The first half of Revelation 13 showed that Satan is not alone in his dragon-like warfare against Christ’s church. Summoning a beast from the sea, Satan gave him power to rule on the earth. The first beast represents government tyranny working in history against Christ and His church. The second half of the chapter shows that this first beast is also not alone. He is joined by a second beast who rises “out of the earth” (v. 11). If the sea beast represented the tyrannical power of Rome that arrived in Asia out of the sea, the beast from the earth represents local forces that collaborated with Rome. If the sea beast stands for vicious tyranny, the land beast is the propagandist who encourages people to worship him. Revelation 16:13 identifies this second beast as “the false prophet.” Whereas the first beast relied mainly on power, the second beast supports him with lies. The beast from the sea is a secular political power, while the beast from the earth is a religious institution fostering worship of the first beast.
The false prophet is the satanically inspired counterfeit of the two witnesses who bear testimony to Christ in this age (Rev. 11:3-11). The false prophet combats the gospel with subtle philosophies and false religions that promote the cause of the beast and the dragon. The second beast “exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast” (v. 12). John would have known this beast in the form of local provincial elites, in city after city and province after province, who do their best not only to copy the beast at a local level but insist, in order to keep the beast’s favor, that everybody in their domain should worship the beast.
Not only do the two horns form a contrast with the image of the church as two witnesses, but there is a clear parody of Christ: “It had two horns like a lamb” (v. 11). Christ rules for the good of His people, with a spirit of grace. The false prophet comes across in this way, but its actual speech is “like a dragon” (v. 11). Here is the wolf in sheep’s clothing about which Jesus warned us (Matt. 7:15), who teaches the doctrines of the world rather than the truths of God’s Word. This reminds Christians not to be taken in by the outward impression of public figures, but to consider carefully what they say and do in light of the Bible.
John forewarns that false prophets will speak deceptively to lead people into serving the first beast and its tyranny. The second beast also employs sign and wonders in this same cause (vv. 13-14). There are ancient church sources that tell of moving statues, fireball explosions, and pagan magicians who could make idols appear to speak and other such phenomena were effectively used in temples of John’s time. By these means, the second beast again parodies the witnessing church.
Today, instead of cheap magic tricks, the advances of science and the achievements of government are hailed as proof of the false gospel of secular humanism. Technology then, becomes the worker of miraculous sign. Worship the power of the beast, the power of technocratic state organizations, the power of the expert, because technology can work wonders like no one else. Man replaces God and Christ with himself and in doing so succumbs to the full deception of the beast.
The beast from the earth serves the beast from the sea by false teaching and deceptive signs and wonders. Yet it could hardly be said to exercise the beast’s authority if it didn’t also employ deadly compulsion and persecution. This is the third approach by which the second beast advances the worship of the first beast and the dragon. It persuades its followers to “cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain” (v. 15). Furthermore, it causes everyone “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” (vv. 16-17).
The point is not that all Christians are slain under the influence of the second beast, but that worshipers of false religions will often display their zeal with violence against true religion; an example today would be where fanatical Muslims show their zeal for Allah by bombing Christian churches and beheading converts to Christ. Along with deadly force, the beast also enforces false worship by requiring everyone to receive the mark of the beast. John states that all face this requirement: small and great, rich and poor, free and slave (v. 16). No class of person can evade the obligation of displaying allegiance and submission to the state tyranny of the first beast.
Ultimately the mark of the beast involves a choice between the world and Christ. There is an obvious contrast between this mark and the mark that Christ’s people received in chapter 7. There, suffering believers were “sealed … on their foreheads” as servants of God (Rev. 7:3). Having already sought to counterfeit Christ, Satan now parodies God’s sealed church with his own mark-bearing legions.
John concludes this dramatic chapter with the point of his teaching: “This calls for wisdom” (v. 18). Looking back to chapter 12, with the vision of the dragon at war with the church, and then in chapter 13 with the tyrannical beast aided by false and beguiling ideology, we see that Christians need to be very wise. We must be wise in discerning the difference between true and false prophets, by paying careful attention to God’s Word. We must be wise in expecting to pay a price for our faith. All through Revelation, Jesus has promised salvation blessings only to those who persevere in faith and overcome spiritual warfare through their witness to Him.
John has a final form of wisdom in mind in the final verse. This is the wisdom that enables Christians to see the enemy for what he is, so that we will not be beguiled by his deceits or intimidated by his threats. The entire Bible bears testimony to God’s faithfulness in saving His people from spiritual attacks. Our wisdom thus calls us not to shrink back in our witness out of temptation or fear. John makes this point with the most well-known and most widely contested verse in this chapter, verse 18.
The best approach to unpacking the number 666 is to understand the symbolism of six. We have often encountered seven in Revelation as a number of completion and perfection (Rev. 1:11, 12, 20; 3:1). Six falls short of this number and is therefore imperfect, incomplete, and defective. This describes fallen mankind, which is why John says that this is “the number of a man” (v. 18). The dragon and his two beasts set themselves forward as a fake divine trinity. God’s judgment and Christ’s victory will reveal them as a triple fakery and threefold failure.
John says that understanding that we are opposed by a deadly triad of Satan, together with the tyrants and false prophets who serve him, calls for wisdom among Christians. The wisdom is not how to strike back at the beast with his own weapons but how to boldly declare the gospel message of Christ. The wisdom is not how to evade the beast’s tyranny but how to persevere in Christian courage and commitment. Having the beast’s number, knowing his limitations and his certain defeat, we can live without fear of his assault.
Knowing Jesus, calculating the infinite value of His cross, and trusting His perfection in glory and salvation, we are made bold to tell others about Him. John’s intent is that what the angel said of the victorious believers in chapter 12 would be said of us as we triumph in faith: “They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11).
Revelation 13:11-18 Study Questions:
How does the second beast differ from the first one?
Why might John note the detail that this beast has “two horns like those of a lamb” (v. 11)?
In what ways are national and local governments sometimes responsible for perpetuating evil rather than helping to overcome it?
Why does the second beast require everyone to be “marked” (vv. 16-17)?
We can understand the dilemma faced by those Christians back then. We like to think that we would always choose the reality and reject the parody. How are we tempted to compromise our faith in order to make life easier?
What can we do now so that, when we face even more serious situations, we respond well?