Pliny was the governor of Bithynia from A.D. 111-113 under the Roman emperor Trajan. During his reign as governor, he came into contact with many individuals who professed Jesus Christ as Lord. What then was his response to these believers? He wrote a letter to Trajan saying, “In the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted [in confessing Christ] I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.”
Yet Pliny acknowledged that some did indeed denounce Christ once threatened with punishment and execution. He added in his letter, “Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ—none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do—these I thought should be discharged.”
Therefore, Trajan responded, that he’d done well, adding that he indeed should release individuals who would show they aren’t Christians. He even lays out how Pliny can know they aren’t Christians. Trajan writes, “They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proven guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it—that is, by worshiping our gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.” 1
What’s so helpful about this correspondence between Pliny and Trajan for our purposes this morning is that this letter was written probably about 15-20 years after the book of Revelation was written. And just to get a feel for how close that is in time, just this week we as a country remembered the events of 9/11, which feels so recent to us, I’m sure, and yet happened twelve years ago. Therefore, in a short time period after the believers who first read this book would have set their eyes on the very words we’re going to look at this morning from Revelation 13, they were being forced to pray to false gods and worship them, offer prayers to the image of the Roman emperor, and curse Christ; or they would be executed.
Why is that important to know? It’s important because in Revelation 13 the Lord had given them (and the church in all the times thereafter) insight and instruction concerning what was to come and how believers were to respond. Therefore, this morning, I want us to see the message that the Lord has given to his people in Revelation 13. As much in this book, which is in the literary form known as apocalyptic, this is heavily symbolic and gives us what can be confusing imagery. However, it was written to be understood by and encouraging to the Lord’s people. Therefore, this morning I want to give you two truths and two applications from this text. First,
There are always going to be oppressive states or social structures that Satan uses to oppose God’s people
This, I think is the message of verses 1-10. Now, you’ll remember from chapter 12 that the dragon, Satan, was cast out of heaven down to the earth and sea (12:12), and from there, he began to go after the church. Well, chapter 13 picks up where chapter 12 leaves off, and one of the first things we see about Satan’s attacks against the church is that he uses humans and human institutions as agents to carry out his wrath against the church.
We see the first agent in verse 1, labeled as the first “beast” in the chapter. John writes in verses 1-2, “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.”
Now, it’s that last statement about the dragon giving this beast its power, throne, and authority that shows us that this beast is an agent of Satan. But the question remains: “Who or what is this beast?” Well, I think there are several clues to help us see that this first beast is a symbol for human states (such as Rome in the first century) or social structures that Satan uses throughout this age to oppose God’s people. Let me list some of them.
This same imagery of the leopard, bear, and lion is used in Daniel 7, and there it is used to refer to kings and kingdoms of the earth.
We read in Daniel 7:2-7, ““I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles' wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it. And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns.”
Later, then, in Daniel 7:17, we’re told that these are four kings and kingdoms which will arise. Historically, these kingdoms were viewed as Babylon, the Persians, and Greeks, and the fourth as Rome.
Any first century reader would have looked at Revelation 17:7-9 and thought the beast was Rome.
In Revelation 17:7-9, this beast we just read about in 13:1-2 is referenced again, and there we’re told specifically in verse 9 that “the seven heads are seven mountains.” Now, Rome was known as the city built on seven hills. Therefore, it would have been very hard for any first century reader to have the imagery explained in this way and think anything other than Rome.
Finally, a reference to this beast being given power, a throne, and great authority, fits the idea of kings and kingdoms that oppose the people of God.
For these reasons and perhaps others that we don’t have time to walk through, I think this beast represents kings, or kingdoms, or states, or social structures used by Satan throughout the entire age to oppose the Lord’s people.
I think that’s why he’s described with the symbols that were used in Daniel to symbolize these earlier oppressive kingdoms. It shows that he’s in the same spirit as these kingdoms. And instead of trying to find a number of rulers in the description of ten horns, seven heads, and ten diadems, I think that since these numbers are used elsewhere in the book to show greatness in power, so they are used that way here.
Moreover, this understanding also fits the description of having “blasphemous names on its heads” since we already have one example from Pliny’s letter of Christians being commanded to worship the Roman emperor, and examples like that could be greatly multiplied in history.
However, I don’t think that this beast is used as a symbol merely of the Roman empire in the first few centuries. Rather, I think it symbolizes all oppressive states and social structures used by Satan throughout the age to oppose God’s people. This is what I think verse 3 is hinting at when we read, “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.” That is, such states and kingdoms and individuals will continually fall and be defeated, and it may look like Satan has met his demise.
Yet another will arise and be used of Satan. Think merely of Pharaoh in Egypt in the book of Exodus, for example. He’s used of Satan to oppose God’s people, isn’t he? He even murders the young Hebrew infants. But he’s ultimately killed, crushed as the Lord brings the waters down upon him. Whew, glad we’ll never see that again, right? But we know better don’t we? The emperor, Herod, at the time of Christ’s birth opposed the Lord’s people again, even killing young Hebrew infants in and around Bethlehem. Do you see? The idea is obviously that Satan will continue to use oppressive kingdom after oppressive kingdom. Though one looks to be slaughtered, another will arise.
And people will give themselves to these kingdoms or states, devoting themselves to them (whether explicitly worshiping or worshiping via the dedication of themselves), reasoning that it’s impossible to oppose. That’s what verse 4 is describing, as John writes, “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?’”
But this is reality is most costly for believers. We’re told in verses 5-10 that the beast will utter blasphemous words, reign throughout this age (i.e., for forty-two months), utter blasphemies against God’s people (i.e., those who dwell in heaven, as opposed to “those who dwell on earth,” which is always an indication of unbelievers), will make war on the saints and conquer them, will utilize people, states, and kingdoms from all over the earth (i.e., every people and nation), and will have the allegiance of all who do not belong to Christ (i.e., everyone whose name is not written in the book life, that is, non-believers). And many Christians will suffer and die through Satan’s use of the oppressive state throughout this age. This is why we’re told in verse 10 that we’ll be taken captive and will die by the sword.
Therefore, when believers living in the time of Trajan (who was just one of many Roman emperors who had believers executed for their allegiance to Jesus Christ) suffered and died, they could know that their Lord told them this day would come. And, indeed, our brothers and sisters around the world who are right now being targeted by oppressive states and social structures that are being used for Satan’s evil purposes to attack the church, can look and say, “Our Lord told us this would happen throughout this age.” This is no doubt why Peter found himself able to write, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
But, we might ask, is that it? Does Jesus merely want us to know these things are coming? Is the real reward of this that Christians throughout the ages have been able to look their persecutors in the eye and say, “Jesus told us this would happen?” No, it’s not simply that we’re to know – though that is part of it, and it’s a reminder that our Lord is sovereign. We’re also given an exhortation:
Therefore, we as Christians must faithfully endure
Jesus not only gives knowledge but instruction to his people, telling us at the end of verse 10, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” Jesus tells us to faithfully endure.
So, when Pliny would tell these believers to denounce Christ, and they could live, I have no doubt that they armed themselves with the truth that Jesus had told them this day would come, and he’d told them to endure in faith. We’ve already seen this earlier in the book, haven’t we? In 3:10, Jesus said to the church in Smyrna, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil [no doubt via the state] is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
This our call, to be faithful, even unto death. We’re to be faithful, even when our lives are threatened for our allegiance to Christ. Yes, we’re more than conquerors in this life, as the text we heard earlier in the service from Romans 8 declared. However, right before that declaration that we’re more than conquerors, Paul writes, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom. 8:36).
Throughout this age, our victory and conquering will look like we’re losing. But our faithful endurance will lead to eternal life, and our judge will one day return to vindicate his people and judge his enemies. We may bear the wrath of the beast in this life, but we’ll never know the wrath of the Lamb, but only his blessed forgiveness and life.
Yet there is another agent that Satan will use throughout this age:
There are always going to be voices (inside and outside the church) that make Satan’s lies and schemes sound good and persuasive
In verses 11-18, there is another beast used. We find out about this beast that he looks a little less gruesome than the first beast. He has two horns like a lamb and comes from the earth instead of the sea. This would seem a lot more inviting. The sea is a place of chaos, and the land a place of stability. And two horns like a lamb seem gentle rather than ten horns on a leopard/lion/bear. However, this is the very danger of this beast. After all, he’s still a beast, speaking like a dragon, exercising the authority of the dragon and beast.
I think the idea here is that this beast is a deceiver. Just as the two witnesses symbolize the church going about declaring the truth, so this beast with two horns goes about deceiving. He looks inviting but is just as destructive as the first beast.
As to his identity, when we look in chapter 16, this beast is again referenced, but there he’s called the false prophet. So, in 16:13, for example, we read, “And I saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet . . .” And again in 19:20, we read, “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.”
I think this second beast is a symbol to show that just as there’ll be oppressive states and social structures throughout the age that Satan will use to oppose the people of God, so there’ll also continually be voices that make Satan’s lies and schemes sound good and persuasive.
Note how he works hard to deceive people into following and worshiping the first beast. We read in verses 13-15 that this beast deceived the people into following and worshiping the first beast by deceptive signs and convincing them to worship the image of the beast. And this has happened throughout the ages. Even in the time of Egypt’s reign in the book of Exodus, there were individuals who tried to mimic miracles or who performed signs by the power of Satan to convince people to continue to follow the enemy. I’ve read that also in the time of the Roman empire, cultic priests would do similar things, convincing people to worship the emperors. In fact, Greg Beale notes, “By the end of the first century A.D. all the cities addressed in the Apocalypse’s letters had temples dedicated to the deity of Caesar.” 2
They’re marked on the hand or the forehead to be followers of the beast, according to verse 16. Now, in my upbringing, this caused all kinds of speculation. I lived in constant fear that someone the economic structure was going to move to a situation where you had to have a mark on your hand or forehead to shop at your local grocery store, and then we’d face a real conundrum. The arrival of the Kroger card, I’m sure, put fear into the hearts of many who were raised like me. But that’s not the idea here. This mark, like the mark of the Lamb on the foreheads of believers, isn’t a literal mark. It’s rather simply a way of saying, “Just as those belong to the Lamb, so these belong to the dragon.”
But what about the inability to buy or sell? Well, in the first century, there were repercussions for not being a part of trade guilds that worshiped Rome or false gods. So, if all the construction workers were part of a guild in which to be part you had to offer prayers and incense to the Roman emperor, then Christians would have declined. But you know what would have happened? Christians would have suffered economically because of their refusal to take on the ideology (foreheads) and practices (hands) of the state.
See, there are two ways Satan always attacks throughout the ages. You may have oppressive states, like Rome and others, that rise up and challenge Christians defiantly. This is a challenge to the church. And many have faced persecution and denounced Christ, fearing man rather than God. But there’s another way he’s worked that’s more deceptive. He would have individuals (whether in the church or outside of it) saying, “You know, it’s not such a bad thing to offer prayers and incense to the Roman emperor as an act of worship. After all, how are you going to feed your family if you don’t? C’mon, it’s not a big deal. In fact, unless you get in a bit with the culture, you’ll never really be able to reach the people.” That deceptive voice of the false prophet in our culture is always there as well throughout the ages, and is perhaps a greater threat to the church.
In fact, more dangerous than any state that says abortion is good, or homosexuality is an acceptable practice, or whatever else that is being written into our laws is a voice saying to the church, “If you don’t change and adapt to culture, you won’t survive.” This voice is basically saying, “You might as well go along with allegiance to the state.” And it too is an agent of Satan.
So, what do we then do?
Therefore, we as Christians must be discerning and committed to God’s Word
I think John answers in verse 18, saying, “This calls for wisdom.” Now, yes, the rest of the verse gets confusing as John continues, “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.”
There seem to be two ways to understand this text. Some have suggested that John is referring to an ancient practice called “gematria.” In this practice, you assign numerical values to letters and then total up the value. And many have used many names to try to figure up who this might be referring to. In most cases, it seems the leading guess is that it is Nero, a Roman emperor who would have lived a few decades earlier.
But there’s a lot arguing against this. For one, to get the number 666 using gematria with Nero, you have to first give him the title, “Caesar.” Then, you have to transliterate it from Greek into Hebrew, and then you can get it. In short, people have done so much to try to arrive at certain individuals that you almost feel that you can come up with an argument that anyone bears this number if you’re willing to give them a title, try their name in a different language, etc.
A second argument is that this number is symbolic, and just as 7 is a number of completeness, so 6 is a number shy of completeness. The argument here suggests that even though the dragon, first beast, and second beast set themselves up to be god, they are not complete. Each is incomplete, thus the 666.
Honestly, I don’t know the answer to this question. It could be either option above or another. But it doesn’t change the idea of the text. Satan will use the oppressive state, so we must have faithful endurance in this age. And Satan will use deceptive teachers and false prophets, so (and this is the point I want to make here) we must use discernment and commit ourselves to God’s Word.
When John says, “This calls for wisdom,” perhaps he is referring in part to the words that follow in verse 18. But I also think he’s using this to remind Christ’s people that in an age of deception, we need to be wise. And I know of no other way to train ourselves against deception and toward being discerning than to commit ourselves to God’s Word. We need to read the Word, hear the Word preached and taught, practice obeying the Word, and then keep ourselves committed to that.
People who have ultimately denied the truth of God’s Word, been deceived, and abandoned the faith have rarely if ever been people who committed themselves to reading, hearing, understanding, and obeying God’s Word. Therefore, don’t expect to arm yourself against Satan’s lies and deception if you don’t equip yourself with God’s Word. It is our sword.
2 Greg Beale, Revelation, NIGTC, 710.