Last week, I preached on Revelation 13 at a local campmeeting. After I was through, someone asked if I could make my notes available online. Though I’ll eventually do a much deeper dive on the topic than is possible in a single post, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to post my sermon manuscript as a teaser for what’s to come. So, without further ado, here it is:
Approaching Revelation 13
Revelation is unlike any book in the New Testament. It’s filled with graphic symbols, imaginative metaphors, and countless references to the Old Testament and John’s contemporary culture. This is what makes it such a difficult book to wade through for modern people like you and me. And yet, if we’ll keep a couple of things in mind, we can make sense of it. We simply need to take our time and keep a handful of presuppositions in mind.
[At this point, I gave a quick overview of the content you can find on Understanding Revelation: 3 Things to Remember.]
So, I’d like to invite you to look at this morning’s text – Revelation 13:1-14:5 – with fresh eyes. Let’s try to step back in time and see if we might understand it the way that John and his first-century hearers would have understood it.
The Dragon in Revelation 12
The scene in Revelation 13 is part of a larger vision that extends back to the beginning of chapter 12. In that chapter, we’re introduced to Revelation’s great antagonist: the dragon. We’ll see him appear several times throughout the Revelation’s second half. And he’ll play an important role in the book’s climax.
So, who or what is he?
Throughout the Revelation, John’s angelic guide will sometimes help us out by defining what certain symbols mean. For example, in Revelation 1, he tells us that the seven lampstands John sees around Jesus “are the seven churches.” When he does this, he takes the guesswork out of understanding the Revelation. Fortunately for us, John offers just such a definition for the dragon.
That Serpent of Old
In Revelation 12:9, John writes that “the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world.” By wording it this way, John eliminates any doubt as to who the dragon is. He gives us three different names for the enemy of God’s people: “the serpent of old” (referencing the events of Genesis 3), “the devil”, and “Satan.” There is simply no way that John could have been clearer as to who the dragon is.
And if it wasn’t enough for John to give three different names that clarify the dragon’s identity, he does it twice. Once in Revelation 12:9 and again in Revelation 20:2. There, he writes, “And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.”
If John had really meant that the dragon was something other than Satan, surely there would have been a clearer way to say it. There’s simply no ambiguity here. If we’re going to be faithful to the text, we need to acknowledge that the dragon represents Satan.
So, if this is the case, what does Revelation 12 tell us about Satan?
Satan Wants to Stop God
First, Satan will stop at nothing to destroy the Kingdom and people of God.
Satan Attacks the Child
The dragon tries to devour the “child who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” in Revelation 12:4-5. There’s a great deal of debate about who the child is, with some arguing it’s Jesus and other arguing it’s part of the church. Personally, I tend to believe these verses recount Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus as recorded in Matthew 2. But the specifics are unimportant. And the larger point is clear: Satan desperately wants to stop God’s plan from unfolding.
Satan Wars Against the Heavenly Host
Then, in Revelation 12:7-9, we read that “there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon.” Again, Satan is attempting to throw a wrench into the plans of God. And he’ll literally go to any heights to do it. Now, does this mean that there was an actual war within the dwelling place of God? I don’t think so. Remember, this is an apocalyptic book filled with symbols. Don’t take it too literally. But the larger point is true: There is no length to which Satan won’t go to in order to destroy God’s work.
Satan Persecutes the Woman
In Revelation 12:13-15, we read about another attempt by Satan to wipe out the people of God. John says that “he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male child.” Then, when she escapes his first attempt, he “poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, so that he might cause her to be swept away with the flood.”
If the child is Jesus, then who is the woman? Some have argued that it’s Mary. Others have said it’s Israel. And still others (who understand the child differently) take a completely different position. I believe that the woman simply represents the people of God. Jesus came into the world through the people of God. And when he ascended, the people of God experienced severe persecution. I could spend a lot more time parsing all of that out, but we’ll leave it at that for now. And again, the main idea is evident no matter which position you take: Satan will stop at nothing to destroy the Kingdom and people of God.
Satan Wages War Against God’s People
Finally, in Revelation 12:17, we read, “So the dragon was enraged with the woman, and went off to make war with the rest of her children, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” We don’t have to dig into the specifics here to see the same big idea come out yet again: Satan wants to thwart God’s will.
This is one of the main ideas of Revelation 12: Satan hates God. He hates the people of God. He hates the Kingdom of God. And he will do everything in his power to steal, kill, and destroy what God is doing in the world.
Satan doesn’t just want to pester or annoy us. He wants to crush us. And he wants us sentenced to the same hell he’s destined for.
Sometimes, I listen to Christians talk about how bad things are in the world and I want to ask, “Yea? Don’t you know that we have a supernatural foe who is fighting tooth and nail for our souls? Don’t you realize that the kingdom of darkness is throwing everything imaginable at us? Do you really expect him to go easy on us?”
Satan is out for blood while we’re playing games and arguing about trivia. If Revelation 12 does anything, it should help us see that Satan is serious about stopping God’s Kingdom from moving forward.
Interlude: The Victory of God in Revelation 12
And yet, in the midst of all this dragon talk, there is a refrain that sounds every time Satan tries to snuff out God’s work.
Not Today, Satan
In Revelation 12:4, Satan tries to kill the “child who is to rule all the nations”. But verses 5-6 say that the child is caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman is cared for by God in the wilderness. In other words, God intervenes and says, “Not today, Satan.”
In Revelation 12:7, the dragon wages war against the heavenly host. But in verses 8-9, “the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” Again, God intervenes and says, “Not today, Satan.”
In Revelation 12:13, the woman is on the run, persecuted by the dragon. But in verses 14 and 16, God’s creation shields the woman from harm. And we see God intervene once more, saying, “Not today, Satan.”
You see, throughout Revelation 12, Satan is out for blood. But Satan never gets the final say. God cares for his people. He preserves them when persecuted. And he will accomplish his will.
God Preserves His People
Satan may be pursuing an all-out frontal assault on the Kingdom of God, but remember Daniel’s vision from Daniel 2. He saw a stone that would crush the kingdoms of this world and grow into a mountain filling the earth. There is no stopping the will of God. Even in death, God gives his people victory over sin, Satan, and the grave.
So, throughout Revelation 12, we see these twin realities: Satan is doing everything in his power to tear us apart. But God is faithful to preserve his people.
If you are in Christ, Satan cannot touch you. He can’t separate you from the love of God or steal your salvation. He can’t even take your life without God’s allowing it. In other words, God is always in control. And there is a victory available for all who are bought by the blood of Christ and sealed by his Spirit.
The Beast from the Sea in Revelation 13
The first ten verses of Revelation 13 introduce us to a new character: the beast from the sea. So, who is this beast?
Unfortunately, John doesn’t define him as he does the dragon. So, we’ve got to do a little more interpretive legwork to make sense of the image.
Old Testament Background of Revelation 13
If you’re familiar with Daniel 7 and you read Revelation 13:1-2, you’ll realize that John’s beast looks like all four of Daniel’s beasts had a baby. And what were Daniel’s beasts? The kingdoms of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.
It seems as if this beast from the sea is a mix of all four world empires. But does that mean that it’s going to be some end times conglomeration of nations? Or might it have a simpler explanation?
At this point, it’s worth noting something about sea monsters that John and many of his hearers would’ve known. Throughout the Old Testament, sea monsters were often associated with the sinful empires that attempted to destroy God’s people. For example, both Psalm 89 and Isaiah 30 compare Egypt to the great sea beast known in the ancient world as Rahab. And this makes sense. After all, the seas and their creatures were chaotic, mysterious, and dangerous – just like the sinful nations around Israel.
So, what would John and his first hearers have thought about this beast from the sea?
Wicked Political Powers
Could it be that this beast simply represents the wicked empires of the world? Perhaps the reason it has characteristics of all four Danielic beasts is because it represents all of them, as well as every other rebellious nation. It’s simply an image of sinful political power. And what does sinful political power do? It creates a tower that reaches to the heavens (see Genesis 11). It fashions a golden idol and calls everyone to worship it (see Daniel 3). Or it enslaves people, stealing their lives from them (see Exodus 1-2).
For the first-century Christians hearing this, Rome would have immediately come to mind. As Revelation 13:3 says, “the whole earth was amazed and followed after” Rome. People wondered, “Who is like” Rome, and “who is able to wage war with it?” And like verses 5-6 describe, Rome spoke as arrogantly as anyone could. They blasphemed God by declaring their Caesars divine. Plus, they made war with the saints and had authority over the known world.
Early Christians would have seen Rome in that beast from the sea. But if we step back, we’ll realize that it’s not just Rome that acts as this beast. Countless earthly empires do the same. In fact, I’d argue that every political power on earth has a natural tendency to beastliness in the same way that every human being on earth has a natural proclivity for sin.
So, why are political powers so easily corrupted? Surely part of the reason is the sinfulness of man. Sinful people make up governments and empires. So they naturally tend toward sinfulness themselves. But I believe there’s another important answer.
Satan Works Through Worldly Empires
Notice Revelation 13:2. “And the dragon gave him his power and his throne and great authority.”
Satan was working through the Roman empire, trying to stop the Kingdom of God. You see, Satan is a supernatural being. But he works his way into and through natural things, manipulating, tempting, and leading people astray. Sure, Satan and his demonic hordes can outright possess someone. But more often, they work behind the scenes, quietly leading people into sin and creating chaos.
Revelation 13:1-10 seems to be saying that one of Satan’s favorite means of working against God is by manipulating and controlling human kingdoms. It was Rome in the first century. But since then, it’s been the Ottoman Empire, Nazi Germany, China, Great Britain, and even the United States. Every political power on earth becomes a pawn in Satan’s game. Some have become far more wicked than others, but all are susceptible to demonic influence. And Satan’s willing to use whichever one he can get his claws into.
But why is Satan so interested in controlling earthly kingdoms? Because he can lead people astray, provoking them to give their full loyalty to worldly empires rather than the Kingdom of God. He can tempt people to put their trust in political power rather than the power of God. And he can use those same empires to crush through persecution anyone who won’t bend to his will.
Think about the Christians living in John’s day. The Roman Empire demanded absolute allegiance. And if you weren’t willing to make sacrifices to it and declare, “Caesar is Lord!” it would punish or execute you.
Interlude: The Victory of God in Revelation 13
And yet, even as we read about this empire that’s waging war against God’s people, we get glimpses of hope. God gives us a victory that neither Satan nor the political powers under his influence can snatch away. Even if he takes hold of the greatest, most powerful nations in the world, we are safe and secure in the hands of God.
Look at verse 10: “If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone is killed with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and faith of the saints.” In this verse, John is essentially saying, “The empires of this world can take away our freedoms. They can take away our rights. They can even take our lives. But Christ has given us the victory and the power to persevere in faith through it all.”
As we see Satan working in the nations of this world, it’s easy to get discouraged. Or to feel despair. Or to wonder if we’ll make it.
But we must remember that we have a Kingdom that cannot be shaken. We have a king who has already won the victory. We have a hope that will outlast every earthly kingdom there is. The kingdom of darkness may throw a lot at us, but we’ve already won.
The False Prophet in Revelation 13
Now, let’s turn our attention to Revelation 13:11-18. Here, we meet the third and final Satanic character in this unholy trinity. John describes him as a beast who comes up out of the earth. Elsewhere Revelation calls him the false prophet (see Revelation 16:13, 19:20, and 20:10). And this makes sense. After all, he makes “the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast” (Revelation 13:12).
John goes on to say that “He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth… and he deceives those who dwell on the earth because of the signs which it was given him to perform” (Revelation 13:13-14).
So, what is this beast? Like the first beast we met in Revelation 13, John doesn’t offer us a definition. But if we examine it closely, there are some clues to his identity.
We have here a false prophet who leads people to worship the first beast, worldly empires. So, we might ask: Was there anything or anyone who might have done such a thing in first-century Rome?
Sinful Religious Powers
Yes! There was an entire priestly caste that had a single goal: to lead people in worship to Rome and Caesar. And there were dozens of wealthy aristocrats who drew people into the worship of false gods by paying for idols and temples.
If the first beast is sinful political powers, then you might think of this second beast as a kind of sinful religion. Rather than pointing people to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, this beast points people to anything else.
Sinful religion may look unassuming, gentle, and even good. After all, it does have two horns like a lamb. But it is a satanic deception, leading people into idolatry rather than genuine, undefiled religion. Remember Jesus’ warning about false prophets “who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
You see, Satan does not just work through sinful governments. He also works through sinful religious institutions. But we shouldn’t just beware of overtly wicked things like Satanism. That old serpent can work his way into the most respectable of religions. Any faith that lifts a person, doctrine, practice, or thing to the place of God is a satanic deception. And they’re some of the devil’s favorite tools for leading people astray.
Revelation 13 reveals the two ways Satan loves best to work in the world: sinful empires and sinful religions. Flip through the pages of history and you’ll see that these two forces have been used to lead countless people into idolatry, violence, and death.
And yet, Satan doesn’t get the final word.
The Victory of God in Revelation 14
Revelation 14 begins with these words, “Then I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads”.
Revelation 12 and 13 can be a little bit depressing. We see Satan doing everything he can to stop God and his people. And while God intervenes each time, watching Satan work so tirelessly can leave us feeling spiritually exhausted.
But Revelation 14 offers us a powerful antidote to everything found in the previous two chapters. We see the Lamb standing on Mount Zion with his redeemed people. These people are worshiping God, marked with his seal, and following the Lamb wherever he goes. These are those whom Satan has been unable to fool through his schemes. They have forsaken their old commitments and loyalties. And now they stand confidently with their savior, experiencing an eternal victory that the enemy cannot steal.
Jesus offers us this victory today. It’s a victory over sin, over death, and over Satan. It’s a victory that empower us to live as Christ’s witnesses in the world, free from fear or embarrassment. When we give our faith and faithfulness to the Kingdom of God and its King, we are no longer held in bondage to the sinful political and religious powers of this present age.
We overcome Satan through the victory of Jesus and his cross.
May it ever be so. Amen and amen.