Editors' note: This series analyzes perplexing passages of the Bible. Previously:
- Dan Doriani on Matthew 24:15-16
- Miles Van Pelt on Judges 11:29-40
- Mark Gignilliant on Exodus 4:24-26
- William Ross on Psalm 19:7
- Jimmy Agan on Matthew 15:26
- Dennis Johnson on Revelation 21:1
This is a slightly revised excerpt from the recently published popular commentary by G. K. Beale (with D. H. Campbell), Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014). Register for The Gospel Coalition 2015 National Conference to hear from Beale, Lane Tipton, and Jeffrey Jue on “The Gospel & Eschatology: Why Heaven Matters Now.”
Revelation 13:18 says, “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is 666.”
This is one of the most debated verses in the entire Book of Revelation because of widespread disagreement over the identification and meaning of the number 666. The most common line of interpretation is that of gematria: in the ancient world, letters of the alphabet often substituted for numerals (our numerical system derives from the later Arabic mathematicians). Hence, each letter stood for a number.
Assessing the Options
The problem is that no clear identification can be made linking 666 with any particular ancient historical name. Attempts have been made to alter spellings and incorporate titles to try to make a multitude of names fit, but nothing conclusive has emerged. Most commonly, the number has been identified with Nero, on the basis of a Hebrew transliteration of the title “Nero Caesar.” However, this option flounders on confusion concerning the exact Hebrew spelling of Caesar, and does not fit the fact that John’s readers were largely Greek-speaking, and that Nero had many titles other than Caesar. Additionally, if John were using gematria, he would have alerted his readers by saying something like, “the number in Hebrew (or Greek) is . . .” as he uses the phrases “in Hebrew” or “in Greek” in 9:11 and 16:16, when he wants to draw the readers’ attention to certain significance.
Unsuccessful attempts have been made to identify the number with other Roman emperors, or combinations of emperors. (More than 100 names were proposed in Britain between 1560 and 1830.) Last century the names of Kaiser and Hitler, among others, have also been calculated to equal 666. All attempts to identify the number with the literal calculation of some individual's name encounter difficulty because of the metaphorical manner in which language and numbers are used in the book. None of the many proposed solutions using the literal gematria form of calculation is ultimately satisfactory because there are so many names, ancient and modern, which could equal the number. The reason for so many proposals, as one commentator says, is that it is easy to turn a name into a number, but complicated to deduce the right name from a number.
Other Factors Throughout Revelation
If the number were intended to be identified with some ruler by means of such a literal calculation, it would be a rare exception from the way numbers are employed elsewhere in the book. Numbers throughout Revelation have figurative significance and symbolize some spiritual reality. None involves any kind of literal gematria calculation: for example, 24 elders, 7 seals, 144,000, 3.5 years, 2 witnesses, 7 heads, and 10 horns. This position is supported from the immediately following vision in 14:1 of saints with Christ's and God's name “written on their foreheads.” The direct placement of this verse shows a parallel contrast is meant between the beast's name (i.e., his number) and the Lord's name. If the Lord’s name refers to a purely spiritual reality, which it does, then so does the beast’s name and number.
In addition, the word number (Greek arithmos) is always used figuratively to connote an un-countable multitude (5:11; 7:4 [144,000 standing symbolically for all the saved]; 7:9 [in verbal form]; 9:16 [2x]; 20:8). Neither is the number meant to be calculated here. The number 7 refers to completeness, and is repeated throughout the book. However, 666 appears only here. This suggests that the triple sixes are intended as a contrast with the divine sevens throughout the book, and signify incompleteness and imperfection. The sixth seal, the sixth trumpet, and the sixth bowl depict God’s judgment on the followers of the beast. The seventh trumpet, by contrast, portrays the eternal kingdom of Christ (though it also includes the final judgment). The seventh seal and bowl still depict a judgment, but one that (by implication and in the broader contexts of these two passages) eventuates in the establishment of the kingdom.
Furthermore, if the number of 144,000 saints in the following verse has the figurative force of signifying the complete number of God's people (see on 14:1), then the intentional contrast with the number 666 in the preceding verse would refer to the beast and his people as inherently incomplete. The number 3 in the Bible signifies completeness as, for example, is expressed by the completeness of the Godhead in 1:4-5, which is parodied by the dragon, beast, and false prophet here in chapter 13 (and in 16:13).
The repetition of six three times seems to indicate what might be called the “completeness of sinful incompleteness” found in the beast. The beast epitomizes imperfection, while appearing to achieve divine perfection. Three sixes parody the divine Trinity of three sevens. Sometimes the number seven is appropriate to apply to the Devil or beast in order to emphasize their thoroughgoing evil nature, severe persecution, and universal reign of oppression (e.g., 12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 9-11). The reason for using sixes instead of sevens to describe the beast in v. 18 is because of the repeated emphasis in vv. 3-14 upon the beast as a counterfeit Christ and the second beast as a counterfeit prophet. When believers successfully resist the beast's deception, they avoid being identified with the essence of his name, which is imperfection personified. For to be identified with someone's name is equivalent to partaking of that person's character (see on 2:17).
This discussion so far points to understanding the number of the beast collectively, rather than only as a reference to an individual Antichrist figure. This is suggested further by the phrase “for the number is that of a man,” which could be translated individually as, “for it is a number of a specific person” or better generically as, “for it is a number of humanity.” The word man (Greek anthropos) is often generic when it occurs without an article (as here), and as seen in 21:17, where the “measurement of a man” (the literal Greek phrase) means a “human measurement.” Likewise, the omission of the definite article (“a man,” as opposed to “the man”) in 13:18 suggests the general idea of humanity, not some special individual who can be discerned only through an esoteric manner of calculation. It is a number common to fallen humanity. This generic notion is consistent with 13:1, which affirms that the beast has its earthly origin in the sea of fallen humanity (for the latter idea see also on 17:15). The beast is the supreme representative of unregenerate humanity, separated from God and unable to achieve divine likeness, but always trying. Humanity was created on the sixth day, but without entering the seventh day of God’s own rest, Adam and Eve would have been imperfect and incomplete. The triple six figures emphasize that the beast and his followers fall short of God's creative purposes for humanity.
The admonition of v. 18, here is wisdom, teaches that believers must beware compromise, not just with an historical individual such as Nero, but with all the facets of the state throughout the course of history, insofar as it colludes with the religious, economic, and social aspects of the idolatrous culture, all of which epitomize fallen humanity. Wisdom is best seen in the light of the words “wise insight” and “understanding” used in Daniel 11:33 and 12:10. Here, as there, the saints are to have spiritual perception to comprehend the inaugurated latter-day tribulation brought about by an evil kingly figure who deceives others into acknowledging his sovereignty. There is a similar admonition in 17:9: “here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits.” This verse also involves interpreting a number figuratively. John is exhorting saints to spiritual and moral discernment, not intellectual ability to solve a complex mathematical problem, which unbelievers as well as spiritual Christians are mentally capable of solving. Christians must be aware that the spirit of the Antichrist can express itself in the most unexpected places, even in today’s church (so 1 Jn. 2:18, 22; 4:1-3; 2 Jn. 7).
The prophecy of Daniel 11:30-39 already warned that apostates from the covenant community would be allies of the ungodly state and infiltrate the believing community. If John's readers and believers today have spiritual perception, then they will remain faithful and “come off victorious from the beast and from his image and from the number of his name” (15:2). Revelation 13:18 is a warning against the activity of the satanic enemy in every generation, not just his activity in the time immediately preceding Christ’s return.