Courageous Faith Against Worldly Powers
Looking at the first 10 verses of chapter 13, we meet the Dragan again, Satan from chapter 12. Now on earth, he stands on the shore as a beast from the sea emerges. Whether he is calling it out of the sea is unclear, but we do know that he is giving it his power and throne. This beast, the first of two we find in the chapter, recalls Daniel 7:2-8. It is a composite of the four beasts Daniel sees in his vision. Daniel sees the beasts associated with his dominating worldly power - the Babylonian empire. For the Judeans and John (on the island of Patmos), this beast represents Rome. Not just the city as we know, but everything that Rome itself represents. The elite that gets richer off the back of the poor suffering, the Emporer worship associated with the Imperial cult, through to the economic structures that make living under Roman rule impossible for a Christian wanting to worship the one true living God.
Instead of four separate beasts (as in Daniel), we see a composite beast. Jewish writings did this to show that it was even more powerful, i.e. an amplified image of power. This evil empire with ten horns and seven heads shows to the original audience that this 'superhuman' enemy is Rome. The blasphemy, this slander against God, is the start of John's escalation of anti-Roman sentiment, showing this counter-culture prevalent throughout the rest of the book. The goddesses of each city across the empire would have crowns with their names on them. This again points back to this environment that made worshiping our God very difficult indeed and would most often lead to persecution in some form. Even the Roman coins would have Ceasar's head imprinted with words like "Lord and God" or "son of God". Here is a coin showing Cesear's Domitian's infant son as the god Jupiter, with his hands raised towards seven stars.
The fatal wound on one of the seven heads is Nero. Nero the seventh Caesar (depending on the way you count them). Nero died in 68AD, but a myth surrounded this saying that he in fact didn't die or that he was reincarnated or was even resurrected. Domitian who also imposed his Ceseardom across the empire (like Nero did) was seen as Nero 2.0. Emperor worship was strong, with sacrifices, temples and altars built and dedicated to him.
Two questions, who is like the beast? and who can make war against him? is aimed at showing us that while most think there is no one, true Christians know that there is someone. Our Lord and our King, who is in fact the king of kings. While the empire has power over every tribe, people, language, and nation, and it gains its power from the Dragon, the true victory is found at the cross. The beast conquers on earth, but the war has already been won by Jesus Christ.
As a result, we are not to be an armed resistance, but rather we should read this (as so much of Revelation) as encouragement for the saints to persevere through suffering.
So, while this sounds very relevant for the original audience, what can we make out of this today? Well, John is no doubt talking about Rome, Cesear, and the Imperial cult as well as the economic structures that heavily influenced everyday life. Rome came and fell, so the Gospel truth is that we all have our own Rome. Rome merely represents anything in our own lives that take us away from worshipping the one true living God. Any idolatry stopping us from bringing glory and honour to God is our own Rome.
As we start to look into the next few chapters, we need to extrapolate the Rome John is portraying to our own environment and our own situation. It is against these worldly powers that we are to have courageous faith.