Revelation 12 gave the reader a re-telling of the story of Apollo’s defeat of the Dragon who waged war on his mother Leto. It was a story that emperors in the first century accessed as a way of defining themselves as the new Apollo bringing peace to the earth. John uses the story to retell the story of Christ and his Church. The Dragon – the evil one – wages war on the child (Christ) and the one that bore and bears him in the world (the Church). But the Dragon could not conquer the child but has instead been conquered. Relegated to earth, now in his dying efforts he sets off to try and destroy God’s children.
Chapter 13 gives the reader insight into the Dragon’s strategy for continuing to wage war on “the children.” It is one of the more famous passages in Revelation because it contains the mark of the beast. The history of naming the beast throughout church history and trying to determine the meaning of the “mark” is an interesting study in itself. I will give you my best understanding using the resources listed here.
But like everyone else who have ever had to wrestle with Revelation 13 we are delving into areas of mystery that we may have to hold loosely.
13:1-10 And I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. Each of its horns was decorated with a royal crown, and on its heads were blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard. Its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. The dragon gave it his power, throne, and great authority. One of its heads appeared to have been slain and killed, but its deadly wound was healed. So the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon because it had given the beast its authority. They worshipped the beast and said, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The beast was given a mouth that spoke boastful and blasphemous things, and it was given authority to act for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to speak blasphemies against God. It blasphemed God’s name and his dwelling place (that is, those who dwell in heaven). It was also allowed to make war on the saints and to gain victory over them. It was given authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation. All who live on earth worshipped it, all whose names hadn’t been written—from the time the earth was made—in the scroll of life of the Lamb who was slain. Whoever has ears must listen: If any are to be taken captive, then into captivity they will go. If any are to be killed by the sword, then by the sword they will be killed. This calls for endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.
The repeated use of the world “authority” in this chapter should serve as a clue that we find ourselves in the sphere of the political. Such is also signaled by the animal imagery in 13:2, comparing the beast himself to be a leopard, his feet to a bear’s feet, and his mouth to a lion’s mouth. The language reiterates Daniel’s (chapter 7) description of four beasts, which like John’s arise from the sea. The allegory in the book of Daniel is quite transparent: Daniel tells us that the four beasts represent four kingdoms. Commentators ancient and modern see the first three beasts as symbolizing the Babylonian, Median, and Persian empires, while the fourth signifies the Greek empire of Alexander the Great. The ten horns of the last beast represent the ten rulers who succeeded Alexander. The last of these, the “little horn,” embodies the ruthless tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes, who sacked Jerusalem and set up an altar of Zeus in the temple of YHWH (See 2 Macc. 6:1-11).
It is in the political contexts of the four beasts that Daniel is granted his powerful vision of the Ancient of Days, judging all of the beasts and granting universal kingship to “one like a son of man” coming on the clouds of heaven to live out the rule of God. Which leads the reader of Revelation to believe that the beast in Revelation is also meant to point us to the political.
For John, the beast called up from the sea by the dragon combines Daniel’s four beasts into one, part leopard, part bear, part lion, with ten horns and seven heads. Like the plagues of Revelation 9 that were super-sized versions of the plagues of Moses on Egypt, this new beast is not just a new animal, but it is the greatest combination of powers the world had ever seen. Most commentators think it is clear that the beast for John is Rome. Or more completely it is the dark power of the pagan empire claiming to be eternal, its ruler claiming to be a god, and its politic demanding complete allegiance from its citizens. In John’s eyes, Rome rose up as a reflection of the beast. “Empire” is the spitting image of the one who gave it power.
Like Daniel and the other Hebrew children, those who refuse to participate in the life of allegiance to the “empire” will find themselves in peril. The empire works by creating unity through uniformity. The power of the empire is the threat of destruction and death. The call for the saints who face this beast is to endure.
The beast from the sea is the parody of the Lamb. Christ came from heaven – the beast from the sea (from the tohu bohu – the chaos). The Lamb suffers for the sake of others – the beast causes people to suffer. The Lamb shares the authority and is a reflection of the One who is seated on the throne – the beast shares the authority and is the reflection of the dragon. The purpose of the Lamb is to set people free – the mission of the beast is to place people into deeper bondage.
13:11-15 Then I saw another beast coming up from the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it was speaking like a dragon. 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. It does great signs so that it even makes fire come down from heaven to earth in the presence of the people. 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. 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.
If the beast that rises up out of the sea and is a reflection of the Dragon, who or what is this second beast on the land? Many scholars believe that the beast from the land is the embodiment of the imperial cult and propaganda that lured people into the life of the empire. The Empire needs an agent, someone or something that coaxes allegiance from the people of earth.
It is likely that much of this chapter hints at the most dangerous emperor the early church had faced – Nero. We know from other ancient sources the hideous and violent ways that he persecuted the church. The reference to being wounded – and later the number of the beast – likely are direct references to Nero. As Craig Koester writes,
The supreme embodiment of hostility to Christians was the emperor Nero. When the finishing touches were put onto the image of the beast, Nero sat for the portrait… The end of Nero’s life also gave a perverse credibility to the portrayal of a beast that was slain and yet lived. Nero killed himself by putting a dagger to his own throat, but rumors arose that Nero was still alive and in hiding, so that he would return one day to avenge his enemies… By combining the threats represented by the four empires in Daniel 7 with images reminiscent of Nero, the beast exemplifies the threats that confront the people of God in many generations.
My favorite part of the description of this second beast is that it tries to look like the Lamb, but it speaks like the dragon (13:11). It is the beast that offers people life, yet it turns out to be the agent of death. The Spirit of God invites people into the life of the kingdom. The beast from the land completes the “unholy trinity” by deceiving people into giving their lives away for things that are far from eternal.
The second beast is a false prophet, who also poses a contrast to the two prophetic witnesses depicted in Revelation 11:3-13. This beast can perform great signs. But, nevertheless, appearances are deceiving. Signs do not prove that someone is a true prophet. The touchstone for true prophecy is whether it moves people to worship the true God or whether it deceives them into worship a false god.
13:16-18 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. 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. 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.
As I said earlier, the mark of the beast has been a source for great speculation across Christian history. In recent years many have speculated that the mark might be some kind of tattooed barcode that people would be forced to have in order to participate in the economy. I believe that the mark is a reference back to the great Shema text from Deuteronomy 6:4-8. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you like down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.”
Earlier in Revelation [7:2-4; 14:1], those who belong to the Lamb were marked by his life (through baptism). Now John sees those who belong to the beast as marked by its life. There is no in-between for John, you are marked by and belong to one entity or another: Empire or Kingdom. But he recognizes that the consequence of not being marked by Empire is alienation [literally being an: “alien – nation”]. As the reader encountered already in the letter to Thyatira (2:18-29), those who did not participate in the “cult of empire” or the cultic practices of the trade guilds were often left outside economically. We know that there were times when first century citizens were given certificates as evidence that they had participated in the cultic worship of the empire and if they did not have those certificates they could not participate in the life of the trade guilds. These may be the allusions behind this idea here.
When it comes to the calculation of the number of the name, the first readers of this text would likely have easily understood John’s reference. Earlier in the text John made subtle reference to Nero and the early readers would have known that in the common practice of gamatria [each letter representing a number] the name Neron Caesar [the proper Hebrew use of Nero’s name] would equal 666 [Nun(50) + Resh(200) + Waw(6) + Nun(50) + Qof(100) + Samech(60) + Resh(200) = 666]. There is also a tradition within early Christianity that equated the numerical value of the name of Jesus Christ with 888. Because Christ rose on the first day of the week, sometimes Christians would think of it as the “eighth day.” It is the number right after completion. The number of the beast fails to arrive at completion, but the number of the Lord gets us to completion and beyond into that which is eternal.
Therefore, I believe the use of the number 666 by John had a far greater significance than pointing to Nero as the embodiment of all that is opposed to the Lamb. The number first appears in the Scripture in the narratives about King Solomon in 1 Kings 10:14-15. Each year 666 talents or kikkars was the weight of the gold Solomon brought into the kingdom. The point of the Kings narrative is that Solomon was moving the heart of the people away from the LORD and toward wealth and idolatry. 666 is an intensive symbolic expression of incompleteness, idolatry, judgment, non-fulfillment, evil itself raised to the third power. The message is, no matter how many times you try to add up the life of the “empire” it always brings about incompleteness and destruction.
All of this raises the question of how we think about the beasts today. If the power of ancient Rome is gone and the cultic worship practices with it, do the sea and land beasts still exist today?
My answer would be yes. In fact, I think they exist in even more subtle and dangerous ways today. The beast from the sea still lives in the various aspects of empire, culture, and principalities and powers that destroy and enslave people.
And the beast that looks like the lamb but speaks like the dragon is the constant barrage of what Jacques Ellul would call “propaganda” that bluffs people into believing that real life can be found in the values, purposes, and goals of the culture. As Howard-Brook and Gwyther write, “It is not at all a matter of gullible folks being taken in by magic tricks. Rather, it is the highly organized, technologically proficient, and psychologically effective process of developing a systematic, false reality that masquerades as ‘the way things are.’” (Brook Gwyther).
The great fear for us and especially for our children being raised in the midst of the work of the “unholy Trinity” is that we would be left out. The one who looks like the lamb but speaks like the dragon convinces us that what we really want and need are the non-eternal things offered by the Dragon. And so we are marked by and give our lives to the things of the beast. God is looking for a people who in the midst of the empire live as people marked by the Lamb.
When the summary creed (mark) of the land beast replaces the Shema on forehead and hands, religion becomes consumption – people become gross parodies of the gospel, buying all they can to show they are blessed by God, bowing before every display of success. The buying and selling of religion is the mark of the beast. – Eugene Peterson
John has been painting his apocalyptic masterpiece with the colors of the great prophets Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, etc. But in this brief interlude before he describes the final fall of Babylon he goes back to his favorite colors – the colors of the Exile from Egypt.The verses above from Exodus 15 tell of the “Song of Moses” the Israelites sang after they passed through the Red Sea unharmed. The people had been trapped between Pharaoh and the waters of chaos but God made a way for them through the waters and into new life. In response they sang a song of praise to the One who is “my strength and my power, he has become my salvation.”