Sunday, June 24, 2012

Imperial Beast Machine

Revelation 13.1-10

Things are starting to get interesting!

After being cast down from heaven (12.9), the dragon calls up reinforcements from the sea. In the old stories, the sea was the primordial source of chaos and destruction. It was the abode of Leviathan, Rahab, and a host of watery adversaries. The sea-monster that emerges at the dragon’s beckoning, then, is nothing less than a manifestation of pure terror. It is a “beast” aligned with the dragon against the church.

So, to recap, we have the dragon and the sea monster on one side versus the slain-lamb and the martyrs on the other.

Sound promising?

Of course not. But that’s the point—to remind John’s readers (and ourselves) that despite all appearances, the monsters eventually lose.

First Century Christians would have understood this sea-monster to represent the Roman Empire. However, there is—once again—a surplus of meaning in this text. The sea-monster isn’t representative of Rome ONLY, but of ALL powers that cooperate with the dragon to oppose God and wage war against the church. The Roman Empire was a type of sea-monster, just as the Babylonian, Assyrian, and Grecian empires were types of monsters represented in Daniel 7 (to which John is clearly referring with his adjectives/images of the monster). Later sea-monsters have dominated world history and geo-political thought: the Third Reich, for one, and Apartheid for another. More will indefatigably appear until the end of time. People with power will always forget the origins and purpose of that power. They will forget God, remembering only their own ambitions and desires. The role of the church is to persist and bear witness in the midst of the Imperial Beast Machine, regardless of its present manifestation.

One final thought: the phrase “if anyone is killed with the word, with the sword they will be killed” is a clear reminder that the powers of the sea-monster and the force of the dragon are violent. The violence is theirs, which is to say it does not belong to either the Lamb or his people. Many Christian novelists and imagineers forget this. They mistakenly believe that the means by which the dragon is overcome involve force-of-arms. But this is never how the church is meant to conquer. We do not wage war as the world does. We do not battle against flesh and blood. These verses remind us to “be patience and have faith”, not to march into battle with guns a-blazing. We follow the Lamb—not just in principle, but in means also. To abandon the suffering-witness of the Lamb in favor of the military conquest of the beast doesn’t just mean we’ve compromised the method of our discipleship.

It means we’ve changed sides.

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