Midway through Revelation, John sees a pantomime of the Gospel’s beginning, enacted in the sky (Rev. 12). There’s a woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, crowned with twelve stars, laboring to bring a boy into the world. Near her is a dragon, ready to devour the infant. Among other things, it’s a vision of Mary, Jesus, and the predatory King Herod.
As soon as the child is born, he’s snatched to heaven. Foiled in his first attack, the dragon persists. He pursues the woman, but she flies away on eagle’s wings into the wilderness. He tries to drown her with a river from his mouth, but the land drinks the flood. The dragon is an apocalyptic Wile E. Coyote. His anvils keep dropping on his own head; he gets tangled in his own nets. But the dragon has another trick up his sleeve. He goes to the seashore and calls a monster from the deep, a leopard with bear paws and a lion’s mouth (Rev. 13). Who or what is he?
His oceanic origin is a clue. Throughout the Old Testament, the sea is a stock image of the turbulent, raging world of the nations. Invasions are floods; emperors and empires are sea monsters, like the great fish that swallows Jonah. The sea beast is a Gentile power.
Daniel offers another clue: He saw a vision of four beasts from the sea, summoned by the wind of God to be cherubic guardians for Israel. They were the four empires—Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome—that ruled the eastern Mediterranean from the exile until the coming of the Son of Man (Dan. 7).
John’s sea beast is a composite variation on Daniel’s. It’s an allegory of the Roman Empire, brought up by the dragon to persecute the saints rather than to protect them. Finally, the dragon finds a scheme that works. The Roman beast demands worship and kills any who refuse.
The dragon then summons another beast, this one from the land. He performs signs like Moses and makes fire fall from heaven like Elijah. The land beast is a court prophet for the empire and the imperial cult.
In Revelation, the land is Israel, and the land beast represents first-century Jews who propagandize for the Roman Empire. Some do so directly—Josephus, or the Herods who are Caesar’s agents in Palestine. Others do so indirectly, forming alliances with the empire to protect their own interests (like the Sadducees) or to suppress the church (like some Pharisees).
Once we have both beasts in view, we can grasp the full scope of John’s vision. In the new covenant, the Father forms a new humanity in Jesus the Son, who breaks down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2). As soon as the church emerges, a counterfeit appears, a monstrous anti-church led by an infernal Trinity of dragon, sea beast, and land beast.
Like the church, the beasts’ kingdom joins Jews and Gentiles. It has its own sacraments that bind small and great, rich and poor, bond and free (Rev. 13:16) into one big happy humanity, inclusive of everyone except those intolerant, intolerable Christians.
John writes of things that are “shortly to take place” (Rev. 1:1; 22:6). His visions unveil the threats that faced the first-century church. But they also seem familiar to the twenty-first-century church.
We’ve seen plenty of sea monsters over the past few centuries, from the de-Christianization purge of the French Revolution to the personality cult of today’s North Korea. Even cuddly liberal house pets can turn into monsters. But oppressive political regimes aren’t the only threat. The dragon always calls monsters from the sea and monsters from the land, monsters of the state and monsters of the church.
Easy examples come to mind: Compromised German churches under the Nazis; Orthodox priests double-timing as KGB agents. But there are land beasts closer to home: Churches that support the fascism of the new sexual regime and persecute traditionalists; churches that cheer on every American war without asking whether it’s just or unjust; churches that serve as court prophets of humanistic internationalism; churches that serve as court prophets of humanistic nationalism.
Revelation unmasks the satanic monsters that lurk behind the veil of power, and it reminds us that sea monsters are never alone. Whenever a thuggish state tramples on the faithful, there will be thuggish pseudo-saints nearby, piously cheering it on.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.