By Thomas R. Schreiner —
Nazi Germany was a dramatic example of a modern state that demanded total allegiance. Religious leaders who had the courage to speak out and resist Hitler were jailed and killed. What Dietrich Bonhoeffer prophetically said in 1933 before the evil of Nazism was evident to all, “For should the leader allow himself to succumb to the wishes of those he leads, who will always seek to turn him into an idol, then the leader will gradually become the image of ‘misleader.’ This is the leader who makes an idol of himself and his office, thus mocking God.” Bonhoeffer was executed because of his resistance to the deification of the state a few days before the liberation of Germany by the Allies.
We see such a deification of the state in Revelation 13.
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. 2 And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. 4 And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” 5 And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8 and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. 9 If anyone has an ear, let him hear: 10 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. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. 11 Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
I have five questions from Revelation 13.
(1) What is John referring to when he speaks of the first beast in Revelation 13?
(2) What is the character and activity of this beast?
(3) Does what is said about the beast in Revelation 13 contradict what Paul says about the state in Romans 13 since Paul says the state was ordained by God?
(4) What is the identity and character of the second beast in the chapter?
(5) What is the message and application of this text for today?
The First Beast
Let’s start with the first question: What is John referring to when he speaks of the first beast in Revelation 13? I think that the beast represents an individual because in Rev 19:20 the beast and the false prophet are seized and thrown into the Lake of Fire. That the beast is an individual like the false prophet is supported by the fact that this verse says “these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire.” If the beast of Revelation 13 is an individual, then he is probably the same person who is designated by John as the antichrist in 1 Jn 2:18, and by Paul in 2 Thess 2:2 as “the man of lawlessness.”
So we can conclude that the beast, the antichrist, and the man of lawlessness all refer to the same person. But the beast does not only refer to an individual ruler; it also stands for a kingdom, a state, a governmental authority. There are two pieces of evidence to support the idea that the beast refers to a governmental authority, a kingdom. First, verse 2 tells us the dragon, who is Satan (see Rev 12:9) “gave his power and his throne and great authority” to the beast. Note that he gave his throne to the beast. Verse 4 says that “men worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast.” And verse 7 says about the beast that “authority was given it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation.” To be given power, authority, and a throne which is exercised over all people clearly refers to governmental authority. The beast, then, does not only represent an individual king, but he also represents a kingdom, a state.
The second support for the beast representing a governmental authority is found in verse 2. There John says the beast “was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.” What is the significance of this description for us? John’s description of a beast who was like a leopard, a bear, and a lion would immediately signal to his readers that he was drawing from Daniel 7. In Daniel 7:1-8, Daniel has a vision of four great beasts coming up out of the sea. Note that he uses the word “beasts!” Even the use of the word “beast” in Revelation would signal to the reader that John was drawing on Daniel.
The four beasts in Daniel 7 are (1) a lion, (2) a bear, (3) a leopard, and (4) an indescribably ferocious beast who tramples the whole world. But what do the four beasts in Daniel 7 represent? We don’t have to guess because Daniel tells us. In verse 17 of Daniel 7 the angel explains to Daniel that “these four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth.” So the four beasts are described as four kings. But it is also clear that the four beasts represent four kingdoms. From a comparison of Daniel 2 and Daniel 7 we can conclude that in Daniel 7 the lion represents Babylon, the bear Medo-Persia, the leopard Greece, and the indescribable fourth beast Rome.
If you look at verse 2 again in Revelation 13 you will see that John has combined together the features of the first three kingdoms, for he describes this beast as being like a leopard, bear and lion. He sees the power of the first three beasts from Daniel 7 combined in the beast which comes up out of the sea. John is telling us that this beast which comes out of the sea is the fourth indescribably ferocious beast described by Daniel. In Daniel this kingdom is Rome, and this fits with the situation when John was writing because the Roman empire was afflicting and persecuting the church. So, according to John, the beast was the Roman empire and the Roman emperor.
The Character of the Beast
Now we come to our second question: What is the character and activity of this beast? The first point we should note is that the beast receives his authority from Satan. In verse 18 of chapter 12 Satan stands on the sand of the sea and he calls the beast out of the sea (the sea symbolizes chaos and evil). Rev 13:2 and 13:4 indicate that the dragon gave power and authority to the beast. It is clear, then, that the state described here is Satanic, for it derives its existence from him.
Moreover, the state of Revelation 13 receives and demands worship. Verse 4 says “they worshiped the beast.” Verse 8 says that anyone whose name was not written in the book of life worships the beast. But not only does the beast receive worship, he also demands worship.
Verse 12 tells us that the false prophet “makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast whose mortal wound was healed.” And those who do not worship the beast and take his mark become the subject of economic discrimination as verses 16-17 show us. No one can buy or sell without the mark of the beast. It is doubtful that the mark is a literal mark on the forehead or hand. We have already seen that the seal on the forehead of believers in Rev 7 is not literal, and so it is unlikely that the mark on the forehead is literal either. Over the years I have taught Christians who fear that they will accidentally get the mark through credit cards or some other means. But we don’t have to worry about such things. No one will go to hell for accidentally agreeing to something. Those who belong to the beast will gladly give themselves to his rule.
It is important to note here that some of the Caesars demanded to be worshiped as “Lord and God,” demanding total allegiance from their people. Of course, since the beast demands worship, total allegiance, this state stands in absolute hostility to God, his law, and his people. Thus, we see in verse 6 that it blasphemes God and persecutes Christians. In verse 7 we see that it is given authority to kill the people of God. The beast of Rome often killed believers because Christians would not agree to address Caesar as “Lord and God.”
And how do we explain the wound in the head that is healed? Some think it refers to the death and resurrection of an individual leader, but I think it is more likely that John refers to the empire itself here. The Roman empire looked as if it had collapsed, probably when Nero died, but it sprang to life again. What John says about Rome applies in principal to the state as an antichrist. In other words, there are times when it seems as if the state’s opposition to the Christ has ended, but the power of evil rises up again, and the state again becomes an antichrist. Let us never naively think that the opposition will cease.
The Satanic State
The Satanic nature of this state raises our third question. Is such a Satanic state ordained by God? Romans 13:1 says “there is no authority except from God,” but is the Satanic beast of Revelation an exception to that statement? Did God ordain his rule? I will give two reasons to support the idea that God ordained the rule of the beast.
First, the rise of this ferocious empire is predicted in Daniel as we have already seen. But the book of Daniel, even though it predicts the rise of ungodly empires, stresses again and again that all who reign do so by God’s sovereign will. Daniel 2:21 says of God, “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.” Daniel says about Nebuchadnezzar, an evil king, in 2:37, “You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power and the might and the glory.” Daniel 4:17, 25, 32; 5:21 virtually say the same thing, “The Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he wills” The point to be noted is that all these empires in Daniel are described in Daniel 7 as beastly, evil empires, and yet God is still sovereignly in control.
Another indication of God’s sovereignty is found in Revelation 13 itself. Even though the dragon “gave” (verses 2, 4) his authority to the beast, John uses the passive construction “it was given” six times in this text to refer to God’s giving of authority:
(1) “the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words,” (v. 5);
(2) “and it was allowed (‘it was given’ literally) to exercise authority for forty-two months;” (v. 5);
(3) “it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them;” (v. 7);
(4) “And authority was given it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation;” (v. 7);
(5) “by the signs which it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast;” (v. 14);
(6) “and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast;” (v. 15).
Indeed John uses the phrase “it was given” twenty-four times in Revelation, and in every case it refers to what was given by God. So, when John says, “it was given” he teaches that God is still in control, even when Satan is doing his worst.
The full explanation between God’s sovereign control over all history, and the existence of an evil regime is difficult for us to understand, but John stresses God’s sovereignty so that we will trust God and give ourselves to him, even in the hardest of times. No matter how difficult times get, even if we die, God is in control. He reigns!
The Identity of the Second Beast
Now we come to the 4th question: What is the identity and character of the second beast? The second beast elsewhere in Revelation is called the false prophet. So, the second beast represents false religion. The false religion promoted by the beast is deceptive and tricky, for the beast imitates Christ. He has two horns like a lamb (so that he appears to be like Christ) according to v. 11, but he speaks like a dragon. He promotes religions, but the religion he promotes is what Paul calls the doctrines of demons. Here we see the state and false religion combined together, forming an unholy alliance. He is able to do signs and wonders and miracles, which deceive people and cause them to worship the beast. But the whole thing is deception, for the beast has the number of a man, and the number is 666.
Now many people throughout history have speculated about the meaning of 666. Many names have been thought to fit from Nero Caesar to Ronald Wilson Reagan. I don’t have time here to go through all the options. I don’t have a strong opinion on the meaning. I lean towards the idea that 666 is the symbol of evil, being one less than 777—a perfect number. If that is the case, John is simply saying that the beast is characterized by evil, and we are not supposed to use the number to guess which person is being spoken of. Instead, 666 stands for the symbol of evil—a government ruled by evil man instead of by the Son of God.
Applying Revelation 13 today
Now we come to the final question. What does this text in Revelation 13 say to us today? First, there is no modern state today that completely matches Revelation 13. And even the Roman state, I believe, functioned as a type, a pattern of a future state which will more completely fulfill this passage in the future. Nevertheless, we need to remember what 1 John 2:18 says, “Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.” This verse informs us that before the coming of the antichrist, there will be antichrists. In other words, we always need to be on guard, for it is always possible that states which are “antichrists” in the present could end up being the final antichrist. In other words, Christians have always rightly wondered if the age they are living in is the final age. It is always possible that the current antichrists will end up being the antichrist. The signs of the end are always present, and so Christians are right to think that the day in which they live may be the last days. Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin were all antichrists, and it was right for the church to think they might be the final antichrist. We are not to set dates, but we are always to be ready for the end. We are right to always think. “This generation may be the end.”
Second, there is a tendency for modern states to demand total allegiance. There is a tendency built into the state (and human nature!) to demand worship, and as a result it will persecute Christians. We see many examples of this in the twentieth century. Nazi Germany was a dramatic example of a modern state that demanded total allegiance.
Also in the 20th century Communist countries demanded worship and total allegiance. Christianity was restricted with an iron hand. Virtually all public activities of the church were prohibited, including education and helping the poor. We also see the state functioning as an antichrist in many Muslim countries. Becoming a Christian may literally endanger one’s life. Many Coptic Christians in Egypt “are barred from good jobs in academia, government, the media, and many other fields.” Such discrimination fits with the economic discrimination found in Revelation 13. And the discrimination is not only in Muslim and Communist countries. Evangelizing in Israel is officially discouraged, and those Jews who convert to Christianity are no longer considered to be Jewish.
In numerous situations all over the world we see the state functioning as an antichrist. We in the United States live in one of the freest countries in world history. The picture here is more mixed and ambiguous, but there are tendencies in our country for the state to function as an antichrist. I am not saying that the American state is an antichrist, but like all states it displays tendencies in that direction. There is a constant pull and tug in our country.
We see an anti-Christian bias in public education for example. Paul Vitz, a professor of psychology at New York University reviewed social science textbooks in our country. He found that the place of religion in our history was systematically deleted in history texts despite the fact that Christianity played a major role in our country’s history.
In the late 1980s Georgetown University, a private Catholic institution, was compelled by the District of Columbia’s court of appeals to allow a homosexual group on campus and provide funding for that group, even though homosexuality is considered to be wrong by Roman Catholics. The court argued that “The District of Columbia’s compelling interest in the eradication of sexual orientation discrimination outweighs any burden imposed upon Georgetown’s exercise of religion by the forced provision of tangible benefits.” In other words, the state compels a private religious institution to abide by its notion of morality which forces a religious institution, contrary to scripture, to tolerate homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. Of course many of these decisions are defended on the basis.
It is instructive to see that the same kind of argument was used against Wilberforce when he tried to outlaw the slave trade in England in the late 18th and early 19th century. Lord Melbourne who was in favor of the slave trade protested that “things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.” In light of the tendency of governmental states to act as an antichrist and to infringe upon religious liberty, what should we do?
First, we must understand what John says about the state as an antichrist. We must not be extremists crying out the word “antichrist” whenever we disagree with a government policy, but we must also beware of being naive. We must recognize that governments long to have total power and control.
Second, we should encourage believers to penetrate the public square. We need believers in politics who will take principled positions. We need judges and lawyers who are informed by their Christian faith. We need Christians in the media who will present another perspective both in the news and in the arts.
Third, we should pray. We should pray for brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted and repressed. We should pray for our government and our leaders. We should pray for those who persecute us. The church often grows stronger when it is under attack.
Fourth, we should be involved in our churches. The outpost of God’s kingdom on earth is the corporate body—the church. We are to be witnesses to God’s love and power in the present age. We are to proclaim the gospel that salvation only comes for those who put their trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are to warn people that unless they put their faith in Christ that they will be damned.
Fifth, when the state demands total allegiance, we should resist. Revelation 13 makes it plain that no true believer worships the state. We have a higher loyalty. Some of us may even be faced in the years ahead with situations in which we will die. John saw that as a real possibility for his readers. In Revelation 13:10 he says, “If any one is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword he must be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” God calls upon us to endure and to be faithful. May he provide us with the strength to be courageous.
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.