This post is a long one – it’s a big subject, and even this is a basic overview!
If anyone knows anything about Revelation, it’s the mark of the beast – 666. In the world it’s used by pop groups and Satanists etc. and in the church it’s generally thought of as some evil person who will arise on the world scene and be known as the anti-Christ.
An interesting point of note is that the Eastern Church hasn’t the same the fascination and focus on it like there is in the West. In the West there has been a constant endeavour to make the connection with something or someone, i.e. Hitler to Mussolini, Henry Kissenger to Ronald Reagan (he had three names with six letters each!); The Lion = papacy, the Leopard = third world (because that’s where they come from), and the Bear = communist countries; and then there’s bar codes, implants, and buses!
IT’S HELPFUL TO REMEMBER:
• Who the book was written to – the church of its day.
• Why it was written – to address a potential crisis of faith in the early church. After the ‘success’ of the gospel, now there was suffering, and some of the Christians were in danger of compromising their faith by entering into the idolatrous practices of the people around them, especially emperor worship. The book of Revelation calls the Christians of that day back to the worship of God and Christ (the Lamb) over against participation in the idolatrous worship of the world around them.
• How it was written – It’s a book of signs, everything is not what it seems. It’s signified, or we might say ‘codified,’ because it was politically sensitive; and yet it could be understood by those in the know. Some see it as a, “a thinly disguised political tract, with the names of those being criticized changed to numbers to protect the authors and early Christians from reprisals.”
666 & WISDOM….
• It is not three 6’s but a written number.
• It is not a mystery or enigma!
• It is meant to be understood
A good starting point is to note that John says in verse 18 “here is wisdom.” The problem is that many commentators think that John is saying there’s a mystery, something we can’t fully know or be sure of – one modern writer says “the message of this chapter is that he will be very hard to spot.”
Not so. ‘Here is wisdom’ is meant to be a simple straightforward statement, not an enigma! The same expression occurs over in 17:9. The reason it has been thought to be a mystery and hard to understand is due to the placing of the majority of Revelation in the future, when the reality is that John is writing to the church of the time in order to help it understand what was going on, and enable it to be a Radical Church in the Real World, by staying true to Jesus Christ and confronting the world with the whole counsel of God in the Gospel.
John therefore expected anyone with understanding to be able to work out exactly what he meant – Today you can buy books called ‘Decoding the Mark of the Beast.’ You don’t need to, 1. Because it’s related to that time, and, 2. Because John provided all the information required! You don’t need the newspaper or TV, or anyone’s book, to help you here.
Cryptograms. In ancient days letters also served as numbers i.e. the Roman numeral system was based on letters representing numbers, V was 5; X was 10; C was 100; D was 500; M was a 1000 etc.. The Greek and Hebrew languages operated similarly, although their numerical equivalents followed the alphabetic order and employed the entire alphabet.
As a consequence cryptogrammic riddles were common in ancient cultures, even among Christians, and involved the adding up of the numerical values of the letters of a word, particularly a proper name.
Two Clues – John gives us two clues:
• “The number of a man.” (18) not a computer code, It’s a person.
• The time factor…. if Revelation was written for the church of its day then we need look and speculate no further.
The strongest manuscript evidence supports 666, though there are a few that support 616 – though it doesn’t appear to make that much difference according to the scholars.
Dr. Ellen Aitkin professor at McGill University, Quebec, says scholars now believe the number in question has very little to do with the devil, and that it was actually a complicated numerical riddle in Greek, meant to represent someone’s name. “It’s a number puzzle — the majority opinion seems to be that it refers to [the Roman emperor] Nero.”
Kenneth Gentry says, “The name “Nero” well meets the three fundamental criteria: proper numerical valuation, reference to a man (Rev. 13: 18), and contemporary relevancy.” Before Jerusalem Fell, 201
It is frequently assumed that the Beast and anti-Christ are the same, and that this is all tied in with what John says about anti-Christ in his letters – the quick answer is not necessarily.
Anti-Christ is nowhere mentioned in Revelation! The term antichrist is used, by John in his letters (1 John 2:18; 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7) in two ways to identify a heresy which…
1. Denied certain essential doctrines concerning Jesus (i.e. come in the flesh).
2. Identified a person or persons holding that heretical view.
Frequently we hear ‘the beast’ referred to, but actually there are two (13:1 and 13:11). Some have thought it was the Roman Catholic Church, a Revived Roman Empire (Common Market/EEC/EU), or even the USA, but the answer is found in the context. It should be noted here that the phrase is used in a generic and a specific sense – the beast is the empire, is the individual, is the beast.
The beast is described as coming out of the sea and having seven heads and ten horns. The seven heads refer to different emperors. The first four seals in chapter 6 refer to Caesars Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius – there was of course one prior to these and to the coming of Christ, Julius Caesar. In chapter 6:9 John refers to the particular character of the beast at this time under the fifth seal (his murderous activity), and will refer more definitely to him in chapter 17.
“The seven heads are seven mountains…. they are also seven kings.” (17:9, 10). Here we have the detail. Whether John wrote earlier or later, Rome was ‘the city on seven hills,’ and ‘the kings’ represent the emperors or Caesars, five of whom have fallen and the ‘one who is’ is none other than Nero. The authority and power of Rome came from the dragon, the devil.
The historian Josephus speaks of the Romans as ‘the lords of the habitable earth,’ ‘rulers of the whole world,’ and Rome as ‘the greatest of all cities.’
F.W. Farrar (1882) states that “all the earliest Christian writers on the Apocalypse, from Irenaeus down to Victorious of Pettau and Commodian in the fourth, and Andreas in the fifth, and St. Beatus in the eighth century, connect Nero, or some Roman emperor, with the Apocalyptic Beast.” And says that “the clue is preserved for us, not only by Jewish Talmudists, and Pagan historians and authors, such as Tacitus, Suetonius, Dion Cassius, and Dion Chrysostom; but also by Christian fathers like St. Irenaeus, Lactantius, St. Victorinus, Sulpicius Severus, and the Sibylline books, and even by St. Jerome, and by St. Augustine.” Farrar adds that “nothing can prove more decisively than these references that for four centuries many Christians identified Nero with the Beast.”
Farrar concludes by saying: “Beyond all shadow of doubt or uncertainty, the Wild Beast from the sea is meant as a symbol of the emperor Nero. Here, at any rate, St. John has neglected no single means by which he could make his meaning clear without deadly peril to himself and the Christian Church. He describes this Wild Beast by no less than sixteen distinctive marks, and then all but tells us in so many words the name of the person whom it is intended to symbolize.” (Farrar; Early Days of Christianity).
Revelation 13:2 pictures the nature of the beast in leopard, bear and lion form. A leopard is swift, a bear strong, and the mouth of a lion frightening and devouring. History shows Nero fulfilled all these aspects.
This is the same as the person described in Daniel:
“And four great beasts came up from the sea, each different from the other… After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, exceedingly strong. It had huge iron teeth; it was devouring, breaking in pieces, and trampling the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns.” Daniel 7:3, 7
The pagan writer Apollinius of Tyana, who lived at the time of Nero, states: “In my travels, which have been wider than ever man yet accomplished, I have seen many wild beasts of Arabia and India; but this beast, that is commonly called a Tyrant, I know not how many heads it has, nor if it be crooked of claw, and armed with horrible fangs…. And of wild beasts you cannot say that they were ever known to eat their own mother, but Nero gorged himself on this diet.”
Nero ruthlessly murdered his parents, his brother, his pregnant wife and other family members. He was a homosexual, who found sexual gratification in watching torture. He enjoyed dressing up as a wild beast and raping male and female prisoners, and illuminated his garden parties with the bodies of Christians, covered with pitch and set aflame.
Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) described Nero as “the destroyer of the human race” and “the poison of the world.”
THAT MORTAL WOUND
But what about the fatal wound? 13:3 says “One of his heads appeared to be fatally wounded” Notice it says ‘appeared to be.’
On 9th June 68AD Nero committed suicide and there are three important things to note:
• With the death of Nero, the Roman Empire’s founding family vanished from rule.
• The Roman Empire was hurled into civil wars of horrible ferocity and dramatic proportions.
• Rome almost disintegrated but amazingly it revived (13:3).
13:7 “He was permitted to wage war against the saints……” Remember the revelations: God is on his throne, the Lamb is acting in judgment, the fact that God knows those who are his – represented in the 144,000 and great multitude. It all helps John and the church up to this point, “He was permitted to wage war against the saints…”
Nero was the first emperor to attack the church and also started the attack on Jerusalem – later Vespasian and Titus would complete it. The attack on the church was ferocious and started in November 64AD and went on for a total of 42 months (13:8).
13:8 “all those on earth will worship him.” Emperor worship was compulsory throughout the Roman Empire at this time. The Roman emperors were called divus or sebastos, words that referred to a divinity they claimed or accepted for themselves. On coins minted in Nero’s reign, he is called the “Saviour of the world.” The Roman Empire considered itself to be “the saviour of the world” the answer to its needs! Inscriptions have been found in Ephesus in which Nero is called “Almighty God” and “Saviour”.
What is the Mark of the Beast?
This worries a lot of people, and sells books, but it’s certainly not the euro, dollar, or an implanted microchip! Again the clue is in the context. In chapter14:1 we read that the 144,000 had “His name and His Father’s name written on their foreheads,” now I’ve never heard anyone suggest that this is some implant that Christians receive, which ought to make us stop and think.
New Testament scholar Craig C. Hill says, “It is far more probable that the mark symbolizes the all-embracing economic power of Rome, whose very coinage bore the emperor’s image and conveyed his claims to divinity (e.g., by including the sun’s rays in the ruler’s portrait). It had become increasingly difficult for Christians to function in a world in which public life, including the economic life of the trade guilds, required participation in idolatry.” (Craig C. Hill (2002), In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future, Eerdmans; p. 124)
Craig R. Koester offers a similar view, “As sales were made, people used coins that bore the images of Rome’s gods and emperors. Thus each transaction that used such coins was a reminder that people were advancing themselves economically by relying on political powers that did not recognize the true God.”
(Craig R. Koester (2001), Revelation and the End of All Things, Eerdmans; p. 132).
In John 19:15 we read “But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.” This might well be considered an acceptance of the mark of the beast – their devotion and commitment were to Caesar.
“This demands the perseverance and faith of the saints.”13:10b
“This demands the perseverance of the saints who keep God’s commands and their faith in Jesus.”14:12
• Don’t jump to conclusions about the state of things – God had allowed Nero to wage war against the saints, it wasn’t a fault with the church. Also don’t take on board reports of the church’s demise, God has a way of reviving his work.
• Be discerning – Signs and wonders and powerful words were a big part of what was going on in chapter 13, but they weren’t of God. Don’t believe everything you hear or see. Realise God is in control
• Stay true to Jesus, worship him only. The Christians at that time must have been sorely tempted to compromise, but that’s not the answer.
• Keep the faith. Stay true to ‘the faith’ which was ‘once for all delivered to the saints.’
• Look for the return of Jesus not the coming of an anti-Christ. There is a very real danger in some areas of what might be described as a ‘Christian occultism,’ a morbid fascination with 666, anti-Christ and all things connected. Let’s keep our eyes on Jesus.
• Is your name in the “Book of life” (13:8)? John refers to this 7 times in Revelation. Those whose names are not written there will face the judgment of a holy and righteous God. In fact an underlying aspect to all that’s going on in Revelation is the opportunity to repent and believe in God and the one he has sent…. Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?