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Reflecting on the text (Revelation 13)

One of the most notable features of the book of Revelation is “the beast” in Revelation 13 (actually there are two of them). Since the beast is a central aspect of John’s work, we’re going to spend two days discussing it.

The first day will be Reflecting on the Text, focusing on meaning of Revelation 13. The second day will be Living What We Learn, focusing on the application of Revelation 13.

Another way of looking it is that today we’ll be discussing who or what John has in mind when he talks about the beast. Later we’ll explore what John reveals about the beast, and how it applies to us.

Because the beast is such a controversial topic, we need to start by laying out some guidelines for an answer. If we are going to have the right explanation, it must fit certain criteria. More specifically, our answer must correspond to the genres of Revelation.

Do you remember the three genres of Revelation? They are letter, prophecy, and apocalypse (see Rev 1.1-6).

Because Revelation is a letter, we cannot ignore John’s original hearers. John was a real person writing to encourage real people to stay faithful to God in a really dangerous world. As you may recall from earlier chapters, these followers of Jesus were being bullied around by priests of the Roman Emperor Cult. They were told to bow down to the emperor (representing the power and glory of the Roman Empire) and to offer incense and prayers in his name.

They obviously had a problem with this, so they refused. And when they refused they put themselves at risk of losing their job, social status, or worse. Whatever we say about the beast, it must first make sense to people living in this type of situation.

Because Revelation is a work of prophecy, we must remember that it is designed to call God’s people to faithfulness in their present situation. Even when it seems to “predict the future”, the goal is for God’s people to respond right now.

As a work of prophecy, we must also recognize the focused use of intense figurative language. Amos didn’t simply say, “God is mad.” Rather, he proclaimed: “The lion has roared” (3.8). Instead of saying, “Babylon is going to fall, and this will seem as significant to us as a cosmic collapse,” Isaiah said, “The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven” (13.10).

Revelation is also an apocalypse. Contrary to popular opinion, apocalyptic is not primarily about the “end times.” It is about unveiling God’s power and might in a world where he appears to be losing. It is about making known the ultimate significance of what God is doing in the world, as well as exposing the idolatrous pretensions of the (usually political and economic) powers that be; in Revelation, John’s goal is to explore the full meaning of Jesus’ victory over evil in his death and resurrection.

So again, our answer to the question of who or what is the beast must take into account the fact that Revelation is a letter, a prophecy, and an apocalypse.

Building upon this, whatever else we may say about the beast, we must acknowledge that John is clearly alluding to the Old Testament book of Daniel.

Read Daniel 7.1-8. Sound familiar?

Now read Daniel 7.15-18.

What did the beasts of Daniel’s visions represent?

They represented earthly kingdoms, historical empires. In Daniel’s day, this was a way of revealing the true nature of the kingdoms that were persecuting the people of God. It makes sense to assume that John uses Daniel’s images in much the same way.

Let me offer my answer simple and clear: The beasts of Revelation 13 represent the Roman Empire of John’s day.

In the strictest sense, “the beast” is a symbol used to describe any government that has set itself up against God, the True King of heaven and earth. In Revelation, John uses this image to represent one particular government who had done just that—Rome.

Let me give you a few reasons why I think that:

First, many historical details about the Roman Empire fit John’s particular description of these beasts:

  • In A.D. 68 the Roman emperor Nero committed suicide, and for about a year the Empire descended into total chaos. Various generals and politicians assassinated one another and tried to take the throne. They cancelled all their military expansions, and there was widespread panic that Rome was soon to be a dream of the past. But in A.D. 69 Vespasian took the throne and restored peace and stability to the empire. Historians would later say that Rome had returned from the brink of death. John has this in mind when he says that the beast had a fatal wound that had been healed, and that it was wounded by the sword and yet lived.
  • John says that this beast had ten horns and seven heads, each with crowns on them. All of these images represent massive power. He also says that the whole world was astonished and pledged their loyalty to the beast. For John’s hearers it would have been obvious what he was talking about.
  • In the Roman Empire it was customary to pronounce the emperors divine upon their death. After a few decades, however, the emperors got greedy and began this process while they were still living. They each made coins with their faces and the titles of other gods on the front. Domitian, who was reigning when John finished the book of Revelation, demanded to be addressed as “lord and god.” This is what John means by the blasphemous names on each of the heads.
  • John also says that the beast “made war against the saints and conquered them.” As we have explored at length, persecutions at the hands of the Romans were a daily reality for John’s hearers. As such they would obviously have thought of this is what John was talking about.
  • We must also explain this strange second beast, who has been called the first beast’s “demonic public relations consultant.” Quite simply, I think that John’s hearers would have without hesitation thought of the Emperor Cult and the priests who were causing them so much trouble.

Second, the Roman Empire is the only satisfactory explanation of the number 666.

  • In the ancient world, before they had numerical systems, they would use their alphabets to represent numbers. The first letter would be worth one, the second worth two, and so on (after 10, they would count by tens, and when they reached 100 they would count by hundreds). This was a popular method of coding one’s message—there was an inscription found at Pompeii that read, “I love the girl whose numbers is 545.”
  • John says that 666 is the number of the beast and also that it is “the number of a man.” The word “beast” equally totals 666. But that’s not all. To make a long explanation short, if you take Nero’s title in Greek and turn it into Hebrew, the numerical total is (dun, dun, dun) 666. [What is even more interesting is that some ancient manuscripts read 616 at this point in Revelation, and if you take Nero’s title from Latin to Hebrew, it equals (drumroll please) 616.]
  • John is using Nero as a symbol of Roman power in rebellion against God’s people. Nero was the first emperor to persecute Christians, and John is saying that more is on the way.

Third, this agrees with other imagery in the book of Revelation.

  • Turn to Revelation 17. Look at verses 3 and 9. Let me test your knowledge of history/geography: What city sits on seven hills? That’s right: Rome.

Fourth, this agrees with other New Testament writings.

  • Read Luke 4.5-7. What does this passage tell us about the early Christians’ beliefs about Satan’s power over the world, and his ability to give it to whoever worships him? Apparently, the Roman Empire has taken Satan up on the offer Jesus refused.

Fifth and finally, this explanation would have made perfect sense (and been not a little significant) for John’s original hearers.

For now, I rest my case.

Looking ahead to tomorrow, think on these things: What do you think John was saying about the beast? How does chapter 12 help us more fully understand what John is communicating to these churches? In what ways do you think the message of this text might play out in our own lives?

More tomorrow.