The Two Beasts, 1-18
13:1 Then I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, and on its horns were ten diadem crowns, and on its heads a blasphemous name. 13:2 Now the beast that I saw was like a leopard, but its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. The dragon gave the beast his power, his throne, and great authority to rule. 13:3 One of the beast’s heads appeared to have been killed, but the lethal wound had been healed. And the whole world followed the beast in amazement; 13:4 they worshiped the dragon because he had given ruling authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast too, saying: “Who is like the beast?” and “Who is able to make war against him?”
To John’s original readers, the beast was the Roman Empire, with its seemingly endless succession of monstrous emperors – Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Domitian. The beast was many-headed, rather like a Hydra: cut off one head, and another grows in its place.
Seven heads…on each head a blasphemous name – Seven major figures since Augustus had by the objects of emperor-worship. Nero was titled Saviour of the World, and Domitian was called Dominus et Deus noster – ‘Our lord and god’.
The ten horns…with ten crowns are suggestive of absolute power and authority.
Since the days of the Roman empire, other leaders have emerged who have made similar claims and who have thrived on naked power and opposed God and threatened his people.
13:5 The beast was given a mouth speaking proud words and blasphemies, and he was permitted to exercise ruling authority for forty-two months. 13:6 So the beast opened his mouth to blaspheme against God—to blaspheme both his name and his dwelling place, that is, those who dwell in heaven.
Forty-two months – The time of Elijah, again, time of conflict and suffering, but also of signs and wonders.
13:7 The beast was permitted to go to war against the saints and conquer them. He was given ruling authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation, 13:8 and all those who live on the earth will worship the beast, everyone whose name has not been written since the foundation of the world in the book of life belonging to the Lamb who was killed. 13:9 If anyone has an ear, he had better listen!
13:10 If anyone is meant for captivity,
into captivity he will go.
If anyone is to be killed by the sword,
then by the sword he must be killed.
This requires steadfast endurance and faith from the saints.
We should be wary of attempts to identify the beast with any one person or institution. However, we may view him as one with the antichrist, 1 Jn 2:18,22;4:3; 2 Jn 7; the man of lawlessness, 2 Thess 2:3.
The book of life
G.W. Hawthorne notes that ‘expressions such as “your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20), “whose names are in the book of life” (Phil. 4:3), “whose name has not been written … in the book of life” (Rev. 13:8), and “I will not blot his name out of the book of life” (Rev. 3:5), crop up several times within the NT. The figure is taken from the OT (cf. Isa. 4:3; Ezk. 13:9; Dan. 12:1), or from the secular world where a criminal’s name was removed from the civic register to take from him all rights of citizenship.’
Hawthorne appears to offer tentative support for a doctrine of conditional immortality when he adds: ‘If one could argue from these statements that all names have been recorded in the book of life, thereby assuring existence for each person, and if one might also argue that for some reason, e.g., wilful disobedience to God’s commands, deliberate refusal to accept Christ as Savior and Lord, etc., one’s name could be removed from this divine register, “blotted out,” then one might argue that that person would cease to exist, for his name would no longer exist.’
ISBE (2nd ed.), art ‘name’
- Wrath of the Lamb, Rev 6:16
- Blood of the Lamb, Rev 7:14
- Book of life of the Lamb, Rev 13:8
- Song of the Lamb, Rev 15:3
- Marriage of the Lamb, Rev 19:7
- Supper of the Lamb, Rev 19:9
- Throne of the Lamb, Rev 22:1
(Pickering, Subjects for Speakers and Students)
The expression from the foundation of the world could be read either with written, or slain. The former is preferable, since it not only makes better sense theologically, but is in line with 17:8, which repeats what is written here.
13:11 Then I saw another beast coming up from the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but was speaking like a dragon. 13:12 He exercised all the ruling authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and those who inhabit it worship the first beast, the one whose lethal wound had been healed. 13:13 He performed momentous signs, even making fire come down from heaven in front of people 13:14 and, by the signs he was permitted to perform on behalf of the beast, he deceived those who live on the earth. He told those who live on the earth to make an image to the beast who had been wounded by the sword, but still lived.
Another beast – If the first beast is the secular manifestation of Satan, this second beast would appear to be his religious embodiment. It masquerades as the Lamb, but speaks like a dragon. It speaks on behalf of the first beast and may be regarded as its ‘public relations officer’. It is later described as the false prophet, 16:13.
Bewes comments that false religion may made its mark by causing us to (a) ease up (take it easy, no need to make martyrs of yourselves, a little emperor worship won’t do any harm); (b) freeze up (taking refuge in, say barren intellectualism); (c) seize up (fanaticism that leads to sectarianism and extremism).
13:15 The second beast was empowered to give life to the image of the first beast so that it could speak, and could cause all those who did not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 13:16 He also caused everyone (small and great, rich and poor, free and slave) to obtain a mark on their right hand or on their forehead. 13:17 Thus no one was allowed to buy or sell things unless he bore the mark of the beast—that is, his name or his number. 13:18 This calls for wisdom: Let the one who has insight calculate the beast’s number, for it is man’s number, and his number is 666.
‘When people’s actions (the right hand) and thinking (the forehead) are controlled by a philosophy alien to Christ…you could say the beast has stamped himself upon their lives.’ (Bewes)
The number of the beast – It is possible that this verse refers to Nero. Numbers were written using letters of the alphabet in the 1st century, and in Hebrew the letters making up ‘Nero Caesar’ add up to 666. However, this requires a variant spelling, and in any case it is difficult to see why the Hebrew should be recalled when the book itself was written in Greek. Cf. Rev 17:9.11. More simply, then, six, being one short of seven, represents a falling short, a missing the mark, a failure. 666, then, stands for failure upon failure upon failure.
Clint Burnett thinks that inscriptional evidence supports the identification of this number with Nero:
One of the most interesting things about name calculations is that Latin speakers participated in the practice. However, given that the letters of the Latin alphabet did not function as numbers but that Latin speakers had Roman numerals, Latin speakers had to express their name calculations in Greek. Thus, Latin speakers who made name calculations in graffiti expected those who read them to calculate the names in question not in Latin but in Greek—there appears to be a wide assumption that these inscriptions will be read and interpreted bilingually.
These observations help us to make sense of the number of the beast in Rev 13:18 because John the prophet provides enough information for his audience to decipher 666 as the name calculation Nero Caesar. His most explicit account of imperial divine honors in the book prefaces his reference to the beast and his number (Rev 13:4, 8, 12, 15). With his reference to one of the heads of the beast with ten diadems and blasphemous names that received a death blow that was healed (Rev 13:3), he alludes to the myth that was circulating in the late first century AD that Nero would return from the dead. Just as Latin speakers expected their audiences to calculate their name calculations in Greek, John expects his audience to transliterate the number from Greek to Hebrew/Aramaic, which means that it would lack vowels—he makes the same assumption that his readers will read and interpret bilingually. Thus, Νέρων Καῖσαρ in Greek letters must become nrwn qsr in Hebrew letters, which calculates to 666: n = 50 + r = 200 + w = 6 + n = 50 + q = 100 + s = 60 + r = 200 = 666.