Chapter 20: The Beast and the False Prophet (Revelation 13)

David Chilton

Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion
Topics: , ,


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Chapter Text

Therefore blessed Moses of old time ordained the great feast of the Passover, and our celebration of it, because, namely, Pharaoh was killed, and the people were delivered from bondage. For in those times it was especially, when those who tyrannized over the people had been slain, that temporal feasts and holidays were observed in Judea.

Now, however, that the devil, that tyrant against the whole world, is slain, we do not approach a temporal feast, my beloved, but an eternal and heavenly. Not in shadows do we show it forth, but we come to it in truth. For they being filled with the flesh of a dumb lamb, accomplished the feast, and having anointed their door-posts with the blood, implored aid against the destroyer. But now we, eating of the Word of the Father, and having the lintels of our hearts sealed with the blood of the New Testament, acknowledge the grace given us from the Saviour, Who said, “Behold, I have given unto you to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy” [Luke 10:19]. For no more does death reign; but instead of death henceforth is life, since our Lord said, “I am the life” [John 14:6]; so that everything is filled with joy and gladness; as it is written, “The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice” [Ps. 97:1].
–St. Athanasius, Letters [iv]



The Book of Revelation is a covenant document. It is a prophecy, like the prophecies of the Old Testament. This means that it is not concerned with making “predictions” of astonishing events as such. As prophecy, its focus is redemptive and ethical. Its concern is with the covenant. There is not a chance that the Biblical authors would have thought it important to prophesy about Cobra helicopters (which would be rendered obsolete by “Blue Thunder”), or personal computers, or chewing gum, or space shuttles. Nor would they have been interested in foretelling the future of the United States of America, the Soviet Union, or the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg. The point is not that these things are unimportant (in varying degrees), or that “spiritual” Christians should not be concerned about all areas of life; we should. But the point is that the Bible is God’s revelation about His covenant with His people. It was not written to satisfy our curiosities about the Common Market or the prime rate of interest. It was written to show what God has done to save His people and glorify Himself through them.

Therefore, even when God speaks of the Roman Empire in the Book of Revelation, His purpose is not to tell us exciting bits of news about life at Nero’s court. He speaks of Rome only in relation to the covenant and the history of redemption. The Roman Empire is not seen in terms of itself, but solely in terms of 1) the Land (Israel), and 2) the Church.

The Beast from the Sea

The Roman Empire is symbolized in Revelation as a ravenous, ferocious animal, untamed and under the Curse. John says its appearance was like a leopard, a bear, and a lion (Rev. 13:2) – the very animals used to describe the first three of the four great world empires in Daniel 7:1-6 (Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece; cf. Daniel’s description of the same empires under a different symbol, in Dan. 2:31-45). The fourth empire, Rome, partakes of the evil, beast-like characteristics of the other empires, but it is much worse: “Behold, a fourth Beast, dreadful and terrifying and extremely strong; and it had large iron teeth. It devoured and crushed, and trampled down the remainder with its feet; and it was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns” (Dan. 7:7). The Beast of Revelation is clearly the Roman Empire.

This Beast, however, is not just an institution, but a person; specifically, as we shall see, the Emperor Nero. How could this symbol have referred to both the Empire and the Emperor? Because, in a sense (particularly the way the Bible looks at things), the two could be considered as one. Rome was identified with its leader; the Empire was embodied in Nero. Thus the Bible can shift back and forth between them, or cosider them both together, under the same designation. And both Nero and the Empire were sunk in degrading, degenerate, bestial activities. Nero, who murdered numerous members of his own family (including his pregnant wife, whom he kicked to death); who was a homosexual, the final stage in degeneracy (Rom. 1:24-32); whose favorite aphrodisiac consisted of watching people suffer the most horrifying and disgusting tortures; who dressed up as a wild beast in order to attack and rape male and female prisoners; who used the bodies of Christians burning at the stake as the original “Roman candles” to light up his filthy garden parties; who launched the first imperial persecution of Christians at the instigation of the Jews, in order to destroy the Church; this animalistic pervert was the ruler of the most powerful empire on earth. And he set the tone for his subjects. Rome was the moral sewer of the world.

Let’s consider what the Book of Revelation tells us about Nero/Rome, the Beast. First, John saw him “coming up out of the sea” (Rev. 13:1). In a visual, dramatic sense, of course, the mighty Roman Empire did seem to arise out of the sea, from the Italian peninsula across the ocean. More than this, however, there is the Biblical symbolism of the sea. At the original creation, the earth was a fluid, formless, uninhabitable mass of darkness, which the light of the Spirit “overcame” (Gen. 1:2; John 1:5). Obviously, there was no real conflict between God and His creation; in the beginning, everything was “very good.” The sea is most fundamentally an image of life. But after the Fall, the picture of the raging deep is used and developed in Scripture as a symbol of the world in chaos through the rebellion of men and nations against God: “The wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up refuse and mud” (Isa. 57:20; cf. 17:12). Thus John is told later that “the waters which you saw… are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues” (Rev. 17:15). Out of this chaotic, rebellious mass of humanity emerged Rome, an entire empire founded on the premise of opposition to God.

Second, John saw that the Beast had “ten horns and seven heads” (Rev. 13:1), in the image of the Dragon (12:3), who gives the Beast “his power and his throne and great authority” (13:2). The ten horns (powers) of the Beast are explained in Revelation 17:12 in terms of the governors of the ten imperial provinces, while the seven heads are explained as the line of the Caesars (17:9-11): Nero is one of the “heads” (we will return to this in the following chapter).

Third, “on his heads were blasphemous names” (13:1). As we have already seen, the Caesars were gods. Each emperor was called Augustus or Sebastos, meaning One to be worshiped; they also took on the name divus (god) and even Deus and Theos (God). Many temples were erected to them throughout the Empire, especially, as we have seen, in Asia Minor. The Roman Caesars received honor belonging only to the one true God; Nero commanded absolute obedience, and even had an image of himself built, 120 feet high. For this reason Paul called Caesar “the man of sin”; he was, Paul said, “the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God” (2 Thess. 2:3-4). John emphasizes this aspect of the Beast: “And there was given to him a mouth speaking arrogant words and blasphemies…. And he opened his mouth in blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His Name and His tabernacle, those who tabernacle in heaven” (13:5-6). The Christians were persecuted precisely because they refused to join in this idolatrous Emperor-cult.

Fourth, John saw “one of his heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal wound was healed” (13:3). Some have pointed out that, after Nero was killed, the rumor began to spread that he would rise again and recapture the throne; in some way, they suppose, John must be referring to that myth. This, it seems to me, is a very unsatisfactory method of dealing with Scripture. John mentions the Beast’s “death-wound” three times in this passage (see v. 12, 14); clearly, this is much more than a casual symbol, and we should attempt a Biblical explanation for it.

The Beast, as we saw, resembles the Dragon. The fact that he receives a head wound should make us think of the scene in the Garden of Eden, when God promised that Christ would come and crush the Dragon’s head (Gen. 3:15). Daniel had prophesied that in the days of the Roman rulers, Christ’s Kingdom would crush the Satanic empires and replace them, filling the earth. Accordingly, apostolic testimony proclaimed that Christ’s Kingdom had come, that the devil had been defeated, disarmed, and bound, and that all nations would begin to flow toward the mountain of the Lord’s House. Within the first generation, the gospel spread rapidly around the world, to all the nations; churches sprang up everywhere, and members of Caesar’s own household came into the faith (Phil. 4:22). In fact, Tiberius Caesar even formally requested that the Roman Senate officially acknowledge Christ’s divinity. For a time, therefore, it looked as if a coup were taking place: Christianity was in the ascendant, and soon would gain control. Satan’s head had been crushed, and with it the Roman Empire had been wounded to death with the sword (Rev. 13:14) of the gospel.

But then the tables were reversed. Although the gospel had spread everywhere, so had heresy and apostasy; and under persecution by the Jews and the Roman State, great masses of Christians began falling away. The New Testament gives the definite impression that most of the churches fell apart and abandoned the faith; under Nero’s persecution, the Church seemed to have been stamped out entirely. The Beast had received the head-wound, the wound unto death – yet it still lived. The reality, of course, was that Christ had defeated the Dragon and the Beast; but the implications of His victory still had to be worked out; the saints had yet to overcome, and take possession (Dan. 7:21-22; Rev. 12:11).

Fifth, “the whole Land wondered after the Beast; and they worshiped the Dragon, because he gave his authority to the beast; and they worshiped the Beast, saying, ‘Who is like the Beast, and who is able to make war against him?’ ” (13:3-4). John is not speaking of the world following the beast; the word he uses here should be translated Land, meaning Israel. We know this because the context identifies his worshipers as those who dwell on the Land (Rev. 13:8, 12, 14) – a technical phrase used several times in Revelation to denote apostate Israel. In the Greek Old Testament (the version used by the early Church), it is a common prophetic expression for rebellious, idolatrous Israel about to be destroyed and driven from the Land (Jer. 1:14; 10:18; Ezek. 7:7; 36:17; Hos. 4:1, 3; Joel 1:2, 14; 2:1; Zeph. 1:8), based on its original usage in the historical books of the Bible for rebellious, idolatrous pagans about to be destroyed and driven from the Land (Num. 32:17; 33:52, 55; Josh. 7:9; 9:24; Jud. 1:32; 2 Sam. 5:6; 1 Chron. 11:4; 22:18; Neh. 9:24). Israel had become a nation of pagans, and was about to be destroyed, exiled, and supplanted by a new nation. It is true, of course, that Nero was loved all over the Empire as the benevolent provider of welfare and entertainment. But it is Israel in particular which is condemned for Emperor-worship. Faced with a choice between Christ and Caesar, they had proclaimed: We have no king but Caesar! (John 19:15). Their reaction to Caesar’s apparently victorious war against the Church (Rev. 11:7) was awe and worship. Israel sided with Caesar and the Empire against Christ and the Church. Ultimately, therefore, they were worshiping the Dragon, and for this reason Jesus Himself called their worship assemblies synagogues of Satan (Rev. 2:9; 3:9).

Sixth, the Beast was given “authority to act for forty-two months” (13:5), “to make war with the saints and to overcome them” (13:7). The period of 42 months (three-and-one-half years – a broken seven) is a symbolic figure in prophetic language, signifying a time of sadness, when the enemies of God are in power, or when judgment is being poured out (taken from the period of drought between Elijah’s first appearance and the defeat of Baal on Mount Carmel). Its prophetic usage is not primarily literal, although it is interesting that Nero’s persecution of the Church did in fact last a full 42 months, from the middle of November 64 to the beginning of June 68.

Seventh, John provided his readers with a positive identification of the Beast: “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the Beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is 666” (13:18). There are several significant aspects of this strange number; we will examine only two of them here.

The first point is that the Old Testament has already told us about 666. It is found in the books of the Kings and the Chronicles, surely some of the most neglected books of the Bible. Interestingly, however, John takes many of his symbolic numbers from them (for one example, compare 1 Chron. 24:1-19 with Rev. 4:4). These historical writings tell us that Solomon (a Biblical type of both Christ and the Beast) received 666 talents of gold in one year, at the height of his power and glory (1 Kings 10:14; 2 Chron. 9:13). That number marks both the high point of his reign and the beginning of his downfall; from then on, everything goes downhill into apostasy. One by one, Solomon breaks the three laws of godly kingship recorded in Deuteronomy 17:16-17: against multiplying gold (1 Kings 10:14-25), against multiplying horses (1 Kings 10:26-29), and against multiplying wives (1 Kings 11:1-8). For the Hebrews, 666 was a fearful sign of apostasy, the mark of both a king and a State in the Dragon’s image.

The second point to consider about the number 666 is this. In both Greek and Hebrew, each letter of the alphabet is also a numeral (see the table of numerals at the end of this chapter). Thus, the “number” of anyone’s name could be computed by simply adding up the numerical value of its letters. Clearly, John expected that his contemporary readers were capable of using this method to discover the Beast’s name-thus indicating, again, the contemporary message of Revelation; he did not expect them to figure out the name of some 20th-century official in a foreign government. At the same time, however, he tells them that it will not be as easy as they might think: it will require someone “who has understanding.” For John did not give a number that could be worked out in Greek, which is what a Roman official scanning Revelation for subversive content would expect. The unexpected element in the computation was that it had to be worked out in Hebrew, a language which at least some members of the churches would know. His readers would have guessed by now that he was speaking of Nero, and those who understood Hebrew probably grasped it instantly. The numerical values of the Hebrew letters in Neron Kesar (Nero Caesar) are:

It is significant that all early Christian writers, even those who did not understand Hebrew and were therefore confused by the number 666, connected the Roman Empire, and especially Nero, with the Beast. There should be no reasonable doubt about this. John was writing to first-century Christians, warning them of things that were “shortly” to take place. They were engaged in the most crucial battle of history, against the Dragon and the evil Empire which he possessed. The purpose of the Revelation was to comfort the Church with the assurance that God was in control, so that even the awesome might of the Dragon and the Beast would not stand before the armies of Jesus Christ. The number of Man is six (Gen. 1:27, 31); Christ was wounded in His heel on the sixth day (Friday) – yet that is the day He crushed the Dragon’s head. At his most powerful, John says, Nero is just a six, or a series of sixes; never a seven. His plans of world dominion will never be fulfilled, and the Church will overcome.

The Beast from the Land

Just as the Beast from the sea was in the image of the Dragon, so we see another creature in Revelation 13 who is in the image of the Beast. John saw this one “coming up out of the Land” (13:11), arising from within Israel itself. In Revelation 19:20, we are told the identity of this Land Beast: he is “the False Prophet.” As such, he represents what Jesus had foretold would take place in Israel’s last days: “Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many…. Many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many” (Matt. 24:5, 11). The rise of the false prophets paralleled that of the antichrists; but whereas the antichrists had apostatized into Judaism from within the Church, the false prophets were Jewish religious leaders who sought to seduce Christians from the outside.

It is important to remember that Judaism is not Old Testament religion, but rather a rejection of the Biblical faith altogether in favor of the Pharisaical, Talmudic heresy. Like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unification Church, and other cults, it claims to be based on the Bible; but its actual authority comes from the traditions of men. Jesus was quite clear: Judaism denies Christ because it denies Moses. Orthodox Christianity alone is the true continuation and fulfillment of Old Testament religion (see Matt. 5:17-20; 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13; Luke 16:29-31; John 5:45-47; 8:42-47).

The Jewish false prophets had the appearance of a lamb (Rev. 13:11), as Jesus had warned (Matt. 7:15); but they “spoke as a Dragon” (Rev. 13:11). How does the Dragon speak? He uses deceptive, subtle, seductive speech to draw God’s people away from the faith and into a trap (Gen. 3:1-6, 13; 2 Cor. 11:3; Rev. 12:9); furthermore, he is a liar, a slanderer, and a blasphemer (John 8:44; Rev. 12:10). The Book of Acts records numerous examples of Draconian false witness by the Jews against Christians, a major problem for the early Church (Acts 6:9-15; 13:10; 14:2-5; 17:5-8; 18:6, 12-13; 19:9; 21:27-36; 24:1-9; 25:2-3, 7).

The Jewish leaders, symbolized by this Beast from the Land, joined forces with the Beast of Rome in an attempt to destroy the Church (Acts 4:24-28; 12:1-3; 13:8; 14:5; 17:5-8; 18:12-13; 21:11; 24:1-9; 25:2-3, 9, 24). They led Israel in worship of the Emperor (Rev. 13:12); and, in the service of apostasy, the false prophets even performed miracles (Rev. 13:13-15). Jesus had warned that “false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, the very elect” (Matt. 24:24). Again, Acts records instances of miracle-working Jewish false prophets, including the fact that, as Jesus had foretold (Matt. 7:22-23), some of them even used His name in their incantations (Acts 13:6-11; 19:13-16).

The Jewish leaders enforced submission to the Emperor. Indeed, their charge against Christ Himself was that He was a rival to the all-embracing authority of Caesar (John 19:12-15). Similarly, they organized economic boycotts against those who refused to submit to Caesar as Lord, going so far as to put them to death (Rev. 13:15-17). The Book of Acts is studded with incidents of organized Jewish persecution of the Church (Acts 4:1-3, 15-18; 5:17-18, 27-33, 40; 7:51-60; 9:23, 29; 13:45-50; 14:2-5; 17:5-8, 13; 18:17; 20:3; 22:22-23; 23:12, 20-21; 24:27; 26:21; 28:17-29; cf. 1 Thess. 2:14-16).

The New Testament gives abundant testimony of this fact. The Jewish hierarchy was involved in a massive, organized attempt to destroy the Church by both deceit and persecution. In pursuit of this diabolical goal, they united in a conspiracy with the Roman government against Christianity. Some of them were able to perform miracles in the service of Satan. And this is exactly what is told us of the Beast from the Land. The False Prophet of Revelation was none other than the leadership of apostate Israel, who rejected Christ and worshiped the Beast.

There is an interesting reversal of imagery in the text. The Book of Job has prepared us for John’s prophecy, for it too tells us of a Land Beast (Behemoth, Job 40:15-24) and a Sea Beast (Leviathan, Job 41:1-34). But John’s visions expand on Job’s descriptions of these dinosaurs, and the order of their appearance is reversed. First we see Satan as the Dragon, the true Leviathan (Rev. 12); then comes the Sea Beast, who is in the Dragon’s image (Rev. 13:1); finally, trailing behind and serving them, comes the Land Beast, in the image of the Sea Beast. By thus showing the Beasts appearing in reverse order, John underscores his point: Israel, which was to have been a kingdom of priests to the nations of the world, has surrendered its position of priority to Leviathan. Instead of placing a godly imprint upon every culture and society, Israel has been remade into the image of the pagan, antichristian State. Abraham’s children have become the seed of the Dragon (John 8:37-44).

During three years of ministry in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul continually suffered persecution because of “the plots of the Jews” (Acts 20:19); in describing his conflicts with them, he called them “wild beasts” (1 Cor. 15:32). The Jewish Beast was the early Church’s most deceptive and dangerous enemy, and Paul strenuously warned the Church about these Judaistic seducers:

For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach, for the sake of sordid gain. One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. For this cause reprove them severely that they may be sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed.
–Tit. 1:10-16

Source: J. D. Douglas, ed., New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press; Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1982), pp. 842-43.