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“But they shouted, ‘Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!’ ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ Pilate asked. ‘We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered” (Jn. 19:15).
Few topics in the Bible have generated more intrigue over the last two thousand years than the “beasts” of Revelation 13. More than that, the “mark of the beast” has perhaps been the most enigmatic topic in all of Scripture. In this article, I want to try to make some sense of these difficult issues and provide a foundational way that we can understand them.
Before getting to the beasts and the mark of the beast, let’s dispense with the clearest topic involved: the identity of the “dragon.” In no uncertain terms, the “dragon” is Satan. This is clear from the text itself, and there is virtually no debate among scholars—of any period—about this point. The dragon is Satan.
That was easy! But what about the two “beasts” of Revelation 13? These definitely require a more thorough explanation.
Part 1: The Beast from the Sea
The first beast John saw is said to come from “the sea” (13:1) and is best understood as a worldly empire. The sea was thought to be a place of great evil in Jewish tradition, which stands in contrast to the holy realm of heaven. Biblically, the sea also often represents the world of the Gentiles prior to the coming of Christ, since they were viewed as paganistic and as not participating in the true faith of Yahweh. By extension, this world of the Gentiles came to represent antagonistic socio-political powers.
“The sea” suggests a force whose origin and power are unholy in nature. In general, you might liken this to a totally corrupt political power. This does not suggest that there is not a religious aspect at play. Rather, it means that the only gods it recognizes are false gods.
This had clear meaning in the world that the early church found itself living in. Rome ruled the known world, and emperors even came to view themselves as deities who demanded worship. As time went on, the Roman authorities became very hostile to those who would not accept the emperor as a god or were seen as religious troublemakers. Nero Caesar—Rome’s fifth emperor—played an especially destructive role in the Christian community.
It is said that the beast had “a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority” (13:5). It is this leader that is so often called the “Antichrist.” According to ancient historians, Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire was utterly brutal and lasted forty-two months (Nov 64-Jun 68). Why is that significant? It’s important because Revelation also states that the “mouth” of the beast exercised its power for forty-two months (13:5). Interestingly, this is the length of time earlier prophesied by the prophet Daniel concerning the “fourth beast” and its “little horn.” 
For these reasons, and his connection to the number 666 (discussed later), Nero was almost certainly the man Revelation portrays as the leader who emerges from the sea beast. At the least, he is the one whom John wanted his audience to compare this evil figure to.
Besides persecuting God’s people, the sea beast receives great adoration: “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?” (13:4). All inhabitants of the known world worshipped Rome and its evil rulers, unless they were written in the book of life.
A final—but crucial—aspect of the sea beast is that one of its “heads” acquires a mortal wound which, incredibly, was healed (13:3). There are a few possible explanations for this. I explain these options for those interested in this footnote, but suffice it to say that the Roman Empire (and possibly even Nero himself) can be easily connected to the “fatal wound” of 13:3. This is a quick look at the sea beast and its evil ruler, but both will continue to come up.
Part 2: The Beast from the Earth
The second beast comes from “the earth,” or literally from “the land.” We are immediately tipped off to the fact that this beast wields significant religious power. More specifically, it’s a false system that masquerades as genuine religion: “It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon” (13:11b). Jesus is called the “lamb of God” in Scripture, certainly designating his sacrificial power but also the mild manner in which he came. The “lamb” reference clearly alludes to something that looks virtuous and unassuming but is definitively not.
This beast comes in a “gentler” form than the sea beast but still speaks with the voice of the dragon. This is in direct alignment with the works of Satan, who “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).
The earth beast is also called the “false prophet” (Rev. 20:10). Its sole purpose is to promote the sea beast in its efforts to glorify the dragon. The earth beast directs people to the sea beast, who in turn does the dragon’s bidding. In effect, we have a religious power that is aiding a vast political power.
The two beasts are joining forces to do the dragon’s work.
Quite intentionally, Revelation is suggesting that this trio forms an “unholy Trinity” that seeks to replace the triune God in people’s hearts. For its part, the earth beast performs false miracles in order to deceive the people of the world, and it possesses the power to cause those who refused to worship the image of the first beast to be killed (13:14-15).
This appears to apply most directly to the corrupt Jewish authorities of the day. Not only had many of the Jewish leaders refused to accept the Messiah, they also joined with the Romans in putting him to death and persecuting his followers. This was even true of the high priest (Caiaphas), who stood as the top representative of the Jewish religion. I wonder: does the high priest have a parallel figure today that stands—by his own, self-proclaimed authority—as the figurehead of the church?
In their affirmation that “Caesar is king,” the false religious beast (from the earth) was giving power to the empire beast (from the sea). This would have been rather obvious to those Christians living during the persecution of the first century.
Would such an alliance be obvious to us today?
Part 3: The Mark of the Beast
Within the earth beast’s mission, we see one of the most historically enigmatic prophecies in all of Scripture:
“It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666” (13:16-18).
What could this “mark” be alluding to? In order to fully answer that question, we must look at the Old Testament for a moment. On at least five occasions in the OT, the Jewish people are commanded to place God’s laws on their hands and on their heads. This was the most sacred duty—contained within the Shema—for those who worshipped Yahweh. They were instructed to instill God’s laws in their lives: “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads” (Dt. 6:8).
This was not intended to be taken literally, though many Jewish leaders did so (Mt. 23:5). Instead, this was a symbolic gesture of one’s allegiance to God. Binding the laws to the forehead meant ingraining them into the mind. What about the right hand, though? In Scripture, the right hand symbolizes honor and power. For example, notice that Christ ascended to the “right hand” of God (Mk. 16:9). However, it can also represent the actions we undertake.
When Revelation talks about the “right hand,” it is talking about carrying out the actions of our will: acting upon what is in our hearts and minds.
This reveals the beast’s agenda. In opposition to putting God’s laws in your mind (forehead) and carrying them out in your actions (right hand), the earth beast forces people to put the dragon’s laws in their minds and express them in their actions. Without becoming a part of the beast’s program, you could not fully participate in society. This certainly became true for Christ’s followers, many of whom were essentially exiled from normal life within the empire under penalty of death. The choice was simple: either get with “the program” or pay dearly.
But what about the number 666?
In a general way, 666 designates an ultimate falling short of God’s goodness. Seven is the holy number of perfection throughout the Bible and is used repeatedly. But there is a deeper meaning, here. Many coin inscriptions of the day venerated the emperors, and some containing the name Nero Caesar—the Roman emperor who massively persecuted Christians in the mid-late 60’s—added up to 666 when evaluated in the Hebrew numerical value system. Revelation follows suit with certain Jewish groups that used cryptic number systems (called “gematria”) and words, in order to get a point across to the learned members of the audience without making it obvious to the Roman authorities. As a word example, both Revelation and 1 Peter refer to Rome as “Babylon.”
Moreover, certain manuscripts of the book of Revelation have the number of the beast as 616. But why? If you added up the value of similar inscriptions from the eastern part of the Roman Empire—which varied slightly from the others—you would come up with 616 rather than 666. Whatever the case, this is clear evidence that Revelation’s Antichrist was either supposed to be Nero or was pointing to a figure that would resemble him.
(Now, as I discuss at the end, Nero would have been a typological fulfillment of the Antichrist figure. He likely points forward to another ruler that will arise at the very end times.)
The corrupt Jewish leaders were forcing others to worship the Roman Empire, and the “mark” is the clearest evidence of that. While coming in the form of genuine religion, they were carrying out the plans of Satan. Even Paul was doing this, prior to his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). This is exactly why Revelation tells us that the earth beast “looked like a lamb but spoke like a dragon.”
Part 4: Application for Today
What should we take from all this?
This discussion of the two beasts—and the “mark” imposed by the earth beast—leads to two key takeaways for those of us living today.
This first takeaway is that the mark of the beast is not one single, solitary thing. Let me be clear: I believe that the end time events could well involve a physical token for those who have rejected the truth and have chosen to worship Satan instead of God. We need to be vigilant of such a thing, which may already be in the works.
However, the mark wouldn’t just be a barcode, or just be a microchip, or just be a vaccine, or just be a digital tattoo, or just be any one thing.
Indeed, the mark is much more than one physical display of allegiance; it is an entire system of things. The mark is a lifestyle and a comprehensive mindset. It’s something that designates the total will and desire of those who follow Satan, just as the “seal of God” designates the will and desire of those who follow God (7:3, 9:4).
The mark of the beast is an unholy collection of lies and laws that the deceived “tie to their hands” and “bind to their foreheads.”
This includes both believing (head) and doing (hand) the will of the dragon, in all ways of life. For a few relevant and timely examples, it may include things like promoting abortion, supporting violent riots in the name of “social justice,” accepting deceptions about health and safety, embracing a “new normal” and a “global reset,” idolizing “experts” and agenda-driven leaders, voting for individuals who will implement evil policies into law, buying into the globalist agenda and—lest we forget—labeling all opposing perspectives as “conspiracy theories” that must be censored. I have little doubt that those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah were similarly ridiculed.
Essentially, accepting the mark of the beast means accepting the “Caesar” of the day as your god. This applies to people of all generations.
This leads naturally into the second takeaway. The parallels between the time leading up to the Roman persecution and our present age cannot be missed. Prior to Jesus’ arrival, many from within the Jewish leadership had either abandoned or purposely attempted to suppress the belief that the Messiah would come. This is evident by how many Jewish believers rejected Jesus, especially in the higher ranks.
Before Jesus’ sentencing, the chief priests—the Jewish leaders who should have been pointing others to the long-awaited Messiah—showed exactly where their true allegiances were. They had sold out to the cultural leaders of the day and had lost all sense of spiritual time. Maybe the Messiah will come someday. Even so . . . “We have no king but Caesar.”
Anyone who has been paying attention would know that a similar thing is going on within the church in 2021. The identical thing, really. Many no longer believe the Messiah will come (again): that Jesus will not return. Those who should be pointing to this event are instead placing their trust in man. It’s about whatever the culture says: whatever those in authority tell us to do. Many religious authorities are even suggesting that the church must merge with all religions and the principle powers of this world, in order to “move forward.”
A united world, holding hands in perfect solidarity, is the pipe dream of the future. For many years, this utopian dream was the express property of the secular world. Now, it is quickly becoming the church’s great hope as well. Throw out the primacy of any one religion. Be sure to be “inclusive,” affirming that all lifestyles have equal moral footing. As we are so often told these days, “we’re all in this together!” All we need to do is rely on the “experts” and those in charge. All we need to do is seek a united world—one that does not recognize religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any of the like.
You know, novus ordo seclorum . . .
It is this very motivation—man’s desire to rule itself (just like Satan)—that once gave us the Tower of Babel and a host of horrors throughout the centuries. Globalism is the goal, plain and simple.
We need one government, one currency, one religion emerging from the many, one governing set of rules, one fight against climate change, one uniform response to pandemics, and so forth. As Pope Francis recently put it, these things represent the “new way” or the “new things of the Spirit” that the “God of surprises” has in store for us. This is the way “forward,” we are told.
But I don’t see progress in any of this. I see a rather familiar mantra: “We have no king but Caesar.”
How, then, can we ultimately understand the two beasts and the mark of the beast? I believe we can see human history as a giant building period. The powers of darkness were with Adam and Eve in the Garden and have never left. Satan’s work, while dealt a crushing blow after Jesus’ coming, is intensifying as our age reaches its climax.
In this sense, people have been accepting the mark of the beast for the last two thousand years (and more, really). We must always remember that the words of Scripture were not recorded simply for those living in the last days of earth but were relevant to people of all generations and locations. What happened to the Christians in the first century served as a fulfillment of Revelation 13 but also points forward to what will occur at the very end times. The events of the first century served as a “type” or a precursor to what will occur before Christ’s return.
There will be an empire that joins forces with a false religious power to persecute believers. A wicked ruler in the manner of Nero will appear. People will be forced to receive the comprehensive “mark of the beast,” and those who receive it will be turned over to Satan.
Revelation 13 and the mark of the beast is not solely about the past or the future, but about both.
Of course, it’s also about the present. Today, we all face the choice of worshipping God or worshipping Satan via our commitment to false religion and the evil rulers of our present age.
The question is, can we see where this critical choice intersects with our reality and with our time? Will we be able to see the events leading up to Jesus’ return, OR will we choose to be the modern-day chief priests and point to another lord?
While the fools will follow Caesar, the wise will live by a very different credo.
“We have no King but Jesus.”
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 God’s flooding of the earth and the destruction of humanity (save for Noah’s family) has etched the raging seas as a place of great terror in Judeo-Christian thought. As another example, Psalms 74:14 and Isaiah 27:1 refer to a creature called “leviathan,” which was characterized as a terrible sea creature and an alias of Satan.
 Daniel describes this exact time period, when discussing the “fourth beast” (Rome) in his vision: “He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time” (7:25). Time, times and half a time equates to about 3-1/2 years, or 42 months.
 One explanation is rooted in the belief that Nero himself (or perhaps later, Domitian) would return and assume the role of the Antichrist. Such was his reign of terror that many believed him to be almost indestructible or at least able to conquer his own death. Another, more likely, view is that Nero’s death brought about a terrible wound for the Roman Empire in general. His death introduced a devastating period where the normal government was suspended and the reign of emperors was broken (for a short time). However, the Roman Empire recovered from the “wound” and reassumed its dominance in the world. It is even thought that Christ’s work may have fatally wounded the beast (Rome), though it continued to live afterwards. For more on these views (and others), check out the many commentaries on this page.
 See Revelation 14:8, 16:19, 17:5, 18:2, 10, 21 and 1 Peter 5:13. Since Babylon was the evil OT empire that destroyed the temple and exiled God’s people, they came to stand as a symbol for other wicked empires. In the first century, that meant Rome. It also points forward to the final empire that will persecute God’s people prior to Christ’s return.
 This terminology is used throughout Pope Francis’ new book, Let us Dream. See especially Part Three: A Time to Act. For a look at why this is so deeply problematic, see Taylor Marshall’s video, “One World Religion.”