The number of the beast … is 666 — Revelation 13:18

Previously: He requires everyone to be given a mark — Revelation 13:16-17

The scripture

Rev. 13:18 – Here is wisdom: The one who has understanding must calculate the number of the beast, because it is the number of a man. His number is 666. (HCSB)

Here is wisdom

Few verses in all of scripture attract such attention and spur such debate as Rev. 13:18. John writes, “Here is wisdom: The one who has understanding must calculate the number of the beast, because it is the number of a man. His number is 666.” The Greek word for “calculate” is psephizo and means “to use pebbles in enumeration” – that is, to count.

HellJohn’s charge to use cautious deliberation has not prevented the wildest of speculations over the centuries. Here’s a short list of proposed Antichrists: Ronald Wilson Reagan (six letters in each of his names); the pope (pick one); Charlemagne (tried to rebuild the Roman Empire); Napolean (same reason); late 19th-early 20th century male witch Aleister Crowley (so evil that his nicknames were “the beast” and “666”); the Roman Emperor Nero (read on); 20th century contemporary world leaders Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini (grumpy bedeviler of the West); Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church (and self-proclaimed Messiah of the Second Advent); Louis Farrakhan (who called the Jewish faith a “gutter religion” and claimed to be the true Jesus); and Barney the Dinosaur (because he matches the apostle John’s description of a “fiery red dragon”).

While there are many proposed solutions to this riddle, two explanations would make good sense to the first-century audience receiving John’s message.  The first is gematria, or the practice of transforming names into numbers. This is common in antiquity. According to the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, each letter has a corresponding number. The first 10 letters carry a value of one through 10. To use an English example, a=1, b=2, c=3, and so on. After the first 10 letters, the 11th letter is valued at 20, the 12th letter 30, and so on until 100. The 20th letter is valued at 200, and each subsequent letter gains an additional 100.

This well-known system makes one first-century character a prime suspect for the Antichrist: Caesar Nero. The sum of the numerical values of the words Neron Quesar in Hebrew is 666. Further, this system helps explain a puzzling textual variant in which the number of the beast is 616. “In the Latin pronunciation of the name, one read Nero, not Neron, which meant that the number of the name was reduced in value by the letter n (=50),” writes Jurgen Roloff. “In addition, there is a further surprising observation: the numerical value of the Greek word therion (=the beast), written in Hebrew letters, also produces 666” (p. 166).

While many people’s names could total 666 according to gematria, it is important to remember that in the first century, Nero’s name is widely known in Asia Minor and the cult of Caesar worship is strong here. What’s more, Nero’s vile nature, twisted appetites, and legendary acts of brutality make him a truly wild beast whose goal is to stamp out Christianity and replace it with a system giving full veneration to the emperor.

The revolt against God

A second proposed solution is known as symbolic-theological interpretation. This possibility is stated by the church father Irenaeus, who notes that 666, with its six hundreds, six tens, and six ones, summarizes the whole revolt against God that took place from the beginning of the world. It recognizes that the number six falls short of the number seven, the number of perfection. This second explanation is broader in scope and can be more easily applied to a 21st century Antichrist, if the futurist view is correct. But it seems to make sense that the original readers of Revelation, under great persecution for their steadfast rejection of the cult of Caesar, could easily understand John’s apocalyptic description of this beast.

“The number could be entirely symbolic,” writes David H. Stern. “The name of Messiah in Greek, Iesous, equals 888; 7 is regarded as the perfect number; and triple repetition symbolizes absolute ultimacy (as in Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy is Adonai of Hosts.”). Therefore 888 means that Yeshua [Jesus] is absolutely and ultimately beyond perfection, while 666 means that the beast in every respect falls short of perfection and is therefore absolutely and ultimately imperfect and evil” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 829).

W.A. Criswell, who argues that the Antichrist is yet future, insists that no one will be able to discern the meaning of 666 until the time comes. He writes, “There is only one thing about it [the number 666] that we know and that is this: six is the number of a man; six – falling short of the perfect seven. Man was created on the sixth day. He is to work six of the seven days. A Hebrew slave could not be a slave more than six years. The fields were to be sown not more than six years and then they were to be allowed to rest on a Sabbath. Six is the number of a man…. All that I can say in the present light is this: The beast, in his number, represents the ultimate of all human ingenuity and competence. The most mankind will ever be able to attain to is beneath the perfect seven” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, Vol. 4, pp. 121-22).

Four major views of the beast from the earth

How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view this beast?

  • Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – generally support one of three views of the beast: 1) he represents the “cult of the emperor,” the pagan religious environment that fosters worship of the Caesars; 2) he is a Roman governor of Judea, likely Albinus or Gessius Florus, who operates with great cruelty and attempts to force Christians to pay homage to the statue of Nero and offer incense to it; 3) he symbolizes  “the false prophet,” which is the heretical brand of Judaism practiced in the first century. As for the number of the first beast, 666, John expects his readers to have no difficulty calculating the meaning of this cryptogram and identifying the beast as “Caesar Nero” (Nrwn Qsr in Hebrew).
  • Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – generally identify the second beast as papal Rome or the priesthood of the Roman church. The pope, cardinals, bishops and priests mimic the Lamb in their appearance but speak like the dragon with their false teachings. The great signs they perform are the alleged miracles of the church down through the ages, giving breath, so to speak, to the first beast. The number of the beast, 666, is thought by some historicists to represent Latin, the language of the Roman church. Others suggest the numbers point to “Latin kingdom,” “Apostate,” or the Hebrew word for “Roman,” all of which can be shown to total 666. One final view is that it stands for the pope’s official title: Vicarius filii Dei (“Vicar of the Son of God”); the Roman numeral value of this title totals 666.
  • Futurists – who say the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – generally hold that the second beast is a future religious leader, or even a counterfeit messiah, who complements the political nature of the first beast. Others, however, say the beast symbolizes a false religion. Those who hold to the view that the beast is an individual say his ability to call down fire from heaven and perform other miracles is a deliberate duplication of the power of the two witnesses of Revelation 11. He erects an image, or statue, of the first beast, either in Rome or Jerusalem, and miraculously gives it the ability to speak. As for the number 666, futurists vary widely in their opinions, some confessing they do not know what the number reveals, while others suggest a reincarnation of Nero or Judas Iscariot. Others simply point out that the number six is the number of man, one short of seven, the number of perfection; therefore, the number 666 represents the very best man can do, and in falling short of God’s standard, mocks Him.
  • Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – identify the second beast as a symbol of false religion and false philosophy in whatever form they appear throughout the church age. John’s immediate audience in Asia Minor is quite familiar with the imperial cult of emperor worship and understands this, but it is not limited to that time. Homer Hailey writes that “its spirit is reflected in all forms of false worship which followed, including the papacy and many other systems of false religion” (Revelation: Four Views – A Parallel Commentary, p. 297). As for the “great signs,” they may be the deceiving work of charlatans or a symbolic way of saying that false religions will give a variety of convincing evidences of their supernatural origins. The image of the beast depicts nationalism or statism, which confer upon the state a godlike virtue; the image not need be literal. As for the number 666, it is not to be taken literally and does not point to a single person; rather, each digit of the number 666 falls short of the symbolic number of perfection: seven.

Next: The Lamb and the 144,000 — Revelation 14:1-5

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