Daily Office Readings – New Testament ( Revelation 13:1-10 )
I lead a small morning prayer group, using the Book of Common Prayer, and as we’ve been working through the last few weeks, each of us has consistently remarked on the odd nature of the book of Revelation. And it really is an odd book, full of crazy depictions of creatures that don’t exist, and story lines that don’t really seem to make any sense.
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months.Revelation 13:1-5
One of the things that repeatedly comes up in conversation is how many people have interpreted this book over the years. Some people interpret it as referencing governments and kingdoms around during John’s time. Others see it merely as allegorical. Still others see it as prophetic, and for them, all the depictions of creatures and rulers in this book reference things that are yet to come. One person in our group mentioned that this book lends itself to various interpretations, and then another brought up the fact that a lot of the cults in the world use this book to motivate and manipulate their followers, since all of these curious and fantastic elements can be interpreted as desired and pushed into a fear-based theology.
In the seventies and eighties of the last century, many wrote books explaining exactly how current events of the time matched up with this book, and how the various characters and creatures referenced current countries or their political leaders. In some cases, the swarm of locusts become Apache attack helicopters, and in another, Mikhail Gorbachev was labeled the antichrist.
This book is so fantastical, and so out of the ordinary, that far too many people read into it what they want to see, and they are constantly updating their interpretation when what they predict fails to happen. And those that follow them buy in to the new interpretation, because they too want to see what they wish to see.
The culprit is a desire for control. A need to be right. A desire to know what will happen so we can prepare for the (expected) unexpected.
Years ago, on a diocesan retreat, two men were arguing about a particular prophecy concerning where the new diocesan cathedral would stand. We were all sharing a cabin bunkhouse, and I was trying to get some sleep. The two could not, or would not, agree on any of the supposed signs that they had interpreted to indicate the location of the new building, and after a while, I got grumpy enough that I just flat out asked them why they were arguing.
“It’s important to us,” one of them responded, “Why wouldn’t we be discussing it?”
I replied, “Because you can’t prove anything in this argument. You’re just going back and forth about something that hasn’t happened. Until the new cathedral is standing, there is literally nothing to argue about. You’ve both said where you think it will stand. Years from now you can come back and tell the other one off. But for now, this discussion is fruitless and just making three people mad.”
One of the guys laughed and agreed with me. The other got mad that I would stop him from “proving” that his interpretation of prophecy was right. But at least they stopped the discussion. And I managed to get some sleep that night.
Fifteen years later, there still is no new cathedral.
Whenever we are confronted with the unknown – with uncertainty – each of us love to interpret what we have heard or seen in ways that put our minds at ease. We see what we want to see by reading our own desires into the events that have unfolded around us. In that sense, we are no different than those who have built entire empires upon the words of this fantastical book at the end of the Bible; we just do it on a smaller scale.
Sometimes this desire for control, and our interpretation of wildly disparate events, helps us to continue to put one foot in front of the other. It helps us persevere. But when it takes over our mind, it becomes a burden; it serves more to drag us down a path of self-sufficiency, rather than focusing our hearts and minds on loving God and loving our neighbor. These are activities that we can control, and which are much more fruitful than divining the future.
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.