I started this series when the whole world was talking about COVID-19, and some people were wondering if the signs of Revelation were unfolding—or would soon unfold—before our eyes. That’s what prompted these three posts on how to read the book of Revelation. Let me bring this short series to a close by trying to explain what may be the most famous sign in Revelation: the mark of the beast.

In order to understand the mark of the beast in Revelation 13:18, we need to see what is happening in the rest of the chapter. In the first half of chapter 13, we’re introduced to a beast from the sea. This beast is broadly representative of the political sphere. In the second half of chapter 13, we are introduced to a beast from the earth. This beast is broadly representative of the religious sphere. If the first beast is the perversion of the state, the second beast is the perversion of true worship.

With that as a basic outline, let’s go verse by verse through the second half of the chapter.

Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon (v. 11).

This imagery comes from Daniel 8 where Daniel sees a vision of a ram with two horns. That’s where the picture comes from, but what it points to is a counterfeit Christ. This beast looks like Christ, the lamb, but speaks the lies of the dragon, that is, the Devil.

Remember, the first beast is the perversion of the state, and the second beast is the perversion of Christianity. We shouldn’t expect false religion to appear immediately and obviously false. We should expect other religions to talk about love and morality. We should expect there to be many similarities, some real and some perceived, between true Christianity and false Christianity. We should expect false Christian cults and perversions to speak highly of Jesus. We should expect them to talk about the cross. We should expect similar religious language and themes, which is why we must be wise. The beast may look a lamb, but if you are discerning, you will hear that the voice is the voice of a dragon.

It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed (v. 12).

The second beast is an accomplice to the first. He acts on his behalf and leads people to worship him. In the first century there was a large imperial cult. There were priests and sacred rituals and officials insisting on the deity of the emperor. They encouraged, and sometimes made mandatory, the worship of the state. Religion is at its worst when it does nothing but lends credence to and encourages support of the corrupt and blasphemous state.

We all feel the need to experience something bigger than ourselves. We all want to touch transcendence. We were created to worship God. There is something hard-wired in all humans that compels us to search after the divine or find something spiritual. That’s the good news. God made us for God.

The bad news is the human heart is an idol factory. We find God in all the wrong places. The Devil is perfectly happy to have everyone searching for God. He is entirely content to have all of us on a spiritual journey looking for transcendence. There’s a reason hardly anyone is an atheist. The Devil doesn’t care if people believe in God. He just doesn’t want people to believe in and be satisfied in Jesus Christ. So if we can find a religious-like feeling in political activism or spirituality in the entertainment industry or experience transcendence in art or make a god out of the family, then the Devil has won. The second beast lives wherever the Devil entices people to worship something man-made, to make an idolatrous image out of anything other than Jesus Christ, who alone is the image of the invisible God.

It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived (vv. 13-14).

The second beast is a false prophet. Three times, Revelation makes reference to the beast and the false prophet (16:13; 19:20; 20:10). The second beast is the Minister of Propaganda, deceiving people to follow after the first beast. In verse 11, we saw the second beast as a false Christ. Now we see him as a false Elijah. Elijah, you recall, called down fire from heaven to burn up the sacrifices in full view of the prophets of Baal. The beast can do impressive feats just like Elijah. Don’t think false religion will appear worthless. Idolatry will boast of great accomplishments, even miracles. The priests of Egypt had their secret arts too. Don’t be impressed with mere signs unless they point to the Son that you might be impressed with him.

And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain (v. 15).

“He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast.” In other words, the second beast persuades the world that the image of the first beast is truly God. In the first century, this meant that the religious establishment convinced people that they should worship statues and images of Caesar. In our day, the beast may not directly instruct us to worship the state or the president, but he still functions as the mouthpiece for the Devil. He entices us to make money the desire of our hearts. He convinces us that sex will be most fulfilling when it is most free of commitment and ethical norms. He lies to us about the lasting value of fame and power and professional success and academic prestige. The beast gives breath to these things so that they seem god-like in our eyes. We must have them. We will not be happy or fulfilled or valuable without them.

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, 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 (vv. 16-17).

No one knows exactly where this imagery comes from or if it even has allusion to anything in the first century. It cold be an allusion to slave’s branding, or soldier’s tattoo, or some practice of compulsory idol worship developing in the first century. Any or all of these may serve as background imagery for these verses, but the mark in reality is not a visible mark. It is an invisible spiritual mark. The righteous and believing have the Father’s name written on their foreheads, and the wicked and unbelieving have the name of the beast. In both case we are talking about a spiritual mark, an invisible stamp of approval. This verse has nothing to do with bar codes or UPC labels or credit card numbers or Social Security numbers. The point of these verses is much simpler: if you don’t compromise with the worldly system, you will suffer. In the first century, this meant that your refusal to worship Caesar (to be spiritually identified with the beast) could mean persecution or discrimination or alienation. The world has a way of operating and when we choose a different way, we must be prepared for setbacks, strange looks, and often shame and suffering.

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 (v. 18).

This is probably the most debated verse in Revelation. It certainly is the verse that has produced the most fruitless debate. All sorts of numerical schemes have been concocted in various languages to try to decode 666. Here’s a list of referents I’ve seen for 666: Caligula, Domitian, Caesar God, Lateinos (the Roman Empire), “beast,” Antemus, Phoebus, Gensericus, Balaam, Mohammed, Martin Luther, Oliver Cromwell, Kaiser (Wilhelm), Hitler, the Nicolaitans, Euanthas, Teitan (Titans), the initials of the Roman emperors from Julius Caesar to Vespasian (minus Otho and Vitellius), the triangular number of 36 which is the triangular number of 8 which is significant because 8 is associated with Gnosticism or because the Antichrist in Revelation 17 is called the eighth king, the Latin Kingdom, the Italian Church, various Popes, all the Popes, the phrase “Vicar of the Son of God” and phrases like it, Ronald Reagan, and William Jefferson Clinton. I’m sure there are more.

All of these solutions are calculated by a process known as gematria. In the ancient world every letter corresponded to a number, just like A might equal 1, and B equal 2, C equal 3, and so on. The numbering scheme was often more complicated, but that’s the idea. Every letter could also be a number, so names could be translated into numbers. Kevin, for example, in our simplified scheme would be 11+5+22+9+14, which equals 61. That’s gematria. And people did use it in the ancient world, more than we think. There’s a text that identifies Jesus’s gematria name as 888, which is supposed to be significant because 8 is the number of re-creation. So through all sorts of complicated gematria calculations in different languages, people have come up with all the names in the list above.

Some of the names in the list are absurd. Most of the interpretations are not widely followed. The only name that has really gotten a strong following is Nero. If you take the Greek Neron Kaisar and transliterate it into Hebrew you get 50+200+6+50 and then 100+60+200, all of which together equals 666.

A possible corroboration for this view can be found in the Latin version of his name. Neron Kaiser transliterated in Latin gives you 616, which is the number of the beast in some alternative manuscripts (also the area code for Grand Rapids, Michigan). Nero fits with the story line of Revelation better than the other alternatives. Nero killed himself in AD 68, but it was rumored that he would come back to life or was still living, just like the beast received a fatal wound that was healed. So, according to many scholars, 666 is most logically a reference to Nero. And by putting Nero in the form of a riddle like this, it protected the Christians from charges of sedition and further persecution.

So the number of the beast could refer to Nero. That’s the most plausible person to be connected with 666. But there are also problems with the calculation.

First, it is far from certain that most of John’s audience would have known Hebrew. Some were probably Jewish Christians who understood Hebrew, but most certainly, many were not. So relying on your readers to not only know gematria but also transliterate a name into another language they may not have known seems like a poor way to communicate, unless John wasn’t interested in his audience knowing the answer to the puzzle.

Second, to come up with 666, you have to spell Neron Kaisar incorrectly in Hebrew. You have to leave out a yodh, which some claim was an acceptable spelling, but it was certainly not the normal usage.

Third, none of the early church fathers calculated Neron Kaisar from 666. There is a fifth-century document that calculates Nero, but it uses the word antichristus to get 616.

Fourth, verse 18 does not call us to solve a riddle. When it says, “let him calculate the number,” the solution is given in the next line. The number is 666. We are not told to solve the question of 666. We are told that 666 is the answer to the question. More on that in a moment.

Fifth, finding hidden, precise meanings in numbers is not the way numbers work in Revelation. The imagery in Revelation is broader and less exact. The church is symbolized with pictures (the 24 elders, the two witnesses, the woman) and a number (144,000). The church age is symbolized by pictures (the measured temple, the trampled witnesses, the woman protected in the wilderness) and numbers (42 months, 1260 days, 3 ½ years). Likewise, false religion is symbolized by a picture (the beast) and a number (666). In each case, the pictures and numbers mean something, but they refer to general truths, not to specific people or referents.

Sixth, if dozens of names can be calculated from 666, how effective is this means of communication? As one author puts it, it doesn’t tell us much that a certain key fits the lock, if it’s a lock that works with almost any key. I once came across these three tongue-in-cheek “rules” for calculating the number of the beast: if the proper name doesn’t work, add a title; if Greek doesn’t work try Hebrew or Latin; if that doesn’t work try a different spelling. That’s more or less the approach most people take, and it yields a hundred different answers.

So if 666 isn’t code for Nero or anyone else, what does it mean?

Here’s my humble opinion (he said humbly!): 666 is not meant to be a riddle hiding the name of the beast; 666 is simply the name and number of the beast. The number 666 is man’s number (cf. 21:17). You could understand this to mean “666 is a number of a man” or “666 is the number of man.” I think it’s the latter.

What have we seen with this second beast? He is a counterfeit. He leads people into false religion. So how do you express numerically counterfeit religion? 7 is the number of perfection and holy completion in the book of Revelation (7 churches, 7 lampstands, 7 eyes, 7 seals, 7 trumpets, and so on). The number 6, then, would be the number of imperfection and unholy incompletion. If 7 is the number for God, then 6 is the number of that most resembles, but is not, God—namely, man.

In other words, 666 is man’s counterfeit to the holy Trinity of 777. The Africa Bible Commentary puts it well:

The beast seems to be near perfection and almost messianic; it is, after all, a caricature of the Lamb who was slain (13:3, 11, 13). But it is not perfect, and that makes all the difference. It is actually diabolically and utterly opposed to God (13:4). The number 666 represents a threefold falling short of perfection (dragon: 6, beast: 6, false prophet: 6). But it is close to perfection, and has most of the hallmarks of truth, and so can easily deceive. No wonder wisdom is required!

All of which is to say, whatever you think of the way the medical establishment and the media and our politicians have handled this global pandemic, the mark of the beast is not going to be found in an implanted microchip. If, however, doctors or politicians or members of the media or anyone else, for that matter, elevates himself to a position of Godlike authority and knowledge, then that is what Revelation warns Christians against. Whatever or whomever appears as true Christianity in order to draw us away to some human counterfeit, that is the work of the beast, and his number is 666.