Revelation 13:11-17 and the Earth Beast

(11)  Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon.

                   Another beast is seen in the vision; this one comes from the earth. The word “earth” is ge in the Greek, and it is the word for soil. It could refer to a country, region, land, or the whole earth; the context serves as the interpreter for the word. As we have seen elsewhere in the book, ge sometimes refers to the land of Israel; but we have also seen it in reference to all the world; so again, context is everything. In this verse, commentators are very divided as to the identity of this earth beast. Some assert that it is the identity of the false prophets of Israel; while others view it to be the supporters of emperor worship. Since ge can be translated as either the land (like Israel) or as the world, we are left (as always) to consider the details of the context to determine the identity of this earth beast.

                   On the surface, it looks like this beast, coming from the earth, is in contrast to the first beast that came from the sea; which would be a point toward this beast being from Judah. However, we quickly find that the earth beast “exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence” (13:12). That doesn’t sound like Judah. We also hear that this beast commands the making of an image of the sea beast; and puts to death those who do not worship the image of the beast. It even causes all to be marked with the number of the beast, and all who refuse the mark would be persecuted. Again, none of this sounds like the land of Judah. The details certainly point to the Roman religion which drove support for the emperor. But if that’s the case, why did it not come from the sea like the first beast? Why come from an opposing origin (earth)? The answer to this question is in the identity of the earth beast; it is called the “false prophet” (16:13; 19:20; 20:10). Being a false prophet, its origin is earthly, not heavenly; and human, not divine. The figure of the beast coming from the earth is not meant to show it in opposition to the sea beast, as the details make it clear that the earth beast is the biggest supporter of the sea beast. Its earthy figure is illustrative of its falsehood; because it is not from heaven.

Some have hurt their interpretation of the book by demanding that ge should always be translated “land” and must always be interpreted as the “land of Israel.” That is not proper exegesis; for the word ge has a wide range of definitions and uses. The idea that gentiles are always the “sea” and Israel is always the “earth” does not always work in every context. Take for example, Daniel 7:17, where the four gentile beasts (Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome) are all said to “arise out of the earth.” Therefore, consistency belongs to the context, not to a word.

“It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon.” Most commentators use this verse to speak of the beast’s “wolf in sheep’s clothing” attribute. But John didn’t describe the beast with the appearance of a lamb; only that it had two horns “like a lamb.” This beast was not concerned with concealing itself, for it spoke like a dragon. This isn’t your average false brother entering the assembly with a pleasant voice drawing people away; this is a very noticeable voice like a dragon. He does not need to conceal himself, he encourages a dark world to sin, to engage in the worship of men, and to hurt those who refuse to be idolatrous. What should be helpful to the Christians in this imagery of the beast speaking like a dragon while only having two stubs for horns, is that his bark is worse than his bite. Do not fear what he can do, he is only from the earth; but faithfully serve the Lord of Heaven and you will be victorious.

(12)  It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed.

The two beasts exercise the same authority, as they are the Roman Empire’s political heads and religious leaders, and the two complement each other. This verse reminds us of how emperor worship was raised to such an extent that temples and idols and altars were being set up all over the world; it was because the “mortal wound was healed” (see also 13:3-4 and 13:14). The operation to go from the republic to a dictatorship, which began with Julius, was slain along with its leader. The revival of this exploit in Julius’ successor brought new life to the Roman territories and an end of terrible wars from without and within. The world marveled, and a cry to worship the emperor, which first began with Julius Caesar, was restored under the reign of Augustus, and continued for many more emperors to come.

(13)  It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, (14)  and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived.

                   This is the key to the identity of the earth beast. We do not hear the name “false prophet” given to the earth beast until later (16:13), but these verses establish the beast’s identity as a deceiver of the world; these verses form the conclusion that John gives later, that this is the false prophet. Here it is said that it performs great signs, and deceives the world into making idols to worship the beast.

“Making fire come down from heaven.” This is the example we are given for the “great signs” which the earth beast performs. We are not to walk away from this concluding that the Roman deceivers actually made fire come down from heaven. This is not literally true, any more than the true prophets performing great signs in Jerusalem in the very last days before its fall (11:5-6). The great signs performed by the two witnesses in chapter eleven were not literal, they served to identify the two witnesses (who were the Law and the Prophets) as being from God and having the power of God. Similarly, the great signs mentioned in this verse is not to be understood literally in this signified (1:1) book; but it serves to identify the beast as a false deceiver.

(15)  And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain.

                   It was not very challenging for the earth beast to breathe life into the image of the beast for the beast was alive. Unlike idolatry which existed before that time, emperor worshippers could bow before the many shrines throughout the empire to a demigod who was alive, walking and talking on the earth. The old worshippers of Baal relied on blind faith in their religion, but emperor worship had something living and tangible relating to the idolatrous statues, busts, and altars.

                   “Might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain.” This verse brings up the topic of persecution again, as we saw in 13:7-8 (see the comments there). The idea that they were “slain” could not be literal but is symbolic of persecution. That’s not to say that many were not killed, for that is reported by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius. The Romans had a hand in the execution of the Christ, and the book of Acts demonstrates that the Romans continued their role in harming the church (with the insistence of the Jewish authorities). The epistles of the New Testament also make references to this point. Nero is certainly in the spotlight when it comes to persecution. Other than a reference to Titus (see 17:14), Nero is the only prominent persecutor of the church in the generation of saints which the book of Revelation was written to. There would be more persecution to come in the second century, but Revelation is concerned with the “things that must soon take place.” The scope of Revelation is limited to the next couple of years (about 68-70 A.D.) only. But the application of the book reaches every true Christian under every circumstance of fighting against Satan. Consider also the appendix on Domitian, if you’re wondering why I don’t talk about him as a persecutor.

                   Suetonius’ account is much smaller than Tacitus’ report (see 13:7-8), but provides significant collaboration that the persecution of Christians by the head of Rome most certainly happened.

“During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down…. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Nero, Chapter 16).

This persecution was not limited to city of Rome (as late-daters of Revelation love to say). Peter said that it was worldwide: “the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” (1 Peter 5:9). And Jesus provides testimony that the persecution had hit Asia, even referencing the death of one of the members at Pergamum (2:13).

(16)  Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead,

                   Some commentators believe that this mark is either a tattoo or a stamp that was literally worn by the idolatrous people. The text does not give us liberty to suppose that this is a literal mark; to be consistent, this must be a symbolic figure. And in the scope of the book, it could be readily recognized as symbolism; for in the earlier pages, much time was spent dealing with the mark of the faithful (chapter seven). So, now we see the mark of the wicked. It is further confirmed that we are to understand this mark of the beast in direct contrast to the mark of God when, in the next thought, John sees “the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (14:1). The chapter divisions get in the way of the point. Everyone is marked! Everyone is either identified with the Lamb, or with the beast; as Jesus had said, “whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30).

The “name of the beast or the number of its name” (13:17) is said to be on the right hand (emblematic of strength) or on the forehead (emblematic of prominence). Whatever the case, it is evident that these people put all their stock into the beast (as 13:4 also admitted). They identified not with Christ, but with the emperor for their salvation. Such identification could be readily seen; there is no need to make the mark into a literal tattoo; the people of the city would know who the Christians were.

(17)  so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.

                   Just like the symbolism of verse fifteen, that “those who would not worship the image of the beast” would be “slain,” here we see more symbols of persecution with “no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark.” None of this is literal, these are all pictures of suffering and persecution. Not that these things couldn’t literally happen too, but the figure is of general persecution.

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