And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. 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. And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear:
If anyone is to be taken captive,
to captivity he goes;
if anyone is to be slain with the sword,
with the sword must he be slain.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 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. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 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. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
Understanding And Applying the Text
This is the part of the book of the Revelation people want to get to. Who or what are these two beasts? What is the mark of the beast?
God foiled the dragon in his attempt to destroy the woman. As we have seen the dragon is Satan. The woman is the early Jerusalem church. Satan could not destroy the church. So the dragon positioned himself on the seashore. Satan recruited the aid of two beasts. To the first beast, he gives all his authority.
This beast arose out of the sea. Today we love the sea. We see it as adventitious. We see it as beautiful. But not so in ancient times. The sea was chaotic. Storms came from the sea. The sea was restless. Sailors died at sea. They feared the sea.
Here is a summary of what we know about the beast.
- The beast comes from the sea.
- He has seven heads, and ten horns, with ten diadems on his horns.
- He has blasphemous names on his heads.
- He has the characteristics of all the beasts seen by Daniel in Daniel 7. It was like a leopard. It had feet like a bear. Its mouth was like a lion’s.
- The dragon gave his power, throne, and authority to the beast.
- One of his heads had a mortal wound. But it healed.
- The whole world followed the beast.
- The beast was worshiped.
- He blasphemes God and warred against the saints.
- God limited the duration of his power to forty-two months. Forty-to months is 3 ½ years.
- His number is ‘the number of a man, 666. Chapter 17 gives more information. It completes the description of the beast. But the added details do not make the beast’s identification any clearer.
- He was, and is not, and shall again come (Revelation 17:8).
- He ascends out of the abyss and goes to destruction (Revelation 17:8).
- He is one of seven kings. But there will be an eighth (Revelation 17:11)
A beast rising out of the sea represents persecuting power. This is the power of a demonized state. The description of the beast is very detailed. So its identification ought to be easy. If it is easy there ought to be unanimity. But not so. While there is general agreement among many it is by no means unanimous.
The first beast is a worldly kingdom and summarizes the beasts in Daniel. This beast combines features from the four beasts in Daniel 7;1-8, 17-27. They represented idolatrous kingdoms. Daniel and his friends suffered persecution. This indicated the type of persecution the seven churches would face from Roman. Remember the John wrote this letter to seven churches in Asia Minor. He did not write it to us. It is for our benefit. But it is not written to us. We must remember that while interpreting the apocalypse.
Most scholars agree this first beast symbolizes Rome’s military power. They also agree the seven heads refer to the seven mountains or seven hills.
A common ancient literary reference to Rome was “The Septa Montium,” or “the seven mountains.” This was because it was set on seven hills.
Emperor worship was no joke. Authorities in Asia Minor killed Christians for their refusal to worship the Emperor. Persecution should not surprise us. Christ calls us to martyrdom. But we know God is in control and that His victory is certain.
The beast makes war against the saint and conquers them. The beast appears to win. It appears he defeats Christ and his church. But despite what appeared to be defeat, the martyrs enjoy the victory with Christ. They enjoy it immediately. (Revelation 6:9) And they enjoy it when God answers their prayers for the defeat of the beast.
So who is this beast? The beast must be someone who the world sees as great. He must be the foremost of his day. He must sit on the highest throne and rule the mightiest empire. His time is set to a fixed number of days. It must be near the end of the Jewish age.
There is only one person who fits this description, Nero. Nero ruled the known world. He was the emperor of Rome. He was a beast. No one disputes the title wild beast belongs to Nero. He was a brutal monster. His cruelty and crimes are infamous. Paul gives a similar description of Nero. “I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. (2 Timothy 4:17) So the first beast is Rome and the second is Nero.
The beast rising out of the sea is a reference to it’s being a foreign power. The seven heads and ten crowned horns are symbols. Horns in the bible represent power. So these horns represent absolute power and domination.
The names of blasphemy on the heads signify the assumption of deity. Rome deified their Emperors. This occurred after the emperor’s death, until Nero. Nero was not about to wait. Nero claimed deity and required worship while he was living.
John’s vision saw the union of Daniel’s four beasts. The beast in John’s vision has dominion over the kingdoms represented in Daniel’s vision.
One of his heads was mortally wounded. This implies a violent end of the individual symbolized by the beast.
There is a correlation between what Paul called “the man of lawlessness” or “man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians 2. There is a relationship be the Antichrist, the man of lawlessness, and the beast.
We know that the early church suffered tremendous persecution. They first suffered under the Jews. Then they suffered under Rome under the authority of Nero. Nero was the first of the emperors to persecute Christians. Under Nero and at his command he had executed both Paul and Peter.
John’s vision stated the period of persecution was forty-two (42) months or 3 and a half years. Nero’s persecution began in November A.D. 64 and ended with his death in June A.D. 68. That is three and a half years.
Now let us look at the second beast. It has the number of a man. So this beast is not an abstraction. It is not a power, nation, or empire. It is a man. The man’s number is 666.
There is an association between the power of an institution and the power of a king or emperor. In this case the Roman government and its emperor.
There is a religious activity surrounding the beast. As a result, many have thought this beast is a religious figure. At the time of the reformation. The most common candidate for the Antichrist or beast was the Pope. The Pope claims to be the vicar of Christ. The Pope claims the ability to forgive sins by distributing mercy from the treasury of merit. But, there are few today who would make such a claim. I am not one of them. While the Pope may not be the Antichrist, he is most certainly an Antichrist. As I pointed out he claims the ability to forgive sin. Only God can forgive sins. (Matthew 9:6, Mark 2:7-10, Luke 5:24.) Even the Pharisees understood this. Even they did not claim to the right which belonged to God alone. So while the Pope may not be the Antichrist he most certainly is an Antichrist.
Because of the great power held by the beast, others have looked to military and political powers. Some candidates have been, Stalin, Hilter, Mussolini. In my college days, there was a fervor searching the beast. At that time I remember reading it was Henry Kissinger. And the person who made such a claim did something to his name to make it come out to be 666.
But time passes and those names have fallen off the list. This is because we have forgotten history. Since we have forgotten history we do not see what God has done. We do not see God having fulfilled His prophecy. This has caused many to question the trustworthiness of God’s word. But God’s word has been fulfilled.
Nero was more like a beast than a man. His life was a life of violence and debauchery. He murdered his brother and mother. He murdered his wife by kicking her to death while she was pregnant. He castrated a young boy and then married him. He burned his own capital and blamed his actions on the Christians. He murdered vast numbers of Christians with unheard-of barbarities.
Suetonius wrote, “Nero devised a game where he would cover himself with animal skins he was let loose from a cage and attacked the genitals of men and women while they were bound to stakes.”
Nero wielded the most power on earth. He used his power to fulfill his most brutal and savage lusts. He gave himself the prerogatives of a god. He claimed and received the worship due to god. His vanity made him greedy of admiration. Apollonius of Tyana wrote the favorite nickname people had for Nero was “the beast”
The comment John makes about the beast’s mortal wound is strange. If it were a mortal wound, the beast would have died. So it could not be a mortal wound if it healed. But John tells us the wound was a mortal wound. A literal fulfillment is contradictory and impossible.
But the historians record a strange fact about the death of Nero. Nero died a violent death from a sword. Many believe it was suicide. But it is possible he died at the hands of an assassin. Either way, the wound was mortal. But there was a general belief at the time that he did not die. People believed he hide somewhere. And he would return to regain his former power.
Tacitus alludes to this (History, chap. 2. 8). And so does Suetonius (Nero, chap. lvii.). This provides an explanation which satisfies many. But, I find it lacking. To me, it remains a mystery.
Let us look at the number of the beast. This has proven to intrigue many. It is the cause of much speculation and silliness. The number is a way to recognize who is this beast. John tells us it is a man. Second, we can recognize this man by his number is 666.
This number was not intended to be the puzzle many have made it.
What is the number of the beast? There is a variant in some very ancient manuscripts which say the number is 616 rather than 666. A textual variant is when a scribe copies a manuscript and introduces an error. They made copies by hand. It was a laborious task. When they made a copy, there was on occasion a letter missing or mistake made. But this one may be of special significance.
In the ancient world, cryptograms were common. Cryptograms were encoded messages using letters as numbers. The three major language groups Hebrew, Latin, and Greek all had systems of using letters for numbers. If you know roman numerals you are familiar with this. I = 1; V=5; X =10; M = 1000; etc. Roman numerals are Latin Letters that have numerical values.
If we look at Nero’s name in Hebrew it transliterates to Neron Kaiser (Nero Caesar). When they translate the name into numbers, it is exactly 666. But in Greek, the transliteration is a little different. The Greek numerical equivalence is 616.
Bruce Metzger the preeminent scholar on textual variants offered his opinion. He believed the variation was not an accident. He believed a scribe made it on purpose. He did so to help Greek-speaking people. That way would understand the number. Otherwise, they would need to understand Hebrew.
Many scholars believe the Antichrist, the man of lawlessness, and the beast are all Nero. Even many who believe the beast is still to come, say he will be like Nero.
By Domitian, Nero had become a traditional antichrist figure. And 666 was already known to be the numerical value associated with the name Nero Caesar. Many have tried to identify a final Antichrist on the basis of the number. But its connections with Nero is well established. Its only significance today is we must always watch for Christ’s return. But we are not to assign dates (Matthew 24:36–51).
Many have also abused the idea of taking the mark of the beast. We must understand it from the context of John’s writing. We have already seen God has put His mark on His people. So if we are to understand the mark of the beast as a literal physical, we need to understand the mark of God the same way. The mark of the beast is not a literal physical mark. It is a spiritual mark. It is the same way God’s mark is spiritual.