Will the Real 666 Please stand up?

 

From Popes to Presidents to Potions, few concepts have captured the public imagination the way 666 has.  Not so long ago I received a text from a former congregation member asking for my input because some pastors have been saying that if we take the covid vaccine we won’t go to heaven, because apparently this vaccine is linked to 666.  I found it intriguing that people believed the effects of Cavalry could be wiped out by a vaccine.

As time passes and the world faces more crises, there will be new culprits and scapegoats that will be labelled 666.  This article hopes to bring clarity through exploring what 666 is within the Scriptural context it is found, and through this provide a template that we can use to see what conditions need to be met before we can more positively say “this could well be 666.”

The 666 identity comes at the end of Revelation 13, a passage in which two beasts are described.  The 666 refers to the second beast, and part of the description is as follows:

Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of his name.  This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666 (Revelation 13:16-18 ESV)

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that these are just two verses in a book of just over 400 verses.  Incidentally, in those 400 verses there are over 600 allusions to the Old Testament, which gives us a significant clue on how we are to understand this book.  Is there an allusion to the OT in the beast verses quoted above? You decide:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes (Deuteronomy 6:4-8)

Whenever we read literature of any type, we always adapt our brain to the type of material we are reading to get maximum understanding.  You wouldn’t read Dr Seuss and read it as if it were a history textbook (that wouldn’t be fun at all!).  In the same way it really does help to ask ourselves what type of book is Revelation?  When I look at the Book of Revelation I see an apocalyptic, prophetic pastoral letter dictated by Jesus Himself!  By apocalyptic, we mean a special type of literature filled with symbols.  I like this definition by John Harris: The purpose of apocalyptic writing is to use over-the-top imagery to impress great truths on our minds, truths far beyond the power of ordinary words.  When we say prophetic, we are understanding that this letter is offering us God’s perspective on reality, as well as giving understanding of what is to come. Its pastoral because it is written with the goal of helping believers to strengthen their faith. And it is a letter, because it is written to specific people in a specific place.  It is a letter written from above for believers below.[i]  To quote Revelation 1:1-3…

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.  He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.  Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. 

In these opening verses of Revelation quoted above we see that not only is Revelation written for the whole church, but to specific believers in early church history who would have understood the letter (and the seven churches identified later are in modern day Turkey).  We’re also told that Revelation is a book about history told in advance.  It refers to the time span between the first and second coming of Jesus, and scholars have recognised that it does so not in sequence but in parallel, using multiple images (seals/trumpets/bowls), and certainly human history indicates that the cycles seem to get successively more intense, and this is the pattern, until Jesus comes.  Revelation also intertwines three realities: heaven, our world and the church.  It reveals a sovereign God in charge of history and how He is answering the prayer of “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  It is Biblical therefore to keep our eyes open to identify the seasons we are in.

I personally find it helpful to see Revelation as a big picture book.  It’s like looking at a painting – you have to stand back a bit to see the whole picture.  A more modern analogy which I came across which I thought was excellent was to view Revelation as a hologram, and the parallel images which we see are like walking around the hologram and seeing it from different perspectives.

Another reality to consider is how there have been so many different interpretations to this book!  The same biblical data is in front of everyone, but diverse interpretations arise.  How can this be? That is simply a result of looking through different lenses.  Interestingly enough, Revelation is one of those books where you may not understand all the imagery, but you can still understand the lessons!  For an overview of the book which touches on different perspectives, do yourself a favour and check out the Bible Project overview of Revelation (done in two videos – click here).[ii]

In terms of the structure of Revelation, I like this one from Dr Martin Pohlman[iii] (I am indebted to him for helping me see things in a new light!):

1:1-8 Prologue
1:9-3:22 The inaugural vision of Christ in relation to His Church
4:1-5:14 The inaugural vision of heaven with Jesus being the representative of God’s throne
6:1-11:19 A demonstration of God’s sovereignty over history through Jesus
12:1-16:20 An inaugural demonstration of God’s sovereign power of Satan through Jesus Christ
17:1-19:10 Babylon the harlot finally falls after a demonstration of God’s power through Jesus Christ
19:11-21:8 The transition from Babylon to the New Testament
21:9-22:5 The inauguration of eternity
22:6-21 Epilogue

 

It also must have been incredibly amazing to the apostle John that he received this revelation.  He is the same John that wrote the gospel, was the disciple referred to as the one Jesus loved (obviously he loved them all! But there was clearly a special affinity to John) and the three letters that bear his name.  I point this out because John obviously had a way of looking at the world that was shaped by his perception and experience of Jesus.  In 1 John 2:18 he references human history as we know it now as being ‘the last hour’ and that there are multiple anti-Christs, which in the immediate context of his letter refers to false teachers, but isn’t it also interesting to note that history has indeed produced many anti-Christs?  He also references the spirit of anti-Christs in 1 John 2:20; 1 John 4:3 & 2 John 7.

This article is not meant to be a commentary on Revelation, but I do hope that what has been shared so far helps give an appreciation for the beauty of the book that deserves such careful study (as it says in Rev 1:3), and make us more reluctant to jump to quick conclusions, because neither do we want to be guilty of misusing the book as we are warned about in Rev 22:18-19.

One thing I am sure we can all agree on is that things are not always what they seem.  We do live in a spiritual world, and we are engaged in a spiritual war (as Ephesians 6 in particular highlights).  In 2 Cor 4:18 we are encouraged to keep our eyes on the unseen, because what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal.  If we look at Calvary, on the surface, the crucifixion of Christ looked like utter, meaningless and hopeless defeat.  But how wrong we would be to think that!

Looking at Revelation, and especially as we consider chapter 12&13, we recognise that there is a lot going on behind the scenes! Recognising this truth, does the following interpretation make sense? Remember: this is ‘big picture’ version:…

Don’t you just love nativity scenes?  They always seem so serene and peaceful.  I’ve yet to see a nativity scene that features a big dragon – and yet behind the scenes of that first Christmas there was a lot going on.  We see depicted the birth of Christ (see v5) but Satan, who is identified as the dragon (v9) is there wanting to defeat the purposes of God and kill the baby.  He was not successful in that, and so now turns onto the subsequent offspring of the woman, identified as (v17) “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” – that would be the church of Christ.  So the ‘big picture’ in this chapter is that we have an enemy that is raging mad and raging war against us, but we’re also given the key to victory over him: “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death (v11).”  In other words, we claim the blood of Christ to cover our sins, and prefer death to disobedience.  Have you noticed how deception and persecution have been affecting the church ever since the Ascension of Christ?

Right at the end of chapter 12 we read the following sentence: “And he stood on the sand of the sea.”  This puts him into position to summon the two beasts which we now encounter in chapter 13. The first beast is from the sea (Rev 13v1) and the second one from the land (v11).  The first beast is  one freaky scaring looking creature that makes Medusa look like a barbie doll.  But there’s a familiarity to the images, and that is because this beast is a hybrid of the beasts described in Daniel 7:1-7 and 17-27.  We know from Daniel’s vision and interpretation that the beasts referred to political empires.  History revealed the accuracy of Daniel’s prophetic vision, and the fact that all of these beasts, along with the horns (representing kingship – reinforced by the crown on each horn) come together in this beast suggests to us that one tool of the dragon or Satan is political power.  And as we know from human history, political power often results in political tyranny, and where there has been tyranny, Christians have been on the receiving end of it.  To the first century readers they would have understood this, since many Christians cruelly lost their lives because they did not regard Caesar as Lord.  Throughout the gospel age, there have been political rulers rising and falling who have persecuted Christians and blasphemed God.

So, in terms of boxes that need to be ticked before we can start speculating that we are dealing with a 666 scenario, the first is that it needs to be linked to a system of political power that is against Christ.  In this respect each and every age has had its anti-Christs.

The second beast is from the land, and it doesn’t look so bad.

Appearances can be deceptive!  This beast looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon.  This is the ultimate “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”  And that’s the clue – remember how Jesus said we were to watch out for false prophets who were wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15)? This beast is representative of false religion, especially religion designed to at the minimum either look like Christianity or easily deceive into allegiance professing believers (I base this on its lamb-appearance), and what is more, it is operating in the service of the first beast: political power.  This sounds like propaganda…the ultimate fake-news specialist!  And because its power lies in deception, it is going to sound ‘very nice.’  We shall undoubtedly hear talk about love and kindness and tolerance and rights and ….hmmm, maybe we should already be aware?

Now we enter some murky waters!  The relationship between church and state has historically been fraught with difficulties.  Let’s be honest: it’s wonderful to enjoy freedom to worship and have state protection of these freedoms.  But what happens when we venture into a type of Christian Nationalism?

That’s another book of its own!  Suffice it to say that as Christians we need to be careful.  I fully believe we must have Christians serving in politics, but I do not believe the church should be an arm of the state.  If that happens, we’re looking at beast material.

That’s the second box to tick.  False religion aligned with and promoting the political power.

Let’s pause for a moment.  Since the ascension of Christ into glory, have there been systems of political power aligned with false religion which have persecuted Christians?

Yes.  The early church had to face the emperor cult.  Then when Christianity became the official state religion, although it was nice to finally have state protection and freedom from persecution, issues over the course of history started to arise where Rome became the dominant church and there was always a power tension exhibited between kings and popes.  In more recent history we have had communism which effectively used Marxism as its religion and was anti-Christ.  In North Korea the emperor is worshipped.  In China there is continued suppression of Christianity.  Islam is very much a political religious system where Christians are targeted.  In the west we are finding increasing hostility against Christianity as political powers align with anti-Christian ideologies such as humanism.

In essence, the church has always had to deal with the unholy trinity of Satan using political power and false ideologies to persecute believers.  In short, the beast presents itself as a counterfeit Christ. The message of Revelation is: that’s ok – its only temporary and the puppets of these political powers and false ideologies are only men.  Christ is supreme.

So political power and false ideology or religion have been manifested in every age.  Is it going to continue like this, or will there one day be an ultimate system against God (a new type of Babel) and the church just prior to Christ’s return?

Satan knows his time is short, and he will do everything he can to take as many down with him as possible.  It is not unreasonable to expect that he is indeed working towards a one world order type scenario, because he wants to be worshipped by all.  This is obviously the stuff of conspiracy theories as well.

If we take into account 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12, we do seem to get a picture of an ultimate rebellion just prior to Christ’s return.  How will this look? Will it be a case of a one world order, or a coalition of nations?  Think about it in terms of the leaders we have on the global front today: it’s going to take a special person to get the likes of Xi Jinping, Putin, Kim Jong-un and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to relinquish their power! If I understand the imagery correctly, it will not be a result of a secret takeover (such as inserting chips into vaccines), but rather an open takeover where people gladly give their allegiance, but will soon discover they have been deceived.

There’s a third box to tick that comes out: the economic system.  Christians will find it incredibly difficult, or simply will not be able to, trade in the currency of the system unless they give up their allegiance.

Again, this has been a pattern in history.  In early church history, many Christians would have battled simply because they did not belong to trade guilds.  Christians in countries where they are persecuted also often live in poverty because they are discriminated against because of their faith.

With the way things are moving today in our economic system, it is understandable that many theories have come up regarding this mark of the beast.  Certainly the world has in place everything it needs to create a one world order and one currency system; whether we have nations actually willing to be part of this is another story.  Certainly there are some, but I do find the rise of nationalism interesting, such as what happened with Brexit.  In order for such a system to be in place again will indeed require a deceptive leader who looks trustworthy – a kind of Hitler or Stalin character that looks like Obama (sorry Obama…).

Is the mark literal? Or again is it symbolic of spiritual realities? And is the 666 a name or a typology of identity?

My thoughts here are my thoughts.  I believe I’m being faithful to the message of the text, but I also want to clearly state that I am simply one voice among many.

I believe the theological thrust of the mark is about who we belong to, and the Lord knows those who are His.  Everything in Revelation is symbolic, and I don’t believe we do the text justice if we now suddenly become literal and argue for some tattoo.  This is a heart issue! If we love the Lord our God with all our heart, then we’re not going to participate in any system that demands allegiance to another.  Remember that many Israelites took Deuteronomy 6:8 very literally and would carry God’s law on their foreheads and hands (phylacteries) to indicate His authority over them. I am just personally challenged by the truth that materialism has always been a temptation for the child of God.  It is for me! It is easy for me to slip into a pattern where I would give all of my thinking (forehead) and all of my effort (hand) into making good money, and Jesus did warn that the love of money was the primary competitor to having Him as Lord.  Put differently: who or what we worship will show itself in our lives.

As for the number 666, I love the way Kevin de Young puts it: “This is probably the most debated verse in Revelation.  It certainly is the verse that has produced the most fruitless debate”[iv]

Many have tried to link 666 to a person through a process known as gematria: letters of the alphabet linked to numbers.  It was quite common in early times (there’s even ancient graffiti using it!). The fact that no consensus has been reached on the name of a person (even using Nero requires a spelling error to make it fit) is undoubtedly a big clue that this is not the route to go.  What would I think be more true to the text is to ask the symbolism, because numbers in Revelation are always used symbolically.

Also, take note that we are actually not called to solve a riddle, because we’re told to calculate a number, and then the number is given.  I offer two proposals:

Firstly, just simply understanding that the beast and system falls short of perfection.  We would represent Trinity as 777, so the unholy trinity of Satan, Political Power and False Prophet/Religion would be 666, and what is truly important to understand in this light is that for all the appearance of power of this system and person, he is still just a man.  The Africa Bible Commentary puts it well:

But there is another way to approach this number…which moves away from associating the number with a particular person.  Instead it focuses on the fact that in Revelation the number 7 (used of angels, churches, seals, trumpets and bowls) implies completeness, whereas the number 6 falls one short of this.  The beast seems to be near perfection and almost messianic; it is, after all, a caricature of the Lamb who was slain (13:3, 11, 13).  But it is not perfect, and that makes all the difference.  It is actually diabolical and utterly opposed to God (13:4).  The number 666 represents a threefold falling short of perfection (dragon:6, beast:6, false prophet:6).  But it is close to perfection, and has most of the hallmarks of truth, and so can easily deceive.  No wonder wisdom is required! (13:18a)[v]

The second possibility I’ve only ever seen suggested once, and it was by Dr Martin Pohlman who I mentioned earlier.

The verse tells us that 666 is the answer, and yet the clear implication of the verse is that it refers to someone already known.  Could there be an OT prototype that exemplifies the type of thing to expect in terms of this unholy trinity?

The clues are a number relating to a person, the Greek word for wisdom (Sophia) and the counting process referred to.  In the OT there is one significant time when the number 666 is used and it is in reference to Solomon and what he received yearly in gold (2 Chronicles 9:13/1 Kings 10:14).  Solomon was a king who started his leadership as a ‘lamb’ in contrast to David who was a warrior.  There was much material prosperity under Solomon’s reign.  Unfortunately, syncretism (false religion) entered into the main line worship, to the extent that we are told “Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; and did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father did (1 Kings 11:6).  The inevitable outcome of this was abuse of sexuality which is also a picture of the new Babylon in terms of apocalyptic imagery of Revelation (Rev 17).

That last paragraph above is just for your consideration.  In short, the final anti-Christ scenario will be represented by: Extensive political power, false religion and Christians being discriminated against in terms of economic trade.  These elements have been present in every age, and so Christians in every age have had to be faithful to God no matter what the cost.  As Revelation engages with human futurology, there is in all probability going to be a final ‘big’ demonstration of this unholy trinity prior to Christ’s return – but the elements will be the same.  This has been a very long article to in essence bring across a simple point which James White once tweeted:

Folks, the mark of the beast in Revelation had to do with worship of Caesar, and hence, representative of worship of any worldly system that stands over and against Christ.  It doesn’t have to do with vending machines or implanted chips.”

May we be found faithful no matter what!

 

[i] Pohlman, M (2008) From Above For Below: The influence of the worldview on the theological thrust of the                                                                                                           Apocalypse

[ii] https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/revelation

[iii] Pohlman p104

[iv] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/revelation-coronavirus-and-the-mark-of-the-beast-how-should-christians-read-the-bibles-most-fascinating-book-part-1/

[v] Africa Bible Commentary (2006) p1567

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