The Meaning of 666: The Mark of the Beast

Perhaps no part of the book of Revelation is as well-known as the allusion to the mark of the beast, identified with the number 666. In fact, some people who do not even know this is a biblical allusion have some vague idea that 666 is evil, ominous, or of the devil. But what exactly does it mean?

Lets start with the text. The end of Revelation chapter 13 describes an unholy trinity of evil (dragon, first beast, second beast, or, as it is sometimes called, Satan, the Anti-Christ and the False Prophet). We are told that the second beast (the false prophet) causes the majority of humanity to be marked with some sort of sign denoting allegiance to the first beast (the anti-christ). Here is the passage in the ESV:

16 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, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 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.

Here is the same passage in the NIV

16 It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, 17 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. 18 This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man.[e] That number is 666.

Let us first make a couple notes about the verses, then lay out some options, and then, finally, offer some conclusions.

Notes:

The English versions reflect the ambiguity of the Greek on whether the “mark” is the name of the beast or the number of his name.
We are told that we can “calculate” the number of the beast, but warned it will take wisdom and insight. That is, it will require spiritual perception.
The early church did not have a standard interpretation of what the number of the beast represented.
The footnote [e] in verse 18 of the NIV denotes a note in the newer editions of the NIV which states, “Or is humanity’s number”.

Options:


A. Numeric understandings of 666 (Gematria)

Gematria is the practice of biblical numerology, based on the fact that the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew assign numeric value to letters. That is, the ancient languages did not have dedicated number symbols (such as 1, 2, etc…). Think Roman numerals here.

In regards to this passage, then, gematria means finding a name whose numeric value equals 666.

The most common ancient name produced by this method is that of the emperor Nero. If you take the name, “Nero Caesar”, put it into Hebrew letters, you can come up with 666. Since Nero was a great persecutor of the Christians, had the power of an empire, and fits some other characteristics of the first beast, this is a common interpretation.

Nonetheless, there are a few problems with this interpretation. In the first place, to get 666 from Nero Caesar you have to use, not Greek letters or Latin letters, but Hebrew letters. This is possible (especially if John wanted to really hide the meaning from the persecuting Roman authorities) but may have been too obscure for his mostly gentile audience in Asia Minor. Second, the name Nero Caesar written in Hebrew in the usual way does not add up to 666. You can only arrive at that number by using a variant way of spelling that name (dropping the yod). While we do have evidence that his name was written that way in at least one document, it is definitely not the norm. Further, most scholars feel Revelation was written around 95 AD, while Nero committed suicide in 68 AD. There were rumors that his death was faked and he would return, but these rumors were certainly waning almost 30 years later. Also, the early church did not seem to make this identification of Nero as the beast. Finally, while Nero has some likeness to the beast of Revelation 13, one must strain the interpretation of that passage to make it fit him.

Other examples of Gematria are a little more subtle. One scholar (Giet) finds that the initials of Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Vespasian add up to 666 (but he has to omit Otho and Vitellius to make it work). Another scholar (Stauffer) suggests John was counting up an abbreviated form in Greek of the full Latin title of the emperor Domitian.

Others have tried to get the names of modern people (Hitler, Kissinger, etc…) to add up to 666. History obviously has not proved kind to these interpretations.

Another interpretation begins by noting that the beast is described as the 8th king in Revelation 17:11. It then notes that 666 is the triangular number of 36 (1 plus 2 plus 3 etc. up to 360) and 36 is the triangular number of 8.

B. Theological understandings of 666

These views do not try to add up anyone’s name, but seek to understand what 666 could mean theologically.

Many have noted that 7 is often used as the number of perfection or completeness in apocalyptic writings like Revelation. Also, while this is less obvious, 3 seems to be a number of intensification. For instance, the majestic beings of Revelation 4:8 worship God with the repeated phrase, “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Thus, it could be argued that the “number of perfection” is 777. In a similar way, if 7 is the number of perfection or fullness, 777 could be “the number” of the trinity. Thus 666 would be Satan’s attempt to ape the trinity, but also describe his utter failure to do so.

Related to the above, some have noted the possible way of translating “It is the number of a man” to mean something like, “It is the number of man” or “it is mankind’s number” (see NIV text note above). Thus, 666 would be a way of describing mankind as always trying to elevate itself to God (in rebellion) , while consistently failing to do so. (Some see here an allusion to Genesis 1, where the realm of man or creation is described in six days, while God’s days are seven).

Finally, one other item is worth noting here. It is the numerology of Jesus’ name. The name Jesus in Greek is Ἰησοῦς (English transliteration: iesous, with the “I” making the “y” sound as in “year”). For those interested in how this became “Jesus” in English, please see this chart:

Anyway, the numeric value of the name Jesus in Greek is this:

iesous = I (10) + e (8) + s (200) + o (70) + u (400) + s (200) = 888.

Thus, one way to interpret the numerology is to view 777 as the number of complete perfection, with 666 falling tragically (and sinfully) short of this, while 888 would speak hyperbolically of something like the exceeding fullness of Jesus’ perfection.

Conclusion:


You may have noted that not all of these options are mutually exclusive. Careful readers of Biblical prophecy know that many, if not most, Bible prophecies are fulfilled on more than one level. For example, Psalm 16 is considered a Messianic Psalm (a psalm pointing to the Messiah in the future) because Peter could apply the words to Jesus (see Acts 2:25-28). In other words, the words applied on one level to David, even as a fuller and deeper meaning of the words would only be fulfilled a thousand years later in the resurrection of Jesus. In a similar way, Psalm 8 applies first to David, then to Jesus in his perfect humanity during the incarnation, and most fully to Jesus in His future role as visible head over all creation (see this three-fold fulfillment in Hebrews 2:5-9). And in a further sense, Psalm 8 is fulfilled in the lives of mankind most fully because they apply to Jesus, the one who not only fulfills mankind’s role but shares it with those who have place their faith in Him. In other words, many prophecies work on more than one level, and we should not quickly assume that the prophecy about the mark of the beast has only one way of being fulfilled.

My own understanding, then, is this. First, I believe John used the figure of Nero as a way to give shape to the idea of the future anti-christ, and point out some features of his reign. Nero, then, was a template, or a foreshadowing, of one who will come. John did not expect Nero to come back, but used the popular motif of a Nero returning from death as a symbol of the false resurrection of the anti-christ (see Revelation 13: 3, 12). Part of the reason Nero is appropriate is because of his persecution of God’s people, his desire to be worshipped as a god, and his violent end. Furthermore, as emperor he also symbolized something likely to be true of the anti-christ: He embodies a world-wide and very powerful kingdom.

I think it likely that some sort of theological interpretation of the symbolism is also likely in play. That is, I think it likely that 666 not only looked back to Nero as a symbol, but looks theologically to the meaning and nature of the anti-christ and his kingdom. In particular, the last paragraph of the theological discussion (before the conclusion) seems especially intriguing and helpful to me. I don’t think one can be too dogmatic about this, however.

Does the meaning of 666 look not only backwards (to Nero), but does it also look forward to the anti-christ? That is, will the anti-christ have a name whose numerical value is 666? I would say this is possible, but by no means necessary. It is just as likely we are to understand 666 as giving us the symbol and meaning of the anti-christ, rather than a numeric clue to his identity.

Comments

  1. The number Six hundred three score and six is what we call the number of the beast. Although the number connotes an undesirable impression, there is nothing in it that we should fear about. It is not the number of the devil and neither has it held any curse like most other people thinks. It is a very important number found in the bible for it is a key to understanding the message of God concerning the future of man.
    It is best to have a thorough knowledge about the beast to fully comprehend this matter. We can begin by understanding the meaning of the three symbolical terms (that are associated with the beast) as follows:

    The Mark of the beast
    Gen. 4, Ezek. 9, Rev.7 and Rev.13:16-17.
    We all know that God is omniscient, an all seeing and all-knowing God. He needs no sign or mark to know who we are, what we do or who we worship. God knows everything and can identify anyone even without a literal mark.
    The book of Revelation tells us that this mark is to be received in the forehead or right hand and it has been said that anyone found to have this mark shall receive the same wrath prepared for the beast. Having this mark in the body symbolizes submission to the authority of the beast which can be manifested through physical actions.
    The word “Mark” simply means identification.
    Gen. 4 tells us that “God sets a mark for Cain”. This statement however, doesn’t mean that a literal mark has been given to Cain as identification. Instead, Cain was sent out of the Garden of Eden to signify his separation from God. We have to understand that he who receives the mark of the beast does not only unite himself with the beast but also separates himself from God. This state of separation from God signifies the mark set by God for Cain.
    The prophet Ezekiel had a vision from God while being held in Babylon. God showed him of the abominations that his people have committed in the temple. This has angered God and determined to destroy them but spare those who sighed for their brethren’s wrong doings. God commanded that these faithful ones be marked in the forehead to protect them from His wrath. However, like Cain they were not physically marked but only separated from their rebellious brethrens as identification.
    Seal and mark
    Remember that all seals are marks but not all marks are seals. Also, a Seal is a permanent mark. Once a king sealed a decree, there is no way it can be undone or change even the king himself. The Angels in Rev.7 were commanded to seal the saints of God before hurting the earth but again there was no physically sealing that occurred here. The seal of God is symbolical. It does not only separate the saints from the rest of the people on earth but it also confirms His promise to them who endures and stayed faithful to Him to the end.

    A mark offers temporary protection to Cain and the sighing people of God. Likewise, the beast offers a similar protection under his authority. The seal of God is what we should all strive to have for it guarantees eternal protection and salvation.
    The Name of the beast
    The bible tells us to count the number (of the name) of the beast. But how? Some people use Numerology or Transliteration where texts are converted to numbers then a mathematical method called summation is applied which is actually far different from the true meaning of counting.
    First of all, counting does not mean adding or summing up numbers. Counting is to name, list or recite numerals in ascending order from the number 1 or descending (Like New year’s count down) order beginning the highest given number. Counting up to 5 for instance, is to name 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 in sequence beginning from 1 up to and including the number 5. This is the same way that the number of the beast must be counted, that is from its beginning to end or vice versa. This will be understood however, when we started the counting later on.
    The word “Name” means “authority”. The following passages in the bible will explain this clear enough:
    Exodus 20 states that you shall not take His “Name” in vain.
    The book of the New Testament tells us that the Disciples of Christ have cast out evil spirit, heal the sick and raise the dead in the “Name” of Jesus. They also baptize with water in the “Name” of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. So the term “Name” refers hereto as the authority of God and the Lord Jesus.
    This tells us that the name of the beast likewise bears the same authority that can simply be translated as “the authority of the beast”
    The Number of the beast
    Know the saying…”there is strength in number”. The word Number means strength or power.
    In the Book of Numbers chapter 1, God numbered each of the twelve tribes of Israel through Moses by counting the number of strong men from age 20 yrs old and above. But women and the children aging 19 years and bellow were discounted. Their number determines the strength needed to overcome and drive enemies out of the land which God had promised them.
    Now, we’ve learned that:
    The number (666) of the beast is the strength of the beast
    The Name (666) of the beast is the authority of the beast
    And the mark (666) of the beast is the identity of the beast
    Now, let us find out where the number 666 originated from.
    Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred three score and six. (Rev. 13:18)
    This verse tells us that the number of the beast is a counting number. Hence, reading the number as Six-six-six should not be the proper way. Six-six-six can be considered a mark or name but not a counting number. It sounds more like a product or brand such as 555 Tuna and AAA batteries.
    It also states that the number of the beast is the number of “a man”. This obliged us to find the man first and then the number. The man being referred here however, is not an specific person who will represent the beast anytime in the future like most other people believed. This suggests that the number 666 is naturally found in a man. From a number that is associated with a man.
    But first is to find the man. Do you know that this man is all along waiting to be recognized in the book of Daniel chapter 2?
    King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which he could hardly remember but God revealed his dream and interprets its meaning through the prophet Daniel.
    The dream is an image with a head of gold, chest and shoulders of silver, thighs and belly of brass, legs of iron and feet of mixed iron and miry clay. The prophet Daniel understands that it is the same beast that will destroy Jerusalem and rule his people for many years. This beast in the king’s dream clearly resembles to “a man”, which the book of Rev. 13:18 is no other than referring to as the man who possess the number of the beast. For he himself is the beast. So the man is just a model and not an existing person or group.
    We’ve learned earlier that the number of the beast refers to the strength or power of the beast. Therefore the same number as well represents the strength of the man.
    Now think of any number that is associated with a man.
    God is telling us that the number 666 is part of the number that is associated with a man which is none other than the number of his AGE. Therefore the number 666 is actually 666 years. The age of man refers to his life’s span from birth to death. However, 666 years is only part of the exact age of this man which is 685 year old. But how can we know this? First, let us review some Jewish history.
    Today, the Jews continue to commemorate with lamentations the day when the temples of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Gentiles. According to Jewish history, the destruction of the two temples occurred on the very same day of the same month of Av, Tisha B’Av to be exact, which means the 9th day of the month of Av of the Jewish calendar. This date however, occurs on different times on our present civil calendar or the Gregorian calendar.
    According to Jewish history, the 9th of Av in year 70 AD falls on the 10th of August of the Gregorian calendar, the date when the 2nd temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman emperor Titus. The date of the destruction of the 1st temple of Jerusalem however remains a subject of study and debate by many bible scholars and experts.
    The time between the destruction of the two temples marks the period of aggression and rule of the Babylonian, the Median & Persian, the Grecian & Macedonian and the Roman empires over the Israelites. Remember that these are the empires that formed the image of the beast described in the book of Daniel.
    The occupation ended after the Israelites fled and migrated to different part of the world after a heavy fight with the Romans who attacked them and destroyed the 2nd temple of Jerusalem. The beast suffered heavily as well and left Jerusalem to return to its homeland marking the end of its Authority (Name), Strength (Number) and Identity (Mark) in Jerusalem (The beast is wounded to death).
    Will the beast be resurrected in the near future with even greater power to destroy mankind? Understand carefully what the book of Daniel & the book Revelation is telling us.
    Counting the number of the beast:

    The beast will think to change the time and laws (Dan.7:25). This is Satan’s work of confusion to hide God’s message from man.
    God established a calendar for His people to take account of their time. This bible calendar is sometimes called the ancient Hebrew calendar which measures the unit of time in 24 hour-day, 30 day-month and 12 month-year proven by the 3 ½ year tribulation period which was also introduced as 42 months and 1,260 days in the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation. This calendar is lunar based and has no regards to a Leap year so that the number of days per year is always 360 days.
    This calendar however has been manipulated and changed to now Jewish calendar which is made both lunar and solar based having an alternating 29 & 30 day-months. This calendar applies leap year of three times in 7 years within a 19 year cycle. The number of months per normal year is 12 but 13 after adding 1 month every leap year which resulted a 355 to 384 range of days per year.
    Today we are using the Gregorian calendar which is a solar based calendar. It uses the same 12 months per year with the ancient Hebrew calendar but like the Jewish calendar it applies leap year by adding 1 day every 4 years. The number of days per normal year is 365 days while 366 days every leap year which is quite simpler than the Jewish calendar.
    It would be easier to use the Gregorian calendar than the Jewish calendar with the ancient Hebrew or biblical calendar when counting because of lesser effort needed to calculate with leap years. However, we need consistency with the unit of time in order to calculate correctly. Fortunately all three calendars use the same 24 hour-day unit. So let us use the equivalent of 666 years in terms of days which is 329,760 days in the ancient Hebrew calendar to compare with the Gregorian calendar.
    Since we know that the occupation of Jerusalem ended up on the 10th of August 70 AD (2nd temple was destroyed), therefore the end of the 666 years should fall exactly on the same date on year 70 AD. So counting will start from 70 AD back to year zero (0) then, from year 0 back to where the first day of the 666 years falls. Don’t forget to include and consider the year 0 as 1 year (Leap year). The first day of the 666 years actually falls on the 6th day of March, 586 BC (Month of Nisan) after backward counting in Gregorian using the 360 day-year of the biblical calendars. This shows us that the date of the destruction of the two temples of Jerusalem in year 586 BC and 70 AD occurs on different dates on the Jewish calendar. However, no matter what date the second temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the year 586 BC which most scholars believe is the right year when the 1st Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, has been determined by counting with the key number 666 years.
    Remember that there is no idle word in the bible; God means every word He says.
    This counting is based on God’s message in the book of Numbers Chapter1. God determines the strength not according to physical capacity, skills or maturity of His people but chose to determine strength through the age of men starting 20 years old. Here, God is revealing us that the birth of the beast was19 years earlier and will be in its full strength to conquer and destroy Jerusalem on its 20th year. This corresponds to the birth of the beast which is referred to as the rise of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Head of Gold) into power after succeeding his father king Nabopolassar who died earlier on 605 BC. After few months within that same year, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon sent his armies to invade Jerusalem and immediately took control of it. However, the destruction of the City and the temple occurred 19 years later (from birth of the beast) which is the 19th year of King Nebuchadnezzar’s reign on 586 BC. Please review the book of Numbers chapter 1 and the book of Ezekiel.
    The year 605 BC referred to as the birth of the beast.19 years (6,840 days) later which is 586 BC is the 20th year of the beast when it siege to destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. The period between 586 BC and 70 AD is the 666 years of reign of the beast. This is the period when Israelites were separated from their God because of their abominations. This same period marked their captivity under the strength (Number) and authority (Name) of the beast and when they choose to be identified (Mark) with the beast (To live in obedience with the beast and received its mark for protection instead of seeking or returning to God). The period between 605 BC and 70 AD is what we determined to be the age of the man which is also the age of the beast. This is 685 years.
    Message: But your iniquities have separated you from your God…” (Isaiah 59:2).
    God warns us that for as long as we live in sin we live with this mark of the beast (666) in our foreheads and right hands. Sin separates us from God and this separation is the Mark that we should not all take. Fear not man or the beast that can destroy the body but not the soul; but fear HIM who can destroy both body and soul in hell. Sin can bring us destruction.
    Confess our sins and repent that we may get rid of that mark of the beast in our forehead and right hands. If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
    Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit is no guile when I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah. For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found . . . . Psalm 32:1-6a