December 2019

December 2019

Perplexing Passages: The Number of the Beast (Rev. 13:18)

What do you feel when you encounter the number 666? Most of us associate the number with evil: it’s the devil’s number. If it shows up on a receipt (“I just paid $6.66 for my meal!”), it might make us a little nervous. If it appears in our phone number, we might try to get the number changed. 666 is a number to avoid. But where does it come from?

he number 666 appears in Revelation 13:18: “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.” The beast is the one who demands worship for himself, and has people put to death if they won’t worship his image (a statue or painting of himself). Many people through history have identified this beast with a human figure known as antichrist, who is supposed to arise in the Last Days as the devil incarnate and rule a global satanic empire. The number 666 itself might be a mockery of the Holy Trinity. Seven is the number of completeness, so the Trinity might be represented by 777, but the devil always falls short in his mockery of God, so his number is one less seven, a threefold incompleteness, 666.

There is, however, a simpler explanation for the number 666.

In the ancient world, it was common in sophisticated writings for the author to engage in “numerical composition.” This might involve repeating a particular word a significant number of times, or incorporating a certain number of syllables into a given text. It also involved “gematria,” or the adding up of the numerical value of the letters that make up a word. Each letter in Hebrew and in Greek had an associated numerical value, so that, for instance, when you add up the value of the letters that make up the Hebrew name “John,” you get 129. The 129th word (in Greek) from the beginning of John 21 is “the,” in the phrase, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This is John the Evangelist’s “numerical signature”: He’s using gematria and numerical composition to signal to the attentive reader (and ancient readers would have known to look for clues like this) that he, John, is the disciple whom Jesus loved.

We see likely gematria in Revelation 13 as well. “The number of a man” would have signaled to an ancient reader that he was being given the numerical value of someone’s name. Whose name added up to 666? As it turns out, the Hebrew way of writing the name “Nero Caesar” added up to just that. The man who is the beast, demanding worship for his own image, is Nero, the first of the Roman Emperors to put Christians to death just because of their faith in Christ. And at the time that John was writing down his revelation, the Roman emperors who succeeded Nero were putting Christians to death because they refused to worship the image of the emperor by offering incense before it.

Furthermore, in some early manuscripts of Revelation, the number given is not 666, but 616. Remarkably, 616 is the numerical value of Nero’s name in Latin! It seems that ancient scribes recognized that the point of the number 666 was not to show incompleteness, or to scare people, but to signify a particular person, an enemy of the Church of Christ. That person was Nero.

So when you encounter the number 666, there’s no need to be scared or superstitious. It’s just “the number of a man,” a hidden way of saying “Nero Caesar.” And when you realize that, the meaning of much of Revelation is opened up for you in a remarkable way!


God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf