Revelation 13 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Beast from the Sea

John's use of I saw (vv. 1, 2) marks a return to the first-person narrative style that dominated chapters 4-10. In chapters 11-12 John could say something "appeared" in the sky or in heaven (11:19; 12:1, 3) without specifying that it appeared to him personally. In the account of the dragon and the woman, the expression "I heard" in 12:10 was the only reminder that John himself was still in the picture. But now he abruptly becomes an eyewitness to the events he describes:

And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. (13:1-3)

Several points in the scene are worth noticing. First, a family resemblance between the dragon and the beast is evident. The dragon in chapter 12 had "seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads" (12:3), while the beast from the sea in chapter 13 has ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns. Only the number and placement of the crowns vary. Second, although it is not stated in so many words that the beast is the dragon's "offspring," this is suggested by a setting in which the dragon seems to call the beast out of the sea and gives it his power and his throne and great authority (v. 2). Finally, the beast's fatally wounded head (v. 3; compare vv. 12, 14) recalls a significant detail in the ancient prophecy from Genesis about the serpent and the woman: "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" (Gen 3:15, italics mine).

Clearly the beast from the sea bears the battle scars of the combat prophesied in that ancient text. The statement that one of the beast's heads seemed to have had a fatal wound could be literally translated "was as if slaughtered to death," reminding us that when the Lamb first appeared in John's visions he too was "standing as if . . . slaughtered" (5:6 NRSV; the same Greek word). Something more is presupposed here than the "war in heaven" and the conflict between the dragon and the woman described in chapter 12. The beast's wounded head suggests a previous encounter between the Lamb and the beast, probably centered in Christ's death on the cross. Both the Lamb and the beast were "slaughtered" or "slain" in that encounter, yet both are "alive" (1:18; 13:14), and each in his own way is a "victor" or "conqueror" or "overcomer" (for the Lamb, see 3:20; 5:5; 17:14; for the beast, 6:2; 11:7; 13:7).

No other figure in the book of Revelation has captured readers' imaginations quite like the beast of chapter 13. Above all, the challenge at the chapter's end to "calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number . . . 666" (v. 18) has drawn a chorus of responses from John's time down to the present, many forged in the heat of later but now long-forgotten controversies, and none very convincing. The general public (and often the church too) tends to view John's description of the beast either as the stuff of which science fiction is made or as a club to wield against personal or national enemies. Academic biblical scholars, by contrast, are more than willing to leave both the imagery and what it represents back in the distant past, on the grounds that John was making a veiled political statement about the Roman Empire in his own time. On this view, the beast is the empire, its many heads are a series of emperors, the wounded head is Nero, the first persecutor of Christians, who had died and, according to some versions of a popular legend, was expected to return to power with an army of the hated Parthians (for a summary, see Keener 1993:796, who concludes that "Rome would have taken serious offense at the implications of this exiled prophet John had the authorities read and grasped the symbolism of his book").

Widely held as this interpretation is among scholars, it is not without difficulties. For example, did John himself actually believe the so-called Nero redivivus, or reborn Nero, myth? If he did, are Christians today obliged to believe it? If he did not, was he guilty of deceiving his readers by playing on their superstitions and fears? If Nero is the mortally wounded head, how could he have been wounded by Christ, the woman's offspring, in keeping with Genesis 3:15? What could the death of Christ possibly have to do with Nero's death? To a large degree the interpretation of the beast as Nero is derived not from chapter 13 itself, but from chapter 17. As the vision of chapter 13 unfolds, neither John himself nor someone reading his prophecy for the first time has the benefit of the detailed explanation that is supplied four chapters later (17:7-18). The latter interprets in explicitly political terms the things John sees in 17:1-6, but it is by no means evident that the explanation there is also meant as a key to the visions of chapter 13.

The principle of reading John's visions (1) in the order in which he claimed to have seen them and (2) as if reading them for the first time should be respected and maintained. Then the reader is not in such a hurry to move from vision to historical reality, and a door is opened to a rather more universal, less political reading of the text. On such a reading, the question to be asked is not, Where will we see this beast again later in the book? but, Where have we seen this beast before? The answer is clear: in 11:7, where John was told that "when [the two witnesses] have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them." The description matches that of the beast in chapter 13. He too "comes up," in this case out of the sea (v. 1); he too "attacks" (that is, "makes war") against the people of God: he too "overpowers" or "conquers" them (v. 7) and "kills" many of them (vv. 10, 15). The vocabulary is similar, and there is good reason to conclude that "the beast from the Abyss" (11:7) and "the beast from the sea" (13:1) are one and the same. After the passing mention in chapter 11 (and possibly even earlier under the name "Apollyon" in 9:11) John now provides the beast with a more formal introduction.

The most conspicuous biblical reference point for John's beast from the sea is Daniel's dream of four great beasts from the sea, the first like a lion with eagle's wings, the second like a bear, the third like a leopard, and the fourth, different and more terrible than the others, with ten horns (Dan 7:1-7). In John's vision the order of the first three is reversed (leopard-bear-lion), and Daniel's four beasts have been rolled into one. Or, to put it another way, Daniel's terrible, unidentified fourth beast seems to have "swallowed" its three predecessors and to have taken on the distinguishing characteristics of each. This should further caution us against identifying John's beast too quickly or too exclusively with one specific empire or political system, whether past or future. We should first appreciate John's vision as a vision and should try to put ourselves inside the fascinating (though frightening) world it creates for us.

The beast's agenda corresponds to that of the dragon: the dragon was the deceiver of "the whole world" (12:9), and the beast throughout chapter 13 carries out that deception. John implies that the healing of the beast's mortal wound is itself a deception, producing amazement over the whole world (v. 3) and leading people on earth to worship both the dragon and the beast (v. 4). The beast's authority prevails on earth for forty-two montes (v. 5; compare 11:2), and by the end of that time all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it (v. 8).

The dragon's further goal of persecuting Christians (12:17) is also evident, though rather less conspicuous in the beast's career. The beast is given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies (v. 5), and he opens it to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who dwell in heaven (v. 6). The last phrase probably refers to angels, viewed as heavenly counterparts to Christian believers on earth. The actual persecution of Christians is mentioned explicitly only in verse 7, yet persecution is clearly implied by the prophetic appeal to John's readers in verse 10: If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints. The appeal is based on Jeremiah 15:2: "Those destined for death, to death; those for the sword, to the sword; those for starvation, to starvation; those for captivity, to captivity" (compare the four horsemen of Rev 6:1-8).

The significance of the brief prophetic oracle in verse 10 can scarcely be overestimated. Time and again, from the ill-fated Muenster kingdom of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists to David Koresh at Waco in the 1990s, the book of Revelation has been linked in the public mind to violence, war and armed rebellion. The book has been blamed for everything from social revolutions in Latin America to the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. John's oracle here gives the lie to all such interpretations, whether offered by those who would justify violence or those who would consign Revelation to the scrap heap because of the violent world it evokes. The book is most emphatically not a call to arms, but a call for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints (v. 10).

The burning question in the minds of John's readers must have been, If all these terrible things are going to happen in the world, what should be our response? The answer of this text--and of the whole book of Revelation--is that the response of Christians must be one of nonresistance and nonretaliation: first, because armed resistance will be futile in any case and second (and more importantly), because God and the Lamb have already guaranteed them victory. Those who "overcome" do so not with the sword, but with "the blood of the Lamb" and "the word of their testimony" (see 12:11). For the present, John is saying, until the beast's forty-two montes are up (v. 5), those destined for imprisonment will go to prison and those destined for death will be killed. The sole responsibility of Christians is to be faithful and to wait out the storm. God and the Lamb will intervene in due time. John's point is not unlike that of Paul in Romans 12:19-21:

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary:

"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Compare Prov 25:21-22 LXX)

Where John differs from Paul is that Paul still had confidence that the state "does not bear the sword for nothing," but is "God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Rom 13:4). Because of developments in the Roman Empire since Paul's time, John has lost confidence in the state. Instead of the state's executing God's wrath on wrongdoers, it will now be a case of God's executing wrath on the state. This will come in the next six chapters, which have given the book of Revelation its reputation as the most violent book in the New Testament. Without question, the reputation is deserved. Yet it does not follow that the book fosters violence among its readers. The very opposite is true. The call to patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints (v. 10) is a call to peace, a call to leave the judgment of our enemies in the hands of God and the Lamb. In our day it is mostly those who have abandoned the belief that God will destroy evildoers with fire from heaven who take it upon themselves to do exactly that.

Next commentary:
The Two Beasts and Their Deception

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