The book of Revelation has many references to something called “the beast.” Who or what is it? What does it do? What does God tell us to do about “the beast”?
For nearly 2,000 years men and women have studied and speculated about the identity of “the beast” of Revelation. Who or what is the beast? Is it symbolic or real? Can we identify this beast as a contemporary of John, the writer of the book of Revelation? Or is the beast an end-time personality or entity? Is it important for us to know the beast’s identity? What does the Bible reveal about the beast of Revelation?
Let’s begin by looking at what Christ, the Revelator (Revelation 1:1), showed John and what John wrote about the beast in the last book of the Bible. While the word “beast” is found 37 times in the book of Revelation (in the New King James Version), some of these refer to another beast. The passage in Revelation 13:1-8 is one of the most descriptive about the one called “the beast.”
“Then I [John] stood on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name. Now the beast which I saw was like a leopard, his feet were like the feet of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. The dragon gave him his power, his throne, and great authority. And I saw one of the heads as if it had been mortally wounded, and his deadly wound was healed. And all the world marveled and followed the beast. So they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?’
“And he [the beast] was given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to continue for forty-two months. Then he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme His name, His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven. It was granted to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation. All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:1-8).
Understanding the symbolism
To understand this passage of Scripture, we need to understand the symbolism. A fundamental principle of Bible study is to let the Bible interpret itself (2 Peter 1:20-21). In other words, look to other sections of Scripture or to the context itself in order to understand the meaning.
The symbol of beasts representing civil governments is also found in the book of Daniel. The prophet Daniel received a vision from God of four great beasts: the first like a lion with eagle’s wings, the second like a bear, the third like a leopard, and the fourth—different and more terrible than the others—with 10 horns (Daniel 7:1-7). Daniel was told that these great beasts were symbolic of “four kings” [kingdoms] (verse 17). History reveals that the beasts of Daniel were four great world-ruling empires: the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek and Roman Empires.
The nature of the beast
One of the characteristics of the beast in the book of Revelation is its hostility against God and the people of God. In Revelation 11:7 John was told that “when they [the two witnesses representing God] finish their testimony, the beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit will make war against them, overpower them, and kill them.”
In Revelation 13:7 we read that this beast will “make war with the saints” and “overcome them.” This beast will have the power to kill those who do not do its bidding (verse 15) and will blaspheme God (verse 6).
Daniel first started writing during the time of the Babylonian Empire, and God revealed to him that the “Medes and Persians” (Daniel 5:28) would next come to power. After this empire would be “the kingdom of Greece” (Daniel 8:21). But what empire would be represented by the fourth beast that Daniel saw in vision—the beast that was “dreadful and terrible, exceedingly strong” (Daniel 7:7), that was “different from all other kingdoms” and that would “devour the whole earth” (verse 23)?
To students of history and citizens of the first century, the answer was obvious. The Roman Empire was the fourth beast spoken of by Daniel. By the first century, the Roman Empire had crushed all other political powers. The book of Revelation, written near the end of the first century, documents some of the persecution the empire directed against God’s people (Revelation 2:10, 13). In reading the book of Revelation, these early believers could have concluded that the beast John wrote about was the Roman Empire, which dominated the world at that time.
During the time of the New Testament several Roman emperors displayed the characteristics described in John’s account (Revelation 13:1-7): powerful, with great authority and military strength, an instrument of Satan (“the dragon”), speaking blasphemy, claiming to be a god through emperor worship, persecuting the true Church and killing Christians. The elements were all there! These early Christians faced difficult issues, and the words of the prophecy were meant to encourage them to not be deceived by the beast or pressured to turn away from God into idolatry.
But is there more to this prophecy? Was it also intended for those of us who live in the last days?
The dragon and the future beast
In the book of Revelation we find that the beast’s agenda corresponds to that of the dragon. The dragon is Satan the devil, the deceiver of “the whole world” (Revelation 12:9), and the beast in Revelation 13:1-7 carries out this deception. John implies that the healing of the beast’s mortal wound is itself a deception, producing amazement by the whole world (verse 3) and leading people on earth to worship both the dragon and the beast (verse 4).
The future beast’s authority prevails on earth for 42 months, and by the end of that time all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it (verses 5 and 8; compare with Revelation 11:2). It is clear that the prophecies regarding the beast also apply to a future personality who will have great civil, financial and religious power at the time of the end.
The dragon’s goal of persecuting Christians (Revelation 12:17) is also evident. The beast opens his mouth in “blasphemy against God, to blaspheme His name, His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven” (Revelation 13:5-6).
The actual persecution of Christians is mentioned explicitly in verse 7, but persecution is also clearly implied by the prophetic appeal to John’s readers in verse 10, which speaks of saints being led “into captivity” and being “killed with the sword.” This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of Christians. The book of Revelation is most emphatically not a call to arms, but a call for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.
Christ warned His disciples in the Olivet Prophecy, “For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). So, it is very important to heed the warning of Christ and be aware of the coming beast and false prophet of Revelation!
One of the strongest warnings in the Bible is given to people who worship this future beast. This warning includes the threat of receiving God’s wrath. “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation” (Revelation 14:9-10).
There will be but two choices for Christians in the future, just as there were for the early Christians John wrote to. When the future beast power’s persecution of the saints begins in earnest, Christians will either follow God or follow the beast.If we worship the beast and receive his mark, we will receive the wrath of God. So it is very important to understand the warnings about the beast so that when he appears, we can avoid being deceived into worshipping him.
Blasphemy and arrogance
Revelation 13:5 notes that the beast will be given a mouth “speaking great things and blasphemies” for 42 months. In Scripture the mouth is the symbol for the thoughts that are revealed in speech (Matthew 12:34). The mouth of the beast utters evil—blasphemy—but most will not recognize it for what it is.
The beast will claim divine power he does not have. He will seek to put himself in the place of God—the ultimate blasphemy.
The revived Roman Empire will seem to be an unbeatable monster, with its worldwide political, military and economic power. “Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?” people will say (verse 4). But the inhabitants of the world won’t just fear the empire; they will also love and worship it.
In the book of Revelation, the world is shown to willingly accept the beast’s authority, and to give no regard to God. “All who dwell on the earth will worship him” (verse 8). The beast captures the hearts and souls of men and women everywhere, but it must not capture the hearts of Christians!
Revelation 13 shows this beast to be the earthly enemy of the true Church. We are told that the beast was given power to “make war with the saints and to overcome them” (verse 7). Satan uses the political power of the beast as his agent in an attempt to stamp out and destroy God’s people.
Lesson for us
There will be but two choices for Christians in the future, just as there were for the early Christians John wrote to. When the future beast power’s persecution of the saints begins in earnest, Christians will either follow God or follow the beast. Jesus’ warning to His disciples will come to pass: “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations” (Matthew 24:9).
This beast will be allowed to exercise its end-time power over the world and the Church for only a very short time of 42 months or 3½ years. God will then step in to stop the ruthless madness, which will take over the earth and threaten to annihilate the true Church of Jesus Christ along with all of mankind (Matthew 24:22).
An end-time alliance between a religious power called “Babylon the Great” (Revelation 17:5) and this civil power identified as “the beast” (Revelation 13:1-10) will control the world’s economy. The religious power, a great false church pictured as a second beast in Revelation 13:11-15, “causes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship [submit to] the first beast” (verse 12). This second beast is also referred to as the “false prophet” (Revelation 19:20).
The first beast of Revelation 13—the civil authority influencing all humanity at the end of this age—will be a final revival of the Roman Empire spoken of in Daniel 7:20, 24 and Revelation 17:10-14. This end-time empire will require people “to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads” in order to “buy or sell” (Revelation 13:16-17). See the articles “Daniel 7,” “Antichrist” and “Revelation 17” for more about the end-time civil authority and the false religious leader who will work together to govern and deceive mankind.
Although the beast’s economic system will bring prosperity to the merchants of the earth, it is going to be destroyed (Revelation 18:3, 15, 19). The people of God will be pleased to see the fall of Babylon the Great and the beast. “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you holy apostles and prophets, for God has avenged you on her!” (verse 20). This civil power called the beast and this false religious power have worked together to persecute God’s people throughout the ages, but they will both come to an end (Revelation 19:20).
For additional study, see the articles in the sections on the “End Times.”