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Verses for This Week: Rev. 14:7, 9, 12; Rev. 4:11; Rev. 13:1, 2; Rev. 12:3–5, 17; Rev. 13:11–18.

Opening Question: “What can be said about the possibility of a final conflict taking place between the forces of good and evil?”

The title of this week’s lesson gives forth an indication of what the subject matter is going to be, the discussion of the great and final conflict that is envisioned particularly in the Book of Revelation.

With even a cursory reading of the Book of Revelation, a person can readily tell that the book, with all its symbols and beasts and apocalyptic language, points forward to a day when there will be a great and final conflict between the forces of good and evil after which the Kingdom of God will come and be fully established. While there has been, and continues to be, much discussion about the various players in the epic, the grand progression from earth to a new heaven and earth is quite plain to see.

What is also quite readily seen is the fact that worship is going to be at the heart of things in the conflict. There will be only two sides, those who worship the beast who is most certainly on the side of evil, and those who, against all odds, persist in worshipping God. The time of trouble spoken of will be unlike any other that has preceded it. But for the preserving hand of God, believers would all perish.

In chapter 14, and also in other places, the saints are called to worship God who is the creator of heaven and earth. He is the one who placed life on planet earth, who also made humans, who gave them a pristine place to live, and a Sabbath day memorial that was intended to keep ever before them the fact that it was God who created. It can rightly be said that, if this Sabbath memorial had always been revered, belief in the God of creation would never have disappeared from the face of the earth.

In Revelation 13 can be found key texts illuminating this final conflict. The major players in the scenario are Satan and a beast to which Satan gives power. This beast in particular, shows up to be a coercing power that enforces its system on all others to the point that those who dissent will first face economic sanctions – no man can buy or sell – and, finally, a death sentence for non-compliance.

Here a key point needs to be made. Because God is a God of love, he cannot use coercion in his doings. He can only invite, woo, never require. In light of this, any system that seeks to use the power of penalty, such as would come via the state, has to be held suspect. In matters of belief, religion, devotion, love, requirement does not work. These things cannot be enforced. They are had by citizens who grant to their leaders a willing compliance. To then read here of a beast the tries to enforce worship is to realize that this entity is very much opposed to the ways of God. By extension then, any time in the past, or any time in the future, where entities try to use force to achieve the loyalty and devotion of humans, must be put into what might be called “the beast category.”

If we take this as a rubric by which to evaluate the various powers that have held sway in past history, we can find many that have acted in a beastly way. Certainly, pagan Rome would be high on the list. But it is also true that the Christian church, during certain historical periods, used the same coercive modus operandi. It is well-known that when pagan Rome collapsed, it what the Christian church that found itself positioned to be the next ruling power. And at least somewhat inadvertently, the church adopted many of the ideas and systems that were Roman. For example, the church rather than being a community of believers, became a highly structured hierarchy just like the Roman empire itself had been. And many ideas came into it that came from sources other than the Bible. Worst of all, the church adopted the methodologies of Rome when it came to trying to enforce compliance and so became a persecuting entity. This system prevailed for a little over 1,200 years.

When you read the writings of many Protestants of long ago, they identified the beast with Papal Rome. This idea was very prominent for many years though it has faded to a large degree now. But notice that if papal Rome is identified in Daniel as beastly, and that identity is carried over into Revelation, it means that the Roman Church will be a key player in the final scenario of earth’s history. It is precisely this understanding that fueled a lot of anti-Catholic dialog up into the middle 1900’s. And, given the times, this interpretation fit the American scene quite well. This idea prevailed in Adventism in particular and still does in conservative circles. But some careful thought will show that this interpretation may be too narrow. For example, the papacy has lost a lot of its power though it might indeed revive at some point in the future. It is also true that there are many regions of earth where the papacy has little to no power. Communist countries would be an example. Also the Islamic world, and the Hindu world, to say nothing of the secular world that is now growing world-wide by leaps and bounds. In light of this, it seems a wider application of the beast principle should be considered.

There is another point to be made here that has to do with an important principle when interpreting apocalyptic writing and long lines of prophecy. All the lines of prophecy begin with concrete political organizations located around the eastern end of the mediterranean which can be readily identified. They are used to illustrate some aspect of the conflict between ancient Israel, the people of God, and the pagan world, which represent the side of evil. From that base, the imagery expands to not only the global level but to the cosmic level as well. So it might be that the beast already spoken about that originally could be pegged to the beastly behavior of the papacy in medieval times, would need to be expanded to a global level. In other words, there might be other players at the end time that behave like the medieval church did.

This assertion should not be a surprise to anyone for Adventists have long surmised that apostate Protestantism, Communism, and more recently, radical Islam, and secularism might all be players at the end, all collaborating to snuff out freedom of conscience. Given the current level of surveillance that exists, and presuming that it will become more pronounced, it is not hard to see how the scenario unfolded in Revelation could indeed take place.

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