The second beast, from the land, functions primarily to promote the worship of the first beast (13:12). It operates with borrowed power and by means of deception. Its lamb-like appearance is a mask for Satanic speech (13:11), and its public display of signs is really smoke and mirrors to deceive people into worshiping the first beast (13:13–15). It requires elites and non-elites alike to receive the mark of the beast to participate in the economy (13:16–17).
… The second beast, from the earth (that is, of local origin [in contrast to Rome, which conquered Asia Minor from the sea]), is then seen as those who promote the imperial cult, perhaps local government and/or religious officials in and around cities like Ephesus and Pergamum. The mark of the beast might be an imperial slogan, seal, or image.
Gorman, Michael J. (2011-01-01). Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Kindle Locations 2989-2997). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
We’ve mentioned before the evolution of the emperor cult in Asia Minor. This second beast symbolizes the Roman religion that supported the state, especially as the worship of Roman gods came to include the emperor himself using titles that belong to YHWH and YHWH only.
“Anti-Christ” does not appear in the Revelation, but rather shows up in 1 and 2 John, where it describes those who deny the incarnation of Jesus.
(1 Jn. 2:22 ESV) 22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.
(1 Jn. 4:2-3 ESV) 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
(2 Jn. 1:7 ESV) 7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.
And yet many interpreters want to treat the second beast (from the land) as the Anti-Christ. It doesn’t really work, does it? After all, 1 and 2 John speak of “the” antichrist, not “someone like the Anti-Christ.”
The mark of the beast
The second beast is given a number: 666. For those familiar with Jewish numerology, 7 is the number of God and represents perfection and completeness. Therefore, 6 surely represents imperfection and sin. It’s the number of Satan. Thus, we have a numerical allusion to the unholy trinity of the Dragon and the two Beasts, although the number applies specifically to the second beast.
Various popes—even well before Luther’s famous Protestant denunciations of the papacy—and political figures have been seen as the antichrist: such world figures as Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Khrushchev and Saddam Hussein, but also John F. Kennedy and Pope John Paul II, who both suffered wounds to the head. Much Protestant discussion of the antichrist has tended towards anti-Catholicism, and many of the alleged identifications are ludicrous proposals emerging from a misguided interpretive process.
(Kindle Locations 3001-3004).
Candidates for being the fulfillment of 666 and thus being the antichrist have been numerous over the centuries. Modern adaptations of the principles of gematria have led people to propose Adolf Hitler (if a = 100, b = 101, c = 102, etc., Hitler = 666); Henry Kissinger (whose name in Hebrew allegedly has a value of 111 [x 6 = 666]); former President Ronald Wilson Reagan (six letters in each name); Bill Clinton (whose name could supposedly add up to 666 in Hebrew and Greek); and Barack Obama. Other associations with 666 have also been seen as evidence of the antichrist: John F. Kennedy receiving 666 votes at the 1956 Democratic Convention (and later being wounded in the head; see Rev 13:3); Ronald and Nancy Reagan moving into a house with the number 666; and so on.
(Kindle Locations 3037-3043).
It’s easy to see how such suggestions make the Revelation into a parody of real theology — which is surely one reason we are so reluctant to study it. The interpretations can be embarrassingly foolish.
Many, perhaps the majority of scholars today, believe that 666 is a reference to the emperor Nero, for the following reasons 20: The Greek for Nero Caesar, nerōn kaisar, transliterates into Hebrew as NRWN QSR (reading right to left) and, using Hebrew gematria, … adds up to 666: …
The same two words can also be transliterated without the final “n” in nerōn into Hebrew as NRW QSR … . This gives the sum of 616, which is the number that actually appears in some manuscripts of Revelation. Richard Bauckham and others believe that the existence of these two manuscript variants, each of which “matches” the values for Nero, conclusively demonstrates that Nero was intended.
(Kindle Locations 3043-3085).
Why Nero? Some argue for Nero to suggest that Revelation was written during his reign, which pre-dates the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and so would allow for a Preterist interpretation. And emperor worship goes back to Augustus Caesar, who claimed that he saw Julius Caesar ascend to the heavens to become a god when he died, and so emperor worship predated Nero.
But it was Caligula who first claimed to be a god while alive, not Nero (who was likely the second emperor to claim godhood). Moreover, the early church did not make the identification with Nero, despite its fresh memories of Nero’s persecutions. In fact, to get to 666, you have to replace Nero’s name in Greek with Hebrew letters, which most Greek Christians (and most Hellenized Jews) could not have done. Their OT was the Septuagint, not the Hebrew text. They were no more familiar with Hebrew than most modern Christians are with Greek — and even less able to substitute numerals for Hebrew letters. (I could not do this.) And so the Nero theory doesn’t quite work.
There is another very different theory. According to the translator notes to the NET Bible,
Grammatically, those who contend that the sense is ‘it is [the] number of a man’ have the burden of proof on them (for they treat the head noun, ἀριθμός, as definite and the genitive, ἀνθρώπου, as indefinite – the rarest of all possibilities). In light of Johannine usage, we might also add Rev 16:18, where [John] the Seer clearly uses the anarthrous ἄνθρωπος in a generic sense, meaning ‘humankind.’
The implications of this grammatical possibility, exegetically speaking, are simply that the number ‘666’ is the number that represents humankind. Of course, an individual is in view, but his number may be the number representing all of humankind.
Thus the Seer might be suggesting here that the antichrist, who is the best representative of humanity without Christ (and the best counterfeit of a perfect man that his master, that old serpent, could muster), is still less than perfection (which would have been represented by the number seven).” See G. K. Beale, Revelation, [NIGTC], 723–24, who argues for the “generic” understanding of the noun; for an indefinite translation, see the ASV and ESV which both translate the clause as “it is the number of a man.”
Of course, John, of all writers, is very capable of a double meaning so that both “humankind” and “Nero” could be intended, with Nero being an example of what humankind is like without Jesus. Thus, John’s point becomes —
The number may be meant to indicate not an individual, but a persistent falling short. All the more is this likely to be correct if we translate ‘it is the number of man’ rather than ‘a man’. [First Century Greek had no indefinite article.] John will then be saying that unregenerate man is persistently evil. He bears the mark of the beast in all he does. Civilization without Christ is necessarily under the dominion of the evil one.
Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 20; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 168-169 (emphasis added).
And this makes all kinds of good sense to me, but the readers should feel no obligation to agree. Men far smarter and more scholarly than I have taken other positions.