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Vs. 1,2. John stood on the sand of the sea and saw a wild beast rise up out of the sea; but though it rose out of the sea its description shows it to be a land beast, and not a sea monster; for it was like a leopard with the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion.
It had seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads names of blasphemy, significant of its evil nature. This description indicates a civil power; and the visions of Daniel have made us familiar with such imagery representing great world powers.
What power is represented by this beast? We are not left in doubt about this. We have in chapter seventeen an inspired explanation of the symbols used in these visions. When God gives us the key to the meaning we need look no farther, nor invent meanings different from those supplied by our divine guide. There it is made very clear that the beast is the Roman empire. The seven heads are said to represent both the seven hills of Rome and the seven emperors that ruled; which seven emperors they were we shall soon discover.
Here in the second verse we are told that the dragon, the red dragon of the last chapter who was the Devil and Satan, gave the beast his power, and his seat, and his authority. The Devil had gone to make war, or to persecute the seed of the woman which keep the commandments of God. Accordingly he does it through this great world power, the empire of Rome. Rome becomes the Devil's agent. History tells us of the persecutions of Rome; how Paul was beheaded, and Peter crucified head downwards; how the Christians were thrown to the lions, exposed to the cold, drowned in rivers, thrown into cauldrons of boiling oil, daubed with pitch and burned for torchlights; how every conceivable torture was inflicted on them; how all the might and power of the Roman empire were exerted to extirpate them, till the church at length conquered its persecutor. The story of Justin Martyr, the story of Polycarp, the story of Origen and a thousand others, the history of the catacombs, and the history of the Roman dungeons will all tell, how the dragon, the Devil, gave his power to the Roman empire to do his persecuting work against God's people.
V. 3. "And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed." This further serves to identify the beast with Rome; and also to locate in time some of these important events.
Chapter seventeen shows us that there were seven kings and that they were successive; for he says, "five are fallen, one is, and one is yet to come." If this is the Caesar dynasty, as it evidently is, then the head, or king, with the deadly wound was clearly Julius Caesar the founder of the empire. And the wound of that head, the killing of Julius Caesar, did not kill the beast at all; the deadly wound was healed. Though Julius Caesar was killed as a protest against autocracy, it did not destroy it in the least; the empire lived on, and Julius was followed by other Caesars more autocratic than he would have dared to be. The deadly wound was healed and the beast lived on to do the Devil's work.
V. 4. And they worshiped both the dragon and the beast, saying, "Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?" How the world worships power and sides with the strong! But were the emperors of Rome really worshiped? Gibbon, the historian of Rome, is authority for that fact. And another historian asserts of Caligula, one of the seven emperors, represented by these seven heads: "he began to regard himself as something more than a mere mortal, and to claim divine honors; and finally he erected a temple to himself and instituted a college of priests to superintend hisown worship." And so John goes on to say, in verses 5, 6, that he spake great blasphemies against God, to blaspheme his name, his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven.
Vs. 7,8. The beast made war with the saints to overcome them, and all shall worship him whose names are not written in the book of life. All the wiles of the Devil and the power of the persecutor will not cause the true Christian to sink into apostasy. He endures to the end. He is faithful unto death. The name that is written in the Lamb's book of life will never be blotted out. See Joh_10:28-29 .
These words were written to those who lived in the midst of some of these persecutions. It would encourage them in facing the struggle to know that God would not suffer them to be overcome. And it is equally as good a lesson today.
"The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose. He'll never, no never, desert to his foes. That soul though all hell should endeavor to shake, He'll never, no never, no never forsake."
V. 10. "He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword." Here is the irony of fate. A man reaps what he sows. God's retributions are sure whether they be swift or slow, and they are generally swift.
Vs. 11-14. John saw another beast coming up out of the earth having two horns like a lamb. He does not look fierce and terrible like the first beast; he is somewhat like a lamb. But he is not as innocent as he looks; his mild look was just the sheep's clothing that covered the wolf; he had only borrowed the livery of heaven to serve the Devil in. He does great wonders and works great miracles, makes fire come down from heaven. Thus he deceives people and leads them to worship the beast whose deadly wound was healed.
This second, lamblike, beast supports and promotes the power of the first beast that had the seven heads and ten "horns. "He spake like a dragon," "he exercised the power of the first beast." He works to continue and exalt that first beast; no doubt by promoting idolatry, king-worship, and blasphemy against the true God.
Who or what is this beast? As the first beast was a civil power, this beast is evidently a religious power. He is lamblike in outward aspect, works miracles, and makes an image to the beast. This suggests religious activities. And so this second beast is rightly recognized as the Pagan religion or pagan priesthood. This Pagan religion supported the imperial power. It helped to hold up the hands of the emperors. It supported the civil authority, and especially lent its aid in the persecution of the Christians, and the Christian church. Thus it served the cause and power of the first beast.
I may mention another view of this lamblike beast that has had considerable prevalence. Many interpreters have made this second, beast to be the Papacy. They would find Popery or Papal Rome in this dragon-beast that wore the appearance of a lamb. Now we have no desire to excuse the Papacy; it has sins enough to answer for, and I am not for whitewashing its record, nor shutting any ones eyes to its dangerous power; yet I think an accurate and careful interpretation will not warrant us in identifying this second beast with the Papacy. It is all a matter of sound interpretation. And just as I repudiate the Premillennial interpretation of these chapters as inaccurate and impossible, so I decline to make this beast signify the Papacy; because it does not fit the case nor the place. These two beasts that persecuted the church were contemporaneous as has been clearly seen; but the persecutions of Pagan Rome and the persecutions of Papal Rome were a thousand years apart.
The beasts in this chapter co-operate. The second beast supports and magnifies the first. But we cannot say that Papal Rome was the upholder and supporter of the old dynasties of Pagan emperors. All history vetoes such a conclusion as that. Papal Rome did become a persecuting power; but not in conjunction with the old Roman empire; but centuries after Pagan Rome was dead. So however much we would like to castigate the Papacy, and however much she deserves it, the principles of sane and sound criticism will not furnish us an opportunity in these chapters of Revelation; for Pagan Rome and Papal Rome were never contemporaneous and co-operative.
But if this lamblike, dragon-speaking beast is not the Papacy, it certainly does fit the case and place of the Pagan religion of old Rome, which supported the imperial power and abetted the persecutions of the early Christian church.
V. 15. Here we are told: "He had power to give life to the image of the beast and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed." The Pagan religion gave animus to the persecution of those who did not worship at the heathen shrines, and was hand in glove with the civil power in persecuting the Christian church.
Vs. 16,17. And he put a mark in the hand or foreheads of men so that no man could buy or sell unless he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. This was to boycott or ostracize the Christians, and deprive them of the common rights of citizens, or the common rights of humanity. The pressure of economic distress was to be laid on them to compel them to conform.
V. 18. "Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man (or a man's number); and his number is six hundred three score and six," This number 666 is called the "number of the beast," and also "the number of a man." It is quite plausible that as the beast is the Roman empire, the man that is thus co-ordinated with the beast is the man who stands at the head of the empire as ruler or emperor. That would be the most likely ground of identification. The emperor stands for the empire and his number is 666.
Now it is a well known fact that both in Greek and Hebrew the letters of the alphabet stand for certain numbers, or have certain numerical values. In Hebrew the first letter, Aleph, is one; the second, Beth, is two; and the tenth is ten. But the eleventh is twenty, the nineteenth is one hundred, and the twentieth is two hundred, etc. See "A Grammar of the Hebrew Language" by William Henry Green, page 3.
Thus a man's name in Hebrew would result in a certain number by adding together the values of the letters composing the name. Now it is very significant that if we take the name of Nero in Hebrew, in the form in which it is often found in Hebrew writings, Neron Caesar, and add the value of the letters we get 666.
This is as reasonable proof as we could expect that the beast that came up out of the sea was the Roman empire; and that the reigning monarch was Nero; and that Nero was the emperor when this book was written. This is one of the great land-marks of the book, furnished by the book itself to tell us when the book was written; and what is far more important, to tell us what the book was written about. If we give any heed at all to the reading of this section, chapters 12-19, we will see that it pertains to the times of the Roman empire, and not to some future period that has not yet dawned. This does not make it any less valuable to us; rather more so; for we have the light of God's past rule and providence to guide us where we need guidance, to warn us where we need warning, and to encourage us when we need encouragement.
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the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29