On Wednesday we started talking about the book of Revelation and how it’s weird but maybe less weird than it first seems if you start to understand the context.
One of the things that always comes up when studying Revelation surrounds the number 666 otherwise known as “the mark of the beast”.
Even if you’re not overly familiar with Christianity, there’s a good chance you’ve heard someone somewhere reference the number 666 and it’s association with the forces of evil.
So what’s the deal with the number 666 and why is it called the mark of the beast?
To start, the number 666 is found in Revelation 13:18 which says, “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.”
To give us some context, this verse comes at the end of a section about a beast who came out of the earth. Remember, Revelation is using metaphors and the apocalyptic genre to write about contemporary events. John was writing to real Christians who happened to live under Roman rule in a time when speaking out against the empire was deadly.
But John gives us some clue as to who he’s talking about when he tells us to calculate the number of this beast which equals 666. He’s using a technique known as gematria.
Gematria is essentially an alphanumeric code; that’s where each letter of the alphabet corresponds with a number. In English it would be like making a code where the letter A is replaced by 1, B is replaced by 2, C is replaced by 3 and so on. Where gematria differs from a basic alphanumeric is that you don’t just write out each number, instead, you add them up.
A prime example of this comes from the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew starts his gospel with a long genealogy going from Abraham all the way through to Jesus. Then he concludes his genealogy by saying, “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.”
Matthew intentionally wants us to notice the number 14. That’s because in Hebrew, a language that doesn’t use vowels, you spell the name David as D-V-D. The values of those letters are 4, 6, and 4 which add up to 14. For first century Jews, the association between the number 14 and the name David was obvious.
Furthermore, King David was by far the most iconic figure from their national history. Everyone was waiting for God to fulfill his promises to David by bringing his heir to the throne of Israel. Matthew knew this and intentionally started off his Gospel talking about Jesus by showing a gematria connection between Jesus and King David.
Similarly, the name Nero Caesar is spelled NRON QSR in Hebrew and has a gematria value of 50 200 6 50 100 60 200 which adds up to 666.
John didn’t want to come right out and say that Caesar Nero was the beast of the earth or name him in his letter to these early Christians. So instead he used a code Jews would be familiar with and Romans would miss.
(Side note: Nero died in 68 AD yet Revelation wasn’t written until around 95 AD during the reign of Emperor Domitian. However, many people believed Nero hadn’t actually died and would eventually come back to power in Rome.)
Furthermore, the verse just before our verse in question tells us a little bit about this mark of the beast. We read in Revelation 13:16-17,
It [the beast] also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
The Greek word for “mark” is the word charagma, which means any mark engraved, imprinted or branded and typically refers to money or documents. John is talking about the imprint of Nero’s face which was found on all Roman coins. Furthermore, these coins made claims regarding the divinity of Nero.
This presented a difficult situation for Christians living in the Roman Empire. Do you use Roman currency, which claims Nero is God, perpetuating the Imperial Cult and participate in a form of idolatry? Or do you refuse to use the Roman currency which makes it almost impossible to buy and sell goods outside of the Christian community?
Of course, John takes it one step further than simply describing the predicament earlier Christians found themselves in. He mentioned that those who take the mark of the beast, those who use currency with the inscription of Nero, will receive it on their right hand or forehead. This is an allusion to the Jewish practice of tefillin.
In Deuteronomy 6, what’s known as the Shema, we read,
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
This command was (and still is) taken literally by some Jews who put little verses of Scripture inside small boxes called phylacteries or tefillin and bind them on their foreheads or the backs of their right hand.
By John telling his audience that some people will receive this inscription of Nero on their right hand or forehead, he’s alluding to the fact that some people will choose allegiance to the Empire over allegiance to God.
This entire passage in Revelation speaks to the economic power of empire and how easy it is for people to be seduced by money. It doesn’t just vaguely tell the first Christians that, while things seem bad now, Jesus will eventually win. It speaks directly to their real-world circumstances and encourages them to continue following Jesus in spite of how difficult the world makes it.
When we read Revelation in this way, we can see how relevant it still is. Few, if any, empires have been as materialistic and driven by consumerism than our Western world. Like the rest of the book, Revelation 13 and the mark of the beast warns us of what happens when we commit idolatry by worshipping money and power instead of Jesus.