What do the beasts in Revelation 13 represent?
When studying Revelation, we must remember that the book is “signified” (Rev. 1:1, KJV), meaning that it is a book of symbols which should be taken figuratively, not literally. We must search the Scriptures to find their correct meanings (2 Tim. 4:2; Eph. 4:15; cf. John 17:17).
Thus, we must take the two beasts of chapter 13 to be figuratively symbolic of something. While figuring out what they symbolize, we must do our best to have a biblical reason for the meanings of these symbols rather than arbitrarily applying any meaning we might like in order to fit our interpretation.
To determine the meaning of the first beast of Revelation 13, we must first go to the book of Daniel. Daniel had seen a vision of four great beasts coming up out of the sea (Dan. 7:1-12). Afterwards, “One like a Son of Man” would be given an everlasting kingdom (vs. 13-14).
Daniel had asked for the interpretation of his vision and was told that the four beasts represent four kings (vs. 15-17). He was then told that God’s saints would take possession of the everlasting kingdom and possess it forever, a reference to the church (v. 18; cf. Col. 1:13).
The saints would possess this eternal kingdom during the time of the fourth beast (Dan. 7:23, 27). Daniel had asked about this fourth beast because it was exceedingly terrible (v. 19). This fourth beast represents the fourth kingdom or world-wide empire that would come after Daniel’s time (v. 23). The fourth worldwide empire to come after Daniel was the Roman Empire because Daniel lived during the Babylonian Empire. Persia and Greece followed Babylon, with Rome being the fourth. It was during the time of the Roman Empire that Christ established His eternal kingdom which was the church.
Thus, from Daniel we see that the “beast” was a symbolic term used to represent governmental forces which rule in this world and persecute God’s people. Therefore, the first-century Christians who were the original readers of Revelation would have applied the meaning of oppressive civil governments such as the Roman Empire to the symbol of the first beast which rises out of the sea in Revelation 13. Likewise, Christians today can apply to the symbol of the first beast of Revelation 13 any civil government that would oppress Christianity today.
The second “beast” in Revelation 13 rises out of the earth (13:11-18). Being a beast, we can apply the interpretation of civil government to it also. Additionally, we read that this beast had the power to force people to make an image to the first beast and worship it (13:15). It is called a false prophet later in Revelation (16:13; 19:20). Therefore, this beast not only controlled the physical actions of men but also their spiritual worship also. It would be a false religious power closely aligned with civil government. History would show this to most likely be the Roman Catholic Church which started to come into existence and power not long after John wrote Revelation and has always been closely aligned with various civil governments.
Much more could be said and needs to be said about the interpretation behind the symbolism of both of these beasts in Revelation 13 (as well as the book of Revelation as a whole.) I hope this answer serves at least as a starting point for your studies about this topic.