The number of the beast
Many years ago, I had a friend who was in a band. (Didn’t we all?) One of the songs he wrote was titled 665—The Neighbor of the Beast. If you were at all familiar with bands like Iron Maiden, you’ll appreciate the humor of this parody. Of course, if you peruse the titles of songs from many Christian albums, especially from the early Jesus music of the 70s, you’ll find surprisingly similar subject matter. What caused all of this fascination? The “number of the beast” comes from Revelation 13:17-18, which refers to:
. . . the name of the beast or the number representing his name. Wisdom is needed here. Let the one with understanding solve the meaning of the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. His number is 666.
Now, there are a number of questions concerning this passage:
What is the number?
The traditional reading is 666, but some early manuscripts record the number as 616. And there is still some question among scholars as to which reading is correct. If 616 is actually the number in the original manuscripts, there are a lot of highly speculative books and materials that will need to be withdrawn from publication!
What is the number supposed to mean?
According to the passage above, this number represents the name of the beast or Antichrist. How does it do that? In the first century, each of the letters in the Greek alphabet (as well as other alphabets) had a numeric value. It was common to total up the value of the letters in a person’s name. For instance, Jesus’ name in Greek apparently totals 888. This is the number of his name. The number 666 (or 616) is the combined numeric value of the letters in the Antichrist’s name.
So, what’s his name?
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work backwards. It’s not like a code; we can’t work back from the numbers to determine a specific name. Many potential names have been suggested over the years, from Nero to Ronald Wilson Reagan (get it? 6 letters in each name) to www (as in world-wide web). Each of these claims has problems, by the way. It’s interesting that some scholars prefer the number 616 because it works better with Nero’s name in Latin. Even if this number did point specifically to Nero, it’s very possible he was intended to be a type (or model) of the Antichrist to come. One thing we’re not told to do is somehow use this number to figure out ahead of time who the Antichrist will be.
The mark of the beast
The earlier part of the passage above tells us:
He required everyone—small and great, rich and poor, free and slave—to be given a mark on the right hand or on the forehead. And no one could buy or sell anything without that mark, which was either the name of the beast or the number representing his name.
Again, we should break this down to a few observations:
This is a twisted attempt to mimic the seal God places on his people.
Remember passages such as Revelation 7:2-3:
And I saw another angel coming up from the east, carrying the seal of the living God. And he shouted to those four angels, who had been given power to harm land and sea, “Wait! Don’t harm the land or the sea or the trees until we have placed the seal of God on the foreheads of his servants.”
Once again, we see Satan trying desperately to be like God.
How literal is this description?
Most of us have been drawn into discussions about a coming cashless society and whether this might prove to be the mark of the beast. But we need to slow down a bit. Remember when we study Revelation we need to assume each description is symbolic unless something in the text indicates it’s literal. (For more on this, see earlier posts here and here.) Does God literally place a seal on the physical foreheads of his servants? Or does this symbolize a spiritual identification of us as God’s, as if we are spiritually “branded” by God as his?
Is the mark of the beast a literal mark on a person’s physical hand or forehead? Or does it spiritually identify a person as belonging to the Antichrist (and therefore Satan)? And what about this issue of buying and selling? If this is symbolism, what does it symbolize? Is it possible this description is both literal and spiritual? These are not easy questions, and it would take an entire post (or more) to work through all of the possible interpretations. For now, we need to realize we won’t clearly understand what each element in Revelation means—at least not before these things occur. Yes, the ever-increasing push toward a cashless society is compelling and provocative. But we need to be careful not to assume too quickly what constitutes fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
The mark of the beast will accompany the worship of the Antichrist.
We will know the mark of the beast when we see it. We’ll have no doubt what it is because it will be an integral aspect of the worship of the Antichrist. Let’s zoom out again in our passage and see a bit more of the context:
And he [the second beast or false prophet] required all the earth and its people to worship the first beast [the Antichrist], whose fatal wound had been healed. He did astounding miracles, even making fire flash down to earth from the sky while everyone was watching. And with all the miracles he was allowed to perform on behalf of the first beast, he deceived all the people who belong to this world. He ordered the people to make a great statue of the first beast, who was fatally wounded and then came back to life. He was then permitted to give life to this statue so that it could speak. Then the statue of the beast commanded that anyone refusing to worship it must die. He required everyone—small and great, rich and poor, free and slave—to be given a mark on the right hand or on the forehead. And no one could buy or sell anything without that mark, which was either the name of the beast or the number representing his name.
Anyone who takes this “mark” will understand they are identifying themselves as belonging to the Antichrist.
A note on the false prophet
Again, expanding our scope in Revelation 13, we see in verse 11 a description of this “second beast”:
He had two horns like those of a lamb, but he spoke with the voice of a dragon.
Who is the Lamb? In Revelation chapters 5-6 we see the Lamb is Christ himself. So this false prophet will appear to be like the lamb, or like Christ. He may even be a recognized religious figure. But his words will expose him as following the schemes of the devil.
What is Babylon in Revelation 17-18?
In chapter 17, we’re introduced to a woman who represents a city that represents a world power. (Confused yet?) In the next chapter, we see the ultimate fate of this woman/city/world power. It’s utterly devastated and destroyed. What or who is this describing?
The great prostitute.
Our first clue is the way she’s initially described:
“Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you the judgment that is going to come on the great prostitute, who rules over many waters. The kings of the world have committed adultery with her, and the people who belong to this world have been made drunk by the wine of her immorality.”
In biblical prophecy, adultery speaks of unfaithfulness to God. But this woman isn’t just unfaithful to God; she has prostituted or sold herself in order to gain something for her unfaithfulness.
The woman wore purple and scarlet clothing and beautiful jewelry made of gold and precious gems and pearls. In her hand she held a gold goblet full of obscenities and the impurities of her immorality.
So her unfaithfulness has made her very wealthy and powerful, and given her an indulgent, decadent lifestyle. And not only has she given herself over to this obscene adultery against God, she’s drawn the rest of the world into this perversion.
The mother of all prostitutes.
The description continues:
A mysterious name was written on her forehead: “Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World.” I could see that she was drunk—drunk with the blood of God’s holy people who were witnesses for Jesus.
In another place (1 John 4:2-3), John explains there is a spirit of antichrist that has always been present. This doesn’t mean there is no personal Antichrist who will rise up in the last days, only that he will embody a spirit or mentality that has always been around. In the same way, Babylon is the “mother” of all who share in this heart of spiritual prostitution and adultery against God.
Babylon was the site of the first organized, societal rebellion against God (Genesis 11:1-9). Many scholars trace the origins of paganism to ancient Babylon. (Much occult tradition echoes this.) This false, adulterous religion seduced the people to turn from faithfulness to the one, true God and give themselves over to adulterous worship of the sun and moon, and a pantheon of gods and goddesses. This ungodly perversion was carried into all cultures, and so Babylon truly is the mother of all spiritual prostitution and obscenity.
Associated with the Antichrist and his government.
In Revelation 17:15, we learn this prostitute rules over masses of people of every nation and language. But she doesn’t represent government itself. We’re told repeatedly in chapter 18 that the kings of the world commit adultery with the prostitute (and they mourn for her when she is destroyed). And in 17:3, we read:
There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that had seven heads and ten horns, and blasphemies against God were written all over it.
We’ve seen this beast with its ten horns (i.e. kings or powers) before. So the women or prostitute isn’t the final one-world government, but she’s associated in some way with it. Is the woman driving the beast where she wants it go, or is he taking her where he wants? She does rule over masses of people. Possibly because of her power over these people, “The scarlet beast and his ten horns all hate the prostitute [Revelation 17:16].” So, they are associated, probably even cooperating, but the Antichrist hates the prostitute.
Who is the prostitute?
Here’s where we need to be careful and see the forest for the trees. Some think the prostitute will literally be a rebuilt Babylon. But Babylon here seems to symbolize the origin of this heart of spiritual adultery. 17:9 speaks of “seven hills where the woman rules,” and 17:18 says “this woman you saw in your vision represents the great city that rules over the kings of the world.” This seems to point to Rome. And, interestingly enough, Rome was sometimes called by the nickname Babylon.
But why was Rome called Babylon? Because she had followed in Babylon’s perverse ways of spiritual prostitution and persecution of God’s people to secure her wealth and power. The “spirit” of Rome was merely the current manifestation of this “spirit” of Babylon, this heart and mentality of unfaithfulness against God, embracing of his enemies, and hatred of his people. The political government of Rome worked together and cooperated with Roman paganism and false religion. The two served to consolidate each other’s power over the masses and helped each other become increasingly wealthy.
Many Bible teachers believe this prostitute, Babylon, represents all false religions and faiths (including corrupted forms of Christianity). Religion, as opposed to genuine faith in Christ, has prostituted itself and committed adultery with those who hold the power and wealth of the world. It has “deceived the nations with your sorceries” and slaughtered those who remain faithful to the true God (Revelation 18:23-24). But one day all this false religious perversion and obscenity will come crashing down.
Doomed to destruction.
Chapter 18 vividly describes the downfall of this seemingly great power. Her fall will be so sudden and so devastating it will shock the world and cause those who partnered in her adulteries to mourn for her. Apparently, God will allow the Antichrist to have a hand in the destruction of this long-standing false religious system (17:16-17). Remember he will “exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship [2 Thessalonians 2:4].” It seems poetic justice for God to use a false christ to destroy the false religions of the world that put their faith in this satanic figure rather than the one true God. Of course, any success the Antichrist enjoys will be extremely short-lived.
It’s appropriate for us to close this section with the warning God gives to his people regarding this seductive adultery of false religion, this spirit of the age:
Come away from her, my people.
Do not take part in her sins,
or you will be punished with her.
After Christ puts an end to this deception and perversion, he will establish his kingdom on earth. Ultimately, we see the new Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth (Revelation 21-22). Where Babylon represented spiritual prostitution against God, the new Jerusalem symbolizes the intimate union with God he has always planned for us: heaven on earth; God living among his people.
We end this series by remembering the most important truths concerning the return of Christ, on which we all agree:
Jesus is returning.
We must be ready.
The return of Christ series:
The return of Christ: Odds and ends [see above]