The False Prophet and Our Call for Wisdom
Our family once toured the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. That’s where the government prints our money. Most fascinating for me was learning about the security features that mark each bill: imbedded water marks; optical varying ink; fibers that glow under UV light; 3D hologram strips. Each security feature adds protection against counterfeit bills. An eye that’s trained to recognize features of the true bill can discern a counterfeit bill in seconds.
In a similar way, Revelation exists to train our eye to discern the truth from the counterfeit. In chapter 12, we learned of a Dragon who wars against the church. The Dragon is Satan. But Satan works through the Beast. The Beast represents earthly kings and kingdoms who hate Christ. One of the Beast’s tactics was counterfeiting the Lamb.
Today we learn that this Beast doesn’t work alone. He has a religious sidekick. He has a messenger who’s very skilled at deception. He’s very good at persuading people to go with the counterfeit. But that’s why God inspired chapter 13. This vision trains our eye to recognize the counterfeit, so that we’re more equipped to stick with the true Savior, the Lamb. Read God’s word with me, starting in verse 11…
11 Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. 16 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, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
The Beast’s Character as False Prophet
Three observations about the second beast; one exhortation about wisdom and discerning the Beast’s number. First, let’s look at the Beast’s character as False Prophet. Verse 11 begins like verse 1. Only here the second beast rises from the earth instead of the sea. In Job 40-41 you encounter two beasts—Leviathan from the sea; Behemoth from the land. They are beasts that no human can tame.[i] Perhaps John uses Job’s imagery to show how threatening this beast is and how we need God’s help to defeat him.[ii]
Also, earth and sea represent the inhabited world—Satan stirs up trouble from both domains. When he does stir up trouble, he brings forth a beast with two horns like a lamb, and yet it speaks like a dragon. This gets to the heart of who he is. In Revelation, the only other lamb is Christ. The only other dragon is Satan. This beast presents himself as a lamb, as a savior of sorts. But he speaks the lies of Satan. In 12:9, Satan is the deceiver of the whole world; but here we learn of Satan’s mouthpiece on earth.
He is a false prophet. In fact, moving forward in Revelation, that’s what he’s called.[iii] In 16:13, he is the False Prophet—unclean spirits exit his mouth to deceive the kings of the whole world. In 19:20, he deceives those who belong to the Beast. He comes in sheep’s clothing, but he speaks the Dragon’s lies. He’s tricksy.
The False Prophet’s Alliance with the Beast
Second, notice the False Prophet’s alliance with the Beast. Verse 12, “it exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast whose mortal wound was healed.” Back in 13:2, you might remember how the Dragon gives the Beast great authority. On earth, that authority plays out in political and military power. In verses 4 and 5, the Beast amazes people with his ability to conquer and rise to power even after defeat.
Here John adds another layer—a religious one. In Revelation, true prophets bear witness to Jesus’ lordship. But this prophet supports a counterfeit lord. He promotes the Beast’s authority. When we studied the Beast last Sunday, we noted from 17:9-12 that he symbolizes numerous arrogant kingdoms who hate Christ and persecute God’s people. The one Beast has many manifestations. The False Prophet symbolizes those who rise in history to support the Beast’s lordship and lies.
For example, John writes this when Rome has the power. In Revelation, we could even say that John presents Rome as one manifestation of the Beast—that’s clear in chapter 17. Rome was an empire of widespread moral corruption. You find rampant idolatry. Rome exploited people economically and turned image bearers into slaves.
But that’s not what Rome spreads about itself. No, the False Prophet spreads a different message. Rome is where you find peace and prosperity. They even had a goddess named Roma. She personified the Roman state. Her image was stamped on coins. Her statues adorned buildings. When athletes competed, she was prominently displayed. She looks like this strong, virtuous woman wrapped in battle garments. Sometimes she’s seen “reclining on Rome’s seven hills.”[iv] Constantly, the message was Rome is strong. Rome is right. Rome takes care of you. Rome is your peace.
That’s the False Prophet at work. The political and military side of the Beast joins a religious witness to the Beast’s greatness. Now, those reading Revelation know better. Revelation trains your eye to spot the counterfeit. According to chapter 17, Rome isn’t a virtuous woman; she’s an idolatrous prostitute drunk with the blood of the saints. But for those whose eye is not trained—they will believe the counterfeit. They will worship the Beast; and this is the business of the False Prophet.
The False Prophet’s Tactics
Look next at the False Prophet’s tactics. For starters, he pretends to have divine authority by using signs. Verse 13, “It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people.” That sounds a whole lot like Elijah. He faced the prophets of Baal. They couldn’t call down fire. Elijah did call down fire. God proved him true; and the other prophets were false (1 Kgs 18:38). But here the False Prophet succeeds. He copies Elijah. It makes him look legitimate.
That’s not uncommon in Scripture. Think back to Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus 7-8. They replicate some of the miracles that Moses performs. Deuteronomy 13:1-3 speaks of false prophets performing signs. Jesus’ mentions this in Matthew 24:24—“false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” The False Prophet does the same here. The major difference is his goal: his signs lead people away from worshiping the Lamb.
That brings us to another tactic: he promotes idolatrous allegiance to the Beast. Verse 14, “…and by the signs that it’s allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived.” This is how we know he’s false. His goal is idolatry. In John’s day, people set up images of the emperor in local temples. Citizens put them up in places where they gathered for business or sport. It was a sign of loyalty. It won you favor with the emperor and his cohorts.
But the False Prophet takes it even further in verse 15, “it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak.” One obvious critique of idols is that they can’t see or hear or walk or talk. Yet here the False Prophet seems to overcome that weakness. Of course, behind the scenes is something far more twisted. Four times in Revelation, John links idolatry with sorcery—manipulating the supernatural to get results.[v] Sometimes drugs are included.[vi] We also learned from 9:20 that idols are connected to demons; and demons do speak. By tricking them into idolatry, the False Prophet leads them into the demonic.[vii]
The False Prophet also persecutes those who refuse to worship the Beast. Second part of verse 15: “[so that he] might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain.” That is right from Daniel 3, a story many of you have heard before. Nebuchadnezzar—who is a beast in Daniel’s prophecy. He orders the people to make an image for himself; and anyone who doesn’t worship the image must be cast into a fiery furnace. Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego—they fear God. They don’t bow to the image. Nebuchadnezzar throws them in the fire.
One way to get people to comply is to threaten them with death. That’s how beastly rulers get things done. They put a gun to your head and say, “Bow your knee to my agenda…” Many don’t even get to that point, though. They fear the loss of their life long beforehand, and they conform to the Beast’s idolatrous ways. They compromise to keep their lives in this world. It’s a form of slavery. The False Prophet enslaves people to the Beast’s agenda using the fear of death (cf. Heb 2:14).
One more tactic that John sees: the False Prophet pressures everyone with economic “incentives.” Verse 16, “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 unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.” In a second, we’ll get to the Beast’s number. For now, notice the economic nature of his manipulation. Those not marked with the Beast’s name can’t buy or sell.
Now, there’s endless speculation on the nature of this mark. From tattoos to computer chips. Most of it lacks attention to this genre’s symbolism. We know what type of mark this is—it’s a spiritual mark evidenced by who we serve and worship. We saw this in 7:3. The idea comes from Ezekiel 9:4—God marks the foreheads of the men who weep over the people’s idolatry. Also, in Revelation 14:1—which is the next paragraph—God’s people have the Lamb’s name written on their forehead. They are God’s priests. How does their mark show? 14:4 they follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
They stand in direct contrast to the people of the Beast. These people have a mark too; and they evidence that mark by who they serve and worship. They don’t weep over idolatry. They worship the Beast’s image; and for doing so, they benefit financially. Now in first-century Rome, numerous trade guilds ran the economy; and membership to these guilds was bound up with idolatry. If you wanted to make it, you got chummy at the temples. You sprinkled the incense and did whatever else to fit in.
But for those who follow the Lamb, life got much harder. You couldn’t sell your products or your skills to make money. You couldn’t maintain a job. You couldn’t buy groceries. When that means your kids might not eat, you can imagine the pressure to conform? That’s how the False Prophet tricks people into worshiping the Beast.
The Exhortation for Wisdom
Have you noticed the mounting complexities? Political sphere, military power, religious witness, now economic oppression—he’s got a whole interconnected web that demands conformity. We don’t just need endurance—that’s what verse 10 called us to. We also need wisdom to sort through it all. We need the skill necessary to live a life pleasing to the Lord in this kind of world.* We need wisdom to discern the counterfeit.
So, that’s where John goes next in verse 18: “This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.” This is a challenge. But the best approaches come down to two, I think. John’s command to “calculate” the Beast’s number may appeal to an ancient system called gematria. In gematria, a number is assigned to each letter of an alphabet. So, in Hebrew aleph is 1, bet is 2. Once you pass 9, the numbers increase by tens, then later by hundreds. You calculate the number of one’s name by adding the letter-values.
Now, people can get carried away when it comes to calculating the Beast’s name. But what’s nice about Revelation is that John provides a literary context that limits the options. He tells us the Beast’s traits: a blasphemous leader; he persecutes the church; his heads represent seven hills, which doubtless alluded to Rome. When you line up the traits with a name that equals 666, the best option is Nero Caesar. Transliterated to Hebrew, his name equals 666. In other words, if you want a historical example of the Beast’s rule, look at Nero. One weakness to this approach is that it requires an odd spelling of Nero and transliterating his name to Hebrew.[viii]
That leads others to approach 666 as a theological symbol. It’s less about calculating letter-values and more about interpreting what the number pictures. John uses numbers like this elsewhere, even in the next verse with the 144,000. Also, the Beast represents multiple kings versus just one named individual. There’s also a translation issue that favors the symbolic approach. The ESV has “for it is the number of a man.” But it can also read, “for it is man’s number.” Meaning, it’s more about the quality the number represents. This would fit how the Beast repeatedly attempts to counterfeit God. In Revelation, the number 7 is usually associated with God, the Lamb, or the Spirit. The only time it’s not, is when the Beast tries to counterfeit God. But 666 exposes his true nature: he always falls short of God and what God achieves in the Lamb.[ix]
Those are two approaches; I’ll leave it for you to decide. Either way, John unveils the Beast—his true colors show in the rule of Nero, or in any other power that attempts to counterfeit God. What, then, does it mean to calculate/interpret the number of the Beast? It means we must discern the Beast based on the Revelation God gave to John. We must take the images of this book and let them so train our outlook on the world, that when the Beast raises his head in politics, in religious witness, in economic enticements, we can discern the counterfeit. Question is, are you wise to discern the Beast? Do you share the understanding God has granted John and written down for us? Have you allowed John’s vision to train your eye to spot the counterfeit offers of the Beast?
Applying Wisdom in a World of Counterfeits
It’s very popular right now to divide humanity into groups; and for one group—because of some identity or what they’ve suffered or experienced—to perceive themselves as never in the wrong while the opposite group is never in the right. Some call it “identity politics.” Chapter 13 challenges that view of the world by showing how everyone is susceptible to the Beast and the False Prophet.
Notice again the list of people in verse 16: “it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked…” Also, recall verse 7: “authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation.” No group is immune to the Beast’s lies. All have the same problem. What matters most isn’t your group identity on earth, but whether you belong to the Lamb in heaven.
Who do you belong to—the Lamb or the Beast? That’s where John draws the lines. Those are the ultimate lines to consider. What matters most in life is belonging to the Lamb. Without Jesus’ redeeming blood, everyone follows the Beast. The Lamb alone conquers the Beast because the Lamb alone conquered Satan who’s behind the Beast. When you belong to the Lamb, his victory becomes yours. Do you belong to him? Are you marked with the Lamb’s name? If not, then today is the day of salvation. Don’t be lured by the Beast. Repent and believe in Jesus Christ and you will be saved.
If you do belong to the Lamb, evaluate your allegiance to the Lamb. We say that Jesus is Lord. But circumstances will test our allegiance. One way that chapter 13 tests our allegiance relates to politics. The Beast uses political power; and the False Prophet deceives people into trusting his politics. As Christians, we have a responsibility to critically engage the political sphere. But if not careful, that engagement can deteriorate into an idolatrous allegiance to human power. On the Left, government tends to replace God. On the Right, the individual replaces God. From all sides, we’re pushed to trust in man’s power to save instead of God’s.
What about you? Do you have mixed allegiances with the state or with some political leader? How do you respond when others criticize the unrighteousness of your leader or your nation? Is there a knee-jerk reaction to defend or excuse? Remember the messaging of Rome. Rome said they kept people free, safe, prosperous. But behind Rome was a Beast who devours and a False Prophet spreading lies.
Another test relates to the fear of death. The False Prophet enslaves people to the Beast using the fear of death. If the Beast required you to bow, would you be able to resist even to the point of death? Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, could you say, “Our God will deliver us…But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image you set up.” If you’re not there, I’d encourage you to mediate on the truths of the gospel. Jesus entered death before you, and he conquered it—Revelation 1:18. At death, you gain deeper fellowship with Christ: “to live is Christ, to die is gain”—Philippians 1:21. Death cannot separate you from the love of God—Romans 8:38. Because Jesus is risen, you will rise—1 Corinthians 15. Let these truths strengthen your allegiance to Jesus in the face of death.
Then there’s also the test of economic pressure. The False Prophet pressures people to give in using economic “incentives.” In a society saturated with materialism, we need to be especially careful. If our allegiance to money is greater, we will not stand when the pressure comes. That’s why Jesus confronts the Christians in Laodicea. They got so used to the wealth and comforts of Rome, their allegiance to Jesus waned. We are susceptible to the same. Craig Koester asks a great question: “Is your identity determined by the power to purchase goods in the market or by the power of the Lamb, whose blood has purchased [you] for God’s kingdom?”[x] Test yourself in these three areas and see how your allegiance to Christ needs correction or strengthening.
Finally, train your eye to discern the counterfeit. False prophets are usually tricksy. They don’t just say, “Here’s a heresy and a few lies to believe.” No, they come in sheep’s clothing. On the surface, they seem harmless. But beneath the surface, they so the seeds of doubt in God’s word: “Did God really say…” They include just enough truth to keep you locked in while slipping in errors that slowly lead astray.
“Jesus is great,” they might say, “now let me show you the ‘deeper’ things of Christianity.” Or they might say, “Yes, Jesus saves. But what’s the problem with a bit of incense to Caesar? Jesus knows you have to be a citizen of Rome too. He knows you have to buy and sell. It’s okay, conform. Stay relevant.” And slowly the church gets comfortable with the world’s idols. That’s what the false teachers were doing in Pergamum and Thyatira. Balaam and Jezebel had convinced the church that it was okay to eat food sacrificed to idols and to practice sexual immorality. We’re just as vulnerable. Repeatedly the apostles warned of false teachers rising within the church. Even in his letters, John speaks of antichrists infiltrating the church.
So how to do we train ourselves to discern the counterfeit? One way is to guard yourself from putting too much stock in signs and numbers. The False Prophet performed great signs; he also has great numbers following him. We need to see past the signs and the numbers to the substance of what someone is teaching.
You also need to saturate your mind with the Bible. I don’t just mean you know some Bible verses to support your positions—heretics do the same thing. Corrupt political figures use the Bible. Satan quotes the Bible too when tempting Jesus. Being biblical isn’t about having a few verses in your pocket. You must know how the Bible fits together and how the Bible says what it says and how the Bible centers on Jesus Christ and becoming more and more like him. Read it often. Read it in large chunks. Read it in community with other believers and learn to think God’s thoughts after him.
Also, evaluate the goals of a particular teaching. The False Prophet’s goal is idolatry. It’s replacing the Lamb with other saviors. When you hear someone teach—or when you watch a movie or read a fantasy novel; when you listen to a news outlet or a President’s speech; when you hear your pastors preach—what are the goals? What does the teaching lead you to? Does it lead you to trust in the Lamb? Or does the message lead you to trust in other saviors—like government, money, or self? Is the goal fellowship with the triune God—with the Father through the Son by the Spirit? Or is the goal a boost in self-esteem? Does their teaching draw people to the exclusive worship of the Lamb? Or does their teaching compromise worship of the Lamb? Are they seeking fulfillment in Christ alone, or in Christ plus a few other things?
Jesus also says you will know false teachers by their fruits. Another question to tease out would be, “What is the fruit of their lives?” But Trey will discuss that more in a couple of weeks from Matthew 7. These are a few things to consider as you train your mind to discern good from evil. The only way to see the counterfeit is to know the truth, and to cultivate wisdom and understanding based on God’s revelation to man. Chapter 13 is God’s revelation to man. Jesus delivered this vision to John and then to the church to protect you from the Beast. It is his gift to help you discern the Beast’s counterfeits, so that you stick with the true Savior, the Lamb.
The Beast makes himself look like a savior, but he only takes life to further enslave. The Lamb gave his life to free us from our sins, make us one with God, and secure a new heaven and new earth. He is the true Savior. The Lamb is who we worship. The Lamb is who we follow, wherever he goes.
[i] Cf. Anderson, Job, 288.
[ii] In Daniel 7 four beasts initially rise from the sea. They stand behind the Beast of 13:1. But later Daniel interprets them as four kings who rise from the earth. This beast comes from the same region.
[iii] Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10.
[iv] Tabb, All Things New, 13.
[v] Rev 9:20; 18:23; 21:8; 22:15.
[vi] Cf. “a drug used as a controlling medium” in BDAG, s.v. “pharmakon.”
[vii] See Hoskins, Revelation, 247.
[viii] Craig Koester, “The Number of the Beast in Revelation 13 in Light of Papyri, Graffiti, and Inscriptions,” JECH 6 (2016): 1-21.
[ix] Beale, Revelation, 718-28; Hoskins, Revelation, 252-55.
[x] Koester, Revelation, 605.
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