The Beast and his mark is the focus of this study as our 18th stop in our journey through Revelation brings us to the 13th chapter and its infamous images. A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.
Political satires like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Orwell’s Animal Farm, or even cartoonists like Zapiro, comment in their own generation on the need for renewal of human society and government in particular. Using creative and often comical images it portrays the politics and people of its day to show the flaws in ideology and society at large. Apocalyptic literature like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation had this same purpose and pattern in its call for reform of God’s people and government in its day.
Revelation 13 opens with John standing on the sand by the sea where he saw Christ standing as Sovereign over land and sea (10:2). In this way he reminds the readers that whatever happens in the land or sea is within Christ’s control.
The First Beast: Political Power. Then he sees a beast like a lion, leopard and bear combined rising out of the sea having seven heads, ten horns and crowns (like the Great Red Dragon in the previous chapter who gives him strength) – having a blasphemous name on his head (13:1-2). This image is an allusion to Daniel 7 – a reference to the four successive empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. The Beast in Revelation 13, looking like a combination of these four beasts, hints to the Roman Empire of its day, but also represents every other human government that opposes Christ.
The Beast is an image of anti-Christ government. Although the word anti-Christ does not appear in Revelation, John writes about it in his epistles. “The world is passing away… it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. “ (2:17-18) Fifty years earlier Paul also wrote about anti-Christ government already at work in the world (2 Thesalonians 2:7, 8-10). Examples of these range from Pharaoh to Alexander the Great, Nero to Domitian, from Ganges Khan to Napoleon, Stalin to Hitler, Mao to Castro, Mugabe to Kim Jong Un. The pages of history is filled with the blood from the oppressive regimes of the Beast.
What do we learn about this Beast of human government? It is said to have full strength and great authority given to him. It speaks blasphemies (13:1,5), implying it defames God and exalts itself to god-like status. It gets its power from Satan himself (13:2). Its rule is characterised by intimidation, conquest and carnivorous violence (13:2, 10). It has the power to revive itself after defeat (13:3). Christ permits this beast to yield his authority for “42 months” during which it will wage war against the Lord’s servants (13:8) – implying the redemptive period from Christ’s resurrection to his return (as discussed in a previous post).
The way this beast wages war against the church is through intimidation, leading to suffering and death (as in the church at Smyrna, 2:8-14) or seduction, leading to cultural compromise (as in Laodicea, 3:14-22).
The Second Beast: Seductive Ideology. A second beast coming out of the land is introduced, likened to the Lamb in that it looks like a lamb but roars like a dragon (compare 13:11 with 5:5-6). Here the relationship between the first Beast and the second Beast alludes to the relationship between Him who sits on the throne and the Lamb in that the second Beast yields the authority of the first Beast and causes all to worship him (13:12). This second beast performs great signs and deceives many, telling people to worship the first Beast and condemning all those who refuse to do so (13:13-15; compare 2 Thessalonians 2:8-9).
In the same way that Christ propagates submission to the rule of God, this beast subverts nations and people groups to submit to oppressive human government. This beast represents false teachings wrapped up in counter-Christian ideologies embedded in human culture. For example adherence to the Imperial cult empowered the reign of the emperor during the writing of Revelation. Today we see that Marxist ideology empowers Communist governments, Islamic ideologies empower middle-eastern governments, Hindu caste-ideologies empower eastern governments, and secular humanist ideologies empower governments in the Liberal Europe. The power of human government is strengthened to the degree that the population believe and buy into the philosophy it propagates. The Beast from the Earth breeds allegiance to the Beast from the Sea.
In his epistle John therefore urged the churches to “test every spirit” because “the spirit of the antichrist… is now already at work in the world” (1 John 4:1-3). The spirit of the antichrist seduces and intimidates people into submission to anti-Christian governments. This is most clearly seen in how the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious leaders, swayed all of Jerusalem to hand Jesus over to be crucified by the Romans, shouting “We have no king but the emperor!” (John 19:15)
The warnings to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 show the seductive power of ideology to enslave even believers to earthly powers. For instance, Pergamum, Rome’s Asian capital “where Satan’s throne is” (2:13) boasted a temple dedicated for Imperial worship. Here the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans served the State Religion by swaying believers to participate in perverse pagan feasts and to adherence to abusive power structures (2:1-17). (This is described in a precious post). In both Smyrna and Philadelphia we see how the teachings in the compromised Jewish synagogues served the State, being called “the Synagogue of Satan” (2:9 and 3:9).
The Mark of the Beast. This second beast enforces allegiance to the Beast by impressing the Mark of the Beast on their forehead or hand – “no one may buy or sell” without this mark (13:16-17). The Mark is “the number of man: 666” (13:18). This verse is the cause of much conspiracy today, ironically taking figurative the “number of the Beast” but literal the application to the right hand or forehead.
Applying the guiding principles for apocalyptic genre, i.e. its 1st Century context, allusions to the Old Testament, and the highly symbolic use of images and numbers, the “mark of the beast” is quickly demystified. Firstly, we know that Imperial worship demanded that buying and selling in the markets were regulated and permitted once homage was paid to Emperor Domitian at the time John wrote Revelation. The worshiper would receive a mark on his arm to show that honour was paid, permitting trade.
Secondly, worshipers of Yahweh were daily reminded by the Shema-prayer to be devoted to God with their head, hearts and hands:
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart… 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. ” (Deuteronomy 6:4-8)
Jews have used this prayer with physical reminders through the centuries. Devout Orthodox Jews even today use “tefillin”, small boxes containing parts of the Torah on the foreheads and hands as symbolic reminders to have God’s Law in their heads, hearts and hands. These “marks” or “symbols” speak of a life of allegiance to God.
Thirdly, the number six is the symbol for man in apocalyptic genre (created on the sixth day), also representing imperfection, failure, and sin in general – just short of 7, the sign for God, perfection, holiness. A repetition of three indicates fullness, completeness or mass, as seen in repetitions such as “Holy! Holy! Holy!” Grouped together, the number “666” speaks of the fullness of all man can do or accomplish, the power of mankind combined – being wholly lacking, insufficient and flawed in nature. In the words of William Hendriksen “ demonstrates failure upon failure upon failure” (More than Conquerors, Commentary on Revelation, Baker Books: 1967).
The meaning of the Mark. From our findings above, we can conclude that in his revelation Jesus likened the allegiance people paid to Domitian witnessed by the mark on their arms, to worship and trust in him and his government – being inherently flawed and wholly insufficient to bring peace to earth. This is in contrast to those living their lives devoted to God, aligning their attitudes, affections and actions to the Law of God. To us today, as to every other generation, the mark of the Beast speaks of trust in human government, opposing God’s reign. It warns that compromise in fear of persecution amounts to betrayal of Christ and submission to the Beast and the Dragon.
Note the next verse (14:1) speaks of the Lamb’s Army of 144’000 – marked by the Father’s name on their forehead. Neither the mark of the Beast or the mark of the Father is physical. It speaks of the person’s devotion and trust in man’s government instead of God’s reign – with the actions that back it up. The Lamb and his army is the focus of the next post.
Bringing it home
Revelation 13 continues to unveil the forces at work in the world today. The image of the two beasts, one of Political Power and the other of Seductive Ideology, are said to hold sway over all the nations, except those faithful to the Lamb. These beasts control the minds and actions of all peoples in the world – even as it did in the time of Daniel’s writing and John’s writing.
As Christians we ought to be witnesses to the Reign of God in our world – which at times will bring us at odds with the government of the day.
Resistance to these beasts may result in economic poverty, social exclusion and violent persecution. We see this today in that more than 2.6 million Christians are seriously persecuted by both state and culture; that is 1 in every 8 believers (Open Doors). But we also see the power of these beasts in the numeric decline and spiritual apathy of the church in the prosperous West. The Beast of the Sea wages war with intimidation, while the Beast of the Earth does so with ideological deception. Both enslave the earth and pose a threat to the witness of the church.
How do we conquer these two beasts? Read the Word to discern between God’s kingdom and the world’s kingdom. Recognize the beast at work in government and culture – do not be ignorant, because he is prowling around! (1 Peter 1:7-8). Render appropriately: to earthly government prayer and tax and appropriate obedience; to God complete devotion and obedience. Reveal the Gospel by walking in the way of the Lamb – in humility and meekness.
Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts