Identifying the Opposition Characters in Revelation
As discussed previously, in order to understand the Revelation, we must have a correct understanding of what the symbolic terms meant to the first readers. In addition to this, we must also have a clear understanding of who the opposition characters are. It is obvious from an overall view of the book that the forces of evil will be destroyed and the forces of good will be victorious. There is a conflict between the forces of evil and of good. A correct understanding of the Revelation depends on a correct identification of precisely who the opposition characters are.
We are going to determine who the opposition characters are by examining the internal evidence within scripture and then matching these characteristics up with the most probable historical figures based on what we know of them.
Identifying the Good Characters
We already know that the Good Guys of Revelation are the Christians. However, just for the sake of proper scholarship, we are going to examine some of the internal evidence in the Revelation that positively identifies this for us.
Revelation was written by the inspired apostle John, (Revelation 1:4), to Christians in the “seven churches of Asia“. In Revelation 1:6 John wrote: “And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father“. Of significance is John’s usage of the word “us”, taken from the Greek word “hemas” pronounced (hay-mas’), which is a plural form of primary pronoun of the first person. It could also mean “we” or “our”. John has therefore identified himself as being in association with the recipients of his revelation. Peter wrote that Christians are “an holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:12 that “we shall also reign with him” To the Romans, Paul wrote, “they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). The kings and priests that John is associating himself with are Christians who are priests and who reign in life by Jesus Christ. John further goes on in the same context to say, “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom” (Revelation 1:9), “of Jesus Christ”. So we know from the first 9 verses of Revelation that Christians are made [past tense] kings and priests unto God in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. We know this to be the spiritual kingdom that Jesus spoke of to Pilate before His crucifixion. “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world” (John 18:37). Jesus also said in same context, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
So, John who is the companion of the first readers of his letter, who were all made kings and priests and were presently in the kingdom of God, who were also suffering together in the tribulation and persecution of the day are the good guys of Revelation. In scripture they were called “saints” (Revelation 11:18), those who “overcome” (Revelation 21:7), Those “that keep the commandments of God” (Revelation 14:12), “and the faith of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 14:12). In scripture these same people were known as “Christians” (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). They were Christians then and today those who are in the kingdom of God, who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ and reign as priests and kings in His spiritual kingdom and persevere until the end, are also called Christians.
The application for us today is that present day Christians, just like the first century Christians must, to the degree necessary, do the things they did, endure the things they endured, suffer the things they suffered even at the cost of their lives. The book of Revelation is nothing short of a description of how the Christian must live and die in the face of all opposition. If the saints of the first century had to faithfully endure the persecutions of the day, then we can be assured that Christians today must do the same.
“He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.”
Identifying the Bad Characters
We know that the book of Revelation is written to help the saints overcome the forces of evil. This much is evident throughout the book. The Christians must endure, must remain faithful, must persevere, but against whom? Who are the forces of evil which are seeking to overthrow the Christians? We know before we even begin that satan is at the heart of the opposition. He is who seeks to do harm to the children of God. One may ask why satan wishes to harm those who are faithful to God? Satan knows his fate. He is going to spend eternity in Hell and he knows there is nothing that can save him. Satan is powerless to hurt God directly. He tried this and it failed miserably. Satan thought he had won when Jesus Christ was put to death. He could not have been more mistaken and it was proven to him when God raised Jesus from the dead, never to die again.
So then how does one hurt someone they cannot reach and defeat directly? By attacking those they love. God so loved the world [mankind] that he sent his only begotten Son to earth to die so that whosever believeth in Him would no perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). God died for us, He did not die for Satan. Satan knows how much God loves mankind so since he cannot destroy God, he will try and destroy those who God loves the most. You want to hurt someone? There is no better way than to go after the ones they love the most; their children. Satan knows he is lost and that his fate is sealed. He also knows he only has just so long in order to wreak vengeance on mankind, (Revelation 12:12).
Revelation teaches us how to overcome satan. It describes in detail the horrors of defeat and the joys of victory. We are locked in the age old battle between evil and good. God has given us what we must know in order to defeat satan. It is up to us to choose to overcome and we must do this even at the cost of our lives or the lives of our loved ones.
It is not necessary to understand every minute detail of the Revelation in order to understand that it represents the battle between evil and good. As long as we realize who the ultimate enemy is and do what we must do to overcome his evil influence and persevere to the end, then we know all we really need to know in order to make the proper application of this book to our lives today.
So with that said, we are going to positively identify satan as the chief bad guy in this study and then we will try and identify the evil agents serving under him and his authority, trying to bring about his goals, which are all aimed at utterly destroying Christianity from the face of the earth.
In the individual messages to the seven churches, satan is mentioned four times, (Revelation 2:9;13;24;3:9). So we quickly see in the Revelation that satan is the principle adversary of the Christians. Later in the book, he is represented as a “great red dragon” (Revelation 12:3), the “old serpent” (Revelation 20:2), the “devil” (Revelation 12:9), he “that deceived” (Revelation 20:10), “accused” the saints before God (Revelation 12:10), has “great wrath” (Revelation 12:12), was “worshipped”, (Revelation 13:4), “gave power” and “authority” to his servants (Revelation 13:2;4), and wages war with those who “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17). It is easy to determine from internal evidence that Satan is the head of all the forces of evil mentioned within the Revelation.
In Scripture other than Revelation we see similar characteristics of Satan. It was the “serpent” that deceived Eve in the garden. John identifies him as “the devil” (John 8:44). The “tempter” that came to Jesus was called “the devil” and then called by the name of “Satan” when rebuked by Christ (Matthew 4:3-10). Satan had been given the authority over the nations of earth to give their “power” to whoever he wanted (Luke 4:6), and offered it to Jesus if He would “fall down and worship” him (Matthew 4:9). We see a picture of Satan accusing or resisting Joshua before the Lord in Zechariah 3:1-2. So we learn long before the writing of the Revelation that Satan’s characteristics identify him as a mortal enemy of any who would be faithful to God and devoted to their destruction. The Revelation illustrates Satan’s characteristics in such a way that any reader with an elementary knowledge of scripture would undoubtedly know who he is. In addition, John’s illustrations of Satan reinforce the thought of just how intense Satan’s hatred is and to what lengths he is willing to go to achieve his goals. The student of Revelation needs to pause and give thoughtful consideration to just how horrible an enemy we are up against and the ramifications for falling under his influence. Revelation is a grim biography of the horrific nature of Satan and an illustration of the perils that await those who would choose to serve him.
Having learned that it is Satan who has the authority to give power to do evil to whatever nation he chooses, (Luke 4:6, Revelation 13:2;4), we will look at those who were given the power to be the adversaries of the Christians in the first century as described in the Revelation. What are their characteristics and how do they match up with actual historical figures?
The persecutors of the Christians:
There were two major groups of people known for severe persecution of the saints in the first century, the Jews and the Roman Empire. Our purpose here is to determine which group of oppressors are in view in the Revelation.
displayed their disbelief and hatred of the gospel in the crucifixion of Christ, the stoning of Stephen, the execution of James the Elder, the repeated incarceration as of Peter and John, the wild rage against Paul, and the murder of James. As prophesied by Jesus in Matthew 24, the fearful judgment of God at last resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
But this event only broke national power of the Jews, not their hatred of Christianity. They caused the death of Symeon, bishop of Jerusalem (A.D. 107); they were particularly active in the burning of Polycarp of Smyrna; and they inflamed the violence of the Gentiles by eliminating the sect of the Nazarenes.
Severe Jewish persecution of Christianity continued until about 132-135 AD when a false messiah who called himself Bar-Cochba (son of the stars, Numbers 24:17), placed himself at the head of a huge Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire. He caused all the Christians who would not join him in his revolt to be cruelly murdered. This resulted in yet another crushing defeat by the Romans in 135 AD. More than half a million Jews were slaughtered in the war, immense numbers sold into slavery, 985 villages and 50 fortresses leveled to the ground, nearly all Palestine laid waste, Jerusalem again destroyed, and a Roman colony, Aelia Capitolina, erected on its ruins, with an image of Jupiter and a temple of Venus. After this the Jews had no opportunity for any further large scale organized persecution of the Christians, but they continued to publish and circulate negative propaganda for centuries afterwards.
Later in this study we will see that the evil entities described in Revelation forced the people to worship idols of a false God. It was against Jewish law to make an idol of God and worship it under any circumstances, therefore the principle forces warring against Christianity can not be Jewish in John’s Revelation.
Moreover, it is exceedingly significant that the Revelation was addressed to seven churches, none of which were in Jerusalem. If the Revelation were a letter of triumph and perseverance over the Jews, then it stands to reason the letter would have been addressed to the church in Jerusalem instead of to congregations far removed. It is obvious from the addressees of the letter that the scope of the persecution was considerably more widespread than just one city or nation. The oppression of the Christians in the Revelation was on a world wide scale and the Jews were incapable of the level of persecution described therein.
The Roman Empire:
The Roman empire was a melting pot of hundreds of religions. These religions came into the empire as a result of the introduction of the religions of conquered nations into their society. The empire was somewhat tolerant of these religions and permitted them to exist in their society so long as they did not pose a threat. Everything was fine as long as all the religions tolerated the presence of each other and everybody paid their taxes and there was harmony. Christianity was not tolerant of all these other religions and sought to make converts of all other nations and peoples, thereby attracting far greater numbers than the Jews. Spreading rapidly, Christianity gained the attention of the Roman State. With Christianity’s claim to be worshipping the one and only true God with the one and only true faith and utterly rejecting any form of idolatry, it quickly grew to pose a threat to the existence of the Roman State religion.
Christians refused to pay divine honors to the emperor and his statue, and to take part in any idolatrous ceremonies at public festivals. Their separation from politics and all civil affairs in favor of the spiritual and eternal interests of man and their close brotherly union and frequent meetings further inflamed the populace against them. The non-Christian public considered believers in the one God as atheists and enemies of their many Gods. There began to circulate all kinds of rumors of horrible abominations, even incest, cannibalism and conspiracy against the state, practiced by the Christians at their frequent religious assemblies and love feasts. The general populace regarded the frequent natural and political calamities of that age as punishment inflicted by the many angry gods for their tolerance of the Christian religion. In North Africa arose the proverb: “If God does not send rain, lay it to the Christians.” At every flood, or drought, or famine, or pestilence, the fanatical populace cried: “Away with the atheists! To the lions with the Christians!”
The overall negative response from unbelievers to Christianity combined with the Christians flat refusal to worship the emperor or his statues resulted in accusations of conspiracy against the Roman Emperors which was an unpardonable crime. Thus, Christianity was outlawed in the Roman Empire and the stage was set for the most horrendous persecution of all time against God’s people. The Jewish people hated the Christians and frequently reported them to the authorities. The general population, full of all kinds of false rumors, likewise distrusted and exposed Christians to the authorities. They were rounded up and punished as treasonous enemies of the state. Killed, tortured, sold as slaves, used in the games, horribly mistreated and distrusted, Christians were faced with an almost insurmountable obstacle to their belief and worship of the one true and living God.
So with this said, we will now examine the key characteristics of the opposition characters to the Christians as described in the Revelation and try to match them up with the best historical group of oppressors from that age. The opposition characters as described are represented by three major illustrations. The beast arising from the sea (Revelation 13:1), the lesser beast arising from the earth (Revelation 13:11) and the scarlet woman (Revelation 17).
One of the things that positively identifies the forces of evil is the fact that they tried to force people to worship the image of the sea beast. The beast was undoubtedly a malignant force hostile to the Christians and demanded the worship of all the people. Revelation 13:15 teaches us that “as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed.” An “image” to the first century Christians simply meant a statue or a likeness of someone or something. There were two beasts mentioned in Revelation. The beast from the sea (Revelation 13:1), and the beast from the earth (Revelation 13:11). The sea beast got his authority directly from the dragon (Revelation 13:2), which was Satan. The earth beast “exercised” or operated under the authority of the sea beast and required the people of the earth to worship the images of the sea beast (Revelation 13:12). This is forced worship of an evil entity which was characterized by the building of physical idols for the people to bow down to.
“And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.”
The women in view here is the one referred to in Revelation 17:5 as “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF THE HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH”. In this study, she is referred to as the “Scarlet Woman” in the commentary for chapter 17. There is considerable disagreement over whether this woman is representative of Rome or of Jerusalem. It is the position of this Bible student that she represents the city of Rome.
She is depicted as one who is riding on the seven headed, ten horned beast in Revelation 17. Much can be said here about chapter 17. This chapter of the Revelation goes to great lengths to identify the forces of evil against the Christians. Starting in verse 7 of chapter 17 the angel speaking in John’s vision gives an explanation of the vision to him. “The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sitteth” This is a very significant clue to the identity of the evil forces. The Roman Empire was built on the seven hills of Rome. They had a yearly celebration called the Septimontium which commemorated the enclosure of the seven hills of Rome within the walls of the city.
It was common custom in the centuries before Christ for people in the Roman world to refer to the City of Rome itself as the “City of Seven Hills.” The references are numerous and consistent. And indeed, when Romulus and Remus wanted to build a city in the area of the Tibur River (just inland from the coast to afford a greater protection for the city from sea pirates or from the naval warfare of hostile powers), it was decided that the city had to be on “seven hills.” The number “seven” was a universal symbol that signified ‘completion’ or ‘perfection’, and the founders of Rome wanted people to know that this city was destined to have a world influence and fame, and that it was no ordinary city that was being constructed in the 8th century BC.
The seven hills were:
- Aventine Hill
- Caelian Hill
- Capitoline Hill
- Esquiline Hill
- Palatine Hill
- Quirinal Hill
- Viminal Hill
The fact that Rome was designated “The Seven Hilled City” was significant enough to render it as a suitable candidate for being the city represented by the mother of harlots but it does not automatically mean this is who it represents. The City of Jerusalem as it existed in the time of Christ Jesus was also known as a “City of Seven Hills.” This fact was well recognized in Jewish circles. In the Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, an 8th century midrashic narrative (section 10), the writer mentioned that “Jerusalem is situated on seven hills” (recorded in The Book of Legends, edited by Bialik and Ravnitzky, p. 371, paragraph 111). And, so it was. Those “seven hills” are easy to identify.
If one starts with the Mount of Olives just to the east of the main City of Jerusalem there are three summits to that Mount of Olives:
- The northern summit (hill) is called Scopus.
- The middle summit (hill) was called Nob.
- The highest point of Olivet itself, and the southern summit was called in the Holy Scriptures the “Mount of Corruption” or “Mount of Offence”, mentioned in II Kings 23:13.
- On the middle ridge between the Kedron and the Tyropoeon Valleys there was (formerly) in the south “Mount Zion”.
- The “Ophel Mount”.
- To the north of that the “Rock” around which “Fort Antonia” was built.
- And finally, there was the southwest hill itself that finally became known in the time of Simon the Hasmonean as the new “Mount Zion.”
Both Rome and Jerusalem were known as cities of seven hills so to identify the ‘mother of harlots’ we must look further.
In Revelation 17:4 we see that this woman is incredibly wealthy. Both Rome and Jerusalem fit this description, however in this verse we see something that points to Rome more so than Jerusalem, “having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations, even the unclean things of her fornication” Her wealth was a result of ill gotten fortune and associated with spiritual fornication which we know is idolatry. The mother of harlots was herself guilty of idolatry. Judah as a nation was not given over to idolatry. They had rejected Jesus as the Messiah and were clinging to the law of Moses instead of the faith of Jesus Christ. They were worshipping under an abolished system of faith, but they were worshipping the one true and living God.
The name on her forehead “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF THE HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH” is also a clue. Babylon, the mother of harlots is a reference back to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon who erected a giant golden statue of himself and forced his people to bow down and worship it, thus committing spiritual fornication in the form of idolatry. With this practice, Babylon spawned, fostered and engendered spiritual harlotry and the abominations of the earth. With Nebuchadnezzar’s forced king worship, he literally spawned spiritual harlotry in the form of idolatry. The Roman Empire, with the enforcement of the Imperial Cult did the exact same thing. The Imperial Cult was charged with the task of promoting the worship of the emperors as gods. This connection between Rome and ancient Babylon is too significant to overlook.
Revelation 17:12 says “the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast.” The Roman Empire was a provincial government. They conquered a nation, added it to the empire and appointed a king over the province. They could be appointed or replaced directly by the emperor. Interestingly, it was required in the Roman Empire for them to have at least ten imperial provinces.
The woman sitting on the beast in Revelation was called a great city. And this great city ruled over the kings of the earth. Jerusalem was a large city but not in any way comparable in size to Rome, moreover, the rulers of Judah did not rule over the kings of the earth by any means, rather, they were subject to the Roman Empire themselves. This is yet another characteristic of the great harlot which points to Rome but cannot be reconciled with Jerusalem.
And finally, in Revelation 18:17-19, we read, “for in an hour so great riches is made desolate. And every shipmaster, and every one that saileth any wither, and mariners, and as many as gain their living by sea, stood afar off, and cried out as they looked upon the smoke of her burning, saying, What (city) is like the great city? And they cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and mourning, saying, Woe, woe, the great city, wherein all that had their ships in the sea were made rich by reason of her costliness! for in one hour is she made desolate“.
The great city which reigned over the kings of the earth was a maritime city. It had sea ports and ships which is something Jerusalem never had. The closest sea port to Jerusalem was Joppa, which was forty miles away.
Given the evidence from scripture, there is no city in the first century that matches these characteristics better than the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire required all people living under their rule to worship the emperors. They also persecuted those who refused to do so and often executed them. The Roman empire also had a government sanctioned organization that was responsible for enforcing emperor worship among other things. This organization was called the “Concilia” or sometimes the “Commune”. They went throughout the empire and constructed temples and set up statues of the emperors and forced the people to worship these statues. Those who bowed down to worship were given a certificate which enabled them to buy, sell and participate in government programs. They had great authority from the Empire and worked to promote its interests throughout. This hierarchical structure within the Roman Empire fits the description given in John’s Revelation so closely that there can be no reasonable doubt that the opposition forces against whom the Christians were required to resist was the Imperial Roman Empire herself with Satan operating in the background.
So, having examined the meaning of the figurative language to the first readers of the Revelation and having established who the opposition characters are, we are now ready to begin a study of the visions of Revelation. Keeping in mind that the basic template for unraveling the mysteries of these visions are:
1) The visions are symbolized to protect the innocent.
2) The first readers of the Revelation would be able to understand it.
3) What the Revelation meant to them, is what it must mean to us today.
The basic message of the Revelation is that those who overcome and remain faithful until death will be victorious over the forces of evil and will receive the crown of life. The application for us today is that Christians in the 21st century are the same as Christians in the first century. The requirements for faithfulness today are the same as in the first century A.D. Nothing has changed, there is no difference. If the first century Christians had to be willing to die for their faith, we must likewise do so today if necessary.
If we today want to be assured of being faithful Christians, we must pattern our lives after the only approved examples we have of the original Christians at the beginning. Using only the Bible, living like the first century Christians lived, believing what they believed, teaching what they taught, doing what they did and, if necessary, die like they were required to die, we will be confident of being today just what they were then.