Revelation 13—Two Beasts and a Dragon: The Counterfeit Trinity

Lesson 23—Studies in Revelation

by Reta Halteman Finger

Illustration Of A Chimera, Greek Mythical Creature
Illustration Of A Chimera, Greek Mythical Creature

Welcome to the monsters of Revelation 13! It seems appropriate, during this Halloween season, to be writing about red dragons and threatening beasts that combine the features of a leopard, bear, and lion. John, of course, was deadly serious, and no costumed kids were ringing his doorbell for treats! Yet we know the “hallowed eve” we have defanged originated in medieval fears of unseen powers not unlike those John confronted in his day.

The events of Revelation 13:1-18 begin in the transition verse at the close of chapter 12: “Then the dragon took his stand on the sands of the seashore”(12:18). In our last two lessons , we saw that the occurrences in chapter 12 ended with an angry red dragon stomping off to make war on the astral woman’s children—believers in the seven churches of Asia Minor. Since the dragon represents Satan, the root of evil, he works through powerful human agents represented by two beasts. The first beast rises out of the sea (13:1), and the second beast out of the earth (13:11).

Commentaries generally agree on their identity. The sea beast (13:1-8) receives his authority from the dragon (Satan) and is now worshiped as divine. This language of worship and blasphemy clearly points to the deified Roman emperors, beginning with Julius Caesar, who either allowed worship of themselves or actually encouraged it. The beast rising from the earth (verses 11-17) “exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast” (verse 12). This second beast, according to Charles Talbert, “is either the local priests or the provincial council responsible for enforcing emperor worship throughout Asia” (The Apocalypse, p. 55).

The leopard/lion/bear ROARS!

Allusions and symbols abound in John’s picture of evil as it is incarnated in Roman imperial power. The beast’s sea home (13:1) is a place of chaos historically feared by Israelites and resembling the “bottomless pit” of Revelation 11:7 or 9:1-2. (In contrast, see Rev. 21:1, when “the sea shall be no more.”) The beast is a chimera composed of the four beasts of Daniel 7:1-8 which had represented four separate kingdoms. But this monster has merged into one mighty empire. Its horns symbolize power (cf. Deuteronomy 33:17; 1 Kings 22:11; Psalm 89:17), and the ten diadems, or crowns, on the horns indicate ruling authority. Ten is the number of totality, underlining the beast’s claim to complete and total power (Resseguie, The Revelation of John, p. 180).

One of the beast’s heads had been mortally wounded, but the wound had miraculously been healed. In amazement, the “whole earth followed the beast” (verse 3). This apparently refers to legends about the Emperor Nero who, by the end of his disastrous reign, wavered between suicide or flight to the Parthians in the East. Though he did commit suicide, after his death various imposters in turn claimed to be Nero resurrected. John uses this legend to portray Nero as a demonic imitation of “the Lamb standing as though it had been slaughtered” in Revelation 5:6 (Talbert, The Apocalypse, p. 52).

Shades of Nero’s reign arise again in 13:18, where the number of the beast is 666—a cryptogram. Many names and titles have been proposed, but the most likely one is “Kaisar Neron.” In both Hebrew and Greek, the practice of giving each letter of the alphabet a number was called gematria. Nero’s name works in Hebrew, but John does not clarify (cf.  9:11). The number six is a “human number” (13:18, i.e., “the number of a person”) which falls short of the divine perfection of the number seven. Perhaps John uses 666 to apply to any human who takes for him/herself the honor that belongs to God alone.

Yet the beast does have limitations. It “was allowed” to rule and make war only for 42 months (13:5), which equals the three and one-half years or 1260 days used to describe the limits of persecution of the Lamb’s followers (e.g. 11:3; 12:6).

The ”job description” of the second beast

Revelation 13:11-17 explains how the land beast, like a publicity manager, spreads the fame of the first beast and compels worship. It is also a hybrid creature, but its “two horns like a lamb” (verse 11) make it hard for followers to distinguish good from evil. This beast continually deceives either by magical tricks or compelling rhetoric (think political TV commercials) to convince people to worship the first beast (Resseguie, 189).

The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, writes that some ancient cultures deified their rulers as a way to express gratitude for their benefactions. Ovid, another Roman author, suggests offering incense and making vows to the emperor in order to show one’s loyalty. More than anywhere else, the province of Asia Minor embraced this mindset. By the time of John’s seven churches, temples to deified emperors Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius could be found in Smyrna, Pergamum, and several in Ephesus. During Domitian’s time (the probable date of Revelation) two huge building projects in Ephesus were constructed to honor the Flavian emperors—Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian (Talbert, p. 53). Early Christians were surrounded by such idolatrous worship of those who held positions of power.

“The mark of the beast”

Revelation 13:16-17 intrigues readers today, since it sounds like modern technology. No one can buy or sell who is not marked on the right hand or forehead. From a literary perspective, this tattoo parodies the seal on the foreheads of the saints (7:2-3; 9:4). Economically, it is a severe hardship for believers, since “no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark” (13:17). According to Metzger (p. 76), John is probably referring to the coins used for business transactions. Each coin was engraved with the head of an emperor, encircled by his name and titles. (See Matthew 22:15-22 for further confirmation. The coin Jesus requested from the hypocritical Pharisees held the Latin words for “son of a god” surrounding the head of Emperor Tiberius.)

No wonder John was appalled by such blasphemy! We can agree with him in verse 18:  “This calls for wisdom”!

In the meantime, I hope all your Halloween monsters were friendly! Happily, the next lesson will sound more like All Saints Day!

Questions for discussion or reflection

  1. Ted Grimsrud (Triumph of the Lamb, p. 100) notes that, although both Daniel and John refer to political powers as beasts in their own historical contexts, “every succeeding generation of Christian people knows some equivalent of it.” Do you agree? If so, who or what are the beasts in your context? What takes the place of “worship” of political power today?
  1. John takes the extreme position that the Roman Empire in which he lives is satanic because it has overstepped its bounds. But Paul in Romans 13:1-7 and Peter in 1 Peter 2:13-17 are more nuanced. Can these attitudes be reconciled? Which position fits better in your current political context?
  1. What actions can Christians take today to demonstrate primary loyalty to Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb? 

Sources used:

Grimsrud, Ted. The Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987. Pp. 100-104.

Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Abingdon, 1993. Pp. 75-77.

Resseguie, James L.  The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009. Pp. 179-191.

Talbert, Charles H. The Apocalypse. Westminster/JohnKnox, 1984. Pp. 51-56.


Ancient sources:

Ovid, Tristia 2.53-60.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 2.19.

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.