What does the book of Revelation say? (part 10)

Ted Grimsrud

10. How do we fight the Beast—Revelation 13:1–14:5

[This is the tenth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation.  I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]

One of the most famous characters in Revelation is the Beast that rises out of the sea. There is something important to remember as we think about this character. Not everyone would see it as beastly. There would have been people in the book’s audience with a quite positive view of what John is calling the Beast. John’s agenda, in part, is to challenge his readers to recognize the Beast here as a beast.

A vision of the Beast’s power

The vision in Revelation 13 that introduces the Beast gives an overwhelming sense of the its power. John had in mind the Roman Empire which had conquered most of John’s known world, executed Jesus and many other prophets, destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and demanded of its subjects reverence and loyalty crossing the line into religious worship.

The Empire brooked no opposition. The Beast is set to wreak havoc for 42 months. These 42 months, a number often used in Revelation, are the time in the present where we live. If John’s vision had ended with chapter 13, it would indeed be a vision of despair. No wonder people in John’s churches would also have wanted to give the Empire their homage and grant it the loyalty it demanded. Resistance was futile—it seems.

But we need to go on to chapter 14—and ultimately to the end of the book. John’s agenda is not to counsel despair nor to give comfort to those in his audience who don’t think the Beast is so beastly. John’s agenda is to empower his audience to resist, to bear witness, even (remarkably) to celebrate in the present.

Celebration as resistance

In stories of resistance to various historical Beasts, celebration played an important role in undermining the domination system. In Denmark during World War II, people gathered for public hymn sings that served to undermine the attempts by the Nazi occupiers to define their reality. The black church in the American south during the Civil Rights movement provided a place to praise and celebrate and find solidarity and to be reminded that the white so-called Christians did not have the power to define God’s will for them.

The celebrations scattered throughout Revelation play a similar role. And John promises before the book is over that the witness will be fruitful and the celebrations will not be simply whistling in the dark. They will in fact help lead to the healing of creation, healing of the nations, healing even of the kings of the earth (the human beings most enslaved to the Beast).

How can this be? During the vision of chapter 13, the narrator cries out, “who can fight against the Beast? Who can resist it? Who can stand against it?” In chapter 14 we get an answer. “Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mt. Zion!” And standing with the Lamb are the 144,000. The Lambs fights and wins—and with him the 144,000. The overwhelming power of the Beast in chapter 13 actually turns out to underscore the victory and celebration of the Lamb and his followers.

The vision of 14:1-5 transforms the meaning of chapter 13. The Beast scenes are not a true picture of reality. They show only the surface. Who can stand against the beast? The Lamb and the 144,000. But who is this 144,000?

A vision of plentitude

Back in chapter seven we learned what 144,000 refers to. It’s another celebration scene, in the middle of the plague visions. John presents a vision of people celebrating their salvation with the Lamb. First he describes what he hears—which is a group of 144,000, twelve thousand from each of Israel’s twelve tribes. But then he sees what this group truly is: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9).

So, this is not a limited number of specially chosen people who stand with the Lamb—it is this countless multitude of people from all nations. And this counters the picture in chapter 13 of the Beast being given authority over “every tribe and people and language and nation” (13:7). The Beast’s authority actually is an illusion—because the Lamb can stand against it with the Lamb’s followers. And celebration and healing are present—not despair and an irresistible iron cage.

The use of the 144,000 symbol in chapter 14 has an added dimension. The 144,000 is an army. Organized, actually, to fight the beast. But they are organized not to fight with swords but to fight with the same weapons as the Lamb—self-giving love. We need to remember the master vision of the whole book: Revelation five. The Lamb is the one who can open the scroll, not as a mighty warrior but as a self-giving healer.

So, then, the meaning of our passage, 13:1–14:5 is a call to resist and a reminder that indeed such resistance does work. And the passage gives us guidance for this fight. How do we fight? Let me note three clues.

Resisting the Beast

First, simply see the beast as beast. Remember, many in John’s audience took comfort in dividing their loyalty between the Lamb and the Empire. They did not see the Empire as beastly. John’s message is disbelieve in Empire. Don’t give it consent. Recognize the beastly dimension for what it is and recognize that to affirm that beastly element, to give it a blank check, places people in great spiritual jeopardy.

A second clue is to note how the myth of redemptive violence fuels an on-going spiral of perceived wrong-doing followed by retaliation followed by more retaliation followed by more retaliation followed by…. When those who resist the wrong-doing take up the sword, John points out here, only the sword wins. So this is his message: Refuse the sword. Break the cycle of violence (13:10). Recognize that retaliation feeds the beast—so break the spiral. You don’t resist the Beast in its deepest reality with violence. That leads to a victory for the Beast, even if it may lead to the overthrow of a particular earthly king.

And the third clue is to band together to sing and follow the Lamb. The 144,000 (that is, the countless multitude) stand with the Lamb, they make a sound like the sound of many waters, like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they learn a new song. They are “redeemed from the earth” to celebrate. Or, we could say, they are freed from the domination of the Beast in order to embrace life. And this happens during the 42 months, this happens right now. Every time we celebrate life and healing and resistance and genuine peace, we join in this “new song.”

Link to index for “What does Revelation say?” blog posts

Link to part eleven of this series

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3 Comments

Filed under Biblical theology, Book of Revelation, Pacifism, Theology

3 responses to “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 10)

  1. Pingback: What does the book of Revelation say? (part 9) | Thinking Pacifism

  2. Alan Rutherford

    Ted, this is a really helpful overview. I really like this reflection on what the beast is and who stands with the Lamb and how they resist. I’m wondering if another way we resist empire is if/when we move toward those who are different, those who make us uncomfortable. It occurs to me that the Empire isn’t the only voice telling us to stick with those from our own tribe — we tell ourselves that, too. I’m thankful for a vision of a multiethnic church that worships the lamb together.

    • Ted Grimsrud

      Thanks, Alan. I totally agree with what you say here. I think Revelation could be read as supporting an exclusivist stance, but actually I think with the imagery of people from all the tribes of the earth worshiping amidst the empire and welcoming the kings of the earth into the New Jerusalem, the message is more in light with what you suggest—a call to resist “othering.”

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