The Sign of the Beast (Rev 13:11-18) by David A. deSilva

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 (Rev 1:4, Rev 1:11), not in some distant future. And these readers would not have had difficulty discerning what John’s beasts represented.

Who are the two “beasts”?

Rev 13:11-18 presents one scene in a larger drama. The first verses already presume familiarity with three images: the first beast, a dragon, and a lamb. John introduced the first beast in Rev 13:1-10 as an unholy hybrid of the four beasts of Daniel 7:1-8. Each of these represented one of the empires that had dominated Judea (Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Syria); John’s new beast depicted the Roman Empire, combining in itself all the power, lands, wealth, and evils of its predecessors and celebrated in its time as a world empire. The beast’s heads were its “kings” (Rev 17:9-11)—the line of emperors beginning with Augustus. Emperor Nero’s suicide ushered in a year of civil war that threatened to bring the whole system crashing down, but this “mortal wound” was healed when Vespasian arose victorious out of those struggles and established a new dynasty, giving hope for long-term stability to those who depended on Rome’s hegemony.

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 Rev 12:1-13:4).

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 (Rev 12:1-13:4), leading people to steal the worship due the one Creator God and give it to a human being (symbolized in an idol). It’s something foisted upon the world through chicanery and coercion (Rev 13:13-15), not because the emperors truly deserve such worship.

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 Rev 14:1-5—of the Lamb (the victorious Christ) surrounded by those who have God’s seal upon their foreheads and who worship around God’s throne.

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 (Rev 13:16-17). It would have been much safer for Christians to go with the flow. Worship—loyalty to the Roman state or to the kingdom of God—was indeed a life-or-death issue, but John’s vision tries to show just how much more was at stake for those who failed to keep God’s commandments, the first of which deals with whom to worship, and the second of which deals with not worshiping any images (Rev 13:15; Rev 14:6-7, Rev 9-11). According to Revelation, worship demonstrates that God wants more for the people of the world than is possible under human empires.

David A. deSilva, "Sign of the Beast (Rev 13:11-18)", n.p. [cited 12 Dec 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/sign-of-the-beast

Contributors

David A. deSilva

David A. deSilva
Professor, Ashland Theological Seminary

David A. deSilva is Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 20 books on Second Temple Judaism and early Christian literature, including Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). 

Roman emperor worship was a prominent part of civic life in the Roman empire, but in Revelation 13:11-18 John casts it as worship stolen away from the one God, marking participants as Satan’s vassals.

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 Rev 2:12-29).

A term from late Antiquity, it refers to the western-most part of Asia, bordered by the Black, the Mediterranean, and Agean Seas, in what is now modern-day Turkey.

The otherwise unattested author of the book of Revelation. Historically, he was identified with John the Apostle, but modern scholars believe he was a different person, perhaps a Christian banished to Patmos.

Rev 1:4

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Rev 1:11

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A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

The southern kingdom of Judah.

Of or related to a religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

The territories ruled by ancient Rome, from roughly 27 B.C.E. to 476 C.E., encompassing terrorities in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Rev 13:11-18

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Rev 13:1-10

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Rev 17:9-11

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Rev 12:1-13:4

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A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

Rev 12:1-13:4

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Rev 13:13-15

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Rev 14:1-5

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Rev 13:16-17

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Rev 13:15

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Rev 14:6-7

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Rev 9-11

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Title designating an emperor of the Roman Empire.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A form of religion, most notable in ancient Rome, where emperors were worshipped as literal gods or demi-gods.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

Roman emperor reigning from 54 to 68 C.E. and known for his ineptitude for governance, his brutality, and possible mental illness.

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

Rev 13:18

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Rev 2:12-29

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