Here is an excerpt from John Wesley’s introduction to Revelation in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. It is scarce possible for any that either love or fear God, not to feel their hearts extremely affected, in seriously reading either the beginning, or the latter part of Revelation. These, it is evident, we cannot consider too much: but the intermediate parts I did not study at all for many years: as utterly despairing of understanding them, after the fruitless attempts of so many wise and good men. Wesley said his mind had been changed, some, by the discovery of certain resources that had helped open the book up, particularly the work of one “Bengelius” [Johann Albrecht Bengel (1684-1752) – a German Pietist and Biblical scholar who once predicted that Christ’s millennial reign would begin in 1836. Wesley did not buy into this part of Bengel’s thought]. Nevertheless, Wesley still wrote about his own notes on the text: Yet I by no means pretend to understand, or explain all that is contained in this mysterious book. Later in his notes, he wrote: Some have miserably handled this book. Hence others are afraid to touch it. Yes, indeed, Mr. Wesley, but even he would say of the prophecies of this book that “so considerable a part of them is on the point of being fulfilled.” Perhaps the church is always living in a time when we see the evil around us and long for a time when it will not be so. Now is always the time to stand up against and to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, being faithful to God and to Jesus Christ. The temptation is always real to give up and give in. Rather than see ourselves in “the end times,” perhaps this book is most relevant in its encouragement to faithful life no matter the circumstances.
Revelation 12:1-6: The book could have ended with chapter 11 – “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God and of God’s Messiah.” The reader anticipates that this might be the end of the book, but the revelation continues with scenes that expose the transcendent powers of evil and the announcement of the seven last plagues (New Interpreters Study Bible). John is not working with a chronological sequence here, it seems, but doubles back to see “what is to come” from a little different angle – the cosmic/heavenly angle. To this point, what has happened in heaven has led to events on earth. Here the action shifts to heaven. The basic message seems to remain the same – hold on, stay faithful though the going might get very tough.
Chapters 12-14 are a series of visions that take a more comprehensive view of the eschatological times in which the church lives, from the birth of Jesus to the end. The troubles experienced by the churches to whom John writes represent something deeper than appears on the surface. It is not merely a matter of religious and cultural conflict in a Roman province. John lets the readers see behind the scenes of the cosmic drama in which his readers are involved. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
A cosmic woman, whose description includes images from the Hebrew Bible and from Greco-Roman mythology, gives birth to a child – the Christ child, who will rule the world. The woman refers only in part to Mary, the mother of Jesus. She also represents Israel, as the people of God from whom the Messiah comes. Birth pangs are often used a symbol of difficult times which “give birth” to new life. The child is threatened by a great red dragon, who appears as a powerful, imperial figure. The mythical folklore of many peoples contains a story with the same basic plot: a cosmic monster tries to destroy a newborn king, is foiled, and the king returns in triumph. It is a variation of the story of how the forces of darkness, disorder and sterility/death rebelled against the divine king of light, order, and fertility/life, attempting to overthrow the divine order, kill the newborn king and/or seize the kingship, and establish the rule of darkness. (People’s New Testament Commentary) John thus makes use of cultural resources to share the Christian message.
The child is saved from the dragon by being taken to God. In Revelation, Christ is born and ascends. Do John’s readers know something of the life story of Jesus? Certainly they know that he was killed by the Roman authorities. The child is protected, but his mother, who now may represent the people of God, finds herself in the wilderness. The wilderness in the Bible is both a place of refuge and a place of danger. It is also a place where God is often encountered. The wilderness time won’t last forever, and it will be a time when the people of God will be nourished.
Revelation 12:7-12: A war breaks out in heaven between angelic forces and the forces of the dragon. The latter’s forces are defeated, and cast out of heaven, but unfortunately, they land on earth. John ties together various mythological elements here, identifying the serpent with the Devil and Satan – the great accuser of God’s people. The Christians were being accused in Roman courts, so the image of an accuser whose work torments God’s people was a powerful one. Pliny, the Roman governor of Pontus beginning in 111 CE wrote the following to the Emperor Trajan: I have handled those who have been denounced to me as Christians as follows: I asked them whether they were Christians. Those who responded affirmatively I have asked a second and third time, under threat of the death penalty. If they persisted in their confession, I had them executed. For whatever it is they are actually advocating, it seems to me that obstinacy and stubbornness must be punished in any case. (quoted in People’s New Testament Commentary, 761). God’s victory and the triumph of God’s purposes, God’s kingdom, has been assured in heaven, but the story on earth is not complete.
Again, John uses wonderful imagery to assure his readers that faith will win out in the end. It has already won in heaven. Hold on.
Revelation 12:13-18: The dragon thrown out of and down from heaven now pursues the woman who is on earth (the wilderness). The woman represents the people of God in this scene. She is pursued, but has been given two wings, wings like an eagle (cue the hymn: “On Eagle’s Wings”!). Imagery used for God’s shelter and protection in the Hebrew Bible is used here. The woman is in the wilderness – place of nourishment. The dragon devises a scheme to get her, even in the wilderness. It sends flood waters after her – water in the Bible is both a positive and negative symbol. There are living waters that nourish life, but also waters of chaos and destruction. Here water is clearly negative, and the earth is positive – God’s good creation comes to the rescue. Such an image might encourage a stronger ecological consciousness for the church. The earth is on our side, but are we on the earth’s side (forgive this metaphoric free association, but somehow it seems appropriate for Revelation).
Frustrated, the dragon seeks out the woman’s other children, the followers of the Jesus way. This brief word is powerfully encouraging – the churches to whom John writes are filled with the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
Revelation 13:1-10: This section really begins with 12:18. The dragon is by the sea and out of the sea comes a monster. In this vision a beast comes from the sea and receives power and authority from the dragon. A second beast from the land compels people to worship the first beast, and marks his followers with a mysterious number. Those who do not worship the beast and have this number are killed. This imagery was transparent to John’s first readers, who were living through the history it symbolized. Their question was not who the persecuting power was, but what it was. This is what is communicated in John’s revelatory letter to them. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
The background for the beast rising out of the sea is the mythical figure of Leviathan. The beast also has a history in the book of Daniel. John uses these images to speak of the Roman Empire. In chapter 17, the number seven is both a number of mountains and a number of kings – Rome was built on seven hills. The blasphemous names may refer to the fact that emperors used titles for themselves such as: Son of God, Lord, Savior, King of kings and Lord of lords. Domitian, the emperor during John’s time insisted on being called “Lord and God.” The description of the beast uses ideas from Daniel 7, where successive beasts represent successive empires. John seems to be saying that the Roman Empire combines the worst elements of all of these. Its power is demonic, coming from the dragon. No wonder John uses coded language – this is a stinging criticism of Rome, the kind of criticism it did not tolerate. The wounded beast come back to life is probably a reference to prevailing myths about Nero. Nero killed himself in 68 CE, but in some myths he never died and was said to have fled to join the Parthians in the East. He would return to wreck havoc on the empire and its people. The other myth was that while Nero had died, he was coming back from the dead to get vengeance. Again, John is quite the creative artist. Dispensationalist interpreters don’t see that aspect in John’s work. Instead they look to see who the beast might be, and any number of candidates have arisen through the years – popes, Hitler, Soviet leaders. In a sense, all those who rule with ruthless and unquestioned power have best-like qualities.
For John, the imperial cult with its worship of the emperor, was equivalent to worshipping the Devil/Satan. John has harsh words for the kind of cultural accommodation that may have been tempting to the churches to whom he was writing. Those who belong to Jesus, the Lamb, would not engage in these imperial rituals, even at the cost of death. John offers both a word of assurance and a word of encouragement at the end of this section. He tells his readers that they, as part of the church, have been a part of God’s people from the foundation of the world. I think this phrase should be read pastorally and poetically, not literally. “Be who you are” might be a contemporary translation of the idea, at least to some extent. John encourages resistance, endurance and faith, but it is to be non-violent resistance. While John is often very willing to use the imagery of war, here he is clear that “if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed.”
Revelation 13:11-18: Now a second beast arrives on the scene. The second beast, later identified as s the “false prophet” represents those who encourage worship of the emperor and participation in Roman idolatry, including (but not limited to) the priesthood of the imperial religion (People’s New Testament Commentary) The religious quality of this figure is hinted at when it has two horns like a lamb – a perverse Christ figure.
The cult of emperor worship had its signs and wonders, and no doubt there was an appeal to the power of the empire itself. How could the gods not be blessing such a powerful ruling force, bringing peace to the world. The argument from success is not always a good argument! John’s reference to the mark that was the precondition of economic engagement may be a reference to the use of imperial coins. John has such a harsh reaction to the empire, that he may have had qualms about the use of money with the images of emperors. The people in John’s churches had probably experienced economic discrimination because of their faith. People have used these verses to speak out against things like social security numbers – a rather poor interpretation of the material.
666: the number causes a faint chill to arise. This continues to be one of the most fascinating and misused passages in Revelation. The number of the beast is the sum of the numerical values of the numerical value of its letters. John writes before the invention of Arabic numerals. The languages he would have known and used – Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew – all have letters equivalent to numbers, so that every name had a numerical sum. Of the many possibilities for the identity of the beast, the most likely is “Nero Caesar,” whose numerical total in Hebrew is 666. Nero had been the first emperor to persecute the church. Domitian, the threatening emperor of John’s time was thought of as “Nero redivivus,” Nero-back-from-the dead.” (New Interpreters Study Bible)
This chapter of Revelation has been subject to some interesting readings over the years, but such readings often steer readers beyond the significant challenge of this text. John is here harshly critical of the prevailing government of his time. His point of view is in tension with other New Testament writers. In Romans, Paul had written “let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God” (13:1). John has argued, poetically, that the authority of Rome comes from the dragon. The First Letter of Peter also encourages obedience. “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme…” (2:13). In First Corinthians 8, Paul makes a case that it really doesn’t matter if one eats food that has been sacrificed to idols, though he argues that one should consider those for whom this might be a stumbling block to faith. John vehemently opposes participation in pagan rituals of the empire.
What accounts for such differences? Some of it is probably the context. John is writing to a church that has become, in the eyes of the imperial government an enemy, and Jesus’ people are suffering. In John’s mind, the government has exceeded its reach, scope and authority.
I think we need to hold all these various passages together in tension. Governments may overreach, and when they do, Christians should oppose them – as Bonhoeffer did in Nazi Germany. In democratic societies, we have the privilege of opposing government policy through participation in the political process – that makes democracy a valuable form of governance from a Christian perspective. Christians participate in political life as critically aware citizens. Blind patriotism has no place in a Christian ethic of the state. Even more deeply, we need to be critically aware of our culture. What aspects of our culture seem to move us away from the values of compassion, justice, love, care for the poor, peace? Paul may have been more sanguine about the empire, but his own thought encouraged a self-critical attitude toward culture and state. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) I like the way Eugene Peterson renders this passage: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.” In John’s words, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Revelation 13:10); and as rendered by Peterson: “Meanwhile, God’s people passionately and faithfully stand their ground.” Instead of trying to figure out who the beast is, we would do well to figure out how to resist the beastliness in our world.