October 19: Revelation 13:13-15

Revelation 13:11-18, continued

The appearance and character of the creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) coming up out of the Earth was described in vv. 11-12 (cf. the previous note); now in vv. 13-18 the creature’s actions are described. These actions are intended to ensure that all people on the earth worship the Sea-creature, and are centered on both an image (ei)kw/n) and ‘mark’ (xa/ragma) of the creature. The image (vv. 13-15) reflects civic pressure to conform, while the ‘mark’ (vv. 16-18) involves commercial pressure. Christians in all times and places have faced pressure (and persecution) on both of these fronts, to varying degrees. And, correspondingly, the symbolism here can have a universal application to believers everywhere. However, we must begin with, and focus primarily on, an examination of this vision from the standpoint of how it would have been understood by the author and Christians (living in Asia Minor) at the time. This is all the more important here, since the details of vv. 13-18 have been subject to all kinds of speculation, much of it quite implausible (even preposterous), and nearly all of it far removed from the original setting of the book.

Revelation 13:13

“And he makes great signs (happen), (so) that he should even make fire step [i.e. come] down out of the heaven (and) onto the earth, in the sight of all men…”

This first statement draws upon the notice in verse 12 that the Earth-creature acts with the authority/ability (e)cousi/a) of the Sea-creature. Literally it was said that the Earth-creature “makes” (poiei=) things happen with that authority, and also makes that authority function on the earth, which is his domain. The same basic verb (poie/w, “do, make”) is used here to clarify something of how this authority and power is made manifest: “he makes [poiei=] great signs [shmei=a mega/la] (happen)”. The noun shmei=on can indeed be used to refer to miracles a person performs, but only so far as they are an indication (and demonstration) of divine/supernatural power. Elsewhere in the book of Revelation shmei=on is used for momentous images seen by the visionary, which are clearly recognized to be of great significance and meaning (12:1, 3; 15:1). However, in 16:14 and 19:20, the plural again occurs in precisely the same context as it does here—for the supernatural power and miracles demonstrated by the creature.

These miracles are understood to be real (i.e. not illusory), performed through the evil (demonic/Satanic) power of the Dragon. This is made clear enough in 16:14, as it is also of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:1-12 (see v. 9), an eschatological passage which has much in common with the visions of Rev 13. In 2 Thess 2:9, the “signs” are said to be false (yeu=do$), in the sense that they deceive people and lead them astray. Here, too, the Earth-creature has the nature of a “false prophet”, an association made explicit in the subsequent visions (16:13; 19:20). In particular, the image of bringing down fire from heaven draws upon the famous traditions in the Elijah narratives (1 Kings 18:24, 37-38; 2 Kings 1:10-12). The motif came to be a traditional allusion to prophetic ability and power (Luke 9:54, etc). The idea of fire from heaven also relates to the essential imagery of storm and sky deities (including Zeus in the Greco-Roman world), manifest in, but not limited to, the natural phenomenon of fires being started on earth from bolts of lightning.

In passing, it is worth noting here that miracles and supernatural events often surrounded prominent leaders, as part of the general superstition and religious understanding of the ancient world. In particular, supposed miraculous events involving the Roman emperors were part of the fabric of the Imperial cult. We might mention certain legendary details associated with the emperor Vespasian (Tacitus Histories 1.86; 4.81.1-3; Suetonius Vespasian 5.7; 7.2; cf. Koester, p. 592), whose reign (69-79 A.D.) likely occurred not long before the writing of the book of Revelation.

Revelation 13:14

“…and he makes all the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth go astray through the signs, th(ose) for which power was given to him to make (happen), in the sight of the wild animal, saying to the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth (that they are) to make an image [ei)kw/n] for the wild animal, th(e one) which held a strike of the sword and (yet) lived.”

Here we see the effect of the supernatural “signs” performed by the Earth-creature. It is said that he tells the people of earth to make an image of the Sea-creature, but, in a real sense, this is the result of the signs he performs—that is, the miracles themselves “tell” the people how to act. However, we also have the idea here of people on the earth—some of them, at least—beginning to act in the service of the Earth-creature, which likely implies some level of political or governmental cooperation. The effect of the signs is also describing primarily in the traditional (religious) language of people going astray (“wandering”, vb. plana/w); the same idea is present in 2 Thess 2:10-11, and also characterizes the end-time period of distress in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13:5-6 par; Matt 24:24), where it is part of a specific warning to believers. The Dragon (i.e. Satan) is characterized (and personified) as one who leads people astray (12:9), that is, promoting falsehood and also inciting people to evil. In 2:20 the verb is used of false teaching by supposed believers (cp. the discussion in 1 John). The verb takes on greater prominence as the eschatological conflict reaches its climax in the later visions of the book (18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10).

The image (ei)kw/n) that is created depicts the seven-headed Sea-creature (apparently the likeness extends to include the detail of his fatal and miraculously healed wound). The specific wording here can easily be lost in translation; but there is a clear parallel:

    • the Earth-creature is able to make (poih=sai) these great signs happen in the sight of the Sea-creature
    • the people on earth are led to make (poih=sai) an image that visually resembles the Sea-creature

The word ei)kw/n, referring to a copy or that which resembles something (or someone) else, is relatively rare in the New Testament (used 23 times). In all 10 occurrences in Revelation, it refers to this image of the evil Sea-creature (who also resembles the Dragon). The majority of other occurrences are found in the Pauline letters, where it tends to have Christological meaning (see esp. 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). Just as Christ is the image of God, so also believers in Christ take on his image. Something of this connotation may be intended here in the Rev 13 visions as well, part of the evil parody of Jesus represented by the two creatures—i.e. non-believers on earth follow after the image of the wicked creature, even as believers conform to the image of Jesus.

Revelation 13:15

“And it was given him to give spirit/breath [pneu=ma] to the image of the wild animal, (so) that the image of the wild animal would even talk and would make (it so) [that], if any would not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the image of the wild animal, they should be killed off.”

The narration here is powerful and evocative; and, in order to avoid misunderstanding, it is necessary to examine each component and detail carefully. First, we should note the three-fold reference to the image (ei)kw/n)—in each occurrence the full expression “the image of the wild animal” is used, repeatedly emphasizing that it is specifically an image of the evil Sea-creature.

“it was given him to give pneu=ma to the image…” The dual use of the same verb (di/dwmi, “give”) is often avoided in translation, but it is important to preserve it here, as a way of reinforcing the idea of the Dragon, Sea-creature, and Earth-creature working in tandem. Power is given by the Dragon to the Sea-creature, who then gives it to the Earth-creature, who, in turn, gives it to the image of the Sea-creature on earth. This reflects a key aspect of the vision which is often overlooked. The domain of the Sea-creature is the Sea, and, in order to exercise his authority fully on the Earth, he needs the cooperation of the Earth-creature. The Earth-creature effectively facilitates the Sea-creature’s control on earth through this image of the Sea-creature.

Here the noun pneu=ma is used in its ordinary sense of “spirit” —i.e. the animating spirit or “breath” that gives life and movement to a living being. An allusion to the Spirit of God may also be intended, as part of the evil parody of the two creatures with Jesus. Believers are moved and given life by the Spirit, while non-believers are controlled by the evil/demonic “spirit” that animates the image of the Creature. Admittedly, references to the Spirit (Pneu=ma) are relatively rare in the book of Revelation, but it would be easy enough for Christian readers here to draw the parallel.

“(so) that the image of the wild animal would even talk” This animating “spirit” makes the image of the Sea-creature come to life (or at least seem to), to the point that it could even talk. This is presumably meant to depict a genuine miracle or supernatural event, rather than a trick, though there are ancient examples of attempts to create the illusion that statues, etc, were moving and talking (e.g., Bel and the Dragon 1-26; Lucian Alexander 26; Koester, p. 593). The idea that magicians and wonder-workers might bring statues and figurines to life was a relatively common feature in ancient tales. In the vision here, however, this takes on a special significance, since it is this living/speaking/acting image that allows the Sea-creature to exercise his rule on the earth.

“and would make (it so) [that]…” The Greek syntax is unclear, but it would seem that the subjunctive “would make” (poih/sh|) is parallel to the earlier “would speak” (lalh/sh|), and thus refers to the action of the image rather than the Earth-creature himself. This creates an interesting scenario—i.e., the image orders people worship to the image. However, this, I believe, is precisely what the visions intend to represent. Note the way the forces of evil function according to the overall imagery of the vision:

    • The Dragon works through =>
      • the Sea-creature, who works through =>
        • the Earth-creature, who works through =>
          • the living image of the Sea-creature; and, through
        • this comprehensive power present in the image =>
      • people come to worship the image of the Sea-creature, and in turn =>
    • they worship the Dragon

This gives to this scene a subtle difference from the most obvious parallel—namely, the statue of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3.

“if any would not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the image of the wild animal, they should be killed off” This wording generally corresponds to the command given by Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3:4-6), and certainly the vision here alludes to that famous Scriptural episode. The righteous ones (Daniel and his companions) were faced with the choice of complying with the command to show obedience to the royal power by venerating its image (i.e. the great statue), or to face the punishment of death. Believers in the Roman Empire faced a similar choice with the regard to the pervasive presence of the Imperial cult. Statues of the emperor, etc, could be seen, not only in the temples, but in many other public places, having been erected and dedicated by influential citizens and civic groups. As such, they were a clear and prominent representation of the Imperial cult—i.e. the public worship of the Empire and its rule.

Admittedly, there is little evidence, even in the book of Revelation itself, of any widespread persecution by the authorities at the time the book was written. The notice given to the example of Antipas in 2:13 suggests that executions of believers were a relatively rare occurrence. Much more common would have been the imprisonment for the purposes of interrogation. However, the author/visionary clearly expects that this persecution would intensify considerably, with imprisonment and execution referenced specifically in 13:10, as a manifestation of how the Sea-creature (and the Dragon) “makes war” on believers. There would, in fact, be periods of more widespread, state-sponsored persecution of Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, especially during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Decius (249-251), Valerian (253-26o), and Diocletian (284-305). The extent of imperial persecution in the late 1st and early 2nd century remains uncertain and debated. The period of arrests and public executions under Nero (64 A.D.) was brief and limited to the city of Rome. A more widespread persecution was thought to have occurred during Domitian’s reign (81-96)—often considered to be contemporaneous with the writing of Revelation—but this has since been re-evaluated by historians.

As it happens, we do have an example, from the reign of Trajan (98-117), which is actually quite close to what is described in Revelation 13:15. Pliny the Younger served as governor of Bithynia and Pontus (in Asia Minor), c. 110-113 A.D. He had occasion to write to the emperor regarding the investigation and punishment of Christians, seeking guidance and instruction on the matter (Epistle 10.96). As part of his attempt to identify those who were actual Christians, Pliny describes his use of a statue of the emperor as a means of testing:

“I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your [the emperor’s] statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do. Others … did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ.” (10.96.5-6, translation Koester, p. 594)

Interestingly, the emperor wrote back (Ep. 10.97) to Pliny saying that he approved of the method of testing, but insisted that Christians were not to be hunted down. This, along with the fact that a governor had to ask for guidance about how to deal with Christians in the first place, indicates that persecution of believers in the provinces was by no means widespread or common at the time. We do not have clear documentation for a similar use of statues of the emperor in subsequent periods of imperial persecution, but the detail is mentioned in a number of the martyrdom narratives (set during the 2nd-3rd century persecutions).

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