NT Eschatology—Letters 16
As we wind down this series, we’re finishing up our look at the book of Revelation. In this post, we’re looking at a very difficult passage. One that’s been muddled by a lot of strange speculation and mischievousness. And while it can be overwhelming, I want to just touch on a couple of things.
And I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. Each of its horns was decorated with a royal crown, and on its heads were blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard. Its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. The dragon gave it his power, throne, and great authority. One of its heads appeared to have been slain and killed, but its deadly wound was healed. So the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon because it had given the beast its authority. They worshipped the beast and said, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
The beast was given a mouth that spoke boastful and blasphemous things, and it was given authority to act for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to speak blasphemies against God. It blasphemed God’s name and God’s dwelling place (that is, those who dwell in heaven).
It was also allowed to make war on the saints and to gain victory over them. It was given authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation. All who live on earth worshipped it, all whose names hadn’t been written—from the time the earth was made—in the scroll of life of the Lamb who was slain. Whoever has ears must listen: If any are to be taken captive, then into captivity they will go. If any are to be killed by the sword, then by the sword they will be killed. This calls for endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints...
This calls for wisdom. Let the one who understands calculate the beast’s number, for it’s a human being’s number. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.
First, contrary to popular opinion, this passage does not refer to our time and computer chips placed on the “right hand” or the “forehead.” As we’ve seen time and time again, the eschatology of the New Testament points to the time of the War between the Jews and the Romans (66-70/73 CE). Therefore, our first place of inquiry should be to that event. In other words, can this passage (and the rest of Revelation) find fulfillment there?
But, like the warning says, “this calls for wisdom.”
The overall question before us in this passage is who is the “beast”?
The monster described here (and later on in chapter 17) has a number of characteristics. We’ll only touch on a few of these.
First, we’re told that the monster rises from the sea. That is, it’s understood to be a foreign power from the viewpoint of John and his readers (the “land” beast in the following passage is the domestic representative of this monster).
Second, it’s reign is limited to “forty-two months.” That is, the monster’s persecution of the “saints” is limited to roughly three and a half years.
Lastly, the monster is said to be an actual person. To help identify the monster, it’s been given a number representing its name.
So, who could this monster be?
The monster who ruled the known world at the time was Rome. The person who was the embodiment of Rome was its king — Nero Caesar.1
Nero was the first emperor to persecute Christians. This persecution started in 64 CE and lasted until his death in 68 CE, roughly three and a half years.
The infamous “mark of the beast” in verse 18 is actually a reference to another passage in the Bible—Ezekiel 9. There, Ezekiel has a great vision:
Then in my hearing he (the “glory of Israel’s God,” Ezekiel 8.1-4) called out loudly: Draw near, you guardians of the city, and bring your weapons of destruction! Suddenly, six men came from the Upper Gate that faces north. All of them were holding weapons of destruction. Among them was another man who was dressed in linen and had a writing case at his side. When they came in and stood beside the bronze altar, the glory of Israel’s God rose from above the winged creatures where he had been and moved toward the temple’s threshold. Yahweh called to the man who was dressed in linen with the writing case at his side: Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and mark the foreheads of those who sigh and groan because of all the detestable practices that have been conducted in it. To the others he said in my hearing: Go through the city after him, and attack. Spare no one! Be merciless! Kill them all, old men, young men and women, babies and mothers. Only don’t touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary. So they began with the men, the elders in front of the temple. He said to them: Make the temple unclean! Fill the courts with the slain! Go! And they went out and attacked the city.
I know this is a harsh passage and it’s hard for some of us to swallow. But there’s no doubt that John’s alluding to it in Revelation 13. But in John’s version, the marking is reversed. In both places, the mark represents one’s allegiance—in Ezekiel, it’s to Yahweh (cf. Revelation 14.1); in Revelation, it’s to the beast. But where does that allegiance lie? The allegiance would be with Rome and its Emperor. And that’s exactly what we find in John’s gospel.
In John 19, Jesus has been flogged and brought before Pilate. Pilate and the Jewish leaders have an argument about what to do with Jesus and it gets pretty heated.
Then Pilate tried to release him, but the Jewish leaders shouted, “If you release this man, you’re no ‘friend of Caesar.’ Anyone who declares himself a king is a rebel against Caesar.”
When they said this, Pilate brought Jesus out to them again. Then Pilate sat down on the judgment seat on the platform that’s called the Stone Pavement (in Hebrew, Gabbatha). It was now about noon on the day of preparation for the Passover. And Pilate said to the people, “Look, here’s your king!”
“Away with him,” they yelled. “Away with him! Crucify him!”
“What? Crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the leading priests shouted back.
Then Pilate turned Jesus over to them to be crucified.
So they took Jesus away.
Back to Revelation and the mark. Notice that the mark can be either the “beast’s name” or “the number of its name.”
Stop and think about that for a moment.
When was the last time we ever heard a sermon or saw a book written about someone being marked by the name of the beast? I don’t know about you, but I never have. Everyone’s just going on and on about the “number.”
To figure out who the beast is, we’re told, “calls for wisdom.” The wisdom is that the beast’s number is actually “a human being’s number.” And that number is “six hundred sixty-six.”
“Six hundred sixty-six,” not six, six, six. That’s important. To figure out how all of this works we have to get a little deep. Some of this may be too much for some of us, but let’s hang on. It pays off (at least it did for me when I was initially studying it).
This type of riddle is known as gematria. Gematria is an ancient system that assigned numbers to letters. A good example of this is the Roman Numeral system. In that system we see that the letter I equals 1; V equals 5; X equals 10; and so forth. In his book, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation,3 Ken Gentry sites several examples of how gematria was used. On page 195, he writes:
In Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars we have recorded an interesting cryptogram from the first century. In the midst of his Latin history, Suetonius records a sample of a Greek lampoon that was circulated after the burning of Rome: Νεόψηϕον· Νέρων ἰδίαν μητέρα ἀπέκτεινε (“A calculation new. Nero his mother slew.”). It is interesting to note that “the numerical value of the Greek letters in Nero’s name (1005) is the same as that of the rest of the sentence; hence we have an equation, ‘Nero=the slayer of one’s own mother’.”
On the same page, he quotes another example, this time from the Sibylline Oracles:
Then indeed the son of the great God will come,
incarnate, likened to mortal men on earth,
bearing four vowels, and the consonants in him are two.
I will state explicitly the entire number for you.
For eight units, and equal number of tens in addition to these,
and eight hundreds will reveal the name.
Gentry states, “As the translator notes: ‘Iesous [Jesus] has a numerical equivalence of 888’.”
So, how does “six hundred sixty-six” equal to Nero Caesar (Νερων Καισαρ)? Well, it doesn’t—not in Greek.
But in Hebrew...it matches it perfectly. So why would John use Hebrew instead of Greek? J. Stuart Russell, in his momentous work, The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry Into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming, explains it this way:
But if this had been all that was necessary (deciphering the beasts name from Greek—j+), the name would have lain upon the surface, patent and palpable to the dullest apprehension. It would have required neither wisdom nor understanding to read the riddle. The reader must try another method. St. John was a Hebrew, and though he wrote in Greek characters, his thoughts were Hebrew, and the Hebrew form of the Imperial name and title was familiar to him and to his Hebrew-Christian friends both in Asia Minor and in Judea. It might not unnaturally occur to the reflecting reader to calculate the value of the letters which expressed the emperor's name in Hebrew. And the secret would stand disclosed :
נ = 50
ק = 100
ר = 200
ס = 60
ו = 6
ר = 200
נ = 50
Here, then, is a number which expresses a name; the name of a man, of the man who, of all then living, best deserved to be called a wild beast: the head of the Empire, the master of the world; claiming to be a G‑d, receiving divine honours, persecuting the saints of the Most High; in short, answering in every particular to the description in the apocalyptic vision.4
Incidentally, the Lamsa Bible, an english translation of the Peshitta (the Aramaic Bible) by George Lamsa, agrees with the above rendering:
This number represents the Aramaic letters which spell Nero Caesar, namely 50, 200, 6, 50, 100, 60, 200 (note 1; page 1235).5
There should be little doubt. As we’ve seen time and time again, the events depicted in the Revelation do not concern our times. Nor, as some people insist, do not concern the fall of the Roman Empire. How could they? John wrote that the visions he saw “must soon take place” (Revelation 1.1) because the “time [was] near” (Revelation 1.3). The fall of the Roman Empire was several hundred years in the future from when this letter was written. As we’ve seen, the Revelation is about the then soon coming war between the Jews and the Romans.
Well, I think that about does it for this post. Click here for the conclusion of this series.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
1. The reference to the beast causing fire to come down from heaven may be a (not-so-slight) reference to the fires in Rome—the ones that Nero blamed on the Christians.
2. Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
3. There are online versions available, too. Please note, however, that there are some rendering issues. You can find a PDF version and an HTML version here.
4. J. Stuart Russell, Parousia: The New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming (Baker Books, New Edition, 1999), pg. 464. This is probably the best book I’ve ever read on the subject at hand. You can read an online version at Google Books.
5. George M. Lamsa, Holy Bible: From the Ancient Eastern Text (Harper & Row, 1985), pg. 1235. This version is available online here. However, I could only find Lamsa’s notes in the printed version.