Monday, March 23, 2015

Revelation - Antichrist

I’m glad that you’ve stuck with this study on the book of Revelation.  Together we’ve looked at the fact that just as God revealed Himself to John, He will still unveil His plan to us, if we listen to His voice.  We talked about modeling our own worship after the examples of heavenly worship we find in Revelation.  We saw that the wrath of God unleashed upon humanity isn’t a heartless vengeance, but an attempt to turn our hearts back to Him.  We discovered that God’s people are marked with the seal of the Holy  Spirit, and asked not just to endure hardship and tribulation, but to be bold witnesses for Jesus.  God has special blessings in store for those who overcome.  Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most noteworthy figures in the book of Revelation: the Antichrist.

            When I was young, it seemed like Christians were always trying to answer the question, “Who is the Antichrist?”  Both Ronald Regan (who has six letters in each of his three names, and survived a gunshot) and Mikhail Gorbachev (who had the Hebrew letter vav dripping blood on his forehead) were noteworthy candidates.  So was every leader that emerged in the Middle East, as well as every Pope.  Today, people are still trying to figure it out.  Most recently, I heard that Jesus secretly predicted the name of the Antichrist—that in Luke 10:18[i], when Jesus said “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning,” He was really speaking Aramaic and not the Greek of our New Testament, and that if you translate lightning from heaven from the Greek back into Aramaic, you get Barack Obama.  Seriously, all politics aside, this is just bad scholarship on so many levels—the most striking of which is the fact that Jesus was using the past tense, not the future, so He couldn’t have been talking about the Antichrist anyway.  So let’s quit trying to point the finger at somebody that we suspect might be the living Antichrist, and let’s see what the Bible has to say.

            Revelation 13: 1-4 gives a vivid, although symbolic, description of the man we call the Antichrist:

And the dragon stood on the sand of the seashore.  Then I saw a beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads, and on his horns were ten diadems, and on his heads were blasphemous names. And the beast which I saw was like a leopard, and his feet were like those of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. And the dragon gave him his power and his throne and great authority. I saw one of his heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal wound was healed. And the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast; they worshiped the dragon because he gave his authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him?” 

            More on the Antichrist, or Man of Lawlessness, can be found in 2 Thessalonians 2:2-12, but for today’s purposes we’ll stay with the narrative as it continues in Revelation 13.  In his arrogance, the Beast (Antichrist) who is empowered by the Dragon (Satan) blasphemes God and makes war against the saints.  Then another beast (false prophet) arises, performing great signs and making a religion about the worship of the Antichrist. Verses 16-18 tell of the mark and number of the beast:

16 And he causes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be given a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, 17 and he provides that no one will be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name. 18 Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six.

            Along with the identity of the Antichrist, people have been trying to figure out both the mark and number of the beast since the dawn of our faith.  Many portray the mark as being the number 666 on a person’s hand and forehead—visible to the naked eye.  Others think it has a more symbolic meaning.  What kind of mark or number could enable people to buy and sell, without which they can’t transact commerce?  When social security numbers first came out, people were convinced that this was the mark of the beast.  Then, when credit cards came out it was the same.  Now people are talking about microchip implants with the same concern. 

            Preterists, who believe that the book of Revelation is all about the Roman persecution of Christians, say that the identity of the Antichrist, the mark and the number of the beast, are all obvious to those who study history.  A man’s name can have a number because many of the ancient numerical systems were based on letters (take Roman numerals, for example).  Using the system called Gematria, in which letters represent numbers and vice versa, we find that the name “Caesar Nero” is, in fact, 666.

            Nero was the first emperor of Rome who sought to stamp out Christianity.  The Roman historian Tacitus even called the emperor cruel, and declare the innocence of those who were put to death by crucifixion, beheading, burning alive, and attacks by wild animals for the amusement of onlookers.  The apostle John was himself boiled in oil before his exile to Patmos.  It was under Nero’s persecution that Peter was martyred by being crucified upside down, and that Paul was beheaded. 

            As to the mark that allows buying and selling—Preterists say that this is Roman coin, which bore the image of Caesar Nero on its face.  Without this coin in your hand (there’s no difference in Greek between “in” and “on”), and without it preoccupying your thoughts, you couldn’t buy or sell.  In other words, unless you engaged in worship of the emperor and his government, you were toast—literally.

            While I believe that preterists make a good point here, I think that they’re only partly correct.  It seems clear to me that John was writing about Nero and Roman coin.  But I believe the book of Revelation to be God’s gift not just to the first generation that received it, but also to every Christian who comes afterward.  So preterists are right when they say that these references were all about Nero, but they’re wrong when they stop there and neglect to look at the future.  Futurists, on the other hand, are also wrong when they see only prophecy and not also history.  History repeats itself, and John is saying in Revelation that the kind of Antichrist to look for in the future is one just like Nero.  Don’t receive his mark, John warns, or divine wrath will fall on you along with those who follow this deceiver (14:8-11).

            Chapters 17-18 tell of another famous character, besides the Antichrist and the false prophet.  Often named The Whore of Babylon, she is described thus:

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed acts of immorality, and those who dwell on the earth were made drunk with the wine of her immorality.” And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a gold cup full of abominations and of the unclean things of her immorality, and on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, “BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly (Rev. 17:1-6). 

            Again, generations of Christians have tried to identify this woman, who personifies the false religion of the Antichrist, led by the false prophet.  Some have suggested the Catholic Church, citing the seven hills of Rome and the scarlet garments.  Others have said put forward radical Islam, along with its penchant for beheadings.  Still others propose the New Age Movement, a revival of ancient paganism mixed with ideas from major world religions.  Personally, I believe that John had the emperor cult in mind—but that, since history repeats itself, Revelation also speaks of a future religion surrounding the Antichrist.

            Just as Christians around the world expect the return of Christ, so followers of other world religions expect the advent of an end-time leader.  Hindus anticipate Krishna’s appearance, while Muslims expect the Imam Mahdi.  Jews are still waiting for the Messiah, while Buddhists hope for Buddha Maitreya.  No one religion such as Catholicism is the Whore of Babylon.  Instead, a future world religion will be formed from all these hopes, with the Antichrist as its god and the false prophet as its head.  This is why Jesus said not to look for His return in the desert or on the mountain, but in the sky.[ii]  No matter what signs and wonders some “god-on-earth” may perform, he isn’t Jesus unless he returns in the clouds.

            So, preterists believe that the Antichrist, false prophet, and the false religion were all in the past.  Futurists look for a literal unfolding of prophetic events in the time to come.  The good news for both is that no matter which way you look at it, Revelation declares that (as my New Testament professor Tommy South put it), “God wins!”  While these nasty characters wage war against the Lamb, He overcomes them “because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful (Rev. 17:14).”  After Babylon falls, along with her religion (ch. 18), we read about the doom of the Antichrist and false prophet :

And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone (19:20).

When preterists and futurists ask me to settle the debate for them, I tell them that they’re both right—about the once and future Antichrist.  Yet they miss the boat entirely if they fail to see Revelation’s application for today.  1 John 2:15-18 warns about not a person called The Antichrist, but a spirit of antichrist:

15 Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.
18 Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.

            Just as Nero was THE Antichrist that opposed first century Christians, and just as THE Antichrist in the future will torment the church, so many antichrists today stand against the truth of God in the world and the power of God in His people.  Beware anything that would leave its mark in your head (thoughts) or your hand (actions).  Don’t be deceived by the world and its lusts—for it is by these that the spirit of antichrist works against you.  Instead, overcome the world by the blood of the Lamb.  Remember the message and hope of Revelation—God wins!  Be firm and be faithful.

[i] All scripture quotations are from the NASB.
[ii] See Matthew 24 in its entirety.  Part of this chapter seems to deal with events that would take place soon, and part deals with events that would come to pass in the far future.

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