Revelation 13 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Beast from the Earth

The expression then I saw (v. 11) introduces a new phase of John's vision (compare "I saw" in vv. 1, 2). Now he sees another beast, this one coming out of the earth instead of the sea. Earth and sea are interchangeable in the sense that either can be regarded as the realm of death or the dead. Either can become, under certain circumstances, an "abyss," or bottomless pit (9:1-2, 12; 11:7). The two beasts, however, are not quite interchangeable. The beast from the earth, called in later visions "the false prophet" (16:13; 19:20; 20:10), is in no way a rival or a competitor of the beast from the sea, but on the contrary is strictly subordinate to the first beast. Its mission is not to exalt itself or to demand worship for itself, but solely to make sure that the earth's inhabitants worship the first beast (vv. 14-15). Possibly John's readers noticed here a kind of twisted parallel to the Christian triad of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In early Christian thought (especially in John's Gospel) Jesus does nothing on his own authority, but glorifies the Father who sent him, speaking and acting only on the Father's authority (Jn 5:19, 30). Similarly the Spirit of truth acts on Jesus' authority and glorifies Jesus alone (Jn 16:13-14). This is why some commentators have referred to the dragon and the two beasts in Revelation as a kind of "evil trinity" (Beasley-Murray 1974:244).

Most people voting for a candidate or looking for a leader say they want a "doer," someone who "gets things done," not just a talker. The so-called little horn in one of Daniel's famous visions was said to have had "a mouth that spoke boastfully" (Dan 7:8), and in our chapter of Revelation the first beast was "given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies" (v. 5). If the second beast is indeed a false prophet, it too deals largely in words, speaking like a dragon (that is, like the dragon, v. 11).

Yet it cannot be said that these figures are all talk and no action. On the contrary, the verb "to do" or "to make" (Greek poieo) is very conspicuous in John's account of his vision, more so than is apparent in translation. The first beast is given authority to "do" (that is, to exercise his authority) for forty-two montes (v. 5) and (in most manuscripts) to "make" war against Christian believers (v. 7). The second beast "does" (that is, exercises) all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and "makes" the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast (v. 12). It also "does" (that is, performs) great and miraculous signs, so as to "make" fire come down from the sky in full public view (v. 13). The second beast is given power to "do" this and other signs in order to deceive the earth's inhabitants, telling them to "make" (or set up) an image in honor of the first beast (v. 14). The second beast then gives this image life and speech, and "makes" (that is, causes) those who refused to worship the image to be killed (v. 15). Finally, the second beast "makes" (that is, forces) everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name (vv. 16-17).

All the verbs noted are forms of poieo "to do," in Greek. The two beasts are indeed the "doers" in the troubled world of John's vision. But where is this troubled world? When will all these terrible things take place? We can read and understand what John is saying, but what is he saying it about? Will the drama of Revelation 13 be acted out literally in our world, and if so, where? In the United States, in some Third World dictatorship, or everywhere at once? No passage in the entire book has captured the human imagination to quite the extent this one has. Many Americans who have little or no interest in believing or practicing anything found in the Bible suddenly become literal-minded fundamentalists when it comes to the mark of the beast (v. 17) and the mysterious 666 (v. 18). Some of their interpretations place the passage in the world of the occult or science fiction, while others propose conspiracy theories about the European Common Market, rampant computer technology, the increasing prevalence of credit and debit cards, personal identification numbers and the like. As a result, many serious Christians avoid the chapter altogether and with it, too often, the entire book of Revelation.

It is important to remember that virtually all the main verbs in verses 12-18 are present tense. This is obscured to some extent in the NIV, which seems to take them as "historical" present tenses, governed by the past tense, "I saw," in verse 11. They come through in the NIV, therefore, as past tenses: he exercised (v. 12), he performed (v. 13), he deceived (v. 14), he forced (v. 16). This is legitimate, but it should not cloud the fact that what John sees is something going on even as he watches. Literally, the second beast "is exercising" the first beast's authority and "is making" the earth's inhabitants worship the beast (v. 12). It "is performing" great signs (v. 13), "is deceiving" the earth's inhabitants (v. 14) and "is forcing" everyone to bear the first beast's mark on the hand or the forehead (v. 16). All this could simply be the style of prophetic narrative. It is, however, more likely that John is suggesting that what he saw was in some sense going on in the Roman Empire even as he wrote. John's purpose is not to construct a scenario for a specific series of events in the distant future, but to interpret (not literally, but very imaginatively) certain developments in his own day. Once we stop looking for a blueprint of the future, we can gain insight from the picture he paints into the conflict between good and evil in every generation--including our own.

Three aspects of John's description of the second beast's activities are particularly instructive. First, there is a strong accent on idolatry, with a characteristically Jewish insistence that the worship of idols is based on deception (see 2:14, 20; 9:20). The second beast deceived the inhabitants of the earth when he ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast, and was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak (vv. 14-15). Second, the relationship between the two beasts is like that between the state and a state church. The beast from the sea is a secular political power, while the beast from the earth is a religious institution fostering worship of the first beast. The idolatry in question is thus defined as idolatry of the state. In John's day the state was the Roman Empire, but the vision is fulfilled in every generation whenever the state, with the help of religious institutions, tries to make itself the object of worship or to claim for itself allegiance that belongs to God alone.

John's vision is not so much protesting against some isolated aberration in the first century A.D. as staking out the limits of good citizenship. As long as the state is simply the state, an institution created by God (as it was for Paul in Rom 13:1-7) or at least tolerated by God (as it was for Peter in 1 Pet 2:13-17), it is possible for a Christian to be a good and loyal citizen. But when the state oversteps its bounds so as to become God, good citizenship is no longer an option. The battle lines are drawn, even though the Christian's role in the battle is a passive one governed by the counsel of verse 10: "if anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go," and "if anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed."

The third characteristic of the narrative in verses 11-18 is that "the saints" are not explicitly in the picture at all. These verses deal solely with the effect of the beasts' activities on the earth and its inhabitants (v. 12). The accent is not on "war against the saints" (as in v. 7), but on the deception and subjection of the general public, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave (v. 16). Implicit, however, is the assumption that these repressive public measures demand an appropriate response from Christian believers, a response indicated in verse 18 by this calls for wisdom, corresponding to "this calls for patient endurance and faithfulness" in verse 10. The invitation to anyone who has insight to calculate the number of the beast (v. 18) is clearly directed to John's Christian readers.

The number 666 is commonly regarded as an example of gematria, an ancient numbers game in which each letter of the alphabet was assigned a numerical value. Any name could be encoded in a number representing the total of the letters in the name. John makes it clear that 666 is man's number, or "the number of a person" (NRSV). The problem is that with a bit of ingenuity many prominent names in every generation can be made to add up to 666. One commentator wrote that such identifications "lead to nothing just because they lead to everything" (Hendriksen 1939:273). The numbers work quite well, for example, with the name Adolf Hitler.

But in order to convey any meaning at all to John's original readers, 666 must have pointed to a name they recognized in their own time. The most common suggestion is Nero Caesar. But as Robert Mounce has pointed out (1977:264), "this solution asks us to calculate a Hebrew transliteration of the Greek form of a Latin name, and that with a defective spelling." When the Latin form of the name is transliterated directly into Hebrew, the result is 616, and sure enough, in the western Roman Empire where Latin was dominant, there were manuscripts in which the number was recorded as 616 (Irenaeus noticed this already in the late second century in his Against Heresies 5.30). Clearly, the scribes who copied the book of Revelation were familiar with gematria, and it may well have played a part in John's riddle. Yet because of its indeterminacy no solution based on that phenomenon alone is likely ever to be proven or to find general acceptance.

A more cautious approach starts from the simple recognition that 666 is linked to the characteristic interest in the number seven throughout the book of Revelation as a number of completeness or perfection. The number 666 falls short of the magic seven three times over--at the level of hundreds, tens and single units. William Hendriksen (1939:182) defined its message as "failure upon failure upon failure." The point is subtly different from the dividing of seven in half to yield three and a half years, the equivalent of the "42 montes" or "1,260 days." These numbers, as we have seen, represented a divine limitation on the authority of the dragon or the beast, while the number 666 attempts to characterize the beast himself. At the very least, the ancient philosophical notion of evil as a lack or a deficiency of the good seems to be at work in John's mysterious number of the beast.

Beyond this, the interpreter--any interpreter--is on thin ice. For what it is worth, some (for example, Rissi 1966:76) have pointed out that 666 is what is called a triangular number, that is, the sum of every whole number from one to 36. Thus if we were to lay out on a sheet one dot, then two, then three, then four and so on up to thirty-six, we would form a triangle made up of 666 dots. The number 36 is of interest not only because it is the square of six but because it too is a triangular number, the sum of every whole number from one to eight. In geometrical terms the two-dimensional triangle becomes a kind of pyramid. In a later vision (17:11), the beast will be called "an eighth" after a series of seven, and the argument is that 666 in chapter 13 is in some way equivalent to "an eighth" in the later chapter. This suggestion, although speculative, is of interest because Revelation 17:11 is introduced similarly: "This calls for a mind with wisdom" (17:9). It can only be evaluated, however, in the context of the later reference.

The most important thing for the modern reader to remember in connection with the celebrated 666 of verse 18 is that its purpose is to characterize, not identify, the beast. If the name Nero Caesar is somehow concealed here, the point is not that the beast from the sea is Nero, but that the beast is like Nero in its character and evil acts. Clearly the emperor Nero in the sixties was the major oppressor and persecutor of Christians within the historical memory of John's readers. If 666 is simply an expression of evil as anything that falls short of the good, then its purpose is to dramatize the point that the beast is evil and therefore to be resisted at all costs, and possibly also that it is doomed to "failure upon failure upon failure," as the next few chapters will show.

In any event, the modern reader should give priority to verse 10, "this calls for patient endurance and faithfulness," over verse 18, this calls for wisdom. The believer's responsibility is not to know everything in advance, but to be faithful no matter whether the threat to faith comes from the final antichrist figure itself or from one of its many predecessors--for example, false prophecy as represented by the rider on the white horse in chapter 6. In our preoccupation with the beast in Revelation, we should not forget the words of 1 John 2:18: "Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour." It is every bit as vital for Christians to resist the "many" as "the one."

Previous commentary:
The Two Beasts and Their Deception

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