The Beasts of Revelation 13

George Desnoyers


        The last three decades have seen a rapid popularization, especially among members of growing fundamentalist churches, of the theological system for understanding end-time events which is called dispensational premillennialism. Mostly as a result of this phenomenon recent years have witnessed a large increase in speculation concerning the identity of the two beasts of Revelation 13. Considerable speculation has also occurred regarding the number, 666, which Revelation 13:18 tells us belongs to one of the beasts.

        This article will first outline a few basic principles that must be understood prior to one’s acquiring an accurate understanding the Book of Revelation, or even prophecy in general. Then, consistent with those principles, I will explain what it was that the author of Revelation was intending to represent by the imagery of the two beasts, and the number, 666.

A Few Basic Rules of Interpretation

        To accurately interpret the Bible, it is essential that the interpreter understand the writing styles used by its authors as well as the main themes of the writings. The Book of Revelation is universally recognized as apocalyptic writing. This particular class of writing is probably most notable for its rich use of symbolism and its frequent use of dreams and visions. The theme of most apocalyptic literature, and certainly the theme of Revelation, is this: although God’s people are suffering presently, they will win in the end.

        The Book of Revelation is also universally recognized as prophetic. Here are three fundamental rules of interpreting prophecy that must be recognized if one’s interpretation of the book is to be sound.

        First, interpretation of Biblical prophecies must reflect the primary purpose of all Biblical prophets, that of delivering contemporary messages. The prophet’s message always had direct and immediate relevance to the present condition or situation of the prophet’s audience. There are no exceptions to this rule.

        Accordingly, interpretations of Revelation which are basically historicist in nature, i.e. they interpret such things as the seals, trumpets, and bowls only as specific events occurring hundreds or thousands of years after the time the book was written, are fundamentally flawed from the beginning. If such events were truly the sole fulfillments of the corresponding prophecies, John’s own contemporaries could never have understood the prophecies, and the prophecies could not have delivered the message of victory and comfort that John was trying to deliver.

        There are two other serious problems with historicist interpretations of Revelation. One is that they almost universally focus primarily on western Europe and totally exclude the history of more than three-quarters of the world. The other is that there is very little agreement concerning which events in history are represented by various parts of the Book of Revelation. One would think, if the book is predicting the history of the world throughout the millennia, that the specific historical events predicted would be recognizable and that people would agree concerning them. Not only is there little agreement among "historicists" at any one time, but also, over the course of even just a few decades there seems almost never to be a scheme of historicist interpretation that doesn't undergo dramatic changes.

        By emphasizing the contemporary aspect of prophecy, the first rule does not mean that the book contains no predictions of the future. Of course it does. And some of those predictions seem to pertain to what we think of as "final events," those events which will put an end to the world as we know it and bring about a completely new order. What the first rule means is that the main body of the text is not forecasting a series of specific events of history forever unknown to the people of the prophet’s own time. Revelation 1:1 (NIV) says, "The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place." Because there are patterns of truth and events that sometimes recur throughout history, it should not be surprising that some prophecies had multiple fulfillments. But to designate a specific event that occurred several hundreds of years after the prophet’s time as the sole fulfillment of a prophecy is fallacious.

        Historicist interpreters of Revelation sometimes express the idea that, since Revelation speaks about final events, the rest of the book must be addressing, specifically and fairly evenly, all the main events between the time of John and the time of the end. The idea seems to come instinctively to many, but is wrong nevertheless. Biblical prophecies often exhibit the trait of addressing the next great turning point in the life of God’s people, and then placing either another great turning point, or the final events, immediately behind it. That trait of prophecy (sometimes referred to as its "apotelesmatic character," or as "prophetic foreshortening") can be seen in the prophecy of Jesus recorded in Matthew 24. There Jesus is recorded as having placed final events soon after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD.

        The second fundamental rule of interpreting prophecy is to remember that the prophet’s message was easily understood by the prophet’s contemporaries. This doesn’t mean there was never a mysterious element, or that there was never an erroneous interpretation. And it doesn’t mean that time and events would never cast new light on a prophecy. Rather, the rule means that the heart of the prophet’s message, and most of the particulars, were easily understood by the prophet’s original hearers or readers.

        A dissenter might ask, "What about Daniel 12:4-10 which seems to indicate that the prophet’s contemporaries, and even Daniel himself, could not fully understand the future events predicted?" The answer is this. That the future cannot be fully understood is sometimes a part of the prophet’s message. And that part is easily understood. The Books of Revelation and Daniel are very similar. Both are written in apocalyptic style, rich in symbolism. The great theme of both books is deliverance. God’s people may be suffering now, but they shall be delivered. Daniel 12:1-3 makes a reference to that great theme of deliverance. Verses 4-10 simply say that there are some things about the promised deliverance that are not yet being revealed.

        The third rule for the interpretation of prophecy is that we must understand the prophet’s time if we are to understand the prophet’s message. We must be knowledgeable about the conditions under which the people were living, the perceived spiritual condition of the people, and main trends of then-current events. Are you unwilling to learn the historical background of Biblical prophecies? If so, you are most unlikely to understand the prophecies themselves.

        In the remaining section of this article I will not spend a large amount of space on background information. I am sure that most readers have acquired a lot of the background information necessary to understand Revelation 13 from other sources.


Revelation 13 – Identity of the Two Beasts

The First Beast – The Beast from the Sea

        Note that the first beast rises out of the sea. This indicates, and the idea is clearly reinforced by Rev. 17:1,15, that a large empire is being represented. The "ten horns" with "ten crowns" (Rev. 13:1) refers to the first ten emperors, those before Domitian (Augustus, Tiberias, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho [or Otto], Vitellius, Vespasian, and Titus). Note there are only seven heads. This was an important double-meaning clue to John's contemporaries. Rev. 17:9-10 helps to explain its two-fold significance. First, Rome was built on seven hills, and continued to be known as "the city on seven hills" long after it expanded beyond them. Second, John's readers knew that three of the above-mentioned emperors (Galba, Otho, and Vitellius) all ruled in a period of about one year (68-69 AD), and were so ineffectual that they could not be considered heads. They were too different, and much lesser rulers, than the other seven.

        Note the references in Rev. 13:1,5-6 to blasphemy. They refer to emperor-worship, a well-known characteristic of the Roman Empire. The Book of Revelation was almost certainly written during the reign of Domitian. It was a time when emperor-worship reached one of its peaks.

        There are a large number of sound reasons that can be found in the Book of Revelation itself to identify the first beast as the Roman Empire. I won’t list them here. But if you study the portions of Revelation concerning the great whore, and Babylon, you should find lots of evidence for the identification of the first beast as the Roman Empire. Be particularly sure to study the several explicit clues given in Chapter 17. That the first beast of Revelation 13 is the Roman Empire is the position now overwhelmingly taken by serious Bible scholars. There was a time in history when anti-Catholic sentiment led many Protestant and Reform churches to adopt the theory that the first beast represented the papacy. But modern scholarship has soundly refuted that idea.

The Second Beast – The Beast from the Land

        The second beast comes from the land, not the sea. This indicates a narrowing of focus, a telescoping, so-to-speak, on just a portion of what was represented by the first beast. The second beast is not the Roman Empire with all its rulers. The second beast is specifically the Domitian-Nero beast.

        Because of his cruelty Domitian was, even in extra-Biblical literature, referred to as a reincarnation of Nero, or second Nero. Among other cruelties, both of these emperors were well known for their severe persecution of Christians. John was familiar both with the characterization of Domitian as the "second Nero," and also the popular Nero redivivus myth that predicted Nero's return. So he employed the mortal wound that was healed (verse 13:3) as a literary device to make plain to his first century contemporaries just whom he was writing about.

        Note the second beast has only two horns (verse 11), one for Nero and one for his "reincarnation," Domitian. The second beast exercises all the power of the first beast (verse 12). As full-fledged emperors, both Domitian and Nero did that.

        Many commentators see the second beast as representative of the religious system promoted by Rome and refer to the beast as the "false prophet." They usually see verse 13 as referring to the magic that was used by the priests to keep the people faithful to the Roman gods the priests served. However, the words, "he doeth wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven," may be alluding to an important event that occurred during Nero's reign, the great fire.

        Nero's administration began with very lofty goals and great promise. He undertook several social reforms and some large building projects. Perhaps the building projects are the great wonders of verse 13. But things changed. Nero's marriage to Poppaea was followed by huge scandals within the family, some involving murder. Also, there was an unpopular high level of taxation, and Nero's building program became threatened. Then, in 64 AD, a great fire destroyed much of Rome. Nero blamed the Christians, and carried out an intensive campaign of persecution against them. It did appear almost magical the way the burning of Rome occurred exactly when Nero needed it. So useful was the fire to him that he was suspected to have caused it. At least one historian, Tacitus, accused Nero of being responsible for the fire. Whether or not he was, the fire (1) allowed Nero to use his campaign against Christians to divert attention away from the scandals within his family, and (2) allowed Nero to continue his building program and high rate of taxation.

        Rev. 13:15-17 refers to the power of life and death which both Nero and Domitian exercised, and the social and economic ostracism of Christians which occurred under Nero and worsened under Domitian.

        The six hundred three-score and six (666) of verse 18 is a reference to Nero. Many other possibilities have been suggested, but most have been ridiculous and would have been completely nonsensical to John’s original readers. I recently heard a speaker say the 666 was a reference to letters on the Pope's hat. There are several strong arguments for its referring to Nero. One, of course, is that John’s original readers knew about Nero. Another is the fairly clear allusion to the Nero redivivus myth in verse 3, and its apparent linkage with Domitian which presented him as the "reincarnated" Nero. A third important argument is the following. Some of the oldest and best manuscripts of the Book of Revelation have the number not as 666, but as 616. Like all the emperors, Nero had a long string of names and titles, but he was commonly referred to as "Nero." In many places during the first century, Nero's name was spelled the way we spell it today, "N-e-r-o." Numerologists say that spelling accounted for the 616. The other common way of spelling Nero's name, "N-e-r-o-n," added 50 to the 616, and resulted in the 666. (This has been a simplified presentation on this topic. For a more detailed presentation on verse 18, see William Barclay's two-volume commentary, The Revelation of John, revised edition, The Westminster Press, 1976.)

        Interestingly, the 666 refers to both beasts, since Nero is both a part of the Roman Empire (first beast), and also the Domitian-Nero beast (second beast). That is probably why John did not feel it necessary to explicitly say to which of the two beasts the number belonged. There's one thing you can be sure of - John's contemporaries knew very well to whom or what the 666 referred, and it wasn't the Pope, or his hat. The prophets’ messages had direct relevance to the prophets’ own times and were easily understood by the prophets’ contemporaries.

        In conclusion, let me say a little more about that talk I recently heard. The speaker said there are ten clues in Revelation 13 which show that the first beast is the papacy (in truly egocentric fashion he thinks the second beast is the USA). After listing all ten clues, he went on to say, "Only one power fits all ten of these identifying marks - the papacy." I am going to close this article by presenting his list. I’m doing it to encourage readers to see for themselves how a person with an agenda can twist the meaning of Scripture to suit his own purpose. The agenda of this speaker was to attribute to the papacy the change of the day of worship from the sabbath to Sunday, and to make worshipping on Sunday the mark of the beast.

        Not only do the verses cited in the list below fit the Roman Empire far better than they do the papacy, but, to John’s contemporaries, the papacy theory would not have made any sense at all. The papacy was hardly a world power during Domitian’s reign, and did not appear likely to become one. In fact, the papacy did not become a world power until hundreds of years later. Furthermore, the papacy was not persecuting God’s saints during Domitian’s reign, but Domitian was.

        Incidentally, the speaker interpreted the deadly wound of verse 3 as the wound received by the present Pope in an assassination attempt. If that explanation could be offered to the members of John’s original audience, do you think any one of them would buy it?

        Just for information, here are the ten clues (with verse references) which the speaker gave in support of his papacy theory.

  1. Rises up out of the sea (verse 1).
  2. Receives its power, seat, and authority from the dragon (verse 2).
  3. Becomes a worldwide power (verses 3,7).
  4. Is guilty of blasphemy (verses 1,5,6).
  5. Rules for 42 prophetic (sic) months (verse 5).
  6. Receives a deadly wound that heals (verse 3).
  7. Is a religious power that receives worship (verses 4,8).
  8. Persecutes God's saints (verse 7).
  9. Has the mysterious number 666 (verse 18).
  10. Is led by one supreme man (verse 18).