Sunday, July 1, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Caesar Nero"

Revelation 13:11-18

"11 Then I saw another beast coming up from the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it was speaking like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence. It also makes the earth and those who live in it worship the first beast, whose fatal wound was healed. 13 It does great signs so that it even makes fire come down from heaven to earth in the presence of the people. 14 It deceives those who live on earth by the signs that it was allowed to do in the presence of the beast. It told those who live on earth to make an image for the beast who had been wounded by the sword and yet came to life again. 15 It was allowed to give breath to the beast’s image so that the beast’s image would even speak and cause anyone who didn’t worship the beast’s image to be put to death. 16 It forces everyone—the small and great, the rich and poor, the free and slaves—to have a mark put on their right hand or on their forehead. 17 It will not allow anyone to make a purchase or sell anything unless the person has the mark with the beast’s name or the number of its name.18 This calls for wisdom. Let the one who understands calculate the beast’s number, for it’s a human being’s number. Its number is six hundred sixty-six." (CEB)

“The Greatest Movie Never Made: The Book of Revelation,” Week Five

My granddad on my mom’s side of the family is the most dynamic gift-giver I've ever known.  He gave me my first telescope as a kid, he made a wooden chest that houses tons of my books and doubles as a comfortable bench, and one Christmas, he gave his bald grandson several coupons for Rogaine.

But the Rogaine savings that I never cashed in on wasn’t the most memorable gift he ever gave me.  I also used to receive from him pamphlets from a televangelist he listened to devotedly named Jack Van Impe, who was and is extremely concerned with Revelation and the End Times he claims it depicts.  And in these pamphlets were offers for many a product that would prove useful, such as an instructional DVD to leave behind to my heathen relatives after I’ve been raptured, or another DVD that wonders if the world will end with the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012.  Also available is a DVD on the mark of the beast, which is plugged thusly:

"The prophesied Mark of the Beast - could it be administered today?
Could the global ID system described in Scripture as the "Mark of the Beast" be waiting in the wings right now?
Are you and your family prepared for the coming one-world government and the rise of the antichrist and his world religious dictator?
Does the system exist for a universal mark?
Will the antichrist and a global religious leader demand that the mark be administered in the very near future?
What sinister organizations have taken root in Belgium, Brussels (sic), the possible seat of the coming one-world government?
This video gives you the answers you need, now!
Get the truth and prepare yourself and your family for the future!"

I realize that I may be setting a dangerous precedent for myself, by implicitly ridiculing of a colleague in ministry from the proverbial pulpit, but I do worry that he makes the mistake that so many of our predecessors in ministry have, and that is the mistake of thinking that John’s vision applies directly to their life, and not to John’s life.  For the two are very, very different.

Today marks the fifth week of our summer sermon series.  After all, summer is the season of blockbuster movies about superheroes or thrilling heists or action-packed military exploits, and at first glance, the Bible wouldn’t seem to stack up well to such epic storytelling.  Yet, enter the book of Revelation.  After decades of subjugation by Rome, which included the sacking of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in the year 70 CE, Saint John writes this final letter of the Bible from his lonely exile on the Greek island of Patmos some roughly twenty years later.  His letter is a vivid, harrowing vision of what the future may hold in store for God’s people, and it has often been misinterpreted by Christians since, often in, frankly, wholly incorrect ways.  I can’t promise you the right answers in this sermon series, but I can promise you a lot of interesting questions to debate during our fellowship time after worship is over! 

The first week was an introduction to how we are meant to read Revelation—and that is with the humility and knowledge that we are not John, and cannot understand his mind.  In week two, we began going through the actual vision itself, and we started in a familiar, heartwarming place with Heaven itself.  Then we began to delve into the realm of demons and dragons and wars between Heaven and Hell with the appearances of the iconic four horsemen of the apocalypse and the dragon that is cast out of Heaven by Michael the Archangel.  And today, we tackle perhaps the most famous image in the entirety of Revelation—the heavy metal band Iron Maiden even entitled a song and an album after it—the number of the beast.

It is important to remember that the beast of this passage and the dragon of chapter 12 are different entities.  John is very clear—the dragon represents Satan, The Adversary, and the beast’s number is the number of a person…which has created perhaps the worst opportunity for Christians to play detective in the entirety of Scripture—which person is John referring to here?

I am not kidding when I say it is a horrific opportunity to play detective, as there has been built an entire cottage industry around trying to interpret the number of the beast as it relates to figures throughout history.  The medieval Pope Innocent III said that the Prophet Muhammad was the beast.  Early Protestant reformers, plus some Protestants and Seventh-Day Adventists today, believe the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church is the beast.  All of these misinterpretations carry a powerful common denominator: the belief by the interpreter that their time, their era, was the most important in history, and so naturally, Revelation would be fulfilled in their lifetime.  It's almost a kind of vanity--that you hope your generation will be so important as to see the Second Coming!

What those exact same interpreters—including interpreters today—forget, however, is that John had the exact same hope—that he might one day see his vision carried out and fulfilled!  So, instead, when we look to John’s own contemporaries—a particular candidate stands out.

Ancient Hebrew used a numerical scheme called gematria, in which every letter corresponded with a number—like how a decoder ring you find in your cereal box works, or how you might pass a note to a friend in class—A is 1, B is 2, etc.  In gematria, you can assign value to words—including names—by adding up the numerical value of each letter of that word or name.

The first Roman emperor to systematically persecute Christians was Nero.  Or, as he was referred to by title, Caesar Nero—much as we refer to a monarch as “King So-and-So.”  In the Greek in which John is writing to us, Nero’s name and title is Kaisar Neron—kappa, alpha, iota, sigma, alpha, rho, and nu, epsilon, rho, omicron, and nu.  Transliterated into Hebrew, those letters become qoph, samekh, resh, and nun, vav, resh, and nun.  Each of those Hebrew letters, if you were to add up their numerical values, equals six hundred and sixty-six.  Put simply, the number of the beast is the number of the name and title of Caesar Nero.

This does us little good now, though, until we remember what else Nero was known for—the fire of Rome, on which he blamed the Christians and thus became that first emperor to systematically persecute the faith—while that fire was occurring, as the saying goes, Nero fiddled away.
And as the mainline church suffers from slow but steady dwindling, we, too, are fiddling away.  
Metaphorically, we are like the beast.  We’ve been wounded by the sword of systematic decline, yet somehow, we have also been allowed to live.  But we live dwarfed in the shadow of what we once were, and of what might have been—and nowhere is this more true than here in the Pacific Northwest, with some of the largest numbers of unchurched folks in the country.  Consider:

We’re getting smaller.  The National Council of Churches, the flagship organization of mainline Protestantism and until last winter, headed by a Disciples pastor, Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, employed roughly 400 staffers during its peak in the 1960s.  Today, it employs about 20.

We’re getting older.  In 1998, the average age of a mainline pastor was 48.  In 2009, it was 55.

We’re getting less diverse.  Hispanic persons represent 16% of the American populace, and Asian-Americans, 4%.  They represent 6% and 2% of mainline Protestants, respectively.

Nero fiddled while Rome burned.  We have fiddled while our church has burned.

We enjoy the exact same worship Sunday after Sunday so much that we may forget how that worship looks to the first-time visitor who has never before graced our doors.

We may resist change to the point that beneficial, even necessary, ideas and changes are sacrificed upon the altar of  “Well, this is the way we’ve always done it.”

We expend so much energy propping up the institution that we become like the titan Atlas, who is bent down under the weight of the world, except we are under the weight of all our buildings.

But we have one thing that Nero never had—we know when, deep down, we aren’t at the top of our game.  We know how to reach for humility, we know how to be humble, even when might absolutely break us emotionally to do so, because sometimes, simply, it is the right thing to do.

And this is such a moment for us, because for many, many people who look upon the church with distrust, it is not out of any active sense of loathing—trust me, they don’t hate us—it is that we have done a subpar job of communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ in ways that resonate with them, in ways that make them feel included and understood.  How human of us!

After all…in the end, we as Christians are simply human.  And the number of the beast is indeed a human number.  Literally, it is Nero’s.  Metaphorically, it the number of us all.  And in the many challenges that the 21st-century church faces, our number has in fact been called. 

Let us respond, then, with enthusiasm, and with vigor, and most of all, with love. 

By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 1, 2012

(Author's Note: The statistics used in this sermon are from the Barna Group and can be found here.)


  1. Hi Eric,

    Yes, I agree, it is you and the National Council of Churches that are the beast of Rev. 13. If you would stop fiddling around with this blog . . . whoops, I forgot you said the beast was all of us, who have a "human number" (even me?).

    Now wait a minute. The beast is inhumane; that's why it's a "beast," like the beasts of Dan. 7, in contrast with the kingdom of one like a son of man. Some scholars see Nero in 666 not because he was fiddling around, but because he was the most infamous "head" of the beastly kingdom that ruled over the world, the Roman Empire. For Rev. 13:3-4 says the whole earth followed the beast, and worshiped the beast, saying, who is like the beast, and who can fight against it? The beast was bigger and badder than any other kingdom.

    So I take it back; you're not the beast after all, and I'm surely not that big and bad. So what kingdom on earth would be like the beast? What nation is a world empire, and makes the whole world think it is useless to fight against it and its superior armies? What nation dominates and demands obedience from other nations under it today, but is really just mortal, arrogant humans? If I can think of a nation like that, I'll let you know; for now I have to go to a July 4 celebration.

  2. Hi Lucas (your WordPress profile says that is what I should call you?),

    Like you, I think that Revelation is heavily symbolic, and you'll notice that I emphasized that metaphorically, we are the beast. It isn't that the beast is inhumane, but that it leaves a human mark, so at least part of it must be human.

    I recognize that Nero wasn't the beast because he "fiddled," and I think you're right that him being the head of the Roman Empipre is clutch, but I think he was considered the beast by John because his response to Rome burning as he fiddled was to blame the Christians--that's why he was so infamous to Christians. So I do think that part of Nero's life was relevant to interpreting the number of the beast.

    I hope you have a safe and happy July 4th. It sounds like you'll want to tune in tomorrow when I post an entry on the subject of American Exceptionalism.

    Thanks for commenting,