Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Hard things in the Bible, part 5: Beasts, and the Mark of the Beast


If you’ve been following this series, by now I hope you’ve gotten at least one thing firmly embedded in your brain: None of us can just make up an explanation for what the hard stuff in the Bible means.

Or rather, everyone can; anyone can spout ideas about what they think things mean; and therefore none of us should pay any attention to those explanations. The only reliable explanation of a Bible symbol is one which is found in the Bible itself.

I’ve had individuals tell me that ‘the spirit revealed’ to them what this or that passage meant. Does that really make sense? The Bible itself warned us: “Do not believe every inspired expression, but test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God.” (1 John 4:1) It also warns us, repeatedly, not to rely on our own understanding. ‘Follow your heart’ is a Hollywood-ism, not a scripture.

John had good reason for that warning about inspired expressions: It had been 30 years since anyone prior to him had literally been inspired by God. That was a long drought. But that didn’t stop people from claiming they were inspired.

For example: Noting that the Bible is silent on Jesus’ life from age 12 to 30, books such as ‘The Gospel of Thomas’ made up details about miracles Jesus supposedly did during those years. Obviously, any idiot can make up details that are omitted from the Bible. 

I should know: While I followed Acts chapter 27 as closely as possible, I nevertheless made up details about Paul’s catastrophic voyage to Rome for my novel The Minotaur Medallion. But I didn’t try to pass it off as “inspired” – I made it quite clear it was fiction.

We need inspired scripture to explain inspired scripture. We can understand the beasts in Revelation only by reading other passages in the Bible that explain exactly what various symbols mean. And the Bible doesn’t leave us hanging.

The book of Daniel, like the book of Revelation, has several descriptions of monstrous beasts. Unlike Revelation, however, Daniel gives us quite a bit to work with. In Daniel chapter 7, Daniel sees a disturbing vision of four huge beasts. Then an angel explains:

“These huge beasts, four in number, are four kings who will stand up from the earth.” (Da. 7:17)

See? Simple. Beasts = Kings. Now, did the angel mean literally 4 kings, 4 individuals? No. How do we know? The angel says so: “As for the fourth beast, there is a fourth kingdom ...and ten kings will rise up out of that kingdom.” (Da. 7:23, 24)

So each beast is a kingdom, possibly lasting for generations.

In explaining his next vision, the angel told Daniel, “The two-horned ram that you saw stands for the kings (plural) of Media and Persia. The hairy male goat stands for the king of Greece; and the great horn that was between its eyes stands for the first king. As for the horn that was broken, so that four stood up instead of it, there are four kingdoms from his nation that will stand up.” (Da. 8:20-22)

While a Bible beast may stand for a kingdom, the horns on the beast often represent the individual rulers over that kingdom.

Now let’s use this method to define the beasts in Revelation. We’ll take them in the order in which they appear.

1.     ‘A great fiery-colored dragon, with seven heads and ten horns and on its heads seven crowns...’ (Re. 12:3) That one’s easy: A few verses later the account tells us clearly that the dragon is, “the original serpent, the one called Devil and Satan. . .” (Re. 12:9) But why is he pictured with 7 heads and 10 horns? The devil is portrayed in other parts of the bible as a snake or as a lion. Each creature has specific traits. In John’s day, a dragon was a mythical beast, possibly based on fossils of dinosaurs. In any case, the Greek word “drakon” refers to a beast that quickly slurps down its prey. The 7 heads and 10 horns, and especially the 10 crowns, tell us clearly that we are dealing with Satan as a king; his role as ruler of all the kingdoms of the world. That’s not a stretch; in this same passage, when Satan is thrown out of heaven, a voice announces that, ‘Now have come to pass the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ...’ 


2.     Next comes a ‘beast ascending out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, and on its horns ten crowns, but on its heads blasphemous names. [This wild beast] was like a leopard, but its feet were like those of a bear, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.’ (Re. 13:1, 2) The various beasts Daniel recounted in chapter 7 included many of these same features: lion’s mouth, leopard spots, feet like a bear, and so on. In Daniel, it was telling in advance the march of the world’s major powers from Daniel’s time down until the last days – Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, and unnamed governments that would grow out of Rome.  But as we showed in Part 3 of this series, Revelation is a vision of things as if it were written in these last days. So this Revelation beast is a summary, after the fact, of all those world powers in whatever iteration they grew into: All the governments that grew out of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. From Iceland to New Zealand, China to Zimbabwe, it would be difficult to find a country that was not at some point in its history ruled by an outgrowth of one of those powers. The similarity in appearance between this beast and the dragon is not a coincidence. It reinforces that Satan is the ruler of all these kingdoms.


3.     I saw another wild beast ascending out of the earth, and it had two horns like a lamb, but it began speaking like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first wild beast. . .” (Re. 13:11, 12) This beast’s ‘two horns like a lamb’ might remind us of Jesus, who is pictured by a lamb in the book of Revelation. Or it might simply be meant to put us in mind of the gentle nature of a lamb. However, the beast is a hypocrite... an attribute that is very un-christlike. And it is clearly a government. Whatever government is here pictured, it might be one that tries to pass itself off as Christian – remind you of any ‘one nation under God’? – or the symbolism could simply be that of a nation or group of nations that hypocritically pretends to be as peaceable as a lamb while actually behaving like Satan – as, for example, the allied powers of the U.S. and Britain. 


4.     The next beast is called “an image to the wild beast.” (Re. 13:14) This beast is an image, icon, or idol made to look like beast #2 above, the leopard/bear/lion with 7 heads. This image-beast is described as being made or instigated by the lamb/dragon beast. This is something unusual. Most governments arise when a group of people who live in one geographic place organize a government over themselves, which gets passed down in some way to successors. But this beast is created, like a manufactured copy of something else. This image beast is a copy of, or a miniature representation in composite of all of Earth’s governments. What would be the meaning of this symbol? Is there, today, a governmental organization that is like a copy in miniature of all the world’s governments? There is. It is called the United Nations. And, just as John foresaw 2,000 years ago, the U.N. was brought into existence at the instigation of the lamb/dragon – the U.S. and Britain.

 Now: what is “the mark of the beast”?

“High and low, rich and poor, freemen and slaves--it causes a brand to be put on the right hand or on the forehead of every one of them, so that no one is able to buy or sell except those that bear this brand--either the name of the Beast or the number indicated by the letters of his name.” (Re. 13:16, 17, TCNT)

In this loose translation the word “mark” is rendered “brand”. But it’s a good mental picture. The marks put on slaves in John’s day were not written in pencil or ink. They were permanent, what we would today call a brand. Like a cattle brand, they were unique to the owner; they marked whose property the slave was.

So getting ‘the mark of the beast’ is nothing as literal as a particular tattoo, or a credit card, or a vaccine, or getting an RFID chip embedded in our hand. Rather, it shows ownership. Jesus says of his faithful followers, “I will write upon him the name of my God.” (Re. 3:12) Yes, we are slaves. But, as Romans chapter 6 points out, everyone is. You are either a slave of God, or a slave of Satan’s system.

Note what Revelation 19:20 says about this mark: “The false prophet (lamb/dragon)... misled those who received the mark of the wild beast and those who worship its image.”

Those who slavishly support this world’s governments, indicating their belief in those organizations, aren’t forcibly branded, like a slave. They’re worshipers; they're misled. They make themselves slaves. That’s why the ‘mark’ is on the “forehead” – their thinking – and their “hand” – their actions.

What about the part that says, “nobody can buy or sell except a person having the mark”? (Re. 13:17) We’ve seen something like that in miniature a few times over the last few decades. Occasionally, some government somewhere starts requiring people to demonstrate their support of the government in order to do basic business transactions, or even to feed their families. Think of the people in World War II Germany who were expected to say 'Heil Hitler' to the grocery store owner; or the citizens of Malawi in the 1970s being required to show membership in the political party just to buy groceries. Based on this prophecy it’s likely that, before this system ends, we’ll see this happening on a much larger scale.

Before that time arrives, we need to decide whose slaves we are. 

 To read other columns in this series click here.

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Bill K. Underwood is a columnist, Bible scholar and photographer. He is the author of four books available in either paperback or ebook on You can help support this site by purchasing a book.

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