666: The Number of the Beast

Since today is the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the number of the beast: 666, mention of which is found in Revelation 13.

Antichrist: The First Beast (Revelation 13.1-10)

The defeat of the devil is a future but certain event.

In the mean time, John’s Revelation teaches us, we should expect ongoing spiritual conflict. It is important to understand that spiritual conflict is not merely spiritual. It is not just a matter of prayer, meditation, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines. Nor is it just a matter of miracles and exorcism. It is, of course, all these things. But it is also-for lack of a better term-political, i.e., pertaining to everyday life in the city (polis). Spiritual conflict takes place in the routines of life, as we struggle to live as residents of the City of God within the City of Man.

The devil does not make such a life easy, for he engages in spiritual conflict via proxies. Revelation 13 describes the devil’s agents as two hideous beasts: one from the sea, the Antichrist (verses 1-10), and one from the land, the False Prophet (verses 11-18). To live Christianly within the City of Man, we must exercise discernment, knowing what evil looks like and how it acts. And so, John describes for us the nature and activity of each beast.

John’s language is highly symbolic. The first beast is not literally a grotesque pastiche of leopard, bear, and lion, with seven heads, ten horns, and ten diadems. (A diadem, by the way, is “a jeweled headband used as a crown,” according to the World English Dictionary.) Rather, as Revelation 17.7-18 makes clear, it is a very human king, or perhaps a very human kingdom, that wages war against God’s people. Commentators disagree whether the Antichrist is an individual governor or the institution of government. I am of the opinion that it is a little of both.

This very human “beast” imitates the dragon in all its devilishness. That is the point of the seven heads and ten horns (compare 13.1 with 12.3). The beast also derives its authority from the dragon, which gives it “his power and his thrown and great authority.” No wonder, then, that the beast sets out “to make war on the saints and to conquer them.”

Spiritual conflict with the devil thus becomes political conflict with a persecuting government. Romans 13 teaches us that government is God’s servant. Revelation 13 reminds us that it also can become the enemy of God’s people.

Such enmity can be borne, however, for God limits its duration. John tells us that the beast “was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months,” a long time to be sure, but a limited one nevertheless. God also limits the enmity’s extent. The beast is given authority over “all who dwell on earth,” who will “worship it,” but not over anyone whose name has “been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.”

In the century just past, more Christians were killed for their faith by their governments than in all previous nineteen centuries combined. That is a sobering thought, but not an unexpected reality. Revelation 13 forewarned us of the possibility long ago.

“Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” Indeed!

False Prophet: The Second Beast (Revelation 13.11-18)

Readers of Revelation 13.11-18 feel their attention immediately drawn to the last words of the passage: “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.” They speculate endlessly on what that number means. And few public figures of any consequence have escaped being identified as the beast, including Nero Caesar in the first century and Ronald Reagan in the last. (The latter’s full name is Ronald Wilson Reagan-a supposedly ominous six letters in each name.)

We will, for the moment, resist the attention-drawing power of 666 in order to focus on the main point of Revelation 13.11-18, which is an explicit description of and implicit warning about the second beast, the false prophet.

You have no doubt heard of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This second beast is a dragon in lamb’s skin, a devilish imitation of Jesus Christ. “It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon.” Of the twenty-nine times John uses the word lamb (Greek, arnion) in his Revelation, only here does it refer someone other than Christ. His point is inescapable: The devil uses a parody of religion to draw men and women away from real faith. It looks godly, even Christlike, but it is not.

The false prophet has amazing power. “It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of all people.” But that power is directed toward an ungodly purpose: to deceive “those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived,” that is, the antichrist. It also has the power of capital punishment, to kill those who refuse to worship the antichrist, and the power of economic incentives, to help or hurt those who are “marked on the right or the forehead” with “the name of the beast or the number of its name.”

The power of the false prophet, in other words, is the power of politicized religion in the service of deified government. We Americans are accustomed to a separation of the institutions of religion and government, but this custom is of modern vintage. In the ancient world, especially the Roman one, temple and palace reinforced one another. Indeed, the Romans accused the early Christians of atheism because they refused to offer incense to the genius of Caesar, a religious act fraught with political significance.

John envisions something similar here, although we cannot be too sure of the specifics. That is why the interpretation of 666 is so interesting. Likely, it is a numerical symbol of someone’s name, for in Greek, the letters of the alphabet have numerical significance. The number might reveal the identity of a particular government leader. Unfortunately, there never has been widespread agreement on what his name is. It is unlikely that 666 will be tattooed on anyone’s head or hand, however. Like the seal of God on the forehead of believers (7.2-3, 9.4), the mark of the beast is symbolic rather than literal. It signifies whom one worships, and thus to whom one belongs.

And that, it seems to me, is the point of application of Revelation 13.11-18: not endless speculation about numbers but the live question of faith and allegiance. Do we acknowledge Jesus as Christ and Teacher, or do we follow an antichrist and false prophet?

To answer such a question rightly, we need discernment-the ability to sniff out politicized religion and sacralized politics-and, more importantly, the courage to resist them both.

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