The Dragon’s Henchmen: Monsters of Land & Sea
Revelation 13 introduces the dragon’s allies in his battle against “the rest of her seed.” After the dragon’s failure to do away with all of the Lamb’s followers, he goes back to the seashore (where sea and land meet). [Remember that the Messenger who gave John the scroll in ch. 10 had one foot on land and the other in the sea, establishing a prior claim to both. The dragon is attempting to usurp God’s authority.]
Beast From the Sea: The Evil Empire
The first beast arises from the sea, the symbol of chaos and destruction that God had to limit in order to create the land. This multi-animal beast is made up of animals described in Daniel 7, a well-known prophecy. The four creatures describe four empires that would control Israel’s territory: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Graeco-Macedonia and Rome. (Here I differ from Dr. Spilsbury, who believes they are Babylon, Media, Persia and Seleucia (Graeco-Macedonian). Many scholars are reluctant to believe that Daniel was written during the Bablylonian domination of Israel. Because of this, most believe that “Daniel” wrote during the Seleucid era, and so assume that the writer could not have known of the later Roman threat.)
In spite of this difference, Dr. Spilsbury believes that the churches addressed by John would have recognized this “beast” as the Roman Empire, the ultimate superpower of their day. This power has the worst characteristics (from the point of view of the oppressed, at any rate) of the ancient foes of Israel. Even worse, it would not only be allowed to “make war” on both all nations and Jesus’ followers, it would be allowed to conquer them! The Roman Empire’s blasphemous claims of the right to world domination and the divinity of its leader made it the enemy of God on earth. Naturally, keeping people ignorant of the one true God’s will would eventually become a priority.
This section ends with a call for patient endurance and faith in the saints. They are told that some would go into captivity, and that any who resist with the sword will be put to death by the sword. This seems to indicate that the job of a “witness” of Jesus is to comment about evil while proclaiming salvation in Jesus Christ, but not to raise a weapon against it. This is in keeping with Jesus’ own ministry, even when he was being arrested and killed. Our job is to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, using his methods. Jesus spoke out against evil and hypocrisy, and was put to death for it without resistance on his part.
Beast From the Land: The Evil Emperor
The second beast comes from the land, symbolizing the area of human dominion and authority. According to Dr. Spilsbury, “This second beast functions like a demonic public relations consultant to the first… [it is] the imperial cult, the state-sponsored and state-enforced worship of the Roman Emperor.” It also has enormous powers of deception and economic power to enforce compliance.
The Mark of the Beast
The mark of the beast, far from being a literal tatoo or implanted chip, is actually a parody of a biblical principle found in Deuteronomy 6:6-8. God’s people were to take God’s “commandments” and “bind them as a sign on your hand” and “fix them as an emblem on your forehead.” This is not a literal mark, but rather an indication of whose “commandments” you are following, God’s or the Beast’s. Do you worship Jesus Christ or the Evil Emperor? This is the difference between the “mark of the beast” and the “seal of the living God” in Rev. 7:2.
The Number of the Beast
The much-discussed “number of the beast” is 666. Neither biblical language uses the arabic numerals we use in English, so we find its meaning difficult, except to avoid that combination of numerals in a sort of superstition. We are told that it is the “number of its name” as well as the “number of a man [or “person” in NRSV].” This would be the number of the name of a person who personifies the Evil Empire.
John, whose first language was not Greek, was interested in a Hebrew numbering system called “gematria.” In both Hebrew and Greek, numbers were represented by letters. Many of us are familiar with Roman numerals, which are a similar system that uses letters to represent numbers. It turns out that “Nero Caesar” (actually “Neron Kaiser” in Greek, the language of his book), when spelled out using Hebrew characters, adds up to 666.
Emperor Nero is best known nowadays for fiddling while Rome burned. He blamed the Christians, beginning a persecution that lasted (on and off) for centuries. It would be perfectly natural for a normal first-century Christian to understand this as the meaning of the “number of the beast.” Nero was the very archetype of the Roman Emperor who persecutes Christians.
Any later Emperor or system that does what Rome did (persecute Christians to cover up its evils and its claims to the right of enforcing unthinking obedience) can now be understood to be following in Nero’s footsteps.
At this point John is not telling them so much what will happen, as what is already happening. He is telling his churches that they are already stuck in the middle of a war against dominating evil systems. He is also telling them to fight without arms, using only their mouths to witness about the true Lord, Jesus Christ. This is the call for “patient endurance” and “faith” of the saints until Jesus’ return to set it all right.