RPM, Volume 18, Number 23, May 29 to June 4, 2016

To the Ends of the Earth

Revelation 13
Persecution by the Beast

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Beasts of land and sea

Few things have fueled more speculation that the biblical witness to the antichrist, and especially the testimony given by John in Revelation 13. In particular, who is the beast identified by the cryptogram 666. Jeane Dixon, for example, has predicted that the antichrist will appear in our generation because he has already been born. Discussions of the issue are almost bound to bring to mind such diabolical figures as "Rosemary's baby."

Revelation 13, in fact, speaks of two beasts: a beast of the sea and a beast of the land. It is the latter that is often identified as the antichrist figure. It is part of a wider biblical testimony to such a latter day figure of evil and malice.

…as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.—1 John 2:18

Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.—1 John 4:1-4

…that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God.—2 Thess. 2:3-4

And then the lawless one will be revealed… The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders…—2 Thess 2:8-9

And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads…—Rev. 13:1

…they also worshiped the beast and asked, "Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?" The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies…—Rev. 13:4-5

[The beast] was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation.—Rev. 13:7

Having told us in 12:13-17 of the determination of the dragon, having been hurled out of heaven, to pursue the church, we are now given a more detailed picture of him. Even though he knows his defeat is certain, he continues to harass the saints of God. But how does Satan accomplish his malice? In what form does he persecute and hound the people of God? The answer of Revelation 13 is that the form in which persecution operates is twofold: it is both political and economic.

Two Old Testament backgrounds form the canvas on which John weaves his portrayal of antichristian malice in the last days. The figure of two beasts is borrowed from the closing pages of the book of Job where a beast of sea (Leviathan) and a beast of the earth or land (Behemoth) are alluded to in the context of underlining to Job his inability to fathom their origin or purpose. The point being that even though he may not understand, God does, and as with Leviathan and Behemoth, so with providence generally, we are not necessarily given all of the details but we are called upon to trust in the Sovereign Lord who knows all there is to know. The identification of these two creatures is a source of much debate and even though attempts are made to identify them the crocodile and the hippopotamus, or some now extinct pre-flood creatures of the dinosaur family, it is best to maintain not to identify them that closely.

The other Old Testament passage that lies in the background of this chapter is Daniel 7. The vision of four beasts representing four successive world-empires now evolves into two beasts, of land and sea, that equally threaten political and economic stability. Figures of diabolical malice terrorize the world order. John depicts a ten-horned, seven-headed, seven-crowned beast (13:2; Dan. 7:4-6), one "speaking great things" (13:5; cf. Dan. 7:6,8), who appears for forty-two months (13:5; Dan. 7:25).

The Beast of the Sea (13:1-10)

With the dragon standing on the shore, a beast arises out of the sea (13:1) with ten horns and seven heads (cf. 12:3). There appears to be a composite picture here of the four beats of Daniel 7 and the dragon of Revelation 12. This beast, by the imagery of crowns, is one of the dragon's minions, an emissary of power subject to the dragon's control and bidding. The background to the blasphemous name is the Roman imperial cult whereby deity was ascribed to the emperor and coins bore divine names. Domitian, for example, asked to be called "our Lord and our God." To dwellers in Asia Minor, the first recipients of the Book of Revelation, the sight of Roman ships coming on the seas and landing on their shores was in many ways a beast-like image of dominion and power. But, just as the dragon in chapter 12 is meant to be symbolic of Satan's hostility throughout the period between the two advents of Christ, so the beast of the sea, whilst initially signaling the Roman persecutions of the first century and therefore of immediate significance to the first recipients of Revelation, its general significance remains as a warning of hostile forces that will continue until the end of time.

Of particular significance is the way John attributes the power of worldly authority attributed to the beast of the sea as that of the dragon's: "the dragon gave the beast his power and his authority…" (12:2). It is the principle that there exists world powers that are under the authority and direction of Satan. Though Satan's own direct power has been curtailed, he still exercises dominion through representative agents of worldly government.

One of the beasts seven heads bears a fatal wound now healed (12:3), a wound caused by a sword (12:14). It is reminiscent of the promise of Genesis 3:15, that the head of the serpent would be crushed by the seed of the woman. It is also remarkably similar to the word of Isaiah 27:1:

In that day, The LORD will punish with his sword, His fierce, great and powerful sword, Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent He will slay the monster of the sea.

Similar passages are found in Psalm 74:13 and Hab. 3:8-15. The NIV "seemed to have had" in reference to the fatal wound is not meant to be a statement of doubt as to its reality or even its eventual fatality. It is a parallel (and parody) of Revelation 5:6 and the statement that John saw "a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain." Jesus' death had been all too real, but He now stands in resurrection triumph. The beast, too, bears a mortal wound and appears to stand, but it will be short lived, for his eventual doom is certain. His reign is a pretence. He has "authority" (12:2, 4, 5, 7; cf. 12: 12), he is "given power" (12:7; cf. 12:15), but the ultimate sovereignty falls on the One who designates that power and authority, namely God. As is so clearly evidences in the opening chapters of Job, Satan and his hosts exercise their power only to the extent that God decrees. Behind this may well lie the suicide of Nero in 68 A.D. and the civil war that followed it, until the empire was stabilized again under the rule of Emperor Vespasian. It is interesting to note that several claims were made that Nero was still alive following his suicide. Whenever Christian persecution broke out under the rule of Domitian, the "healing" of the Roman empire was evident.

The identification of the beast with Nero, however, is difficult, for several reasons, including the fact that Nero was a disgraced ruler who died as a fugitive, and whose death was considered as demonstration of Roman power and not weakness; it was hardly a "fatal" blow. Furthermore, the sword is inflicted by God (or Christ) in 13:3, 12, and 14 and not self-inflicted. It is therefore best to interpret the beast of the sea as more general. What seems to be in view is the aggrandizing power of the state over the lives of people, something which has manifested itself in different ways in different ages and here threatens to be a feature of this-worldly existence to the very end.

Those not protected by God's seal (7:1-4), who are not a part of God's true temple (11:1-2; 12:1,6, 14) become convinced of the beast's authority and worship him (12:4). Their worship echoes in dark parody the worship true believers give to God: "Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?" Moses and Miriam had sung:

Who among the gods is like you, O LORD?
Who is likeYou,
Majestic in holiness,
Awesome in glory,
Working wonders?
(Exod. 15:11)

Using the instruments of deception and pretence, the beast manages to fool and hoodwink the ignorant into giving him worship. It is what he craves for, even offering to Christ what he did not possess in order to have him bow before him (c.f. Matt. 4:9). We have seen the allusions to forty-two months before (11:2,3; 12:6, 14), and is to be equated with the references to three and a half years, or "a time, times and half a time" (12:14) as well as the 1, 260 days (11:3; 12:6), and is to be identified with the entire inter-adventual age. The devil would never want to limit his opposition to this small time-span and is a way of denoting to us that though the opposition spoken is fierce and real, it is limited and its boundaries are established by God himself.

The nature of the beast's anger is conveyed in terms of blasphemous words against God, and the slandering of his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven (12:6). In the original reference in Daniel 7 the allusion is to Antiochus Epiphanes and his persecution of the Jews, but here the allusion is to a latter-day Antiochus who persecutes the Christian church.

Those who worship the beast are all those "whose names are not written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world" (13:8) This contains a two-fold assurance: that the Lord's people are ultimately safe from the machinations of the wicked one. They may entertain an assurance of final victory and eternal life despite the hostility they may face. Equally, all those who are not the Lord's people will inexorably give worship to the beast. There is no middle ground. They are either for Christ or for the beast. The book of life is determinative of God's sovereign election and predisposition to mark down his own (13:8; c.f. 3:5; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27). The ungodly are, in a sense written in a different book, one which records their sins (20:12-13).

By way of an exhortation to his readers, John now warns by way of allusion to two passages from Jeremiah the possibility that believers may have to pay the ultimate sacrifice of death in the persecution brought about by the beast (13:10). Already, John has warned of the possibilities that lie ahead for the children of God, including imprisonment (2:10), and death (6:9; 11:7). And further revelations will follow (17:6; 19:2 and 20:4 [beheading]). This calls for what the New Testament calls "patient endurance and faithfulness" (12:10). It is the same thought addressed to believers in Hebrews 12:1-3 whenever the author exhorts to run with perseverance (endurance, patience) the race marked out for us with eyes fixed on Jesus, and this, in the face of difficulties of every kind. It is the combination of truths essential for Christian growth and maturity: that suffering is to be expected, that hope inspires facing it with endurance, that such experiences are to be prized as character building and ultimately God-glorifying. Thus Richard Baxter could exhort:

Ye saints, who toil below,
Adore your heavenly King,
And onward as ye go
Some joyful anthem sing.
Take what he gives
And praise him still,
Through good and ill,
Who ever lives!

The Beast of the Earth (13:11-18)

Commentators vary considerably as to the identification of this second beast, and his relationship to the first beast. If the first beast is to be regarded more as a system of political power as we have argued, the second beast is the personal, religious, antichrist figure. Some have preferred to see the first and second beast as the same figure, the first describing his political power and the second describing his religious power. Still others have identified the second beast as "the false prophet" and to be distinguished from the antichrist whom they regard as described by the first beast. In this view, the false prophet, rather than being identified with the antichrist, is seen as a separate figure in the service of the antichrist.

The parody in this image is even more striking than was the case with the beast of the sea. The lamb-like figure, with two horns, speaks like a dragon (13:11). There is no need to engage in fanciful explanations of two horns as opposed to the ten horns of the beast of the sea (13:1) or the even horns of the Messianic Lamb of Revelation 5. John is now alluding to the figure of Daniel 8, just as he had been alluding to Daniel 7 in the earlier part of this chapter. There in Daniel 8 we read of "a ram that had two horns" (Dan. 8:3).

Whereas the first beast is political in nature, the function of the beast of the earth is to encourage the worship of the first beast (13:12). Later in Revelation, this beast of the earth is referred to as "the false prophet" who leads people to worship the state (16:13; 19:20; 20:10).

Given that the second beast is a personal figure, who is he? The Reformers, for example, were of one mind in identifying him as antichrist, and in identifying the antichrist as the Roman Catholic church, and the papacy in particular. This identification found its way into the original formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The problem with it is that it fails to pin-point a particular person since the description of antichrist, both here in Revelation 13 and elsewhere in the New Testament, points to a definite person rather than a system of evil.

There is in view here a seemingly deliberate attempt to parody Christ so that what emerges is in so many ways representative of one who is anti-Christ. Paul alludes to "the Man of lawlessness" in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. There, too, the figure is depicted as appearing at the end of time, but also "is already at work" (2 Thess. 2:7). In just the same way as one beast is followed by another in Daniel's vision in chapter 7, so successive kingdoms and powers rise in our age that eventually culminate in a figure (or force) of concerted opposition at the end of the age. This is of a piece with John's understanding of the two-fold nature of the Antichrist figure, as one who is to come but also as one who has already come and is currently at work (1 John 2:18; 2:22; 4:4; 2 John 7).

It is salutary to note that false prophecy arises within that of the covenant community (c.f. Matt. 24:5, 11). Such wolves in sheep's clothing have threatened the church from its genesis and now threaten to be a part of its experience to the very end.

The miraculous has always been a feature of false prophets as well true (cf. 2 Cor. 12:12 with Exod. 7:11 where Pharaoh's prophets mimic the miracles of Moses). It was part of the prophecy of the Oliver discourse that "false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect" (Matt. 24:24). Indeed, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to mimic apostolic qualities to the beast of the earth by suggesting that, like true apostles, he is to be seen as a spokesperson for his master, that he derives his authority from his master, and performs signs and wonders as attestation by his master. What is in view is the concerted teaching of a false apostle/prophet who convinces some to worship a system fundamentally in contradiction to the world-view of the kingdom of God. The demand is unilateral and unequivocal: those who refuse to worship the first beast he commands to be killed (13:15). Nebuchadnezzar-like, he does not tolerate those who refuse to do his bidding. To ensure compliance and identification, he mimics the sealing of the true saints (7:3), with a mark of the beast on his stamped on either the right hand or on the forehead of those who are his (13:16).

The number 666

15:2 would seem to indicate that the beast in question here in 13:18 is the first (described in 13:1-8) and not the second (described in 13:11-16).

Attempts are often made to solve this by reference to the Gematria — the art of representing words and names by addition of the numerical equivalent of each letter. We have something like this in our use of telephone numbers like 1 800 CALL JOE variety. You would use the first nine letters of the alphabet to represent numbers 1 through 9 and then the next nine numbers to represent 10,20,30 etc. through 90, and the following nine letters to represent the number 100, through 900 etc. Nero in Greek doesn't become 666, but if transliterated into Hebrew (as Nero Kaisar, "Caesar Nero" one possible rendition of his name) the number 666 does appear, but only by misspelling his name (and omitting the Hebrew letter yodh). Preterists, who favor an early date for Revelation and see most of its contents as fulfilled in the destruction of Rome in 70 A.D. are particularly keen to cite Nero as the focus of the number 666.

Another attempt to add up the first letter of all the emperors from Julias to Vespasian also produces 666. The readers were meant to be able to do the procedure backwards from a number to individual letters of which the number is a sum of an unknown quantity of letters. It is easier to work from the orginal name (forward) and convert it into numbers than trying to work backwards from numbers to the letters. The former only has one answer but the latter can have several. There is a degree of arbitrariness in this procedure that renders it deeply suspicious. No such attempt, for example, is made in identifying other numbers, such as 144,000.

Since the number 7 is used throughout Revelation as a number of completeness (the seven days of creation and rest), it is likely that John intends 666 to be a parody of 777. A number short of completeness repeated three times is a trinity of imperfection. It is the numerical equivalent of utter imperfection. In this way, Nero is a candidate; but so also is Domitian, Stalin and Hitler.

For such times wisdom and insight are key requirements (13:18). John does not intend to mean the kind of wisdom needed for solving mathematical puzzles so much as that wisdom of which Scripture speaks, the wisdom of knowing God and his ways. It is the wisdom of knowing what life in covenant with God is to be and the best way to live so as to comply with its demands. In the face of the reality of opposition, three skills are now required: patient endurance (13:10) and wisdom (13:18): these are the keys to living God's way in the face of trouble.

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