THE SEA BEAST
Though the initial persecutor of the church was institutional Judaism, the primary persecutor of the church in the 1st century was the Roman Empire. In the time after A.D. 70, Rome made Christianity an illegal religion, viewing it as an insurrection against Rome. When the Roman emperors deified themselves, and subsequently demanded to be referred to as lord, they emposed the submission of the subjects of the Empire to their lordship. When Christians would not confess Caesar as lord, they were thus considered insurrections to the Empire. During this time, Christians were tortured and killed as insurrections. This government opposition to the church had its beginnings in the insane behavior of Nero who persecuted both Jews and Christians in the early sixties. This persecution, though centered in Rome, eventually set the stage for a government policy of opposition against Christianity in the years of Domitian. This opposition would periodically arise in the behavior of Roman Caesars against Christianity well into the 2nd century. However, the severest time of this persecution occurred during the reign of Domitian (81-96). Only when Constantine became Emperor of Rome did the dark age of State persecution pass. The official lifting of the persecution occurred by the issuing of the Edict of Toleration in 311, and then the Edict of Milan in 313.
Until the relentless persecution ceased, however, the church went through a time of turmoil that has been unparalleled throughout history. Christians have suffered persecution in hostile environments. However, the persecution that was carried out by the Roman State was the persecution of a world empire that was specifically aimed against the church in its infancy. For this reason, God saw it necessary to write this special revelation in order to comfort the church throughout these years of great testing. Regardless of the conflict between good and evil, God wanted the church to know that she would always emerge victorious over any persecution Satan might launch against her. Though the members of the church in the times of persecution may lose their lives, the church itself would continue to exist throughout history until Jesus comes.
Chapter 12 began the second major division of the series of visions to encourage the church. The vision of chapter 12 began with a pictorial account of the birth of Jesus and concluded with the dragon launching persecution against the church. In 12:17 the dragon became enraged with the woman (God’s people who brought forth the Christ). He then launched war against the heritage of the woman. When the vision comes to chapter 13, the two beasts of Roman government and imperial religion now arise out of humanity through the working of Satan to make war against the church.
The first major persecutor of the church in the 1st century was Judaism. Opposition toward the “Man Child” (Jesus), the woman (God’s people of the Old Testament), and the woman’s offspring (God’s people of the New Testament), was carried out through Satan’s apostate Judaism. However, in A.D. 70 this persecuting force was essentially eliminated by the destruction of national Israel by the Roman Empire. After the demise of this persecuting force, however, a second and more terrible persecutor arose. This was the governmental power of the Roman Empire. In chapter 13 of Revelation, the inspired John pictures this persecutor as two beasts that emerge from the populations of humanity. The sea beast is the legislative strength of the Roman Empire that is launched against the church. The land beast is Roman imperial religion that is upheld by the legislative power of the sea beast. Roman religion is forced upon all citizens of the Empire in order to stamp out any opposing insurrections against Rome. The church did not submit to such religious tyranny, and thus, Rome launched persecution against Christians whom she considered to be insurrectionists against the authority of the Roman Empire to impose religion upon its subjects.
It is in the context of Revelation 13 that John pinpoints the persecution of the church by a state government. It is possible that John received this vision during the time Vespasian was Caesar of Rome. Vespasian is the “one who is” of chapter 17:10. Nero (54-68) led a personal vendetta against Christians during his reign in the 60’s. This persecution of Christians was only a prelude to what was to come under the reign of Domitian. When Domitian came to power in 81 A.D., he instituted State persecution of the church by making Christianity an illegal religion. Those who would not give total allegiance to Rome were tried on charges of treason. Submission to Rome meant submission to Caesar as lord. Those who would not confess Caesar as lord, therefore, were considered insurrectionist rebels by the Roman State. The persecution led by Nero was nothing in comparison to that which was unleashed by Domitian to turn the Roman State against Christianity.
The vision of this chapter is given to John in order to prepare the church for the coming decades of persecution. The message of the vision is to assure the church throughout the Roman Empire that the persecution was coming. However, Rome would come to an end. It would end when the instrument used by Satan—ungodly Roman Caesars who use Roman government to satisfy their egos—was taken out of the way. The church, therefore, must be patient and endure, though their faithfulness will mean the death of many Christians (Rv 2:10).
13:1 A beast rising up out of the sea: The sea beast (Rv 15:2; 16:13)—Rome’s legislative power—is here set against the church. Rome originated from the sea which represents the restless and ever changing populations of humanity (See Is 57:20ff; Jr 49:23). World governments arise out of conflict among world population groups. Thus humanity is as a turbulent sea that continually gives birth to different governmental powers throughout the ages (See Rv 16:3; 20:13; 21:1). Seven heads: The sea beast had the seven heads of great control. Rome was seated upon seven hills. John possibly took his imagery from this geographical position of the city in order to convey the meaning that the rulers of Roman government are sick with pompous power. Ten horns: The sea beast has ten horns, or ten kings that exercise complete governmental power throughout its designated territory (See Rv 12:3; 17:3). Ten crowns: It had ten crowns of complete authority that could be possessed by an earthly government. John’s vision refers to the fourth world kingdom of Daniel’s recorded visions of Daniel 2 and 7. Daniel interpreted in Daniel 2 Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of a great image. The vision was of four kingdoms. The fourth was Rome. It was in the days of this kingdom that had feet part of iron and clay, that God set up the kingdom reign of the Son (Dn 2:44). The church to which John was writing, therefore, existed in the days of the Roman kings. Daniel’s personal vision of Daniel 7 was also of the four world kingdoms. Daniel’s vision portrayed the rise of the Roman Empire. In the vision of Daniel 7, Rome was pictured as the beast that was “dreadful and terrible” (Dn 7:7). It was the kingdom that devoured and broke into pieces the other kingdoms. However, the kingdom glory of the previous three kingdoms was exemplified in the totalitarian rule of Rome. Daniel pictured the stirring of the sea (the populations of the world) as the cause that produced the four governmental powers (Dn 7:2). The origin of all government is from the people of the world. God has ordained that government exist to prevent anarchy (Rm 13). However, men devise all types of government. The fourth governmental power of the world of Daniel’s vision unleashed its strength against the people of God. This government had a blasphemous name. It was known to speak great things against those who represent God. This is the same beast of 17:3 that is identified with “names of blasphemy.” The visions of chapters 13 and 17, therefore, have their background in the prophecy of Daniel 7. In view of this, the vision of Revelation 13 refers to the Roman Empire. For this reason, the interpretation of chapters 13 and 17 must be consistent with the fulfillment of Daniel 7 which foretold events that would transpire during the days of the Roman kings. There are at least five historical and interpretive thoughts that one must consider in order to interpret chapters 13 and 17.
A. Rome’s totalitarian influence over the territory it controlled: In 17:9-12 the “heads” and “horns” refer to kings and their reigning control. Rome was seated on seven hills. John may have been referring to this geographical fact in order to symbolize the powerful control that radiated from this seat of the Empire. Rome was the seat from which the “horns” exercised their power. Thus, the symbol of “heads” and “horns” could be understood in this way in Daniel 7, Revelation 13 and 17.
B. God’s viewpoint of Rome’s history: God looks at the beast of the Roman Empire from a “collective time.” His omnipresence in eternity allows Him the privilege of such a perspective of history. In other words, God sees the whole of the time of the kingdom as one point in time. He sees time instantaneously. It would be like God’s knowledge of an entire book while we have to read the book page by page in order to understand the book and come to the final chapter. Through His omniscience, God knows the conclusion and every detail of the book. However, because we are limited to living out time one page at a time, we can read only one page at a time until the entire book is completed at the end of time. The book of Revelation gives us a panoramic view from heaven of the kings of Rome as they lived out history. However, God’s view of Rome’s history is from the perspective of knowing all the book of Roman history from beginning to end. What we see as unfolding in the early years of the Roman Empire, God has already viewed through His foreknowledge of all things. He thus gives us a view of the kings of this kingdom from such a view point. It is important to understand this “view” of the Roman Caesars in order to understand Revelation 17 as it relates to the history of Roman Caesars in chapters 13 and 17.
C. Rise and fall of Roman Caesars: As stated before, the “heads” of Revelation 17 possibly find their symbolism in the seven hills upon which the city of Rome was situated (Rv 17:10). Therefore, the figure is probably a reference to the power that was manifested by the Caesars (kings) from the seat of Roman government. In Daniel’s vision, the eleventh horn (“king”) “will subdue three kings” (Dn 7:24). In the vision of Revelation 17, three of the kings are simply ignored (Rv 17:10,11). They are ignored because they are of no significance to Rome’s history or persecution of the church. What John is doing is using Daniel 7 as the prophetic historical background for counting the kings (Caesars) of Rome. He is ignoring the kings that have no significance in the persecution of the church because they were Caesars that assumed the throne out of selfish ambition and plots of murder. In view of the preceding thoughts, therefore, consider the Caesars of the beast (kingdom) that were “dreadful and terrible” (Dn 7:7) as they relate to the early church. The following are the Caesars of Rome during the time when the church began in the 1st century to the time John recorded the visions of Revelation:
Augustus (27 B.C. – A.D. 14), Tiberius (A.D. 14-37), Caligula (A.D. 37-41), Claudius (A.D. 41-54), Nero (A.D. 54-68), [Galba (A.D. 68), Otho (A.D. 69), Vitellius (A.D. 69)], Vespasian (A.D. 69-79), Titus (A.D. 79-81), Domitian (A.D. 81-96)
These were not all of the Roman Caesars that reigned throughout the history of the Roman Empire. However, these were those Caesars that affected the beginning of the church in the 1st century and the evangelism of the early Christians. When studying the New Testament, it is good to keep in mind those Caesars who were reigning at the time the early Christians were preaching throughout the Roman world. When considering the Caesars that reigned during the time of the beginning of the church, one wonders why Daniel said that Galba, Otho and Vitellius were “subdued,” whereas this statement is not made in reference to the other kings. The reason may lie in the historical fact that these three Caesars never really exercised any power or influence during the two years of civil war when they rose and fell as Caesars. In a space of two years these three became Caesar and were quickly removed. Galba came to power by the sword. However, he enraged all classes of citizens in Rome. After being in power for only six months, the historian Seutonius says that Otho had him murdered by a group of assassins. Otho then siezed power as Caesar. However, Otho came into conflict with Vitellius. After Vitellius defeated Otho in battle, Otho committed suicide. He had ruled only ninety-five days. The soldiers of Vitellius revolted against him as a result of his cruelty. After less than a year in control of Rome, he was murdered by Vespasian’s guard. His body was thrown into the Tiber River. Because these three kings played no significant part in the history of the Empire, they were ignored as “subdued” (or, “uprooted” in some translations). Daniel and John did not consider them as Caesars of Rome.
D. The date of Revelation: If the preceding background history is accepted, then the visions of Revelation would have occurred during the reign of Vespasian (69-79). While John was experiencing the visions—not necessarily the writing of the book—“one [king] is” (17:10). Five previous kings had fallen (17:10). Those who had fallen would be Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Since John ignored the three who were “subdued” (Galba, Otho and Vitellius), the one who is would be Vespasian. Thus, the revelations to John would have occurred during the reign of Vespasian, and probably before A.D. 70. This date of the visions would harmonize with the historical context of the visions. John speaks of the great persecution that was yet to come. “The beast that ascends out of the abyss will make war against them [the saints]” (Rv 11:7). The tense of the verb here is future in reference to the time the saints lived. The saints to whom John wrote were yet to endure a great persecution. The same future tense is again found in Revelation 17:8 in reference to the beast that “will ascend out of the abyss and go to destruction….”
E. The persecutions of Nero and Domitian: It is true that Nero launched a limited persecution against Christians. However, this persecution was not an official legislative edict of the Roman government. In fact, there is no evidence that this persecution spread outside the area of Rome to the rest of the Empire. Imperial Roman persecution against the church would come later. Vespasian and Titus, as far as historical records are concerned, were indifferent to Christianity. However, Domitian unleashed an official Roman policy against Christians. He demanded of all Roman citizens their confession of him as “god.” Those who would not so recognize the “deity of Caesar” were viewed as insubordinate to Roman rule. In the Roman Empire insubordination was equal to insurrection. Thus, capital punishment was handed down to any who would not submit to “Caesar as lord.” Since Christians would not confess “Caesar as lord,” such meant that they would suffer the punishment of the Roman State that was carried out against all insurrectionists. Such meant capital punishment for many Christians during the reign of Domitian.
13:2 Leopard … bear … lion: In Daniel 7, the lion of Daniel’s vision represented the Babylonian kingdom, the bear, the Medo-Persians, and the leopard, the Greeks. Their collective power and glory is now resurrected in the fierceness of the fourth beast, the Roman government. In Daniel’s vision, the “dominion” of the former three kingdoms was terminated (Dn 7:12). However, “their lives were prolonged for a season and a time” (Dn 7:12). In other words, the power that is characteristic of governmental rule was continued in the existence of the fourth beast, the Roman kingdom. However, their “lives” were prolonged only for a short season. The wickedness of the three former kingdoms was added to the wickedness of the fourth (Rome). Their punishment would be fulfilled in the destruction of the fourth. Therefore, when God’s judgment came upon the fourth, it also symbolically fell upon the first three, Babylonia, Medo-Persia and Greece. Satan is thus working behind the scenes to persecute the offspring of the woman (the church) with the totality of Rome’s government. Satan could not directly overthrow the power of God in the heavenly realm (Rv 12:9), therefore, he “resurrected” in an ungodly king his work to lead a pagan government to carry out his mission. Satan is the “god of this age” (2 Co 4:4) and the prince of the world (Jn 12:31). He is the one who has blinded the eyes of the unbelieving in order to destroy the work of God through the church.
13:3 Nero launched the first major persecution of the church in the latter part of his reign (54-68). He was Caesar of Rome when Paul was beheaded around A.D. 67. Mortally wounded: When Nero committed suicide in A.D. 68, his personal vendetta against Christians ceased. Thus the wave of persecution that swept through Rome was wounded. However, the persecution of the church later went from the personal onslaught of one corrupted Caesar to the entire legislative government of Rome through the leadership of Domitian. A statement that was made by the historian Eusebius (260-340) in his Ecclesiastical History (Book 3, Para. 17) is very significant concerning this transition of persecution. Eusebius wrote,
He [Domitian] finally showed himself the successor of Nero’s campaign of hostility to God. He was the second to promote persecution against us, though his father, Vespasian, had planned no evil against us. With this agrees Tertullian, who said, “A long time after, Domitian, a limb of the bloody Nero, makes some like attempts against the Christians ….”
The historical significance of Eusebius’ statement helps us understand how the “deadly wound” of the beast was healed. Though Nero did not launch an official government persecution against Christianity, the severity of his persecution would be resurrected and increased by a later Caesar. Nero’s persecution only gave birth to what would later become an official policy of the Roman Empire. This official policy would be born (“resurrected”) by Domitian who would launch legislative persecution against Christianity which would be considered an illegal religion. Domitian would resurrect the behavior of Nero in his persecution of Christians. Vespasian and Titus would be indifferent to Christianity. Therefore, we go from the personal persecution of Nero to the resurrected persecution of a governmental force that was led by Domitian. All the world was amazed: “All the world” is a limited figure referring to the world of the Roman Empire. The phrase is so interpreted in passages as Luke 2:1 when a decree went out from Augustus that “all the world” of the Roman Empire be registered. This certainly did not include the entire physical world. Only those who were in the jurisdiction of Rome’s control were to register. The same meaning is in the context of Revelation 13. Everyone in the Roman Empire marvelled at the strength and control of Rome in its power over people.
13:4 They worshiped the dragon: The world of unbelievers in the Roman Empire worshiped Satan in their reverence of Rome. When Domitian became Caesar, Roman imperial religion was propagated throughout the Empire through Caesar worship. Domitian claimed to be deity. The test for allegiance to Rome became one’s submission to “Caesar as lord.” Those who would not confess Caesar as lord, were accused of insurrection. Such insurrection carried with it the death penalty, and thus, came the great persecution against Christians who would not confess Caesar as lord. Worship of a man as a god was also given to Herod. The unbelieving world said of Herod, “The voice of a god and not of a man” (At 12:22). Herod was subsequently eaten by worms as a judgment by God. Those on earth who would profess to be gods, will certainly find their destiny in the place where the “worm does not die” (Mk 9:44-48).
13:5,6 Speaking great things and blasphemies: Rome would set her course against the church. Eventually, Caesars would exalt themselves to the status of god. They would be as “a mouth speaking pompous words” against the church (See Dn 7:8,20). Daniel prophesied of Rome, “Then the king will do according to his own will. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god. He will speak blasphemies against the God of gods and will prosper until the wrath has been accomplished. For what has been determined will be done” (Dn 11:36). War forty-two months: The governmental authority that is given to the beast would continue for forty-two months. This was the time when the horn of Rome “was making war against the saints and prevailing against them” (Dn 7:21). Domitian’s arrogance as deity would lead him to “speak pompous words against the Most High” (Dn 7:25). He “will persecute the saints of the Most High, and will intend to change times and law. Then the saints will be given into his hand for a time and times and half a time” (Dn 7:25). The “time, times and half a time” is the same as the forty-two months (11:2). This is a specific time, but limited in duration. Thus, there would be a specific time of persecution, but the persecution would end. Though Rome would “tread the holy city underfoot for forty-two months,” God would not allow the persecution to continue indefinitely. His tabernacle: The tabernacle of God is the church (See 11:1,2). Because the church receives her origin and authority for existence from heaven (Mt 16:18), blasphemous words that are spoken against her are spoken against God (See At 9:4,5).
13:7 Given to him to make war with the saints: The deceived citizens of the Roman Empire (vs 14) are led by the pompous behavior of Domitian to launch full persecution (“war”) against the church. The duration of the persecution is limited (vs 5). Daniel had prophesied, “I was watching, and the same horn was making war against the saints and prevailing against them” (Dn 7:21). John’s vision of chapter 11 revealed, “… the beast that ascends out of the abyss will make war against them, overcome them, and kill them” (11:7). Any who would persecute the church find their origin in the kingdom of darkness. Given: Keep in mind that this authority to make war against the church was “granted to him.” Satan would be the immediate source of such wicked behavior. However, God allows Satan to go about as a roaring lion among the nations in order to devour the world of unbelievers (1 Pt 5:8). Satan is allowed by God to have his way with wicked governments. God is not responsible for the wicked behavior of unbelieving governments whose dignitaries choose wickedness. It is Satan working in the individuals of government. God has ordained that government exist in this world (Rm 13:1-3). However, He allows Satan to have his way with government officials who reject the will of God.
13:8 All who dwell on earth will worship him: All who are under the jurisdiction of the Roman State gave their reverential allegiance to Caesar and the Roman State. Those who believe that reference here is to the entire literal earth, miss the hyperbole of the metaphor. John wants us to understand that in view of the fact that all the citizens of the Roman Empire paid homage to Caesar and Rome, it would be very difficult for believers not to do the same. It would appear that everyone has been deceived by the beast and the false prophet of Roman government and religion. John says that those who have been so deceived are not written in the book of life (20:12). And the end result of those who are not written in the book of life will be eternal destruction (Mt 25:41; 2 Th 1:9; Rv 20:12-14). Herein is the comfort of the saints. The saints are comforted in knowing that God has all things under control, which control extends to those who persecute them. The Lamb slain from the creation of the world: The Lamb (Jesus) was foreordained before creation to be crucified for the sins of man (See Is 53). One can only marvel at the love of Jesus for His creation because of His foreknowledge of the cross even before the incarnation. Those who choose to submit to the Lamb, and thus, be cleansed by the blood of Jesus, are written in the book of life. God foreordained that the “recorded saints” (the church) would be destined to eternal salvation (Ep 1:4-11). The church is predestined to eternal glory. Those who free-morally choose to be a part of the church by obedience to the gospel are destined to heaven (See comments Rm 8:28-30). One is thus destined to heaven when he makes a free-moral choice to become a part of the group that is destined to heaven.
13:9,10 Will go into captivity: John now demands that the readers give special attention to what he is saying (See Rv 2:7,11,17, Mt 11:15). The persecutors would take saints into captivity. However, there is here a turn of events in the spiritual war against the saints. The forty-two months (time, times and half a time) are now pictured to come to a close. The captors themselves will now be led into divine captivity. This is reminiscent of the destiny of the disobedient angels who, because of their rebellion against God, are “reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day” (Jd 6; See 2 Pt 2:4). And so Domitian and his host of persecutors are reserved today in the tormenting captivity of the hadean world in order to be condemned to Gehenna in the last day. They will eventually go away into the punishment and destruction of Gehenna (Mt 25:41; 2 Th 1:9). The patience and the faith of the saints: The second death is reserved for those who would launch carnal persecution against the city of God, the church. When Christians know this, then they will remain patient under persecution (14:12). They can maintain their faith in God who will eventually deliver them (See Hb 6:12). The principle is stated by the Hebrew writer, “But we are not of those who draw back to destruction, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Hb 10:39). John’s statement in verse 10 is reassurance to the persecuted church that she has victory over the Roman State by faith in Jesus (1 Jn 5:4). Christians must therefore remain faithful (2:10). They must remain faithful to their calling in view of the fact that they will receive a reward for their faithfulness to the Lord in times of persecution. They must not give in to the temptations of Satan (See 1 Co 10:13).
[Next lecture: The Land Beast – April 12]