The dragon, frustrated by his inability to unseat the Son from his throne or destroy the people of God as a whole, turned his attention to warring against the woman’s offspring, that is, the saints scattered across the Roman world. The dragon called up a beast from the chaotic sea to pursue God’s saints. The beast, invested with the dragon’s authority, blasphemed the name and dwelling of God, and the inhabitants of the earth worshipped both the dragon and the beast. The beast was given power to “conquer” or overcome God’s saints, that is, to kill them. God’s saints, consequently, are imprisoned and slain with the sword (Revelation 13:1-10).
To enforce the authority of the beast upon the earth another beast arises from the earth. While the first beast was from the sea, the second originates on land. This distinction probably intimates that while the first beast, from the perspective of Asia Minor, is a power that originates from beyond their shores, the second beast is more local or regional. In other words, the second beast is a power that resides in the economic, social, political and religious culture of Asia Minor. The beast appears like a lamb (“two horns like a lamb”) but it speaks “like a dragon.” It mimics the Lamb of God; it appears as a small, young lamb, but its voice is hostile. The second beast is the first beast’s enforcer.
What does this second beast do (poieo ["it does"] appears eight times in this section).
- The beast “does” [exercises] all the authority of the first beast.
- The beast “does” [makes] the inhabitants of the earth to worship the first beast.
- The beast “does” great signs, including “doing” [making] fire come down from heaven to earth.
- The beast “does” signs in the presence of the beast.
- The beast commands the inhabitants of the earth to “do” [make] an image of the first beast.
- The beast gives breath to the image so that it might speak and “do” [cause] the death of those who refuse to worship the beast.
It seems clear that the second beast has a religious function. The second beast enforced the worship of the first beast, verified its blasphemous claims with “great signs,” and created a living image of the beast to worship. The religious character of the second beast is confirmed by its identification as a “false prophet” elsewhere in the Apocalypse (cf. 19:20). Calling fire down from heaven also recalls the Hebrew prophet Elijah in his contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. The “signs” bespeak the prophetic status of the second beast. It exercises a religious authority.
At the same time we should remember that “religion” and politics were deeply connected in ancient Roman culture. They were integrated rather than compartmentalized. Religion, in large measure, served the state, especially in the imperial cult. Religion was tied to the economic life of the empire. The second beast had economic power. It could boycott those who did not serve the interests of the empire. The second beast fits the religious, political and economic power of the imperial cult in Asia Minor at the time of the Apocalypse. The second beast is the local and regional power of the imperial cult.
The beast, whom the false prophet serves, is identified by the use of gematria (see Richard Oster’s article on this phenomena in relation to Revelation 13:18), that is, a mathematical technique of using the letters of the alphabet to calculate a number. The number of the beast is not a symbolic number but an identifying number. Readers are told to “calculate” (add up as a sum) the number of the beast which is the number of a particular person (man). The term psephizo in Revelation 13:18 does not mean “interpret or figure out” but is a mathematical term which specifics the use of addition or summing up. The number of the beast has a specific meaning, that is, the name of the beast equals the number. Oster and his colleague Allen Black suggest that the use of gematria is equivalent to the modern use of initials or abbreviations. In other words, the meaning of the number was easily recognizable by ancient readers; it has no “hidden” meaning.
The number, however, is uncertain. A reference in Irenaeus (Against Heresies V.30.1-3) as well as the Greek manuscript p115 demonstrate that the number 616 was present in some copies of Revelation in the late second century rather than the traditional number 666. The variant actually helps confirm the meaning of the number itself as a scribe probably changed the number to clarify it for his own context (whether Greek or Latin). Here is what I mean.
- 666 – If one takes the Greek letters for “Caesar Nero” and transliterates them into Hebrew, then the numerical equivalent of the name is 666.
- 616 – If one takes the Latin form, “Ceasar Neron,” and transliterates the letters into Hebrew, then the numerical equivalent of the name is 616.
Whether the original number was 666 or 616, the result is the same. Nero is the name of the beast. This meshes nicely with the myths circulating in the late first century that Nero was still alive, or that he would come back to life, or that he would be reincarnated. As the first imperial persecutor, Nero was a feared name in Christian circles (as well as Roman ones). It is unnecessary to identify the beast with any particular Roman Emperor. Rather, it is identified with the name Nero whose symbolic presence represented the persecuting power of the Roman state. The beast is personified by Nero who killed Christians.
Another alternative, suggested by Shane J. Wood (in Dragons, John, and Every Grain of Sand), is that if one transliterates the Greek term for beast (thareon) into Hebrew, the number is 666, and if one transliterates the Greek term for beast in its genitive form as it appears in Revelation 13:17 (theriou), then the number is 616. This also could explain the diverse MSS tradition. The name of the beast is the number, that is, the number of the beast is its name.
In either event, the number is not symbolic; it is an actual use of gematria. It is not a contrast between 666 (a human number) and 777 (the perfect divine number). Nor is 666 an evil number in contrast with 777. Rather, 666 is the name of the political power that oppresses the saints of God. The beast, whose name calculates to 666 (or 616), opposes the kingdom of God. Nero–the name of the beast–personifies the hostile powers that oppose the kingdom of God.