When the book of Revelation becomes a topic of conversation, two things often happen: people get very interested, and the discussion gets weird fast. Let’s try to avoid two things in our discussion today: oversimplifying the book and overcomplicating the book. Revelation is a difficult book to understand for two reasons: the sheer volume of exotic, dramatic and urgent views being taught, and modern readers are woefully unfamiliar with the language used by the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, of which Revelation is a mixture. This book takes all of the great stories, themes, characters and language of the entire Bible and puts them in a blender. It contains over 200 quotations from a total of 26 Old Testament books, so if you aren’t familiar with the Hebrew prophets and accounts of Israel, you are going to be handicapped in your understanding of Revelation.
See what I did there? Two things happen, avoid Two things, Two reasons = 222 let that be a clue to what we are going to discuss in this lesson: the number 666 from the book of Revelation.
Admittedly, the book of Revelation is one of the more difficult books of the Bible to approach, and chapter 13 is among the more difficult chapters in it. That being said, difficult doesn’t mean impossible to understand, just that we need to approach it with wisdom, as the text says (Revelation 13:18). One of the reasons the book of Revelation is ripe for wildly diverse interpretations is the repeated use of symbolic imagery and numbers. There is actually a name for this type of writing: apocalyptic literature. That word apocalyptic sounds really scary. In fact, people use it today to refer to an end-of-the-world-type scenario, but that’s not how our spiritual ancestors understood the word. The word apocalypse simply means unveiling, uncovering or revealing, hence the name Revelation. Apocalyptic literature was a type of writing where the curtain was being pulled back, allowing the reader to see behind the scenes, so to speak. Things that would normally be hidden or unknown are being revealed. One of the identifying marks of this type of literature is very vivid language and imagery that talks about things like the sun going dark, the moon turning to blood and stars falling from the sky. That kind of imagery is meant to send the message that things aren’t going to continue as they have been; changes and upheavals are coming. Today we might say something along the lines of, “Your world is about to be turned upside down,” or “My whole world is coming apart.” We don’t mean those things literally; they are expressive ways of saying things are very bad. In the same way, apocalyptic literature shouldn’t be interpreted literally, but understood to be conveying a core message symbolically. The prologue to the book helps us to understand this. “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw. Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:1-3). From the beginning of the book, John uses the word signify, as in a sign, that which points to something, alerting the reader of the need to proceed with caution and avoid hyper-literalism in reading. It seems that few have heeded this advice throughout history.
Revelation is filled with symbols. Some we understand; some we don’t. If I were to show you a cartoon of a donkey and an elephant in a boxing match, you would likely know that it was a political cartoon illustrating the fighting that often occurs between American Democrats and Republicans. We know that today because we are familiar with this symbolic imagery, but imagine you lived in the year 4,000 on the other side of the world. You probably wouldn’t be familiar with this imagery and could easily get confused about its meaning. If you took it literally you might think Americans two thousand years ago held boxing matches where they pitted donkeys against elephants. Apply this same thinking toward the imagery of Revelation. The images in Revelations were, in a sense, political cartoons depicting Satan as a dragon, the Roman Empire as a Godzilla-like beast that destroys or devours everything it touches. Some of this imagery is easier to identify, and some of it is difficult—to us—but it would have been clear to John’s original readers. So don’t get too caught up in the symbolism.
Let me say that again for emphasis: John expected his first audience—certain Christians in the first century—to understand and get something of value out of everything he wrote. Revelation was written in the first century directly to a first century audience, not a twenty-first century audience. Can we gain value from it today? Absolutely.
Another thing to remember about the book of Revelation is that it is a prophetic rebuke of empire. This book is as much about how the kingdom of God will prevail over the kingdoms of men as it is about the fact that the kingdom of God will prevail over the kingdoms of men. As such, this book is not about predicting the end of the world (perhaps that may surprise you). Does it discuss the end of the story, the great and final judgment? Yes! But this book is also about addressing the ways humans tend to trust in the rule of men (kingdoms, governments, empires) to save the world, when only King Jesus can do that. Revelation reveals to us how He is doing that, and in the process John unmasks the empires of men, revealing them for what they really are: devouring beasts who fuel their power by consuming the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. These beastly empires devour anything and anyone that gets in their way, and their appetite is insatiable. It is in this context that John speaks of a beast who:
causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.Revelation 13:16-18
So why the numbers 666? A study of the use and significance of numbers in the Bible can get very deep very quickly, and that isn’t the intention of this discussion, so let’s just take a minute to hit a few high notes in view of what we’ve already said about the use of symbols in Revelation. Let’s start with the use of the number 7 in the Bible. We get introduced to the significance of the number seven on the first page of the Bible where it is linked to the fullness and completeness of the creative will of God. In Hebrew the first sentence of the Bible has seven words. Creation culminates with a seventh day, where all is very good and God rests with His created world. It is meant to paint a picture of the harmonious blessing that comes with aligning our lives and our world with the will and wisdom of God as revealed through His words. This is why seven was commonly associated with both perfection and God. Conversely, 6 was a number regularly associated with humans and especially with their imperfections, limitations and weaknesses. Man was created on day six of the creation week. Men were appointed six days to labor and required to rest on the seventh. The sixth commandment forbids the taking of human life. We can allow the symbolic uses of these numbers throughout scripture to inform us in our understanding of Revelation 13, or we can take the well-worn path of self-proclaimed code breakers who claim to discover things never before seen. It seems that people never grow tired of trying to identify 666 in our world today. For generations this number has been linked to a supposed antichrist who would rule and then destroy the world. Everyone from Napoleon to Hitler and Mussolini, to Barak Obama and Donald Trump have been declared to be this so-called antichrist. Others view 666 as a bad omen and try to avoid it in phone numbers, license plates, or totals when making purchases, as if the number itself is evil or bad luck. Let’s stop trying to follow some constantly evolving game of connect the dots that’s dependent upon world events. The simplest and clearest way to understand the number 666 used in the book of Revelation is to stick with what is signified throughout Scripture, not culture, world events or modern languages.
John (the writer of Revelation) appears to be tipping his hand that the second beast mentioned at the end of chapter 13 is not an empire itself, but a man who sits atop the throne of this empire. One of the images he presents is the triple use of six, the number of imperfect man, forming a sort of blasphemous unholy trinity, an example of the arrogance deployed when humans try to “play god” with the world or the lives of others. As such, 666 is the number of rebellion, the number of our turning away from trusting the way of God to rule the world. Humans were created in the image of God and given dominion to rule over creation according to His purposes, but instead humans decided to remake the world after our own image, which is rebellious and temporary. We were made from dust and will return to dust.1
So who is this man specifically? Remember that we in the twenty-first century are not John’s original audience. This is a crucial fact to remember when trying to figure out who 666 represents. God told the people of the first century that this number was significant to their generation, and it was their job to calculate it. Therefore, if John was wanting his readers to focus on one specific person whose number was 666, it was most likely the Roman Emperor Nero, who was at the helm of this empire during the time Revelation was most likely written. He is likely the man who came to the original reader’s mind when told, “Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast” (Revelation 13:18).
Perhaps you find the answer “Nero” a bit anticlimactic. Perhaps religious sensationalism has taught you to be looking for a brand new beast for the twenty-first century. But that type of teaching comes from certain preachers, not the Bible.
Scripture often portrays Satan, and the humans who follow his lead, as counterfeiting the good and the glory created by God. For example, if we look back at the law for kings in Deuteronomy 17, it prohibits the king from multiplying horses and chariots, wives, and wealth, yet this is exactly what Solomon is doing in 1 Kings 10–11. Chapter ten begins by commending his great wisdom, but then catalogues his decline—he begins violating the rules for kings by multiplying gold (666 talents a year), multiplying horses and chariots, and finally multiplying wives who turn his heart away from following God, leading him to set up centers of false worship for all the foreign gods of his wives. So, the number 666 is associated with Solomon in his fall, his abuse of power, and his turning away from true worship of God. What we are doing here is using Scripture to interpret Scripture. However, because sensationalism is what many people want in religion, this is not a very popular approach.
In Revelation, Jesus uses symbols of business transactions to describe worship interactions. He urges people to “buy” from Him gold refined by fire for spiritual wealth, white garments to cover shame, and salve to open their eyes. This imagery is repeated in Chapter 13, referring to worship in the false temple where an image set up by the beast must be worshipped under threat of death. Everyone must worship the image, but no one may do so without the mark. Remember when we said in this beginning that a working knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) is vital to fully grasping the book of Revelation? When Jesus speaks this way about buying, selling, and beasts, He was making a direct allusion to Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel, who commanded people to worship a golden image (“whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits”) on pain of being cast into a fiery furnace. The association of the numbers six and sixty with false worship is evident in both instances—Solomon and Nebuchadnezzar. And this would have come to mind for any Old Testament student. All of this culminates in the name and number of the man: 666, representing the fallen state of humanity. This number points back to Solomon and Nebuchadnezzar. Solomon, in that it signifies his fallen glory, his corrupted wisdom, failure to follow God’s word, and ultimately, his abuse of power and devotion to powerless gods. Nebuchadnezzar, in many of the same ways. What were the Christians who first received the book of Revelation facing? Roman Emperors, who were drunk on pride and power and demanded that the world bow at their feet. But Jesus had pulled back the curtain to reveal that these were no gods, but rebellious men who fell short of the glory of God. While these Roman Emperors, perhaps, wanted people to view them with the number 777 (gods among men), the one, true and living God called them out with the triplet 6.
With that in mind, think of the imagery used in Revelation 13 as a sort of grotesque and vulgar parody of the holy. Notice how the chapter begins: the dragon (Satan), summons from the sea (the nations), a beast (empire) with many heads and crowns (rulers), all of which wear a blasphemous name. Historically, the rulers of kingdoms and empires were often considered or considered themselves to be divine and their titles bear witness to that. The historical references and archaeological discoveries reveal depictions like, “the divine Julius Caesar…Augustus Caesar, the son of god…the god Hadrian…our lord and god Domitian” along with coins bearing Nero’s image inscribed “savior of the world.” These are mockeries of the Creator of heaven and earth. With this in mind, it is likely that the dragon/beast/head imagery used here is a blasphemous parody of the reign of Jesus as the Son of God. The beast speaks lies (think propaganda) to turn the hearts of the people so they give their allegiance to the empire and not the Christ. Those who pledge their loyalty to the beast are portrayed as bearing the mark of the beast. I’ve heard the mark of the beast referred to as everything from bar codes, to cashless money transactions, to computer chips in credit cards, vaccines, and artificial intelligence. One thing all of these have in common: none of them would have meant anything to the original audience of Revelation. Remember how the book begins? “Things that would soon come to pass.” You don’t have to be an expert in the book of Revelation, biblical numerology or ancient history to protect yourself from ridiculous and elaborate explanations of the signs in the book, you just need to remember a couple of things:
- Would this explanation have been of any value to the original readers of the book?
- Did this come to pass in or around their generation?
If the answer to either or both of these questions is no, then the interpretation is likely off base.
- Genesis 3:19; Isaiah 40:6–8; 1 Peter 1:24–25 ↩︎