Worshiping whom?

Worshiping whom? Recognizing contemporary disguises

A fresh look at themes in Revelation

Ervin K. Thomsen, DMin., is senior pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Sonora, California.

The richness of the symbolism of Revelation challenges us to keep probing further, drawing more meaning from the inspired figures. Studying these symbols in their native setting, with the Bible as its own interpreter, should enable us not only to see greater beauty in the truth but also to detect the shrewdness of eschatological principalities and powers.

One of the primary apocalyptic symbols concentrated on by Seventh-day Adventists has been that of the beast. The historical Adventist under standing of Scripture correctly identifies the beast with the actions of a corrupted religio-political power which seeks to control the conscience of humanity, and displays a particularly potent last-day resurgence. After exposing the nature of this anti-Christ power and describing the reach of its desolating influence, Revelation 15:2 describes the mastery of those who have "victory over the beast." Here the symbolism again ignites our interest, inviting us to ask, "But what is victory over the beast?"

John displays it as a fourfold triumph: "Over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name" (Revelation 15:2). But what do these symbols imply?

Clues in the literary structure

The clues to guide us in interpreting Revelation 15:2 are found in the literary structure of Revelation 11:19-15:4. Revelation 15 describes the final part of a sequence of scenes which are rooted in the introductory sanctuary scene of Revelation 11:19: "Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant" (NIV).

Throughout Revelation the sanctuary scenes introduce the themes of succeeding passages. For instance, the high priest tending the candlesticks in Revelation 1 introduces the sequence of the seven churches. The sealed book of Revelation 5 introduces the sacrificed Lamb and thus the sequence of the seven seals. In a similar way, the overarching theme of Revelation 11:19-15:4 deals with covenant, and describes seven scenes. Though these scenes are not overtly numbered, they might aptly be called "covenant pageants" (see Figure 1).

Tracing the covenant theme

Studying the book of Revelation is like an archaeological dig in which multiple layers of Old Testament symbolism await progressive unearthing until the meaning of a given passage is exposed. In Revelation 11-15 the symbols focus on the covenant. The covenant theme is one of the great backdrops of the sanctuary and of the Old Testament. Studying the covenant theme brings us to see that God's plan to save humanity is a generous act of grace.

In Revelation, the numerous occurrences of the woman, the serpent/ dragon, her child, and her seed have their roots in the first covenant promise of Genesis 3:15, which foretells the defeat of the serpent by the seed of the woman. The attempt to murder the man-child (Rev. 12:4), the song of victory (12:10), and the wilderness experience of the woman (verses 6, 14) all have their origin in the great covenant-based exodus event. This event, at its heart is a telling demonstration of God's covenant faithfulness. In Revelation 12, as in the case of the exodus, a hostile power is defeated. In both cases, for a short time the power continues his warfare against the covenant people "which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (verse 17).

Revelation 13 describes the devil's attempts to lead the people of God away from a covenant relationship with Him. The dragon uses the power and influence of the beast and the false prophet to accomplish this. This Satanic subversive activity is typified in the Old Testament, which constantly alludes to a false leadership luring the people of God away from faithfulness to Him and His worship in the sanctuary or Temple.

The same Old Testament typology is again reflected in Revelation as the agencies of Satan attempt to shake God's people from covenant loyalty: The real Moses built the tabernacle and warned the people against breaking the covenant (Deut. 8). The pseudo-Moses, or the beast, blasphemes the tabernacle of God, which is an exhibit par excellence of God's covenant faithfulness. Through Moses the law was given, but the beast changes the law (Dan. 7:25). The real Moses warred on behalf of the saints, but the dragon through the beast makes war with the saints. The historical Moses led people with deadly wounds to find healing, but pseudo-Moses (the beast) receives a deadly wound, which is healed. Moses was given a mouth to speak for God (Ex. 4:10-15), but the beast is given a mouth to speak against God. Whereas Moses was a deliverer, the beast leads into captivity. All the activities of this power are aimed at destroying the covenant relationship between the people and their God.

The work of the two-horned beast of Revelation 13 (the false prophet) appears to be that of a pseudo-Elijah. The real Elijah appealed to people on Mount Carmel to return to covenant faithfulness. There God signaled His approval of the true prophet's work by sending fire from heaven. The false prophet, utilizing miracles and fire from heaven, pretends to have heaven's approval on his covenant-destroying activities.

Please look at Figure 1 and notice that under the fourth pageant the covenant people appear with the Father's name written in their foreheads (Rev. 14:1). The term virgins describes their covenant faithfulness (verse 4).

The fifth covenant pageant, parallel with the first angel's message, calls upon humanity to enter into covenant relationship with the Creator-God and exposes the negative results of staying outside the covenant. The second angel's message describes the covenant-breaking unfaithfulness of Babylon as fornication. The third angel issues heaven's final ultimatum and warning against worshiping the beast.

Under the sixth covenant pageant, the righteous and the wicked are separated in the harvest/judgment. Finally, the seventh covenant pageant depicts the victorious in worship, praising their God by singing: "Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints" (Revelation 15:3).

A divine parody

Throughout Revelation John em ploys satirical devices and parody to contrast God's truth with Satanic counterfeits. For instance, a comparison between Babylon and Jerusalem leaves little doubt as to the author's intent; though called a city, Babylon is no city, but rather a prostitute riding a dangerous beast in a desolate wilderness (Rev. 17:1-5). Jerusalem, on the other hand, is described as a real city (Rev. 21, 22), with foundations, walls, and streets. There is even a fraudulent counterpart to the Trinity in the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet.

With all this in mind, is it not possible that along with other comparisons to Old Testament themes, John would describe a counterfeit of the covenant and the commandments of God? It is strongly plausible to suggest that the worship of the beast, the worship of his image, and the reception of his name and number (Rev. 15:2) comprise a divinely inspired parody describing Satan's version of the first four commandments of the decalogue (see Figure 2).

The law as covenant, and its fraudulent counterpart

The Old Testament frequently speaks of the tables of the law as the "tables of the covenant," their depository place being in the "ark of the covenant." The preamble to the law makes it clear that God's gracious election of a people for Himself preceded the giving of the Law: "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Ex. 20:2). Here, as the law is given, is heaven's invitation to accept and trust the sufficiency of God's saving grace. The covenant context of the commandments reveals that grace and shows that commandment keeping was the response to salvation and not the cause of it. The Ten Commandments were not given so that by their works people might add something to God's salvation; rather, the law was intended to protect the covenant relationship as it originated in God's gracious redemptive work. The call of the first commandment to worship God exclusively is founded on His sole ability to save. When we doubt His ability to save, we become candidates for worshiping other gods. Really, there are no other gods, except as fallen humans confer upon the objects of their choice a worship status. Faith in the sufficiency of God's salvation removes the need to worship other gods, even such as the beast.

  • The second commandment's instruction not to make and worship images or likenesses of anything that exists, again is designed to protect the covenant relationship. Though ostensibly enhancing the worship of God, any human-made substitute or representation of God leads away from Him.

The worship of idols is rooted in the human quest for security. Not trusting the sufficiency of the salvation that is in God, causes us to feel that we must come up with our own substitutes for God. Inevitably these substitutes are forged out of fear and maintained in anxiety.

Even religious ideology and pet doctrinal theories, though conveying truth about God, can lead us away from God by causing us to think that salvation lies in our intellectual comprehension of that truth. Worshiping the image of the beast is involved whenever we make any human device or theory about God the ultimate word about Him.

The subtlety of idolatry or beast worship is its use of legitimate and good causes (patriotism, self-protection, defending the faith, etc.) to further its own ends. When idolatry or the worship of anything other than God is present, more often than not these ends are promoted through illegitimate means such as: fear, anger, force, threat, or coercion. These are the modus operandi of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet.

  • The third commandment prohibits taking the name of the Lord in vain. To know the name of a person is to have power with that individual. To receive the name of God means that we live under His ownership, having both access to Him and authority from Him. To take the name of God in vain is far more than the utterance of profane curses; it is to presume to rely on the benefits and protection afforded by that name while never really entering into the covenant relationship offered by the Creator.

To have God's name suggests being under God's protective control, and having His character. To receive the mark and name of the beast is to come out from under the protection of God's covenant and receive in one's life the damaging effects of ownership by the beast. Again, this is a form of idolatry, or making an image to the beast.

  • The fourth commandment is a call to remember the sign or seal of the covenant the seventhness of the Sabbath. The perfection of the covenant relationship is not rooted in our activity, but rests in God's calling and election. Entering into the Sabbath rest signifies that we are set aside for God alone. It is a sign of our sanctification (Eze. 20:12, 20) and our appropriation of the provisions of the covenant (Isa. 56:5,6). It is a renunciation of all attempts to create any kind of humanly based salvation. By its nature, this renunciation rejects any purported salvation originating in the self or in potentates such as the beast.

To place confidence in the beast sets us apart from a covenant relationship with God, making us candidates for receiving the mark of the beast and the number of his name. Even when trust is focused on the Sabbath day (which itself is created) rather than on the Creator and Lord of the Sabbath, Sabbath-keeping becomes an idolatrous activity. The worship of God as Creator safeguards the covenant relationship by reminding us of the distinction between creature and Creator (Isa. 42:5, 8). The blurring of this distinction leads to idolatry.

The disguise of idolatry

Perhaps John employs the symbol of "worshiping the beast" to caricature the foolishness of all idolatry. The idolatry most difficult to detect is that which parades as worship and obedience to God. This is what makes legalism the most dangerous idolatry of all, and what makes the worship of the beast so alluring.

The charm of legalism is that it seems to work: "Have we not... in thy name done many wonderful works?" (Matt. 7:22). But the trap of legalism is its self-deception; it gives cheap and fickle assurance while leaving the heart unchanged. In connection with this comes the clearest illustration of the worship of the beast. We see it in the apparently alive, yet defunct religion that surrounded Jesus in His day. Standing beside this system, Jesus brought into bold relief both the emptiness of a dying, beast-like system, and the glorious dynamics of life in Him.

The commandments of God are openly addressed in Revelation 12:17 and 14:12, but they come in inextricable connection with the "testimony of Jesus" and the "faith of Jesus." The commandments in their covenant context protect us from the twin errors of faith without works and works without faith.

Toward a larger view

The approach presented here in no way threatens the foundations of historical Adventist interpretation. Instead, our prophetic heritage is strengthened as various insights from Old Testament material are plugged into the sequential historical exhibits of the work of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. The impending conflict is worldwide, and the great issues in this controversy concern the law and character of God.

The covenant theme, as expressed both in the commandments of God and the sanctuary service, presents a balanced picture of law and grace, especially when put in the light of Christ. The "great controversy" focus has in the past kept the Adventist prophetic interpretation on track.

This great focus has demonstrated the universality of the final apostasy and heaven's challenge to it. Seeing the larger picture in Revelation 12-15 not only reinforces the proclamation of the message Adventists proclaim, but also guards us against the self-deception of making an idol out of "having the truth."

The messages of the three angels still carry heaven's challenge to earth's apostasy. The marching orders for our church are found in these three themes. But the messages of the three angels contain the medicine we must regularly take ourselves as we move out to dispense it to others.


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Ervin K. Thomsen, DMin., is senior pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Sonora, California.

April 1996

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