Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sermon from Sunday: 666

Numbers in Revelation: 666
As we continue our series about Numbers in the book of Revelation today we are looking at the number 666.  We know the cultural association with 666 don’t we.  We know it because if 666 is in any part of the title of a movie we know it is going to be a horror movie.

            Historically when people think of 666 because of what Revelation says, that it’s a man who is the antichrist, people have tried to identify this man.  At different times in history Christians have thought they knew who the man was, they thought they knew the person which the 666 identifies as the anti-Christ.  In the late 1700’s it was Napoleon Bonaparte.  Before that it was Genghis Khan.  In the middle of last century, the 1900’s, it was Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. 
            In the United States we are selfish.  Did you know some thought Ronald Wilson Reagan was the anti-Christ...because he was the only president with 6 letters in his first name, middle name and last name.  Thus 666 thus he’s the antichrist.  You can find images of just about any president in the United States being the antichrist…because some people just like to demonize what they don’t agree with.
            I came across this picture of Netanyahu

…oh, he must be the antichrist because he’s doing a similar salute to what Hitler did.  In the 14 and 1500’s the Catholics thought it was Martin Luther and the protestants thought it was the Pope.  This gets ridiculous right.  It’s ridiculous.  We are so quick to see anyone who does not agree with our views as the antichrist.  And this number 666 is commonly associated with the antichrist.
            As Christians lets do what we should do and look at what the Bible says.  Lets start there by looking at it in its original context and then ask the question, what does it mean for us today?  We want to start with where it lies in history and with the author’s intent and with what was happening at this time, then we can ask what does this number have to do with us as Christians today?
            Our text is Revelation 13:11-18.  Remember last week we said the book of Revelation is a letter from John to seven churches in Asia minor (modern day Turkey).  It was a letter written in the apocalyptic genre with the purpose of bringing hope to Christians who were suffering persecution at the hands of an emperor, a Caeser that did all kinds of nasty painful torturous things to Christians who would not give up their faith and claim that Caeser was Lord. 
            In Revelation 12, there’s this vision that John see’s about a pregnant woman and a dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns.  There was a contemporary mythological story that existed in the modern culture at the time John wrote this that would have been familiar to those who read and heard this letter.  The story is a reference to the virgin Mary pregnant and eventually giving birth to Jesus and how Satan tried to stop it in the heavenly realm.  Jesus is born and in Chapter 13 the war comes to earth.  We see two beasts in chapter 13.  So now we have a dragon and a beast out of the sea and a beast out of the earth.  This is called the unholy trinity.  It’s a way for Satan to mock the trinity that is God the father, God the Son and God the spirit.  Evil always corrupts and distorts that which is good.  The trinity is good so this is evil’s way of saying we have a trinity too.
            We are concerned more this morning with the vision of the 3rd beast.  In Revelation 13:11-18 we are introduced to the 3rd beast often referred to as the anti-christ referenced with the number 666.  READ Text.   
I shared with you last week that the emperors in power would be important this week as we look as this number 666.  Nero had served about 60 years before this was written.  Domitian was the Caeser now in power.  Domitian was very similar in the way to Nero in the way he treated Christians.  He persecuted them because he wanted to be called Lord and God.  One way that they persecuted Christians was by making it hard for Christians to become a Roman citizen.  To become a Roman citizen under Nero and Domitian you had to be willing to burn incense to the Caeser as a way to worship the emperor.  Once you burned your incense you were given a certificate with a mark on it that allowed you to trade and sell goods in the marketplace.  If you weren’t willing to burn incense as a way to worship the emperor, it made livelihood difficult.  So Christians especially in Rome had a difficult decision to make.  Do you compromise and receive this certificate so your family can eat and live or do you remain faithful to God and just hope that God will provide for your bodily needs?
            Look at verses 15-17 again.  READ.  Is it possible that this certificate, this mark to buy and sale is what John had in mind when he talked about the mark of the beast. 
            Also, remember how I said that evil often corrupts and distorts something good.  A common Jewish practice that has been passed down for many many years is the use of Phylacteries.  A phylactery is something you put on your forehead that has scripture in it to remind you of who God is and it’s straps you wrap on your forearm and recite scripture as you wrap them around you.  Hasidic Jews still use them today.  When we were in Israel we saw Hasidic Jews with these on their heads and arms.  Here’s what it looks like.

I wonder if the evil one is doing this as a way to distort, to corrupt, this Jewish practice that’s based on scripture.  The early Christians would have been familiar with this practice and may have associated what John is saying as a corruption of something good…like the unholy trinity.
             Lets back up a little bit.  Remember I told you the words in verse 12 about a fatal wound being healed and verse 14 about “being wounded by the sword and yet lived” would be important.  There was a rumor going around that after Nero had died that he had been raised again.  Or that he had not really died and was still living and ruling as an emperor.  It was a big enough rumor that we have historians at the time who wrote about it.  Is it possible that when John writes about this beast who had been wounded that he is referencing Nero.  What if the 2nd beast is Nero, who this rumor that he still lives is about, and the 3rd beast is Domitian who is carrying on the practices that persecute Christians that Nero held.  We read in 16 and 17 that unless you worship this beast that you can’t buy or sale items.  That was literally happening to the Christians in Rome who wouldn’t proclaim that Caesar is lord. 
            Remember this is a letter written by John to the seven churches in Asia and by extension to all Christians everywhere who were suffering persecution.  His readership (more accurately hearer-ship) at this time would have been so familiar with who he was talking about.  And maybe the reason he didn’t identify him directly and explicitly was because this was written in the form of apocalyptic literature so that he would not be immediately executed by naming the emperors by name.
            Now, many of you are wondering what this all has to do with 666.  Read verse 18 again…John invites his readers and hearers in the 1st Century to have wisdom as to who this number is referring to.  And it’s obviously a man.  Many people claim this is the antichrist.  And John invites his readers to figure out who it is and the number is just a hint.  The number is like a jigsaw puzzle or riddle that they have to figure out.  The number 666 is merely a clue as to figuring out who he is talking about.
            Another practice in Judaism was called Gemmatria.  Now John knew Hebrew and often uses Hebrew in a couple other places in this letter.  He wrote it in the Greek language but there are several instances where he does reference Hebrew.  And his readers and hearers probably did not know Hebrew, but many of them would have been familiar with Hebrew and with Jewish practices.  It’s easy to forget that at this time Christianity was still another form of Judaism.  Many Christians were former Jews. 
            Gemmatria is the practice of putting numbers to letters to give a name a numeric value.  For example, the number of my Hebrew name is 219.  Thank God it’s not 666 right?  Guess whose name when given a numeric value using Gemmatria is 666.  Nero.  The name and title of Nero in numbers, in this Jewish practice of Gemmatria: 666 makes the name Nero.  Again, why didn’t John just come out and say he was talking about Nero and Domitian?  Because he wrote this in apocalyptic literature…that’s why.  We have a hard time figuring out this puzzle (and others in Revelation) but for these first Christians it would have been easy. 
            So while John has Nero and Domitian in mind when he writes about these beasts, he also has the general disruption, corruption and force of evil in mind as well.  While John is referencing Nero, I believe, and many scholars believe with me that John is more concerned about painting a picture of evil so that Christians know what they are facing. 
            666 is most likely a reference to Nero and it’s also a reference to any kind of evil regime that is in power and in opposition to the kingdom of God.  That’s what 666 is all about. 
Here’s what one scholar wrote: “Nero Caesar then becomes representative of the ongoing model for all of history’s “Caesars” who rule over the anti-Christian kingdom and repress the commitments and values of God’s kingdom.  This number then becomes a symbol, a metaphor for any evil ruler who commands and validates an evil regime that is anti-Christian or anti-God.”    
Now this kind of evil that John is describing is a socio-political evil with a spiritual foundation.  An evil that is on a governmental ruling level that is absolutely opposed to Christ and his kingdom and has a desire to stamp out Christianity.  Adolf Hitler was evil.  He was an anti-Christ.  Joseph Stalin was evil, he was an anti-Christ.  Anyone who is the leader, the head, the initiator of an oppressive and evil regime can be called an antichrist and that number 666 is a hint that that’s who it is. 
I don’t believe that anti-christ is one person that’s going to come at a specific time.  I believe the anti-Christ is anyone obviously opposed to Christ and creates an environment, like Nero, like Hitler, going back to the O.T. like Pharaoah, they set themselves up as God and they lead a regime that is about oppression and injustice and superiority and is defined by acts of evil and atrocity.  Look at 1 John 2:22: 22 Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son.
            The question we should ask as Christians when faced with evil is what should our response be?  How do we deal with this kind of evil?  What is evil and what does it look like?  John wrote this letter and he eventually gets to the part where anything opposed to Christ and His kingdom is defeated, in the meantime, what is our response.  Faithfulness, faithfulness to God and to the slain lamb of God because of the hope we have in him.  What does that look like?  We need to be aware of how evil operates.
Do not be fooled brothers and sisters, just like those Christians who had a decision to make and were tempted by evil to compromise their faith and burn incense to Caeser so they could eat and survive and make a living, we are faced with decisions of following God or Satan everyday.  And evil doesn’t knock on your door and announce “here I am trying to corrupt you and make you bad.”  Evil is much more deceptive and veiled and hidden than that.  What leads us often into sin, into evil, is small compromises we make along the way.
Remember Satan is the Father of lies…he is good at deception and at tempting us in the little things.  Oh I’ll just cheat on my taxes a little, I’ve never gotten audited before so no one will ever know.  Slow fade into greed.  Husbands, oh I’m only flirting with her, it’s not like we’re dating or anything.  Slow fade into adultery.  Well I guess I’ll go to that movie because all my friends are going even though I know it’s going to tempt me sexually.  I’m just curious so I only go to that website or look at that image once.  Slow fade into porn addiction which often leads to the breakup of marriages and families.  Women, oh he’s just being nice to me, there’s nothing between us.  But you like the attention and you tend to flirt just a little bit.  You are sending him the wrong signals.  Slow fade.  Or you have a new and juicy piece of gossip that you can’t wait to share…it’s a slow fade into ruining either your own or someone else’s reputation.
            Some of you are familiar with the Screwtape Letters and book by C.S. Lewis that is a correspondence between a lesser demon and a greater demon to try to get this particular man away from God.  Listen to this demon’s words: 
But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
It’s when we compromise by saying, it’s been 2 years since I’ve been sober and now I can handle alcohol, I ‘ll just have one beer.  Slow fade.  Compromise.  That’s what the enemy wants.  It’s short small steps into disaster. 
            One thing Revelation does for Christians is expose the reality of evil.  We aren’t persecuted and fearful for our lives in modern day America.  But until Satan is thrown into the eternal lake of fire he will come after you and your soul and your families soul as well.  And if you are not intentionally protecting yourself and your family from his attacks he will establish a foothold and wreak havoc in your life and in the life of those who you love.
            Evil is real and it’s veiled and it’s hidden and the best way for us to give into it is one small compromise after another.  We have to be careful.  Get in the word.  Get in prayer.  Husbands love and cherish your wives and be considerate to them, build them up with your words and actions.  Wives respect and honor your husbands and encourage them and let them know you appreciate them.  Parents, realize that your children are not your friend, they are your children, and sometimes parenting means being mean to them out of love and out of discipline and out of a desire to protect them and raise them in a way where they will live for God.
            May we be the kind of people that resist and overcome the spirit of 666 in any form that we see it and/or experience it…for the sake of our lord and savior Jesus Christ, let us protect ourselves, our families, our church and our friends.  

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