The Sign of the Beast (Rev 13:11-18)
The beast and its mark are the focus of horror movies about the coming of the Antichrist and countless books and pamphlets claiming to have found the key to the future. John of Patmos, however, composed Revelation toward the end of the first century C.E. as the key that would unlock the significance of what was happening all around his congregations in Asia Minor in their own time (
Did you know…?
- Plutarch, a close contemporary of John, spoke of Rome as attaching “to herself not only nations and peoples but foreign kingdoms beyond the sea,” creating a “world order of peace” (On the Destiny of Rome 2 [Moralia 317]).
- Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum all contained major temples dedicated to the worship of the emperors and Rome.
- All seven churches addressed by John were established in cities with temples, altars, and cult images dedicated to the Roman emperors.
- Emperor worship was promoted in Asia Minor by its own local, provincial council.
- The letters in the name “Nero Caesar” add up to 666 in Hebrew. In
Rev 13:18, two numbers are given in the early manuscripts: 666 and 616. The number 666 represents Nero Caesar written in full script (found in the Qumran Scrolls); 616 is Nero Caesar according to the normal spelling in Hebrew.
- Numerical puzzles of this kind (called gematria) were fairly common in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, since letters also served as numbers.
- In 113 C.E., Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia, executed accused Christians who refused to offer incense and wine to the image of the emperor Trajan and the other gods.
- Christian prophets in Pergamum and Thyatira were suggesting that Christians could participate outwardly in imperial cult and other forms of idol worship (see
Who are the two “beasts”?
The second beast rises out of the land and represents a more local power in Asia Minor, probably the provincial council responsible for promoting the worship of the emperors throughout the region. It may look innocent enough, but its speech (“like a dragon”) reveals whose agenda this beast is really advancing—it belongs not to some benign deity but to Satan, the archenemy of the monotheistic God (see
What is the "image of the beast" and the "mark of the beast"?
Since the accession of Augustus in 31 B.C.E., people throughout the eastern Mediterranean expressed their loyalty and gratitude toward the emperors in the form of worship. Many people around John’s churches, especially the local elite, thought the language of worship appropriate to the power and dignity of the world ruler enthroned in Rome. Each of the seven cities addressed by John had temples or altars dedicated to the emperors, along with cult statues. His readers would not have to look far for images of the imperial ‘beast.’ John tells an alternative story about how emperor worship came about: it’s part of Satan’s plan to deceive the world (
John uses parody to expose, in his opinion, the “counterfeit” savior (the emperor, often called “savior” and “lord”) and his apostle (the local provincial council). He contrasts a vision of the beast’s idol surrounded by its worshipers, marked on their foreheads or forearms with the “number of the beast,” or 666, with the vision that immediately follows in
Essentially, the mark and the seal are about each person’s master: God or the Roman emperor, who is Satan’s pawn. Worship reveals one’s allegiance, and, in the cosmic war between God and Satan, there is no room for trying to form dual allegiances. There were indeed advantages to participating in emperor worship. It was difficult to get a piece of the Roman pie without doing so (