We receive many questions on our Christian Courier Web Site. From time to time we share some of these with you. Here is a one of significant interest.
Please explain some things mentioned in Revelation 13. What is the “beast” that comes up out of the “sea” (v. 1)? And what is the beast that arises from the “earth” (v. 11)? Also, what is the meaning of not being able to “buy” or “sell” without the “mark” of the beast?
The First Beast
As I observed in my book, Revelation: Christ’s Final Message of Hope (available from our office), the first beast of Revelation 13, arising out of the “sea,” is virtually unanimously believed to be a symbol of pagan Rome’s civil power as manifested in horrible persecutions that were inflicted against the early Christians beginning with Nero Caesar (A.D. 54-68), and continuing until the time of Constantine (A.D. 313), when an “Edict of Toleration” was enacted. Note that this creature from the sea is a pictorial collage of those animals depicted in the prophecy of Daniel 7. The beast is said to have derived his power and authority from “the dragon,” identified in 12:9 as the devil.
The Second Beast
The issue now is: who is symbolized by the second beast that arises out of the “earth”? Roman Catholic scholars contend that the “second beast” is the same power as the first, namely pagan Rome, and that the persecuting imagery of this chapter likewise refers to the civil persecution of the old Roman empire. Thus it is claimed that the events of the ancient Roman empire fulfill John’s prophecies. This theory, conceived by the Catholic clergy and called the “Preterist” view (meaning, that which has gone by), constitutes an attempt to nullify certain prophecies in the book of Revelation that point to the rise of Catholicism and the brutality connected therewith. But this “Second Beast” = “First Beast” theory hardly conforms to the language of the text. John says the second beast (v. 11) is “another” entity. “Same” and “another” are not compatible terms.
Scholars who have not been influenced by Catholicism’s “preterist” concept of Revelation (namely that the second beast is likewise pagan Rome), have vigorously contended that this “second” beast represents a politico-ecclesiastical movement that was a hybrid combination of pagan Rome, and a corrupt Christendom that had evolved in the centuries following the apostolic age. Eventually it was manifest as the “Catholic” system, with its various branches—western (Roman), eastern (Greek Orthodox), and English (Anglican). This movement was one of the most vicious persecuting forces of the ancient world, more specifically in the “Middle Ages,” a period that spanned about a thousand years, beginning with the fall of Rome in A.D. 476.
How, then, does Revelation 13:17 fit into this interpretation? This text, employing powerful symbolism, speaks of the dire hardships that would be imposed by the civil/religious beast upon those who pledged faithfulness to Christ. Those who yielded to the false philosophy of the beast were identified by a figurative mark upon their right hand, or upon their forehead. This “picture” language appears to refer to those who had given mental assent, or the right hand of fellowship, to this evil power, and who thus were enabled to prosper economically. In his classic, four-volume set of commentaries on the book of Revelation, E. B. Elliott noted that Pope Alexander III “passed a law that no man should presume to receive or assist the heretics, no not so much as to exercise commerce with them in selling or buying” (Horae Apocalypticae, London: Seeley, Burnside, Seeley, 1847, III.221; emp. original). Elliott further noted that the execution of this policy “throughout the history of Popedom is notorious.” He argued that the practice was still employed in his day in Ireland.
By way of contrast, those who received not the mark (i.e., did not yield to the doctrinal corruption) were unable to buy or sell, hence suffered persecution, as illustrated by the economic deprivation.
This situation certainly is documented during the “dark ages” (considered by some religionists as the “golden era”). After the fall of pagan Rome, an era developed known in history as the “Dark Ages” (or as indicated above, also the “Middle Ages”). The evolving Roman church became a powerful, negative force in this period. With the rise of the Protestant Reformation, however, Catholicism’s influence was neutered significantly.
I will close with a quote from John T. Hinds in his excellent commentary on the book of Revelation: “...the world’s greatest religious apostasy would not be overlooked in a book [Revelation] foretelling the enemies of the church” (A Commentary on the Book of Revelation, Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1955, xiii). Burton Coffman, who produced fine a set of commentaries covering the entire Bible (40 volumes), once observed that the student who cannot find “Romanism” in the prophecies of the book of Revelation is afflicted with a serious exegetical “astigmatism.”