The Illusion of a Mushy Middle

A day is coming when “neutral” no longer works.

For decades horror movies and heavy metal bands have borrowed the subject of the Antichrist (with creative modifications, of course).   A mainstream fascination has grown around the shadowy figure until even Christians are caught in it. Some of us have become experts in every kind of end time conspiracy, including which companies have demonic logos, where Antichrist is coming from, when he’s going to show up, and his identity.  We consume all the relevant Youtube videos and weird websites written in all caps, by people with P.h.Ds purchased online. In the name of being prepared.    

It’s good to be knowledgeable, but some of the same Christians with a singular appetite for the end times, are not interested in simple things related to the Christian life.  Like church attendance, or living a spiritual life. Protection, they think, will come from information.        

Here’s a news flash:  The only thing that will do you any good at the end of the age, is your attachment to the authentic Jesus Christ of Scripture. 

 Why?  Because first of all in Revelation chapter 13, the devil mimics Christ and His death and resurrection. Through this macabre work, he hopes to gain the worship of the whole world. Nothing will count more than knowing the real thing. 

John said,

1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads.  

This is a man, as confirmed by Paul’s use of the phrase “the man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians.  If you compare the description of the beast with the devil’s description back in 12:3, you’ll see a remarkable similarity–multiple heads and horns and crowns.  In other words, this man internally at least, looks exactly like the devil. At this point, Satan is tired of concealing himself behind things like money. He no longer wishes to channel himself through inanimate objects.  He wants to present himself in as literal a way as possible. This is it.  

2 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 to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. 

These beasts represent ancient world kingdoms–the leopard being Greece, the bear being Persia, the mouth being Babylon. Eventually we’ll see the final one embodied in Rome.  They’ve all shaped our current world more than we know. The devil is giving their cumulative political clout to the Beast. He’s making the beast his man on the Earth. It’s as close to physical incarnation that Satan can get.  God has his Christ, and now the devil has his Antichrist, a crude, Messianic knock-off. 

Nor is that where the counterfeiting stops:  

3 One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast.  

The mortal wound is an attempt to mimic the death of Christ, except it’s a poor imitation.  It only seems to be a mortal wound.  Christ’s death was real, not staged.  It affects everyone who believes in it by cleansing their sins away.  This faked death though, only serves to gain admirers. Also, the mortal wound being healed is an attempt to pretend a resurrection.  The resurrection of Jesus was an actual return from the grave with power unto all who believe—“as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  But again, this faked resurrection only gets people to marvel. It’s a celebrity building exercise.  

I raised a daughter, so I know how the knock-off industry works.  Like when you order a name brand from a foreign country—say, a Coach purse from Vietnam.  Then you get it, open it, and they spelled “Coach” wrong. It’s a “Couch” purse instead. Only one letter is off, but that changes everything.  And that’s why real Christians won’t be fooled, or impressed by Antichrist. Because we know what effect Christ’s death has had upon us. We know the power of the resurrection, and new life.  

The satanic ploy works on everyone else, though.  

4 And 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?” 

That sounds like unabashed admiration.  These folks don’t know the real thing, nor ever had any interest in the Christ of the Bible, so they’re suckers for a crude, inaccurate imitation.  What about those of us who don’t agree, who shake our heads at the tragic stupidity of the world? Well, things get hard.  

5 And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8 and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.  

The only people exempt from delusional worship are those written in the book of life, that is, those who have received the life of the Lamb of God, those who have been washed by the blood of His cross.

They have a personal, authentic attachment to Christ as Lord and Savior.  They are the stubborn ones, the lone holdouts against idolatrous worship. The resulting pressure upon them to conform will be enormous.  Even now the faithful are derided as standing in the way of progress, being on the wrong side of history, and deemed “haters.”  How much worse then?  

9 If anyone has an ear, let him hear:  10 If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain.  Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

Some Christians are apparently preordained to experience certain sufferings, to experience being conquered at the hands of the beast, at least temporarily.  Why does God allow this satanic pretender at all, who draws away most of the world, and tries to destroy the Christian faith?  

Here is a standard 2 liter of Dr. pepper.   It even has the word “authentic” written on the sub-label.  

But along comes a contender.   

Yes, it’s a Sam’s Club knockoff.  The label has more pizzazz, and it costs less than half what Dr. Pepper costs.  In other words, it’s attractive. Now some soda drinkers don’t care much for the original Dr. Pepper because it’s too strong, and too…well…peppery.  But then they’re not crazy about the obvious knockoff beverage, either. So we’ve created an interesting middle ground called Mr Pibb.   

In fact, some restaurants offer Mr. Pibb as a valid alternative to Dr. Pepper.  To the less discerning palate, there’s no real difference in taste.      

For the purpose of illustration, Mr. Pibb is the compromise between the true Christ (Pepper) and the fake, wannabe Christ (Thunder).  

But these verses here in chapter 13 show us there will come a time when the middle choice will disappear, leaving only the real Christ and the knock off.  There won’t be any gray zone, as when someone claims to be a member of a church, but the hidden reason is only because their parents force them to attend. Or a person goes to bible study or prayer meetings, but only because their spouse coerces them.  No more of that. There won’t be any further mantras like “I’m spiritual-but-not-religious.” Or, “I believe most of the Bible.”  The wise, overruling sovereignty of the Lord will allow circumstances such that His narrow way will become narrower still.  Every heart, whether false or true, will become will become manifest.    

In fact, the final verses of this chapter (vv. 11-18) show us Antichrist has a spokesperson—another beast who not only promotes, but enforces belief in him.    

First, he employs the persuasive power of false miracles. If that fails to wow, then he uses punitive powers of restricting one’s ability to make a living (v. 17).  For those who still hold out, he uses the death penalty. In the midst of this drama, how would anybody know if you lied? Couldn’t you say you worship the beast, and yet secretly worship Jesus?  Well, that’s what a lot of people do now. They play both sides. It works as long as there’s a Mr. Pibb in the middle. But remember, neutral ground has at this point disappeared.

Verse 16 says that this false prophet causes every worshiper of the beast to receive a mark on the right-hand and on the forehead.   The mark is a number—666, the number of a man (v. 18). Six is the day of man’s creation. When that number is tripled, it becomes 666, which is a man making himself a false version of the trinity.2  Will you worship this false trinity?  If yes, you get the mark. If no, you will suffer privation and perhaps die.  There’s those who receive the mark and those who don’t. Period.

I grew up in the Deep South, where there is a Jesus-friendly culture.  The experience for me was like being on a tube trip down a broad, slow river.  There was lots of room to navigate. If I encountered anything that seemed radical, enthusiastic, or too committed to Christian thought or belief, I would simply paddle away to another part of the river.  

I went to school with Pentecostal kids.  At different times a few of them tried to get me interested in the Holy Spirit.  I paddled away. Some of the other kids were Southern Baptists who mentioned they were worried I might go to hell.  I paddled away from them, too. That was the name of the game—avoid any person or situation that would pin me to a faith commitment.  In the meantime, I was feebly involved in my own family religion, and happy I was a good enough person.  

This worked for me until I joined the army, where life got too real.  I ended up in the Chaplain’s office. I had hoped this man would behave like a bureaucratic religious dude, and write me a script for a week off, or something.  Instead, I found myself face to face with the gospel. And no room to paddle away. He laid out the Word, saying, “John, Christ died for your sins, and proved it by rising from the dead. The only thing left is whether or not you will receive Him into your heart. Will you John?  Right here and now?”1 

For years I thought the real choice in life was Dr. Pepper or Mr. Pibb.  I didn’t know it was Dr. Pepper or Dr. Thunder. Christ or Antichrist. My name written in the book of life, or the beast’s name written on my forehead.  

Even after logging a lot of hours as a Christian, you might also think the real choice is between an uncommitted Christian Life and a committed one.  Perhaps unintentionally, we reinforce this idea. The bad news is that when the uncommitted middle ground category finally gives way, and disappears, we might be shocked.      

As for right now in your life, you’re making choices.  Big ones and little ones. Some of them mean you are stepping in toward Christ and the gospel.  Others, no matter how you try to justify it, mean you are taking steps back.  

Get used to making the choices consistent with the book of life.       

 

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¹People have for a long time tried to figure out the personal identity of the Beast. This has led to a number of erroneous predictions and claims  made about notable leaders throughout history, including Napoleon, Hitler, and certain U.S. Presidents. According to classic church historian Phillip Schaff, the most ancient and enduring interpretation in the Christian church held that the beast referred to Caesar Nero.  Nero was the first Caesar to destroy Christians in a public setting. He did so with such cruel sadistic inventiveness, that the early church considered him a monster. First century believers (many of whom were survivors of the horrid ordeal), were the original recipients of the book of Revelation.  When they first read the text, they saw Nero as the beast.  They expected that though he had committed suicide, he would somehow manage to stage a return, renewing his bloodlust.

Additionally, the Hebrew alphanumeric code of assigning a numerical value to Hebrew letters equates the name Nero Caesar to the number 666. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Professor of Ancient Cultures at Israel Bible Center adds, “If the original identification of the beast as Emperor Nero is correct, this would explain why some early manuscripts of the Book of Revelation have 616 instead of 666 as the number of the beast. The difference likely arose from spelling Nero’s name as it was pronounced in Latin instead of Hebrew. In its Latin pronunciation, the “nun” (which has a numerical value of 50) was dropped in seeking to help readers not to confuse the identity of the godless Roman emperor with someone else. Hence we get 616 in some later manuscripts rather than 666 in earlier (original) ones.” 

Though we respect the interpretation of Revelation’s first readers, it is not without problems.   

In G.K. Beale’s shorter commentary on Revelation, he writes, “No clear identification can be made linking 666 with any particular name. Attempts have been made to alter spellings and incorporate titles to try to make a multitude of names fit, but nothing conclusive has emerged from this. Most commonly, the number has been identified with Nero, on the basis of the Hebrew transliteration of the title Nero Caesar. However this flounders on confusion concerning the exact Hebrew spelling of ‘Caesar’ and does not fit the fact that John’s readers were largely Greek speaking,  and Nero had many titles other than Caesar… Attempts have been made unsuccessfully to identify the number with other Roman emperors or combinations of Emperors. According to one study, over 100 names were proposed in Britain between 1560 and 1830. In the past century the names of Kaiser and Hitler, among others, were also calculated to equal 666. Through any interpreter’s creative Ingenuity, the number can be worked out on the basis of Greek, Hebrew, or Latin to identify hundreds of possible ancient and modern candidates. There are so many proposals because it is easy to turn a name into a number, but complicated to deduce the right name from a number. Salmon formulated three rules which commentators have used for making any desired name equals 666:  “First, if the proper name by itself will not yield it, add a title; secondly, if the sum cannot be found in Greek, try Hebrew, or even Latin; thirdly, do not be too particular about the spelling… We cannot infer much from the fact that a key fits the lock if it is a lock in which almost any key will turn.’”

Other modern commentators however, are not so quick to agree.    In his study on Revelation, Christopher Ash returns to the original premise–that in some strange way, Nero is the beast, although it should not be understood as a resurrection and still less as a reincarnation.  “If you put the name Nero Caesar into Hebrew consonants, their numerical value is 666. Similarly, if you transliterate the Greek word for beast into Hebrew consonants, the numerical value is also 666… I think that John is using the pattern of Nero as a type of the final ruler of an evil world empire through whom Satan will persecute the church. So Nero was a wicked Tyrant who persecuted Christians and was worshipped as a God and had expectations that he would return from the dead the way only Jesus has really done. I think that John is now seeing in his vision the tip a logical fulfillment of the historical Nero and this final Antichrist who is a seven-headed, ten-horned beast and who has a false prophet who enforces the worship of the beast with the threat of death.”  

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