The Beasts of Revelation: Interpretation and Urgency
Chapter 12 records our Savior’s defeat of Satan. His resurrection and ascension into heaven crushed Satan’s head (12:10; John 12:29-31). Cast down to earth, he ferociously persecuted the early church through the unbelieving Jews (1 Thess. 2:14-16). Chapter 13 reveals the second instrument that Satan will use to attack Christ’s bride: the two great beasts of Revelation, the Roman Empire and its emperor cult. Most recognize that the Roman Empire and first century events were the historical background against which John wrote. Most, however, deny that first century events are the primary fulfillment of John’s vision. Futurists identify the beast of Revelation as the antichrist who will appear at the tribulation. Idealists tend to view the beasts as symbols of Satan’s ferocious warfare against the church in all generations until our Savior returns. This “double vision” concerning the beast imagery, in which it is allowed that the Roman Empire supplied the imagery but could not be the primary historical fulfillment, should be rejected.
First, the theme of Revelation indicates that the beasts of Revelation must be placed within the first century A.D. Jesus Christ is coming on the clouds to judge those who pierced him, the nation of Israel (1:7). While we rightly apply Revelation to our own day, as we do all of Scripture, its specific historic referent must be sought in John’s day. Second, the expectancy of imminent judgment indicates that the beasts of Revelation must be placed within the first century A.D. The imminence theme cannot be explained as “future events portrayed so vividly that it is as if they are currently happening.” John speaks repeatedly that these things are “about to take place (1:1),” Third, the prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction indicates that the beasts of Revelation must be placed within the first century A.D. Jesus Christ prophesied that Jerusalem would be surrounded with armies in that generation (Matt. 24:15; Luke 21:20). The armies that surrounded Jerusalem and destroyed the city and temple were those of the Roman Empire. Our Lord also told the priest that he would see the Son of Man coming on the clouds in power and glory (Mark 14:62). He is the great Prophet (Acts 3:22; 7:37), and his words were fulfilled.
Fourth, the purpose for John’s writing indicates that the beast of Revelation must be placed within the first century A.D. The book of Revelation cannot be understood properly apart from existing conditions in the churches and surrounding culture in the 60’s A.D. The Church found herself in the midst of cultural upheaval, increasing pressure to compromise with the idolatrous claims of the Roman Empire, and continuing hostility from the persecuting power of the Jewish leaders. The New Testament Epistles and Acts all breathe this crisis atmosphere. The risen Savior sent John to explain these events and encourage these believers to remain faithful. They needed encouragement to hold fast to Christ with Satan breathing down their necks, first from the unbelieving Jews and then from the Roman beast.
The Two Beasts: An Overview
Though it is not often remembered, there are actually two beasts in Revelation. The descriptions given of the first beast demonstrate it to be a totalitarian civil power, which wields absolute sway over the world. It demands total allegiance, worship, and service. It recognizes no higher or limiting authority, but, like Satan, seeks to be a power unto itself, free from all checks and balances. Because of this, it cannot tolerate Christians. The Church recognizes only one absolute sovereign and Lord, the triune God and his enthroned Son, Jesus Christ. Though the Church gladly obeys the higher power and honors the king, it cannot give unqualified allegiance to an absolute state, for its demands will conflict with those of the Christian faith. Christ, not man, is King. This is the good confession the first century church was required to make as Rome’s power increased and its claims extended into virtually every area of life.
The second beast is the propaganda and bureaucratic arm of the beast. It is filled with the authority of the first beast, raises an image in the likeness of the first beast, causes all men to bow down to it, and refuses to allow participation in social and economic affairs without his mark. This beast was the emperor cult that supported every Roman emperor, from Julius Caesar to Nero, and beyond. In Rome, the early emperors were given divine status after their deaths. Progressively they demanded divine titles and worship while living. They adopted the titles of deity, calling themselves, “Lord” and “God.” Nero had a 130-foot statue of himself erected to gratify his messiah complex. The emperor cult impacted every area of Roman life. Libations were required to honor the emperor at festivals, in trade guilds, and during temple worship. For the Church, not Nero but Jesus Christ was Lord and God. Confessing believers were increasingly ostracized from society and made scapegoats for national troubles. Nero instituted a brutal and bloody persecution against Christians. They would not honor his divine claims or those of Rome, and, therefore, they became the objects of his fury.
The First Beast: The Divinized Roman Empire (vv. 1-10)
The Beast’s Power and Identity (vv. 1-2)
The Beast arises from the sea of sin and chaos. Chapter 12 concludes with the enraged and defeated dragon standing on the sand of the sea. The sea is the swirling mass of evil and chaos of unregenerate men and nations as they seek to overturn God and his moral order. Scripture presents God as controlling this sea, which vainly rages against him (Rev. 5:8; Ps. 93:3-4; Isa. 57:20). The awful scenes we are about to witness are part of his plan to crush Satan and deliver his suffering church. The devil raises a ferocious beast from this sea of sin and chaos. The beast has seven heads and ten horns, with ten crowns on those horns. That he comes from the sea of sin and chaos is evidenced by the names of blasphemy upon his heads. He does not come to serve God but to blaspheme, not to help men, but to enslave and kill them. This imagery comes from Daniel’s description of his fourth beast (7:7), the Roman Empire, and parallels the description of the dragon in 12:3. It is symbolic of the beast’s great power.
The Beast was prophesied by Daniel. The description of the beast in verse 2 is a combination of three beasts in Daniel’s image: a swift leopard (Greece), a fiercely strong bear (Medo-Persian), and a rending lion (Babylon) (7:4-6). The order is reversed, but the allusion is certain. The Spirit combines all the force, power, and death associated with the former empires into one single power of unbelievable horror and strength: the fourth beast, the Roman Empire. As Daniel prophesied, this beast is “dreadful and terrible, exceedingly strong; it had huge teeth: it was devouring, breaking in pieces, and trampling the residue with its feet.” Daniel writes in 2:44-45 that in the days of the fourth empire the “God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.” This kingdom is that of the Lord Jesus Christ, which the New Testament proclaims was established during the days of the Roman rule in the first century (Eph. 1:19-23; 1 Tim. 6:15; Luke 24:44; Heb. 12:13). Christ’s mediatorial kingdom thus began under the very shadow of Roman tyranny.
The beast’s satanic power gives him authority. A “horn” in Scripture is symbolic of power and authority (1 Sam. 2:10; Ps. 18:2; 75:4-5,10; Dan. 7:8,11). That the beast has “ten horns” is symbolic of the fullness of power he exerts. Perhaps the most important aspect of the horn imagery is the fact that the beast’s crowns are located on the horns. Like all tyrant states, the beast rules by sheer power and might. His authority does not proceed from a principle of justice but from brute force – he has all the guns or the biggest guns. The beast rules over the earth with the authority that his power provides. Rome subdued one people after another under the crushing force of its military might. The imagery also warns all earthly powers that fail to establish their reigns upon principles of truth and righteousness, but upon lies, pride, and military might. They are expressions of Satan’s dark kingdom.
The beast is a parody, a mockery, of Jesus Christ and his legitimate authority. The descriptions between Satan’s beast and God’s Messiah are parallel to emphasize that as the Lord Jesus Christ is the Father’s agent to bring peace and salvation to the world, the beast is Satan’s again to bring destruction, chaos, and persecution into the world. The parallels between Christ and the beast in Revelation are numerous and startling. We should not conclude from this that there are two equal powers vying for supremacy on earth. Chapter 12 is clear: Satan has lost the war; he has been cast out. He is a defeated foe who can be resisted. Moreover, he is the arch-counterfeiter, liar. He can create nothing new; he devises cheap imitations of God’s power and authority, the reign of his eternal Son, Jesus Christ.
The beast has ten diadems (13:1) – Christ has many diadems (19:12).
The beast has a blasphemous name (13:1) – Christ has a worthy name (19:11).
The beast had a wound but lives (13:3) – Christ died and rose again.
The beast sits on Satan’s throne (13:2) – Christ sits on God’s throne (12:5,10).
The Beast’s Divine Pretentions (vv. 3-6)
The beast receives an apparently deadly wound. Though the beast seems unstoppable, one of its heads received a death wound, which was subsequently healed, resulting in worldwide worship of the beast. The imagery fits Nero’s death very well. As the soldiers approach to kill him, Nero killed himself. For the next eighteen months, the beast was convulsing, as if in the very throes of death. The three succeeding emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) could not unite the kingdom. Civil war ensued, and for a time, it appeared that Rome was dead. The temporary turmoil in the beast’s existence that was occasioned by the deadly wound given to one of its heads does not indicate the termination of the conflict between Satan’s beast and the woman. The wound will be healed, power will be consolidated in one man, Vespasian, and then the beast will continue its crusade against God, his Christ, and the Church.
The beast recovers and is worshipped. The recovery of the Empire brought with it the wonder and admiration of “all the world.” Luke says “all the world went to be taxed” (2:1), even though he was referring only to the Roman world. The phrase implies that the entire Roman world of the first century marveled at the recovery of the beast from such a deadly wound. The beast’s recovery led to the worship of the empire, its power, glory, and dominion. Verse four implies that state worship is satanic worship. To worship Rome is to worship Satan and his designs, for he is behind all Rome’s achievements and ends, especially those that are directed against God’s order and Church. The worship of the beast led men to proclaim, “Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war against him?” The beast’s recovery, far from humbling the nation for its past sins and tyranny, only served to increase its pride and ostentation. Its faith in itself was confirmed by its survival through the dark period after Nero’s death.
The beast is worshipped by unbelievers. It may seem strange to modern ears to hear of “beast” or “empire worship.” Nevertheless, as the second beast section makes clear, Rome’s ostentatious claims were joined with religious and cultic homage, as the emperor cult, temples, and worship confirm. State worship did not die with Rome, for though the citizens of this nation do not engage in such outwardly cultic expressions of their devotion to the government, the faith of the people is firmly established in our government institutions as the source of our longevity, prosperity, and security. Today, many believe that the state and its various educational, health, and food agencies should be trusted. Its monies and military will preserve us. Its experts will heal and preserve us. This is a form of worship, and the expressions in verse four may be heard on the lips of many in our own day. State worship is the inevitable consequence of statism, and whether it produces actual temples, priests, and sacrifices, or their bureaucratic counterparts, it poses tremendous danger to churches residing within its dominion.
The beast claims to be God on earth. John’s opening description of the beast indicates the religious character of the beast’s claims. It has a blasphemous name on its head (v. 1). Its mouth speaks “great things and blasphemies,” a phrase taken directly from Daniel’s vision of Antiochus (v. 4; Daniel 7:8,25). The beast’s blasphemy refers to its divine pretensions and claims. Any student of Roman history will remember the divine titles demanded by the Roman Caesars. Beyond this, something more general is intended. In proclaiming absolute authority and refusing to recognize the authority of God, his Word, and his Christ, the Roman state was de facto engaged in blasphemy. It was acting and speaking against God and his moral order. Any state, government, ruler, or bureaucrat that takes unto itself the prerogatives that belong to God alone is guilty of blasphemy, and it is a matter of time before its arrogant boasting and comprehensive claims begin to oppose the claims of Christ and the mission of the Church in the world. This kind of blasphemy is only possible because God is the governor of the nations. When men assume and exercise his authority without recognizing his authority over them, they blaspheme his name – much more now that he has given all rule, authority, and power to his Son.
The beast makes war against the true God and his Son. In verse 6, the beast blasphemes God’s name, tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven. He is completely opposed to the kingdom of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, and the citizens of heaven. The reason for this is stated in the verses that follow. The claims of statism are opposed to the reign of Jesus Christ. There is only one Lord and God, the triune God. There is only one King of history, Jesus Christ (Acts 2:30-36). In erecting temples to itself, demanding universal worship from its citizens, and persecuting those who resist, the beast is engaged in warfare against the living God. Such was the nature of John’s beast, the Roman Empire, yet believers are clearly called upon to resist its blasphemy and divine pretensions, with their blood if necessary.
The Beast’s War with the Saints (vv. 7-10)
The beast will make war against the saints. It is inevitable that the claims of a divinized state and the faith of the saints will conflict. The beast is given authority to make war with the saints and overcome them. The passive verb suggests that the beast’s authority does not come from itself. Proximately, his authority and power are from Satan. Please, awaken to the evil of statism, here and around the world. It is one of Satan’s instruments of terror and torture against the church of Jesus Christ. At the same time, Satan is leashed and defeated, and no one can harm a hair on our heads except the Lord wisely ordained and lovingly orchestrates it. To accomplish his holy, wise, and just purposes, he allows his Bride to be persecuted for a time. The “forty-two months” is standard language in Revelation for a limited but intense time of suffering. Since faithful believers cannot submit to the beast’s demands, he will persecute them. This occurred in the year A.D. 64, when Nero began persecuting believers in Rome and throughout the empire. His ferocity and brutality against the Christians are infamous in the early annals of the church, as well as in contemporary secular histories of the period.
The beast cannot pluck Christ’s sheep out of his hand. In describing the objects of the beast’s persecuting wrath, John mentions the Lamb’s Book of Life (3:5; 17:8). This is the Lamb’s roll book, containing the names of all those who believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for life and salvation. The Lord knows who are his, and he guards them as his peculiar treasure (2 Tim. 2:19). Each believer’s name, deeds, and faithfulness is known and treasured by him in this special book. “Slain from the foundation of the world” aids our understanding of our security in the powerful hand of Jesus. The virtue of Christ’s sacrifice extends back to the beginning and saves all of God’s elect, including those who died in faith before his coming into the world.
The saints overcome the beast by faith. Only a living faith in the risen Son of God is able to preserve us in this war. We must live in communion with Jesus Christ and draw life, resolve, and courage from him. We shall face tyranny and persecution for his sake. We prepare for the conflict by abiding in the Lamb, resisting the claims of a pseudo-messianic state, and staying alert by prayer and communion with our Lord. We must remain alert to Satan’s schemes, for worldliness and laziness lead to compromise with the pressures of their age. Many first-century believers appear to have adopted a stance of compromise with the spirit of their age. For some, compromise was preferable to martyrdom. Hence, our Lord Jesus joined his warning with the solemn pronouncement, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Faith sees the conflict coming and arms itself for battle with the grace and promises of Christ.
The war with sin, Satan, and the beast is inevitable. Verse 10 teaches that there is no escape for the Church from this coming conflict. Those who are led into captivity will go into captivity. Those who are killed with the sword will be killed by the sword. This tautology reinforces the certainty of the prophesied events. God’s plans for the fledgling church can be accomplished in no other manner than through the fires of warfare, persecution, and martyrdom. The Lord Jesus frequently warned the early church that conflict was coming. He would preserve her through it. She must endure these fiery trials, for the Lord intended through them to glorify the keeping power of his grace and purify her faith. Like her Lord, she must first endure the cross before inheriting the crown.
We must be patient and trust the Lord. The patience and faith of the saints (v. 10) is our Savior’s loving call to endure hardship for his sake. To share in his glory brings with it the responsibility of confessing him against the claims of a blasphemous, totalitarian state. We have no other option but to speak up for the crown rights of Jesus Christ. There is no third way: running away, hiding, persecution, redefining the gospel, restricting the scope of Jesus Christ’s preeminence, personal cynicism, head-in-the-sand spirituality, or escapism. The first century was a time of initial, severe, unparalleled testing for the Church. Our Lord and his apostles constantly warned the church to be sober and vigilant against the devil’s schemes (1 Pet. 5:8). He gives the same warning to us today. Do not be deceived by the claims of creeping statism. Do not compromise with the immoral and perverse spirit of our age. Hold fast to Jesus Christ. Live by faith in his word. Patiently endure. Be ready to suffer for Christ, by growing in his grace and in the confidence of his love. Then, when he comes to be admired by all his saints, we shall be glorified with him, crowned to cast our crowns at his feet with joy.