Rev. 17:7 – Then the angel said to me, “Why are you astonished? I will tell you the secret meaning of the woman and of the beast, with the seven heads and the 10 horns, that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up from the abyss and go to destruction. Those who live on the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast that was, and is not, and will be present again. (HCSB)
The meaning of the woman and the beast
The angel sees John’s bewilderment and remarks, “Why are you astonished? I will tell you the secret meaning of the woman and of the beast, with the seven heads and the 10 horns, that carries her” (v. 7). The term “secret meaning” is musterion in Greek and refers to what may be known only by divine revelation. John’s questions – and ours – are about to be answered.
The angel begins with the beast (v. 8): “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up from the abyss and go to destruction. Those who live on the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast that was, and is not, and will be present again.”
This description harks back to that of the beast from the sea in Rev. 13. He has 10 horns and seven heads upon which are written blasphemous names. These creatures from Revelation 13 and Revelation 17 are one in the same, and their description makes it clear they are affiliated with the dragon, who also is depicted with seven heads and 10 horns (Rev. 12:3).
What about the beast?
Who is astonished when they see the beast appear once again? Those who live on the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life. These are the same people described as worshipers of the beast in Rev. 13:8.
So, the beast from the sea (Revelation 13) and the beast described in Revelation 17 are one. Unbelievers worship this beast, who owes his power and allegiance to the fiery red dragon, or Satan.
Although we covered the beast in some detail in previous chapters, there are two questions that remain before we move on. First, what does it mean that the beast “was, and is not, and is about to come up from the abyss and go to destruction?” Second, why are the beast’s worshipers “astonished” when they see him again?
Commentators offer several possible answers to the first question. Some say this is a reference to Nero, who is rumored to have come back to life. Others see it as a progression of world empires relating to Daniel 2, culminating in a wicked end-time world system. Still others see it related to the end-time activity of the beast described in Revelation 13, which mimics the ministry of Christ. Or it could connect with 1 John’s concept of a spirit of antichrist in every age, climaxing in the Antichrist of the last day. Futurists add that this is a reference to the Antichrist’s fatal head wound, which is healed. Still others say the beast is prefigured in Antiochus Epiphanes – a God-hating, anti-Semitic madman from centuries earlier. Now, a leader with similar characteristics appears as a counterfeit Jesus; interestingly, the angel describes the beast in language similar to that used to describe God in Rev. 1:4, “the One who is, who was, and who is coming.” This explanation appears to be well-grounded in scripture.
However, another possible explanation is that this ruler undergoes a significant change in personality and practices. “This dramatic change could happen either (1) when the beast initially comes to prominence by killing the two witnesses (11:7) or (2) after his ‘resurrection’ from a presumed fatal wound (13:3, 12, 14). That the beast is going to destruction refers to eternal torment in the lake of fire (19:20; 20:10)” (The HCSB Study Bible, p. 2222). It should be remembered that the abyss is the home of the beast (Rev. 11:7) and the place from which demons emerge (Rev. 9:1-2, 11).
First-century readers no doubt would see the beast in sharp contrast to their Lord and Savior. The cult of Caesar is strong in Asia Minor. Believers are forced to choose between worship of God to the exclusion of all other gods, which could result in their death, or at least a tacit acknowledgement of Caesar as god, which might allow them to go on worshiping the true God privately. The Caesars are dying in fairly quick succession. While their anti-Christian dogmas and their pagan rituals no doubt find their source in the abyss, they soon find themselves destroyed and rightly judged by the very God whose worship they try to steal.
For readers since the first century, including today, it’s important to keep in mind that Satan continues to send false prophets and false Messiahs to us. While the Holy Spirit restrains the free reign of evil through His work in the true church, Satan sends an endless stream of false teachings from the abyss to woo us away from true faith in Christ. Whether is it is Mariology,
Muhammadism (Islam), or Mormonism, true believers must stand firm in biblical truth and sail against the winds of multiculturalism and political correctness. This is not to say we should abandon graciousness and gentleness, for indeed these are the qualities of Christ in combatting false teachings. Even so, we need to uphold the central truths of the Christian faith in the face of rising persecution worldwide and rising animosity toward Christianity in the Western world.
Satan has not yet been thrown into the lake of fire. He continues to be the father of lies, a roaring lion who roams the earth seeking whom he may devour, and a masquerading “angel of light” who cloaks his lies in palpable half-truths.
Now, the second question: Why are worshipers of the beast astounded when the beast is “present again?” It’s important to note that John is greatly astonished when he sees the woman, while unbelievers are astonished when they see the beast. John cannot believe the corrupted beauty of the woman. The beast’s followers, it would seem, cannot believe the re-emergence of their leader and object of worship. To use a modern-day political analogy, when an underdog candidate wins an election in a landslide, supporters on both sides are astonished, but for different reasons. John seems to be shocked at the woman’s corruption and ultimate fall, while worshipers of the beast are thrilled with the return of their god.
Next: The seven heads and 10 horns – Revelation 17:9-14