Of all the chapters in Revelation, chapter 13 may require the most decoding. That’s why it is a good thing that we all have our secret decoder rings. Did you know you have such a thing? The other name for our secret decoder ring is “the Holy Spirit”. Let’s ask for his help in understanding this passage…
Holy Spirit, give us understanding of the Scripture we are about to read, and application to our everyday lives. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Now listen for God’s word to you from Revelation 13…
The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”
The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.[b]
Whoever has ears, let them hear.
This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.
Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.
This chapter, like much in Revelation, can seem like a nightmare, or something out of a scary children’s story. Thus, I have chosen the title: “Beauty or the Beasts?” You may question where the beauty is in this chapter. We will get to that in a moment. First, we need to understand who these beasts are.
And the first beast is given power by the dragon (Satan) whom we have already encountered during our journey through Revelation. This is almost like stories we have read or heard about in the news where some important diplomat is killed on the streets of some great city, and then we come to find there is a larger, dark power behind the killing, that it isn’t just a one-off murder by an amateur. Just so, in this case, behind the beasts we read about in this chapter, John is telling us there is a darker power, someone far more powerful—Satan himself who is a fallen angel.
Now, let’s take a look at who these beasts are…
The first one is the beast out of the sea. The sea was a fearsome thing to the ancient Israelites because they were not seafaring people. The sea, from their perspective, was a chaotic mess. Remember, in Genesis, it is out of such chaos that God originally created the universe, bringing order out of chaos. In Revelation, the first beast arises out of this chaos. But who is he? Let’s see what the symbols in this chapter tell us.
The Beast out of the Sea
G.B. Caird has written that there was “a Jewish tradition that God had created on the fifth day two mythical creatures, Leviathan and Behemoth, the one to inhabit the sea and the other the land.” Thus, it may be that John’s vision of these two beasts finds its origin in Jewish folklore.
But why does the beast out of the sea have ten horns and seven heads? Both are symbols of power and power is of the essence to the first beast.
Does John have someone in particular in mind? I think so. Augustus was, in a way, the first true Roman Emperor. Between the time of Augustus and the time when John was writing Revelation there were seven emperors: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. However, after the death of Nero, there was a short period of chaos, 18 months in which three men claimed imperial power: Galba, Otho and Vitellius. Add these three to the other 7 and you have 10.
John also sees ten crowns. This confirms that John is thinking of kingly, power politics. And for John, the Roman Empire is the epitome of kingly, power politics. Paul refers to the government of the Roman Empire as “the powers that be” in Romans 13:1.
The beast out of the sea resembles a leopard but has feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The leopard, bear, and lion come from a vision in Daniel 7 of four great kingdoms; the lion with eagle’s wings is Babylon; the bear is Media; the leopard with four wings is Persia; and a fourth stands for the empire of Alexander the Great. For John the Roman Empire was so Satanic that it included all the terrors of the evil empires that had gone before.
John tells us that the dragon, Satan, gives the beast of the sea power, a throne, and authority. The devil takes the human government that God has instituted for human welfare and makes it an instrument of oppression.
This beast from the sea also has a fatal wound. But then he rises from the dead, just like Jesus. This refers to the fact that some people believed Nero (pictured above) might return after death, or perhaps had already returned in the form of the Emperor Domitian.
John tells us that people worship this beast out of the sea. We know from history that Domitian required people to address him as Lord and God.
Next, John tells us that the beast out of the sea will exercise authority for 42 months. We have already encountered this symbol earlier in Revelation. As with everything else in Revelation, this should not be read at the literal level. As we saw earlier in this series, John is telling us that tribulation will last for a definite period, from Jesus’ first to second comings. 42 months is thus symbolic of the church age—perhaps because Jesus’ earthly ministry was thought to have lasted about 3 ½ years.
Another characteristic of this first beast is that he blasphemes God. John may be referring to the fact that the Roman Emperors for some time had claimed to be divine. For example, on his coins Nero called himself the Savior of the World.
This beast out of the sea specifically wages war against God’s people. We have seen already how this happened historically. Once Christianity was no longer viewed as a sect of Judaism, the Christians were forced to worship the emperor, and those who would not do so might lose their lives. John is telling us that the church may expect to suffer when it questions the authority of the beast.
In the Old Testament, the prophets of Baal said all the right things and ate at the table of a queen; Elijah said all the wrong things and was driven into exile in the wilderness. But Elijah stood for the true church. The Roman Empire, at times, waged war against God’s people. And at certain times, as under Nero, Christians, like Peter and Paul, were put to death because they would not confess Caesar as Lord. This has been the way of it for God’s people for millennia.
John also tells us that the beast out of the sea is given authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation. Clearly John has the Roman Empire in mind. As far as John and his people were concerned, the Roman Empire covered the known world.
Together, the dragon and the two beasts make an unholy trinity, an awful parody of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This whole chapter is challenging us with the question: “Do we choose the parody or the real thing?”
It’s a little bit like this… When I was young, one of my favorite places to go was Disneyland. I loved seeing the Matterhorn. In fact, when I saw the Matterhorn, I knew we were near our destination. But then my parents took me to see the real Matterhorn in Switzerland. After I saw the real thing, the copy, the fake, did not hold the same attraction.
John is really asking us, which are we going to choose, the parody or the real thing?
How are God’s people to respond?
This leads to the question: how are God’s people to respond to the beast of the sea? I have entitled this sermon “Beauty or the Beasts?” The two beasts in this chapter are obvious. One might ask: “Where is the beauty?” The beauty is in how God’s people respond to a world dominated by these two beasts.
Before John goes on to tell us of the second beast, he tells us how God’s people should respond to the first one, with patient endurance and faithfulness.
William Barclay sums up this first section of Revelation 13 in this way: “One great truth stands out in this section. In this world a man and a nation have the choice between being the instrument of Satan and the instrument of God.”
The Beast out of the Earth
Next, we come to the beast out of the earth. This beast has two horns like a lamb. This is again a parody, a mocking parody of the Lamb of God who is Jesus. The beast out of the earth has two horns (symbols of power) like a lamb, but he speaks like a dragon, like Satan.
This second beast exercises authority on behalf of the first beast. He performs great signs. In the book of Exodus, the Egyptian magicians performed signs like those of Moses. So also here in Revelation, the pagans seem to be able to perform magical signs that parody the miracles of Jesus. The purpose of these signs is to deceive the inhabitants of the earth—to make them want to worship the first beast.
This second beast orders the people to set up an image in honor of the first beast. We know of a few times in history when something like this happened. The Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes, set up an image of Zeus in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Many years later, the Roman Emperor Caligula asked that his own image be set up in the Jewish temple, but he died before he was able to carry out his plan. But probably the historical situation John was thinking of was this. There was a statue of Domitian in the Temple in Ephesus. And Ephesus was where John lived and exercised his ministry before being exiled to Patmos. The statue of Domitian was 23 feet tall. The head, which is still intact today, is four feet tall. The statue, we now know, was hollow. This gave rise to the speculation that a priest of Caesar would hide inside and make the statue appear to talk. It seems to me that it is almost certain this is what John was referring to in Revelation 12.
Furthermore, the second beast forces people to receive a mark. This mark is another grim parody; this time it is a parody of the phylacteries that the Orthodox Jews would wear, and still wear, on their foreheads and on their wrists.
John tells us the mark is the name of the beast or the number of its name. The mark may also refer to coins with the image of the emperor and his divine names. People could not buy or sell without these coins. John tells us that the people could not buy or sell without the mark of the beast (Revelation 13:17).
Finally, we are told the number of the beast is 666. What is this all about?
In Greek and Hebrew numerals were indicated by letters of the alphabet, so that the letters of various names had numerical values which could be added together to obtain a total number. We know that the Hebrew spelling of Caesar Nero adds up to 666.
We also know that the number of perfection for John is 777. 7 is a number representing completeness for him. So, 777 represents the trinity. 666 is symbolic of sin. It falls short of 777 three times over.
So, if the first beast represents the Roman Empire, who does the second beast represent? I think William Barclay gives the best answer when he says that the second beast represents “the whole provincial organization of magistrates and priesthoods designed to enforce Caesar worship, which confronted the Christians with the choice either of saying ‘Caesar is Lord,’ or of dying.”
How are God’s people to respond?
How are God’s people to respond to the second beast? John tells them they need wisdom.And we need wisdom in our day to discern who the beasts are that are seeking to lure us away from worship of the one true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
N. T. Wright has written,
We can understand the dilemma faced by those Christians back then. We like to think that we would always choose the reality and reject the parody. But would we? When we ask ourselves where similar key issues emerge and challenge us today it may not be as clear-cut as we like to think—and it’s quite possible that many Christians in the first century felt like that too. Does it count as a compromise if I use Caesar’s coinage, even though it has words like ‘son of god’ stamped on it? Is it a compromise if I put my stall out by the side of the road during one of the great imperial festivals, to catch the crowds as they are going to the temple, even if I don’t go myself? Will it matter if I buy a slab of beef in the market, even though I know it will have been offered in sacrifice in Caesar’s temple just up the road? For us, does it matter if we buy a newspaper which openly mocks the Christian faith and promotes every other way of life imaginable except the Christian one—even if all I’m going to read is the sports news? Does it matter if I work for a company that, through one of its other offshoots, is cheerfully polluting lakes and rivers and destroying their wildlife? Should I be worried that my bank is a major investor in companies that work in parts of Latin America where labour laws are practically non-existent, allowing them to get away with virtual enslavement of local populations?
These are not the only, nor even perhaps the most important, questions we face. But it’s important to recognize that we too, face choices which may well not be so clear-cut as we would like. We need to pray for discernment to distinguish the reality from the parody, and to act accordingly.
I would sum up the bottom-line question posed by this chapter in this way: “In the decisions we make every day, are we siding more with the beauty of God through patient endurance, faithfulness and wisdom, or are we siding with the beasts of brute power in our own world today?”