Text: Rev 13:1-10
OT Text: Daniel 7:1-8
Featured Verse: Rev 13:2 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.
Main Idea: Satan works through totalitarian political powers to deceive the nations and oppress the church.
[This is the second vision of the sequence and introduces the second enemy of the church. Together with the beast that rises from the sea - introduced in the next vision - they form an "unholy trinity" in opposition to the gospel.]
The first beast rises from the sea and has a "throne and great authority" given to it by the dragon. The message is that the dragon uses other agents to accomplish his purposes. The role that this first beast plays is political. In fact, the extent of his power extends to "every tribe and people and language and nation." (13:8) So what is this all about?
The first frame of reference is to compare this to the biblical context. The OT prophet Daniel wrote of world empires that were represented by beastly figures. (Dan 7:1-8) The language that John uses is clearly drawn from Daniel. We also recognize that the beast is a counterfeit messiah. Jesus had warned of "false Christs" (Matt 24:5) and this seems to be just that sort of thing. The beast (like the true Lamb) has the appearance of being slain with a mortal wound (13:3), he is followed and worshipped like the true Christ. He also has a counterfeit world-wide kingdom and claims universal power that only belongs to Jesus. The reign of the beast from the sea is for 42 months - throughout the age of the church.***
The second frame of reference is to compare this to the historical context. While the beast represents the corruption of political power which is found throughout the church age, the actual form of the beast will look different at different times. When we look at this beast through the eyes of the first century churches, the beast looks a lot like the Roman Empire. Only one character fit the bill of someone who had world-wide dominion (13:7-8) - the Emperor of Rome. As the first century was winding down, the practice of worshipping the Roman Emperors as gods began to increase in practice. This would explain the "blasphemous names on the heads." (13:1) In fact, the temptation to demand total allegiance from its citizens motivated the Empire to demand emperor worship from its citizens. This is a demand that faithful Christians could not submit to. Though it could cost them their lives, Christians in these churches in Asia Minor would need to refuse the idolatry of Emperor Worship and the demands of the totalitarian state. Through this vision, John was revealing the true nature of this conflict. When these Christians refused to participate in emperor worship, they were not just resisting the power of an earthly despot. They were participating in a heavenly battle, and refusing to compromise with the beastly agent of the devil. NT scholar Richard Bauckham* wrote, "The images of chapters 12-13 place the coming confrontation between Christians and the power of Rome in the perspective of the cosmic war of evil against God and his faithful people."
Conclusion and Application
Because the reign of the beast is throughout the age of the church, we recognize different forms of the beast in different ages. Though the beast seems to wear the "clothing" of first century Roman Emperor Domitian in this image, Domitian would pass away and other beastly figures would emerge. In general, Christians are called to submit to the political authorities (Rom 13), unless it conflicts with their calling as disciples. Sometimes faithful (non-violent) disobedience is required.** Whenever a totalitarian leader uses political power to demand absolute allegiance he is acting beastly. Whether it was the Third Reich or Communist USSR, or modern powers, the totalitarian state recognizes no limits on its power and makes demands that Christians cannot comply with. Though this power may be used to kill those that refuse, noncompliance in the processes of beastly worship is done in the power of the Holy Spirit. Those believers who refuse to submit, who refuse to "love their lives unto death" will "conquer by the blood of the lamb." (12:11) So it is for our brothers and sisters around the world. While we, in the West, may not face those same consequences right now, the pressure is real for us too. Our seemingly small choices, in the face of what can feel like overwhelming political power, are actually part of a "cosmic war."
*Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation
** You may notice this reference to Wang Yi's new book, Faithful Disobedience. Pastor Wang Yi has been imprisoned in China for refusing to submit to government regulations regarding worship. This is a very applicable connection to vision of the beast from the sea.
*** As we have discussed previously, assuming that "7 years" represents the entirety of redemptive history, then it is divided in half by the cross of Christ into two periods of time called the former days and the last days. In that way of reckoning, 3.5 years, or 42 months or 1,260 days or "time, times and half a time" are all ways of describing the entirety of the church age - that is, the "second half of redemptive history."