Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.
Another beast, the last of our unholy Trinity of perverse powers arises from the earth, acting with the authority of the First Beast, and sounding like the dragon which came before. Contrast this beast with the church, which has been given authority by Jesus Christ (Matthew 18.18-20), and seeks to be renewed constantly by the Word of God – perhaps this is our clue. The cults of the Roman Empire had their own priests and power, evangelising people to accept the claims of their man-God-Caesars. This beast is a shadow reflection of a Holy Spirit, it animates death and fear. It has the power to put to death those who refuse to ‘worship the image’ of the emperor who is a self-declared god. The Christians have reason to fear this beast, or pretend not to see it, but they refuse to give it power over themselves by studying it, and seeing it for all it is. This beast is wounded but not yet dead. Its power is surely waning?
Those who read Revelation looking to see if we are yet in the moment it describes often fix on the last part of this passage – when the Christians will know the human beast by the riddle of its number, 666. This string of three numbers can start to be everywhere if you look for it, but trying to read the number into our present instead of that of the seven churches may miss the mark. The transactions of buying and selling permitted only through the beast’s mark – think of the man-god’s face upon the coinage – represent not just trade but seeking social approval. As we see in Revelation 14, the faithful are themselves marked out by the names of Christ and God written over their hearts and minds. Beware that the desire to succeed, fit in, and be loved God’s holy claim that “you are my people and I am your God”.
Today reflect with these words from Martin Luther, translated by Stephen Orchard, and pray for the strength to face up to evil in all its forms.
“And though the world seems full of ill, with hungry devils prowling, Christ’s victory is with us still, we need not fear their howling. The tyrants of this age strut briefly on the stage: their sentence has been passed. We stand unharmed at last, a word from God destroys them.” (Rejoice and Sing, 585)
The Rev’d Dr ‘frin Lewis-Smith is a healthcare chaplain in Salford and member of The Church at the Centre, Tonge Moor