The role of the second beast is to ensure that the first beast remains in charge. It looks like a lamb, yet speaks like the devil (the dragon). The main function of the second beast is deception and it does this by a combination of the miraculous and the oppressive.
We can see the miraculous in the signs it performs and we can see the oppression in the way it compels and prevents people from doing anything without its permission. Three activities of the second beast are mentioned. As we think about them, we should recall that John is describing details in a vision and not literal events.
First, the second beast could perform great signs. We know that throughout the Bible this was the case. The magicians of Pharaoh could imitate some of the signs performed by Moses and Aaron. Simon the sorcerer used signs to deceive the inhabitants of Samaria. John observes that all the signs are done in the presence of the first beast. This is not a suggestion that the signs only occur in the physical presence of a ruler. Instead it is an acknowledgement that the presence of the first beast covers everywhere, and wherever the first beast is acknowledged, the second beast will perform signs in support of whoever is in charge. Christians then had to face hostility from the combination of political and religious powers everywhere.
Next, the second beast encouraged idolatry. In the vision John saw, we can see an allusion to the great statue that Nebuchadnezzar had erected and by which Daniel’s friends found themselves in trouble for refusing to worship it. The method of idolatry in John’s vision was for the second beast to make an image of the first beast and to give it powers such as speaking and murdering. We are not to imagine that such an idol ever existed. What we have is a reminder of the effects of idolatry. Followers imagine the image can speak and they will dedicate themselves to kill those who oppose it. One example of devotion to an idol is seen in the account of Paul in Ephesus when he was opposed by the craftsmen who were devoted to Diana. Christians suffered martyrdom and other consequences because of their refusal to participate in idolatry.
Third, the second beast also enabled the first beast to have economic control of everyone. In John’s day, the common sign of ownership was to brand a slave with a mark on the hand or the forehead. The second beast and the image of the first beast bring about a form of universal slavery that includes everyone whether they were literally free persons or slaves, whatever their age or social status. This is a picture of how the whole world is enslaved through the activities of the second beast to the first beast, and through him to the devil. Christians knew that this was the real situation. The whole world, as John says elsewhere, lies in the evil one. Paul reminded the Ephesians that the devil blinded people to their spiritual state.
What is the significance of the number 666? John expects wise believers to be able to work out who or what is intended. We can see that the mark of worldwide slavery in this vision is 666 and that the vision is not describing a slavery that is only future or one that is only past. Moreover, the number covers everywhere and every activity apart from what is done by the people of God. The wise suggestion that appeals to me is that this number falls short of perfection, that it describes human attempts to create society without the influence of God. In other words, it summarises sinful mankind’s political and religious activities.
Who will not worship the image of the beast? It is clear from the vision that those who refused to acknowledge either of the beasts were Christians. In a simple way, all that the early Christians had to do was say ‘Caesar is lord’ and participate without causing trouble in the temple feasts in which most of society participated. But many of them knew that they could not do so.