The two beasts and us (Rev. 13)

What lessons can we learn from what John describes when detailing the activities of the two beasts? Here are four.

First, it would be possible to deduce from what is said about the two beasts that Christians should avoid all expressions of political power and religion. Yet elsewhere the Bible makes clear that Christians can participate in the political world – Paul tells us to pray for rulers and we know that some Christians in the Bible had positions of authority. It also means that sometimes Christians will use things that their original owners dedicated to false religions. Paul gives instructions about how Christians should participate when invited to a meal of which some of the courses may have been dedicated in a pagan service.

Second, the details in Revelation 13 reveal that we are involved in a cosmic, spiritual battle between the Saviour and the enemy of our souls, the devil. The goal of the Saviour is to gather in his people recorded in the Book of Life and the aim of the devil is to attack them once they acknowledge Jesus as Lord. So those who are converted through responding to the Gospel can expect opposition and persecution.

Third, we need to recognise that at certain levels the whole world lies under the authority of the evil one. This is allowed by God for his own purposes. The influence that the devil has is extensive and shows itself in many areas of life. Although he works behind the scenes, two areas he manipulates are the political and the religious, which is a reminder that the devil works through people. They may oppose one another, but those in both areas are blinded by him. It is easy for us to see this with regard to false religions, but we should also see this with regard to many rulers as well.

Fourth, we need to see the true spiritual condition of those without Jesus. In previous chapters of Revelation, visions were given of them being attacked by hostile demonic powers determined to destroy them. And in this chapter, they are described as slaves of the two beasts. Jesus told the people of his day that they were enslaved by the devil. We should be full of compassion for them and bring the gospel to them.

The second beast (Rev. 13)

The role of the second beast is to ensure that the first beast remains in charge. It looks like a lamb, yet speaks like the devil (the dragon). The main function of the second beast is deception and it does this by a combination of the miraculous and the oppressive.

We can see the miraculous in the signs it performs and we can see the oppression in the way it compels and prevents people from doing anything without its permission. Three activities of the second beast are mentioned. As we think about them, we should recall that John is describing details in a vision and not literal events.

First, the second beast could perform great signs. We know that throughout the Bible this was the case. The magicians of Pharaoh could imitate some of the signs performed by Moses and Aaron. Simon the sorcerer used signs to deceive the inhabitants of Samaria. John observes that all the signs are done in the presence of the first beast. This is not a suggestion that the signs only occur in the physical presence of a ruler. Instead it is an acknowledgement that the presence of the first beast covers everywhere, and wherever the first beast is acknowledged, the second beast will perform signs in support of whoever is in charge. Christians then had to face hostility from the combination of political and religious powers everywhere.

Next, the second beast encouraged idolatry. In the vision John saw, we can see an allusion to the great statue that Nebuchadnezzar had erected and by which Daniel’s friends found themselves in trouble for refusing to worship it. The method of idolatry in John’s vision was for the second beast to make an image of the first beast and to give it powers such as speaking and murdering. We are not to imagine that such an idol ever existed. What we have is a reminder of the effects of idolatry. Followers imagine the image can speak and they will dedicate themselves to kill those who oppose it. One example of devotion to an idol is seen in the account of Paul in Ephesus when he was opposed by the craftsmen who were devoted to Diana. Christians suffered martyrdom and other consequences because of their refusal to participate in idolatry.

Third, the second beast also enabled the first beast to have economic control of everyone. In John’s day, the common sign of ownership was to brand a slave with a mark on the hand or the forehead. The second beast and the image of the first beast bring about a form of universal slavery that includes everyone whether they were literally free persons or slaves, whatever their age or social status. This is a picture of how the whole world is enslaved through the activities of the second beast to the first beast, and through him to the devil. Christians knew that this was the real situation. The whole world, as John says elsewhere, lies in the evil one. Paul reminded the Ephesians that the devil blinded people to their spiritual state.

What is the significance of the number 666? John expects wise believers to be able to work out who or what is intended. We can see that the mark of worldwide slavery in this vision is 666 and that the vision is not describing a slavery that is only future or one that is only past. Moreover, the number covers everywhere and every activity apart from what is done by the people of God. The wise suggestion that appeals to me is that this number falls short of perfection, that it describes human attempts to create society without the influence of God. In other words, it summarises sinful mankind’s political and religious activities.

Who will not worship the image of the beast? It is clear from the vision that those who refused to acknowledge either of the beasts were Christians. In a simple way, all that the early Christians had to do was say ‘Caesar is lord’ and participate without causing trouble in the temple feasts in which most of society participated. But many of them knew that they could not do so.

The first beast (Rev. 13)

In this chapter, John describes two ferocious beasts. One came from the sea and the other from the earth. I would suggest that John in referring to their origins says they belong to this creation, to the fallen world. The details given of each beast indicate that the first is mainly political and the second is mainly religious. Both beasts together control all human life at that time and they are opposed to the reign of Jesus.

As we look at the beasts we should remember that John was given this vision to help believers make sense of the times in which they lived. They were undergoing fierce persecution and no doubt they often asked why this was the case. John’s answer was, or we should say that the revelation of Jesus was, to use the vision of the two beasts to explain what was taking place in the world.

The first observation to make about the first beast is his similarity to the dragon described in the previous chapter. Both have seven heads and ten horns and prominent diadems. We know that the dragon depicts the devil and John tells us that the dragon gives power and authority to the first beast.

The first beast has additional features which are said to be like wild animals. It is likely that the three earthly kingdoms mentioned in Daniel 7 are joined together to show the unity of this beast. In Daniel 7, the leopard represented Greece, the bear represented Medo-Persia and the lion represented Babylon. They were great political powers in their time and they were opposed to the kingdom of God.

John notes that one of the heads of the beasts had a mortal wound, but made a surprising recovery. Since this beast describes rulers, this feature of recovery pictures ideas or movements that seem to have had their day, but then return with new power and energy. For example, the powers represented by the lion, bear and leopard had gone, yet their influence continued. This ability causes everyone to marvel at the resilience of the earthly rulers and they accept that together the system is invincible. They also recognise where the earthly power comes from, and in one way or another they are led to worship the dragon, the devil.

How long will this system of earthly rule last? John says it will exist for forty-two months or three and a half years, which is the same length of time that the two witnesses are witnessing, that the martyrs are suffering. We noticed previously that this period is a way of describing the time between the two comings of Jesus. So John is being told that this power will exist on earth for that entire period.

What will this system of earthly rule do? It will be marked by pride, by blasphemy and by opposition to God’s cause. I suppose we can say that the essence of pride is self-confidence, and self-confidence defines all types of earthly leaders. In John’s day, the expression of political power was Rome and it acted as if it was divine. Such claims are not confined to history. Many political systems attempt to remove the requirements of God and replace them with their own ideas.

Who will this system of earthly rule govern? The answer to that question is everyone apart from those whose names are written in the book of life. John is not denying that these political forces will be against one another. But he is stressing that what will mark them all is opposition to the kingdom of Jesus.

What will be its focus? The answer to this question is that it makes war on the saints with the aim of conquering them. In one sense, this purpose is a testimony to the progress of the church because the war takes place in every country. This means that when the gospel comes to a country it is inevitable that it will be opposed. The methods will be different, but the aim is the same. Conquer the church.

What makes the difference? John tells his readers that Jesus makes the difference because he is determined to keep those whose names were written in his book of life before the world was created. It is his book because of his death and resurrection and ascension – when he returned to heaven at his ascension he was given this book and he is in the process of securing the salvation of each name written there.

We need to bear this reality in mind when we read that the trouble Christians endure is allowed by God. He could easily prevent it happening. Instead, he uses the suffering of the saints to increase his kingdom. We see that happening throughout the world. Although the gospel is opposed, the kingdom of God grows.

What should be their response? They should persevere in their commitment to Jesus and retain their confidence in him. In John’s time, the commitment may have led to captivity (exile) or to death. They had to count the cost, and we have to as well, even if the price today is not as stark as it was then.

The exalted Saviour (Rev. 12)

It is obvious that Jesus, in sending the vision to John, wanted him to share with other believers the situation in heaven as they were suffering on earth. First, they should remember that the Father took Jesus to the heavenly throne. The idea behind ‘caught up’ is that of a rapid snatch, but he was not taken there to escape the troubles of earth, as if he was being rescued. Instead, the rapidity points to the eagerness with which the Saviour was exalted by the Father.

Second, they should remember why Jesus has been exalted. Psalm 2 is quoted where reference is made to him having universal power. Ruling with a rod of iron does not suggest that he is cruel, but instead points to the fact that he has complete control over those who oppose him and ignore his claims. All the opposition against the church does not reduce the authority of Jesus – he remains in complete control even when things may not look like it.

Third, the ascension of Jesus was an incredible step forward in the plan of God for bringing salvation to his people. It guarantees the success of his kingdom and the security of his people. They are described as having already won the victory, even although some of them, those from future centuries, had not yet been born when John received the vision.

Fourth, the followers of the exalted Saviour are more than conquerors through him. Since they have been forgiven and cleansed by his blood, they express great loyalty to him, even willing to sacrifice their lives, because it is the outflow of love. Here we have a huge contrast between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. The kingdom of light is marked by love and the kingdom of darkness is marked by hate.

The Dragon (Rev. 12)

It would have been common knowledge in the church that the devil was the enemy of their souls. What does John want them to see from this unusual vision of their enemy? First, John would want them to remember that although the devil is only a creature he does possess unusual abilities (seven heads, with eyes that can see in lots of directions, and by extension, ears that can hear a lot, and tongues that can say a lot), power (ten horns – he has an empire), authority (diadems point to rule) and followers (a third of the stars may refer to fallen angels). Something of his ability and power is seen in the way he was described as forming a river to engulf the church.

Second, John wants them to remember that the devil attacked Jesus when he was born, but those attacks were unsuccessful. We can think of the attempt of Herod to kill the infant. It may be that John wants his readers to think about the period between the birth of Jesus and his exaltation and recall how unsuccessful the attacks of the devil had been on the Saviour throughout that time. Several are mentioned in the Gospels. It is obvious from them that the powers of darkness knew that Jesus was the Lord and that their fate was decided.

Third, John mentions that the devil was thrown out of heaven after a rebellion that was put down by the archangel Michael and loyal angels. When did this happen? The heavenly announcement seems to connect it to when Jesus ascended to the throne. Jesus, in John 12:31, a verse spoken in connection to his death, says that would be the time when Satan would be cast out. Probably he resisted in some way and discovered that his power was ineffective in comparison to the divine power that enabled Michael and his army.

In Old Testament times, the devil was given access to heaven to accuse Job falsely. Joshua, the high priest with defiled garments mentioned in Zechariah 3, was also accused by Satan. Here in Revelation 12 we are told that the accusations were virtually nonstop. Probably, the accuser was demanding punishment for those believers on earth because they were still sinning. The death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus silenced him, which is what Paul says in Colossians 2:14-15.

Fourth, even although Jesus is triumphant over the powers of darkness, John wants his readers to realise that they have to fight on earth against those enemies and that sometimes his people will be martyred. It would have been possible for people to assume that since Jesus is on the throne, his people should not suffer. The reality is very different. Jesus from the throne calls on his people to witness for him, even unto death.

Fifth, the devil prowls the earth in an angry mood. His fury is not only directed at Christians. John refers to the earth and the sea as being the places where the devil is active, and earth and sea is another way of saying everywhere. The devil is here to destroy whatever he can. The chapter closes with him standing beside the sea waiting to do something or for something, which is detailed in the following chapter.

The Woman (Rev. 12)

Who is the woman or what does she represent? The description of the woman is that of a glorious person with great authority. She shines like the sun because indwelt by God, and her authority is more than earthly because the moon is her footstool. The crowns she is wearing are not so much crowns of royalty as crowns of victory. At the same time, she is in the process of giving birth.

The dragon, that is the devil, wants to destroy the child at birth. He is prevented from doing so because the child is taken to heaven. Obviously, this is not literal because Jesus did not go to heaven when he was born. One author says that John was guided to think theologically rather than chronologically and therefore he merged events that were separate in time. Instead John, in this vision, is being told that God will take care of the child and ensure that his position as king is secure.

Once the child is safe, the woman flees into a wilderness and she will be there for 1,260 days (the same length of time that the two witnesses mentioned in the previous chapter served, and which we said described the period between the two comings of Jesus). There God provides for her. Later, in the chapter the woman’s flight is miraculous – she can fly like an eagle (we should remember that Exodus 19:4 and Deuteronomy 32:11 say that God carried Israel upon eagles’ wings through the desert). The reason that she had to flee is because the dragon will try and destroy her. Nevertheless, she is miraculously preserved (the earth swallows up the river that the dragon sends after her to drown her).

The woman who had given birth to the child has other children and they are described as those who ‘who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus’. Who is the woman? She possesses an amazing royal status. She exists before the birth of Jesus and continues to live on earth after his exaltation. Despite Satanic opposition and having to live in a hostile environment, she is maintained by God, sometimes miraculously so. Nevertheless, during the period of trouble, her family increases in number.

Who or what is depicted by the woman? The woman illustrates the church. Depicted are the following: (a) its role as the people God has chosen to glorify; (b) it was through the church the Saviour came; (c) after his exaltation, the church suffers persecution, but it is miraculously preserved and provided with spiritual nourishment from heaven; (d) during the period of persecution, the church grows in number; and (e) the unity of the people of God from Old and New Testaments. We are being reminded here not to judge things by sight as far as the church is concerned.

The God of the covenant (Rev. 11:19)

The next stage in the vision is for John to see into heaven. One item was revealed to him – the ark of God’s covenant. The original ark of the covenant disappeared when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple of Solomon. It had been replaced by another one when the temple was rebuilt, but that ark also disappeared when the Romans destroyed the second temple.

The ark of the covenant depicted God’s royal presence with his people. Wherever it was located would indicate those he regarded as his own. In a real sense, it was his throne – the holy of holies was his sacred chamber into which the high priest entered annually on the Day of Atonement. For his people, it was a throne of mercy where he would forgive their sins because atonement had been made.

John here sees that the ark is in heaven, the place where departed believers have gone. God dwells with them and they with him. Of course, there is not a literal ark in heaven. There is no need of a symbol when the reality is there. He rules over them as the merciful Sovereign because of the atonement that was made by Jesus.

The name of the ark points to the covenant God made with his people. In the Bible, there are temporary covenants and there is an eternal covenant. Temporary covenants were made with Noah and Moses, for example, and relate to aspects of life in this world, whether for man in general or for God’s people exclusively. The new covenant, confirmed by the death of Jesus, is an eternal covenant in its effects and its contents reveal that those within it will have true knowledge of God and will be his servants forever.

Why is there a reference to the ark in connection to the second coming of Jesus and the Day of Judgement? One answer could be that it pictures the presence of God with his people as they are about to enter their God-given inheritance. When Israel entered Canaan, they were led by the ark (crossing the Jordan under the command of Joshua) and its position symbolised the commencement of a process of judgement on God’s enemies. Here God is about to judge his enemies before leading his people into their eternal inheritance, which helps us appreciate why the phenomena accompanying the appearance of the ark contains elements that would cause a sense of fear and panic. After all, the presence of the ark was a sign of comfort for God’s people and a sign of condemnation for those who were not.