Chapter 12 ended with an ominous image, “the Dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). What follows will be an account of this “war,” though we should understand that what this verse refers to is the same phenomenon we have already seen in the plague visions.
And, crucially, we also already know the outcome of this war. Revelation does not allow for any doubts about the outcome of the Dragon’s war. Right away, back at 1:5, we read the affirmation that Jesus is the victorious “ruler of the kings of the earth.” Then, the center point of the book, chapter five, proclaims Jesus as worthy “to receive power and wealth and honor and glory and blessing” (5:12).
So, whatever the impression we might get from the picture of the Dragon’s “war,” especially in the vision of the mighty Beast we see in chapter thirteen, this is a war that is not really a war. The outcome is not in doubt—and, as we will see, the methods of combat between the Dragon’s side and those “who told the testimony of Jesus” are quite different, two diametrically opposed approaches to “conquering.”
Revelation 13:1-10—The Beast from the sea and the politics of domination
We briefly met the Beast back in chapter eleven where the “two witnesses” (essentially the same as those who hold the testimony of Jesus in 12:17) are warred upon, conquered and killed by the Beast “that comes up from the bottomless pit” (11:7). This “bottomless pit” is first mentioned at 9:1, where a “fallen star” goes from heaven to earth, is given a key to the shaft of the bottomless pit, and sets a plague of locusts who torture “those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads … for five months” (9:4-5).
These various themes will be developed more now. The Beast rises “out of the sea” (13:1). The “sea” in Revelation has an ambiguous status. It is in front of God’s throne (4:6), and it is the home of uncountable numbers of creatures who worship the Lamb (5:13). Yet, here in chapter thirteen it is source of the great Beast who terrorizes John’s world. The “conquering” people of God stand beside the sea in chapter fifteen, praising God, and at the conclusion of the book, 21:1, we are told that “the sea was no more” when the New Jerusalem comes down.
Probably a couple of ideas in the background here in Revelation thirteen are, one, that “the sea” evokes the “bottomless pit” mentioned at 9:1 out of which tormenting locusts came (similar to the tormenting Beast here) and at 11:7 where the Beast is explicitly said to come “up from the bottomless pit and make war on” the witnesses to the Lamb. Two, the Beast coming out of the sea might also link with the sea monster Leviathan (as in Ezek 29:3; 2 Esd 6:47-52; and 1 Enoch 60:7-10).
In any case, the Beast is terrible and oppressive. Its ten horns and seven heads symbolize power, the power of domination—power that is the antithesis of the Lamb’s power. The images of wild, deadly animals (leopard, bear, lion) evoke the vision of Daniel seven, and its portrayal of the great empires of an earlier age. Here, clearly the Roman Empire is in mind, at least as the immediate manifestation. And John makes one of the most important connections in the entire book when he writes that the Beast’s “power and his throne and great authority” come directly from the Dragon (13:3).
John wants to be clear to his readers. Their temptations to accommodate with the ways of the Roman Empire are actually temptations to accommodate with Satan (with the implication that just as Jesus turned from Satan’s temptations early in his career, so should his followers do so now). This attributing the Beast’s power and authority to Satan also provides more clarity as to the source of the terrible plagues we are in the midst of here. God may be able to use the plagues (or at least, the plagues are not able to defeat God’s purposes), but the plagues themselves come from Satan, not God.
The “blasphemous names” on the head of the Beast quite likely are the same precise “names” that Christians give Jesus—such as “lord,” “king,” and “savior.” What makes them “blasphemous” when used of the Beast (i.e., the Roman emperor) is that they signify loyalty. The Beast demands the kind of loyalty that these kinds of “names” connote. But for John, there is only one “lord, king and savior”—to use those titles of any others is to commit blasphemy. Loyalty to the Beast/Dragon leads to violence and exploitation; loyalty to the Lamb/One on the throne leads to persevering love.
The Beast’s death and resurrection (13:3) may reflect the current widespread belief that the emperor Nero would return after death (if not in his own person, then in the person of one of his successors). The key idea seems to be that the Beast appears as invulnerable. Its power is inexorable. It cannot be resisted. The whole earth follows the beast with wonder (13:3); each one having seen how the idolized head can yet rise again. And all whose hope is not ultimately in the Lamb’s way have no hope except in some human system, to which either expressly or by implication they give the blasphemous name of “god.”
The motif of “worship” is analogous to the motif of “conquering.” We have seen that the one on the throne and the Lamb are worshiped by all creation due to the Lamb having “conquered.” But in the “real world” it’s different kind of conquering that leads to worship from “the whole earth” that is given to the Beast and, behind the Beast, the Dragon (13:4; but remember Jesus’s temptation to “worship” Satan—to which Jesus retorted, “It is written, ‘worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,’” Luke 4:7). “Worship” here connotes deep loyalty and allegiance, not simply a weekly religious ritual.
John has raised the stakes about as high as they can go here. For his readers to accommodate to the Empire’s ways and to give the Empire their consent to its rule is to be party to the blasphemous dynamics of Satan’s “war” on the woman’s children mentioned at the end of chapter twelve. As is clear in the imagery here, such consent itself actually empowers the Beast. The “power and authority” that the Dragon gives the Beast, we will learn, is not intrinsic power that the Beast would have no matter how people responded to him. It is power “given him” by people living deceived lives where they give consent to the Beast’s claims to be “lord and savior.”
The questions, “who is like the Beast, and who can fight against it?” (13:4), seem in the immediate context here to be rhetorical. Given what appears to be the irresistible might of the Beast, resistance must surely be futile. But when read in the larger context of the book of Revelation, this saying, “who can fight against it?” actually is a serious question and call to action. John’s answer to this question points to the message of the book. Revelation as a whole is an ethical exhortation. Indeed, one has been found who can “fight against the Beast” and open the scroll and bring healing to all creation. The appropriate response to the apparent might of the Beast (and to the apparent might of all the great empires in human history) from John’s readers (then and now) is not to quake in fear or despair—the appropriate answer has already been given: Conquer by the blood of the Lamb and the word of your testimony (12:11).
The Beast is vicious, though. Whatever it might mean to fight successfully against the Beast, it will not mean with the use of greater firepower. It is “allowed” to exercise its authority for “forty-two months” (13:5). We know about this timeframe already—a symbolic number for the entirety of time between Jesus’s ascension and the final establishment of the New Jerusalem. So, the Beast’s authoritarian ways will be manifest throughout the time of human history. They will characterize the entire era.
However, we must reflect on what this statement might mean. It’s not likely, given the ultimate message of Revelation, that by this statement about the perennial presence of the Beast John offers a counsel of despair. His biggest concern in the book is not to predict the future or even to guarantee a happy ending. Rather, it’s to present a method for resistance to the Beast and Dragon. To say the Beast will always be present is not to say we are doomed for the entirety of human history. It is to say that the need to follow the path of the Lamb, which does provide the means to conquer in the here and now, will always be present. So, by repeating “forty-two months” John simply finds another way to say there is only way to life (persevering love) and that that will always be the case. Compromise with Empire will never be life giving.
The “it was allowed” in relation to the Beast is a challenging concept. The Beast “was allowed” to “exercise authority for forty-two months” and to “make war on the saints and to conquer them” (13:5-6). Does God “allow” this? Or is it more that humanity “allows” it by the consent it gives to Empire? Since what follows in the rest of chapter thirteen addresses the dynamics of propaganda and consent gathering, it seems likely that the “allowing” is done by humanity. And the antidote is in following the Lamb (14:1-5) who actually does successfully fight the Beast.
Revelation has a sophisticated way of presenting God’s sovereignty in relation to the violent dynamics of the world we live in. On the one hand, the book is clear—God and the Lamb “conquer,” they are the true Lords over creation. This point is made early in chapter one and reiterated implicitly and explicitly throughout the book. On the other hand, the world remains a hurtful and unjust place in so many ways. How do these two elements of reality coexist? The answer lies in the nature of God’s power and the method God and the Lamb use to conquer. The world is not spinning out of God’s control, with only meaningless corruption and domination. However, God’s way of exercising power seems weak and ineffective. The book calls for trust—that the Lamb’s way of being in the world is indeed the answer to the problem of rampant injustice.
John presents this truth about God’s conquering by telling us that there is a sense that God “allows” the Powers to wreak their havoc—hence, the Lamb opening the scroll that unlooses the terrible plagues. There is a sense that God “allows” the Beast to operate. But the plagues actually are the Dragon’s doing, not God’s. Love cannot work its powerful healing transformation if God totally controls everything. Yet the world is still in the hands of a loving God who is working this transformation. The message to John’s readers is meant to reassure them that God’s is not absent or defeated. Even more, though, the message challenges the readers to remember that only the way of the Lamb is capable of actually conquering the Powers.
John pulls no punches in sketching the extent of the Beast’s grip—“authority over every tribe and people and language and nation” (13:7). “All inhabitants of the earth will worship it” (13:8). We should note, though, that surely these statements are rhetorical, actually part of the Beast’s propaganda to gain the consent of humanity. We already know that a countless multitude of people from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” worship the Lamb (7:9). Which claim do we believe? This question points to the second sense of “allow” in Revelation thirteen—that human beings, by believing the Beast’s claim for sovereignty allow the Beast to exercise such destructive power. This is the work of the second beast that we will meet later in chapter thirteen. Who “gave” the Beast this authority (13:7)? I suggest that “the inhabitants of the earth” themselves who give this authority. Interestingly, historians argue that the divinizing of the Roman emperor actually started with the people and only after recognizing its utility did the emperors themselves begin to claim this status.
When John states that “all the habitants of the earth” whose names have “not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered” (13:8), he likely means for the emphasis to be on how these “inhabitants” have rejected Jesus’s way of life, trusting in conquering through violence instead of conquering through persevering love. There is a hint of determinism or predestination here, but as the plot unfolds it will become clear that God’s intent is to win those inhabitants to the side of life. John does not actually seem to believe that some human beings are pre-determined to be condemned. From the message to the church as Sardis (3:5), it would appear that the default status of humanity is to be in the book of life and that people must be taken out due to their explicit rejection of God. As we will see, once the Powers of evil are out of the picture even the worst of “the inhabitants of the earth,” the kings, will find their way into the New Jerusalem—that is, they will be in the book of life.
The account of the first Beast ends with an exhortation to refuse to fight verses the Beast using the Beast’s methods. “If you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed” (13:10). John calls for “endurance” and “faith,” not retaliation, echoing the message from the angels to the martyrs “under the throne” in 6:9-11. This call underscores the contrast present throughout Revelation between the two paths—conquer through violence or conquer through love.
Revelation 13:11-18—The Beast from the land and the worldview battle
A second Beast arises “out of the earth” (13:11) and exists to serve the Beast’s purposes. Perhaps the “out of the earth” signifies that this Beast owes its existence to worldly empires. It arises as their “propaganda minister” who does the work of “manufacturing consent” through use of imagery, ideology, group think, social expectations, spin doctoring, and all the other ways that the powers that be manipulate the public in order to sustain and expand their power.
This second Beast, later identified as the False Prophet (16:13; 19:20; 20:10), serves the first Beast and exercises great authority on its behalf. The picture given here underscores that this “authority” is based on the acquiescence of the people. The job of the False Prophet is to whip up support, shape public opinion, provide the popular ideology that makes people want to give their loyalty to the Beast.
John again makes it quite clear what the power is that lies behind the False Prophet’s and the Beast’s “authority”: This second Beast “spoke like a Dragon” (13:11). The power behind the power is Satan. This is a call for discernment for John’s readers. And it is difficult to see the False Prophet for who he is because it has “two horns like a lamb” (13:11). This is, it can look like a benevolent, even religiously benign, force. The “worship” it empowers (13:12) could for accommodating followers of Jesus seem quite compatible with being part of Jesus’s churches.
Signs and wonders (13:13-14) can draw a gullible crowd that wants something to believe in and to give its loyalty to. The crowd does not realize that the power behind the power here is Satan and that the worship that is called for is not an expression of loyalty to God and to genuine peace and wellbeing. Hence, John’s claim that the False Prophet deceives the crowd (13:14).
The False Prophet “was allowed” to do these things, I would suggest, by the consent of the people—though surely also in the background is God’s patience with the outworking of the dynamics of history. The effect of this consent granting is that the Beast is “given breath”—that is, the Beast is animated, given a kind of life, by the worship it is given. This perceptive image indicates both an awareness of the significance of the crowd giving its consent and the actual weakness of the Beast. The Beast and the False Prophet do not have intrinsic power but rely for their very life the worship from the people. This worship, in turn, shapes those who give it. The “mark of the Beast” (13:16) is a metaphor signifying cultural conformity. Only those who believe in the Beast and swear their loyalty to it can fully function in the Beast’s empire (13:17).
John most likely is not concerned with conveying some kind of hidden message about the Beast when he writes “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the Beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six” (13:18). Surely all of his readers would have known that the Beast signified the Roman Empire and its human god-emperor. John’s main point is the call for “wisdom”—know that behind the signs and wonders of the Empire lies the power of Satan. Don’t be drawn in to giving the Empire the loyalty that belongs only to the Lamb.
The actual number “666” seems essentially irrelevant, despite all the energy put into deciphering it in Christian history (and, especially, today). In a broad sense, it surely mainly signifies the Beast and his deceptions. Perhaps one way to calculate the number is to say that it is six cubed, not seven—seven being the number of wholeness and power. The Beast claims to be the peacemaker and to have mighty power, but actually falls short of God’s peace and God’s power, just as six falls short of seven.