Without much debate, it could be claimed that Revelation 13 is the most famous chapter in the entire book. The chapter focuses on the beast—or, more correctly, the beasts. The first beast is spoken of in 13:1-10 and the second in 13:11-18. The “beast” is spoken of 37 times in Revelation; 16 of those occurrences are in Revelation 13. It is in Revelation 13 that we read of the infamous ‘mark of the beast,’ the number with which many are familiar: 666.
Sadly, much eschatological nonsense has found its birthplace in Revelation 13. The chapter has given rise to much ‘newspaper exegesis’ (i.e. people trying to align what they read in the newspapers with biblical prophecy). For instance, in his 1990 book entitled Global Peace and the Rise of Antichrist, Dave Hunt writes:
Somewhere, at this very moment, on planet Earth, the antichrist is almost certainly alive—biding his time, awaiting his cue. Banal sensationalism? Far from it! That likelihood is based upon a sober evaluation of current events in relation to Bible prophecy. Already a mature man, he is probably active in politics, perhaps even an admired world leader whose name is almost daily on everyone’s lips.
As long ago as 1977, Salem Kirban—quoted by Gary DeMar in Last Days Madness—wrote that “those of us familiar with Scriptures can easily see the handwriting on the wall as the way is prepared for the coming Antichrist.” Both Hunt and Kirban use the term “antichrist” as interchangeable with “beast.” That is, although the word “antichrist” is nowhere used in Revelation, it is assumed that the antichrist (cf.1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2John 7) and the beast are one and the same person. Of course much of what is written about the beast/antichrist is mere speculation and eschatological nonsense.
Technological advancements are usually fertile soil for speculation concerning the beast. When the personal computer appeared on the scene Christians around the world began to prophesy that this technology would bring the antichrist to power. Credit cards, barcodes and implanted chips invited similar, unfounded speculation.
Political developments have often been seen as portentous of the rise of the antichrist. I remember such speculation as a child surrounding the European Common Market. Supposedly there would be ten nations in this alliance, representing the ten horns of the beast (13:1). Of course, such speculation has since died, for there are currently (at the time of writing) 23 nations in the European Common Market!
During the Cold War, Communist Russia was said to have been a steppingstone to the rise of the antichrist. WhenRussiainvadedAfghanistanin 1979 similar talk arose. Such speculation can be traced back even further: in 1960 when Nikita Kruschev banged his shoe in a table at the United Nations people began to speak of the rise of the beast. Books declaring that the beast was on the horizon appeared on shelves shortly after the Gulf War of 1991.
The recent Iraqi War has again seen the publication of end-time speculation concerning the beast. Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series has now partnered with Bob Phillips to produce a new end-time series called Babylon Rising, a fictional series based on the supposed impending rise of the antichrist.
When Pope John Paul II was critically wounded in an assassination attempt on 13 May 1981, speculation once again arose that he was the antichrist with a mortal wound that would be healed. Again, this speculation has proved unfounded. Ronald Wilson Reagan was said to be the antichrist because each of his three names contained six letters: the supposed 666. The problem with that, of course, is that “the number of the beast” (Revelation 13:18) is not merely a series of sixes (six-six-six) but a number, whose numerical value is six hundred and sixty-six. The letters in President Reagan’s name (6+6+6) add to 18, not 666. Nevertheless, the speculation persisted: when Reagan died some speculated that he would rise from the dead in (supposed) accordance with 13:3. Other political figures that have been labelled as the antichrist include Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Bill Clinton. Even Nelson Mandela’s prison number—46664—has earned him the label of the beast.
The result of all of this is that the evangelical church sits with egg on her face because of all her false predictions. But such nonsensical ‘prophecies’ could be silenced once-for-all if we would simply pay attention to the opening seven verses of Revelation which assure us that its prophecies would take place shortly after its writing (i.e. within the lifetime of its original recipients). Revelation is not about Christ’s return at the end of the world, but about His judgement upon Jerusalem in the first century, culminating in70 A.D. Thus, it must be said that Dave Hunt and others are wrong: it is not possible that the beast is alive on planet Earth today—he has been dead for centuries!
In this study, I want to begin considering the beasts of Revelation. I hope to show that we need to stop living in fear of some coming beast; instead, we must live in faith that we can have the same victory that the early church did when she faced her political and religious opposition. My father-in-law recently met with the Prime Minister of Mongolia to discuss the possibility of establishing a Bible-printing ministry in that country. Had you asked me 30 years ago if it was possible that a Bible-printing ministry would be opened inMongoliaI would have thought you had gone mad but it has happened.
Revelation 13 introduces us to two beasts that the first-century church faced: a political beast (13:1-10) and a religious beast (13:11-18). By God’s grace, they soared despite the opposition that they faced. And we can soar over similar beasts in the 21st century by the grace of God.
The Principles for Interpretation
As noted, Revelation 13 has given rise to much speculation concerning the identity and influence of the beast. Thus, the utmost care must be taken in any effort to properly interpret the chapter. There are three major principles of interpretation—principles that we have already mentioned in our studies in Revelation—that must be heeded when studying the chapter.
First, we must keep in mind the contemporary context. As we have seen, the events prophesied in Revelation would find their fulfilment shortly after the prophecies were uttered. Revelation concerned “things which must shortly come to pass” (1:1) and John assured his initial readers that “the time [of fulfilment] is at hand” (1:3). The original recipients of the letter—as well as the first-century Jewish leaders who had crucified Christ—would behold the coming of the Lord in judgement upon Jerusalem (1:7). Such time references are replete in the prophecy (see also 2:5, 16; 3:11; 11:4; 22:6-7, 10, 12, 20). Despite what some would have us believe 2,000 years is not soon. In order for the time references in Revelation to have any meaning the prophecies contained therein must have found their fulfilment within a few years of being stated. Thus, we must put ourselves in the sandals of Revelation’s initial recipients and interpret it in light of events with which they were familiar. The beast, then, must have been an individual or entity (or both) with which the first-century readers of Revelation were familiar. It was to first-century Christians that John wrote, “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six” (Revelation 13:18). It would be impossible for a first-century Christian to figure out the identity of a beast alive today! And the prophecy about an individual 2,000 years or more in their future would have little or not relevance for them in their time of persecution.
Second, we must keep in mind the covenantal context as we seek to properly interpret Revelation 13. Revelation, simply put, is about God bringing covenantal judgement upon disobedient Judaism. This means that Revelation must have been written prior to70 A.D. for Judaism came to an abrupt halt with the destruction of the temple. If the prophecy was recorded prior to70 A.D. and the beast was alive when the prophecy was recorded, the beast must have been someone (or something) alive before70 A.D. Simply put, the beast must have been someone (or something) that God used prior to70 A.D. to bring His covenantal curses upon disobedientIsrael.
Third, we must keep in mind the connecting context. Revelation 13 is clearly connected to the first 12 chapters of Revelation. If the opening 12 chapters have been interpreted as finding their fulfilment in the first-century then it is only fair to assume that Revelation 13 found its fulfilment during the same time period. It would be inconsistent exegesis to interpret Revelation 1-12 as having been fulfilled in our past but Revelation 13 as being fulfilled in our present or our future. Consistent exegesis thus demands that Revelation 13 be a prophecy of something that was fulfilled in the life of the first-century church.
The Political Beast
It will take us several studies to fully consider Revelation 13 but this study will at least introduce us to the political beast of this chapter. Revelation 12 was something of a heavenly vision: John saw the consummation of the age-old battle between Michael theArchangel(Jesus Christ) and the great red dragon (Satan). The outcome was glorious: Satan was defeated and cast from heaven to earth (12:12-13). Now John is back on earth—“And I stood upon the sand of the sea” (13:1)—and the vision continues.
The Manifestation of the Beast
We can almost picture John standing on the beach on Patmos looking out over the ocean toward Italy, which looks topographically something like a beast rising from the sea. But John’s vision is far more foreboding:
And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.
The Biblical Record
The first beast is seen to “rise up out of the sea.” I have interpreted “the sea” throughout Revelation to be a picture of Gentile dominion (cf. Revelation 17:15). Thus, the beast arises from the Gentiles (i.e. it represents a Gentile nation). But precisely which nation does it represent? Revelation 17 (which is something of a commentary on Revelation 13) is helpful in this regard. Interpreting the vision of the beast, an angel later tells John, “The seven heads are seven mountains…” (17:9). The beast, then, might be called the beast of seven mountains. This immediately gives away the identity of the beast:Romeis known as “the city of seven hills” (the “seven hills” being the Palatine, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiine, Viminal, Quirinal andCapitolinehills). The beast, thus, is a representation of Roman authority. Rome was the major world power at the time that John wrote;Romewas thus the political beast against which the early church battled.
But the “seven heads” of the political beast are not only “seven mountains” (17:9) but also “seven kings” (17:10). The heads are both political Romecollectively and individual kings as representative of politicalRome. We will turn our attention to this aspect of the “seven heads” in a moment but first we continue to overview the manifestation of the beast.
The first beast is said to have not only “seven heads” but also “ten horns.” If the “seven heads” represent seven kings then the ten horns represent other rulers subordinate to the kings (Revelation 17:12-13). Most likely, the ten horns represent the ten Roman provinces (a represented by their leaders) which existed when John wrote. F.F. Bruce explains:
The ten provinces may be Italy, Achaea, Asia, Syria, Egypt, Africa, Spain, Gaul, Britain, and Germany. The diadems on the ten horns are royal crowns, not stephanoi, that is victors’ wreaths. They suggest governors who shared in the imperial power and those who were subject toRome, such as Herod, and yet retains the title of “king.”
Further, we are told that “upon [the beast’s] heads [were] the name of blasphemy.” Bruce suggests:
However, the blasphemous names are on the heads, not the horns, because it was the emperors who were declared divine, not the provincial governors and kings. The blasphemous names must be the divine titles which the Roman emperors arrogated to themselves…
The beast that John saw was thus a wicked, vile creature, representing a wicked, vile nation, seeking to usurp the place of God. And—as we shall see momentarily—this was certainly true of ancientRome. But first we continue our overview of the beast’s manifestation. John writes, “And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion…” This description immediately reminds us of another political prophecy in Scripture:
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel had a dream and visions of his head upon his bed: then he wrote the dream, and told the sum of the matters. Daniel spake and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea. And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another. The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it. And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh. After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things.
You will notice that John’s beast is a compilation of Daniel’s first three beasts. Daniel’s first beast “was like a lion,” his second was “like to a bear,” and his third was “like a leopard.” Daniel’s fourth beast is simply described as “dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly” with “great iron teeth.” Daniel’s vision is easily interpreted when compared with Nebuchadnezzar’s dream ofDaniel 2and world history. Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of a great statue with a head of gold, a torso and arms of silver, a midriff and thighs of bronze and legs and feet of iron-and-clay (Daniel 2:25-35). The head of gold was interpreted asBabylon(Daniel 2:36-38) and the rest of the statue as subsequent kingdoms, which can historically be identified as the Medo-Persians (silver), Grecians (bronze) and the Romans (iron-and-clay). The four beasts ofDaniel 7are simply a different manifestation of these same kingdoms: the lion was the Babylonians, the bear was the Medo-Persians, the leopard was the Grecians and the “dreadful and terrible” beast was the Romans. John picks up on this imagery of the “dreadful and terrible beast” (which existed in his day) and adds that it was, in fact, a compilation and thus the culmination of the three political beasts that had preceded it.
John thus sees the fulfilment of Daniel’s vision: the ultimate Gentile world power, inspired by the great red dragon. “And the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.” Interestingly, every commentator that I consulted in my preparations—whether writing from a futurist or preterist perspective—believes that. The difference is that futurists believe John is speaking of a revived Roman Empire sometime in our future, whereas preterists believe that he is speaking of the fallen Roman Empire that existed when John wrote. I find it strange that futurists should expect a future, revived Roman Empire, for there is absolutely nothing in Scripture that suggests that this will ever happen. In The Time is at Hand, Jay Adams shows the folly of such a supposition:
Why, then, speculate that “revived” Rome and Jerusalem will be revived and restored to exactly what they once were, only to fall again precisely as they once did? Is it not apparent that this is ain artificial interpretation invented to circumvent the clear intent of the passage? ThatJerusalem andRome should fall again exactly as they did in the past is not only improbable, but virtually impossible. That such a wooden interpretation must be forced upon the book in order to explain away the obvious meaning of the revelation, is by itself a very strong argument for the contemporary view.
John clearly wrote whilst the Roman Empire stood in the first century; it is only natural to assume that he had that Empire in mind when he wrote.
Daniel’s vision also shows strong evidence that the fourth beast represented the Roman Empire of the first century. Daniel’s vision concerns four consecutive political kingdoms, the fourth kingdom (Rome) following directly on the heels of the third kingdom (Grecia). According to the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream inDaniel 2 the fourth kingdom (the iron-and-clay kingdom) would be operating during the times of Messiah. Jesus Christ (the small stone cut without hands) would crush that kingdom and establish His own everlasting kingdom as a mountain in the earth. There is nothing in the context of Daniel or Revelation that suggests that the fourth beast would die and come back to live millennia later.
In short, the fourth beast represents the Roman Empire of John’s day. I was recently in a used bookstore and came across a copy of The Annals by Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 55-120), a history of imperialRome. In the Translator’s Introduction at the beginning of the book, we read:
The period with which they [the Annals] deal is still of infinite significance. For the first and last time in world history, the entire Mediterranean region belonged to the same unit. TheRomanRepublic had begun to acquire overseas territories in the third century B.C. From its first two Punic Wars against Semitic Carthage (264-201)Rome had emerged as the strongest Mediterranean power; and it spent the next 150 years extending its dominion in Europe, Asia, andAfrica.
Two of the translator’s statements are of great importance to our study in Revelation 13. First, he speaks of the “infinite significance” of the time period with which the Annals deal, which includes the time at which Revelation was written. Second, he notes that during that time, “for the first and last time in world history, the entire Mediterranean region belonged to the same unit.” In simple terms, no world power has ever matched the strength ofRome at its peak. By the time that John penned Revelation, Rome had already “extend[ed] its dominion in Europe, Asia, and Africa.” Amazingly, Daniel foresaw this centuries before it took place!
We know that it is God who sets up governments and brings them down: “the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1). But God also allows “the dragon” sometimes to have ‘his way’ when ‘his way’ will, in fact, fulfil God’s purposes. It is clear that this was the case in the first-century Roman Empire, not only because we are explicitly told that “the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority,” but also from reading the history of the Empire during that period. If you thought that Western culture today is perverse you should read the Annals to see how perverse Rome was, particularly during the reign of Nero, at which time Revelation was written.
Infanticide was all-too-common in first-century Rome. A father literally had the power of life or death over his children. If a child was born into the home and was not what the father wanted (e.g. it was a girl when he wanted a boy, etc.) he could immediately have the newborn put to death—despite the protestations of the mother. Abortion was rife at that time. Immorality and homosexuality were everyday occurrences in the Empire. Just about anything that you can imagine in our society was present and exceeded in ancientRome: their culture would make ours look somewhat like the Amish! Yet it was an extremely powerful Empire—the most powerful Gentile dominion to date. Thus, the description of this horrendous beast with seven heads and ten horns is quite fitting!
But then John sees something happen to the beast. “And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.” Significantly, it is not the beast that is said to be “wounded to death” but only “one of his heads.” The creature has seven heads and one is now mortally wounded. The head wound, however, barely affects the beast: “his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.” Note that the world does not wonder after the head but after the beast. These may seem like small details but they are important to proper interpretation of the chapter.
We have said that the beast represents first-century Rome. This is clear from the fact that “the seven heads are seven mountains” (Revelation 17:9). But we have also noted in passing that the seven heads are “seven kings” (Revelation 17:10). Thus, the heads represent both the Empire as a whole and the emperors who govern the Empire. Far from being inconsistent this is actually quite a natural way of thinking. If I were to tell you thatWashingtondeclared in September 2005 thatNew OrleansandTexaswere disaster areas in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita you would doubtless assume that that declaration came from President George W. Bush. Mr. Bush speaks on behalf of the federal government: he represents the nation as a whole. It would not be every individual inWashington,DCthat made the declaration but the Bush Administration as representative of theUnited States. In the same way, the emperors ofRomewere both individuals and representatives of the Empire.
Every commentator that I consulted agrees that this is the way in which the beast is to be understood. That is, the first beast of Revelation 13 is both a man (i.e. the current emperor) and a nation (i.e.Rome). Thus, when the one head was wounded to death it meant the virtual collapse of the Empire. But then the Empire (not the emperor) revived and people marvelled at the great revival. How did this all work out historically?
The Historical Record
The emperor contemporary with John was Nero. We are told in Revelation 17:10, “And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.” Seven kings of the same line are enumerated. Obviously, they are kings in the line of the contemporary emperor. The first Caesar of Rome was Julius Caesar (reigned 49-44 B.C.) He was followed by: Augustus Caesar (reigned 31 B.C.-14 A.D.), Tiberius Caesar (reigned 14-37), Gaius Caesar (reigned 37-41—also known as Caligula) and Claudius Caesar (reigned 41-54). These five—Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius—are the five that “are fallen” (i.e. they were dead by the time that John wrote). The “one” that “is” would be the next Caesar in line: Nero Caesar (reigned 54-68). He was followed by “the other” who had “not yet come” but who would “continue a short space.” This would be Galba Caesar, who reigned only for about seven months (June 68 to January 69), “a short space” indeed. Thus, Nero was the Caesar in power at the time that John wrote.
Who was Nero? In addition to the Annals by Tacitus, several good online resources can be consulted by any wishing to read of Nero Caesar (see, for instance, this brief biography). Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (37-68) was the adopted son and successor of Claudius Caesar. He was born on 15 December 37 as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (father) and Agrippina the Younger (mother). Nero was born into a most ungodly family.
His grandfather, another Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, had been a savage and heartless man. His animal shows and gladiatorial contests were so bloody that Emperor Augustus had once rebuked him. Nero’s father, Gnaeus, was even worse. Once he deliberately rode down a child on the Appian Wayjust for fun. He also murdered someone for refusing to drink as much as he ordered and another time he gauged out someone’s eyes for criticising him. He was generally engaged in drunken, adulterous debauchery and had an incestuous relationship with his sister.
Nero’s mother, the ambitious and most ungodly Agrippina, had had a traumatic childhood: her brothers were either killed or starved to death by order of the suspicious Emperor Tiberius. She had her first sexual experience at age 12 with her only surviving brother, Caligula (later emperor). Later she had an affair with a cousin who had married her sister Drusilla. In 39 A.D. Agrippina and her sister Julia Livilla were exiled to the tinyPontianIslandsby their brother, Emperor Caligula. When Nero was only three years old, his notorious father died. Subsequently, Caligula had Agrippina’s property confiscated and as a result she and Nero lived in great poverty.
Agrippina was recalled in 41 A.D. by the next emperor, Claudius, who was also her uncle. Back in town, Agrippina managed to persuade a wealthy man to divorce his wife and marry her. When he died shortly afterwards, Agrippina became a rich widow. In 48 A.D. the Empress Messalina was executed after publicly committing adultery and the Emperor vowed never to remarry. Agrippina, however, managed to convince her uncle Claudius to marry her the next year.
As a boy Nero already joined in the Game of Troy during the shows in the circus. He also enjoyed horse races. In 49 A.D. Agrippina appointed the stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (renowned as one ofRome’s greatest orators) as Nero’s tutor. Nero’s aunt was also involved in his upbringing, until 53 A.D. when Agrippina managed to have her sentenced to death on charges of witchcraft. Agrippina also convinced Claudius to adopt Nero as his heir over his own son, Britannicus. Soon afterwards, Agrippina falsely accused the fiancé of Claudius’ daughter Octavia of incest with his sister. Claudius, who deeply loved his daughter, broke off the engagement and then the ex-fiancé committed suicide. Thus, Agrippina arranged Nero’s betrothal to his stepsister. In 53 A.D. they were married: Nero was 16 years old. Having assured her son the throne, Agrippina had her 64-year-old husband-uncle poisoned with mushrooms in 54 A.D. at which point Nero assumed the emperorship.
The first five years of young Nero’s reign under the tutelage of Seneca and Sextus Afranius Burrus were quite prosperous and his evil was well restrained. Soon, however, he turned to a life of excess, seeking luxury and debauchery. He did not love his wife and took the servant Acte as his mistress. Burrus and Seneca hoped she would wean Nero away from his dominant mother and Agrippina became increasingly jealous of Acte’s influence over her son. She even threatened to resurrect the claim of Claudius’ son, Britannicus. On 11 February 11 55, Nero’s 14-year-old stepbrother was poisoned at dinner. Nero stoically claimed that the boy was merely having an epileptic fit. Britannicus was quietly buried the next day.
Agrippina was transferred to a separate residence in 55 A.D. She also disappeared from the coinage, which had previously borne both her and Nero’s image. Acte’s influence, however, soon faded as she was replaced by the love of Nero’s life, the notorious Sabina Poppaea. Nero also took a male favourite, Doryphorus, because he looked like his mother. Nero reportedly had Doryphorus poisoned in 62 A.D. for opposing his union with Poppaea.
In 59 A.D. Nero wanted to kill his mother and sent her on a prepared ship which would collapse at sea. The roof of her cabin was engineered to collapse on her but when she entered she sat on the opposite side and the assassination attempt failed. Agrippina now knew that Nero was seeking her life. She escaped for a while but later Nero had her killed anyway and, to justify the matricide, Seneca wrote some prose accusing her of conspiracy. It is said that when the assassins arrived at her home, Agrippina knew why they were there and did not struggle. Instead, she exposed her stomach to them and told them to thrust their swords into the womb from whence her evil son had come.
With his mother out of the way, Nero, like Caligula, began his trips in disguise to the seedy parts of the city, beating up passers-by. When Burrus died in 62 A.D. and Seneca retired (later to be forced by Nero to commit suicide), the ruthless playboy Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus, one of Agrippina’s ex-lovers, became the new Praetorian Prefect. He shared in Nero’s debaucheries. Soon Nero banished his gentle wife Octavia to theislePandateria. Later, she was ordered to commit suicide by slitting her wrists. She was so frightened that the blood would not flow and so the soldiers put her in a hot bath to force the blood flow. After Poppaea’s divorce, her and Nero were married (62 A.D.).
According to Tacitus, Poppaea had great beauty and sophistication, but no morals. On 21 January 21 63, she gave birth to a daughter, Claudia, who survived only four months. Nero declared that since she was the daughter of a god [i.e. himself] she should be declared a god. A statue was erected in her honour and placed in a local pagan temple. When Poppaea was expecting another child in 65 A.D. Nero, in a fit of rage, kicked her and the unborn child to death. Nero’s remorse and grief were intense, until his eye glanced upon a young man, Sporus, who much resembled Sabina Poppaea in looks. Nero had him castrated and went through a marriage ceremony with him. He dressed Sporus in fine clothes normally worn by an Empress and gave him the nickname “Sabina.” Nero married another former slave, Pythagoras, and had a public simulation of the bridal night. It was said that he acted as husband to Sporus and as wife to Pythagoras. Nero also had a homosexual affection for the actor Paris. He declaredParisa freeborn and asked to be instructed in the art of acting. In 67 A.D.Pariswas put to death because his acting ability surpassed Nero’s. Nero had also fallen in love with beautiful and wealthy Statilia Messalina. He had her fourth husband put to death and made her his third wife in 66 A.D.
Nero’s megalomania was notorious. Treason trials were resumed and taxes were raised, while wealthy men had their estates confiscated. Nero’s love for the theatre became obsessive. He cherished his voice and would lie down with lead weights on this chest to strengthen his diaphragm. The Romans wearied of being locked in theatres and forced to listen to Nero’s ceaseless verses or songs. He even got together a group of young men—the Augustiani—who, according to Tacitus, attended his performances and “maintained a din of applause day and night, showering divine epithets on Nero’s beauty and voice. They were grand and respected as if they had done great things.”
Members of the senate were ordered to attend all Nero’s performances. And woe be to the person who did not display visible delight at his readings and acting! Once when Vespasian (later emperor himself) grew tired and stopped applauding Nero had him dragged outside, beaten up, and ordered to go back inside and resume his applause. At one point, one of Nero’s own senators feigned his own frightening collapse during one particular reading so that he could be dragged outside and then could walk away! Those who did not openly show pleasure at his performances might be quickly executed. He held literary festivals in 60 A.D. and 65 A.D. and at them he recited part of his epic Troica about the Trojan War. He liked to sing his own compositions while accompanying himself musically. In his private circus and theatre, he started performing as a charioteer—which was taboo for an emperor—and actor. He also used to patronise young talents, but later became aggressively jealous of their success.
At least part of Nero’s love for charioting and singing can be traced to his belief that these things were divine. Again, Tacitus provides us with some inside information:
Nero had long desired to drive in four-horse chariot races. Another equally deplorable ambition was to sing the lyre, like a professional. “Chariot-racing,” he said, “was an accomplishment of ancient kings and leaders – honoured by poets, associated with divine worship. Singing, to, is sacred to Apollo: that glorious and provident god is represented in a musician’s dress in Greek cities, and also in Roman temples.”
As you can well imagine, such a megalomaniacal reign threw the Empire into chaos. Civil war became the order of the day. Thus began a demand for a new emperor. A conspiracy to murder Nero during the Circensian Games in 65 A.D. was betrayed and, as a result, 13 people were exiled and 19 died, among them Seneca.
In the spring of 66 A.D. revolts started in the overtaxed provinces. Nero’s removal was demanded. The senate declared him to be a public enemy and condemned him to be flogged to death. Tigellinus (Praetorian Prefect) was seriously ill at the time and Nero lost his nerve. Not realising that he still commanded wide popular support among the common people he planned to flee on a ship, but his guards refused to help him. Around midnight he found himself abandoned even by the palace attendants. When the soldiers came to arrest him on 9 June 68, Nero stabbed himself in the neck. His private secretary then finished Nero’s clumsy suicide attempt.
The Bible and History
The biblical text tells us that “one of [the beast’s] heads was as it were wounded to death.” This fits neatly with the dual-interpretation (i.e. that the beast is both Romeand an individual emperor). Nero, the Emperor of Rome (i.e. one of the seven heads) was killed. But also, Nero was killed with a wound to the head (he drove the sword up into his throat, through his head). Thus, the prophecy is both that the contemporary emperor would be killed with a wound to the head and that the Roman Empire would virtually collapse. Again, history shows that this is true.
Once Nero was dead, Servius Sulpicius Galba—though unrelated to the first six Caesar by birth or by marriage—assumed the title of Caesar. In 61 A.D. he had been appointed governor of the Roman province Hispania Tarraconesis. He eventually fell out of favour with Nero but the emperor committed suicide before Galba could be executed. Galba was extremely unpopular, however, and soon the Roman provinces began revolting, throwing the Empire into further chaos. Although Galba was still alive, two separate proposals were made for a new emperor: Aulus Vitellius, governor of Lower Germany and M. Salvius Otho, former governor ofLusitania. Seven months after assuming the emperorship, Galba was brutally murdered.
Otho was upset because he had not been named by Galba as his successor. Though Otho—whose wife Nero had taken as his mistress before sending him to govern Lusitania—was one of Galba’s earliest supporters, Galba had selected a man by the name of L. Calpurnius Piso to succeed him. Otho murdered Piso and assumed the throne for himself. He was accepted as emperor throughoutRome, except inGermany, where Vitellius was still considered emperor. Otho was emperor for three months before Vitellius marched toItalyto wage war. Otho committed suicide and Vitellius was quickly accepted as the new Caesar. But his popularity did not last long.
In 67 A.D. Nero had ordered General Titus Flavius Vespasianus to march with Roman forces to Jerusalem to quell an uprising by the Jewish Zealots. Whilst Vespasian was besieging the holy city, Nero committed suicide and the Empire was thrown into civil war. Vespasian was a greatly respected leader by the Romans and it was not long before he was asked to return toRomeand help restore order to the Empire. Pulling his armies back fromJerusalem, he returned toRome. Vitellius was murdered a mere six months after being formally proclaimed emperor.
During the reigns of Galba, Otho and Vitellius the Empire was in absolute chaos, what Kenneth Gentry (in The Beast of Revelation) calls “a seething cauldron of leadership struggle.” It was only when Vespasian became emperor (21 December 69) that stability was finally restored. After that, Titus took command of theJerusalem siege and the city and temple were destroyed in September70 A.D. Quite a recovery! Indeed, it seemed as if the beast had been wounded to death when Nero committed suicide. That death seemed slow and painful during the Year of the Four Emperors but eventually the Empire was seemingly resurrected. The beast’s “deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.” Gentry explains:
When Nero committed suicide two major interrelated historical situations presented themselves to the world with catastrophic consequences: First, with the death of Nero the Julio-Claudian line of emperors perished from the earth. In superstitious, pagan fashion Suetonius notes that “many portents” foreshadowed the tragedy that was to be, i.e., that “the race of the Caesars ended with Nero.” The blood line that had given birth to, extended, stabilized, brought prosperity to, and had received worship from the Roman Empire was cut off forever. “Upon the death of Nero on June9, A.D. 68, the first line of Roman Emperors, that of the ‘Julio-Claudian’ House, became extinct. Whatever the demerit of its Princes may have been, their continuity of descent at least preserved theRoman Empirefrom the horrors of civil war.” Thus, “through the death of the last Emperor from the original Julian family, namely Nero, it seemed as through the old imperial power had received its deathblow.” By itself, the cessation of the famed Julio-Claudian line would have caused dismay among the citizens of the empire. But this even does not stand alone.
Second, following the death of Nero and the extinction of the Julian House, the Roman Empire was hurled into a civil war of such ferocity and proportions that it almost destroyed the empire, seriously threatening to reduce even “eternal Rome” to rubble. This well-known fact is of tremendous importance in first century world history.
Gentry continues to quote at some length from Tacitus. A shorter excerpt from Tacitus will suffice to show the near-extinction of theRoman Empire:
The history on which I am entering [i.e. that after the death of Nero] is that of a period rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace. Four emperors fell by the sword; there were three civil wars, more foreign wars and often both at the same time… Moreover,Italywas distressed by disasters unknown before or returning after the lapse of ages…Romewas devastated by conflagrations, in which her most ancient shrines were consumed and the very Capitol fired by citizens’ hands… Besides the manifold misfortunes that befell mankind, there were prodigies in the sky and on the earth, warnings given by thunderbolts, and prophecies of the future, both joyful and gloomy, uncertain and clear. For never was it more fully proved by awful disasters of the Roman people or by indubitable signs that the gods care not for our safety, but for our punishment.
Gentry concludes, “But what eventually happened? Roman historian Suetonius writes: ‘The empire, which for a long time had been unsettled and, as it were, drifting through the usurpation and violent death of three emperors, was at last taken in hand and given stability by the Flavian family’ (Vespasian 1). Josephus concurs: ‘So upon this confirmation of Vespasian’s entire government, which was now settles, and upon the unexpected deliverance of the public affairs of the Romans from ruin, Vespasian turned his thoughts to what remained unsubdued in Judea’ (Wars 4.11.5). In other words, after a time of grievous civil war, the empire revived.”
The healing of the wound seems to be in reference to the Empire rather than Nero himself. Interestingly, there was a myth shortly after Nero’s death that he would be resurrected. But that does not seem to be what the Scriptures are alluding to. Instead, John prophesies of the near collapse and then miraculous ‘resurrection’ of theRoman Empire. Although a brief 18-month period threatened to collapseRome, the Empire revived and continued to rule the world for a further 350 years. The ‘resurrected’ Empire lasted until 410 A.D. when King Alaric I, ruler of the Visigoths, sacked the city. Though several attempts were made to revive the Empire after that, none were really successful.
A Historical Objection
The premise presented above is partly based on the identity of the seven heads. We are told quite plainly that the “seven heads” represent both “seven mountains” and “seven kings” (Revelation 17:9-10). That is, they represent Romeand seven of its “kings,” whom I have identified as the first seven Caesars: Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero and Galba. The objection may be raised, however, that these men were Caesars, not kings. Since Scripture speaks clearly of “kings” and not “Caesars” it must be a reference to some other (possibly future) rulers.
Such an objection, however, ignores something of the testimony of Scripture. When Jesus was on trial, Pontius Pilate found no fault in Him. Presenting Jesus before the Jewish mob, Pilate cried, “Behold your King!” When the Jews insisted that He must be crucified, Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your King?” To which the Jews responded, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:14-15 – emphasis added). We also read of the accusation against Christians in Acts 17:7 that “these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus” (emphasis added). And Peter exhorted Christians living under Roman dominion—in fact, under Nero’s emperorship—to “honour the king” (1 Peter 2:17 – emphasis added).
In all three passages, the Bible clearly refers to Caesar as “king.” Though historians may want to insist that there is a difference between a king and a Caesar the Bible sees them as one and the same thing (much like Scripture refers to the Pharaohs as kings,Acts 7:17-18). Thus, it is no problem to identify the “seven kings” of Revelation 17:10 as seven Caesars.
In sum, the Roman Empire of John’s day was the political beast of Revelation. And the head of that political beast was a beastly emperor by the name of Nero. So who is the beast? Clinton? Hitler? Mussolini? Another unknown political figure in the near-to-distant future? No. Taking the Bible at face value we can conclude that the political beast of Revelation is the Roman Empire of the first century under Nero Caesar.
A Biblical Principle
Several pages of this study have been dedicated to the history of Nero and first-century Rome. Why was that so important? The danger for us is that we think that the Bible is merely a spiritual book. Our spiritual concerns should be dealt with by looking to Scripture, but secular/historical concerns have nothing to do with the Bible or the God of the Bible. If there is one thing we should learn in this study it is that God is the God of history. There is a divine hand behind every politico-historical event in our world.
I was recently talking to a family in our church about my daughter who plans to begin studies in a particular field in university in 2006. “We have sent in the application,” I said, “and now we are waiting to see what will happen.” The husband very wisely reminded me, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Proverbs 21:1).
When things seem most out of control in our world we must remember that God is in perfect control. Again, our contemporary culture has nothing on the beastly culture of first-centuryRome. But if God was in control then, working out His plans for His glory, we can be sure that He is in control today, still working out His plans for His glory. The church survived and soared under the tyrannical reign of Nero Caesar and we should be confident that, by the grace of God, the church can do the same today.
In 2 Timothy 4:17, whilst imprisoned under the rule of Nero, Paul wrote, “I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.” Peter, also imprisoned under Nero, told us that our “adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Both apostles spoke of a lion and the apostle John described theRoman Empireunder Nero as having a “mouth as the mouth of a lion.” I suspect that when Peter spoke of “the devil” as “a roaring lion” he was talking of the Satanic-inspired Roman government under the beastly Nero Caesar.
But Peter did not tell his readers to duck and hide. Unlike many Christians today who are waiting for the supposed rise of the antichrist, Peter’s readers were charged to “resist [the roaring lion] steadfast in the faith” (1 Peter 5:9). Though we do not have to worry about the rising of the beasts of Revelation we can be sure that we face all sorts of beast—both political and religious—in our Christian walk. If we stand fast in the Lord Jesus Christ we can have the victory as surely as the early Christians did, “because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1John 4:7).