Do you think the figure called “the beast” in the 13th chapter of Revelation is alive today?
Actually, no, I don’t. And I know that by saying so I disagree with a large number of very popular Bible teachers. The beast, as I hope to show, was a first century figure. The book of Revelation itself demands that we look for a figure in the first century, because there are numerous “time-texts” that indicate the prophecies of the book were to be fulfilled soon after they were first given.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to he servants the things that must soon take place (1:1)
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near (1:3)
And there are several other passages that indicate same thing—that the prophecies of the book were to be fulfilled soon after they were given. I don’t think we can do justice to the integrity of the book if we say that the prophecies have not yet, two-thousand years later, been fulfilled.
All the lines of evidence point to the Roman Empire itself, especially personified in the emperor reigning at the time when Revelation was written, one of the most infamous tyrants of history, Nero (r. A.D. 54-68). The manner in which the beast is described perfectly accords with what we know of Nero and the Roman Empire in the first century.
We don’t have the time to give anything like a detailed exegesis of the passage, but let me just mention a couple of things.
In verse one the beast is described as having “ten horns and seven heads”. Later in the book, the ten horns are further described as ten kings who hand over their power and authority to the beast” (17:13). This is probably a reference to the ten imperial provinces of the Roman Empire, each of which had a governor directly accountable to the emperor.
The seven heads are explained in 17:9, as seven mountains. Interestingly, Rome was built on seven mountains, and numerous writers, both Christian and pagan, refer to Rome as the seven-hilled city. So this description of the beast as having ten horns and seven heads fits the Roman Empire, which at the time of John’s writing Revelation was ruled by Nero.
It is interesting to note that a pagan writer by the name of Appolonius of Tyana, who was a contemporary of Nero, described him in remarkably similar terms as the book of Revelation, calling him a “Tyrant,” and a “beast” with “many heads”.
If ever there was a man deserving to be called a beast, it was Nero. Ancient Roman historians describe in detail his many crimes and horrible moral perversions, things too shameful even to mention. He also claimed to be a god and insisted he be worshipped as such, which comes out Revelation, as well. Furthermore, he set fire to Rome and blamed the Christians, whom he persecuted relentlessly.
In verse 3 John tells us, One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. This refers to the death of Nero, and with his death the near collapse of the Empire through the civil wars that followed. Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian line of emperors, the founding dynasty of the Roman Empire. The ancient historians of the time—Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius—all spoke of how the empire nearly collapsed with the death of Nero. His death resulted in a year and a half of civil strife that saw three emperors rise and fall until Vespasian came to the throne. Observers everywhere thought it was the end of the empire. But through Vespasian’s strong and wise rule, the empire continued. It was very much like a deadly wound that had been healed.
We are also told that the beast was given authority to make war against the saints for forty-two months. Nero’s infamous persecution of Christians began in the middle of November A.D. 64 and ended with his suicide in the beginning of June A.D. 68—42 months, just as Revelation had foretold!
It also says that everyone will worship the beast—that is, the emperor—and that a second beast, would enforce the worship of the beast. This is a reference to the imperial cult of emperor worship led by the imperial priesthood that required everyone to recognize the divinity of the emperor.
In verse 14 it speaks of an image of the beast. This refers to the images or likenesses of the reigning emperor placed in temples throughout the empire to be worshipped by the faithful subjects of Rome.
In verses 16-18 John says everyone is caused to have a mark on their right hand, or on their forehead, and that no one should be able to buy or sell except he has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name, the number being 666. The letters of many ancient alphabets, including both Hebrew and Greek also represented numbers. Consequently, names could be reduced to their numerical equivalent by adding up the mathematical value of all the letters in the name.
The beast is a man whose name has the numerical equivalent of 666. And a matter of fact, the Greek form of Nero’s name transliterated into the Hebrew adds up to the dreaded number.
All the lines of evidence for the identity of the beast converge upon Nero. He lived within the time frame which Revelation imposes; his character fits the portrait painted for us in the text; his activity in persecuting the saints for forty-two months corresponds to what Scripture says the beast would do; and the number of his name is 666.
We need not look, then, for some modern figure to fulfill the prophecy of Revelation 13. The prophecy has already been fulfilled in Nero.