In sending forth this first in a series of articles exploring the meaning of Revelation 14:9-12, I am well aware of the fact that there are those who feel that much, if not all, of the book of Revelation is so mysteriously symbolic that it cannot be understood. It is true that the book—especially the symbolism of the beast, his image, and his mark has puzzled Bible students for centuries, and from a human viewpoint it is easy to sympathize with those who feel that Revelation is difficult or impossible to understand, since much of it is written in symbolic language.
Yet the introductory verses announce that the Apocalypse is a revelation of Jesus Christ, not an incomprehensible puzzle. Furthermore, a blessing is promised those who read, hear, and keep those things found in this prophetic book (see chap. 1:1, 3). A similar blessing appears also in its climactic closing chapter: "Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book" (chap. 22:7). In order for a person to be blessed be cause he reads, hears, and keeps the sayings of the prophecies of "this book," he obviously must have an understanding of what he reads, hears, and keeps. Surely it is not presumptuous to believe that the prophecies and messages between the opening and closing blessings are understandable under the direction and aid of the Holy Spirit.
Even in connection with the puzzling beast symbolism, chapter 15:2, 3 declares that those who gain "the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name" stand on the sea of glass singing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb. It's a bit difficult to imagine such a group who have gotten victory over the beast and all that goes with it, and who even sing about it, and yet who are totally ignorant of the meaning of it all!
It is also rather curious that John, in his closing testimony, gives a severe warning against anyone who would add to or take away from the prophecies of this book. It almost seems as if, looking down through the future's halls, he anticipated those who would claim that Revelation is mysterious and incomprehensible. Such an attitude, it seems to me, takes away from the great truths God has in this book for the church in these latter days.
Finally, John closes Revelation with the thought that our Lord, the One who is the central theme of the book, has here given His testimony (see chap. 22:20). Surely His witness and His testimony are not only true and reliable, but comprehensible.
Bible students who agree that Revelation's prophecies contain important in formation that the church today can interpret and understand under the guidance of the Holy Spirit are nevertheless awed by chapter 14:9-12 because of the severity of its language. It is perhaps the most fearful denunciation to be found in Scripture, and this fact itself is a good reason to believe that we can understand its meaning. Would a God of infinite love give a warning message of such awful magnitude and such terrifying consequences if His servants are in capable of understanding its meaning? He would never require His people to avoid worship of the beast, nor threaten dire punishment for failure to obey, knowing they could never understand the symbols sufficiently to be obedient. It may be added that the tremendously negative aspects of this passage imply the existence of an equally tremendous positive truth. Counterfeit $20 notes are proof of the existence of the genuine; no one produces counterfeit four-dollar notes! And the more marvelous the right way is, the more awful is the wrong!
It is true the warning is couched in somewhat mysterious terms. But before we dismiss it, we should recall that Noah's warning of a coming flood undoubtedly was labeled mysterious by the vast majority of his hearers. For a man to preach a world catastrophe in the form of a devastating flood seemed not only mysterious but ridiculous in those stormless, rain-free years! Attitudes toward Noah's warning probably differed little from current attitudes toward attempts to decipher and preach the meaning of chapter 14:9-12 for today. Could this be one reason why Jesus declared, "As the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be" (Matt. 24:37)?
To ignore the warning of chapter 14:9-12 places one in a dangerous position. For whatever the beast power may represent, Revelation is convincingly clear regarding its scope, influence, and final disposition. Let's notice certain characteristics and descriptions of this power.
We have already mentioned John's picture of a victorious group, standing on what appears to him as a sea of glass, singing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb (see chap. 15:2, 3). These are identified as those who have gained the victory over the beast, his image, his mark, and the number of his name. The importance of this victory includes even more than ultimate deliverance from sin and death. In chapter 16:2, John explains that the first of the seven last plagues just prior to Christ's return falls on those who have the mark of the beast and who worship his image. The ultimate destruction of this power is described in chapters 19:20 and 20:10.
Chapter 13 contains the most detailed information about the beast. Those who worship this power ask rhetorical questions that indicate its strong influence and hold on the human race: "Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?" (verse 4). The picture of the beast drawn in this chapter is one of a power whose major characteristic is blasphemy against God, His name, His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven (verse 6). Its power and influence extends over "all kindreds, and tongues, and nations" (verse 7). And "all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (verse 8).
A second beast is introduced in chapter 13 that makes an image to the first beast and causes "that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed. And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads" (verses 15, 16). Thus the beast, its image, and mark have worldwide, all-inclusive, all-powerful influence. It is against the force and influence of this powerful system that the Lord of the universe warns the human race in chapter 14:9-12.
In considering this passage, we must take into account its setting. In the first five verses of chapter 14, John sees in vision a specific group of people known as the 144,000 who are "redeemed from the earth" (verse 3). Although most commentators feel this number is symbolic, the important feature about this group is not their number but their unique spiritual experience, which includes (1) the "Father's name written in their foreheads," constituting the seal of God (verse 1; see also chap. 7:2-4); (2) a "new song" that they will sing "before the throne," for they have gone through a unique experience (verse 3); (3) a total surrender to God, symbolized as undefiled virginity and seen in their practice of God's truth unmixed with error and tradition (verse 4); (4) following the Lamb (Christ) wherever He goes, signifying total dependence, surrender, and obedience to Him (verse 4); (5) guileless mouths, indicating a tremendous depth of Christian experience (verse 5; see also James 3:2); and (6) standing "without fault before the throne of God," representing their trust in the righteousness of Christ rather than their own merits and works (verse 5).
This faithful, obedient group stands in stark contrast to those who "worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand" (verse 9). Obviously, this scene takes place after our Lord returns at the end of the age, or the end of world history. But verses 6-12 of this same chapter set be fore us a description of a message that must go to the world prior to our Lord's return. It is a threefold preparatory message given to the world under the symbolism of three angels. The depth and scope of these messages have great significance, especially in view of developments that are taking place in these latter days. All three messages are in separably woven together and cannot be fully understood unless studied as a whole. In other words, the third angel's message containing the warning against worshiping the beast has a direct connection with the first and second angels' messages.
The first angel's message (verses 6, 7) is a combined command and announcement of "the everlasting gospel" being preached to "every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people." It is vital to keep in mind that the concept of "the everlasting gospel" being preached throughout all the earth is an introductory preface to all three messages. Actually, it is not merely an introductory remark but the theme, or core, of all three messages. This key point plays an important role in deciphering the symbolism of the mark of the beast. In op position to the principles of "the ever lasting gospel" stands a religious system that sweeps the world with a false gospel deceiving all except those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.
The second element in the first angel's message is the startling announcement that the hour of God's "judgment is come" (verse 7). Then follows the command to fear God and worship Him as the creator of "heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of water" (verse 7). This point is also of utmost significance, as we will see in future articles.
The second angel's message declares that "Babylon is fallen, . . . that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication" (verse 8). Compare this verse carefully with John's vision of the great whore in chapter 17, "with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication" (verse 2). Also note that on this whore's forehead "was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH" (verse 5). Obviously, John was not referring to the ancient city of Babylon, for it lay abandoned in ruins when he wrote these words, and continues to be so until this day. We can conclude only that the terminology is used symbolically to refer to the opponents of God's people, just as ancient Babylon was the unparalleled enemy of God's Old Testament people. "The wine of the wrath of her fornication" would represent the intoxicating sway she exercises over all who yield to her charms.
Following the second angel's message comes the third angel with his awful denunciation against those who "worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand" (chap 14:9).
As we continue this study in future articles, may each of us ask God's guidance through His Spirit in understanding aright the puzzling, yet supremely important, truths of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. —J.R.S