The Unholy Trinity (Revelation 13)
|The Beast from the Sea (Luther's Bible Illustration)|
Satan is a mimicker of God. He mimics the Trinity (Dragon, Beast, False Prophet ). He mimics God’s power. The False Prophet mimics Jesus (11) and the Holy Spirit (12). He mimics miracles. He mimics God because he seeks worship. He seeks the allegiance of “all who dwell on the earth.” And he is jealous, though in an evil and wicked way. He will not tolerate those who give their allegiance to the true Sovereign of the Universe, the true God. This is what this chapter is all about: how Satan intends to turn our hearts away from worshipping the true God by turning them to false substitutes.
We saw in chapter 12 that the church’s conflict is with the Devil, who appears in the Revelation as a dragon. However, in order to turn the hearts of people away from God and to prosecute his war with the saints (12:17), he does not do this directly but as it were through the instrumentality of other means. The means he uses are the subject of chapter 13, and they come to us under the guise of two beasts who together exercise power given to them by the dragon.
It is important to see just how the Devil fights against the church and what his preferred weapons are. What we will see here is that his preferred method of attack is to use the places of worldly power to make the worship of God implausible and undesirable on the one hand and to replace it on the other with the worship of the creature.
As we look at this chapter, I want us to consider the interpretation of the symbols and then to consider the application of the symbols. The goal, as in all the book, is for “the patience and the faith of the saints” (10).
The Interpretation of the Symbols
There are two beasts, the first from the sea in verses 1-10 and the second from the earth in verses 11-18.
The Beast from the Sea (1-10)
The beast is described in verse 1 as coming up out of the sea, “having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority” (1-2). There are a couple of things to notice about this description.
First of all, it likens the beast to the dragon since both have seven heads and ten horns (cf. 12:3). So whatever this beast is, it is demonic in its origin. We note that “the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.”
Second, it is also like the beasts of Daniel chapter 7 (see esp. Dan. 7:1-8). Daniel’s prophesy is about four distinct kingdoms, which are likened to beasts. The first is like a lion (4), the second like a bear (5), the third like a leopard with four wings and four heads (6), and the fourth “dreadful and terrible” with “great iron teeth” and “ten horns” (7-8). Many expositors identify these beasts with kingdoms, and it seem clear at least that the first three beasts represent the Babylonian, Persian, and Greek empires, respectively. There is more ambiguity about the fourth, since it “was diverse from all the beasts that were before it” (7). Some identify it with Antiochus Epiphanes (a second century B.C. ruler who desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and persecuted the Jews), others with the Roman empire, and still others with the Antichrist of the end times.
What is clear, however, is that the beasts are not literal beasts, but symbolize kingdoms, totalitarian states that oppress and persecute the people of God. So we should see the beast in Revelation 13 in the same way. The beast is probably a power-wielding person (or persons) who rules a power-wielding state. What is interesting is that John does not identify this beast with any one of the beasts of Daniel, or even the fourth beast, but puts them all together in one beast. In other words, this person or kingdom combines all the features of power and persecution from all the empires of the past that have stood against God’s people and God’s purpose in the world.
An antichrist and the Antichrist
Now some think that this beast is representative of all oppressive regimes that persecute God’s people throughout all of history (this is especially plausible since it combines features from past empires). Others think that the beast has a unique reference to the Antichrist of the last days. Which is it? Well, I personally don’t think you have to pick. I think it is both. It is any oppressive totalitarian state that persecutes the people of God, and it is the Antichrist of the last days.
Now if we are going to call this beast the Antichrist, we have to look at how the Bible actually uses this term. The only place this word is used in the Bible is in First and Second John. Of these occurrences, I think perhaps the most important is 1 John 2:18: “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.” John seems to envisage a future antichrist who “shall come.” But he also acknowledges that “even now are there many antichrists in the world.” So in a similar way I would say that the beast of Revelation 13 is to come, but that in many respects he already has come and is here already in every kingdom and state and ruler who has wielded his power to stand against the truth of God’s word and to oppress God’s people.
We see a similar theme in the writings of the apostle Paul. In 2 Thess. 2, he writes, “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way” (3-7).
This is an important passage because the “man of sin,” the “son of perdition” here has many of the same attributes of the beast in Revelation 13. In particular, both blaspheme God and demand worship. However, notice that, just as John says that the spirit of antichrist is already present, Paul says that “the mystery of iniquity doth already work” (7). Now it seems clear to me at least that the “man of sin” is an individual who will be revealed in the end times, but the apostle also makes it clear that the spiritual forces that will eventually clear the way for this son of perdition are already at work and that the only thing keeping such an individual from emerging right now is the hand of God’s providence.
So yes, I think it is right to apply Rev. 13 to totalitarian regimes of any age. This is buttressed by the fact that the beast combines features from many empires of the past and by the fact that its heads are interpreted later to refer to several kings (cf. 17:10). But I think it will be ultimately and finally and fully fulfilled in the Antichrist, the man of sin, in the days and years immediately preceding the return of our Lord.
The Beast Mimics Christ
John goes on to write: “And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast” (3). The phrase “as it were wounded to death” in the Greek is very, very similar to a phrase describing our Lord in 5:6 – “a Lamb as it had been slain.” In other words, just as our Lord survived death and rose again, so the beast is slain and rises again.
Is this a reference to some historical event? Some say this refers to a rumor about Nero who died by his own hand in A.D. 68 but whom some in John’s day thought to still be alive in Parthia and scheming to return and take the Roman throne again. Or is this a reference to the fact that every time a totalitarian regime goes down, another one inevitably pops up in its place? Or is this referring to something that will happen to a future, end times king who is part of an antichristian kingdom?
Again, this is one of those things that I’m not sure we have to decide on. The point is that the beast does what he can and the dragon through him to convince people of his Godlike attributes. You can’t get people to worship you in God’s place if you can’t convince people you are God, and you aren’t going to do that if you can’t convince people (however deceitfully this is done) that you have the attributes of God.
This is all about worship!
The big point here is that the beast seeks worship. Everything he does is for this: “And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him? And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months. And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven” (Rev. 13:4-6). The praise they sing to the beast is praise that really belongs to God: “Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” (Exod. 15:11).
We will have more to say about this in a moment, but for right now I just want to register the observation that all the power of the first beast operates either to impress people to worship him or to oppress those who won’t. We go on to read, “And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations. And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (7-8).
The Beast from the Earth (11-18)
We will come back to verses 9-10. For now, let’s see what we learn about the second beast: “And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon. And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed. And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men, and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast; saying to them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast, which had the wound by a sword, and did live” (11-14).
Unlike the first beast, this one doesn’t have a counterpart in the book of Daniel. He is called the “false prophet” in 16:13,19:20, and 20:10, which tells us that he functions much like the Holy Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit bears witness to our Lord and seeks to glorify him (cf. Jn. 16:13-15), even so the False Prophet does what he can to make people worship the first beast. He does great wonders (cf. Mt. 24:24; 2 Thess. 2:9-10) to cause people to believe in him. We are told that he deceives by his miracles and magic, so these are not true instances of God-like power but parodies of them.
This whole show is in fact a parody of the Holy Trinity: instead of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit you have the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet.
We are even told that he gives breath to a statue: “And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed” (15). There were stories in the first century world where devotees of pagan gods claimed that the idols representing these gods actually spoke or moved so that the gods acted and spoke through them [see Dennis Johnson, The Triumph of the Lamb, p. 195]. This is what the False Prophet seeks to convince people of regarding the statue of the beast. But we must not think he is actually able to give life to an inanimate object; only God can give life. This is a false prophet, not a true one; a deceiver, not an honest truth-teller.
The number of the beast
The tyrannical and oppressive nature of the beast’s rule is further indicated by the following verses: “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six” (16-18). You will be made to care, as they say. You will either get on board with the beast’s agenda and worship him, or you will die, either by the sword (10) or by famine (17).
Now many have caused a lot of distress over bad interpretations of the “mark of the beast.” I have heard it interpreted as some actual mark on the body or computer chip implanted under the skin. During the latest Covid scare, some even wondered if it might be the Covid vaccine. This is an illustration of how bad interpretation can do real damage, frightening people over things about which they need not worry. This is symbolic; to take this literally is bad interpretation and pastoral malpractice.
The beast’s mark on the foreheads of his follower is as symbolic as the Father’s name written on the believer’s foreheads is (cf. 14:1). It is meant to point to the ownership of the beast of those who worship him and their devotion to him.
What then does the 666 refer to? One of the most popular interpretations is that it refers to Nero. People keep trying to insert him into this passage in various ways, but he just won’t fit! The argument is that John is using gematria here, or the practice of assigning numerical values to names. With both the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, the letters doubled as numbers, so each letter had a numerical value. It is said that if you take the Greek name for Caesar Nero and transliterate it into Hebrew, the numerical value of the resulting name is 666. Case solved, right? Well, there are a couple of insurmountable problems to this approach.
The first insurmountable problem is that the resulting suggested Hebrew transliteration is not spelled correctly. You have to leave a letter out to make it add up to 666. The second problem is that the solution is too complex. Many if not most of John’s readers almost certainly didn’t read Hebrew; they were native Greek speakers in Greek-speaking cities. This is a code they would have had a hard time cracking. I don’t think when John said “let him that hath understanding” he was referring to language scholars in the churches.
There actually is another problem which I don’t think is insignificant. None of the earliest interpreters of Revelation ever thought of the possibility of Nero as the man pointed to by 666. Irenaeus (who, remember, knew Polycarp who knew the apostle John) suggested three possibilities and Nero wasn’t one of them.
The solution is probably that this number doesn’t refer to a specific name of a specific individual. Rather, just as seven is the number of completeness so six is the number of man. It was on the sixth day that man was created. The fact that the number six is repeated three times is just to emphasize that the beast who is represented by this number, is in fact just a human, just a man. It “is the number of a man” because that’s all the beast is – he is just a created being at the end of the day. For all his pretensions to deity, he and the kingdom he represents and rules is human after all and will not be able to stand against the power and purpose of the sovereign King who rules over all things.
These two beasts, along with the dragon parody the Trinity. They seek to turn the allegiance of men away from the true God to themselves. The beast from the sea was a symbol in John’s day no doubt of the Roman empire; the beast from the earth of the pagan religious worship with their temples to the emperor. Together the political and the religious spheres of first century life conspired to make Christianity undesirable and unplausible.
We won’t have to wait until the end times to experience this, though it will be ramped up then. The fact of the matter is that the devil has been and still is “the ruler of the darkness of this present world” (Eph. 6:12). He is still trying to make true religion look foolish and wicked on the one hand, or to make it impossible to practice on the other.
How is he doing this today in our part of the world? Well, we are living in a culture which is doing its best to make Christianity look foolish and wicked. Christians are lambasted as being against science (which we are not) and therefore made to look backward and foolish. We are also now in the West being accused of being hateful because we won’t go along with the sexual revolution. We won’t go along with our culture’s effort to normalize sinful behavior; we won’t affirm people in their delusions. And that is said to be unloving and unkind. But you see what is happening: this is an effort and an attempt to make allegiance to Christ and to his Word look stupid and silly and even sinful. This is exactly what the False Prophet is doing in Revelation 13.
There are other places around the world where you can lose your life for being a Christian. So today there is the power of the state (the beast from the sea) in persecuting the followers of Jesus and making Christianity undesirable, and there is the influence of false teachers (the beast from the earth) in deceiving people into thinking Christianity is false and bad and making it implausible.
The Application of the Symbolism
What then should we do? How do we live in a world which is against us? How do you operate in a culture and city where the halls of power and the positions of influence are given over to those who oppose the
faith of Christ? Let me suggest three ways we should respond to the beast of the sea (political opposition) and the beast of the earth (religious and cultural opposition).
Don’t be surprised!
One of the things I think John is doing in writing Revelation is to remind believers in every generation that they should not be surprised when their lives are made hard for them because of their faith. We will always be struggling against these beasts. This is especially important in our day because we’ve had it so easy for so long. For a long time, the winds of the culture were blowing in our direction. But this has definitely changed. We are living in a post-Christian world, one that is increasingly hostile toward the faith of Christ.
It's important to emphasize this also because of the idea common in many Christian circles that if you are just nice enough or winsome enough, you can get the world to like and respect you. The argument is that if the world doesn’t like you it must be your fault; it must be because you are not loving enough or not convincing enough or good enough. But this is just not necessarily true. You can be winsome all day long, but if you are faithful to our Lord, the world is going to hate you. How do I know this? Because our Lord said it, that’s why. Here is what he said to his disciples: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do unto you for my name's sake, because they know not him that sent me. If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloak for their sin. He that hateth me hateth my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father. But this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause” (John 15:18-25). I want you to particularly notice that last verse. How did they hate Jesus? “They hated me without a cause.” The world doesn’t need a reason to hate you. Even if you do everything right (and we should!), they are still going to hate you. Why? Because they love darkness rather than light.
This is what the apostle Peter told his audience: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified” (1 Pet. 4:12-14). Don’t be surprised if you are persecuted; don’t think it strange. It’s actually the normal thing according to pretty much every apostle of our Lord and the Lord himself.
If you lose something because of your faith and can’t get it back – like a job or a position or an opportunity of some kind or a friend or a family member – because you are a Christian, you can respond in a number of ways. You can become angry and hostile and want revenge, but that is not Christlike. You can become discouraged and disheartened and tempted into thinking the faith of Christ is just not worth, but you don’t want to go there, either. Rather, let us be armed with the knowledge that suffering is part of what our Lord calls us to. So “let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator” (1 Pet. 4:19). Indeed, our Lord promised that those who suffer for his name’s sake will be blessed and great will be your reward in heaven (Mt. 5:10-12).
Remember the Sovereignty of God
Four different times we come across this expression, “It was given unto him” (Rev. 13:5 (twice), 7 (twice)). So, for example, we read in verse 5, “And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months.” It might at first be tempting to read this as if the dragon is the one giving the beast these things, since in verse 2 we read explicitly that the dragon gave the beast his power. However, it is utterly implausible to think that the dragon only wanted this to go on for 42 months (cf. 9:5). Rather, we should see this as an expression of the sovereignty of God. If the beast rages against God’s people, it is only because God, in his sovereign prerogative, has allowed him to do so. It is not the devil who ultimately gives power to rule to the beast; it is God. God is sovereign over the beast and his rule. In particular, he determines how long he rules.
I know a lot of people have a problem with this. They can’t see how that God can be sovereign over evil without becoming evil. And we certainly want to hold firm to the Scriptural teaching that God is not the author of sin. He doesn’t tempt people to sin and he himself cannot be tempted by sin (Jam. 1:13-15). But God, who holds the breath of every individual in his hand, could certainly stop the actions of evil men at any time he pleases. If he doesn’t it is because he has an eternal and wise and good plan in allowing it to take place.
The Bible has no problem seeing the actions of evil men ruled over by God and yet simultaneously seeing the actions of wicked men as wicked that they are responsible for. Here’s an example from the life of David. As he is fleeing from Absalom his son, Shemei comes out and curses David and throws dirt at him. One of David’s guards wants to go and take off the guy’s head, but listen how David responds. It’s amazing: “And the king said, What have I to do with you, ye sons of Zeruiah? so let him curse, because the Lord hath said unto him, Curse David. Who shall then say, Wherefore hast thou done so? And David said to Abishai, and to all his servants, Behold, my son, which came forth of my bowels, seeketh my life: how much more now may this Benjamite do it? let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord hath bidden him. It may be that the Lord will look on mine affliction, and that the Lord will requite me good for his cursing this day” (2 Sam. 16:10-12). David argues that the reason Shemei was cursing David was because God told him to do so! In other words, it wasn’t as if God was an indulgent parent who was too lazy to discipline a child who gets out of hand, but that God had a good purpose in what happened to David through Shemei. And in the same breath he acknowledges that what Shemei did was evil, and looks to the Lord to hold the man responsible for his actions.
This is all over the Bible, but nowhere it is more obvious than at the cross: “Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:22-23). God delivered Jesus over according to his “determinate counsel” and yet it was “by wicked hands” that our Lord was “crucified and slain.” It is men meaning something for evil but God meaning it for good (cf. Gen. 50:20).
Let us remember that God is sovereign over all things. This is good news, not for the enemies of God’s people, but for God’s people, because it means that God isn’t going to let any kind of suffering happen to his people that will not in the end redound to his glory and contribute towards the good of his people. We can indeed commit the keeping of our souls to our faithful Creator in doing what is right, because whatever we suffer, we suffer according to his good and wise will.
Remember the end of the wicked
Let’s now come back to verses 9-10. In the KJV they read: “If any man have an ear, let him hear. He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.”1 We are reminded of two things here. First, that the saints will be persecuted, so don’t be surprised by that (our first point of application). But, secondly, that the saints will be vindicated and that those who persecute them will one day be judged.
This point is emphasized throughout the book of Revelation. Over and over again we are reminded that those who have the mark of the beast and who have joined him in oppressing and resisting the church will one day join him in receiving judgment from God. For example, we read in the very next chapter, “And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name. Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (14:9-12).
When John goes on to write in both places, “Here is the patience and the faith of the saints,” the idea is that the saints are being called to patient endurance and obedient faith through the knowledge that God will one day judge their enemies. God will not forget. He will vindicate his people.
And yet this doesn’t mean that if we are persecuted today, that we should expect this to happen tomorrow. In chapter 14, God’s punishment of the wicked doesn’t happen in temporal judgments but in the outpouring of his wrath in hell. We must be willing to endure and wait for God to make all things right. He has promised to do so.
On the other hand, we are also reminded just how foolish it is to join the unholy trinity of dragon, beast, and false prophet for their end is unimaginably awful. The days of the beast are numbered, and so are the days of all who join him.
So dear saint, persevere in the faith! Of course the primary reason we can have confidence in doing so is because God is for us. We are reminded of this in verse 8, where we are told that those who worship the beast are precisely those whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. The implication is that those whose names are written there will not worship the beast. The elect cannot be deceived (cf. Mt. 24:24), not because they are more clever than everyone else, but because God keeps them. They belong to Jesus who died for them, and he will never let them perish and no one will pluck them out of his hand. Let us therefore, all of us, commit the keeping of our souls to Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Let us follow him, for to follow him is to be victorious. Even if we die, we are victorious. On the other hand, to follow the devil is to follow a fake. The fruits of his victory are the pleasures of sin for a season. The fruits of God’s victory in Christ is an eternal inheritance. “Here is [a call for] the patience and the faith of the saints. Let us hear that call and let us follow our Lord into victory.
1 On the other hand, the ESV reads this way: “If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain.” The difference of readings here has to do with differences in the Greek manuscripts from which Revelation is translated. The reading in the KJV stresses that those who persecute the people of God will one day themselves be judged. The other reading stresses the inevitability that the saints will be persecuted. I don’t want to go into the debate over which reading is better, but I do want to say that either one doesn’t change the theology of Revelation or of the Bible. Both are consistent with the teaching of the epistle and of Scripture as a whole. I just bring this up because a lot of folks make a lot bigger deal over textual differences than is warranted by the differences themselves.