Yesterday, we began a new series in Revelation, starting with chapter 13. You really need to start there for this week’s material to make sense. Having identified the mark of the beast as emperor worship, we now start at the beginning of the chapter, to see what Revelation has to say about the practice.
The beast from the sea
John introduces us to the beast imagery at the start of chapter 13. And as we work our way through the chapter, you’ll see how he’s using it to critique the Roman Empire and the cult of emperor worship. To present it how God sees it, rather than how Rome and their PR consultants would have you see it.
Revelation 13:1a The dragon stood on the shore of the sea.
This dragon first appears in chapter 12, and we’re told that he represents Satan.
Revelation 13:1b And I saw a beast coming out of the sea.
This is the first clue we get as to John’s view of the emperor. He’s a beast. Not the image you’d choose if you were trying to portray him in a nice way. And he comes out of the sea—which is the direction of Rome if you’re on the island of Patmos; or living in Asia Minor.
Revelation 13:1b It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.
So what is this beast supposed to represent? Later on, in chapter 17, the it turns up again. There, John explains the symbolism of the seven heads:
Revelation 17:9 This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.
Rome was a city famously built on seven hills. Seven literal hills—and also metaphorically on the power and military aggression of the beastly empire and its emperor.
Revelation 13:2b The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.
Rome is not a benign government. The beast’s power is described as coming from the dragon in chapter 12. The emperor’s power and authority to rule comes from Satan himself. He’s not bringing the gracious providence of the gods, like Rome would have you believe. He’s simply part of Satan’s plan to wreak havoc on the world while he still can.
Revelation 13:3 One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast.
When emperor Nero committed suicide in 68AD, many refused to believe he was actually dead. Rumours of his return continued for many decades. After Nero died, Rome and the emperorship fell into turmoil, with a series of internal wars and assassinations. In quick succession we had Emperors Galba, then Otho, then Vitellius (then Rudd, then Gillard, then Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull…) The beast looked like it had a fatal wound. But under Vespasian and then Domitian, peace and stability was restored. People at the time said it was almost like Nero had returned to life!
Revelation 13:4a People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast…
Here, John tells us in the strongest terms that emperor worship is really worship of Satan.
Revelation 13:4b they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”
This sounds like the Psalms. (Ps89: “Who is like the Lord?”) The beast is taking the worship and praise that rightly belong to God alone.
Revelation 13:6 It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven.
The emperor is not divine; he’s not a god. He’s a blasphemer. He insults the name God by claiming the divine titles for himself.
Revelation 13:7 It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation.
The emperor was worshipped primarily as a saviour-figure—he saved the people of the empire from their enemies. He was worshipped because he brought peace to the empire. Peace at the point of a Roman sword—but peace, nonetheless. And he has authority over “every tribe, people, language, and nation.”
That sounds familiar from earlier in Revelation, doesn’t it? It’s a deliberate contrast with the divine peace and salvation Jesus brings to those of “every tribe, people, language, and nation.” Yet Jesus saves his people, Jesus brings peace not through violence, but through weakness, suffering and self-sacrifice.
In fact, throughout this chapter the beast—the emperor—is portrayed as a kind of Bizarro figure. If you’re old enough, you might remember Bizarro (left)—the cartoon villain who was an evil mirror-image of Superman. (If you’re younger, perhaps Bizarro Jerry from Seinfeld. Or evil Cartman from South Park.) Here, the emperor is being described as a Bizarro-Jesus: mirroring yet distorting the rightful rule of Jesus. An evil parody of the real son of God.
In essence, this picture of the emperor is designed to make him look as bad as he really is. Behind all the splendour of his court, he is just a hideous beast. One who does the work of Satan, setting himself up as a god in place of the one true God.
Who is ‘the Beast’ Today?
So if the Roman empire and its emperors were the beast that John was referring to in the first century, who or what would be “beast-like” today?
That is: are there similar people or institutions in our society that may look relatively benign, but are in fact beasts? That set themselves up in the place of God, and in so doing lead people astray? That unwittingly are doing the work of Satan in deceiving the world?
Actually, I think Satan’s learned not to make it too obvious. We don’t get some guy in a toga turning up saying, “hi, I’m a god, you need to worship me.” At least not in the kind of bars I hang out in, anyway. Apart from the likes of Kim Jong Un in North Korea, we don’t have a single, easily-identifiable figure to focus on; not like the [Trump-Nero pic] Roman emperors of first century. I said of the first century [Nero].
But to some extent, all of society has become the beast. We’ve made ourselves into gods. Humanity has become divine in its own eyes, taking the rightful place of God. We worship ourselves; our own achievements; our own greatness. As the slogan for the Olympic movement says: we “celebrate humanity.”
And worse, humanity now sees itself as the solution to its own problems. The beast is no longer a human emperor who is worshipped for bringing peace and prosperity. The beast is humanity itself. We can solve the problems of the world, if we all pull together:
- We can bring peace to the middle east, if we try hard enough.
- We can stop global warming, if we put on enough free concerts and turn all our lights off for an hour at the same time.
- We can feed the world and end poverty, if we wear enough wristbands.
- If we vote to the right, we say: we can have prosperity for all, if we let market forces do their job.
- Or if we vote to the left: we can have equity for all, if we just implement the right social policies.
Now all these things aren’t bad in themselves. It’s just the attitude that lies behind them. An attitude that says: we can save ourselves. We can make a name for ourselves. We don’t need God. It’s the tower of Babel all over again.
Against this, Revelation reminds us that anytime we set up a human being or even humanity itself as our saviour—we’re removing God from his rightful place. We become the beast: proud, arrogant, blasphemous—yet tragically deluded. We need Revelation to remind us—in an age where opposition is far more subtle—we need a reminder that the beast, the empire is still bad. It’s still opposed to God, no matter how it’s dressed up.
As if one beast wasn’t bad enough, tomorrow we meet a second beast…