Reading for Wednesday, Nov 28: Revelation 13
Revelation 13 offers up a vision of two beasts. The first calls to mind the vision of Daniel 7:1-8, where four beasts represent four successive world empires. In John’s vision, this seven headed beast is a composite representative of all the terror Daniel’s beast conjured (the fourth of Daniel’s beasts possessed four heads, thus John’s seven headed creature is seen as a culmination of all imperial opposition to the people of God). The beast symbolized Rome, to be sure, but it also symbolizes more. As Stephen Smalley wisely notes, “The beast is a symbol of the perpetual deification of secular authority.”
This beast makes war against the people of God, and in John’s day one entity looms as the greatest threat in this vein: Rome. One of the heads of the beast has a mortal wound; Nero, upon his ouster, stabbed himself in the throat in AD68. But the myth of Nero Redividus developed — that Nero hadn’t really died at all, that he would return with an army of Parthians to reclaim his throne. By stabbing himself in the neck, Nero — the first emperor to persecute Christians — parodies the Christian belief in the Lamb of God, whose death brings atonement and life eternal. The blasphemous names atop the beast are representative of such arrogance: the emperors of Rome referred to themselves as “Savior” and “Lord” with great frequency.
Most startlingly of all, perhaps, is John’s assertion that the beast (Rome) is a tool of Satan. The dragon gives authority to the beast; in John’s day, the emperor cult was alive and well, as seen in the phrase “Caesar is Lord”. John very clearly links those who participate in the imperial cult as worshipers of Satan. We should be on guard against similar winds of adoration in our culture, aware that we could likewise be seduced by the siren song of the dragon.
A second beast emerges in the next scene, a figure who resembles a lamb but speaks the words of the dragon (v11). This beast parodies the Lamb by marking his followers, “so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of the beast,” (v17). In 7:1-8 (and also in the next chapter, 14:1-5), the Lamb of God marks His followers, sealing them for eternity. Here, the beast marks human society, indicating worshipful loyalty. The economic allusion seem to again point toward Rome; the empire’s seduction is always commercial, at the very least. The scene closes with the cryptic reference to the mark of the beast, 666, which is likely (in my opinion) a reference to Nero and the corruption / oppression for which he stands.