REVELATION: The Fall of Greatness

Now that we’re getting used to the tool of interpreting the literature of Revelation, the eighteenth chapter will be pretty straightforward.
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted:
“ ‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’
    She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every impure spirit,
    a haunt for every unclean bird,
    a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.
For all the nations have drunk
    the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
    and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”
Now, even though this is straightforward, it certainly doesn’t mean it’s simple or slight. To quote the footnotes in the Zondervan Archaeological Study Bible, John “wrote a funeral dirge for the mightiest empire in the world.” While this doesn’t seem so impressive as we read it almost 2,000 years later, please realize the prophetic, subversive, and chutzpah-laden message John is communicating. John is proclaiming the downfall of an empire that — at this point in history — nobody would see coming.
Then I heard another voice from heaven say:
“ ‘Come out of her, my people,’
    so that you will not share in her sins,
    so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
for her sins are piled up to heaven,
    and God has remembered her crimes.
Give back to her as she has given;
    pay her back double for what she has done.
    Pour her a double portion from her own cup.
Give her as much torment and grief
    as the glory and luxury she gave herself.
In her heart she boasts,
    ‘I sit enthroned as queen.
I am not a widow;
    I will never mourn.’
Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her:
    death, mourning and famine.
She will be consumed by fire,
    for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.
“When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:
“ ‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
    you mighty city of Babylon!
In one hour your doom has come!’ ”
The invitation extends itself to all of God’s people. If this is how sure the apostle is that empire is going to fall, it would stand to reason God’s people will want to decide which side of the conversation to be on.

And this is not the first time God’s people have been faced with such an invitation. Consider the ending of Isaiah 48:
Leave Babylon,    flee from the Babylonians!Announce this with shouts of joy    and proclaim it.Send it out to the ends of the earth;    say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob.”They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts;    he made water flow for them from the rock;he split the rock    and water gushed out.
“There is no peace,” says the LORD, “for the wicked.”
Or how about Jeremiah 50:
“Flee out of Babylon;    leave the land of the Babylonians,    and be like the goats that lead the flock.For I will stir up and bring against Babylon    an alliance of great nations from the land of the north.They will take up their positions against her,    and from the north she will be captured.Their arrows will be like skilled warriors    who do not return empty-handed.So Babylonia will be plundered;    all who plunder her will have their fill,”declares the LORD.
But John continues,
“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore—cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.
“They will say, ‘The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your luxury and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.’ The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment. They will weep and mourn and cry out:
“ ‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
    dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet,
    and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!
In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!’
“Every sea captain, and all who travel by ship, the sailors, and all who earn their living from the sea, will stand far off. When they see the smoke of her burning, they will exclaim, ‘Was there ever a city like this great city?’ They will throw dust on their heads, and with weeping and mourning cry out:
“ ‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
    where all who had ships on the sea
    became rich through her wealth!
In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’
“Rejoice over her, you heavens!
    Rejoice, you people of God!
    Rejoice, apostles and prophets!
For God has judged her
    with the judgment she imposed on you.”
Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said:
“With such violence
    the great city of Babylon will be thrown down,
    never to be found again.
The music of harpists and musicians, pipers and trumpeters,
    will never be heard in you again.
No worker of any trade
    will ever be found in you again.
The sound of a millstone
    will never be heard in you again.
The light of a lamp
    will never shine in you again.
The voice of bridegroom and bride
    will never be heard in you again.
Your merchants were the world’s important people.
    By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.
In her was found the blood of prophets and of God’s holy people,
    of all who have been slaughtered on the earth.”
John utters a prophesy about the downfall of this empire and makes sure to emphasize the economic nature of this calamity. This is easy for us to relate to, as we put so much of our own stock in the stability of our economy and its ability to provide us with security. Keep in mind that Caesar Augustus had ushered in an unprecedented time of Roman prosperity — 84 years of uninterrupted economic growth. To proclaim the downfall of such a system would be nonsense to the average listener.
But this wasn’t the first time his readers heard such a claim. Not only does this chapter close with words that are echoed from Jeremiah, but the entire lament is pulled directly from the prophesy of Ezekiel (chapter 27). To place the entire chapter here would be overkill, but I urge you to take the time to pull out your Bible and read it through. You’ll see how much time Ezekiel took in proclaiming the economic ramifications of Tyre’s arrogance.
And this is one of those passages that stings a little to read in our culture. Not only do we cry “persecution” in places where those true martyrs would balk at our struggle, but I’m not sure we would pick the right side of this imperial showdown. The woman on the beast has been judged and the sentence pronounced; her downfall is imminent and the funeral dirge has begun. This all sounds well and good when we are talking about metaphors and pictures, but this becomes a little more personal when the empire being denounced is the basic description of what most of us would call “the pursuit of happiness.”

It might be that the invitation of Revelation 18 falls to you and I as much today as it ever has. Maybe the idolatry of security and the lust of empire have its talons in us deeper than we’d like to admit. And maybe there’s a “mark” on our forehead that we’d like to head to the bathroom and start scrubbing off.



REVELATION: The Woman on a Beast

And as John begins to bring this epic showdown to a close, we find the villain entering on cue. Revelation 17:
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”
Babylon, the image driving the end of this apocalyptic vision from John, is often pictured in the prophets as a prostitute who lures the nations into her adultery. One would think of Isaiah 23 or Jeremiah 51 as direct references that would have particular relevance to this conversation. Babylon becomes the apocalyptic image for kingdoms of evil. Just as Babylon terrorized the people of the Old Testament and fell into disrepair, so would every kingdom spoken of in apocalyptic imagery. The fall of Babylon becomes a foreshadowing of what happens to empire in every form.
Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:
I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.
It’s hard to miss the parallel John is drawing between the old stories and prophecies against Babylon and her first-century counterpart — Rome. Her fall is inevitable, and she is far from a metaphor. The people of God have felt her cruelty; she is drunk on the blood of the martyrs.
When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.
“This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.”
This is one of those paragraphs that people will interpret many different ways. We have to try to identify the heads and the horns and make sense out of the passage above using past kingdoms, Roman emperors, or other ideas. Some will use this passage to make the case for an earlier date (or even a later date) for Revelation. Some will immediately jump to the future (or modern day) and start making sense out of it all. I’m not going to try to make sense out of it here, as I’m still working on it myself. I simply don’t have any answers at this point in my study, but I can say with confidence, after what we have looked at, that I want to use a consistent hermeneutic — not assume that this is speaking of the future.

And yet the one thing that cannot be denied is John’s point that this beast represents Satan and his relationship with Rome. Rome was known far and wide (as well as throughout history) as the “city on seven hills.” By saying that this beast’s seven heads are seven hills on which the harlot sits is a clear identification of Rome. So even though we may have some questions about the details, the big picture is easy to work with.
“The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”
Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
However, Satan will ruin this harlot. He will leave her destroyed, for that is what the beast does — even to those who swear their allegiance to the beast.

There are a few things we know for sure, but John presents at least two clear points. First, the Lamb will triumph. Though the beast wages war and the battle looks lopsided, there will be no contest, for the Lamb is the Lord of lords and the King of kings. He wins, John says, period. Second, the harlot will be ruined by the beast. Empire will always lead to the same end; evil cannot sustain itself. It does not belong in God’s created order. The great city (i.e., Rome) that rules over the earth, though it looks to be unstoppable, is part of a system that cannot last. It will come tumbling down.

The jury is back. The verdict is in. While the buzzer hasn’t sounded yet, the outcome is clear.

John invites God’s persecuted people to believe it — and overcome.


REVELATION: Bowls of Destruction

As mentioned before, we will see that chapter 16 draws a bleak picture of the world the people of Revelation endure.
Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.”
The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly, festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.
I have heard discussion about the cultural possibilities of these “festering sores,” but I have never found a description I feel completely sold on from a historical perspective (not that they aren’t out there). I can say this would be a great opening description for somebody who knew their Text. Such a reference would take us back to the Exodus and its plagues (as we’ve seen before in Revelation), and a Jewish reader might think of Deuteronomy 28 where God warns His people of boils and sores for disobedience.
The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead person, and every living thing in the sea died.
We see here yet another reference blatantly calling the reader back to the deliverance of the Exodus.
The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say:
“You are just in these judgments, O Holy One,
    you who are and who were;
for they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets,
    and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.”
And I heard the altar respond:
“Yes, Lord God Almighty,
    true and just are your judgments.”
And we have continued images of judgment and references to the Tanakh. Most study Bibles will even notice this reference calls us back to Isaiah 49 (and possibly others).
The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.
As I pointed out previously, these images are deeply rooted in Hebrew Scriptures to the deliverance of God’s people; they do not evoke horror or terror to the reader. For many of us, we read Revelation and see the horrendous judgment of God, but for the first readers of this letter, they saw the promised deliverance of the faithful.
The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.
True to form, John continues to use consistent imagery from the plagues of the Exodus and the promises of Isaiah (and in this particular case, Isaiah 8). And as we’ve seen before, each of these references could teach even larger sermons by looking in the context of the reference. For example, when you see the reference to Isaiah 8, you would pay attention and notice that it comes at the close of a section about Assyria’s oppression and God’s deliverance. Simply reading the passage of reference adds layers to the Revelation teaching you never knew were there.
The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East. Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are demonic spirits that perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty.
“Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed.”
Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.
More references to the Exodus can be seen here. And then John references the great “Armageddon.” But what many readers don’t know is that this reference does not speak forward to a futuristic battle, but rather backwards to battles long past. Armageddon is a reference to har megeddon, or “mountain of Meggido,” in the Hebrew. The city of Meggido was one of the fortress cities toward the northern part of the Via Maris — the great highway through the land of Israel. Battle after battle was fought in the Jezreel Valley, just outside of the mountain of Meggido. It becomes the perfect backdrop for John’s grand apocalyptic vision.

The Jezreel Valley, where battle after battle was fought in history
The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!” Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath. Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found. From the sky huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, fell on people. And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.
And here (as well as with the quote above about coming “like a thief”) we see references that we made earlier when we studied the letter to Sardis.

But we’ve now spent a handful of chapters talking about the many ways John has set up the great battle, the great competition, and the great games of light and darkness. Having just referenced the “mountain of Megiddo,” the stage is set well for us to begin to move toward the culmination of this battle. This image is where we will turn our attention to next.


REVELATION: Sickles and Plagues

John is going to continue to draw off of very rich and deliberate apocalyptic imagery from the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Let’s take a look at Revelation 14.
I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand.Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, “Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.
As John continues to build on this picture we introduced in our last discussion, more and more angels are getting in the mix. Now, the angel John “sees” is described in language that deliberately makes us think about the book of Daniel. As John speaks of judgment, he calls back to the apocalyptic story that speaks of one coming with books and rendering judgment on the injustice of the world. Also, this same period of apocalyptic imagery often depicts a harvest. This is true in extrabiblical writing, as well as the teachings of Jesus. In other words, John is trying to give the people hope by speaking undeniably about a metaphorical (and maybe literal) day they often think of when they long for justice in a world of oppression.
Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.
While he’s using the image of the grain harvest (the first sickle referenced in the Greek [verses 14–16] is a larger sickle used for wheat or barley), John transitions into another image the prophets often used to speak of God’s judgment — the grape harvest (the Greek word used here references a smaller sickle used for grapes). Outside of the direct prophetic passages in Tanakh that speak of God treading the grapes and the nations under his feet, one might also think of the picture of Isaiah 5 (and others) where God comes expecting a harvest of righteousness from His people.

These images don’t evoke terror for the readers — they evoke hope. The people of God long for the day when justice would be served and their patient faithfulness would be rewarded with restoration of God’s created order.

Now, on to Revelation 15.
I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed. And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name. They held harps given them by God and sang the song of God’s servant Moses and of the Lamb:
“Great and marvelous are your deeds,
    Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
    King of the nations.
Who will not fear you, Lord,
    and bring glory to your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
    and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
John mentions that this wrath is a restorative justice to put things back in place; it is a purifying fire, leaving that which ought to remain; it is not a fire of destruction that destroys everything in its path. This wrath has an end, and upon its completion there are songs of victory. The reader will notice that God’s people stand and sing the song of deliverance — the song of Moses — as they celebrate the rescue of God and the triumph of the Lamb.
After this I looked, and I saw in heaven the temple—that is, the tabernacle of the covenant law—and it was opened. Out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues. They were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests. Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever. And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.
But while there is an end to this wrath, it has not found its end yet, for all the earth has not been made right, and this purification (try to think in apocalyptic pictures and less literally, if you can) does not come without groaning and strife. These bowls are full of plagues and, even though the images here are pulled from other literature and meant to be used as pictures, the readers have experienced many of these atrocities firsthand. As God has said before, “He causes it to rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.”

And so with that, the next chapter will lead us into a description of the terrible things experienced by folks all over the ancient world.


REVELATION: The Blessed and Faithful Fallen

There won’t be a lot of new things found in the following Text, as it will be a continuation and reinforcement of the pictures and ideas we have already studied. Let’s pick right up in the fourteenth chapter of Revelation:
Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.
And with that, John calls back to numerous images we have already spoken about. Whether we think of it in terms of the Olympic games and the great competition, or an apocalyptic showdown between the kingdoms in the heavens, we have a clear picture of the clash that is taking place. We have the dragon/beast tag team going up against the Lamb and his followers. Having already addressed the slain lamb earlier and spoken about the great multitude of 144,000, John has set the stage for this epic confrontation. On one side will be the intimidating beast and his followers — all wearing his mark; and on the other side, the slain lamb and his followers who are wearing his name on their foreheads. Once we are enabled to see the book of Revelation in its context, the juxtaposition is almost impossible to miss.

When John references the sound from heaven “like the roar of rushing waters” and loud peals of thunder, not only does he pull his material from the Tanakh (the most likely source being Isaiah), but he also ties it contextually into culture, as well. In our previous post about Pergamum, we spoke about the god Asclepius and the “hospital” known as the Asclepion. In the center of the Asclepion is a running spring (still flowing to this day) and the sound of rushing water is connected to the healing and restorative voice of Asclepius. Could the reference to harps be a nod toward the people of God heading into captivity, throwing their harps up into the trees in mourning? Possibly.

Water engineered to run down the stairwell at the entrance of the
Asclepion diagnostic center in Pergamum which created...

...the sound of rushing water that reverberated throughout this acoustically
designed tunnel.
Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
A second angel followed and said, “ ‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,’ which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”
You can feel the anticipation for this great showdown building as you listen to the angels flying around the scene. If one were to think of this scene visually, they would feel like this contest is staggeringly weighted. This seven-headed beast that rises out of the sea and takes his stand on the beach is up against a slain lamb and a bunch of virgin followers. It would seem like this is going to be a massacre.

But the angels give way to a different story. Singing about the glory of the Creator Judge and the fall of the great beast, they seem to be celebrating a bit early, don’t they? But maybe this is the point. Maybe the end of this story is inevitable and we can celebrate.
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.
And now, John calls the readers to stay committed to patient endurance. This road will not be an easy one to walk, but its destination is certain and sure. John reminds them we know how this story ends; it’s a story that has been written for a very long time.

To make that point stick, John uses imagery that — once again — has been pulled straight from Tanakh. By suggesting the beast and his followers will be drinking the cup of wrath, filled with God’s fury, John pulls his readers back to passages like Jeremiah 25, Psalm 69, or Psalm 79.

But this will not feel like victory celebrations galore. The walking of this path will be a journey filled with toil, tribulation, and strife — even death.
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
“Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
Yes, this first-century resistance will often lead to death. As we saw earlier in the book of Revelation, John is not afraid to deal with the very stark realities of what faithfulness looks like in the face of this beast. But John insists their deeds and their faithfulness will have eternal ripples.

And indeed they do. I have sat in the shaded ruins of Ephesus and read the words of Revelation to myself and to others. I have heard them read to me, and the ripples of those who gave their lives still impact my heart today. May we believe the deeds we engage in today matter, as well.

My students and I, revisiting the story of those lost first-century heroes
of Ephesus, while we sit in the modern day ruins.


REVELATION: Will the Real Beast Please Stand Up?

If we had any question about the dragon and its connection to the Roman Empire, we should clear that up in this chapter. To that end, we need to do a little bit of contextual work. We mentioned before that we would return to Ephesus to further our study, and now that time has come. Ephesus is the place I believe John penned the letter of Revelation. We’ve alluded before to the largest gymnasium in the Roman world being constructed by Emperor Domitian. Not only was the size of the structure nearly unbelievable, but the speed at which it was raised is staggering.

The massive ruins of Domitian's gymnasium (from the view from the southern wall)

Of the twenty-two advents Domitian directed for his imperial worship (yes, you read that correctly — twenty-two), one of the largest was in Ephesus and centered around the grand opening of his monstrous gymnasium. The building project, which typically would have taken over a century to complete, was finished in just four years. One of the most famous finds at the site is the bust to a 30-foot statue of Domitian, which many assume once stood in the apse. Historians don’t spend any time making Domitian look good and often referred to him as “the Beast.”

If one would have looked toward the harbor of Ephesus from city center, they would have seen the construction of Domitian’s gymnasium. It was going up so fast that some referred to it as “the Beast rising out of the sea.” In fact, Pliny said Domitian was “the Beast of the Sea, whose teeth drip with the blood of good Romans.”

Having made mistakes in the past, the people of Ephesus were not going to miss the opportunity to support the new emperor and make their own voluntary gesture of worship. To this end, they raised funds and began construction of the Flavian temple to Domitian, which sits just west of the upper agora (toward the other end of the city). They were also trying to complete the construction of this much smaller temple, and it was going up rather quickly. Built on a vaulted platform supported by twenty-four pillars, each depicting one of the legal Roman gods, the image was clear: The Roman gods hold up Domitian, not the other way around.

The vaulted ruins of the Flavian Temple (view from southern wall)
Remaining pillars that held up the platform for the Flavian Temple

Many historians have suggested this is where the people of Revelation received what was often referred to as “the mark of the Beast.” We know from history that during the Domitian reign, citizens were required to swear their allegiance and worship to the divine emperor. After offering incense (possibly at a location like the Flavian temple), you were given a stamp or mark that allowed you to engage in local commerce. Without the mark, you could not buy or sell in either of the Ephesian agoras.

There’s much more that could be unpacked, but for now let’s turn to the Text of Revelation 13:
And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”
As we’ve seen in ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature, beasts with horns on their heads are almost always used to denote kingdoms and their many rulers. Not only does the beast match a description that is full of images for the Empire of Rome, but it even gives the description of one particular head that “seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed.” One of the most famous aspects of Emperor Vespasian (an earlier Roman emperor) was his fatal head wound that had been miraculously healed. This reference is obvious and deliberate on John’s part. There is no mistake: The beast is a representation of Rome.
The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.
Whoever has ears, let them hear.
“If anyone is to go into captivity,
    into captivity they will go.
If anyone is to be killed with the sword,
    with the sword they will be killed.”
This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.
Again, the purpose for John writing this letter is stark and clear in context. He pulls no punches and cuts right to the heart of the matter. He knows what life is like under the rule of emperor Domitian; he is not naive to the fact that people all throughout his great city are giving their lives to follow God, and he encourages them to stand firm and hold fast. He continues to say that perseverance is the answer for their struggles.
Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.
And again, the context of Revelation and Ephesus helps us hear John’s references with cultural clarity. John writes to them about the temptation to give in and worship the beast. You may remember John’s letter to Ephesus in Revelation where he spoke to them about how they hated the teaching of the Nicolaitans. The believers there were apparently committed and resolute in their ability to resist the demands of imperial worship. John tells them they will have to remain strong in their commitment.

About the number of the beast, it should be noted that we’ve seen this number before. It has been used all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to denote evil and the adversary. One might remember the reference showing up in the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, as well as David and Goliath. On a very basic level, the number 666 is simply the most fitting number for the beast. But many historians have also pointed out (correctly, I believe) that early writers and theologians would play with numerical values of names. In the Hebrew world, this is called gammatria. If you take the names of multiple Roman emperors and “calculate” the value of their names, you can often create the value of 666. This is not as striking of an accomplishment as it sounds, as you can do it with many, many names (including Santa Claus, but I digress). At any rate, it may have been a common conversation John is playing off of for his own purposes.

In the end, we can invite ourselves to examine our lives and worship patterns. I think it’s helpful to see what the early believers were willing to do in order to stand against idolatry. The danger in a culture like ours is that the temptation is much more subtle, because it’s not accompanied by the threat of death or imprisonment. But I often wonder what my world demands I sell out to. What marks do I carry? May we stand on the shoulders of those early recipients of Revelation and exude the patient endurance and faithfulness John called them to.