666. The mark of the beast. The sign of Satan. Like most of the Revelation to St. John, this reference to the mark of the beast and the number of his name has been a long time discussion topic among Christians and in popular culture, most of it pretty fanciful. I still remember people sporting bumper stickers saying “Refuse the Mark!” and predicting we would soon see government vans prowling the streets, seizing citizens and tattooing a bar code on their foreheads and right hands. It is past time for us to move on to a more thoughtful understanding of what God is saying to us in this part of scripture. Let’s look at an excerpt from the relevant passage:
Revelation 13:11- 18 And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon.… he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed.… he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
So what, if anything, does this mean to us? I believe the events predicted in the book of Revelation primarily spoke to the first century church and the fall of Jerusalem. But I also believe it describes a pattern that applies to the church throughout church history including today and the future. So in that spirit, here is what I believe it says to us today.
The text refers to two beasts, one out of the sea and one out of the land. The “sea” often refers to the gentile nations surrounding Israel, and the “land” refers to God’s people. Rebellious man and his institutions are often compared to beasts in contrast with the righteous who are depicted as men (PS 32:9). The beast out of the sea was the Roman Empire, the last of Daniel’s succession of beastly empires. Like all such empires it embodied the idea of the human political power as a substitute for God. These were always headed by a man-god (Pharaoh, Caesar) and demanded ultimate worship. 666 likely referred to Nero. The Roman Emperor was held to be a man-god, and numerologically, 6 is the number of man while 3 is the number for God, so 666 may mean man pretending to be God.
In the absence of the knowledge of the true God, men will try to fill in this “empty block on the org chart of life” with a man-god. This is why it was a big problem for Israel, who knew the true God, to desire a “king like all the nations” in 1 Samuel 8.
We also note that the people of Israel were required to tie phylacteries, boxes containing scripture, to their forehead and right hand while praying (Deuteronomy 6:8). So the meaning of having 666 on ones forehead and right hand was to make the principle of man-as-God the ruling principle for all of your thoughts and all of your deeds rather than making the Law of God that guiding principle.
This brings us to the beast from the earth. With two horns like a lamb, but speaking like a dragon, it is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” If the earth represents the people of God, this beast represents false religious leaders such as the Pharisees and Herodians who caused their people to worship the Roman Empire, the first beast, the beast from the sea.
Today we see the same challenges facing the Church. A secular world demands our every thought and deed be governed by the principle that collective Man and his incarnation the State, are our true ultimate authority, our true God. We see this in Obamacare’s mandates and executive orders requiring an affirmative embrace of abortion and homosexual activity as a condition for participating in the economic life of the community, that is, that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark. In other words, you can be a Christian, or you can feed your family, just not both.
Indeed, we have seen many Christian business people who refuse to participate in the sins of others by providing services to ceremonies that desecrate God’s holy institution of marriage being told by the government that compromising their faith is the price of citizenship.
Similarly, we face the beast from the earth, Christian religious leaders who council compromise and rationalizations for going along with State demands. Like the apostate Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time, these men fear the government more than God (John 11:48). In so doing it can truly be said of these compromising leaders that they “cause the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast.”
While I am as unhappy about these developments as anyone, I am beginning to see it as necessary, and even good. Making the choice between serving Christ or Caesar so explicit and harsh might at last wake up some fence straddling Christians to the seriousness of the battle. A separation of the faithful Church and the compromising Church, and especially among church leaders, is a long overdue, if unpleasant house cleaning. I am in fact looking forward to this process bringing forth a purified and powerful Church in the years to come.
Hebrews 12:11 Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.