name of Jesus in Greek is "888." Using that kind of reasoning, people have come up with a number of possibilities. Early Christians used Latin because that was the language of the Roman empire, and they identified the Roman Emperors Nero, Caligula, and Trajan as The Beast because their names could be converted to 666. In the late Middle Ages, the reformers managed to label the Catholic church and various popes as being
marked with the dread 666. Of course the Catholic church fought back and assigned 666 to Martin Luther and John Calvin. More recently, various world dictators like Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin have been identified.
One internet source says, “I think the Beast is the Russian President elected in March 2000, President Putin, beginning the seven-year End Times period in August 2000. The Antichrist is not Osama bin Laden, because he is too evil; the Antichrist will appear to be a good man, in fact the Antichrist will appear to be the savior of mankind. Osama bin Laden I think is "The Destroyer" or "the angel of
the bottomless pit" in Revelation 9.”
Others have discovered that the mark of the beast in the symbol of the Freemasons, the face on the American dime, Social Security numbers, bar codes on products, and credit cards. Another prophecy maven, Jack Impe, holds that the beast will be using a vast computer network because "computer" in English numerology can add up to "666." Many popular Bible teachers point to the proposed national ID - without which no one will be able to buy or sell - as the mark of the beast. How many of you have heard of these scares? In some
quarters there’s a kind of mass hysteria with people refusing to use Social Security numbers, fearing bar codes and Visa cards and computer networking because they believe either that by blocking Satan’s use of these tools they can stop or delay the tribulation, or that if they use them they lost their salvation because they have inadvertently aligned themselves with Satan’s armies .
A very useful quote comes from a seminary professor of mine who taught, “The less that scripture has to say on any given topic the more theories you’ll find on the subject.” And that appears to be what has happened with the numbers game behind 666. There’s something wrong with the kind of reasoning that spends
all its time trying to identify and avoid the 666. Who is it, anyway, that’s telling us about it? It’s God, isn’t it? Now, what that means is - it’s gonna happen. It’s part of the plan. We can’t stop it. We can’t delay it. And why should we want to? Don’t we look forward to the Lord’s coming? And if it’s a matter of accidentally signing up with the Enemy, don’t you think God can protect his people? No one can fall out of his hand, they have to jump.
The problem is not with the mark itself. The mark doesn't change people, it identifies them. So the problem is how people acquire the mark. Verses 16-17 say, “it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.” The people who wear the mark make their decisions based on financial pressures. Jesus said “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” [Mt 6:21] What this means is that if your treasure is tied up in the security of this world, Satan has your heart.
There are two ways to determine if you bear this mark: one, Look at your checkbook, and two, look at how do you vote - what criteria do you use to select a political candidate? Do you vote your bank account or your conscience? Is fiscal policy more important than social policy?
At the turn of the century, Pastor William Hendrickson wrote that the mark of the beast is “the God-opposing, Christ-rejecting, church-persecuting spirit of the antichrist, wherever and whenever it shows itself. This mark is impressed on the forehead or right hand in Revelation 13. The forehead symbolizes the mind, the thought life, and philosophy of person. The right hand indicates his deeds, actions, trade, and industry Therefore, the person receiving the mark of the beast indicates the person who belongs to the company of those who persecute the church.“
In this country, there are only isolated instances of people who lose their livelihoods because they insist on adhering to Jesus even under pressure. A Pennsylvania teacher who was fired for wearing a cross has been reinstated. But around the world, Christians are under more and more pressure every day. Just last month Indonesia passed a law requiring all schools to give Islamic instruction to any group having more than 10 students enrolled. This targets Christian schools, since Christians to not attend Muslim schools but many Muslims attend Christian schools because of the quality of the instruction.
These are the kind of issues that should grab the attention of Christians, not futile speculations about the meaning of 666 and how to avoid it. I think it’s interesting that in our hymnal, hymn #666 is “Who Is On the Lord’s Side?” The answer to that question is not going to be found by checking for tattoos.
Don’t look around you, to see what other people are doing. Don’t get paranoid about what is going on around you. You can’t tell what God is up to from the externals. “On that day many will say to [Jesus] 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then [he] will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'" [Mt 7:22-23] The wheat and the weeds are simply going to have to coexist until the last days; we can’t spend all of our time trying to figure out who is which. The only person whose heart you really know is yourself, and you don't need to identify the Beast if Jesus can identify you.
As a matter of fact, the more time you spend worrying about evil, the less time you have available to do good. Remember the parable of the good Samaritan? Well, both the priest and the Levite, who passed by on the other side of the road, were so worried about becoming ritually unclean that they couldn’t do what God required of them. Don’t waste your time worrying about identifying gradations of
evil. If your heart is clean, Jesus himself will wash your feet.
The Secret Service does more than protect the President. It also goes after counterfeiters. And the way they train the new agents isn’t by teaching them all about the different kinds of funny money that people try to pass off as the real thing. No, they spend months doing nothing but becoming intimate with genuine currency - old and new $10's and $20's, $50's and $100's, until they know it so well that their gut will alert them to a fake before their minds can catch up.
And that is how we protect ourselves against false prophets and beasts in lamb’s clothing... Spend enough time with the real thing, the Lamb himself, and no one will be able to fool you. Jesus is unique. Only those who don’t know him at all will follow anyone else by mistake.