Revelation 13 is one of the most debated chapters in the Bible. It tells of two beasts, one that comes from the sea, another which comes up from the earth. So what do these beasts represent?
Some Christians suggest they represent two great powers at the end of time. Maybe so. But the book of Revelation wasn’t written just for the generation that lives immediately before the end of the world. It was written for all believers throughout human history. As John often points out “you have heard that the antichrist is coming — even now many antichrists have come” (1 John 2:18). If we’re waiting for the beasts to come, without recognising the beasts that are already here, then we’re missing the point of Revelation.
These two beasts help us to know what Satanic opposition looks like on the ground. We can’t see Satan, but we can see those he uses. Like a General who gathers information about his enemy, God has given us this chapter so that we know our enemy’s weaknesses, and have confidence in our victory.
How can we understand Revelation?
Of course many people find the book of Revelation difficult to understand. For some that’s because they forget it uses picture language and they take it too literally. Others forget it speaks of reality, and take it too figuratively. Still more forget that it’s the last book of the Bible and is best understood in the light of everything that precedes it. So if we’re trying to understand the two beasts, we shouldn’t expect literal beasts, but we should expect something tangible and real.
There are two Old Testament passages that refer to these beasts. Job 40-41 speaks of a sea-beast “who is king over all that are proud” (cf. Rev 13:5), and an equally powerful land-beast who cannot be captured but “lies hidden among the reeds”. But despite hearing of their great power, Job replies to the Lord, “I know that you can do all things, no plan of yours can be thwarted”. That’s very much the sense of Revelation 13, too. No matter what the opposition, God is in control.
But Daniel 7 is the main passage that helps us understand the chapter. In Daniel there are four beasts that together mirror the first beast in Revelation 13. The beasts in Daniel look like the first beast (like a leopard, a bear and a lion), they come out of the sea (Dan 7:2, Rev 13:1), they have the same number of heads (1+1+4+1 in Daniel, 7 in Revelation), and horns (Dan 7:7, Rev 13:1).
The similarities to Daniel 7 matter, because we know the four beasts in Daniel represent four empires (the Babylonian, Mede, Persian, and Greek). All four were violent empires, and in Revelation those four beasts are rolled into one, who crush opposition (v4) and kill with the sword (v10).
The violent and destructive first beast
The first beast comes from sea, which is significant because the ancient Jews hated the sea. In the Biblical era they only once had a navy, and even they had to get sailors from Tyre, as the Jews weren’t familiar with the sea (1 Kings 9:25-27)! For them the sea represented danger and turmoil. So the beast that comes out of the sea represents empires and leaders who cause death and chaos, ruling through fear and violence. They take on God (v6), and are ‘worshipped’ by evil men. In our generation the biggest beasts go by names like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Ze-Dong, and Pol Pot.
The Bible doesn’t tell us not to worry about such beasts. As Revelation says, they were given power for forty-two months (which represents a long time, but a time that will be cut short, like Hitler’s thousand year Reich). After all, they make war against the saints (v7), and even conquer them. Each of those men vowed to destroy Christianity. Ultimately they all failed, but between them killed 15 million men and women who professed faith in Christ.
Those beasts have since met the judge of all the world, but there are many smaller beasts who still rule today in countries like North Korea, Somalia and many others. “This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints” (v 10). We need to pray for our brothers and sisters who face such beasts.
Don’t forget the second beast
Of course, facing such naked aggression is not our experience. But don’t forget there are two beasts. The first came out of sea — and did very evil things, killing and destroying. But the second beast comes out of the land — a place of safety and solidity. It has two horns like a lamb (v11). There’s perhaps a tiny hint of danger, but it seems that it’s nothing we couldn’t handle. That’s the deception though, although the second beast looks like a lamb — it speaks like a dragon, like Satan himself.
The beast has no less power than the first (v12). He can even do things that in the Old Testament only God could do (compare v13 with 1 Kings 18). As a result, many will be deceived (v14) about the power and majesty of God.
But the second beast isn’t violent. It does its evil through deception and giving life to the first beast. Like the land-beast in Job 40, it hides in the reeds. Its power is such that you must receive its mark in order to buy or sell (16-17). Some think this refers to barcodes and social security numbers, but those who know their Bibles will remember that in one of the most significant passages of the Old Testament, God asks His people to put His mark (i.e. his commandments) on their forehead and hands (Deut 6:8).
What does God mean? Well he doesn’t mean we should literally tie commandments to our heads and hands, and some ultra-Orthodox Jews do. The reality is much simpler. What do you use your head for? Hopefully to think! What do you use your hands for? Hopefully to do things! So God is saying in Deut. 6 that His commandments should influence all we think about and all we do. So let’s take that into Revelation 13. The second beast completely opposes God, replacing God’s commandments with his own mark. The second beast doesn’t want you to think as God thinks — but as the beast thinks. And he doesn’t want you to act as God acts — but as the beast acts. The second beast demands total conformity in the way that you think and act.
So whilst most of us haven’t experienced the violent persecution of the first beast, it’s not stretching the truth to say we are experiencing something of the persecution of the second beast. There is tremendous pressure in the modern world to call evil good and good evil. And if Christians refuse to do that, they can sometimes lose their jobs, their income, and their livelihood –in other words, they can’t buy or sell because they don’t have the beast’s mark on their head and hands (v17).
So throughout human history, there are two beasts. In some parts of the world the beast that is most active is the one who rules with the gun and the sword. In other parts — including the part we live in — the beast demands we all conform in the way we think and act. If we refuse, we won’t be shot or killed, as those living under the first beast could be. But we might be marginalised, side-lined and not allowed to play a full role in society.
When we hear of such things happening, we shouldn’t be surprised or alarmed. It’s the second beast doing what God is giving him power to do (v15). This too “calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints”. And we mustn’t forget Job’s words, either — “I know that you can do all things, no plan of yours can be thwarted”. Despite the beasts, God remains in control.