Revelation Chapter 12 – 13
Rev. 12.1 A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.
John sees a dazzling sight—a pregnant woman, “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet,” and wearing a victor’s “crown” (GK G5109; cf. 2:10; 3:11; 4:4, 10; 6:2; 9:7; 14:14) of twelve stars. John calls the sight a great “sign” (GK G4956). This shows that the woman is more than a mere woman. She signifies something. Generally John uses “sign” to refer to something miraculous that points to a deeper spiritual significance (Jn 2:11, 18, et al.; Rev 12:1, 3; 13:13-14; 15:1; 16:14; 19:20).
The basic plot of the story was familiar in the myths and legends of the ancient world. A usurper doomed to be killed by a yet unborn prince plots to succeed to the throne by killing the royal seed at birth. The prince is miraculously snatched from his clutches and hidden away until he is old enough to kill the usurper and claim his kingdom. These stories were probably known to both John and his Asian readers.
While it is easy to point to parallels between the earlier myths and Rev 12, the differences are striking enough to eliminate the possibility that John merely borrowed pagan myths. Certainly John, who is so anti-pagan throughout his writings, would not draw on pagan mythology for his messages. Did he draw more directly on OT parallels? Some cite Ge 37:9-11, where the heavenly bodies of sun, moon, and eleven stars are associated together in Joseph’s vision, though there are enough differences to maintain that it is unlikely that John intended his readers to see Ge 37 in this chapter.
Others see a more conscious parallelism between the story and the activities of the emperor Domitian around 83 A.D. After the death of his ten-year-old son, Domitian immediately proclaimed the boy a god and his mother, the mother of god. Some coins of this period show the mother Domitia as the mother of the gods standing with the scepter and diadem of the queen of heaven. Another coin shows the mother with the child before her. In his left hand is the scepter of world dominions, and with his right hand he is blessing the world. Still another coin shows the dead child sitting on the globe of heaven, playing with seven stars, which represent the seven planets, symbolic of his heavenly dominion over the world. On a fourth coin he represents the imperial Zeus child, who has been exalted to be lord of the stars and who will usher in the age of universal salvation. Such parallel imagery is hardly accidental. But whereas the coinage of Domitian glorifies the son of Domitia as the lord of heaven and savior of the world, Rev 12 presents Jesus Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, as the One who will rule all nations with a rod of iron (v. 5). John, as it were, demythologizes the Domitian myth by presenting Christ as the true and ascended Lord of heaven, the coming Ruler and Savior of the world.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have a story about the birth of the Messiah through the suffering messianic community, using imagery taken from the OT (see Isa 9:6-7; 26:17; 66:7; Mic 5:2). Elsewhere in the OT, the image of a woman is often associated with Israel, Zion, or Jerusalem (Isa 54:1-6; Jer 3:20; Eze 16:8-14; Hos 2:19-20). This background seems to provide a much closer link to the intended significance of ch. 12 than any other proposed parallels. In any case, while there does seem to be in ch. 12 a blending of elements from OT concepts, Jewish materials, ancient mythical stories, and possibly the Domitian child myth, John here reinterprets these older stories and presents a distinctively Christian view of history.
Who then is the woman? While it is not impossible that she is an actual woman, such as Mary, the evidence shows that she, like the woman in ch. 17, has symbolic significance. At the center of ch. 12 is the persecution of the woman by the dragon, who is definitely identified as Satan (v. 9). This central theme renders it virtually certain that the woman could not refer to a single individual (cf. the persecution of the “rest of her offspring”; v. 17).
Some identify the woman exclusively with the Jewish people, the nation of Israel. This view seems supported by the reference to the woman giving birth to the Messiah or “male child” (v. 5); the twelve stars would refer to the twelve tribes (Ge 37:9-11). But there are internal problems with this view. The dragon’s persecution of the woman after the Messiah’s birth could hardly refer to the devil’s attack on the nation as a whole but could apply only to the believing part of the people. The whole intent of the passage is to explain the persecution of the believing community, not the persecution of the nation of Israel as a whole.
Since the context indicates that the woman under attack represents a continuous entity from the birth of Christ until at least John’s day or longer, her identity in the author’s mind must be the believing covenant-messianic community. This group would include the early messianic community, which under John the Baptist’s ministry was separated from the larger Jewish community to be the people prepared for the Lord (Mk 1:2-3). Later this group merged into the new community of Christ’s disciples called the church, or less appropriately, the new Israel, composed of both Jews and Gentiles. John does not at this point seem to distinguish between the earlier almost totally Jewish community and the one present in his day. Their continuity in identity is so strong that whatever ethnic or other differences they have does not affect his single image representing one entity.
The woman’s dazzling appearance like the sun relates her to the glory and brilliance of her Lord (1:16) as well as to her own light-bearing quality (1:20). With the moon under her feet signifying her permanence (Pss 72:5; 89:37; cf. Mt 16:18) and a crown of twelve stars on her head indicating her elect identity (cf. comments on 7:4ff.), she appears in her true heavenly and glorious character despite her seemingly fragile earthly history (vv. 13-16). The church viewed as a woman is found elsewhere in the NT (cf. 2Co 11:2; Eph 5:25-27, 32; 2Jn 1, 5, 13).
2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.
The woman is in the throes of childbirth. The emphasis on her pain and suffering, both physically and spiritually, signifies the suffering of the faithful messianic community as a prelude to the coming of the Messiah himself and the new age (Isa 26:17; 66:7-8; Mic 4:10; 5:3). The “birth” itself does not necessarily refer to the actual physical birth of Christ but denotes the travail of the community from which the Messiah has arisen.
3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads.
The second “sign” now appears. It likewise is a heavenly sign and introduces us to the second character, the ultimate antagonist of the woman. The “dragon” is clearly identified with the “ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan” (v. 9; cf. 20:2-3). His description as an “enormous red dragon” symbolically suggests his fierce power and murderous nature. He is further described as having “seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads.” Except for the exchange of the crowns from the heads to the horns, the same description is used for the beast from the sea in ch. 13 and the beast of ch. 17. It is a picture of the fullness of evil in all its hideous strength (cf. the monsters in Ps 74:13-14; Isa 27:1, 51:9-10; Da 7:7, 8:10). The diadem crowns on the heads may indicate fullness of royal power (13:1; 19:12).
4 His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.
So great is the dragon’s power that his tail can even sweep away a large number of the stars and cast them down to the ground (for “a third,” see comment on 8:7). Satan has placed himself before the woman, thus expecting certain victory over the messianic child. Through this figure the church shows her awareness that Satan is always threatening the purposes of God. Although the attack of Herod against the children of Bethlehem and many incidents during the life of Jesus (cf. Lk 4:28-39) must also be included, the greatest attempt to devour the child must certainly be the Crucifixion.
ESV–His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven. Evil spirits (demons) in league with Satan share his defeat and downfall before the forces of God (cf. vv. 7–9). Some interpreters think this refers to the original fall of Satan, taking one-third of the angels with him (cf. 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6; perhaps Isa. 14:12–15). The dragon’s intent to devour the woman’s child at birth recalls Gen. 3:15, which predicts that the woman’s offspring will bruise the serpent’s head as the serpent bruises his heel.
5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.
This male child, the promised Messiah who is born to rule all the nations with a rod of iron (cf. Ps. 2:9), is not destroyed by the dragon but is exalted to God’s throne (cf. Acts 2:33–36; Rev. 3:21). Yet the second vision (12:7–17) will reveal that the Messiah’s suffering was integral to his victory (11; cf. 5:9–10). The “rod of iron” (also 2:27; 19:15) is not a royal scepter (as in some translations) but the shepherd’s club, here used to shatter the nations like pottery (cf. Ps. 2:9).
6 The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
What is this flight into the desert? Is it a symbolic or an actual historic event? Among those who take it literally, some have understood the reference as the escape of the early Jerusalem Christians to Pella in A.D. 66 to escape the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Pella continued to be an important Christian center even after many returned to Jerusalem in 135. Others refer the event to the future, when a portion of the Jewish people will be preserved through the Tribulation period to await Christ’s return.
Most commentators, however, understand the desert to mean the place of safety, discipline, and testing. This view is preferable because of the highly symbolic nature of the whole chapter, the symbolic use of “desert” in 17:3, and the parallelism to the Exodus where the children of Israel fled from Pharaoh. All are agreed that the reference here to the flight of the woman is anticipatory of vv.13ff. The intervening verses show why the dragon is persecuting the woman (vv. 7-12). For a discussion of the 1,260 days, see comments on 11:2.
ESV – The child’s mother fled into the wilderness, a setting in which God’s people are utterly dependent on him but are protected from the dragon’s rage (vv. 13–14). There, she was nourished by God’s provision, as were Israel (Ex. 16:13–18) and Elijah (1 Kings 17:6; 19:5–8). Some scholars think the time period symbolized as 1,260 days (or “a time, and times, and half a time,” Rev. 12:14; cf. 11:2–3) began with Christ’s ascension and will end when God withdraws his restraint on the dragon’s power to deceive the nations and gather them against the church (20:7–10). Others understand the “1,260 days” (three and a half years) to represent the second half of the great tribulation, and to be the same period as the second half of Daniel’s seventieth week (Dan. 9:27). On this view, the woman’s fleeing into the wilderness indicates that during the great tribulation Jewish believers will be persecuted by the Antichrist and will flee into the wilderness (see note on Rev. 11:1–2).
Rev. 12.7 And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.
All agree that the section beginning with this verse, which describes the battle in heaven between Michael and the dragon (vv. 7-12), provides the explanation as to why the dragon has turned on the woman and caused her to flee into the desert for protection (vv. 6, 13ff.). The account is in two parts: (1) the battle in heaven between Michael and his angels and the dragon and his angels, which results in the ejection of Satan from heaven to the earth (vv. 7-9), and (2) the heavenly hymn of victory (vv. 10-12).
As elsewhere in the book, the narrative material can be interpreted only in the light of the hymns. This principle is especially important in vv. 7-9, where the victory takes place in heaven as the result of Michael’s defeat of the dragon. Were this the only thing told us about the “war in heaven,” it might be concluded that the dragon’s defeat was unrelated to Jesus Christ. But the interpretative hymn (vv. 10-12) says that it was in fact the blood of Christ that dealt the actual death blow to the dragon and enabled the saints to triumph (v. 8; cf. 5:9). Does this not suggest that the redeeming work of Christ is here depicted by the cosmic battle of Michael and the dragon, as it is elsewhere seen as a loosing from sin (1:5), as a washing of our garments (7:14), and as a purchasing to God (5:9)? The time of the dragon’s defeat and ejection from heaven must therefore be connected with the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus (v. 13; Lk 10:18; Jn 12:31). Christ has appeared in order to destroy the works of the devil (Mt 12:28-29; Ac 10:38; 2Ti 1:10; 1Jn 3:8).
Early Jewish belief held the view that Michael would cast Satan from heaven as the first of the last-time struggles to establish the kingdom of God on earth. John, in contrast, sees this event as already having taken place through Jesus Christ’s appearance and work. Only the final, permanent blow of Satan’s ejection from earth remains (20:10). The fact that the battle first takes place in heaven between Michael, the guardian of God’s people (Da 10:13, 21; 12:1; Jude 9), and the dragon shows that evil is cosmic in dimension and that events on earth are first decided in heaven. The single intent of the passage is to assure those who meet satanic evil on earth that it is really a defeated power, however contrary it might seem to human experience.
8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down — that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
The triumph of the archangel results in the ejection of the dragon and his angels from heaven to earth. Apparently, prior to this event Satan had access to the heavens and continually assailed the loyalty of the saints (Job 1:9-11; Zec 3:1); but now, together with his angels, he has been cast out (cf. Lk 10:18). Whatever appears to be the earthly situation for God’s people now, the victory has already been won. When the battle grows fiercer and darker for the church, it is but the sign of the last futile attempt of the dragon to exercise his power before the kingdom of Christ comes (v. 12). The “ancient serpent” who tempted Eve with lies about God (Ge 3:1ff.) is in John’s mind the “devil” or “Satan.” He is also the one who “leads the whole world astray.” His power lies in deception, and by his lies the whole world is deceived about God (2:20; 13:14; 18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10; 2Jn 7; cf. Ro 1:25).
Rev. 12.10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.
This anonymous hymn, which interprets the great battle of the preceding verses, has three stanzas: the first (v. 10) focuses on the victorious inauguration of God’s kingdom and Christ’s kingly authority; the second (v. 11) calls attention to the earthly victory of the saints as they confirm the victory of Christ by their own identification with Jesus in his witness and death; the third (v. 12) announces the martyrs’ victory and the final woe to the earth because of the devil’s ejection and impending demise.
In the first stanza (v. 10), the triumph of Christ is described as the arrival of three divine realities in history: God’s “salvation” or victory (7:10; 19:1), God’s “power,” and God’s “kingdom.” This last reality is further identified as Christ’s assumption of his “authority.” The historic event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection has challenged the dominion of Satan and provoked the crisis of history. At the time of Christ’s death on earth, Satan was being defeated in heaven by Michael.
In times past, Satan’s chief role as adversary was directed toward accusing God’s people of disobedience to God. The justice of these accusations was recognized by God, and therefore Satan’s presence in heaven was tolerated. But now the presence of the crucified Savior in God’s presence provides the required satisfaction of God’s justice regarding our sins (1Jn 2:1-2; 4:10). Thus, Satan’s accusations are no longer valid and he is cast out. What strong consolation this provides for God’s faltering people!
11 They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.
This second stanza is both a statement and an appeal. It announces that the followers of the Lamb also become victors over the dragon because they participate in the “blood of the Lamb,” the weapon that defeated Satan, and because they have confirmed their loyalty to the Lamb by their witness even to death. The blood of the martyrs, rather than signaling the triumph of Satan, shows instead that they have gained the victory over the dragon by their acceptance of Jesus’ cross and their obedient suffering with him. This is one of John’s chief themes (1:9; 6:9; 14:12; 20:4).
Verses 12 and 17 lead to the conclusion that only a portion of the martyrs is in view (cf. 6:11). Thus this hymn of victory also becomes an appeal to the rest of the saints to confirm their testimony to Christ, even if doing so means death. This seems to suggest that in some mysterious sense the sufferings of the people of God are linked to the sufferings of Jesus in his triumph over Satan and evil (Jn 12:31; Ro 16:20; Col 1:24). Since the martyrs have gotten the victory over the dragon because of the cross of Jesus, they are now free even to give up their lives in loyalty to their Redeemer (Jn 12:25; Rev 15:2).
12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”
Satan has failed. Therefore, the heavens and all who are in them should be glad. But Satan does not accept defeat without a bitter struggle. His final death throes are directed exclusively toward “the earth and the sea.” Therefore their inhabitants will mourn, for the devil will now redouble his wrathful effort in one last futile attempt to make the most of an opportunity that he knows will be brief (three and one-half years; cf. vv. 6, 14).
Rev. 12.13 When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach.
The narrative is resumed after the flight of the woman into the desert (v. 6). Why? Because she is under attack from the defeated but still vicious dragon (vv. 7-12). No longer able to attack the male child who is in heaven or to accuse the saints because of the victory of Jesus on the cross, the devil now pursues the woman, who flees into the desert. The word “pursue” (GK G1503) was no doubt carefully chosen by John because it is also the NT word for “persecute” (e.g., Mt 5:10). Since the woman has already given birth to the child, the time of this pursuit by the dragon is subsequent to the earthly career of Jesus.
The reference to eagle’s wings again introduces imagery from Exodus on the pursuit of Israel by the dragon in the person of Pharaoh: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Ex 19:4). As God’s people were delivered from the enemy by their journey into the desert, so God’s present people will be preserved miraculously from destruction (cf. Dt 32:10-12; Isa 40:31).
15 Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. 16 But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.
The serpent spews a floodlike river of water out of his mouth to engulf and drown the woman. The water imagery symbolizes destruction by an enemy (Pss 32:6; 69:1-2; 124:2-5; Na 1:8) or calamity (Ps 18:4). As the desert earth absorbs the torrent, so the covenant people will be helped by God and preserved from utter destruction (Isa 26:20; 42:15; 43:2; 50:2). Just as the ancient Egyptians of old were swallowed by the earth (see Ex 15:12), so the messianic community will be delivered by God’s power.
17 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring — those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.
This attack of Satan against “the rest” of the woman’s offspring seems to involve the final attempt to destroy the messianic people of God. Having failed in previous attempts to eliminate them as a whole, the dragon now strikes at individuals who “obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” To “make war” is the identical expression used of the beast’s attack on the two witnesses in 11:7 and on the saints in 13:7. There is good reason to correlate the three groups and to indicate their common identity under different figures.
Those attacked are called “the rest of her [the woman’s] offspring.” Some identify this group as Gentile Christians in distinction from the Jewish mother church. Others identify the mother as the nation of Israel and see the “rest” as the believing remnant in the Jewish nation who turn to Christ. Still others have suggested that the woman represents the believing community as the universal church composed of both Jews and Gentiles, whereas the “offspring” of the woman represents individuals of the community (Jews and Gentiles) who suffer persecution and martyrdom from the dragon. The close identification of the seed of the woman as first of all Jesus and then also those who have become his brothers and sisters through faith agrees with other NT teaching (Mt 25:40; Heb 2:11-12). While Satan cannot prevail against the Christian community itself, he can wage war on certain of its members who are called on to witness to their Lord by obedience even unto death (cf. Mt 16:18; Rev 11:7; 13:7, 15). The church, then, is paradoxically both invulnerable (the woman) and vulnerable (her children; cf. Lk 21:16-18).
The two beasts (13:1-18)
13-1 And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. 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.
This chapter forms part of the theme of the persecution of God’s people that John began to develop in ch. 12. Turning from the inner dynamics of the struggle, ch. 13 shifts to the earthly instruments of this assault—namely, the two dragon-energized beasts. In the context of ch. 12, we may assume that the beast-related activities constitute the way the dragon carries out his final attempts to wage war on the seed of the woman (12:17). A contest is going on to seduce the whole world—even the followers of Jesus—to worship the beast. John emphasizes three things about the first beast: (1) the conspiracy of the dragon with it (vv. 2-4); (2) the universal success of this partnership in deceiving the whole world to worship them (vv. 3-4, 8); and (3) the partnership that will succeed in a temporary defeat of the saints of God, thus accomplishing the greatest blasphemy of God (vv. 6-7a).
Finally, not being able to seduce all the earth alone, the conspirators summon yet a third figure to their aid—the beast from the earth. He must remain loyal to his associates and at the same time be sufficiently similar to the Lamb to entice even the followers of Jesus. He must be able to perform miraculous signs much as the two witnesses did (vv.11ff.; cf. 13:13 with 11:5). As the battle progresses, the dragon’s deception becomes more and more subtle. Thus the readers are called to discern the criteria that will enable them to separate the lamblike beast from the Lamb himself (13:11 with 14:1).
Two basic problems confront the reader, which have led students of the book to different understandings of this chapter: (1) The identification of the beast and his associate—are they personal or some other entity? (2) The time of the beast’s rule—is it past, continuous, or still future? In seeking some satisfactory answers to these questions, it may be helpful to first set forth the facts about the beast. He (1) rises from the sea (v. 1); (2) resembles the dragon (v. 1); (3) has composite animal features (v. 2); (4) is empowered by the dragon (v. 2); (5) has one head wounded to death but healed (vv. 3-4, 7b-8); (6) blasphemes God and God’s people for forty-two months (vv. 5-6); (7) makes war against the saints and kills them (vv. 7a, 15); and (8) gives to those who follow him his “mark,” which is either his name or his number, 666 (vv. 16-18).
There are no fewer than a dozen further references in Revelation to the beast (11:7; 14:9, 11; 15:2; 16:2, 10, 13; 19:19-20; 20:4, 10), excluding the nine references to the scarlet-colored beast in ch. 17, which should probably be included. Among these references, 11:7 indicates that the beast rises from the Abyss, 19:19 refers to a coalition of the beast with the “kings of the earth,” and 19:20 describes his final end in the lake of fire.
The history of the interpretation of ch. 13 is extensive. As early as the second century, two different understandings of the Antichrist appeared. Some early interpreters took the position that the Antichrist would be a person, a world deceiver who would reign for the last half of Daniel’s seventieth week (Da 7:25). To Irenaeus (d. c. 202), the first one who discusses extensively the Antichrist, he is to be an unrighteous king from the tribe of Dan, the little horn of Da 7:8, who will reign over the earth during the last three and one-half years of Daniel’s seventieth “week” (Da 9:27). To him, the Antichrist is the first beast of Rev 13 and the “man of lawlessness” of 2Th 2:3-4, who will exalt himself in the Jerusalem temple. Tertullian saw the docetic teachers of his day as the forerunners of a future Antichrist, who would come with counterfeit signs and wonders to mislead those who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2Th 2:9-12). Many contemporary interpreters also follow a similar line of thinking. In its favor is the more literal reading of 2Th 2:1-10 and the natural understanding of the Antichrist as the personal counterpart to the personal Christ.
On the other hand, from the earliest times some interpreters have understood the Antichrist as a present threat of heresy, depending more on the concept found in the letters of John (1Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2Jn 7). Thus Polycarp (d. 155) understood the Antichrist as the docetic heresies of his time. Many of the Reformers identified the beast with the institution of the papacy. Many modern com-mentators also adopt the theological heresy interpretation of the Antichrist. In its favor are the references to the Antichrist in the letters of John and the advantage of seeing the beast as an ever-present threat to the church rather than a figure of the last days. This view also argues that 2Th 2 need not be understood as referring to a single future individual. This issue is difficult to settle with any finality. However, I will develop ch. 13 more in accord with the theological heresy view, while recognizing that Tertullian’s position is consistent with my position and that the personal future Antichrist view has strong support (see also the comments on v. 11).
Many modern interpreters agree that the “wounded head” (v. 3) refers to the Nero redivivus legend. Toward the end of his reign Nero became extremely unpopular among Roman citizens. He was finally repudiated by the praetorian guard and by the Senate, fled from Rome, and hid in the suburbs. Having been warned that soldiers were closing in on him, he cut his own throat with a sword. After his death, however, a rumor spread that he was not actually dead but was living in Parthia, from where he would return to regain his throne. On the basis of this rumor, several impostors arose who assumed the name of Nero in the effort to exploit the legend. At a later stage in the legend, Nero became invested with supernatural status. His return from the abyss with hordes of demons was an omen of the “last days.”
This Neronic interpretation presupposes an identification in John’s mind between the sea beast and the Roman Empire, a view espoused in our day by both preterist and preterist-futurist interpreters of Revelation. This in turn usually assumes that Rev 17 identifies the seven heads of the beast as the successive emperors of the Roman Empire. Yet a question concerning the reliability of this whole Neronic approach must be raised, for the Nero redivivus legend does not fit either the facts of history or the text of Rev 13 and 17 (see comments on 17:8-9).
Various considerations call the Nero myth into question. Irenaeus, for example, never refers either to a Domitian persecution as the background for John’s thought or to any Nero-myth interpretation, even though he is attempting to refute the identification of the number 666 with any Roman emperor. Likewise, rabbinic exegesis up to the first century A.D. identified the fourth beast of Da 7 as Edom-equals-Rome. Since the beast of Rev 13 is a composite that unites all the features of the four beasts of Da 7, it therefore cannot be identified exclusively with Rome. An attempt will be made in this exposition to demonstrate that the Rome hypothesis is untenable. This leaves the question open as to whether John sees the Antichrist (or beast) as a person or some more encompassing entity.
2 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.
Most modern translations include v.1a as the concluding verse of ch. 12 because they adopt manuscripts that read “he [i.e., the dragon] stood” rather than KJV’s “I stood.” If “he stood” is the correct reading, the sense would be that the dragon, who has now turned his rage on the children of the woman (12:17), stands on the seashore to summon his next instrument, the beast from the sea. But if the text reads “I stood,” the sense is that John receives a new vision (cf. 10:1).
1b-2 The beast (GK G2563) has already been described in 11:7 as rising from the “Abyss” (cf. 17:8). Thus the sea may symbolize the Abyss, the source of demonic powers that are opposed to God (cf. 9:1; 20:1-3). This view agrees with the OT images of the sea as the origin of the satanic sea monsters—the dragon, Leviathan, and Rahab (Job 26:12-13; Pss 74:13-14; 87:4; 89:10; Isa 27:1; 51:9; cf. also Eze 32:6-8). The ancient Hebrews demythologized the sea-monster myths to depict the victory of the Lord of Israel over the demonic forces of evil that had sought in several ways to destroy God’s people. Similarly, John later foresees the day of Christ’s victory when there will “no longer [be] any sea.”
John describes the beast in words similar to those he used in 12:3 of the dragon, the only difference being in the matter of the crowns. Any attempt to identify the heads or horns as separate kings, kingdoms, etc., should be resisted. It may be argued that John’s beast from the sea should be connected to Leviathan, Rahab, and the dragon in the above-cited OT texts. While these refer to political powers, such as Egypt and Assyria, that were threatening Israel, to the OT writer, these nations were inseparably identified with the archetypal reality of the satanic, idolatrous systems represented by the seven-headed monster. Thus the beast represented, not the political power, but the system of evil that found expression in the political entity. The reason this point is so important is that it helps us see that the beast itself is not to be identified in its description with any one historical expression or with any one institutional aspect of its manifestation. It may appear now as Sodom, Egypt, Rome, or even Jerusalem, and it may manifest itself as a political power, an economic power, a religious power, or a heresy (1Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3)
In John’s mind, the chief enemy is diabolical deception; his description therefore has theological overtones, not political ones. This interpretation does not exclude the possibility that there will be a final climactic appearance of the beast in history in a person, in a political or religious economic system, or in a final totalitarian culture combining all these. The point is that the beast cannot be limited to either the past or the future.
John further states that this beast had “on each head a blasphemous name” (cf. vv. 5-6; 17:3). Arrogance and blasphemy also characterize the “little horn” of Daniel’s fourth beast (Da 7:8, 11, 20, 25) and the willful king of Da 11:36. John alludes to the vision of Daniel but completely transforms it.
In keeping with the Rome hypothesis, many identified the blasphemous names with titles of the emperor (e.g., “Savior” and “Lord”). But was this in John’s mind? In 2:9 he refers to the blasphemy “of those who say they are Jews and are not,” a reference to the fact that some Jews at Smyrna had spoken against the lawful messianic claims of Jesus. They may also have charged the Christians with disloyalty to the empire and thus sided with the pagan officials in persecuting them. Could these Jews also be part of the blasphemous names? In v. 6 the blasphemies are directed against God and are further defined: “to blaspheme God, by blaspheming his name, his temple, those who dwell in heaven” (my translation). Thus the beast challenges the sovereignty and majesty of God by denying the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). In other words, whatever person or system cooperates with Satan by exalting itself against God’s sovereignty and by setting itself up to destroy the followers of Jesus, or entices them to become followers of Satan through deception, idolatry, blasphemy, and spiritual adultery, embodies the beast of Rev 13.
The description John gives of the beast from the sea does not describe a mere human political entity such as Rome. Rather, it describes in archetypal language the hideous, satanic system of deception and idolatry that may at any time express itself in human systems of various kinds. Yet at the same time John also seems to be saying that this blasphemous, blaspheming, and blasphemy-producing reality will have a final and, for the saints, utterly devastating manifestation.
3 One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast.
The beast has a fatal wound, but the wound is healed. This results in great, world-wide influence, acceptance, and worship of both the beast and the dragon. This verse is important and requires careful exegesis because of the widespread Nero redivivus viewpoint that is read into the wounded head (see comment on 13:1-18). There are a number of features of John’s description that are inconsistent with both the Nero redivivus and the Roman Empire interpretations.
(1) It should be observed that the wounded “head” of v. 3 is elsewhere in the chapter a wound of the whole beast (vv. 12, 14). A wound inflicted in a former and rejected emperor is not a wound inflicted on the whole empire. If the reference is to Nero, it is difficult to see how his self-inflicted wound could have hurt the whole empire or how the healing of his throat enhanced the authority of the beast or the dragon’s war against the saints.
(2) The fatal wound must be carefully examined. “Wound” (GK G4435) everywhere else in Revelation means “plague,” in fact, a divinely inflicted judgment (9:18, 20; 11:6; 15:1ff.; 16:9, 21; et al.). Elsewhere in the NT the word is used of “beatings” or official “floggings” (Lk 10:30; 12:48; Ac 16:23, 33; 2Co 6:5; 11:23). In 13:14 we find that the beast was wounded “by the sword” (GK G3479), which supposedly refers to Nero’s dagger. But elsewhere in Revelation, “sword” (a) refers symbolically to the divine judgment of the Messiah (1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21); (b) is the sword of the rider on the red horse and equals divine judgment (6:4, 8); and (c) is a sword used as a weapon against the saints of God (13:10). We are, then, nearer to John’s mind if we see the sword, not as referring to an emperor’s death, but as the symbol of God’s wrath that had struck a death blow to the authority of the beast (and the dragon), yet which had been deceptively covered up or restored (for a probable antecedent, see Isa 27:1).
(3) The correct identification, therefore, of the beast’s enemy will enable us to understand what event John had in mind in the death blow. Everywhere in the book the only sufficient conqueror of the beast and the dragon is the slain Lamb, together with his faithful saints (12:11; 19:19-21). Moreover, what dealt this death blow to the dragon and the beast is Jesus’ life, especially the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation (1:5; 5:9; 12:11; cf. Lk 10:17-24; 11:14-22; Jn 12:31-33; Col 2:15; also Ge 3:13ff.). That event is the mortal wound of the beast.
The same paradox found in ch. 12 appears here in ch. 13. While the dragon is defeated and cast out of heaven through the blood of Jesus (cf. 12:11), he still has time and ability to wage a relentless war against the people of God (12:13ff.). Similarly, the beast has been dealt a fatal blow by the cross of Christ and still has time and ability to wage war against the saints. He appears to be alive and in full command of the scene; his blasphemies increase. What the sea beast cannot accomplish, he commissions the earth beast to do (vv.11ff.). All three—the dragon, the sea beast, and the earth beast—are in collusion to effect the same end: deception that leads the world to worship the dragon and the sea beast and the destruction of all who oppose them.
(4) It is this description that leads to a final reason why identifying the beast exclusively with any one historical personage or empire is probably incorrect. In John’s description of the beast, there are numerous parallels with Jesus that should alert us to the fact that John is seeking to establish, not a historical identification, but a theological characterization: Both wielded swords (2:12, 16; 13:10); both had followers on whose foreheads were inscribed their names (13:16-14:1); both had horns (5:6; 13:1); both were slain (5:12; 13:3, 8); both had arisen to new life and authority (1:18; 11:15-16; 13:3-4); and both were given (by different authorities) power over every nation, tribe, people, and tongue, and over the kings of the earth (1:5; 7:9; 13:7; 17:12). The beast described here is the great theological counterpart to all that Christ represents. Therefore, it is easy to understand why many in the history of the church have identified the beast with a future, personal Anti christ.
While the references in the Johannine literature may be taken as supporting the view that the Antichrist is manifested in multiple persons and was a reality present in John’s day (1Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2Jn 7), Paul’s description in such personal terms of the coming “man of lawlessness” (2Th 2:3-4, 8-9) has led the majority of ancient and modern interpreters to adopt the viewpoint that it is a personal Antichrist. It is not necessary to understand Paul’s apocalyptic language as describing a personal Antichrist. Moreover, John says that in the false teachers “the antichrist” was actually present (2Jn 7).
But the question must remain open as to whether John in the Apocalypse points to a single archenemy of the church—whether past or future—or to a transhistorical reality with many human manifestations in history. Thus the imagery would function similarly with regard to the image of the woman of ch. 12 or the harlot of ch. 17. If such is the case, this does not mean that John would have denied the earthly historical manifestations of this satanic reality; but it would prevent us from limiting the imagery merely to the Roman Empire or to any other single future political entity.
4 Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?”
The goal of the dragon and the beast in their conspiracy is to promote the idolatrous worship of themselves—a perversion further enhanced by the earth beast (vv. 12, 15). The means of deception varies because not all humankind is deceived in the same way. People follow and worship the beast because he is apparently invincible: “Who can make war against him?” His only real enemy seems to be the saints of Jesus, whom he effectively destroys (2:10, 13; 12:11; 13:15). But little does he realize that in the death of the saints the triumph of God appears. As they die, they do so in identification with the slain Lamb who through the Cross has decisively conquered the dragon by inflicting on him a truly fatal wound. “Who is like the beast?” echoes in parody similar references to God himself (Ex 15:11; Mic 7:18).
Rev. 13.5 The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months. 6 He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. 7 He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation.
(See comments on v. 1.) The period of the beast’s authority is given as “forty-two months,” the same period already referred to in 11:2-3; 12:6, 13 (see comments at 11:2).
7 As elsewhere in the Apocalypse, to “make war” does not mean to wage a military campaign but refers to hostility against and destruction of God’s people in whatever manner and through whatever means the beast may choose (see 2:16; 11:7; 12:7, 17; 16:14; 17:14; 19:11, 19; 20:8; 2Co 10:4). “To conquer” them refers not to the subversion of their faith but to the destruction of their physical lives (cf. Mt 10:28). Their apparent defeat by the beast and his victory turn out in reality to be the victory of the saints and the defeat of the beast (15:2). Messiahlike universal dominion was given the beast by the dragon (Lk 4:4-7; 1Jn 5:19).
8 All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast — all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.
John further identifies the worshipers of the beast as “all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb” (see comment on 3:5; cf. 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27). This contrast further emphasizes the theological nature of the description of the beast. The beast from the earth represents the idolatrous system of worship instigated by the dragon to deceive humankind into breaking the first commandment.
A debatable issue is whether the words “from the creation of the world” (also 17:8) belong grammatically with “have not been written” or with “that was slain.” In other words, is it the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world, or is it the names that were not recorded in the book of life from the creation of the world? In Greek, either interpretation is grammatically acceptable. But 17:8 implies that the word order in the Greek favors the latter view and suggests that John is deliberately providing a complementary thought to 17:8. In the former instance, the emphasis rests on the decree in eternity to elect the Son as the redeeming agent for humanity’s salvation (13:8; 1Pe 1:20); in the latter, stress lies on God’s eternal fore-knowledge of a company of people who would participate in the elect Son’s redeeming work (17:8). In any event, these words cannot be pressed to prove eternal individual election to salvation or damnation, since 3:5 implies that failure of appropriate human response removes one’s name from the book of life. This verse distinguishes clearly between the followers of the beast and those of the slain Lamb. It also calls for faithful commitment and clear discernment of error on the part of the Lamb’s people.
Rev. 13.9 He who has an ear, let him hear. 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.
These verses are both important and difficult. This is the only occurrence in Revelation, apart from chs. 2-3, of the words “he who has an ear, let him hear.” John calls special attention to the need for obedience to the exhortation in v.10b. Most contend that the language of v. 10 alludes to Jer 15:2; 43:11, where the prophet describes the certainty of divine judgment that will come upon the rebels in Israel—they will suffer captivity, famine, disease, and death from the sword. Yet it is difficult to see how Jeremiah’s words are appropriate here in this context of an exhortation for believers to be faithful. John’s meaning must be different—namely, that as the rebels in Jeremiah’s day would certainly encounter the divine judgment, so the faithful to Christ are assured that their captivity and martyrdom are in God’s will.
No completely satisfying resolution of the problems in v. 10 is available. Since the difficult part (10a) is both preceded by (v. 9) and followed by (v. 10b) appeals to obedience and loyalty, it seems best to stay with the sense of obedient faithfulness. The day of persecution for Christians is at hand, and they will have to suffer. In calmly undergoing this final tribulation they must manifest endurance and faithfulness (cf. Php 1:28). John, in other words, seems to call believers here to passive resistance against their enemies. Yet this resistance, which may result in captivity and even martyrdom, contributes to the eventual defeat of evil.
ESV – Because captivity and sword are God’s ordained route to victory for his saints, they must practice endurance. Perseverance is a major theme in Revelation (12:17; 14:12; 16:15; 17:14; 21:7–8; 22:7, 10, 12, 14; see also “overcoming” in the seven letters, chs. 2–3, and chart, p. 2468).
Promises to Overcomers
The following images depict ways in which God will be God to those who conquer (cf. Rev. 21:7).
Promise What Will Happen Fulfillment
2:7 will eat from the tree of life 22:2
2:11 will not be hurt by the second death 20:6; 21:7–8
2:17 will be given a white stone 21:11, 18–21
2:26–27; 3:21 will reign with Christ on his throne 20:4
2:28 will be given the morning star 21:23; 22:5, 16
3:5 will be clothed in bright garments 19:7–8; 21:2, 9–10
3:5 name will be in the book of life 21:27
3:12 will be made a pillar in God’s temple 21:22–23
3:12 will participate in the new Jerusalem 21:10
3:12 will have God’s name written on them 22:4
Rev. 13.11 Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon.
John sees another beast, rising from the earth. This second beast completes the triumvirate of evil—the dragon, the sea beast, and the land beast. This beast is subservient to the beast from the sea and seems utterly dedicated to promoting not himself but the wounded beast from the sea. Elsewhere the land beast is called the “false prophet” (16:13; 19:20; 20:10). As with the first beast, identification is a problem. That this beast comes from the land rather than the sea may simply indicate his diversity from the first, while other references stress their collusion.
A survey of the history of interpretation reveals in general, as with the first beast, two main lines: either the beast represents a power or a movement, or it describes a human being allied with the Antichrist at the close of the age. Early Christian interpreters, who identify the first beast not with Rome but with a personal Antichrist, find in the second beast the “armor-bearer” of the first, who employs the demonic forces to work magic and deceive the inhabitants of the earth. Many of the Reformers, drawing on earlier traditions, were led to identify this beast with the papacy or specific popes. In other words, they saw the beast as a present threat and not some entity awaiting a yet future manifestation. Most modern commentators, following the Nero redivivus view of the first beast, identify this beast as the priesthood of the imperial cultus. Others would extend the symbolism to all ages and see in the second beast persecuting power, pagan or Christian, and would call special attention to the Roman papacy, though by no means limiting it to this priesthood.
While recognizing that no view is without problems, the following discussion takes the position that the land beast is John’s way of describing the false prophets of the Olivet Discourse (Mt 24:24; Mk 13:22). This identification is consistent with the previously stated view of the sea beast as describing not just a specific political reality but the world-wide anti-God system of Satan and its manifestation in periodic, historical human antichrists. The land beast is the antithesis to the true prophets of Christ symbolized by the two witnesses in ch. 11. If the thought of a nonpersonal antichrist and false prophet seems to contradict the verse that describes them as being cast alive into the lake of fire (19:20), consider that “death” and “Hades” (nonpersons) are also thrown into the lake of fire (20:14).
The “two horns like a lamb” seems to highlight the beast’s imitative role relative to the true Lamb in the rest of the book (e.g., 5:6ff.; 13:8; 14:1). Could the two horns be in contrast to the two witnesses in ch. 11? Since one of the primary characteristics of this second beast is his deceptive activities (v. 14; 19:20), his appearance as a lamb would contribute to the confusion over the beast’s true identity. If the land beast represents satanic false teaching and false prophets, their evil is intensified because of its deceptive similarity to the truth. Even though the beast is like the Lamb, in reality he is evil because “he [speaks] like a dragon,” i.e., he teaches heresy. Jesus gave such a twofold description of false prophets in the Sermon on the Mount: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Mt 7:15). On the other hand, the lamblikeness may simply be a reference to the beast’s gentle outward manner in contrast to his true identity as a fierce dragon.
12 He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed.
The activity of the land beast is repeatedly described as that of promoting the first beast’s worship (v. 14). Could this be the kind of activity referred to in the reference to the false prophets in Pergamum and Thyatira, who seduce the servants of God to idolatry (2:14-15, 20, 24)? The phrase “on his behalf” (GK G1967) is perhaps better translated “before him”; the land beast does not merely exercise his authority as the sea beast’s representative but stands “before him.” One who stands “before” someone else is ready to do that person’s bidding. The same preposition is used of the two witnesses in 11:4: “These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before [GK G1967] the Lord of the earth.” As the antitheses of the two witnesses, the false prophets derive their authority and ministry from the first beast.
13 And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men.
One of the strategies the land beast uses to deceive people into following the first beast is the performance of “miraculous signs” (GK G4956; see comment on 12:1). The ability of the Satan-inspired prophets to perform deceiving miracles is attested elsewhere in Revelation and in other parts of the Bible (16:14; 19:20; Dt 13:1-5; Mt 7:22; 24:24; Mk 13:22; 2Th 2:9). Distinguishing between the true and false prophets has always been difficult but not impossible. The followers of Jesus must be constantly alert to discern the spirits (1Jn 4:1-3).
The “fire . . . from heaven” may allude to the fire that the prophet Elijah called down from heaven (1Ki 18:38) or to the fire coming out of the mouths of the two witnesses (Rev 11:5). John seems to intend a deliberate contrast between the true witnesses’ use of fire and its use by the false prophets (11:5; cf. Lk 9:54). Fire also represents the true word of God and the Holy Spirit’s witness (such as at Pentecost; Ac 2:3). The false fire would then be a reference to pseudo-charismatic gifts that create a counterfeit church community whose allegiance is to the Antichrist. In any case, the reference to fire from heaven indicates that no mighty deed is too hard for these false prophets, because they derive their power from the Antichrist and the dragon. Christ’s true servants must not be deceived by even spectacular miracles that the false prophets may perform. Such miracles in themselves are no evidence of the Holy Spirit.
14 Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth. He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived.
Here more must be involved than the deceptions of the imperial priesthood. The quality of the miracles deceives those who follow the beast—namely, “the inhabitants of the earth.” “Deceive” (GK G4414) is John’s term for the activity of false teachers who lead people to worship gods other than the true God (2:20; 12:9; 18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10; cf. 1Jn 2:26; 3:7; 4:6; also Mt 24:11, 24).
15 He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.
The second beast orders the setting up of an “image” (GK G1635) of the first beast. Elsewhere, the worship of the first beast, his “image,” and his “mark” are inseparable (14:9, 11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). An “image” of something is not a mere copy but partakes in its reality and in fact constitutes its reality. Those interpreters who follow the Roman-emperor exegesis identify the image with the statue of Caesar and refer the “breath” and speaking of the image to the magic and ventriloquism of the imperial priests. But as has been argued earlier (see comments on vv. 1, 11), serious questions can be raised against such an exegesis of John’s language, which is much more theologically descriptive than the Roman hypothesis allows. This is not to deny that the imperial worship could be included as one form of the beast worship. But the reality described is much larger and far more transhistorical than the mere worship of a bust of Caesar. John, however, would not deny that these realities have their historical manifestations, for in every age the beast kills those who will not worship his image. In terms reminiscent of the great golden image Nebuchadnezzar made and commanded every person to worship on the threat of death (Da 3:1-11), John describes the world-wide system of idolatry represented by the first beast and the false prophet(s) who promotes it. It is a system that produces a breach of the first two commandments (Ex 20:3-5).
In speaking about giving “breath” (GK G4460) to the image, John implies the activity of the false prophets in reviving idolatrous worship, giving it the appearance of vitality, reality, and power. Curiously, the two witnesses were also said to receive “breath” (GK G4460; 11:11). This idolatrous satanic system has the power of death over those who worship the true God and the Lamb. The same “image” tried to kill Daniel and his friends, killed many of the prophets of God, crucified the Lord Jesus, and put to death Stephen (Ac 7:60), James the apostle (Ac 12:1-2), and Antipas (Rev 2:13). Thus John demonstrates to his followers the apparent healing of his wounded head. To limit the image to the bust of Caesar or to some future statue or ventriloquistic device constricts John’s deeper meaning and eliminates the present significance of his language. All throughout history there have been those who have sought worship for themselves instead of for the Lord Jesus Christ. A contemporary example is Sun Myung Moon, who calls himself the “Lord of the Second Advent.” Many are being deceived into following him and his teaching.
16 He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, 17 so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.
The immediate effect of the worship of the beast involves receiving a “mark” (GK G5916) on the right hand or forehead. By comparing the other passages where the beast, image, mark, and name of the beast are mentioned, it seems clear that the mark is an equivalent expression to the “name of the beast” (v. 17; 14:11; also 14:9; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4), which is also the “number of his name” (v. 17; 15:2). The Greek word “mark” usually refers to a work of art such as a carved image of a god (Ac 17:29), a written inscription, an impress “seal” of the emperor, or a “brand” on camels indicating ownership. But such a mark was never placed on a person, let alone on the “right hand” or on the “forehead.” Thus, the “mark” is not a literal impress seal or mark of identification, but it is John’s way of symbolically describing authentic ownership and loyalty. Those who worship the beast have his brand of ownership on them, just as the followers of Jesus have the brand of God’s possession on them (see also comments on 7:1-3).
Those having the “mark” can “buy or sell,” those without it cannot. This statement apparently refers to some sort of socio-economic sanctions that would, of course, affect the social and economic condition of Christians in the world. Earlier, John alluded to certain such conditions. Smyrna was a greatly persecuted church and was “poor” (2:9); Philadelphia was of “little strength” (3:8); those faithful to Christ in the Great Tribulation are seen in heaven as never again hungering (7:16), while the great harlot grows rich and wallows in luxury (18:3). Other NT writers also hint at socio-economic sanctions practiced against Christians (Ro 15:26, Heb 10:34).
Rev. 13.18 This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.
In v. 17, John indicates that the “mark” is the name of the beast or the number of his name. He now reveals the number of the beast: “His number is 666.” The list of conjectures concerning the meaning of the number is almost as long as the list of commentators on Revelation. Taking their cue from the words “let him calculate the number of the beast,” most of these interpreters have tried to play the ancient Hebrew game of gematria . Ancient languages, including Hebrew and Greek, use standard letters from their alphabets as numerical signs. For example, an alpha in Greek (an aleph in Hebrew) can represent the number one, a beta the number two, an iota and beta together, the number twelve, etc. A series of letters could form a word and at the same time indicate a number. Gematria took many forms and consisted in trying to guess the word from the number or trying to connect one word with another that had the same numerical value. Some Jews loved to find mysterious connections between words, based on the same numerical value. For example, the Hebrew word nahash (“serpent”) has the same numerical value as the Hebrew word mashiah (“Messiah”). From this it was argued that one of the names of the Messiah was “serpent” (cf. Moses’ lifting up the “serpent” in the desert; Nu 21; Jn 3:14).
Thus it is not difficult to understand why most commentators have understood John’s words “Let him calculate the number. . . . His number is 666” to be an invitation to the reader to play gematria and discover the identity of the beast. Irenaeus (d. c. 202) mentions that many names of contemporary persons and entities were being offered in his day as solutions to this number mystery, though he himself cautioned against the practice and believed that the name of the Antichrist was deliberately concealed because he did not exist in John’s day. The name would be secret till the time of his future appearance in the world. He expressly refutes the attempt of many in his day to identify the name with any of the Roman emperors and warns the church against endless speculations.
Irenaeus’s fear was not misplaced, for endless speculation is just what has happened in the history of the interpretation of v. 18. One of the most popular interpretations is a Hebrew rendition of “Neron Caesar,” which equals 666, thus linking this beast with the Nero redivivus legend (see comments on 13:1-18); more recently this understanding has been seriously challenged. All proposed solutions based on gematria seem unsatisfactory. If John was seeking to show believers how to penetrate the deception of the beast as well as to contrast the beast and his followers with the Lamb and his followers (14:1ff.), he has clearly failed—that is, if he intends for us to play the gematria game.
Several exegetical factors, however, argue strongly for another sense of John’s words. In the first place, nowhere does John use gematria as a method. Everywhere, however, he gives symbolic significance to numbers (e.g., seven churches, seals, trumpets, bowls; twenty-four elders; 144,000 sealed; 144,000 cubits for the New Jerusalem, etc.). Furthermore, in 15:2 the victors have triumphed over three enemies: the beast, his image, and the number of his name, which suggests a symbolic significance connected with idolatry and blasphemy rather than victory over a mere puzzle solution of correctly identifying someone’s name.
John seeks to give “wisdom” (GK G5053) and “insight” (GK G3808) to believers as to the true identity of their enemy. A similar use of these two words occurs in 17:9, where John calls attention to the identity of the beast ridden by the harlot. What he seems to be asking for in both cases is divine discernment, not mathematical ingenuity! Believers need to penetrate the deception of the beast. John’s reference to his number will help them to recognize his true character and identity.
The statement “it is man’s number” further identifies the kind of number the beast represents. Does John mean that the beast is a man, that he has a human name? In 21:17 John uses similar words for the angel: “by man’s measurement, which the angel was using.” The statement is difficult. How can the measure be both “man’s” and at the same time of an “angel”? John seems to be calling attention to some inner meaning in the number of the size of the height of the wall in respect to the size of the city. The meaning perhaps is a mild polemic against first-century tendencies to venerate angels unduly by stating that both human beings and angels can understand and enter the future city (see comments on 21:15-21). In any case, the statement “it is man’s number” alerts the reader to some hidden meaning in 666. From this it may be concluded that the number of the beast is linked to humanity. Why would it be necessary for John to emphasize this relationship unless he assumed that his readers might have understood the beast to be otherworldly without any connection to humanity? Might it be, then, that the statement signifies that the satanic beast, the great enemy of the church, manifests itself in human form? Thus, as 21:17 links the angelic and the human, so here the satanic is joined with the human.
Finally, how are we to understand 666? The best way is to return to one of the most ancient interpretations, that of Irenaeus. This church father proposed (while still holding to a personal Antichrist) that the number indicates that the beast is the sum of all apostate power, a concentrate of six thousand years of unrighteousness, wickedness, deception, and false prophecy. To him, the digit six indicates the recapitulations of that prophecy that occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and which will take place at the end. The significance of the name of the beast is abundantly clear elsewhere in Revelation (12:3; 13:1-6; 14:11; 17:3ff.). Wherever there is blasphemy, there the beast’s name is found. The number 666 is the heaping up of the number 6, which indicates the apex of incompleteness and demonic parody, in contrast to the perfection that is symbolized by the number 7. This interpretation of 666 as a symbolic number referring to the unholy trinity of evil or to the human imperfect imitation of God rather than a cipher of a name has been held by a long line of conservative commentators.