Summary: Evil is so seductive, so easy, so clothed in plausible promises of free lunches and quick fixes, that if we are not vigilant we will find ourselves in slavery to the enemy of God.
Monsters coming up from the deep have a long and colorful history. From Leviathan to the Loch Ness Monster, from the giant squid in 10,000 Leagues under the sea to the “here be monsters” with which mapmakers once marked the limits of the unknown, the sea has been the source of fear for earthbound humans. Of course nowadays whatever fear factor Nessie ever had is now gone for good, frittered away in tourist traps the length and breadth of Scotland while King Kong and Godzilla are cute, or camp, or cuddly. The beasts in Revelation and Daniel hardly rate a token shiver from today’s audience. What new horror could possibly compete against Freddy, or Hannibal Lector?
But for John’s readers in the first century, these images would have had power. The sea all by itself was the symbol of cosmic evil, a vast unruly and untamable source of danger, and the fact that this monstrous figure came out of the sea would be the verbal equivalent of spooky music, signaling the audience that something scary was about to appear.
It could have been anything. Remember, in the last chapter we saw the dragon, symbolizing Satan, cast down to earth after being defeated by Michael and his angels. We’ve been alerted to the fact that his task from now on would be to wage war against God by proxy, that is by targeting the people of God. So it could have been demons with forked horns and tails or grotesque armies of rotting corpses or - what’s your worst nightmare?
But John presents his hearers with a figure that seems to come right out of the Old Testament, from Daniel’s vision five hundred years before. John saw “...a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear's, and its mouth was like a lion's mouth." [v. 1-2]
Daniel’s four beasts were a winged lion that became somewhat human, a devouring bear, a four-headed flying leopard, and finally a ten-horned beast much more dangerous than the others. Jewish tradition understood this fourth beast as Rome, the fourth world empire to subdue Israel, after Babylon, Persia and Greece, and it was a signal also of the coming Son of Man.
This beast is a little different than the one Daniel describes, but the audience would still probably interpret the figure as representing not only Rome, but more specifically, Nero. Nero died before John has his vision, but many people believed he still remained alive. Somewhat more ominously than today’s Elvis sightings, several false Neros had already popped up in various parts of the empire, providing a focus for rebellions as well as a bogeyman to scare your children into obedience. So Christians heard this prophecy as heralding a new Nero. The tradition that Nero would come back as the Antichrist was in fact so strong that in Armenian, the name Nero actually is used to mean Antichrist.
But what do we need another monster for? Isn’t the dragon terrible enough? What’s the point of bringing in another figure on the scene? Remember that Satan cannot create anything new, he can only distort or copy what God has already made. So what we have in this chapter is the beginning of a dreadful mockery of the gospel. Where Jesus came to earth to save, Satan comes to earth to destroy. Where Jesus the Christ is the son of God, the beast - the antichrist - is the offspring of the enemy of God. And in the next passage the Holy Spirit’s evil twin shows up as a false prophet. In addition, the wound in the