The Woman, the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet
Up to this point in Revelation, John has first introduced himself and the churches he is addressing the book to, pointed out the flaws in the 7 churches who are about to undergo a tremendous tribulation, shown that God is still on His throne even though circumstances may indicate otherwise, described the breaking of the 7 seals, shown the sealing of God's people, described the blowing of the 7 trumpets, and shown us the conflict between the 2 witnesses and the Beast.
At this point in Revelation, John takes a deep breath and slows down the pace considerably. You would have thought that after the 7th angel had blown his trumpet, that God would have immediately proceeded with the 7 bowls of wrath. If God had done this though, there would have been a major gap left in Revelation. For example, why is God pouring out all this wrath upon the earth? Chapters 12-13 are basically explaining why God is pouring out this wrath upon the world. First, John will show us that a spiritual war is going on between Christ and Satan, and that this spiritual war serves as the basis of what is happening on earth during the tribulation; then he will show us the human characters who are involved in this great spiritual struggle.
Just a note here about the time element in these next 4 chapters. Chapters 12-14 do not follow chapters 6-11 chronologically. Basically, these chapters are describing some events which take place throughout all the tribulation (Rev. 13), some events before it (Rev. 12), and some events even at the end of the tribulation (Rev. 14). You've got to be very careful with the time element in Revelation; otherwise, you may be misplacing some major events in the book.
THE SIGN OF THE WOMAN AND THE DRAGON (12:1-17)
John says that at this time he beheld another vision in heaven--a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, on her head a crown of 12 stars, who also happened to be pregnant. Some immediately jump the gun and claim that this woman represents the Jewish nation because this woman produces the male son who will rule the world with a rod of iron--Christ. They support this view by comparing it with Joseph's vision of himself and his family in which his father Jacob and mother Rachel were the sun and the moon, and he and his 11 brothers were 12 stars. Whereas this view may be valid, it by no means is the only view.
One view that has gained wide-spread acceptance is the one which claims that this woman represents the people of God (believers of all ages--in the days of the OT and also in the days of the NT). The reasons for this view are (1) the woman resides in heaven and not on earth where the Jews lived when Christ was born and (2) Paul seems to be referring to this very idea when he claims that there is a heavenly Jerusalem which is the Mother of all believers (OT saints and NT Christians), whereas the earthly Jerusalem is the mother of those Jews who were hostile towards Christ (Gal. 4:24-26, especially v. 26). Those who oppose this view claim that the people of God did not produce the Christ whereas the Jews did. This argument collapses in and on itself because the Jews no more produced the Christ than the heavenly people of God did. Jesus was just as much descended physically from the people of God as He did from the Jews because Mary was not only a Jew but also a genuine member of God's heavenly family.
In addition to seeing this heavenly woman, John also sees a great red dragon--Satan, the one who slanders God's people constantly before God--who is crouched before this woman ready to devour the offspring she is about to produce. This dragon is of monstrous proportions. He has 7 heads and 10 horns--the heads representing great wisdom with the horns representing great power. He is so powerful that his tail casts down 1/3 of the stars in heaven. The moment the Son is born, God foils the plans of the dragon by snatching Him into heaven where He sits safely on God's throne, reigning with God. The woman, on the other hand, flees into the wilderness for a period of 3 1/2 years where she finds refuge from the dragon. The dragon, on the other hand, turns his sights to the male child who is on the throne and attempts to destroy Him even though He is with God on the throne. Michael, the great warrior angel, does not fight on behalf of the woman or even Israel but on behalf of the male child. Michael with his angels achieves a victory against Satan that is so great that Satan is thrown down to the earth. Heaven is so joyful that she is finally rid of the dragon that she erupts into praise over his expulsion. At the same time though, heaven laments the fate about to befall the earth. Satan, knowing that his time on earth is limited, focuses all his attention on the woman to exact his revenge against the male child. This proving futile, he now turns his attention to the rest of her offspring whom we know to be Christians because they keep the commandments of God and hold onto the testimony of Jesus.
Just when did all this occur? Normally stars in Revelation refer to angels; therefore, it says that when Satan cast 1/3 of the stars down from heaven, it probably means that in his revolt against God, he was able to influence 1/3 of the heavenly hosts to support him in his rebellion. This occurred before his conflict with the male child. Just precisely when we don't know. Before the creation of the world or just before Jesus' incarnation? To be dogmatic at this point would be careless.
Nevertheless, the conflict between the male child and the dragon most likely refers to the conflict between Christ and Satan during Christ's stay up on earth. Even though only one verse summarizes this conflict, this verse most likely covers Jesus' entire time upon earth because the verse begins with Jesus' birth and ends with His exaltation to the throne of God which occurred only after His death and resurrection. This verse then describes the victory Jesus achieved over Satan during His stay upon earth but especially on the cross and by means of His resurrection.
When Satan realizes that his campaign against Christ has failed, he focuses his attention on the woman who produced the male child. Although God's people are ultimately safe from Satan as seen in the fact that even the earth helps the woman by swallowing up the flood which Satan pours out against them, God has still given Satan the power and means to persecute His people on earth. The dragon has failed in his war against the woman and the male child. Now he will direct his hostility against the children of the woman. In order to accomplish his goal, the dragon will be aided by 2 assistants--2 beasts. This forms the major part of chapter 13.
THE BEAST (13:1-10)
Having been thwarted by Michael and the earth in his wars against Christ and the Heavenly Woman, the dragon now turns to 2 assistants who will aid him in his campaign against God's people--the Beast and the False Prophet. (Note that these are his assistants. They are carrying out the dragon's purpose and plan, and not their own. Whatever hostility God's people experience during this time of tribulation, they need to remember that ultimately this is not about them; it is about Christ and Satan). The dragon stands on the sands of the seashore where he sees another Beast coming up out of the sea. What does the sea represent? The world of people in a state of constant unrest and turmoil (Rev. 17:15).
This beast is very similar to the dragon in that he has seven heads and ten horns, symbols of great authority and power. Later (Rev. 17:9, 10), John will reveal to us that the 7 heads represent 2 things--(1) the seven kings of the empire which oppresses God's people and (2) the 7 hills upon which the capital of the beast's kingdom lies. The beast is also a composite of various dangerous animals. He has the body of a leopard, the mouth of a lion, and the feet of a bear, all symbols of great power and viciousness. If John is alluding to the book of Daniel, then these 3 animals represent 3 different kingdoms--the Babylonian empire (lion), Mede-Persian empire (bear), and the Greek empire (leopard)--all three vicious even by today's standards. By claiming that this empire was a composite of these 3 animals, John may be saying that the Roman empire of his day (and the future empire of the beast) is far worse than the other 3.
This beast has a unique feature about him which helps us discover the identity of the beast during John's day and time. According to John, this beast has a head which had been mortally wounded and yet had miraculously come back to life. Later (Rev. 17:11), John claims that the beast himself is the eighth king of the empire. This beast is the head which had been mortally wounded and yet brought back to life. Now just who is this beast?
Before we answer that question, remember the historical context of the book of Revelation. When John writes this book, he is in exile on the island of Patmos because he was a Christian. Furthermore, he claimed to be a partaker in the tribulation which was in process (Rev. 1:9). Also, he warned several of the 7 churches that not only was a time of great tribulation approaching but that they themselves were going to go through that tribulation (Rev. 2:10, 13). Finally, remember that John is addressing this letter to the 7 churches of Asia Minor. He's not writing it to you and me. The initial recipients were the 7 churches; as a result, we need to understand how it relates to their situation before we understand how it relates to ours. THIS IS ONE OF THE CARDINAL RULES OF INTERPRETATION!
Having laid this groundwork, who then is this first beast? He must fulfill 3 requirements. First, his capital lies on a city of 7 hills. Nearly everybody with any knowledge of geography and ancient history will readily identify this city as Rome which had been built on 7 hills. Second, this beast is the 8th of all the kings of that Roman empire. Domitian, the emperor who ruled during John's day fits the bill for this description. Some may object to this because he technically was the 11th emperor; however, 3 of them ruled for only a few months at the most and that the rest of the empire never even had time to acknowledge them as emperors. Third, he qualifies as the head which was slain and yet restored to life. How? Roman legend claimed that the emperor Nero one day would rise from the dead and lead an army of Parthian cavalrymen to conquer Rome. In 68 AD the Roman Senate had ordered Nero's execution because of his mismanagement of the Roman empire. In response, Nero fled and slit his throat to escape the Senate's wrath. Rumors circulated around Rome that this most evil of emperors had not really died but had fled to the East to assemble his army to fight Rome. This explains why John 3 times speaks of armies of Parthian cavalrymen embarking on a war against the Romans (Rev. 6:2; 9:13-16; 16:12-16).
Although John knew full well that Domitian was not Nero raised from the dead, he nevertheless saw him as Nero incarnate because he was even more vicious and evil than Nero. Why? First, because this beast was engaged in waging war against God's people for 3 1/2 years--probably the length of time the beast warred against the 2 prophets in chapter 11 (a parallel passage to the present one). Second, because this beast spoke out blasphemy against God and His people. One of the titles Domitian appropriated to himself was that of "Lord and God." After many of the Roman emperors had died, the Roman Senate decided to bestow the status of deity upon them. (How strange that they would label somebody a god when that person had just done the most ungodly thing of dying). Well, Domitian did not want to wait that long. Instead, during his lifetime, he induced the Roman Senate to bestow upon him the status of deity. In fact, he refused to acknowledge anybody who forgot to address him as "Lord and God."
Now, is Domitian the ultimate fulfillment of the Antichrist? No, because Revelation has not found its ultimate fulfillment with the complete destruction of the world and the return of Christ; however, Domitian is the Antichrist of Revelation and the Antichrist of John's day. There are just too many "coincidentals" between John's description of the Antichrist and the person of Domitian to draw any other viable conclusion.
But what about the final Antichrist? Just who is he? The apostle Paul in harmony with John's description of the Antichrist gives us further clues on how to identify the Antichrist. According to Paul, this Antichrist will likewise blaspheme against God by appropriating to himself the status of being God. Moreover, he will do this in the Temple of God. In other words, the key to identifying the Antichrist is the blasphemy he engages in while in Jerusalem on the Temple mound. The Temple itself might not have to have been rebuilt; however, he will make this claim on that mound (2 Thess. 2:3-4).
THE SECOND BEAST--THE FALSE PROPHET (13:11-18)
The Antichrist is assisted in deceiving the world and in persecuting Christians by a second beast called the false prophet. This beast resembles a lamb with 2 horns. Horns once more represent strength; however, his strength is limited because he only possesses 2 as opposed to 7 horns which Christ the lamb possesses. This beast resembles a lamb because he tries to portray himself as being the prophet associated with the true Christ but which in reality is the Antichrist. He assists the first beast by performing signs in his presence. Moreover, he persecutes by means of economic and physical persecution those people who refuse to worship the Beast. For example, when we read about the church at Smyrna we see that it was a poor church. The reason it was poor was most likely due to economic persecution (Rev. 2:9). Those who engaged in emperor worship received some kind of identifying mark or paper which allowed them to engage in commerce; on the other hand, those who did not have this identifying mark or paper suffered economic persecution.
Just who or what exactly was this second beast in John's day? The Roman government had as one of its arms an agency called the Roman concilia. Its primary function was to promote worship of the emperor. Those who complied received favor from the concilia. Those who did not risked persecution even unto death. Sources from this period inform us that even the Jews engaged in emperor worship rather than risk persecution. Only the Christians stood firm and proclaimed that Jesus Christ alone was Lord and God.
At the end of chapter 13, John writes that the Beast (Antichrist) has a name which has the numerical value of 666. Just what exactly did John mean by this? In his day, letters also had numerical value. It would be the same as claiming that the letter A had the numerical value of 1, B had the numerical value of 2, C-3, D-4, etc. In that case, the numerical value of the letters in the name Carey would be C-3, A-1, R-18, E-5 and Y-25. The numerical value of the name would then be 52. Well, using the Greek system of numbers, the numerical value of the name of the Antichrist was 666. Remembering that John the apostle spoke primarily Hebrew instead of Greek, we discover that the numerical value of the name Caesar Nero in Hebrew is 666. This fits in well with the theory that the Beast is none other than Nero come back to haunt the world in the person of Domitian. This is not saying that Domitian was Nero reincarnated but rather that he was so much like Nero that he was just as good as being Nero.