The Mark of the Beast (Rev. 13:11-18)
Predicting the identity of the beast whose mark is 666 has become a game. So let’s play “Pin the Tail on the Antichrist” for a minute.1
Some of the obvious candidates have been world leaders such as Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Anwer Sadat. Americans have been proposed too. In his book 666: The Final Warning!, Gary Blevins argues that the Antichrist is none other that our beloved 40th president, Ronald (6) Wilson (6) Reagan (6). Plus, his original home address after leaving the White House was 666 Saint Cloud Road, before they had it changed to 668.
But each of these candidates are dead and Christ has not returned. Thankfully, the game goes on with many candidates who are still alive. Henry Kissinger’s pursuit of world peace made him a prime candidate for the tail. At the age of 96, however, he may be running out of time and energy to fill the role. Mikhail Gorbachev remains a strong candidate at the age of 88. So does Bill Clinton, who was Time’s 66th “Man of the Year.” His placement on the cover was perfectly positioned in front of the “M” to make it look like he had horns.
One tongue-in-cheek commenter “proved” that Barney was the Antichrist. She started with the phrase “Cute Purple Dinosaur” and changed all the “U’s” to “V’s” (proper Latin). Then she extracted all the Roman numerals which left her with “CVVLDIV” and added up the values.
Unfortunately, most of these attempts have not been so humorous. Countless hours have been wasted scouring backstories and news articles to find any piece of obscure evidence that might support a blindfolded shot in the dark. The solution to interpreting this passage is much more broad and straightforward. You won’t need to learn Hebrew or Greek or Latin.
This passage portrays the systemic oppression of believers from Roman persecution to the present. The church has faced—and will continue to face—political, religious, and economic challenges. That occurred under Rome and it has continued in various places and at various times since Christ’s ascension. We should expect persecution to increase and culminate just before Christ returns to finally put an end to it.
Read Rev. 13:11-18
The Promotion of the Beast (11-12)
Another beast rises out of the earth with horns imitating the Lamb (5:6), but speaking like a dragon (11).
Hendriksen Although this beast outwardly resembles the Lamb it inwardly conceals the dragon.
He is given permission to exercise the authority of the first beast (12). He uses deceptive persuasion to enforce idolatry.
This second beast is called “the false prophet” (16:13; 19:20). He fills the roll of the Holy Spirit—within the unholy trinity—by promoting the worship of the first beast. His signs mimic the signs of the apostles who were uniquely filled with the Holy Spirit to perform many signs and wonders that confirmed their gospel proclamation.
If the first beast represents evil state authorities, then this second beast stands for anything that is allied with the state to promote counterfeit worship. The first is the state, while the second is the state church. The first is political, the second is religious. The first represents Rome and the second represents the Imperial Cult. But the application of Revelation goes well beyond the context of the first century.
The first beast, rising out of the sea, is promoted by the second beast, rising out of the earth. Together they claim authority over the entire world, much further than Rome ever achieved. They stand opposed to the mighty angel who plants his feet on the land and the sea (10:2). But the mighty angel—who is Christ—towers over both of the beasts with sovereign authority. The Lamb has already defeated the dragon and received “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18). So these beasts are fighting a losing battle.
False teachers brought cultural compromise into the first century churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 2), and they continue to corrupt the church today. We need wisdom to remain true to the Scriptures when the culture, having been deceived by Satan and empowered by him, wages war against the Church.
We need spiritual discernment to know the difference between worship and idolatry.
The Image of the Beast (13-15)
The best way to promote authority is to claim divinity and require participation in idolatry upon the threat of death. That is what the imperial cult did for Rome. This beast has the power to perform miracles, sending fire from heaven (13). Since his primary trait is deception, we can assume these are counterfeit miracles.The second beast promotes counterfeit worship and performs counterfeit miracles.
They are deceptive miracles that mimic divine power. Making fire descend from heaven mimics God’s work through Elijah (1 Kgs. 18:38; 2 Kgs. 1:10, 12). This false prophet presents himself as a sheep, but he deceives like a wolf (Mt. 7:15). Jesus spoke of false Christs and false prophets who will perform great signs (Mt. 24:24). Paul also mentioned the Satanic signs and wonders that would accompany “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thes. 2:9-11).
Deception is the goal of this second beast (14). He enlists human means to convince the world to make an image of the first beast. Price makes a strong case that the imperial cult in Ephesus is primarily in the background. A statue of Domitian was setup at the end of the first century and the entire region came together to worship there. The Romans were fond of utilizing magic to draw people into the imperial cult (i.e. ventriloquism), but this kind of deception goes well beyond the first century.
The second beast gives breath to this image and the ability to speak which leads to the death of those who refuse to worship the image (15). In Dan. 3:5-6 Nebuchadnezzar set up an image and demanded people to worship it. Its measurements are given as 60 cubits high and 6 cubits wide. John might have had the traditional Jewish interpretation in mind. They take the measurements of the image (multiples of 6) as symbolic of evil state power. They even go so far as to suggest the image was a dragon that had the ability to speak.
Dan. 9:24-27 mentions the “abomination of desolation.” Antichus Epiphanes IV had offered a ceremonially unclean pig on the altar in the second century BC. Many scholars agree that this was the initial fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy. However, Jesus refers to Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” as a precursor to his return (Matthew 24). The implication is that prophecy oftentimes has multiple episodes of fulfillment.
We should keep the original audience in mind who often experienced the initial fulfillment. At the same time, we cannot assume the first century exhausts the prophecy. It is fulfilled in the past, present, and future.
This passage warns of the plethora of alternative images that distract us from true worship. People watch and read “fake news.” Students are required to read revisionist textbooks. The opinions of celebrities and athletes are valued above God’s Word. The modern materialistic worldview has effectively replaced God with every kind of idol imaginable. Science and reason have been used to eliminate the need for God, rather than heighten our appreciation of his glory. We might even see technology as the miracle worker who promotes every false alternative.
We are overwhelmed with choices to prioritize everything else above the glory of God. The world promises what it can never deliver, yet many settle for these counterfeit alternatives rather than commune with God through Christ. Many worship inferior displays of authority and power when Christ alone is sovereign.
In doing so, they take upon themselves…
The Mark of the Beast (16-18)
The second beast requires everyone to be identified with the first beast by receiving a mark on the forehead or right hand (16). One is ideological commitment, the other is its practical outworking. Christians were already considered impoverished because they did not participate in the trade guilds that dominated the economy (2:9). The mark would be required in order to buy/sell (17). Participation in society without compromise would become increasingly challenging.
The wise will be able to calculate the number of the beast which is that of a man, 666 (18). Gematria is the practice of assigning numerical value to the letters of the alphabet. It can be used to calculate the value of a name, word, or phrase. It was a practice some Jews adopted from the Babylonians.
Preterists who depend upon an early date to Revelation have used gematria to argue that 666 is a reference to Nero. The name “Caesar Nero” transliterated into Hebrew with a slight tweak to the spelling produces 666. But the problem is that the original audience was made up of Gentile converts living in Asia Minor. They most likely did not know Hebrew. None of the early church fathers associated 666 with Nero. In fact, the association between Caesar Nero and 666 was not discovered until 1831!
There are far too many names and spellings that can be used to come up with 666 for this to be helpful. Certain versions of the names of nearly every Roman emperor—including Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian—can be valued at 666. It seems to me, if you are going to rely on gematria at all, the word “beast” translated in Hebrew makes the most sense.
Salmon presents three rules to come up with any name you want:
- Proper name plus title (if necessary).
- Try Greek, Hebrew, or Latin (cf. 9:11; 16:16).
- Try creative spellings of the name.
We cannot infer much from the fact that a key fits the lock if it is a lock in which almost any key will turn.
Gematria makes for a terrible code if the rules are so undefined. The mark of the beast, just like the seal of the Lord, is not physical but spiritual. It is about identifying with a false religion or secular worldview.
John notes the symbolic nature of the number several times. It is associated with the beast, his name, and his number (13:17; 15:2). The beast is the personification of imperfection. To identify with the beast is to adopt his character. 666 is the number of man, always striving but always failing to reach divine completeness (777).
The point of verse 18, and this whole passage, is to encourage wisdom and discernment among Christians to avoid being deceived (cf. v.9 – “hear”, “wisdom”). This is not a call for saints to be clever but discerning. The former may sell books, but it’s the latter that will fight the deceptive tactics of the enemy. If this exhortation were for clever arithmetic, you would not need to be a Christian to discover the answer.
666 is not a reference to a single individual, it is the number of evil state authorities and institutions who enlist the help of deceptive teachers to persecute the church and blaspheme God. They utilize every economic, educational, political, social, and religious resource at their disposal. This interpretation dates back to Irenaeus early in the second century.
Compromise is an ever-present threat. What will you do when there is a substantial cost to your faithfulness? Believers must be grounded in Scripture and surrounded by a community that remains steadfast under trial, because they trust in the protection of the Lamb who was slain.
The only way to avoid the mark of the beast is to receive the seal of God that was purchased by the blood of the Lamb.Supreme authority will have the final victory. Believers will be persecuted, threatened, imprisoned, silenced, and even killed, but we are more than conquerors through Christ who gives us strength. We have overcome evil by the blood of the Lamb (12:11). Therefore, believers are never content with the imperfection of humanity. We strive for the completeness that can only be found in Christ!
- Most of these examples come from Gary DeMarr’s book, Last Days Madness. ↩︎