We considered last time the account of the first beast who rose from the sea to do Satan’s bidding in the world. This first beast will be referred to as simply “the beast” later in Revelation but the second beast, of whom we are now to read, will be referred to on three separate occasions as “the false prophet” (Rev. 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). What we have, in other words, is a false trinity: Satan, the beast, and the false prophet.
- Again there is a parody or mimicking of Christ. This second beast is likened to a lamb with horns as was Christ himself in 5:6. His description also fits the Lord’s warning against false prophets in Matt. 7:15: “they come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” His two horns, rather than the first beast’s ten horns seem to indicate his subordinate position to the first beast. Again, as so often in Revelation, it seems best to me to take this beast or false prophet as a power at work in the world throughout its history but a power that will ultimately be embodied in a particular figure at the end of the age, a figure who will sum up all the false prophets who have gone before. In the same way as there have been many antichrists throughout history, so there shall be one ultimate Antichrist at the end of history. So with false prophets and the False Prophet.
- The Greek verb “to do” or “to make” (ποιέω) occurs nine times in vv. 12-16 – translated in various ways into English – emphasizing the relentless activity of this beast or false prophet. Whatever else you say about the Devil and his henchmen, they are hard working! His chief object is to draw men’s loyalty to the beast and the dragon. The original readers of John’s Revelation would no doubt have thought of the imperial priesthood and other organizations that fostered emperor worship. One commentator describes this second beast as “the Antichrist’s minister of propaganda.” [Bruce in Mounts, 260]
The reference to the healing of the beast’s fatal wound harks back to 13:3, a reference that John’s readers would probably have taken to the death of Nero and the subsequent recovery of the empire’s power and confidence. Blows delivered to Satan’s empire have never destroyed it. He always regains his step.
- In another imitation of Christ, the second beast performs miracles by which he convinced men to bury any doubts they might have had and worship the false trinity. As a miracle worker he is once again imitating Christ and so seeking to replace him in the affections of the world. Fire coming down from heaven is an allusion to the miracles of Elijah. As a false Elijah he prepares the people to receive a false Messiah. [Caird, 172] Remember the Lord Jesus predicted the rise of false christs who would lead people astray (Mk. 13:22) and Paul spoke of the lawless one “whose coming is according to the working of Satan with all power and signs and wonders” (2 Thess. 2:9).
- “Giving breath” to the image of the beast is perhaps a figurative way of saying that he was persuasive in convincing people that the beast was really a god, worthy of their worship. [Beale, 711] It is not entirely clear whether John regards the second beast’s signs as actual deeds of supernatural power or the tricks with which people then as now are easily impressed. Remember, it was an age of sorcerers and magicians. Ventriloquism was practiced by the priests of oriental cults; Simon Magus, the money-grubbing convert of Acts 8 is said to have brought statues to life. [Mounts, 261] There were many magical rituals for animating the idols in order to get them to speak and so tell the suppliant what he needed to know. [Osborne, 516] John perhaps is referring to these tricks to develop the metaphor of a deceiving false prophet.
Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia, remember, indicated that he required Christians to do reverence to the statue of the emperor, but many refused and some were executed as a result. In any case, just as Daniel’s three friends refused to worship the image of the emperor, even on pain of death, Christians must do the same.
- That such systematic persecution of Christians was on John’s horizon in the later 1st century seems beyond dispute. Martyrdoms had already occurred and it did not take much foresight to know that as the imperial cult gained momentum more would be forthcoming. The beast will require loyalty at every turn and so Christians would encounter demands to submit at every turn. One could not even carry on the business of daily life without affirming his or her loyalty to the beast, the government that was taking the place of God. There were few facets of Roman life in which Christians did not encounter demands to participate in some form of government sponsored idolatry. Only those who would not compromise their loyalty to Christ, no matter the penalty, would refuse the mark. Remember, these are figures of speech. We ought not to belabor the nature of the mark as if John means us to understand some actual tattoo or brand that was in his day required of all or that some day would be. Remind yourself again and again: this is apocalyptic literature; it is a symbolic presentation of the truth.
The mark, we are told, is the number of the beast’s name. In ancient times, as you know, letters stood for numbers. Accordingly, every name amounted to some number. An often cited graffito from Pompeii reads: “I love her whose number is 545.” As the number is probably the sum of the letters of her name, however, it is impossible to tell what name 545 had! You can add up a great many numbers to reach 545! Again, here too there is a parody of the Lord’s action in putting a mark or seal on his own followers as we read in 7:4 and 9:4.
- Does John mean that if a man has insight he should be able to figure out the name behind the number or does he mean that such a man or woman will understand what such opposition will mean for his or her life? The fact is nobody has really solved the puzzle to the satisfaction of even a bare majority of scholars. “Though it is easy to turn a name into a number, it is not so simple to proceed in the opposite direction.” [Caird, 174] There have been literally hundreds of possibilities, including Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan! In all probability, John’s readers knew what he meant, but Irenaeus, less than a hundred years later, was reduced to guessing, no one since has thought his guesses very likely, and avid readers of the Bible have been guessing ever since. The initials of the Caesars from Julius Caesar to Vespasian add up to 666 (but you have to leave two minor Caesars out of the calculation). What is more that is not a man’s name and John says the number is the number “of his name.” Some take it to be one less in each numeral than seven. If 777 is perfection, 666 is “failure, upon failure, upon failure.” [Hendriksen, 182] Again, in this case again the number does not yield a name. More on that objection in a moment. You will read, of course, some commentaries that confidently identify 666 as Nero Caesar. What they don’t tell you is that this solution requires the calculation to be made with a Hebrew transliteration of the Greek form of a Latin name and that with a defective spelling! [Mounts, 264] If it is as obvious as some think, it is certainly surprising that the early church fathers didn’t identify the number 666 as Nero’s name. One scholar identifies three rules that commentators have used for making any desired name equal 666: 1) if the proper name by itself will not yield it, add a title; 2) if the sum cannot be found in Greek, try Hebrew, or even Latin; and 3) do not be too particular about the spelling. His conclusion was: “We cannot infer much from the fact that a key fits the lock if it is a lock in which almost any key will turn.” [Salmon, in Beale, 721] It is a point worth pondering that all the other numbers in Revelation are of figurative significance and symbolize some spiritual reality. Perhaps this is true equally of 666 and we should not be looking for a man’s name or for any specific calculation. It is man’s number and perhaps somehow suggests both the futility and the evil of his rebellion against God. [Beale] Interesting as a possibility, but in the end, we are left with guesses only.
Who is the second beast? He has been variously identified as the Roman empire (as the first beast was also), Satan, Antichrist, the Roman imperial priesthood, the Catholic Church (so the Reformers), false teachers in general or some particular political or religious figure either of the late first century or of the future. It seems clear that he has a more religiously defined role than the first beast, whom we argued seems to represent human government as Satan uses it against the kingdom of God. This second beast is elsewhere in Revelation referred to as the false prophet. His great role is to persuade mankind to offer its allegiance to the first beast, who himself is Satan’s stooge. His work is a work of deception, which is the work of false prophets generally throughout the Bible. “The first beast speaks loudly and defiantly against God, the second beast makes the first beast’s claims sound plausible and persuasive.” [Beale, 708] He poses as a champion of the truth while leading the world astray.
Such prophets, agitators on behalf of false religious ideas, have always been found both inside and outside the church. There is, of course, a world of other religions and philosophies competing with the Christian faith in this world and that world often leaks into the church as the Bible often reminds us and as church history has demonstrated with depressing frequency. The storm god Baal had his priests, but then sometimes those priests were able to persuade the priests of Israel to trade their loyalty to Yahweh for the worship of Baal. Israel was always tempted by the religious ideas and practices of the surrounding culture. She wanted to be like her neighbors – peer pressure is a powerful thing in religion – the worship of the peoples around her was sensual and exciting, and the religion of Baal and Ashtoreth was much less demanding than Yahweh’s covenant. Even the most grotesque forms of paganism could be made attractive to God’s people. Pagan peoples sacrificed their children to the god Molech, but then in King Manasseh’s time so did the Jews.
The greatest danger to God’s people has always come from within, from the appearance of unbelief and false teaching within the church; but the falsehoods that gain traction in the church almost always come from outside it. The church has always been endangered by accommodation to the thinking of the unbelieving world around her. Joel Belz once told me that he was present for Francis Schaeffer’s last public appearance before his death in May of 1984. Dr. Schaeffer was being treated for his cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and spoke to the convention of Religious Broadcasters then meeting in nearby Minneapolis. His subject was the danger he saw in the contemporary American evangelical church’s imbibing the spirit of the culture. His last words as he left the platform were “Accommodation, accommodation, accommodation.”
If the first beast, the beast from the sea, represents the governments that Satan uses in his battle against the kingdom of God, useful to him for the power they wield, the second beast represents the intellectual and spiritual forces that both undermine the faith of the church and keep the mind and heart of the peoples of the world fixated on the idolatries that Satan has devised to keep the world in his thrall.
There is a lot of hard truth in Revelation. It comes in the form of visions of beasts and dragons, of strange numbers, and of great battles in heaven and earth, but the meaning is clear enough. There is a spiritual warfare taking place in this world, truth and error have one another in a death grip, and although the victory of Jesus Christ is assured, Christians must suffer greatly before the final triumph. That is part of the hard truth. But this is another part, even harder: a great many human beings are on the wrong side of this warfare and will be numbered at the end among the vanquished and will trudge off into everlasting captivity. That is, of course, the message of the rest of the Bible but it is put more dramatically in Revelation, more in the way of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. This is hard, unwelcome truth as truth often is in this world.
We have it again here in the second half of chapter 13. Just as we read in 12:9 that Satan has led the whole world astray, so here in vv. 13 and 14 we read that the second beast, Satan’s lackey, has convinced mankind to worship the beast; he has deceived the inhabitants of the earth – a phrase used a number of times in the book and always to designate the unbelieving world, the enemies of the gospel and of Jesus Christ. He uses his persuasive powers to convince them that they should worship the powers of this earth; he captured their attention so that they would not look up to see the Living God. The world lies deceived, ignorant of the truth, convinced of error. That is the fundamental assertion of this material and the assumption of everything else. The false religions and philosophies of mankind are as attractive to people as they are, men and women believe them as ardently as they do because they are deceived; they’ve been had by someone much smarter and more powerful than they.
That is the spiritual, intellectual, moral condition of mankind: deceived, cheerfully believing the big lie, committed with passion to all manner of falsehood. We made the point two Lord’s Days ago that there is much about the life of mankind to confirm that judgment and that spiritual diagnosis. The credulity of mankind is literally unbelievable unless in fact the thinking of mankind is in thrall to Satan. Then so much makes sense that does not make any sense otherwise. That mankind is deceived is, of course, taught everywhere else in the Bible. It is the Bible’s description of man’s plight from Genesis 3 onward. He was deceived in the Garden of Eden; he has been deceived ever since. The Apostle Paul did not hesitate to say in his day that there is no one in the world who understands, no one who seeks God – whatever their protestations to the contrary, their supposed seeking is in fact a determined avoiding of God – and there is no fear of God before their eyes. However religious they may think themselves to be, however seemingly interested in God, they are in fact in all of their beliefs and practices turning away from God, not toward him. That is to be deceived!
That is what the Bible says. But in the nature of the case people do not accept that this is the case. Deceived people ipso facto do not know that they are deceived. People who believe the lie obviously do not and will not agree that they have rejected the truth. But it is not only unbelievers; it is not only those whom the false prophet has deceived who cannot grasp this unhappy truth about mankind. Even Christians have often struggled to accept it and perhaps more so in our day than in any other period in history. We live in a pluralistic culture in which to an unprecedented degree tolerance for other viewpoints has become a supreme virtue. We live in a relativistic culture in which it is hard for people to conceive of there being but one answer to the fundamental questions of life. And against the face of the supposedly wide-spirited and generous and non-judgmental spirit of our times comes biblical Christianity as a bucket of cold water with its claim to the truth and the whole truth about God and man, its rejection of all other religions and philosophies of life, and its insistence that there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.
There is no way round this fact. In respect to the truth about God and salvation there is no more intolerant book in the world than the Bible and especially the New Testament. It says with unmistakable clarity and terrible emphasis that the truth is given and that it lies behind us in one name, one person, and one event. [A.A. van Ruler, Theologisch Werk, iv, 173] So stark is this reality that it is no wonder that Christian thinkers have often attempted to soften it. From the very beginning there were those who thought they could find some way to make the gospel less exclusive. But in doing so they were always rather obviously denying what the Bible asserts and asserting what the Bible denies. As Bernard of Clairvaux sternly put it in the middle ages, “…many laboring to make Plato a Christian, do prove themselves to be heathen.” [Cited in Owen, Works, x, 111]
But to state the point is hardly to remove the difficulty. Surely you have felt this difficulty. I certainly have. I can’t imagine that you have not. Must we believe that every Buddhist, every Hindu, every Muslim must fail to obtain eternal life because, as the practitioner of his non-Christian faith he does not and will not confess Jesus Christ as Lord? Must we believe that all of his convictions, deeply held as they often are, are nothing but a Satanic delusion? Must we believe that every humanist, every secularist – however kind, however nice, however upright his life may be in some ways – is condemned to judgment for giving himself to a lie? It is not only that you must disagree with so much of the world; not only that other human beings will consider you impossibly harsh and judgmental; your own heart recoils from this conclusion. You shudder; you struggle at this point. Surely you do. And you should. It is a horrible thing to contemplate and any Christian can say that he wishes it were not so. And obviously the things we wish were not so are the hardest things of all to believe.
There is nothing wrong with wishing it were not so. God himself tells us in his Holy Word that he wishes it were not so. He does not desire the death of the wicked. He wishes that all men would be saved. Jesus Christ himself wept at the unbelief and the spiritual blindness of his contemporaries. He didn’t deny that they were blind; he said openly that they were duped by Satan, but it was a cause of terrible sadness and frustration to him. And so it should be, will be, must be for us who wish to be like the Lord Jesus in every way. Sad as this truth may be, unwelcome as it is, it is what he taught and what we find here again in the vision of the Apostle John. So what can we say about this account of the world in its unbelief that we are given here in the description of the life and work of the second beast, the false prophet? And how are we to argue its truth, however unwelcome a truth it remains? How can we come to terms with it? Let me mention several considerations that I have found helpful to myself through the years and I hope will be helpful to you.
First, it is important to recognize the candor with which this point is asserted in the Bible and the New Testament in particular. You will sometimes hear this matter discussed nowadays as if we are the first people in the history of the world to face the reality of religious pluralism and to feel the force of the scandal of Christianity’s exclusivity: its claim to be the only way to God and salvation. But the fact is we live in a world that nowadays is very like the world of the New Testament. The Christian faith made its way out into a culture that was a veritable welter of religious and philosophical ideas. In the New Testament it is perfectly obvious that the early Christians were well aware that the world had other opinions about God and about salvation. It was obvious that other religions were more popular, more influential than was the faith of Jesus Christ. They were certainly aware of how unacceptable their message was in many ways in the Greco-Roman world of that time: foolishness to some; a scandal to others. And so it continued to be. But at no point did they hesitate to proclaim the fact that there is but one name, given among men, whereby we must be saved. It was their unshakeable conviction on this point that drove them to assert that claim and to suffer for it. So let’s have no more of this silly claim that, unlike the previous generations of the church, we today must face the scandal of religious pluralism with flinty honesty. The church commenced its program of world evangelism fully aware of the claim that it was making: that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one – no matter his religion or philosophy – comes to the Father except through him.
Second, we need to be careful to make clear what we are saying, what the Bible says indeed. We are not saying that all other religions and philosophies are completely wrong about everything. What we are saying is that they mistake the way of salvation because they do not understand who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. As a Christian we are not required to believe that other religions and philosophies are entirely in error. They have some truth, they hint at other truths. We are not the only ones in the world who think it right to love one’s neighbor or to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We are not the only monotheists and so on. We can salute a great deal in thinking of mankind without surrendering our position as those who proclaim salvation in Jesus Christ alone. The Devil and his false prophet would be much less successful in attracting people to false faiths if he did not sprinkle a good bit of truth among the error.
Third, however unpopular this way of thinking may be in our day, we should be adamant in refusing to dismiss logic or the law of non-contradiction for the sake of political correctness. The fact of the matter is that it is quite easy to demonstrate that if Christianity is true Buddhism and Islam and humanism must be untrue in the nature of the case. Jesus cannot be God incarnate and at one and the same time only another human prophet or wise teacher. He might be neither, logically speaking, but he cannot be both. In the nature of the case, the doctrines of the world’s great faiths and philosophies, including modern secular humanism, are mutually contradictory. It is impossible that they should all be right and if one of them is true the others must be false. Nirvana and the biblical heaven and hell cannot both be the destinations of mankind. If we say they can be, language has ceased to be meaningful and all speech becomes absurd.
Fourth, Christians should have the courage of their convictions. The actual situation is that these other religions and philosophies, however ancient, however popular, are not the truth about God and man. We should have no hesitation in saying so. No man or woman with Christian blood in his or her veins could possibly say that they are the truth. Buddhism denies the existence of the infinite personal God. There is a debate as to whether Buddhism should even be regarded as a religion in the ordinary sense, as some form of theism; that is, whether it has a place for God in any ordinary understanding of the term. No Christian who confesses and loves God as his heavenly Father can possibly think that Buddhism is not false at the foundation. Hinduism, with its many gods, its pessimism regarding existence, its view of karma, its lack of any doctrine of divine grace and love, cannot be regarded by a Christian as anything but a gigantic error. We can be grateful that there is no missionary impulse in Hinduism; that Hindus typically show no interest in persuading others to embrace their faith. Islam is monotheistic, but has no Trinity, no incarnation, reduces Jesus to the status of one among many prophets, and has no cross. Surely no Christian can think Islam the truth about God and man. It denies what is most essential to our faith, most precious to our hearts, and most essential to man’s peace with God.
Fifth, we must always remember that the Lord metes out his judgment strictly in conformity to perfect justice. Those who sin without the law will perish apart from the law, so says Paul. No one will be held to a standard of judgment of which he or she was unaware. Unto whom much is given, much is required. Less then is required of those who were given to see less and understand less. And, as Jesus himself affirms, while some will be beaten with many stripes; some will be beaten with few. We must never forget this fact in thinking about and speaking about the Lord’s judgment of the unbelieving world and the practitioners of other faiths. They will be judged but fairly!
Sixth, there is the inescapable implication of history. Remember, Christianity is not a set of ideas; it is an account of things that happened in history. We do not preach the idea of the incarnation of God the Son; we preach it as an historical event, a fact of human history, a fact as surely a fact as that Barak Obama was last week inaugurated as president of the United States. When talking about other religions and philosophies we are not talking about competing ideas; we are talking about the visitation of God himself in this world, about the death of the Son of God upon the cross, about his resurrection from the dead, and about his coming again. This changes everything in the debate. If this is true, if this is what happened, then surely, inevitably all mankind must find this salvation for there is no other; every human being must commit himself or herself to this Savior, for there is no other. When Jesus said that he was the way, the truth, and the life he was only drawing out the inexorable logic of the situation: he was the creator of the world and of every human being in the world; he had come to save the world from its sin and rebellion. That being so, there can be no thought of other religions and other philosophies leading us to God, all the more religions and philosophies that deny the very things that God did in Jesus Christ his Son. We may be tempted to think that there are people too nice to be cast out simply because they do not believe in Jesus. But that is tantamount to saying that they don’t need the incarnation, the cross, the empty tomb, or the Holy Spirit. To say such a thing is to give up entirely the Christian faith and to refuse to confess Jesus as the Son of God. As Archbishop William Temple put it, “Either it is true for all, or it is not true at all.” [Cited in Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 125]
Seventh, and finally, our Lord and Savior has published his truth in his Holy Word. He has revealed his glory to his people through the Holy Spirit. He suffered terribly for us and our salvation and has opened the way to eternal life for those who trust in him. All of this Christians know for a certainty and believe with all their hearts. Had it been true that other religions will also take a man or woman to heaven, the Bible would not have been written as it was, Christ himself would not have spoken as he did, and the Christian church would not have lived as she has these two thousand years, seeking, even at terrible cost, to bring the good news of Christ and salvation to the four corners of the world. That is why no Hindu or Muslim or humanist who became a Christian ever said that it would have made no difference had he remained what he was!
I admit again, it is a hard truth: this truth that the world lies deceived by lies made beguiling by the Evil One and those who do his will. It is hard to believe that the ardor with which normal people hold their views is evidence of how completely they have been tricked. But it is the truth. It is why we must continue to spread the good news to anyone and everyone. We must go on in patience and love saying to the American humanist and secularist, as we say to the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim: “Consider Jesus!” It is not that they have seen him and have rejected him. The Devil has prevented them from seeing him at all; at least from seeing him as he really is in his glory as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. “Consider Jesus!”
Truth has perished in the street. It has throughout history. There is nothing new about that. Satan sees to the death of truth through his false prophet. But he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world: the Spirit of Truth. Those who stand for the truth, Truth with a capital “T”, truth as it is and is alone in Jesus Christ, will carry the future with them. The God of truth will see to it.