At church each week I sit a row or two in front of a former POW from the Vietnamese War. Ken is an immensely interesting man, both distinguished and completely humble at the same time. I have heard him tell his stories several times of being detained in the Hanoi Hilton and every time the crowd — whether they were age 8 or 80 — was mesmerized. Especially intriguing was his account of writing letters home to his wife. However, these letters were filled with intelligence details written in seemingly innocuous code he had been taught in training for the war. The Viet Cong would read his mail and pass it along as nothing more than a letter to a wife about remembrances from life at home or purely imaginative scenarios. Hidden in there were details about how many detainees were there, their conditions, morale, and the sort.
Revelation 13 was the first chapter I ever read in Revelation. I was 14 and I had heard of this chapter about weird monsters and the number 666. Sounded like the kind of chapter a kid who listen to Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and who read Stephen King needed to read. So I did. And understood nothing that I read.
You may feel the same way today after reading this chapter. Weird. Puzzling.
I think it is best to think of this chapter like a letter to a detainee’s loved ones that might seem odd but innocuous to the outsider but had much meaning to those familiar with Jewish apocalyptic imagery and rhetorical devices. How do you talk about the enemy when they read your mail? Like this.
As chapter 12 ended we left the seven-headed red dragon Satan as he flooded the earth with waters of evil in an unsuccessful effort to drown the woman who gave birth to Jesus. Today, out of that sea (a universal symbol in the ancient world of evil) comes a horrific beast. With seven heads and the watery connection, we know this beast is a servant of Satan. In the last half of the chapter, another beast arises from the earth who serves and glorifies the first beast. On what is surely a take-off on the sealing of the righteous in chapter 7, this second beast marks on the right hand and forehead all of those in the area who wish to do business. Finally, John says that this beast is a symbol for a human and using apocalyptic numerology (gematria) one can determine who this is from his secret number 666.
Yeah, clear as day, right? Much ink has been spilled on this confusing chapter, and I don’t wish to add to it other than to give an interpretation that I think makes sense (the Internet is filled with scores of other interpretations). After pulling back the curtain of reality in chapter 12 to show us that Satan is really behind the suffering of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, John lets the curtain back into place so all we see again are the human agents of Satan’s work of deceit and destruction. There is a horrible beast of a power that will make the life of the Christians of Asia Minor difficult. That beast will come by sea. This is most likely the Roman government as a whole, with seven heads for the seven emperors there had been before this time, the mortally wounded one being the worst of all thus far, Nero. Then, as the second beast is especially religious (13:15) the beast from the land is likely the government officials and religious personnel from Asia Minor who were especially loyal to Rome and would have put the greatest direct pressure on the recipients of this letter. We know that greatest ostracizing and disenfranchising tool that natives would have had was the ability to turn people against a Christian’s business. If you want money bearing the “mark of the beast” (the picture of the Caesar) you will have to play by our rules and leave your superstitions behind. These Christians knew well the power of this beast. The symbolic number 666 has been interpreted many ways, but the best seems to be that this is a reference to Nero, based on a popular belief that Nero was so evil he was going to come back to life again (the Nero redivivus myth). In a sense, Domitian, who brought intense persecution to the Christians of Asia Minor shortly after Revelation was written (if a date in the 80s AD is correct), became that “second Nero.” Domitian picked up where Nero left off.
In an effort to universalize this maybe we could say that the beast from the sea is any force that uses sheer power to work against God’s kingdom. The beast from the land is the force that adds religion by coercion and intimidation into the mix. That happened in the first-century Roman Empire, the tenth-century Roman Catholic Church, the twelfth-century Islamic Middle East, the early-twentieth century Nazi Germany, the mid-twentieth century Iron Curtain Communists, the twenty-first century terrorist camps in Afghanistan, and now the center of Africa as tribe battles tribe and ethnic group kills off ethnic group. Brute Power and Religion used to support Brute Power has had many faces throughout history.
I believe these are the two verses that would have spoken loudest to the first faithful Christians reading this chapter:
So everyone on earth worshiped it — everyone, that is, whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life belonging to the lamb who was slaughtered. (13:8)
When one sees the immense power of these beasts, it is hard to imagine that anyone could resist doing what they want. And in the ancient Roman society, most did follow the norm. But these Christians can take heart that they have an allegiance to one who is even more powerful. They can be those who will not bow a knee.
But, the Christians of Asia Minor are mentioned in this passage in another place, too:
It [the beast of the earth] was granted the right to make war against God’s holy people and to defeat them. (13:7)
That too is this group of faithful Christians.
And now we are back to what has become one of the paradoxical main themes of this book: There is a great rescue coming. Hold on. You will be taken safely through it if you do not give up the faith. But that rescue is not physical. You will have to lay this life down and go through the second death in order to live forever with the Lamb.