Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Dec 22 2013 - Revelation 13:1-18 – The number of the beast

Many of us love trying to sort out puzzles of one sort or another, whether it is crosswords or Sudoku or even to see if we can work out 'who done it' in a murder story. John gives us a mystery at the end of Revelation 13 and presents us with a challenge: "This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast ... That number is 666" (13:18).

This mystery has preoccupied many over the centuries. Candidates for the decoded number have proved legion, from the emperor Nero, through Napoleon to Hitler – not to mention the claim by many staunch Protestants that it is a reference to the Pope. In more recent times, some have suggested that the number has something to do with bar codes. And just to bring matters right up-to-date, one website even claims to be able to show that the man who bears the number 666 is Prince Charles.

Did John really intend such speculations? Were his words really so cryptic that none can fathom them? Perhaps the problem is one of translation. The section I missed out of the quotation above is often translated, "it is the number of a man", prompting speculations as to who that man might be. But a better translation might be "it is the number of man" – the number of mankind, the number of humanity. The number 6 is one short of 7, the number signifying perfection to the Hebrew mind (remember the 7 spirits of God). Humankind, made in the image of God, has fallen short of all that they were intended to be. 666 is an expression of triple fallenness – ultimate depravity.

Revelation 13 is all about human power structures – the kingdom of the world. In John's day it describes the Roman Empire. (The beast with seven heads is a reflection of Rome built on seven hills and its ten horns symbolic of ten emperors. The second beast who promotes the worship of the first may be a picture of the priests of the Emperor cult.) But this picture is not applicable only to ancient Rome, it remains a description of all human empires and power structures ever since.

The description John gives is of powers which imitate and seek to supplant the power of God. The beast appears to have been slain but lives. The powers of human empire seal their subjects on the forehead (and on the right hand). They perform miraculous signs and call for the worship of their subjects. In all these ways they imitate the kingdom of God. But whereas God's kingdom is marked by life and peace, the kingdom of this world is marked by brute force, violence, oppression and death.

"This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people" (13:10). We are called to faithful testimony and quiet patience in the confidence that the kingdom of this world shall become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ – and he will reign for ever and ever. We are not to try to establish his kingdom by the methods common to this world – by violence and by force – but by patient testimony in the face of oppression. Jesus Christ is Lord and he will reign. Other empires rise and fall; the only Empire on which the sun will never set is that of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Lord, give us wisdom to see the spiritual realities at work around us and in us. Give us patient endurance as we long for and pray for the coming of your kingdom – for the day when your will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. Help us to remain faithful to you and faithful in our testimony to your kingdom of grace, mercy, peace and love.

Peter Misselbrook