On Monday, we began a new series in Revelation, starting with chapter 13. You really need to start there for this week’s material to make sense. We identified the mark of the beast as emperor worship, and saw how the beast from the sea represented the blasphemous, self-aggrandising dictator that was the Roman emperor. Today, we meet a second beast.
The beast from the land
Revelation then introduces another image; a second beast.
Revelation 13:11 Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the land. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon.
It might look harmless enough, but again it does the work of Satan.
Revelation 13:12 It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the land and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed.
This beast represents not the Roman emperor himself, but the cult of worship that surrounded him: the priests of the imperial cult.
Revelation 13:14a Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the land.
People don’t participate in this worship in an informed way, but they are deceived. The beast tries to paint the emperor as a bringer of peace; as one who brings the favour of the gods upon the empire. And so the world is deceived.
Revelation 13:14b-15 It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 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.
The citizens of the empire would talk about emperor worship like it was a voluntary expression of gratitude. Many cities—like Pergamum, the location one of the seven churches—many cities were proud to have temples for the imperial cult! But Revelation paints it as an imposition. It’s not a voluntary expression of gratitude to a benevolent son-of-the-gods. No—it’s enslavement by a self-aggrandising blasphemous dictator!
Revelation 13:16-17 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, 17 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.
If you refused to worship the emperor—as many Christians did – then life was very difficult. It was hard to get a job, as you couldn’t join the equivalent of a trade union without sacrificing to the gods and to the emperor. You couldn’t join in the public festivals—what passed for entertainment in those days—because it involved emperor worship.
And it made you an outcast—people wondered why you didn’t do what everyone else did; whether you were plotting treason against Rome; or whether you were just plain weird.
So to make things easier; to avoid rocking the boat; to stay in good with society—you’d be tempted to go along with the imperial cult. The worship of the emperor, that everyone else did, just to feel like you belonged.
In essence, it was a civic religion: one that through ritual and ceremony bound society together around a celebration of humanity itself.
The Imperial Cult Today
So do we have an imperial cult, or a civic religion today? By that, I mean:
- A public ritual devoid of actual religious worship, as an expression of solidarity with our society.
- A replacing of God with something human.
- A celebration of human triumph over adversity; a story of rebirth or renewal, like the resurrected Empire.
Is there anything in our culture today that looks like this?
Yesterday, I already mentioned the Olympics: how we gather together every four years to honour the human spirit and stand together as a united humanity. (Before we get back to exploiting and invading each other 16 days later.)
But what about how ANZAC Day is often celebrated in Australia—not so much in churches, but in the big, official, televised services with huge crowds? (International readers: this day is to remember fallen soldiers, but it also has strong connections with the ‘birth’ of our national identity: think Memorial Day in the USA combined with the Fourth of July.)
Where people gather together to celebrate their bond of being Aussie; hordes flocking to Gallipoli, keen to experience a spiritual connection with one another—without God.
Where we don’t give thanks to God for bringing us peace; but we glorify the ANZAC spirit that lives on in us all.
Where we gather to recite the passion narrative of Gallipoli; a story of triumph over adversity. Having rejected God, we’ve gone in search of a new Easter story. A story of heroic death. And of “resurrection.”
This came home to me a few years back when I was watching the telecast of the dawn service on the western front. They recited a poem about the ANZACS by Dame Mary Gilmore:
“They are not gone, not even broken. Only their dust has gone back home to earth. But they—the essential they—shall have rebirth whenever a word of them is spoken.”
Australia has, little by little, created its own imperial cult, of a sort. One that celebrates humanity and the Aussie spirit. It denies God his rightful worship as our saviour. It sends the message “we can save ourselves.”
Now hear me correctly: I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t celebrate ANZAC Day. In fact, I think we should! We should celebrate ANZAC Day loudly and publicly the right way. Where we remember of the sacrifices that were made for the sake of peace—in a way that leads us to thank God for the ultimate sacrifice that brought us eternal peace.
And ANZAC Day is just one example of many. You only have to think of how most of the world has turned Christmas into worship of the family. Again, creating a civic religion with the absence of God. Robbing God of his rightful place at the centre, putting ourselves there instead. Creating myths of renewal, heroism, and triumph over adversity. Whether it be the children’s fable of Rudolph. (The unlikely outcast who was rejected, but became the cornerstone of a whole new… sleigh team…?) Or the more adult myth of family harmony and world peace, just by trying harder for one day in the year. Again, humans replace God at the centre.
But a lot of the time, our imperial cults aren’t particularly organised or obvious. In our age, the beast from the land has grown a hipster beard, clipped on a man-bun, and started an advertising agency. Deceiving the inhabitants of the earth into worshipping possessions and body image and celebrities. Convincing us that we desperately want that which ends up enslaving us. Forcing us to worship our own passions and desires, rather than the one who created us.
The beast, and its worship, may look quite different today. But at its core, nothing has changed. God is sidelined, and humanity makes itself into an idol. And everyone—even believers—are constantly pressured to go along with it.