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Antichrist and the State


Interpreting the Book of Revelation
Whenever you venture into the Book of Revelation, you are asking for trouble. Some people are completely convinced that it maps out future history in detail and that we can see this played out in the daily news; others, a minority, believe that everything in the book was fulfilled in the first century. Still others avoid Revelation altogether because it’s just too difficult to understand.

My purpose here is not to go into a detailed discussion of Revelation and how to interpret it. It is admittedly difficult, in large part because it is an apocalypse, a type of literature that we no longer have today. As a result, we don’t have an understanding of how to read the text from our own cultural experience.

At the same time an important principle of biblical interpretation is that we should use the clearer passages of Scripture to guide the interpretation of the more obscure.  Nowhere is this truer than in interpreting apocalyptic literature, and especially the book of Revelation. It is highly symbolic, with imagery drawn from a variety of sources but mostly from Scripture itself. The imagery is developed, elaborated, and stretched at times almost to the breaking point, but tracing it back to its Old Testament roots pays big dividends when it comes to understanding what it is saying and its relevance for today.

And that brings up a second point: no matter what you think about the connection between Revelation and current events, the book is relevant to the church in all ages. Consider the difference between Dan. 12:4 and Rev. 22:10: Daniel’s book was “sealed” until people learned more and could therefore understand it; Revelation is left unsealed because it applied to the church when it was written and it continues to apply to the church today.

With these preliminaries out of the way, let’s take a look at a passage that has generated a tremendous amount of discussion over the years, the passage dealing with the Mark of the Beast.

The Mark of the Beast

It [the beast] 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. (Rev. 13:16-18)

Let’s look at the historical context first. In Hebrew, there was a numeric code associated with the alphabet such that you could add up the values of the letters in a word or name and come up with a sum. Jewish writers used this as a way of encoding names so that only those who knew the code would recognize who they were talking about.

The reference to “the number of a man” in Rev. 13:18 points to this practice. “666” here is the sum of the letters of “Nero Caesar” translated into Hebrew. Some manuscripts read “616,” which is the result of a different transliteration of “Nero Caesar” into Hebrew; this confirms that the early church understood this as a reference to Nero.

Nero was dead long before Revelation was written, so the reference was probably not to Nero himself. While there were some fears that a demonic Nero risen from the dead would invade the Roman Empire, it is far more likely that the issue isn’t Nero personally, but what Nero represented: he considered himself divine—a god to be worshipped—and he was the first emperor to persecute Christians.

Next, we look at the mark itself. There are three important antecedents for it. First, it is a counterpart to Rev. 7:2, where God’s people are sealed with the seal of the Living God on their foreheads. The Mark of the Beast is the demonic counterpart of that sealing. Second, Romans marked their slaves to indicate possession of them. In some cults, the worshippers considered themselves slaves of the gods, and so were branded, often on the forehead, with the god’s symbol. These two points indicate that the Mark of the Beast signifies that the antichrist in some sense owns the people who receive the mark.

But there is a third antecedent that is often overlooked. The mark went on either the forehead or the right hand. Those two locations were very important to the Jews:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut. 6:4-8, emphasis added)

In the Old Testament and in Jesus’ own words, the love of God is to be our all-consuming passion. It is to occupy our lives, so that we talk about it all the time and pass it on to children. It is to guide our thinking (our foreheads) and our actions (our hands).

When the antichrist insists on putting his mark on our foreheads or hands, he is replacing the Shema, the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, with allegiance to himself. When we look out we no longer see the Shema, we see Caesar, and when we do our work we are not reminded of God, we are reminded of the government.

The point here is that Caesar (or any government authority) becomes an antichrist when he demands our first allegiance above our loyalty to God, when he claims authority over our conscience and the right to command actions that violate our faith. We may not be dealing with the ultimate Antichrist—1 John 2:18 tells us that many antichrists have come—but make no mistake, when Caesar claims authority over conscience he becomes not simply a totalitarian and a tyrant, but quite literally an antichrist.

And what is the consequence of refusing the mark?

Loss of livelihood and the right to engage in economic activity.

American Antichrist
So here’s the question: has our government become an antichrist?

Consider:

  • The Federal government is trying to force a Catholic religious order to support contraception or face crippling fines.
  • State government has forced homeowners who rent their houses for weddings to rent them to same sex couples wanting to marry or to stop doing weddings altogether.
  • State government has bankrupted bakers who refuse to supply cakes for same sex weddings.
  • State governments have prosecuted florists and photographers who will not participate in same sex weddings.
  • Governments at all levels promote homosexuality in the schools and tells students to leave their faith at home.
  • Lawmakers have introduced “The Equality Act,” making sexual orientation a protected category like race has become. In practice, that means the silencing of any opposition to same sex marriage by making it bigotry on the same level as racism, and ultimately the criminalization of any concrete actions taken on the basis of that opposition. In other words, if passed, government policy would trump religious belief regarding marriage, an area many consider a sacrament.

And these are just the most obvious examples.

My purpose here is not to answer whether the stands taken by these individuals and organizations under attack by governmentare correct or not. That is irrelevant. The important point is that in each of these cases, the individuals or groups are following their consciences informed by their faith. In no case are they discriminating against individuals, only refusing to be entangled in specific practices they believe to be sinful. And the government is threatening them with massive fines which amount to loss of livelihood for following what they believe God wants them to do.

In other words, the government is claiming authority over conscience that belongs to God alone.

So yes, the U.S. government is turning into an antichrist.

The question is, what do we do in the face of that fact?

In the Belly of the Beast
Scripture tells us that we should obey the state unless that would mean direct disobedience to God. Daniel served Nebuchadnezzar, the king who burned the temple and enslaved his people, though he would not compromise his obedience to God in either his diet (direct command) or in his prayers (not expressly commanded but owed to God nonetheless).

We even should be willing to suffer wrong inflicted by the state—Daniel was probably made a eunuch, which would have blocked him from entering the temple had he been in Jerusalem and were the temple still standing—as long as so doing does not compromise faithful obedience to God.

But of course, the key question is how we handle issues that are not addressed in Scripture, such as serving or attending a same sex “wedding.” What does it mean to love my neighbor in these situations? How do we build bridges rather than burn them?

We need to do four things here:

  • We need to think through our answers to the kinds of questions that are likely to arise for us, and we need base our response first and foremost on Scripture rather than on the opinions of whatever group we identify with.
  • We need to recognize that different Christians may come up with different answers to these questions, and we have to be good with that. That means that if we think there is no problem with baking cakes for same sex “weddings,” we don’t tell those whose consciences say otherwise to “go the second mile” and bake two cakes; similarly, if we would not bake the cake we do not attack those who would.
  • We must find creative ways to demonstrate love and compassion for homosexuals without condoning their lifestyle. We have learned to serve women who have had abortions and to help those struggling with the decision about whether or not to abort, and decades of serving with love and maintaining a consistent message has changed public views of abortion. We need to find ways to do the same thing for the homosexual community.
  • We must vocally and openly defend freedom of conscience and help those who are suffering for theirs.
Caesar is turning into an antichrist, and we can expect increasing attacks on Christians and on anyone else who opposes the government’s claim to authority over conscience. Not all of us will face this, at least not directly, but we must all be ready for accusations of bigotry, ostracism, and other social and professional penalties. Others will face fines or prison for following their faith. We need to stand with them, recognizing that neither bankruptcy nor prison can touch our liberty in Christ and knowing that those who endure to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:13).

Next Steps

Have you decided where the point is where you’ll no longer comply with government laws and regulations if they violate your conscience? You might do well to be thinking that issue through now, before it’s forced on you.

Further Reading:
For a list of resources regarding civil disobedience, see “When Not to Obey” in the Colson Center Library. A longer treatment of the same subject can be found in the Online Store under the title A Biblical Perspective on Self-Defense and Civil Disobedience.

 

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