Biblical quotations are from English Standard Version (ESV) unless stated otherwise. NASB = New American Standard Bible, NIV = New International Version
Verses 13:1-10 describe a “Beast” who comes from the sea. It is not a great stretch to consider that this hideous creature is symbolic of that person who is often called the Antichrist, a term that is drawn from I John. This same person is also called “the man of lawlessness” in II Thessalonians. John also has a vision of a second “beast” (13:11-18), who, though he does not display the kind of power that conquers people, does display the power of deception, which can be as deadly as any military conquest.
The verse contains three simple statements of what John observed. (a) He saw another beast coming out of the earth. (b) He had two horns like a lamb. (c) He spoke like a dragon. The vision is of “another” beast. This refers back to the first Beast of verses 13:1-10. This is another beast along the same lines as the first. However, there are definite contrasts in the two beasts.
The first came from the sea (13:1), and the second came from the earth. If we consider the sea to represent humankind in turmoil, what is the earth? Arndt and Gingrich give the following meanings for ge, the Greek for “earth”:
- soil (where seed is sown)
- ground (the stuff we walk on)
- land, in several senses: not sea, but dry land; region, the geographical territory of a country, province, etc.; a country or province, including its inhabitants
- earth, not heaven
- the entire inhabited globe or all of its inhabitants
If we consider that there is a contrast implied between the two beasts—one from the sea and one from the land, then the contrast could be between the peoples from which these two arise. The sea represents the mass of humankind—the “nations” of the Old Testament. The land, then, might be THE LAND, that is the land of Israel. It is possible that this beast arises from among the Jewish/Hebrew people. However, see the summary from Ladd below, in which he sees no significance to sea and land.
The first beast has a frightening appearance that embodies horrific power—ten horns and seven heads. There is no mention of multiple heads for the second beast. And there are only two horns, and they are like the horns of a lamb. I made a quick survey of the internet and learned that lambs can begin growing horns when they are quite young. They start as little nubs and continue growing, often in a circular shape. Both males and females may have horns. Some sheep are genetically hornless (polled).
In contrast to the innocuous image of a lamb, this beast speaks as a dragon. This reminds us that the power behind the first beast is the dragon of chapter 12—Satan himself. That same power now is revealed in the second beast in his manner of speaking. This characterization makes me think of a roaring dragon. Although we know that Satan is capable of all sorts of subtleties, we also know that intimidation and power-plays are part of his game. The implication seems to be that this beast may look less frightening than the first beast, but he is a threatening presence.
The second beast has authority that is derived from the first beast. It is said to exercise the first beast’s authority “in its presence.” NIV translates this phrase “on its [the first beast’s] behalf,” which is probably correct. The picture that I have is of a potentate on a throne and one the potentate’s agents exercising authority in front of the potentate, obviously with the potentate’s approval. We recall that the first beast exercised the authority of Satan (verses 13:2 and 4), and now the second beast exercises the authority of the first beast. The second beast uses that authority to bring about world-wide worship of the first beast. The first section of chapter 13 (verses 13:1-10) implies in some places that worship of the first beast is voluntary, a natural outcome of the wonder the world has for its recovery from the mortal wound. That recovery is also mentioned in the present verse, 13:12. For example, in 13:3 we read: “the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast.” However, in 13:4, we read that people say: “‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’” Thus, there is an element of compulsion in this worship. One could infer that 13:12 also implies compulsory worship. The verb poieo is translated in this verse as “makes” (“makes…to worship”) in most translations. It is very common verb that has many possible meanings. The King James Version renders it “causeth.” This would be a legitimate translation. It does not necessarily imply compulsion, but rather carries with it the idea “brings about.” In view of the following verses, we could infer that the deceptive signs that the second beast performs “bring about” world-wide worship of the Beast. The purpose of the final clause (“whose mortal wound was healed”) is not clear to me. It could serve to clarify the identification of who the first beast is. It could also be a reminder that this recovery is the catalyzing event that brings about Beast-worship.
The second beast exercises the authority of the Beast by performing spectacular signs, and these signs deceive the people. The particular sign that is focused on is calling fire down from heaven. Of course the great example of a legitimate prophet who caused fire to come down was Elijah, when he did so on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:20-40). We are not given any reason to conclude that these signs are tricks. The implication is that there is a chain of authority: the second beast performs “great signs” in the authority (“presence of”) the first Beast, who receives his authority from Satan (verse 13:2). The purpose of the signs is to deceive “those who dwell on earth.” The earth-dwellers are in such spiritual declension that they are ripe for deception. This is consistent with the description of the “lawless one” in II Thessalonians:
The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (II Thessalonians 2:9-12)
Out of this deception comes the next development, which is idolatry. The second beast persuades (or orders) people to make an image. The image, in this verse, is “for the beast” (ESV) or “to the beast” (NASB) or “in honor of the beast” (NIV) This peculiar expression is only used here as far as I can tell. In all other cases in the New Testament that I could find, when an image is described as to what it depicts, it is an “image of” a man, an animal, or whatever. All the other cases in Revelation that mention this image use the expression “image of the beast” or “his [the beast’s] image.” So, though the expression is used in this case, we should not be confused: this is an image of the Beast.
It is interesting that, although Beast-worship would be possible without such an image, it is a special mission of the second beast to make sure such an image is constructed. It has been a characteristic of the deceit of the devil throughout history to lead people into idol worship. So, although Satan has the earth-dwellers in his clutches through their worship of his special false christ, the Antichrist/Beast, he seals the deal by bringing about this special form of idolatry. I suspect that there is a critical destruction of the soul when a man or woman kneels down before an idol. He or she now has abandoned the invisible God who has created all things and rather worships the creature.
Paul links one form of greed with idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Actually, this form of greed is connected to sexual sin in Colossians 3:5, Ephesians 4:19, 5:3, 5:5, and I Thessalonians 4:6 (in verb form). It is a greediness for sexual satisfaction at the expense of others. Notice in Romans 1:18-24 and following, there is a connection between idolatry and sexual sin. It began with refusing to acknowledge God in worship and thanksgiving (Romans 1:21). This led to darkened hearts and foolishness, which led to idolatry (Romans 1:21-23). There was an exchange—the glorious, invisible, immortal creator-God was abandoned for images of mortal humans and animals. Consequently, “…God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” Note that there is a process of degradation, in which glory is lost—the glory of God is lost as people exchange that glory for their own handiwork, and the glory of people is lost as people dishonor their own bodies by their sexual acts.” And so, Paul can see in the greediness for sexual gratification a direct connection to the degradation of idolatry. So it is that Satan fulfills his goal—“the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy…” (John 10:10)—by demanding idolatry of the worshipers of the Beast.
There is a repetition of the idea that the first beast is the one “that was wounded by the sword and yet lived” in verse 14. This is mentioned in 13:3, 13:12, and 13:14. In the first mention, 13:3, “One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed…” (ESV)
NIV is almost the same, using “fatal” rather than “mortal.” A more literal translation would be: “And one of his heads was as it had been killed to death, and the wound of his death was healed…” Young’s literal translation is as follows: “And I saw one of its heads as slain to death, and its deadly stroke was healed…” (Thanks to Bible Gateway.) The word that is translated “wound” (ESV and NIV), “killed” (mine), and “slain” (Young) is used in 13:8 to refer to the Lamb who was slain. This seems to me to be a conscious contrast between the true Christ and the counterfeit. The true Christ was slain and buried and rose from the dead. It appears that the counterfeit christ will suffer some sort of wound that appears fatal, but he recovers from it. In 13:12, the stronger word that could suggest actual death is not used, but rather the calamity of the Beast is that he suffered a “mortal wound,” which was healed. A mortal wound is one that causes death, but the verse seems to imply that the healing intervened before death took place. In 13:14, the description is even weaker: the beast “was wounded by the sword and yet lived.” The text seems to parallel two ideas, one that gains in strength and one that loses its strength:
13:3. “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.”
13:12. “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.”
13:14. “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.”
So, we go from a “mortal wound” to being “wounded by the sword.” At the same time we go from the earth marveling as they followed the beast to the earth-dwellers being deceived and making an image for the beast.
The second beast advances the role of an idol by giving the image of the beast breath so that it can speak. The text says that this activity of the second beast “was given” to him. This is a fairly common expression that is understood to mean “was granted the authority and power.” The person who grants these is usually understood to be God. It has already been established that the second beast operates under the authority of the first beast. So, he does this with the blessing of the first beast. The chain of command goes beyond that to Satan himself. So, the second beast is operating in the authority of Satan and with Satanic power. However, ultimate authority comes from God. The second beast is only operating with permission from God during the brief reign that is granted to the two beasts for the ultimate purposes of God. Whether the “breath” and the ability to speak are Satanic miracles or technological hoaxes is not clear. The ESV translation emphasizes the permissive authority by translating “was given” as “was allowed.” NIV implies Satanic power by translating it as “was given power.”
I made a mistake in my first version of commentary on this verse. Rather than simply correcting it, I want to include the mistake because the correct understanding is highlighted by the incorrect one. My original comments began as follows: “The second beast was also given the authority to cause those who do not worship the image of the Beast to be killed.” In looking at another person’s commentary, I was jolted by his reference to the IMAGE’S ability to cause the non-worshipers to be killed. So I went to the versions and to the original Greek and realized this is what it really says. I had glossed over that. This leaves one scratching one’s head. How does a statue cause people to be killed. I think Rowland may be on to something as he says: “The spurious oracle that comes from the image threatens death to those who do not worship the image of the beast (cf. Dan. 3:5-6).” Thus, the trickery of the talking image includes some kind of “oracle,” such as: (imagine a very dramatic baritone) “And I declare unto you that all who do not worship me shall be put to death immediately.” I have discussed under verse 13:12 the possibility that Beast-worship comes about because of the deception of the miracles of the second beast and not necessarily compulsion. However, in 13:15 the element of compulsion is definitely a factor in Beast-worship. I think that we should understand that false worship in every era is a combination of deception that darkens the heart and of compulsion that society at-large adds to the deception. Stalin and Hitler used power to bring fear, but also used powerful propaganda to bring deception. The Romans melded the symbols of empire and of Caesar’s image with the Hellenized polytheism of its day so that emperor worship was not a difficult step for many people. Eventually, however, compulsion was added to the mix.
I am observing that America is drifting toward this combination of culture and compulsion. The presenting issue is gay rights. It is a matter of culture for many people that same-sex marriage should be an option in a free society. At the same time, however, the power of the courts and of the nation is now behind this cultural development. This power looms, ready to pounce on all who disagree, even on religious grounds.
The historical fact is that an ancient beast eventually was accorded worship, and many Christians were killed because they refused to worship the image of Caesar. Jesus had said to render to Caesar what belonged to him—taxes, civil obedience, respect. But, He said, render to God what belongs to God—which is the worship of our hearts, our ultimate loyalty. He was not going to get caught up in the nitpicking of the Pharisees. But He also understood the Pharisees were right that the image on the coin signaled that the Romans would demand more and more allegiance to the point of taking that which belongs to God. Though I am not always sympathetic with some Christians on the far right, I do recognize that governmental power continues to grow and demand more and more allegiance and that it casts a greedy eye upon our heart-worship.
Now comes the “Mark of the Beast.” It is an expression that I learned of in childhood—not from apocalyptic movies or horror stories, but from my father, dispensationalist preacher and teacher. It grabbed my imagination along with that horrific name: the Antichrist. The dynamics of this verse are powerful and should be thoughtfully and carefully observed. Two of the three translations that I consulted use “it” rather than “he” (NIV and ESV use “it,” while NASB uses “he”). Throughout the passage there is no explicit pronoun—the verb ending simply indicates third person singular; so, either pronoun is possible. In the fact that this “beast” is a monster, “it” is permissible. In the fact that it is a human, “he” is permissible.
The introductory verb is the common poieo, which can have a variety of meanings, including “causes” (ESV and NASB) or “makes.” NIV uses the strong “forces.” The secondary verb—i.e. the verb that completes the thought of “makes”—is third plural aorist subjunctive. The subjunctive indicates a result clause: “He causes that they should give…” or “He made it so that they should give…” If we think of the result clause as a direct object (those of you who remember diagramming sentences) of the verb “cause,” the action of the second beast is to cause that “they” should give… The “they” is impersonal or general—the henchmen who carry out this beast’s orders will give the mark.
There is another direct object of the verb “makes” or “causes”: it is “all,” the small and great, rich and poor, etc. Everyone everywhere is going to be made to bear the mark. So, all these people are under the power of this beast. At the same time, there are henchmen who are handing out the marks. NIV tries to smooth it out by saying “forced all…to receive a mark…” But the original is saying that “they” are going to give the mark. If it is a brand or a tattoo, as many imagine (or, nowadays, a microchip), then there will be a certain amount of power exercised to impose this mark upon people. The mark is either on the right hand (generally considered the “more important” hand, except for left-handers) or on the forehead. This is a visible symbol of the power and authority that is being imposed upon people. The listing of all people from all walks of life sends us the message that this is a universal stamping of the human race.
The next verse is a continuation of the sentence. It may be regarded as either a result or purpose clause. I believe that purpose clause is closer to the meaning. The reason the mark is imposed is so no one can engage in commerce without the mark. This is a signal that there is absolute control over the human race.
Not only is there control, but also there is a universal sovereignty of the first Beast over the human race. This is a sovereignty that extends beyond governing people’s behavior and enters into governing their hearts. Every person is to be marked with the name of the Beast or the number of his name. This mark represents the raw power of the Beast: he has the military and police-state muscle to get everyone marked. But it also represents the spiritual hegemony of the Beast: everyone must exhibit the sign that she or he is utterly owned—body, soul, and spirit—by the Beast.
I listened to a man who advocates that my denomination compromise with demands of the LGBTQ community. He mentioned the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage and implied that this decision “changed things.” He did not expand that thought. It certainly did change things in the sense that it created a much more stressful environment for the church to make decisions about these matters. But he seemed to imply that the Court decision has forced the church to rethink the issue because the culture had shifted. That is not a very sound theological basis to make a decision. It almost seemed chilling in my hearing: do this or the government will force you to.
The verse begins with a warning, of sorts: “This calls for wisdom” (ESV and NIV) or “Here is wisdom” (NASB, a more literal translation). If we take the “This calls for wisdom” translation, we can be pretty intimidated, because I don’t have much wisdom when it comes to this verse. The literal translation—“Here is wisdom”—captures the same idea more modestly. “Here is [an opportunity] for wisdom…” What is the occasion for wisdom? If you have understanding, figure out or calculate the number of the Beast. The question is: is this a riddle to figure out? Is it a code to be decoded? Is it a symbolic number to convey information?
The verse goes on to describe the number and then to announce the number. The description is that “it is number of man” or “it is a number of a man.” Either translation is permissible, since Greek does not have an indefinite article. The two translations are very different and affect how one interprets the number. If it is the first, then the number is symbolic mankind. If it is the second, then the number is specific to a particular man—the Beast. The first translation, I think, is preferable. Often, when Greek omits the definite article, the noun takes on the sense of a universal representation. For example, “table,” without the article would be a representation of “table-ness.” “The table,” with the article, would be a designation of a particular table the speaker or writer wishes to refer to. So, since neither noun has the article—“For it is number of man,” the meaning would be “For it is numerical representation of humanness.”
If one accepts the other interpretation, then one is left to figure out what the number of the beast represents. The number is given as 666, and commentators have tried to use numeric values of letters to figure out a name. I have nothing original to add to this, but I think the best commentary is that all attempts have failed. Morris gives the best assessment on this (see below in the section on commentators).
If one accepts the first interpretation, that this number is a symbol for universal humankind, then 666 would be three digits, each short of the perfect number seven. It would be imperfection compounded three times! This interpretation creates its own problem: why would the Beast (or the cabal of Satan and the two beasts of chapter 13) use such a number for humanity, since that number has a negative connotation? However, that problem is present whichever interpretation is used. Surely, the Beast would not be so obtuse as to use compounded imperfection to symbolize itself, even if the numbers added up to the value of its name. It is possible, however, that what is being communicated is not literally what the Mark of the Beast consists of, but, rather, what is being communicated is the reality of the Beast and the triune cabal of Satan and his two henchmen. That is, Revelation is telling us that this Mark will be a sign to all that the individual is owned by the Beast, and that this Mark will represent the thrice-compounded inadequacy of the man-centered empire. What I am saying is that the Mark may not be literally “666.” It may be some other number or symbol or word. But Revelation wants us to know that the Mark is powerful and universally controlling, but it cannot equal to “777”—the all-powerful and thrice-perfect God of the universe.
In this article I have added The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary. The material on Revelation is written by Christopher C. Rowland.
Rist cites passages in II Baruch and II Esdras that mention two beasts—Leviathan from the sea and Behemoth from the earth. He also speculates that this “may be” the beast from the bottomless pit (Revelation 11:7). He also considers him to be “another representation of the Antichrist, or…the pseudo Christ.” For the latter he cites Mark 13:22. He considers the two lamb horns represent his “impersonation of the Christ.” The dragon’s voice betrays him to be satanic. He also refers to Daniel 8:3, in which Daniel saw a vision of a ram with two horns. He also quotes from a description in the Apocalypse of Pseudo-John of a character. The quotation names this person “Antichrist,” but Rist identifies him as “the Antichrist and false prophet.”
It seems to me that Rist quickly runs through a series of speculations and cites a series of sources without clarifying what the Revelation passage is really portraying. Is it Behemoth, the beast from the Abyss, Antichrist, pseudo Christ, a false prophet, or the ram of Daniel 8? It is possible that John had been influenced by some of these sources and notions. However, there is not evidence that he is confused and grabbing at all sorts of possibilities in writing this passage. Moreover, the passage makes clear that there is a distinction between this beast and the beast from the sea in the first part of the chapter. It seems clear to me that the beast from the sea is the predominant one and that the beast from the land is a lesser associate. He does not command worship of himself, and his persecution of people is in order to coerce worship of the beast from the sea. His characterization as being lamb-like and also satanic is not necessarily a description of a pseudo Christ. It is more the characterization of a false prophet such as Jesus warned of in Matthew 7:15: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Rist now does focus in on a role for the second beast: he is “a priest of the imperial cult” and “symbolizes the priesthood of the imperial cultus which organized and supervised the worship of the emperor gods.” Rist considers that the “single head” (of the multi-headed first beast), which at first represented only Nero, now is a “symbol” for all the Caesars who were worshiped as gods. Rist, in his introduction, states that the circumstance that led to the writing of Revelation was the growing pressure on Christians to worship “the state [Rome] and its deified emperors, living and dead.” He speculates that persecution over this issue “had broken out” in Asia Minor, resulting in the death of Antipas (see 2:12-13). (Rist, 354) This coherent theory is consistent with Rist’s dating of Revelation in the time of Domitian (Rist, 356). It is certainly probable that Revelation was written somewhat in response to persecution in the context of the emperor cult. I believe that it also looks to the distant future and to the end of the age.
In his commentary on verse 13, Rist goes back to confusing issues, in my view. He refers to other sources, including II Thessalonians 2:9-10, and uses the term “false Christ.” In this way, he fails to distinguish the first and second beasts. He also, legitimately, refers to Deuteronomy 13:1-3, which warns against false prophets and spectacular signs that seduce people to abandon loyalty to the true God, Yahweh. He notes that the signs of the second beast enable him to delude people into making an image to the first beast. He notes that the description of the first beast—“which was wounded by the sword and yet lived” (Revised Standard Version)—is a “derisive parody of the description of the slain Lamb who died and yet lives evermore. See my commentary above which also makes this point.
Rist, in my view, confuses issues and thereby confuses the reader in his comments on this issue. First, he persists in using the term “false Christ” to designate the second beast. This contradicts the designation “false prophet” that is used in 19:20 and 20:10. It is not warranted from the context to use “false Christ,” and it confuses the issue by making two different persons (the first and second beasts) to play the role of false Christ. Second, in commenting on the fact that the image is able to speak, he explains this phenomenon as being possibly ventriloquism or “more likely it is a reference to the fact that the image is that of a human being, a living person.” This statement is difficult to wrap one’s mind around. It could mean two things. It could mean that the statue (image) is the statue of a person who is alive at the time. I cannot understand how the statement that the image could speak would convey that information. Alternatively, Rist might mean that the image is not a statue at all, but rather the actual living person, the first beast. (See in ancient commentary section for a similar idea.) This also is nonsensical, since the second beast would not make the first beast breathe and speak. So, if Rist had something he sought to convey, it is not at all clear to me.
He goes on to comment that the fact—that the second beast could cause those who refused to worship the image to be slain—was “the crux of the entire situation for the Christians…” They could deny Christ and worship the emperor and live on in this life but experience “eternal damnation.” Or they could confess Christ and refuse emperor worship. This would lead to persecution and death and “a glorious immortality.”
Rist considers various parallels and possibilities regarding the Mark of the Beast. He notes that there is a parallel between the seal on the saints in 7:3 and the Mark on all the rest of the human race. He gives us the information that the word used for Mark is charagma, which is “the technical term for the imperial stamp on official documents.” He gives a precedent for this Mark (in a reverse sense) in III Maccabees, in which Ptolemy Philopater I placed the “ivy-leaved symbol of Dionysus” on Jews who would not sacrifice to the pagan god. He states that it is “unlikely” that Christians were kept from engaging in business, though there were times when they experienced “unofficial social boycott.”
Rist considers that the Mark was “as invisible as the seal on the faithful.” He refers to the Psalms of Solomon in which the wicked have a “mark of destruction” placed on them. “Accordingly, in Revelation those who have the mark of the beast will be destroyed in the last days (19:20).” His reference to God’s judgment on those who receive the Mark is accurate. However, he is not faithful to the text in implying that God puts an invisible mark on the wicked. It is the second beast and his associates who mark the people. And it is the wicked who choose to receive the Mark rather than suffer the temporal consequences of losing out on the commerce of the Beast’s empire. Therefore, they experience the eternal consequences of judgment.
Rist discusses the number, which is the Mark of the Beast. He notes that, for many people, verse 13:18 is given “far more attention in popular thinking than it deserves.” He refers to the numbering system in Greek and Hebrew, which both used letters to represent numbers. He notes that there are two assumptions that are generally made, although they may not be correct. One is that the phrase “number of a man” means that it is a number that represents an historical person. The second is that it is an emperor. He holds strongly to this latter assumption, stating that “since the number is that of the beast symbolizing the imperial line, it should be the name or title of an emperor.” Note the built-in third assumption: that “the number is that of the beast symbolizing the imperial line…” I am not so sure that is a valid assumption. Based on his assumptions, he rules out other possible interpretations, including “Lateinos” (Greek representing the Roman Empire), “Teitan” (Greek for Titan), “Tiamat” (Hebrew for a personification of chaos).
Rist then cites the theory (held by many) that decodes the number 666 into Nero. The Greek words Neron Kaisar (Caesar Nero) are first transliterated into Hebrew equivalents and their number equivalents are found to add up to 666. This works out as follows (the Hebrew does not have vowels):
Nun = 50
Resh = 200
Waw (vav) = 6
Nun = 50
Qoph = 100
Samech = 60
Resh = 200
Total = 666
He also gives another theory proposed by Lohmeyer. In Pythagorean numerology, 666, which is the sum of the numbers 1 through 36, is a “triangular number.” Also, 36 is the sum of 1 through 8. Eight is mentioned in Revelation 17:11 as the eighth king who goes to perdition. He concludes from this that 8 represents the “fearful, demonic Antichrist.” Thus 8 is a demonic number and 666 is a code for 8. Rist comments: “Thus, by coincidence Lohmeyer arrives at practically the same conclusion: the number is that of the Antichrist who in 17:11 is also Nero redivivus.” The reasoning that Rist seems to be following is this: Verse 17:11 states that: “As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction.” The “eighth” means that it is an eighth king. Thus, the eighth king is “of the seven,” so Rist seems to conclude that he is one of the seven. Since only a Nero redivivus would meet that criterion, the Beast (Antichrist) must be a revived Nero. Since 8 seems to be the number of the Antichrist (per Lohmeyer), and, since the beast in 17:11 is the 8th king, and, since 666 is the code for Nero, then all the signs point to a revived Nero as the Antichrist/Beast. Keep in mind that Rist is not saying HE believes this. He is saying that John believes this.
It is difficult to avoid sarcasm and scorn in reading this. What offends me is that I believe that Rist would heap scorn on various kooky Bible manipulators, such as the “Bible code” people that claim they find all kinds of predictions in the Scripture by means of complex numbers games. He would probably also heap scorn on Dispensational interpretations of Scripture that advocate for an absence of the church during the Tribulation period and hold to very literal understandings of the various plagues described in Revelation. Yet, here is Rist almost dancing a jig because Lohmeyer discovers some obscure numerological interpretation that, he believes, confirms the Nero redivivus theory. It just seems to me that Rist has locked in on the idea of Nero redivivus as the explanation of the issue of the Antichrist to the exclusion of all other possibilities. This has led him to lose his usual scholarly distance. I was reminded of an incident from my past. I had a desk with a group of other graduate students in a common room. One of the students had a quotation taped up over her desk. She was studying the pineal gland, an obscure organ connected to the brain. The quote was from her advisor, a brilliant endocrinologist. It went something like this: “Many a graduate student has floundered in the sea of the pineal.” So, I must remind myself that many a Bible student has floundered in the sea of eschatology and most especially in the bay of Revelation.
Rowland describes the role of the second beast as that of a “grand vizier.” He comments the “created world is under the thrall to the beast,” and cites 11:18, 13:3, 17:5, and 19:2. He does not mean necessarily these as supporting Beast-worship. Rather, they draw a picture of evil humanity. Verse 11:18 mentions the “destroyers of the earth.” Verse 13:3 mentions that the “whole earth marveled” at the Beast. Verse 17:5 mentions “earth’s abominations.” Verse 19:2 mentions the corruption of the earth. In commenting on verses 13:12-13, he creates a similar error to Rist by confusing the first and second beast. He ambiguously states that the “beast” has a “mortal wound that was healed.” He then goes on to say that “it” was able to do great signs. He does not bother to differentiate the two beasts whereas the text clearly refers to the first beast as the one that has the wound and the second beast as the one that does signs. He relates the performance of signs to Jesus’ prediction of “false prophets” who do the same. (See Matthew 24:24.) He also relates this to Paul’s description of the Man of Lawlessness (see II Thessalonians 2:9.) Note that the latter Scripture is focused on a single individual, the Man of Lawlessness, who I believe is an equivalent to the first beast. However, the verse states that this person will come with “signs and wonders” and leaves open the possibility that a second individual could perform such signs on behalf of the first.
Rowland connects the second beast to the “false prophet” of 16:13, 19:20, and 20:10. Verse 19:20 reads: “And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.” Note this brief summary recapitulates the career of the second beast as it is described in chapter 13. Rowland also notes the use of the term “semeia megala” which means “great signs.” This is used in verse 13:13 to refer to the miracles done by the second beast. Rowland also refers to other uses of the term “sign” or “signs.” For example, in 16:14, it designates the “signs” (NIV: “miraculous signs”) which demonic spirits, which come from the dragon and the two beasts, perform to deceive the kings of the earth. “Signs” are also seen by John in chapters 12 and 15, where they more like visions of great significance (for example the woman of chapter 12 and the angels with the seven plagues). Rowland does not note this difference in use of the word “sign.”
He does refer to other uses of the term “false prophet”—in Matthew 7:15, Acts 13:6, and I John 4:1. Note especially the warning in I John 4:1. In that verse Christians are warned that not every “spirit” is from God. I infer that this use of “spirit” is in reference to some sort of ecstatic utterance. Such an utterance might be understood as a sign. I also infer that such utterances were held in esteem in the church to which John was writing. He is warning of a need for discernment and the application of a doctrinal test (see I John 4:2-3). Thus, signs are not always confirmation of truth. They may indeed accompany truth, but they also may be used to deceive.
Rowland notes that it is a consistent message of the book that the worship of the beast and his image is “something that is to be resisted…” He cites 14:9-11 (a warning from an angel against beast-worship), 15:2 (a celebration of those who prevailed over beast-worship), 16:2 (a plague on beast-worship, 19:20 (the beast and false prophet, who deceived people into worshiping the beast, are thrown into the lake of fire), 20:4 (martyrs who had not worshiped the beast).
Rowland comments on the fact that “worship of the beast…has been plausibly linked with the promotion of the imperial cult…” He claims that this plausible link comes from the mentions of the image of the beast. He states that “John’s vision…demands of readers” that they go against the grain of the culture that surrounded them and reject “even casual…participation in state religion.” He also allows that the healing of the beast’s mortal wound by the sword (verse 13:14) is a plausible basis for identifying the first beast with Nero. Rather than discussing the Nero redivivus myth, he describes another rumor—that Nero did not actually die but escaped to Parthia and was prepared to return as emperor. As I read Rowland’s introduction to the whole book, he is reluctant to hold too strongly to these kinds of interpretations, for example, making a definite identification of the beast and Nero. He believes that Revelation should be read more as poetry than as a code-book to be cracked open. He believes that one should allow the images of the book to stimulate our imaginations. I think this is consistent with his frequent references to various other parts of the book, so that he is allowing the book to interpret itself.
Rowland considers that the ability of the idol to speak might be understood as “a series of miraculous occurrences in Asia Minor connected with the statue of the beast…[that is] hinted at here,” but he goes on to say, “but there is little hard evidence.” He understands that what the idol says is “instruction” and “oracle.” I have quoted from his commentary in my own commentary in which I describe my error in interpreting this verse.
Rowland notes that the message of Revelation is that the “instruction” of the idol “is to be rejected, because it affects the eternal destiny of the readers of the book (v. 8; cf. 17:8).” The verses that he refers to both use the clause (or its equivalent) “whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.” In his commentary on verse 13:8, Rowland makes two moves that have controversial implications. First, he understands “from the foundation [creation] of the world” to refer to when the Lamb was slain and not to when the names were written. Second (a move closely related to the first), he ignores any implications of determinism or predestination in the verse. Instead, he says “The criterion for inclusion in the book of life is to resist worshiping the beast.” (emphasis in original) He notes that the threat of death “covers all strata of society.” This reminds us, he says, that “all persons [no matter what position in society they may hold] are subject to the blandishments and ideological distortions of power and can be misled by it.”
He makes the comparison between the Mark of the Beast on the beast-worshipers and those “who are marked with the name of the Lamb and of God (14:1; cf. 22:4),” who are “those who stand with the Lamb.” He concludes that the consequences for resistance to beast-worship are “public, social and economic.” Actually, the text only lists economic consequences, although we can imagine that other consequences would come. Rowland makes several connections based on the idea of “buying and selling.” First, he notes that “those ‘bought’ with the blood of the Lamb (5:9; cf. 14:3) can do nothing other than resist” beast-worship even though they can no longer buy ordinary goods. Verses 5:9 and 14:3 refer to the redemption price that was paid for our freedom. He also refers to the destruction of Babylon in chapter 18, which disrupts the entire world economy so that the merchants weep, “since no one buys their cargo anymore.” (18:11) Thus, there is a wisdom in resistance to the pressures of society that is justified in this life and the life to come.
Rowland reminds us of the practice of gematria, which used numerical equivalents of letters in the interpretation of Scripture. He describes how there is a “long pedigree” for the interpretation that 666 is the numerical equivalent of Nero Caesar in Hebrew. He believes the ancient understanding is “confirmed” by the fact that in the second century Irenaeus knew of a variant reading of 616, which is the equivalent to the Latin phrase. He cites another interpretation that 666 is a contrast to 888, which is the numerical equivalent of Jesus in Greek, “a contrast that fits well with the parody of Christ in the image of the beast in this chapter.”
He cautions us not to “assume that John summons readers to engage in this kind of complex calculation.” He asks whether Greek readers would recognize the need to transliterate Neron Kaisar into Hebrew. He advances the possibility that wisdom for John is the wisdom of God and not human (our) wisdom. He expands this thought by considering 666 to be an expression of the incompleteness and imperfection of the beast, who is a “caricature of the Lamb.” Thus, 666 is a “three-fold falling short of perfection.” “It has most of the hallmarks of truth, and so it can easily deceive. For this reason it must, at all costs, be resisted.”
He considers that the second beast “appears to stand for a priesthood.” Some, he says, “see the [Roman] imperial priesthood in the second [beast].”
This beast “is less fearsome”—coming from the “familiar” earth and only having two horns. He is a “dreadful parody of the truth”—with two horns reminding of the two witnesses of chapter 11 and appearing “like a lamb.”
This beast is “formidable” and able to make all the earth worship the first beast.
Morris refers to first-century “magic” and implies that the second beast is a trickster of the gullible. His signs are a parody of Jesus’ signs in the gospel of John.
He interprets the earth-dwellers as “unregenerate mankind.” Only these are deceived. He declares that this illustrates the “spiritual truth”: “If a man serves God with all his heart he will not be taken in by the empty miracles of the deceiver. But if he turns from God he predisposes himself to believe the lies of the second beast.”
The second beast is given power—it is derivative not original. He notes that the “breath” that is given to the image of the beast is a sort of imitation breath of life from the Creator-God.
The mark is given to various classes to emphasize “totality.” The location—on the hand or forehead—signifies “conspicuousness.” He also sees an allusion to Jewish phylacteries, which were worn on the forearm or the forehead. He cites Barclay, who gives a whole list of possible significances of the mark: (1) branding a slave of the Beast, (2) branding a soldier as the follower of a favorite general, (3) a seal on a contract in acceptance of the authority of the Beast, (4) bearing an image as on a coin as a sign of ownership, (5) as a certificate of sacrifice to the Beast (as to Caesar)—which Christians could receive only as they denied Christ as their Lord.
He notes that the original states that there would be a “total prohibition” of commerce to those who do not bear the mark. This would make it impossible “to get even the necessities like food.”
He explains how letters can be used as numerical equivalents. He states that “in modern times the most favored solution is ‘Nero Caesar…” However, to arrive at this total, some manipulations have to be used: “…we must use the Greek form of the Latin name, transliterated into Hebrew characters, and with a variant spelling at that…” “This solution has its attractions, but no-one has shown why a Hebrew name with an unusual spelling should be employed in a Greek writing.” He also points out that in the early church—when Nero was a recent memory—“this solution was apparently never thought of.” He then makes the case that 666 are three digits that each fall short of the perfect 7. He believes that the clause (in King James Version)—“it is the number of a man”—could read: “it is the number of man.” “John will then be saying that unregenerate man is persistently evil.”
Ladd takes on the Preterists because he says there is no historical figure that compares to the second beast. “They [the Preterists] almost unanimously see in him the priestly structure which supported emperor worship.” He refers to another commentator (Hanns Lilje) and states that emperor worship is “only the background” for this description, because this second beast (who Ladd believes will be in the last days) has far more power than the imperial priesthood. He dismisses the rising of the beast from the earth as significant and points out that the beasts in Daniel 7:3 rise out of the sea, but in 7:17 they rise out of the earth.
The second beast is the “henchman” of the first. His power is derivative from the first Beast. “His single objective is to capture the religious loyalties of men for the first beast.”
He refers to II Thessalonians 2:9-10 and states that “the false prophet does not represent merely formal religion but actual satanic power.” Ladd believes that this person will have power to do miracles, including call fire down from heaven. He refers to the earth-dwellers as unregenerate, because the “false prophet” will not deceive the saints.
Ladd refers to Simon Magus as one of the magicians who could make statues speak. He, like Morris, considers this to be the ultimate imitation of the Creator-God—to give the breath of life. Again like Morris, Ladd notes that the original states that it is the image—which can speak—who orders those who do not worship to be killed. “The conflict is… between God and Satan.”
He compares and contrasts the seal that is put on the people of God “on the threshold of the great tribulation” with the “countermark” of the Beast. He is uncertain whether the mark of the Beast should be understood as visible or not. He gives a set of background “marks” similar to those given by Barclay (see in summary of Morris’ comments). He notes that there were a few instances of branding captives. He notes that an Egyptian ruler, Ptolemy Philopater, commanded the branding of the Jews of Alexandria with an image of an ivy leaf, the symbol of Dionysus. He states that this kind of branding was not connected with emperor-worship.
Ladd rejects any idea that the situation that is described compares to any historical practice in the Roman empire. He concludes that this is a prophecy that looks forward to a time of the Beast’s “totalitarian rule in which he has complete control over politics, religion, and economics with the purpose of compelling the worship of all men.”
Ladd goes through the same explanation and objections to interpreting 666 to be Nero as Morris. He gives the possible interpretations that Irenaeus came up with: either euanthus, teitan (Titus), or lateinos, the Latin empire. He notes that one can play all sorts of games, including coming up with Hitler to be equal to 666. He makes the same argument as Morris that 666 could be a “human number” of three times coming short of perfection. His conclusion is that “if the number of the beast is a prophecy of a future situation, …its meaning will be plain when the time comes.
Metzger’s brief commentary comes from a preterist perspective. He considers the second beast to represent the local officials who enforced emperor worship. His lamb-like appearance means that “personified paganism” was under the guise of Christ, but it betrayed itself when it spoke like a dragon. It promoted emperor worship with all kinds of tricks of “bogus religion.” He considers the coins of the ruler, which bore his image as well as titles that declared him divine, to be a means to “impress his sovereignty most vividly on the minds of his subjects.” So, this explained why no one could buy or sell without the mark of the Beast (his image on the coinage). He goes through the explanation of gematria and reports the result that Nero Caesar, when it is transliterated into the Hebrew alphabet, adds up to 666. Though he also refers to the idea that 666 is three times imperfection, he approves of the conclusion that Nero is in mind. His concluding remarks are worth quoting:
The profound religious insight that lies behind these kaleidoscopic pictures in chapter 13 is that men and women are so constituted as to worship some absolute power, and if they do not worship the true and real Power behind the universe, they will construct a god for themselves and give allegiance to that. In the last analysis, it is always a choice between the power that operates through inflicting suffering, that is, the power of the beast, and the power that operates through accepting suffering, the power of the Lamb.
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN COMMENTARY, ED. WEINRICH (204-213
Commentators and their approximate dates:
Victorinius of Petovium—230-304
Caesarius of Arles—470-543
Andrew of Caesarea—early 500’s
I have omitted references to the individual commentators in order to simplify the summaries below.
On the Identity and Characterization of the Second Beast:
There are several opinions. He is thought to represent the kingdom of the Antichrist. He is also considered to be the false prophet who is referred to elsewhere in Revelation. In fact one commentator laid out the three personalities in a way that is familiar to me: the dragon is Satan, the Beast from the sea is the Antichrist, and the second beast is the false prophet. The second beast is considered to be a wolf with the appearance of a lamb’s skin and lamb’s horns, but the voice of the dragon. He is also referred to as the forerunner of the Antichrist as well as the “armor-bearer” of the Antichrist.
On the Signs and Wonders and Authority of the Second Beast:
In one case the fact that he has power on behalf of the Beast means he will rule according to the law of Augustus, the founder of the empire. This is one of the times when a somewhat Preterist viewpoint is expressed. However, in this case, the understanding is still one that this is looking into the future and not interpreting the present. It was odd that more than one understood the signs and wonders to include raising the dead, though that is not mentioned in the passage. Some understood “heaven” to represent the church. This meant that something came out of the church (the fire). The fire was an imitation Holy Spirit for one commentator and heresies coming out of the church for another.
Some, in commenting on these signs and wonders, referred to II Thessalonians 2:9. Some understood that the deception takes place in the minds of the deceived so that they think they see the signs like fire or other miracles. One conceded that the signs might be real, but the deception is to think that such signs could only come from God. More than one recognized that the true saints will not be deceived. They are citizens of heaven in contrast to the earth-dwellers.
On the Healing of the Wound in the First Beast:
One gave three possible understandings: (1) the short-lived unity of the divided (Roman?) empire; (2) restoration of the tyranny of Satan by the Antichrist; (3) the “fraudulent resurrection of one of his [the Antichrist’s] associates.” In the first of these, the empire is understood to play a role, but as I said before, the time frame is still future. That is to say: future from the viewpoint of these writers.
The Mark on the Hand and on the Forehead:
In one case this is understood to be forced sacrifice to the Beast. The picture that is drawn is very similar to emperor worship. In this one case, the time frame could be understood to be the present from the viewpoint of the writer, not of John. In more than one case, the mark on the hand is understood to be reference to works: the Antichrist destroys good works. The mark on the forehead in more than one case represents faith or confession of faith, which is also destroyed by the Antichrist. One commentator understands these to refer to the fact that believers receive Christ on the hand and on the forehead. I interpret this to refer to anointing with oil after baptism. The mark on the hand and the forehead is, then, the “mystery of deception” that destroys this receiving of Christ.
On the Image of the Beast:
One commentator understood more detail than is in the text: a golden image will be erected in the temple at Jerusalem. One referred to a general knowledge that many statues of that time were said to perspire and to speak by the power of the devil. One understood the image to represent the body of evil persons (like the church is the body of Christ). Alternatively he says the narrative is of how deluded people consult the Antichrist. He is saying that the “image” is the Antichrist himself. (See Rist above.) Another has two entities: (1) the beast is the city or congregation of the impious; (2) it is an imitation of the catholic church, so that it is those persons who confess the catholic faith but are unfaithful.
The Meaning of 666:
This received a great deal of symbology. In one case, the beast represents all the evil of the 600 years before Noah and all since his time. The same interpreter referred to Nebuchadnezzar’s image as being 6 by 60 cubits, and, because Nebuchadnezzar decreed everyone should only him, this incident prefigured the coming of the Beast. Finally, he understands the whole apostasy of 6000 years of history is concentrated in the Beast.
Others used the 666 number to come up with possible names. These names included Euthana, Lateinos, Teitan, Lampetis, Benedict. Also titles or names with direct significance were chosen, such as The Conqueror, Unstable, Ancient Slanderer, Unjust Lamb, Contrary to Honor, I Deny. All of these were arrived at in a way that produced a total of 666. One made the comment that one should use Greek letters for the numbers. He reasons (with good exegetical skill) that the book was written to the Greek-speaking population of Asia Minor and that Jesus announced Himself to be the Alpha and Omega (Greek letters). Note that there is no hint of the transliteration into Hebrew nor of the solution that yields Nero.
More than one recognized that one could not be certain of a solution, because if we were supposed to know the name of the Antichrist, then it would have been made plain in the text.
I notice several things about these ancient scholars. All of them understand this passage to be about the future. They usually use their present context as a reference point. For example, they make reference to the Roman Empire, but they consider that what they are reading will take place in the future with reference to their own present. They do not impose a Preterist interpretation upon this text. They generally understand that the Antichrist is the subject of the chapter—some of them using a term that only I and II John use in the New Testament. Many of them understand the passage to be symbolic, although they also have a futurist point of view. Some have almost fanciful interpretations. There are a large number of suggestions for the name that 666 stands for. I have noted above that none of these ancient scholars came up with the name Nero, even though they were much closer to Nero’s period of history. I also note that there does not seem to be any notion that the church is absent from the earth in this time. Thus, the modern ideas of Preterism and Dispensationalism do not seem to be found in the early church, at least in the commentators that are quoted on this passage.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
My interpretation: John sees a second beast, who has a non-threatening appearance, but has the voice of a dragon. This beast leads the earth-dwellers into worship of the first Beast, including Satan’s trademark idolatry. He is able to make the image of the beast to speak, and he enforces Beast-worship under the threat of death. Thus he combines deception with compulsion in the cult of the Beast. As part of the religious hegemony, he makes everyone to be marked with the name or number of the Beast. The number 666 likely represents the thrice-compounded inadequacy of a human-centered empire. It may not be the actual mark, but communicates to us the reality of the Beast’s empire.
Commentators: Some of the commentators create confusion about the distinction of the second beast from the first beast. Rist focuses on the second beast as representative of the Roman imperial cult. He interprets from a Preterist perspective and sees the passage to highlight the challenge of first century Christians: either worship the emperor and save their life but be damned or confess Christ and not worship the emperor and die but experience glorious eternal life. He believes the mark was an invisible sign on the wicked. He considers that 666 stands for Nero. Rowland emphasizes the poetic nature of Revelation. He believes the mortal wound of the Beast refers to Nero’s not dying but escaping to Parthia. He rejects the complex theory that results in 666 standing for Nero. Morris understands the second beast to stand for a priesthood—not necessarily the Roman cult. Serving God protects one from deception. He gives a list from Barclay of parallels to the mark, including branding a slave, the image on a coin, and the certificate that one has sacrificed to the emperor. He rejects the equation of 666 to Nero because it requires transliteration into Hebrew. He, Rowland, and Ladd all subscribe to the idea that 666 represents three-fold coming short of perfection. Ladd believes that the second beast is not comparable to any historical figure, although the priests of emperor worship give us background. The second beast is the False Prophet, who exercises Satanic power. The image is made to speak, and its voice commands the non-worshipers to be killed. The mark contrasts with the seal of God on the saints. Metzger gives a Preterist interpretation that the second beast represents the local officials who enforced emperor worship. He believes that the coins with the emperor’s image on them is the connection to economics in the passage. He approves of the idea that Nero is represented by 666. The ancient commentators do not use a Preterist approach to the passage. They do often have fanciful interpretations of the symbolism of the passage. However, most of them consider the passage to describe future events, which they interpret with reference to their own culture and time. Some of them speculate on the meaning of 666 and come up with a long list of possibilities—but none of them find Nero.
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