I apologize for a long period of silence on this blog. I have been involved in so many fresh writing and speaking project I just haven’t been able to dedicate time to one more thing that doesn’t have a deadline attached to it. With this blog today, I will share a summary of the revolutionary things I learned in Seminary from my favorite teacher, Hans LaRondelle (1973-1975, 1981-1987). His concept of Christ-Centered typological interpretation was like taking the blinders off in my reading of the Bible. Obscure prophetic texts suddenly made sense. There was a coherent unity to the Bible I had never seen before.
LaRondelle’s major contribution to my understanding had to do with the relationship between Israel and the church in New Testament interpretation. Many Christian scholars understanding that the unfulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament must be fulfilled in detail in the Middle East, exactly the way they are written up. This leads to conclusions related to what some call the Rapture theory. Larondelle pointed out that the writers of the New Testament did not read the Old Testament prophets in that way. Readers of Revelation should read the Old Testament the way the rest of the New Testament writers did. In this series of blogs, I will try to summary that perspective and its implications for my understanding of Revelation.
One of the great honors of my life was to have Dr. LaRondelle trust me enough to request from his death bed that I work with his final book manuscript and bring it to a conclusion. This was published electronically through the Logos software as The Bible Jesus Interpreted. It has since been updated and published in book form as Through Jesus’ Eyes (Safeliz, 2020). I will try to summarize the main insights of that book here.
I apologize for the long silence. There has been so much going on I haven’t had the “bandwidth” to focus on the blog. But publishing the below is necessary as a background to discussion I am having with followers of the Facebook Commentary.
When Revelation speaks of the wrath of the nations (Rev 11:18) and the wrath of the dragon (Rev 12:12, 17), it is not a compliment. It represents irrational fury grounded in hatred and diabolical desire to destroy both lives and the environment. To then turn around and apply the same term to God can be unsettling (14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 19:15). Can God be irrationally destructive too? Does God have a dark side? Why is the book of Revelation so full of divine wrath? How can we reconcile God’s wrath with the idea that God is love?
Regarding the wrath of God, I can think of at least six circumstances in which God’s wrath is invoked in the Bible, some of them actively and others passively. First, God sometimes speaks of destructive things Satan or the nations do as if He Himself had done them. In other words, He takes responsibility for actions that He simply allows to happen. A good example of this is the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchanezzar. God speaks of it as an active judgment, but then makes clear that He is simply allowing Nebuchanezzar to do what he wants to do. God withholds His protection from His people because of their rebellion against Him (Jer 20:4-5; 21:2-10; 25:1-11). Second, the “wrath of God” in the Bible is often His sadly turning away from people who don’t want Him, allowing them to reap the consequences of their own decisions and actions. This is illustrated in Romans 1:18-28 where the wrath of God against human rebellion (Rom 1:18) is explained as God “giving them up” to the consequences of their rebellion. Third, wrath is sometimes use to describe God’s aggressive action to deliver His people, as in the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 15:7). Fourth, God sometimes acts aggressively to restrain evil when it is in danger of getting out of control, as in the Flood story. Fifth, God sometimes acts aggressively in order to get people’s attention. Sixth, God sometimes acts or doesn’t act in order to reveal the characters of Satan or of Satan’s followers. The big question here is, which of these motivations lies behind the wrath of a loving God in Revelation 16? How do you reconcile the seven last plagues with the love of the God who is most clearly revealed in the gracious, forgiving and self-sacrificing actions of Jesus Christ?
The seven last bowl-plagues at first glance seem to be direct actions of judgment on God’s part. Each of the plagues results from an action that originates in the heavenly sanctuary. The Exodus background of the bowl-plagues reminds the reader of God’s direct intervention in Egypt. The purpose of that intervention was to deliver God’s people from slavery. Read in this way, the seven bowl-plagues would be interventions of God to deliver His people from end-time Babylon. Allusions to the ancient fall of Babylon in the sixth and seventh bowls would support the same theme. A loving God acts to deliver His faithful ones from their oppressors.
The bowl-plagues fall on the earth after the close of human probation (the empty temple in heaven—Rev 15:7-8). If they are, as the text seems on the surface to suggest, active interventions of God, what is the point of such plagues if human beings are no longer willing to repent? It would be to expose the reality of their characters. In spite of the final proclamation of the gospel (Rev 14:6-7), in spite of desperate threats (Rev 14:8-11), in spite of everything in their lives going wrong (the bowl-plagues), the wicked ones’ defiance toward God and stubborn refusal to repent only increases (Rev 16:9, 11, 21). The bowl-plagues demonstrate that the character of those who oppose God and His people has become hardened in unrepentence. No amount of time or effort will win them back. A loving God does not force people into relationship with Him. If they stubbornly refuse to repent, He eventually lets them go to reap the consequences of their choices.
Sigve Tonstad offers another way to read Revelation 16. He sees it as an end-time revelation of Satan’s character. Tonstad admits that at first glance Revelation 15:7 – 16:1 implies that God is about to do something terrible. But rather than simply accept a surface reading of the text, he suggests that in the seven bowls God is permitting Satan to take nearly total control of this earth and to thereby demonstrate what his government of the universe would be like if he achieved his goal to “be like the Most High” (Isa 14:14, KJV). He points to Revelation 16:13-14 as direct evidence that demonic activity lies behind the fearsome plagues of the chapter. The surface current of Revelation reads as if the seven bowls-plagues were active, punitive judgments of God on the unrighteous after the close of human probation. But the demonic undercurrent of the book may be more important in this chapter than most commentators have allowed in the past.
Tonstad points to the clear parallels between the seven bowls and the seven trumpets. The seven trumpets also read, at first glance, as active judgments of God. But there is abundant evidence in the seven trumpets that it is the operation of Satan that is the cause of the destruction, not God (Rev 8:10-11; 9:1-5, 11, 14-15). God releases His tight control over Satan to allow him to reveal his destructive character. Tonstad reasons, from the strong parallels between the trumpets and the bowls, that they also should be read in terms of divine permission for the “Destroyer” (Rev 9:11) to reveal his destructive character. Both the trumpets and the bowls are completing a process that begins with the crisis in the heavenly council over the character and government of God (Rev 15:2, 7, cf. 5:1-5). The deceptive and destructive character of the one who slanders the character of God must be exposed (Rev 16:14) that the true character of God may be revealed (Rev 15:3-4). In the larger scheme of things (the cosmic conflict), God loosens His restraint of Satan in the trumpets and bowls so that the character of Satan can be fully revealed. A loving God wants His creatures to know the character of their adversary, so they will not place their trust in his leadership or in the words that he speaks against God. The images of Revelation can be disturbing at times, but from the perspective of the cosmic conflict, they are consistent with the actions of a loving, other-centered God.
In conclusion, the love of God is essential to His character. It has been there from eternity past. Wrath is not essential to God’s character, it is a reactive force grounded in God’s love. As one who cares deeply about the welfare of His creatures, God is distressed when His creatures hurt each other and hurt themselves by their behavior. But He does not force constructive behavior, instead he persuades; sometimes by intervention and sometimes by allowing sin to take its course. But even his aggressive interventions are grounded in His other-centered character that desires what is best for His creatures, but does not force them to adopt His ways of thinking and acting. As we approach the close of earth’s history, the book of Revelation seeks to arrest the attention of the world by demonstrating the consequences of rebellion and self-centeredness. Whether one sees the seven last plagues as active or passive judgments, a loving purpose lies behind.
The next main development on the way to the American experiment was The Great Awakening. The Great Awakening was a religious revival in the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. It was so successful that it seems to have united all the American colonies in a common spirit, regardless of denomination. The basis of that common spirit was a common authority, the Bible. The Great Awakening was opposed to tyranny in all forms and promoted liberty of conscience for all. This set the stage for the American Revolution, which was birthed by the pulpits of New England and, in many ways, led by Christian preachers.
There is a strong biblical foundation to the ideas articulated in the Declaration of Independence (AD 1776), which includes these famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Wide awareness of the principles of freedom, equality, fundamental rights, rule of law, and religious liberty were grounded in the Great Awakening and the Scriptures. Many signers of the Declaration, including John Adams, Patrick Henry and John Witherspoon were deeply committed Christians. Even those like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, whose Christian orthodoxy was questionable, were deeply influenced by the Bible and the teachings of Jesus.
This was followed soon after by the American constitution, which was grounded in the above principles and also in the Presbyterian model of government. There are at least five biblical principles at the foundation of the American constitution. 1) Government is by law rather than the whim of a ruler, and that law must be grounded in the law of God. 2) All members of society are equal under the law. 3) Human rights are grounded in creation and in the ten commandments. Human rights derive from the fact that human beings were made in the image of God. 4) The protection of individual liberty was essential. 5) While humans are made in the image of God, they are also fallen and sinful, therefore humans cannot be trusted with power. This led to the principle of separation of powers which would provide checks and balances to prevent any one person from abusing their power or the majority from abusing the minority.
There is reason to believe that the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) were based, in part, on Isaiah 33:22: “For the LORD is our judge; the LORD is our lawgiver; the LORD is our king; he will save us.” In Israel, all three roles resided in the king, which did not turn out well. As outlined in the American Constitution, the executive (president and cabinet), legislative (Congress), and judicial (Supreme and lower courts) branches of government provide separation of powers, with each branch being checked and balanced by the other two.
I find it interesting for our situation today to contrast the American Revolution with the French Revolution, which happened shortly after. In American, while church and state were to be separate in terms of law, religion and liberty were not separable. Liberty was grounded in the principles of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus. In France, on the other hand, religion was seen as the adversary of liberty, human freedom would only be achieved in the absence of religion. In France, the end result of democracy in the absence of Christian morality was the tyranny of the Reign of Terror (AD 1793-1797). Democracy without restraint quickly led to the same kinds of abuses that resulted in the death of Socrates. As noted by Edmund Burke: AHuman behavior needs restraint, the less within, the more is needed without.@
With the waning of the Protestant foundation of American society today, a strong tension has arisen between equality and freedom (religious or otherwise). Equality of opportunity and freedom are very compatible. But when equality is expressed in terms of equality of outcome, it is in tension with freedom. Genuine freedom tends to result in inequality of outcome because some people are smarter than others and some people work harder than others. Given that reality, the only way you can achieve equality of outcome is by force, which is the antithesis of human freedom. It will be interesting to see if religious liberty can survive in a society moving away from the teaching of Jesus.
If Jesus had never been born, freedom as we know it would likely not exist. And if it did, it would probably be only for the elites. Genuine civil liberties today exist primarily in countries with a Protestant or a Jewish base. When it comes to religious liberty, Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim countries tend to be quite restrictive compared to the countries with Protestant and Jewish origins. Like Christianity, the American experiment is flawed. It has changed the world for the better, but it is still struggling to apply the principles to itself.
Babylon is portrayed as a prostitute in Revelation 17 and as a great city in Revelation 18. The judgment of Babylon is briefly mentioned in Revelation 17:16 with more details being given in chapter 18. The beast with its ten horns is the cause of Babylon’s downfall in 17:16, but that beast is no longer visible in chapter 18. The activities of the beast are portrayed in terms of its components; kings, sailors and merchants. In chapter 18 Babylon is described as an enthroned queen (18:7—parallel to Jezebel in 2:20) and as a great city, whose judgment is modeled on that of Tyre in Ezekiel 26-28. Since the great Queen of Babylon was Ishtar, the many parallels between Ishtar and the woman Babylon are relevant to Revelation’s vision accounts. The description of Babylon in Revelation 18 conforms well to an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cult image. The only cult image directly mentioned in the book of Revelation is the image of the beast of Revelation 13. So the connection between Babylon and the image of the beast is confirmed in Revelation 18.
Cities in the ANE were often personified as women, so the link between Babylon the woman in Revelation 17 and Babylon the great city in Revelation 18 is a natural one in John’s day. In Revelation 18 and Ezekiel 26-28, both Babylon and Tyre as cities are judged for the same two reasons, because they have killed the faithful (Ezek 26:2; Re 18:24) and because of pride in their wealth (Ezek 28:5; 18:7). Great cities of the ANE had at least three aspects. Each city was thought of as a community, as a religious center, and as a political center. Revelation contrasts Jerusalem, as the community of the faithful, with Babylon, the community of the unfaithful. Earlier, Rebekah demonstrated that the image of the beast represented the hypocritical community of the unfaithful in the church in 13:15-17 (analogy with the synagogue of Satan in 2:9). In the ANE, cities were also known as religious and political centers. Rebekah points out that the items of trade in Revelation 18 have religious overtones more than commercial ones. They are not all luxury items, but they are all items associated with ancient temples. This is compatible with the image of the beast, which is also a religious entity.
Rebekah Liu concludes her study of Revelation 17 and 18 with the question. Why is there no reference to the image of the beast in Revelation 17 and 18? Because the image of the beast is overwhelmingly present under the name of Babylon. The cult image of Ishtar was used in Revelation as a symbol for Babylon the great. This identifies Babylon with the only cult image in Revelation, the image of the beast. In the ANE context, the images of defeated nations were burned with fire. Since the image of the beast is not listed with the beast and the false prophet as being burned in Revelation 19, the burning of the image of the beast takes place in the burning of Babylon in 17:16. In the destruction of Babylon, the story of the image of the beast reaches completion.
Babylon in Revelation 17 has numerous parallels with the fall of Babylon in Daniel 5. Both chapters share the theme of imminent judgment with a subsequent swift fall. In Daniel it is a disembodied hand writing on the wall that announces the fall of Babylon. In Revelation 17 and 18 it is an angel who announces that fall. Both chapters have kings drinking wine from golden vessels (Dan 5:2; Rev 17:2, 4). But in Daniel 5 that banquet was in praise of the gods or idols of Babylon. That motif is missing in Revelation 17. But if one understands the Babylon in Revelation 17 as the idol image of the beast, then the parallels between Daniel 5 and Revelation 17 are complete in regard to the fall of Babylon.
Identifying Babylon with the image of the beast also fits with the cultural perspective of John’s day. In Revelation 17 Babylon is presented as a great prostitute who sits on many waters (17:1) and then a scarlet beast (17:3). The kings of the earth commit adultery with her and are intoxicated with her wine (17:2). She is dressed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold, precious stones and pearls (17:4). She has a golden cup in her hand and a title on her forehead (17:5) and is drunk with the blood of the saints (17:6). This description of Babylon seated on a beast fits very well with ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) iconography, Babylonian goddesses are often portrayed as seated on various animals. In particular, this portrayal of Babylon resembles the cult image of the goddess Ishtar, the most revered goddess of ancient Mesopotamia. While the veneration of Ishtar goes all the way back to Sumerian times, it was very much alive also in John’s day and was known in the Hellenistic world of that time.
Ishtar was portrayed riding on a lion, so the composite beast of Revelation 17 seems to be a deliberate disfiguring of the Ishtar tradition. Instead of the lion, a symbol of victory, Babylon rides an ugly disfigured beast. Extra-biblical sources mention jewelry and clothing being dedicated to the Babylonian gods and goddesses and placed on the idols to be worn by them. These garments were scarlet, purple, and bluish-purple. Jewelry of gold, silver and precious stones would be attached to the garments of Babylonian cult images. Ishtar was also depicted as holding a golden cup in her hands. So the portrayal of Babylon in Revelation 17 fits with the general picture of a Babylonian cult image of a goddess.
The activities of Ishtar also parallel Babylon in Revelation 17. In Babylonian mythology, Ishtar was the manifestation of sex and eroticism. She played the role of a seductive woman flaunting her sexual attraction. The goddess was known as a prostitute and a patron of prostitutes. Prostitutes were called daughters of Ishtar in Sumerian love songs. Ishtar as a mother of prostitutes fits Revelation 17 very well. The goddess Ishtar also had a close relationship with the Babylonian kings as a companion in war and also as a symbolic sexual partner. She was a divine bride, having sexual relationships with kings through sacred marriage.
Finally, Babylon is called the mother of the abominations of the earth (Rev 17:5), the source of all abominations. In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) the term “abominations” (Greek: bdelugma) is often used to denote idolatry. So the reference to Babylon’s abominations connects the Babylon of Revelation 17 with idolatry. This association with idolatry is one further reason to interpret Babylon in Revelation 17 as synonymous with the image of the beast of Revelation 13:14-15. In a number of ways, the portrayal of Babylon parallels the major characteristics of ANE cult images. The only cult image found in Revelation is the image of the beast. Rebekah Liu suggests that the image of the beast finds its active counterpart in the Babylon of Revelation 17 and 18. The destruction of Babylon by fire in 17:16 and 18:8, 18, therefore, supplies the missing element in Revelation’s portrayal of the image of the beast. It is not destroyed by fire in Revelation 19 or 20 because it has already passed off the scene.
In Revelation 17 there are direct references to a beast and to a woman/Babylon who sits on the beast. In chapter 18 there are no references to a beast at all, but the woman is now described in terms of a great city. In Revelation 17 it is the beast that supports Babylon, in Revelation 18 it is the kings, merchants, and mariners who once supported Babylon but now withdraw that support. They are the ones who, presumably, burned prostitute Babylon in 17:16. So the beast seems to be present in chapter 18 in a more literal fashion, the political and economic powers of the world. As noted earlier, the image of the beast is mentioned in every chapter from 13-20 except 17 and 18, although it actually operates only in chapter 13. Since the beast can be present in Revelation 18 without being mentioned, is the image of the beast present in 17 and 18 without being mentioned? Is the lack of mention a clue that the image is very much present in another form?
Revelation 17 is, in a sense, a duodirectional text. It provides a large, interpretive summary of the sixth and seventh plagues of Revelation 16. It also points forward to chapters 18 and 19, summarizing in advance events that happen in those two chapters. The major themes of Revelation 17 are the beast and Babylon. The beast of Revelation 17 has several similarities to the beast of Rev 13:1-7. They look alike, are both associated with water and blasphemy, and act in similar ways. It also requires wisdom to understand either (Rev 13:18; 17:9). So identifying the beast of Revelation 17 with the sea beast is plausible. On the other hand, the beast of Revelation 17 is clearly distinguishable from Babylon, although Babylon also has features of the sea beast (Christian orientation, persecuting the saints, rule over the kings of the earth). Babylon and the beast are similar, they work together and yet are distinguishable. If Babylon is the image of the beast, it resolves the tension between the two. Babylon is the “cult-image” of the “god”.
The image of the beast appears in Revelation 13 and is not seen again. Babylon appears in Revelation 14 and dominates the scene of Revelation until its final destruction in chapter 18. Are the two one and the same? Babylon in 17:1-6 is also antithetically parallel to the woman of Revelation 12. They are both described in detail. They are both mothers. Both are defined in relationship to God, to His believers and to His enemies. Both are located in the desert. And salvation comes from the child of the woman of Revelation 12 while death and destruction come from the prostitute and her offspring.
Babylon in Revelation 17 is also antithetically parallel to the bride of the Lamb in 21:9 – 22:5. Both scenes start with the same bowl-angel (Rev 17:1; 21:9) inviting John to see a woman. In both cases John is carried away by the Spirit to where the woman is. Revelation 21:9 repeats the exact same words as Revelation 17:1 in exactly the same order. Revelation 21:10 repeats five words of 17:3 in the same order. Both women are adorned with jewels. Each has a name written on her forehead (17:5: 22:4). Both are cities, one is called great and the other is called holy. One is a prostitute and the other is a bride. Those who belong to Babylon are not written in the book of life (Rev 17:8), while those who belong to the New Jerusalem are written in the book of life (21:27). The heavenly woman is connected in some way to the prostitute. Babylon the Great is, in fact, a parody of the New Jerusalem. The two female figures are in direct contrast.
The close link between the churches of Revelation 2 and 3 and the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22 indicates that the New Jerusalem represents the community of the saints, the bride of the Lamb. The New Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the promises made to the overcomers in the seven churches. The inhabitants of the New Jerusalem are those who heeded the call to repentance in the seven churches. In contrast, Babylon the Great is the community of those in the churches who did not heed to call of the Spirit. Babylon represents humanity in chaos and rebellion against God. The stripping naked of the prostitute in 17:16 fulfills the warning of the Spirit to Laodicea and to those who gathered for Armageddon (Rev 16:15; 3:17-18). Both Babylon and the image of the beast are symbols for the unfaithful community within the Christian church. This understanding of Babylon links it with the image of the beast.
In her dissertation, Rebekah Liu skips over Revelation 17 and 18 as the phrase “image of the beast” is not mentioned in either chapter. But it is mentioned in passing in Revelation 19:20. There the false prophet is cast into the lake of fire, because it deceived those who ended up worshiping the image of the beast. Once again the image plays no active role in the chapter. While Babylon the Great is not named in chapter 19, the great prostitute is mentioned (Rev 19:1-2). But no connection is made between the great prostitute and the image of the beast.
A major motif of Revelation 19 is divine warfare (Rev 19:11-21). That warfare ends with the ultimate defeat of the beast and the false prophet at the end of the chapter. They are thrown into the lake of burning sulphur (19:20), with Satan to join them there after the millennium (20:10). But here is the interesting detail. Throughout the latter part of the book of Revelation, the image of the beast is always mentioned together with the beast (Rev 14:9, 11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). But when it comes to the final destruction, only the beast, the false prophet and Satan are mentioned. The destruction of the image of the beast seems to have disappeared from the scene without any closure.
Ancient Near Eastern divine-war imagery is very helpful in explaining the situation. In the ANE, nations fought wars in the names of their gods. In doing so the nations were acting out the will of the gods. Such divine wars occurred in three stages. First, there was a pre-battle consultation with the gods through the use of oracles. Second, during the battle there was a divine presence and guidance through prophets. Third, after a victory the spoils were gathered and dedicated to the winning gods (the divine warriors). We have seen in Revelation the first two stages of ANE war conduct. The gathering of the kings for battle was like a pre-battle consultation with the gods in the person of the demonic spirits (Rev 16:13-14). The three angels’ messages (Rev 14:6-12) provide the corresponding divine consultation on the side of God. Then in Revelation 13 the land beast (the false prophet) leads the battle against God and the faithful. Since the false prophet is destroyed at the end of the battle (Rev 19:20), it is clear that he was with the army during the war.
The third stage of the ANE divine war was dedicating the spoils of battle to the gods. The capture of the cult images of the enemy gods confirms the defeat of a nation or entity. The idols are captured and either exiled or destroyed by fire. The destruction of the cult images not only represented the defeat of the nation, but also of their gods. This practice is confirmed in Deuteronomy 7:24-26. When the Canaanite nations were defeated Israel was to burn the images of their gods in the fire (Deut 7:25). These images were devoted to destruction (Deut 7:26) and Israel would be defiled if they did not do this. That this destruction was a common practice over the centuries is evidenced by 2 Samuel 5:21, 1 Chronicles 14:12 and 2 Kings 10:26. In 2 Samuel 5:21, David and his men exiled the Philistine idols (carried them away) but in 1 Chronicles 14:12, they burned them. In 2 Kings 10:26 Jehu burned the cult pillar of the temple of Baal. Given this background, it is hard to imagine that the final destruction of the image of the beast would go unmentioned. Since the beast and the false prophet are destroyed by fire in Revelation 19, Rebekah Liu proposes that the image of the beast is destroyed somewhere in Revelation outside of chapter 19. The fact that the image of the beast is not mentioned in 19:20 suggest that the earlier burnings of Babylon in 17:16 and 18:8, 18 serve as the destruction also of the image of the beast. The equation between Babylon and the image of the beast is increasingly stronger. The burning of the prostitute is the same thing as the burning of the image of the beast.
The image of the beast is mentioned in passing (Rev 20:4) once again, but is not seen, nor does it act or is acted upon in the chapter. So there is no explicit mention of the final destruction of the image of the beast in the chapter. But the final destruction by fire of Satan and of those who worshiped the image of the beast (Rev 20:9) is clearly portrayed. This leaves the question open again, is it possible that the destruction of the image of the beast is left unwritten or was that destruction described earlier in the book under another name? The fact that the phrase “image of the beast” does not occur at all in chapters 17 and 18 may point to the image appearing there in the form of Babylon the Great Prostitute and the Great City. The end of cult images normally occurs by fire. Revelation 17:16 and 18:8, 18 are the only places outside of Revelation 19 and 20 that record destruction by fire. So we will look at Revelation 17 and 18 for answers to the final fate of the image of the beast.
The image of the beast is mentioned in passing in Revelation 16:2. The first bowl-plague falls on those who worshiped the image of the beast. Babylon is parallel to the Great City in 16:19, but no direct connection is made within the chapter between Babylon and the image of the beast. However, there are strong parallels between Revelation 16:13-16 and Revelation 13. Revelation 16:13 picks up on the motif of an unholy trinity, which work together in both passages for a common cause, to cause the inhabitants of the earth to worship the beast and its image (Rev 13:8, 14, 15). In order to achieve that, the dragon gives his authority to the sea beast (Rev 13:2). The land beast exercises its authority in behalf of the sea beast (13:12). The land beast then breathes life into the image of the beast (13:15). So there is a chain of authority running from the dragon to the image of the beast.
An additional parallel between Revelation 16 and 13 is the mouth motif. The three frogs come out of the mouths of the dragon, beast and false prophet (16:13). Earlier, the dragon uses its mouth to accuse the faithful before God (Rev 12:10). Similarly, the sea beast uses its mouth to speak blasphemies (Rev 13:5), the land beast uses its mouth to breathe life into the image of the beast (13:15), and the image uses its mouth to order the death of all who will not worship the image (13:15). Through all these mouths, the dragon is able to gather the inhabitants of the earth before the image to worship it. A further parallel between Revelation 16 and 13 is the concept of worldwide deception through miraculous signs (Rev 16:14; 13:13-14). The demonic spirits work signs to lead the rulers of the earth into battle against God (16:14). In Revelation 13:13-15, the land beast/false prophet uses miraculous signs to gather the people of earth for the worship of the image of the beast. These passages (16:13-16 and 13:15-17) also share a number of verbal parallels with scene on the Plain of Dura in Daniel 3.
This all suggests that while the Battle of Armageddon makes no direct reference to the image of the beast, whether or not to worship the image is a part of that spiritual conflict. The worldwide worshiping of the image of the beast is likely the same event as the worldwide gathering for the battle of Armageddon, in which Babylon falls (Rev 16:16, 19). Revelation 13 and 16, then, are describing the same eschatological event, the last worldwide deception concerning worship. People are making decisions whether to worship God (Rev 14:7) or worship the image (13:15-17), someone/something other than God. Since Babylon is mentioned in the context of Revelation 16 and the image of the beast is mentioned in the context of Revelation 13, it is very possible, even likely, that Babylon and the image of the beast are one and the same entity.
The big challenge for interpreters of the image of the beast is the fact that the image is mentioned repeatedly in Revelation 14-20, yet is never explicitly portrayed. Is it to be equated with Babylon? With the beast of Revelation 17? With both of them together? Is there some other symbol in chapters 14-20 that plays the role of the image? Or is it acting only in 13:13-17 and does not appear again? Another challenge is the fact that the image of the beast is mentioned in every chapter from Revelation 14-20 except chapters 17 and 18, which center on Babylon. What is there about Babylon that might cause the author of Revelation not to mention the image of the beast in the same chapter? Rebekah Liu’s dissertation goes chapter by chapter through Revelation 14-20, looking for clues to solve the identity of the image of the beast in those chapters.
Revelation 14 provides a “divine perspective” on the activities of the two beasts and the image in Revelation 13. It provides insights into the fate of those who resist the worship of the beast and its image. Chapter 14 continues the theme of worship, which was central to chapter 13. But it adds a new theme, the theme of Babylon, introduced for the first time in 14:8. The fact that it appears without a visual description or a historical background suggests it has appeared in the book before in some form. The readers are expected to already know who this is. That an entity could appear in a variety of forms is already clear in Revelation. The dragon is identified as the devil and Satan, the ancient serpent and the deceiver of the world. Satan is also called Apollyon and Abaddon in Rev 9:11. Jesus is called the Son of Man, the Lamb and Michael. Is there a character earlier in the book of Revelation who corresponds to the Babylon of Revelation 14?
Since the first appearance of Babylon the Great is in chapter 14, it is possible that the previous action of Babylon is found in chapter 13. Rebekah Liu notices four pairs of parallel passages in Revelation 13 and 14. I won’t be offering the detailed observations that led to this structure, the reader will need to consult the dissertation itself for that. Revelation 13:1-6 is parallel with 14:1-5. The second pair is found in Rev 13:11-14 and 14:6-7. The fourth pair of parallels is Rev 13:16 and 14:9. That outline leaves a third pair unaccounted for, Rev 13:15 and 14:8. The figure in Revelation 13 most parallel to Babylon in Revelation 14 is the image of the beast. Both the image of the beast and Babylon are at the front line of the conflict between the dragon and God. If they are identified with each other, then drinking the wine of Babylon is identified with worshipping the beast and its image (Rev 13:15-17; 14:8-11). Identifying them as the same character, therefore, is not only logically possible, it would simplify the argument of the book and give it dramatic punch.
Revelation 15 is relatively brief. The image of the beast is mentioned in passing in 15:2. Those on the sea of glass had gained the victory over the beast and his image. Chapter 15 introduces the themes of temple and the seven bowl-plagues. But while the image of the beast is clearly a key component of the forces opposed to God and His faithful ones, seven-bowl-plagues do not specifically target the image of the beast in chapters 15 or 16. Where is the judgment of the image in Revelation?
A major surprise for me in Rebekah Liu’s research was what she discovered about the pagan background to the image of the beast. The Greek term eikôn and its Hebrew/Aramaic equivalents were used in pagan worship to denote a cult statue or what we call an idol. Pagans knew that wood and stone weren’t gods. But they believed that, when the idol/statue was completed, they could attract the presence of the deity to the statue by a ritual of consecration called the mouth-opening or mouth-washing ceremony. Upon completion of the rite, the manmade object was filled with the life of the god and became an extension of the god’s personality on earth. This act transformed a manufactured icon into a living deity in their minds. Its origin as a human construction could now be ignored and their creation could be attributed solely to the god.
Ceremonies and beliefs like this were found all over the ancient world, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Greece and to Rome. And they seem to have had a long history, going back at least a thousand years before the writing of Revelation. And the evidence is that these beliefs and practices had not changed much over the centuries, by New Testament times they were rooted deeply in common tradition. Everybody, so to speak, knew about them.
Pagans believed that through these rituals, the idol/statue was animated, it was not just standing there, it became an actual manifestation of the god it represented. When the mouth of the idol was washed or opened, it allowed the image to breath and thus come to life. Ancient idols and temples became major centers of power. As the earthly manifestation of the deity, the image was fully identified with it, even though distinct from the god. If the idol was destroyed the god was not destroyed with it. But while it existed and was fully consecrated, it was the deity’s medium of revelation or self-disclosure. As such the image carried the highest level of religious authority for its community. The idol was also associated with political authority. In ancient Babylon, for example, the king was also the high priest of Marduk. He owed his kingship to the god. So the temple and its priests had a great deal of influence in the politics of the nation. Ancient temples often also served as banks, where people could deposit treasure or secure loans. They were also a place of economic redistribution when the nation sought to care for the neediest among them.
The parallels between Revelation 13:14-15 and these ancient religious practices are quite striking. In verse 14 the beast from the earth orders the inhabitants of the earth to construct an image to the beast. He then provides breath to the image of the beast. This echos the ancient Near Eastern ritual of mouth-opening or mouth-washing of the idol/statue. Through this ritual images received the breath of life and began to speak, revealing the god and making decisions for the people. These idol images assume religious, political and economic authority over the cities where they are housed. The image of the beast calls for worship (Rev 13:15–religious authority), exerts political power with the land beast (13:15– enforcing decrees, legal power to kill) and it has the economic power to boycott those who do not worship the beast or its image (13:17). So the parallels between the image of the beast vision and local cultic practices are truly striking. Rebekah will see this worked out in more detail in Revelation 17. She sees the image of the beast as Babylon and the sea beast as the beast of Revelation 17. Together they are the end-time equivalent of the role the sea beast playing in earlier human history. But in Revelation 17 they have much in common, yet are distinct from each other, just as the god and the idol are similar yet distinct.
The author of Revelation seems to be using both creation and some familiar popular practices as metaphorical models to make a powerful spiritual point about readiness for the final crisis. The sea beast is in the image of the dragon/Satan (Rev 13:1). The dragon is its god. Likewise in 13:15, the beast serves as the model for the image of the beast. The two are not the same, yet they are intimately related in the narrative. The image of the beast is an end-time religious entity/institution wielding religious, political and economic power. It embodies the principles of the sea beast and ultimately of Satan, using deception and force to accomplish its mission. It ends up reflecting the character of its creator (ultimately Satan). The world is given a choice between two pictures of God and two models of character. In the end, all will become like the God they choose to worship.