Politics that Devour: A Reflection on Revelation 13
Preface: this piece (originally published at Ethos) is a summary of a sermon I preached several years ago in 2016. Whilst my own beliefs and views have evolved since then, I still believe that this magnificent yet oft misinterpreted book has much wisdom for us today, particularly as we face a global rise in authoritarianism. May we continue to resist politics that devour.
It’s a word that will conjure up a myriad of feelings for Christians. For some, politics — or ‘being political’ — has come to represent how one votes in the partisan political process, and is deemed to have nothing to do with the ‘spiritual’ message of the Gospel. For others, Christians must be heavily involved in this process, often through lobbying, to maintain a strong moral voice for ‘Christian values’ in the hallways of power.
As we enter into another federal election season, and as many of us have been observing the U.S. presidential race, perhaps it’s time to re-engage with a passage of scripture that has continuing relevance for us as Christians today — and whose significance many of us don’t seem to grasp. It is perceived as bizarre and out-dated, or conversely as a kind of guide for deciphering the events that will lead to the end of the world. Both views, unfortunately, don’t do this magnificent passage justice. The passage is Revelation 13. And, just as it spoke prophetically to the early church of Asia in the late first century, so too does it continue to speak to us today: not about how we will escape into the heavenly realms, but rather about how faithful Christians are to respond to politics. Or, more precisely, about how we are to faithfully respond to politics that devour.
To begin to engage with this passage, one must first understand it within its own historical context: as a distinctly Christian apocalyptic prophecy. John, no doubt, would have viewed himself as standing in the Old Testament prophetic tradition, writing during the moment in history when those very prophecies were being fulfilled in the Messiah Jesus.
In the opening verses of Revelation 13, we are given a carefully constructed description of the first beast that rises out of the sea. The beast’s physical characteristics resemble that of each of the four beasts in Daniel 7, for in John’s eyes this beast was the summation and epitome of all beasts that had come before. Its origins as coming from the sea, on top of the rich imagery of its seven heads bearing blasphemous names, is a clear allusion to the Roman Empire. For John, this beast — Rome — was a devouring beast, given authority and power by the Enemy. It demanded the worship and allegiance of its citizens, and whoever opposed its supposed divine status would meet its brutal might. Indeed for Rome, might was right, establishing a Pax Romana — Roman peace and security — through its military might. Yet John calls on his readers to resist the temptation to buy into the beast’s deception. They were to worship the slaughtered Lamb alone, who conquered not with the sword, but with the cross. Faithfulness to the true Lord was to be the mark of Christ’s disciples, not allegiance to a system that devoured in order to maintain the status quo. Evil is self-propagating; only Suffering Love can break its power.
The second beast we are introduced to rises not from the sea, but from the land, suggesting that it was something indigenous to the people of Rome. The imperial cult would have been a religious group well known to John’s readers. In the province of Asia, it was controlled by a body known as the commune, made up of representatives from major towns including priests from the cult itself. In all matters relating to local government, it would have wielded the power of Rome itself. What’s more, scholars suggest that it would have been responsible for taking the initiative in elevating Roman emperors to the status of divine beings. John’s second beast — which looks like a lamb but speaks like the dragon — is a clear parody of Christ. It appears to wield divine power; but beware, it is a murderous beast. At the conclusion of this passage, we are given the infamous number of the beast: 666.
Contrary to popular culture and the claims of stringent dispensationalists, John’s readers would have swiftly picked up on who this number referred to: the Roman emperor Nero. John utilises the practice of gematria, known to both Jews and Greeks of his day. But, more than just being a numerical representation of Nero, John would have employed the number 666 for its symbolic significance as a triangular number which not only constantly falls short of the perfect number 7, but also as a parody to the number of Jesus Christ: 888. Thus, the message is clear. Nero, as an anti-Christ figure, represented the beast, that idolatrous creature that sought to wage war on God and on God’s people. Rome and Nero were the embodiment and completion of ancient Babylon, demanding total allegiance from humanity.
What, then, could this possibly mean for us as Christians today? We may not have literal emperor-like figures demanding our worship. But, we would be foolish to ignore the beast-like political systems which devour in our world today — the systems and political powers which, in often covert ways, demand our allegiance and punish those who refuse to comply with ‘business as usual’. Revelation would have not just been read by Christians who were outright oppressed by the Roman Empire. Many Christians were, in fact, wealthy and compromising within the beastly, oppressive system. Perhaps we are the comfortable ones that God is disturbing today through John’s Revelation. How do our prosperity, security and wealth come at the expense of the innocent who experience violence, scapegoating and bloodshed? John continually calls us back to faithfulness to the One who is true and faithful. On April 9th, we remembered the life of German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose resistance to the beastly political power of the Third Reich led him to death. It is Bonhoeffer who said, in his sermon ‘My Strength is Made Perfect in Weakness’, that:
Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear… Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than we are doing now.
(In The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Isabel Best, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012, 169)
As we behold the politics that devour around us today, may we be patiently faithful in our witness as the alternative community of God. For we worship and follow the Crucified and Risen One, whose politic does not devour, but brings truth, healing, justice and peace.