If you have not already done so, I encourage you to read the Prologue to this study, as it provides the framework for understanding the rest of it. Remember that Revelation consists of seven visions which state the same theme of Jesus as Lord.
Fourth Vision: War in Heaven (Revelation 12-13)
The scrapbook of history stretches back from John’s day into the ancient past, showing that earthly persecution and tribulation finds its root in a spiritual conflict stemming from remote times in another realm.
With the conclusion of God’s heavenly temple opening in response to the adoration of Heaven, John sees a new vision: a great woman. The woman is adorned with celestial bodies, like the sun and the moon, and twelve stars, indicating a connection with Israel. To say that the woman is the Church would not be incorrect, either, since the Church was synonymous with Israel for decades.
As she’s positioned to give birth to a son, John sees another sign appear: a red dragon with seven heads, crowns, and ten horns. The big, red, seven-headed dragon swept a third of the stars from Heaven and threw them to earth (the Old Testament uniformly refers to angels as “stars” in poetic language), and then positions itself to devour the child of the woman at birth. When the son was born, he was taken up to the throne in Heaven, where John saw he was to rule (or shepherd) all nations with a rod of iron.
Once the child is safe, the woman fled into the wilderness (the Judean wilderness was a place of simultaneous hardship and refuge for the Jewish people) to a place prepared for her by God—and John said she stayed there and was nourished for 1,260 days. In other words, even though John is seeing cosmic images of the conflict between Satan and the Church, this vision is still connected to preceding visions; specifically, the wilderness sojourn of the Woman directly correlates in tandem with the trumpets via the same 1,260 day/3 ½ year period. This portion is the summary of Christian persecution: the great dragon oppresses the Church-in-waiting until the Son of God places all things under His feet.
With these concepts in place, the heavenly conflict is magnified: rather than a mere sweep of the tail that sent the stars from heaven to earth, the dragon is seen making war in Heaven against Michael. Michael and his angels defeat the dragon, and so the dragon and the rebel angels are cast down to earth.
The Woman is preserved by God for the same duration as before, so that in case there was any confusion, this was a magnified retelling of the same sign John had just witnessed.
Since the Woman herself could not be destroyed, as she is the spiritual Israel, then the Dragon turns to her offspring, that is, individual believers among the Body. This context is crucial for the next element of the vision, as many readers make the mistake of interpreting Revelation 13 and the beasts within it as an isolated event, rather than being directly rooted in the conflict between the Woman and the Dragon in chapter 12. Chapter 13 is a detailed description of how the Dragon works to destroy the Woman’s offspring.
The Dragon does not pursue the Woman’s offspring directly. Instead, it summons a beast out of the sea. The sea often represented foreign oppression, as many foreign aggressors attacked from the sea (such as the Philistines), and it contrasts sharply with the domestic concept of their Promised Land. The first beast arose from without, not from within.
The beast from the sea has seven heads, seven crowns, and ten horns—just like the Great Red Dragon. What this imagery has done is identify foreign oppression (such as the Roman occupation of Judea) with the power and authority of Satan. The emperor-worship of ancient Rome was not an accident of culture; it was specifically orchestrated by Satan in order to deceive the world and Israel into giving honor to him, hence the blasphemous names written upon the heads.
Rome “civilized” the world with its influence stretching even into modern times (such as any nation which holds a Senate), but even at the height of its power, it still only serves as a physical example of a spiritual concept—a beast, or world power, which persecutes the people of God and turns unbelievers toward the Dragon.
The New Testament is replete with warnings not to follow the “god of this age/world” and not to be fashioned “after the pattern of this age/world,” so the function of the beast would have clearly identified it to the early church readers and listeners as the spiritual machine, engine, or force behind the world system. It is not an arbitrary prejudice the world system holds against Christians; it is by premeditated satanic design.
Amidst the dragon-like beast’s oppression of the saints (socio-political persecution and everything that entails), there is a second beast which arises out of the earth. Whereas the beast from the sea resembles the Dragon and implies foreign aggression, the beast from the earth resembles a lamb, though it has the voice of a dragon. The Promised Land was the basis of God’s covenant with Israel; when the people abused the Land, they were punished and eventually evicted, and when they repented, God returned them to it.
Through its resemblance to a lamb (specifically, the Lamb from the previous visions) and its rise from the earth, the second beast has an innately religious element that is plain to Hebraic thinking. This is the second phase of the Dragon’s attack against the Woman’s offspring, for those who are not defeated through civil oppression may be overcome through religious subversion. The lamb-like beast acts in the authority of the dragon-like beast, which was itself empowered by the Dragon. The lamb-like beast performs signs and wonders akin to the Old Testament prophets. The worst part is that the lamb-like beast “gives breath” to the image of the dragon-like beast, and that image goes out and slays all who refuse to worship it. “Gives breath” is a very spiritual phrase, as it is what made Adam a “living soul” in the Genesis account of Creation. The lamb-like beast ensures the efforts of the dragon-like beast.
This image of the dragon-like beast is all-encompassing, intruding into every aspect of life via a mark on the forehead or hand. The early believers understood the economic hardships very well, as many Christian tradesmen found themselves out of work because they were forbidden to practice their trade (another reference to a previous vision, specifically, to the third seal).
The message is clear: unless your name is in the Lamb’s book of life, then you will be taken in by the spirit of this world—if the obvious hook doesn’t snag you, then the subtle hook will.
Much has been made over the number “666,” which ought to be read as “six-hundred sixty-six,” not “six-six-six,” particularly because the phrase is often translated as “the number of a man.” If any one man were to fit the scenario, it would probably be Emperor Nero—a notorious persecutor of Christians, a mad tyrant by all other criteria, and whose very name is practically synonymous with emperor-worship (not to mention the Greek spelling of his name, Neron Caesar, has a numerical value of 666). However, even Nero the man must be ultimately set aside, as Revelation is about more than one period of time, but is about the revealed will of God for the ages. Whoever fits the shoe may wear it, and Nero most certainly wore the shoe at the time of the original writing. The point is that Nero and his counterparts are merely puppets of the Dragon in the war against God’s people. Therefore, the primary point is not the identification of any specific man, but a clear understanding of the archetype which any evil man in any evil age may fill. Moreover, if any leader does these sorts of things, then he is under the influence of these beasts, these spirits, these systems of evil as the latest chapter of the Dragon’s war against Heaven. This vision follows the rest in order to give subtext to the tribulation in the previous vision.