In this chapter, John describes two ferocious beasts. One came from the sea and the other from the earth. I would suggest that John in referring to their origins says they belong to this creation, to the fallen world. The details given of each beast indicate that the first is mainly political and the second is mainly religious. Both beasts together control all human life at that time and they are opposed to the reign of Jesus.
As we look at the beasts we should remember that John was given this vision to help believers make sense of the times in which they lived. They were undergoing fierce persecution and no doubt they often asked why this was the case. John’s answer was, or we should say that the revelation of Jesus was, to use the vision of the two beasts to explain what was taking place in the world.
The first observation to make about the first beast is his similarity to the dragon described in the previous chapter. Both have seven heads and ten horns and prominent diadems. We know that the dragon depicts the devil and John tells us that the dragon gives power and authority to the first beast.
The first beast has additional features which are said to be like wild animals. It is likely that the three earthly kingdoms mentioned in Daniel 7 are joined together to show the unity of this beast. In Daniel 7, the leopard represented Greece, the bear represented Medo-Persia and the lion represented Babylon. They were great political powers in their time and they were opposed to the kingdom of God.
John notes that one of the heads of the beasts had a mortal wound, but made a surprising recovery. Since this beast describes rulers, this feature of recovery pictures ideas or movements that seem to have had their day, but then return with new power and energy. For example, the powers represented by the lion, bear and leopard had gone, yet their influence continued. This ability causes everyone to marvel at the resilience of the earthly rulers and they accept that together the system is invincible. They also recognise where the earthly power comes from, and in one way or another they are led to worship the dragon, the devil.
How long will this system of earthly rule last? John says it will exist for forty-two months or three and a half years, which is the same length of time that the two witnesses are witnessing, that the martyrs are suffering. We noticed previously that this period is a way of describing the time between the two comings of Jesus. So John is being told that this power will exist on earth for that entire period.
What will this system of earthly rule do? It will be marked by pride, by blasphemy and by opposition to God’s cause. I suppose we can say that the essence of pride is self-confidence, and self-confidence defines all types of earthly leaders. In John’s day, the expression of political power was Rome and it acted as if it was divine. Such claims are not confined to history. Many political systems attempt to remove the requirements of God and replace them with their own ideas.
Who will this system of earthly rule govern? The answer to that question is everyone apart from those whose names are written in the book of life. John is not denying that these political forces will be against one another. But he is stressing that what will mark them all is opposition to the kingdom of Jesus.
What will be its focus? The answer to this question is that it makes war on the saints with the aim of conquering them. In one sense, this purpose is a testimony to the progress of the church because the war takes place in every country. This means that when the gospel comes to a country it is inevitable that it will be opposed. The methods will be different, but the aim is the same. Conquer the church.
What makes the difference? John tells his readers that Jesus makes the difference because he is determined to keep those whose names were written in his book of life before the world was created. It is his book because of his death and resurrection and ascension – when he returned to heaven at his ascension he was given this book and he is in the process of securing the salvation of each name written there.
We need to bear this reality in mind when we read that the trouble Christians endure is allowed by God. He could easily prevent it happening. Instead, he uses the suffering of the saints to increase his kingdom. We see that happening throughout the world. Although the gospel is opposed, the kingdom of God grows.
What should be their response? They should persevere in their commitment to Jesus and retain their confidence in him. In John’s time, the commitment may have led to captivity (exile) or to death. They had to count the cost, and we have to as well, even if the price today is not as stark as it was then.