“The Unholy Trinity: The Sea Beast (1 of 3)” – Revelation 12:17-13:1

by Roger McCay
30 July 2023
Sermon Passage: Revelation 12:17-13:1
Link to Audio Version

Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton. What do all these folks have in common? Well, for one, they have all been the leader of a nation. And, they’ve all been accused of being the Beast of Revelation.[1]

People have used various rationales to prove that one or the other of these men make a plausible fit. And while plausible, in some cases, not a one of them make for a relevant solution to the identity of the Beast. Not a one of them is a viable candidate. And this is due to some very “necessary, textually derived limiting principles” (as Kenneth Gentry puts it), found in Revelation along with the historical context of its writing, which limit the possible candidates.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve laid the foundation for various limiting principles in our study of Revelation, and we’ll touch on them as we move forward. But briefly, here are some key limiting principles, concerning the beast, that Gentry suggests, in his book, The Beast of Revelation: First, “The beast’s number is that of a man;” two, “The beast is an evil man of debased character;” third, “The beast possesses ‘great authority’;” next, “The beast is one of John’s contemporaries;” and lastly “The beast is relevant to first century Christians.”[2] Without limiting principles, the whole puzzle John lays out with his imagery (including the number in Rev. 13:18) becomes meaningless, leaving us with endless possibilities as to who the beast might have been throughout history, or who the beast is now, or who it might be in the future. Or it might simply lead to, by necessity, reducing the beast to merely an allegory of forces at work at any given time in history.

But the Beast is more than just an allegory, more than just a generic symbol of evil national leadership under Satan’s influence. The Beast is that, but also much more. The Sea Beast that John speaks of in Revelation is an actual historical entity, which can be identified with fair certainty. And the beast has also been dead and in the grave for a long time.

However, the symbolic nature of the Beast, as John describes, does serve to help us see its contemporary significance for us today. The Dragon, Satan, has influenced governments and their leaders since the fall of mankind, and he continues to do so today. Yet (as we saw in our study of Rev. 12), the scope of his power over the nations has been limited, and the focus of his efforts has shifted. The general, ongoing activity of Satan’s influence in earthly governments is why plausible candidates for the Beast (for example, Hitler) make sense. Yet the limiting principles provided in Revelation, tell us that Hitler could not have been the Beast. Rather, he had traits of the Beast, which was evidence of Satan’s influence upon him, his government, and thus his nation. As such, I suppose you could say he was “a beast” rather than “the Beast.” Furthermore, such satanically influenced, beastly traits can be observed in the words and actions of various leaders and kingdoms throughout the history of mankind.

Such contemporary significance of Satan’s influence on earthly governments is also a reality that we should keep in mind, when it comes to our own relationship with our government. When we do not recognize Satan’s influence in government, as either a possibility, a subtle working within, the deception and manipulation of individuals, or even evil expressed in overt policies,  our confidence can become misplaced. And the danger of a misplaced confidence in our government not only can lead to disillusionment and despair, it can also lead to compromise and utter disaster—even culpability or participation in evil. The Christians in Nazi Germany who remained loyal to their government and their Führer found this out in a most terrible way.

Christians should never give their ultimate allegiance and trust to their earthly government. To do such is to give the government something that belongs only to God. And to do so is to lift the government up as a god. Only one King is worthy of our ultimate allegiance and trust—King Jesus, who defeated and bound Satan. And if you are a Christian, you are a citizen of his Kingdom (the Kingdom of God), and we can be confident in his reign.

Now, a couple of weeks ago we considered the warning to the land and sea in Rev. 12:12, as Satan had been thrown out of heaven with his angels and his wrath was great. We then took a look at how Satan unleashed his fury upon the Land of Israel, seeking to destroy the church from its start, in Jerusalem, maneuvering his minions against the church, which eventually ended up bringing the utter destruction of the Jewish nation (as recorded by history). And we considered the irony of how the Lord used Satan’s manipulations and Satan’s use of the Roman Empire’s forces to bring his judgment upon apostate Israel. We also saw how God saved the mother church in Jerusalem from Satan’s wrath, keeping them safe in the wilderness, at Pella, during the three and a half years of the Roman conquest of Israel.

So, take a look, again, at Rev. 12:17:

“And the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.”

Now, there are a few issues that come up concerning this passage in its structure, placement, translation, and subject matter, of which you should be aware. So, please forgive me for getting technical for a moment. These things matter because they are foundational to the text and directly impact how we come to understand what the passage is teaching.

First off, the second sentence of v. 17 has been a point of confusion among scholars, particularly as to how, exactly, it fits with what precedes it and what follows it. Some published translations make it into a separate verse—verse 18.[3] In some cases the sentence has been removed from Rev. 12:17 and placed into Rev. 13:1, becoming the first sentence of ch. 13, rather than the last sentence in ch. 12 (KJV and NIV). The NRSV then puts Rev. 12:18 as the first sentence of the paragraph that includes ch. 13, v. 1ff. And some translations just don’t attach the sentence to either paragraph, leaving it as a stand-alone verse.[4] And yes, that’s confusing, but there it is.

My thought is that v. 17 should be its own paragraph. It begins a different action of the dragon from what is described in vv. 13-16. And Rev. 13:1 has a new subject, John, who introduces a new character, the Sea Beast.

Anyway, there is also confusion as to who the subject of the second sentence in v. 17 actually is. The KJV, for example, says, “And I stood ….” But most other major translations, like your ESV, either say “And he stood …” or “And the dragon stood …” So which is it? Was it John standing on the seashore or was the dragon standing on the seashore? Well, the translators of the KJV used manuscripts that had been influenced by a change to the text made centuries earlier, likely by a scribe.[5] But since the KJVs early 17th century publication, more reliable, older Greek texts have been found, including the earliest extant text of Revelation ever found. From those, and using other methods of analysis, the evidence indicates that the original text was (as it is translated to English), “And he stood.” Thus, the subject of the sentence is the dragon (Satan), whom John saw, in his vision, “standing on the shore of the sea.”

So, v. 17 should be its own paragraph, and the subject of both sentences, in v. 17, is the dragon. This helps us to see how the whole of Rev. 12:17 begins what follows, in ch. 13. The flow of the passage naturally shows this. The second part of Rev. 12:12 expresses woe to both the Land and Sea (the Land being the Land of Israel and the Sea being the Gentile nations). They should be woeful because the dragon, thrown down from heaven, had brought his wrathful fury into their realms. John, in vv. 13-16 thus addresses why the Land should be woeful, and starting in v. 17, he begins addressing why the Sea should be woeful.

Which leads to another issue. The translation of the first word of v. 17 as “Then” (as some translations render it) is misleading.[6] The word “then” heavily implies that the events of vv. 17ff. begin chronologically after the ending of the events in vv. 13-16. But that’s simply not true. Verses 13-16 carry us from the first chapters of Acts up to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The events in vv. 17ff. pick up during that time period. There is an overlap. Satan with his minions are at work in both the Land (the Jewish nation) and the Sea (the Gentile nations) simultaneously. So, while the Greek word can be translated either “Then” or “And,” the better translation here is “And” (like the KJV, NIV, NASB, and the 2007 ESV text render it; and note that, oddly, the 2011 ESV text changes their translation to “Then,” and I’d love to know why they made the change, as it certainly did not improve their translation). Anyway, the verse is saying, “And he (the dragon) became furious with the woman …”

Now I get it if you are scratching your head on why I’m bringing these issues up in the sermon? The reason is that getting these issues sorted correctly helps us to more accurately picture the overlap of the events of Satan’s war, which John, in ch. 12, symbolically describes beginning in the second part of verse 12 until the end of the chapter.

So, here’s what it’s saying: Satan first went to war against the Jerusalem church by bringing great persecution upon them, trying to squash the church. Yet, the church escaped the bounds of Jerusalem, spreading throughout the nations and the Roman Empire, with Gentiles also coming to faith in Christ Jesus. Because of this, Satan expanded his efforts, going from a regional war against the church in Jerusalem to a world-war against the church. As the gospel spread throughout the nations, the believers and churches were the mother church’s “offspring”—those “who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” So, as the church escaped the bounds of Jerusalem and “Jewish only” Christianity, Satan went after the Lord’s followers, both Jew and Gentile, warring against them. Even so, Satan continued his war against the mother church in Jerusalem. But he ultimately failed to destroy the Jerusalem church, for even when he brought the Empire’s forces against Jerusalem and destroyed it, the church had already escaped and was cared for by God in the wilderness.

So, with the dragon standing on the shore of the sea, in view, what did John then see?

Rev. 13, v. 1:

“And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads.”

Now, we have covered the identity of the Beast in other sermons and in lessons during the evening service. Indeed, if you’ve been following along, I hope it is obvious to you by now. Even so, I want to clarify the identity of the Sea Beast up front, as we move into ch. 13, in order to avoid confusion as we move along. John speaks of the Sea Beast, in Revelation, both in a generic and a particular way. This means that the Sea Beast is presented as an historical entity that is “sometimes pictured as a kingdom, and sometimes as the particular ruler of that kingdom.”[7] So here it is, Bottom Line Up Front: The kingdom was the Roman Empire and the particular ruler of that kingdom was Nero. In other words, the Sea Beast was the emperor Nero along with his empire, the Roman Empire.

Now, essential to understanding Rev. 13:1, we must remember that John explains that he is writing Revelation to tell of “things that must soon take place,” because “the time is near” (Rev. 1:1, 4). So, we find, in Revelation, that the vast majority of events described in the book not only took place shortly after the time John wrote the book (writing on the Isle of Patmos, circa. AD 65), but many of the things he describes were already in motion. John’s vision, which he describes in Revelation, is not limited to an orderly laying out of events moving forward along a linear timeline. Rather, in some places, his vision slides back and forth in time and space, overlaps, and recapitulates. Indeed, the events John is speaking to in our passage today (and most of ch. 12), took place during John’s own lifetime. John was already imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos as a result of the Beast’s persecution of the Christians, after all. So the Beast of ch. 13 was already very much alive and active when John wrote Revelation.

Rev. 13:1, also suggests the geographical location the dragon was standing and the direction he was facing, as the Beast rose up out of the sea. It seems likely that it’s given from the point of view of the seven churches in Asia.

How so? Well, Rev. 12:17 shifts from a focus on happenings in the Land of Israel to the persecution of the Christians in the Gentile nations. Also, if you remember, in Rev. 1:4, the book of Revelation is specifically addressed to the seven churches in Asia. At the time of John’s writing, circa AD 65, these churches (located in the Roman province of Asia) were going through a tribulation of terrible persecution that had spilled out from Rome, which Nero had begun in AD 64 (Rev. 1:9). So, as the original readers, knowing that John had addressed Revelation specifically to them, the point of the image in Rev. 13:1 would have been unmistakable. He was talking about the source of the tribulation that had come upon “the offspring of the woman.” And they would have understood themselves as included in that description.

Furthermore, they knew from whence the Dragon’s minion (the Beast) came. As Roman subjects, the seven heads of the beast in 13:1, which the angel interprets for John in Rev. 17:9, as “seven mountains,” also “seven kings,” would have removed any doubt. Combined with all the other identifying markers John gives, the Beast’s identity would have been clearly defined in their minds. We’ll touch on the seven kings at a later date, but as for the seven mountains, Gentry explains:

Perhaps no point is more obvious in Revelation than this one: Imperial Rome is here symbolized by the seven mountains. After all, Rome (the capital of the Empire) is the one city in history distinguished by and recognized for its seven mountains. The famous seven hills of Rome are the Palatine, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal, Quirinal, and Capitoline hills.[8]

The image of the dragon standing on the shore of the sea with the Beast then rising up from the sea, dramatically illustrates Satan calling forth Nero and the forces of his government (the Roman Empire) to do his will. And the devil’s call for his minion to wage war against the Christians would have resonated deeply with the seven churches, as it was personal. They would also have understood that the war was not only against them, but against the Church in general throughout the empire. As the Lord said, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” – Rev. 2:7, etc. So, from the point of view of the seven churches in Asia, in a literal, geographical sense, the dragon was facing west towards Rome, standing on the shore of the Aegean Sea.

Of course, another way one could look at this is from the perspective of the Land of Israel, with Satan standing on the shore of the Mediterranean, facing towards Rome. Perhaps, but I think the context, as I’ve explained, doesn’t necessarily support that take.

Regardless, the literal and the symbolic intertwine in the meaning of the vision. Symbolically, the Sea Beast arose from the Gentile nations. Literally, from the point of view of the seashore, it was geographically positioned so that it would come across the sea in order to attack both the churches in Asia and the church in Jerusalem. And, as history tells us, the Sea Beast had already been viscously attacking the church in Rome.

Now, my original plan for today’s sermon (as the outline in your bulletin reflects) was to go on into the description of the beast in v. 1 and 2, which speaks to its identity, character and ties it to the prophecy in Daniel 7. Then for us to move on through vv. 3 and 4. But I think this is enough to digest for today. Lord willing we’ll pick up with the rest of v. 1 in a couple of weeks.

So, today we took a first look at the picture John paints of an unholy trinity, who are enemies of Christ and his church: the Dragon and the Sea Beast. When we get to Rev. 13:11, we’ll be introduced to the third member, the Land Beast. The Dragon, is of course, Satan. And the Sea Beast is Nero and the Roman Empire. We’ll identify the Land Beast when we get to it. But of the five limiting principles mentioned earlier, which help us zero in on the identity of the beast, we touched on two of them: “The beast is one of John’s contemporaries,” and “The beast is relevant to first century Christians.” We’ll get to the other three limiting principles, as we move forward in Revelation.

Now, how do we apply this? Well, it seems prudent that we (you and I, brothers and sisters in Christ, Christians) keep our eyes wide open. The same devil who was working against Christ’s church by using a government leader and the resources of his empire, in the first century, is the same devil that works against Christ’s church today.

Looking back at history, it is not hard to pick out government leaders, be it kings, queens, emperors, a particular Fürher (or whatever title they have gone by) along with their kingdoms,  who have obviously been used as instruments of the devil against Christ’s church. Nations today that persecute the church and do whatever they can to limit or stamp out Christianity within their domain are likewise clearly doing Satan’s will. He makes them dance to his tune like puppets on string. Satan has been working against the Church in such a way, corrupting government leaders and their governments, since the Church’s very inception.

As for us, here at MPC, we are blessed to live in a country that has “freedom of religion,” “freedom of speech,” and “freedom of assembly.” These freedoms are priceless; we should never take them for granted. Now, when we see the freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly come under attack, who do you think is behind it? And who do you think his true target is? In the grand scheme of things, it really comes down to the kingdom of evil (Satan’s kingdom) warring against the Kingdom of God. And while we have those freedoms for now, most of us here are probably aware of the various attacks against our freedom to live as Christians, according to our conscious, in the US. And you’re probably aware of attacks against the freedom of speech that has been pushed so fervently, quite recently. And remember what happened, concerning gathering for worship, during COVID? The simple fact is that things can change for us, and change rather quickly. We have a powerful enemy working towards the detriment of Christians. He really hates us.

But, Jesus reigns right now. Christ Jesus reigns over heaven and earth, including the United States. And never forget it. King Jesus deserves and requires our full allegiance and trust—our utmost confidence. Earthly governments are quite vulnerable to manipulation, by the evil one, to be used as his tool to hurt us. And while the principles of Romans 13 remain in effect (in that we are to obey the government, as all authority is from God and under God; and remember, Nero was the emperor when Paul wrote those words to the church in Rome) … while the principles of Romans 13 still apply, any allegiance and trust that we give our government must be, by necessity, cautious and limited, subordinate to our allegiance to Christ (Dan. 3:8-25; Acts 5:29).

But even if Satan brings his worst against us, he is still a defeated enemy. In the end, Satan will not prevail. Not a single one of the elect will be lost to the devil’s machinations (John 10:28-29). And in the here and now, we know that Christ Jesus works everything to the good of his people (Rom. 8:28), even the bad stuff that comes our way. And if you are one of his people, Jesus loves you, cares for you, watches over you, turns evil on its head for you, and irrevocably redeems you. You and I are full citizens of God’s Kingdom with all its benefits (Phil. 3:20). Until his return, we are called to carry on (Rev. 13:10), enduring as we need to endure, staying faithful the best we can (by the power of God’s Spirit) while we follow Jesus. Because the Lord Jesus reigns supreme, his people should be confident in his Kingdom.


[1] Cf. Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church, Fourth revised edition. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1999), 231ff (Chapter 18).

[2] Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., The Beast of Revelation, Second Edition. (Fountain Inn, SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2002), 7-10.

[3] This follows the current Nestle-Aland Greek NT’s structure, and is seen in the NRSV, NLT, and NET Bible.

[4] NASB and NLT.

[5] Metzger comments that “The latter reading [“I saw”] appears to have arisen when copyists accommodated ἐστάθη to the first person of the following εἶδον (Bruce Manning Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 673). Cf. the NA28 Apparatus for the textual listings.

[6] Confusing the matter more, the 2011 ESV text renders the word “Then,” but its 2007 text rendered it “And.”

[7] Gentry, 10.

[8] Gentry, 12.