“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11)
And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast. And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?” (Rev. 13:1–4).
At the beginning of this next chapter, we have the introduction of the great beast from the sea. This is one area where most commentators agree—a remarkable feat given the nature of this book. This beast is best understood as representing the Roman Empire, for some of the following reasons:
The sea represents the Gentile nations generally (Is. 17:12; 60:5). In Daniel 7:1-7, we are given a description of four beasts, representing successive empires. The fourth in that series was the Roman Empire, and the description of the beast here largely matches the description given by Daniel. At the same time, certain features of the earlier beasts from Daniel are incorporated by John into his description of Rome, making Rome here something of a culmination beast. For example, the image of leopard, lion and bear are used by Daniel for the earlier empires, but by John here they are incorporated into Rome. And when in one instance Paul was delivered from the power of Rome, he described it as being delivered from a lion (2 Tim. 4:17).
Rome was known as the city of seven hills, and additional information gleaned later (from Rev. 17: 9-11) tells us that the seven heads of the beast were doubly symbolic. They represented seven kings, and they also represented seven hills. Rome was known in the ancient world as the city of seven hills, and just as we recognize the Big Easy as New Orleans, or the Windy City as Chicago, so the first century readers would have known instantly that we were talking about Rome.
The fact that the seven heads were seven kings also helps us date the book using internal evidence. Beginning with Julius Caesar, Rome had seven emperors during this period. They were Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, followed by Galba who reigned a “short while,” meaning just a few months. These heads, we are told, were crowned with blasphemy, and it is striking that Caesar worship began in the reign of Augustus, and was particularly intense in Asia Minor—where this book was addressed.
This also helps us understand the head wound that the beast suffered, but then recovered from miraculously. So John tells us that five emperors “were,” meaning that the sixth “is.” Nero was forced to commit suicide in 68 A.D. and that plunged Rome into anarchy and turmoil. It was remarkable that Rome survived at all, and it is also noteworthy that all this happened at the same time that Roman armies were besieging Jerusalem. This is internal evidence that Revelation was given during the reign of Nero, sometime before the destruction of Jerusalem.
After Nero’s death, three emperors ruled within the space of one year—Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. The empire was entirely destabilized. Vespasian was the general who was fighting against Jerusalem, and so he turned things over to his son Titus, returned to Rome and restored order. The Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill was burned in 69 A.D. in the fighting of their civil war. It really was a narrow go.
We should also keep in mind the fact that Satan was the spiritual authority behind Rome. It says several times in this text that the beast obtained its power from the dragon—just as principalities and powers backed the ancient empires of the Old Testament, this was also true of Rome, with Satan as the spiritual force behind the throne—“gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.” The scarlet color of the beast matches the dragon, not to mention the number of heads and the number of horns (Rev. 12:3; 17:3). So the beast from the sea represents the persecuting power of unbelieving political authority, embodied at that time in Rome.
This is an important anchor point for interpreting the rest of the book. If the beast from the sea is Rome, it helps us understand what some of the other symbols must be.