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John may well have drawn his basis for the picture of this beast from Daniel 7, which lists a series of four beasts. The first three are similar to recognizable animals, although with additions or modifications. The fourth is compared to no known animal, but is simply "terrifying and frightening and very powerful" (Dan 7:7). The only physical description is that it has iron teeth and ten horns. The beast in Revelation appears related to that one.
This beast is an embodiment of Satan. The seven heads and ten horns on the beast are copied from the picture of Satan in Revelation 12:3. And this is no wonder, for "the dragon [Satan] gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority." He represents the power of Satan on earth and is to Satan what Christ is to the Father. He is even more a pseudo-Christ in that he receives a mortal wound from which he is healed, a mimicked death and resurrection. Because of this event he is worshiped on earth.
The second place where this beast appears is in Revelation 17:3. This chapter explains (Rev 17:8-13) that the symbolism has more than one meaning. The ten horns are ten kings who rule along with a great ruler and support that ruler. The seven heads are both seven hills (a transparent symbol for Rome) and seven kings. Unlike the ten who rule simultaneously, these seven come one after another. John is living in the time when the sixth of them is ruling. The beast himself is an eighth. Yet, inspired by Satan as he is, his real origin is in "the Abyss," the place where Satanic spirits are imprisoned.
Because of the transparency of the symbolism in Revelation 17:9, it would seem that if we knew how John counted the rulers of Rome, it would be fairly easy to discover who the beast was. He should be the eighth emperor of Rome, John living in the age of the sixth. The fact that the Roman Senate declared several emperors to be divine and that some, especially Domitian, claimed divinity during their lifetimes, and one, Caligula, tried to have his statue erected in the temple in Jerusalem, adds to this impression (compare Rev 13:8, 14). Unfortunately we do not know either with whom John would start such a count or whether he would skip some of the emperors who reigned only a short time. Nor are we sure exactly when he lived, for a good case has been made for the time of Domitian ( A.D. 91-96, the traditional date) as well as that of Galba ( A.D. 68). Neither of these dates would meet the requirement of having an eighth emperor fitting the description of the beast.
Yet there is a further problem with the identification of this beast. As we have seen, the seven heads have two meanings, one of which is Rome (the seven hills) and the other seven kings. Some see these kings as literal rulers of Rome (as in the scheme above), and others see them as kingdoms or empires. In Daniel 7:17 the term translated "kingdoms" in the NIV is literally "kings" in Aramaic. That means that John could be shifting from a vision of literal Rome and its emperors to one of a succession of empires.
Finally, in apocalyptic scenarios there is often a place in which the writer "fades out" from the present historical circumstances and sees beyond them to future events. A good example of this is Daniel 12:1. Daniel 11 gives us a picture of the conflict between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires, culminating in the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 B.C. ). If one reads 1 Maccabees or Josephus's histories, it is easy to identify everyone. But in Daniel 12 we are no longer in the realm of history. We are seeing beyond the period of Daniel 11 to the end of history. Since the beast "once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss" (Rev 17:8), John appears to be suggesting that an evil force that had once been destroyed (or perhaps consigned to the Abyss) would reappear, not that a new emperor would appear. This would go beyond anything present in the Roman Empire.
What, then, can we say about the beast? John saw in his vision a personage coming at the end of time who would be the devil incarnate and demand worship. This personage would be accompanied by a second who would seem to be harmless enough ("two horns like a lamb," perhaps suggesting a likeness to Christ, the Lamb), but would speak for the devil ("he spoke like a dragon," Rev 13:11). The second personage will direct worship toward the first. The appearance of these two will be associated with the three-and-a-half-year period of intense persecution at the end of the age. John saw this in terms of the Rome that he knew, perhaps expecting in his own heart that it would happen in his lifetime. We have previously suggested that the vision of Revelation may have been delayed, like Jonah's, due to the widespread conversion to Christianity in the Roman Empire. Whether or not this is the case, all scenarios of the end (such as Paul's in 2 Thess 2) agree in seeing an embodiment of evil, like Antiochus IV Epiphanes was in his day, before the incarnation of good, Jesus Christ, appears.
What this means for the church is that its expectation of the end is not one of gradual improvement or Christianizing of the world until Christ appears, but one of evangelization in the face of persecution, a persecution that will become most severe just before the end. Certainly many Christians have felt they have lived in the times of the beast, such as those living under Napoleon or Hitler or Stalin. Yet they have been wrong in that the end has not come. But will those who live in the age of the real beast have any better insight? None of us evaluate our own times well. The important thing is that Christians respond appropriately to persecutors, whether a beastlike person (such as Hitler) or the genuine beast. John's picture shows that the beast is under the ultimate control of God. His time is limited. His coming and destruction are under the power of God. His persecution will be used by God for the perfection of God's church. The response expected, then, is firm commitment to God. That response will not be wrong in the face of any persecution, even if we are not sure whether or not it is the genuine beast.