Visions of the persecution of Christians at the hands of human government fill the book of Revelation. In Revelation 12:18–13:4, we learn that Satan himself inspires this governmental persecution. The devil calls forth the beast, representing evil human governments, from the sea, and the beast shares features such as ten horns and seven heads with the dragon, or Satan (see 12:3). As always, the ultimate enemies the church faces are the devil and his demonic minions (Eph. 6:12).
John’s description of the beast from the sea reveals its supernatural origin, but it also borrows from first-century historical realities. Revelation 13:3 says that one of the beast’s heads has a mortal wound that was healed. When Revelation was written, many people believed that Emperor Nero, who had committed suicide at the end of his reign, would be coming back from the dead to retake the throne of the Roman Empire. Verse 18 gives the number of the beast as 666, which is almost certainly a reference to Nero, for the numerical value of the Hebrew letters that correspond to the name Nero Caesar is a total of 666. The beast from the sea, then, is a callback to Nero, the wicked emperor known particularly for killing Christians in Rome. If Revelation was written before AD 70, this might be a prophetic prediction of Nero, who also serves as a type of various wicked governments throughout history. A later date for Revelation would take these references as merely emblematic of the kind of evil human authorities the church might face throughout history. Either way, the main point is clear: Christians will face fierce opposition throughout history from Satanically motivated human governments.
Revelation 13:5–10 stresses that many peoples will worship this beast, a reference to the worship demanded by Roman emperors. Yet, we should not limit the warning here only to governments that demand explicit worship of its leaders as deities. Governments that promise to provide for all the needs of their people, such as in communist countries, effectively substitute themselves for God even if they do not demand explicit worship. In any case, those who impenitently worship merely human authorities or who deny Christ show that their names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (v. 8).
Finally, the beast from the sea has no inherent authority. He must get permission to wage war (vv. 2, 7, 8). Ultimately, this occurs under the superintendence of our sovereign God (Eph. 1:11).