The number “666” is recognized by nearly everyone as a special number. It is associated in the minds of people with evil and power and frequently used as a symbol of evil by those who are involved in occult practices. And yet perhaps many people are not aware of the number’s connection to the Bible or its significance.
In his second vision, the apostle John saw two beasts which are described in Revelation 13. The first beast, a grotesque-looking creature, rises up out of the sea and the second beast comes up out of the earth. The seven-headed sea beast receives his authority from Satan (13:2) and speaks blasphemies (13:5-6). He makes war against the saints and overcomes them (13:7).
The earth beast deceives people so that they make an image of the sea beast and worship both the image and the sea beast. Furthermore, “...he causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. His number is 666” (Rev. 13:16-18). It is the sea beast who is given the number 666. Who or what is the sea beast? And what does the number mean? It is evident that John intended for his readers to be able to identify the sea beast.
Many individuals have struggled to identify the beast with a specific person. Because a majority of those persons believe that Revelation deals with the time period just prior to and including the end of the world, practically every villian in history has been identified as the beast and accused of ushering in the end of time. Nor has such speculation ceased.
Some have reasoned, based on language (Greek) considerations, that the number 666 does not refer to any specific man. They affirm that it is purely a symbolic number, signifying the imperfection of man. The number 7 in the Bible often symbolizes completeness or perfection; thus 6 (close, but not quite equal to 7) could denote a condition of imperfection. But why three 6’s? Why not one...or four 6’s? Even if some numerical symbolism is involved, it appears to this writer that John intended to specify a particular man associated with the beast.
If the number is intended to designate a specific name, then the number of the beast is an example of gematria. Gematria is the designation of a word or name by the mathematical total of the numbers assigned to the letters which make up that word. For example, we are familiar with the Roman use of letters to designate numbers (MDCDXCVI =1996). It was a common practice in ancient days to encrypt names in such a fashion. If one knows the value assigned to each letter of the alphabet, any name can be represented by a numerical total. Perhaps the reader has already realized the difficulty with such a system of encoding. It is easy to represent a name by a numerical total, but more difficult to determine what name lies behind a particular total. Given a particular number, we may not be able with certainty to determine the sequence of letters which produced that total because more than one possible sequence may exist. For this reason, more than one name may exist which would give the total of 666.
However, the apostle John gave us additional information to use in identifying the beast and the time period in which the events of Revelation would transpire. John began the book by indicating that he was writing about “things which must shortly take place” (1:1) and “the time is near” (1:3). He ends the apocalypse in the same way (22:6, 10). Clearly, to identify the prophecies of the book with events which take place hundreds or even thousands of years later is to ignore the time framework which John himself stipulated for those prophecies. To associate the sea beast with the end of time also is to violate the specified time framework of the book.
The purpose of John’s revelation was to comfort the Christians of that time period. They were already suffering and would soon enter a firestorm of persecution (see Rev. 2:10, 13; 6:9-11). They needed to know that God had not forgotten them, that He would take vengeance against their persecutors. The message of the book is that God is still on His throne and through the redemptive work of Christ, they were already victors! What consolation would those Christians have gained in the midst of their suffering if John was writing about Adolf Hitler or Ronald Reagan (another modern identification!) as the beast with the number 666?
Recognizing the fact that Revelation finds its meaning in events which occurred soon after its writing, it becomes apparent that the sea beast represents the Roman empire. If the number 666 represents a specific man, then it likely is a reference to one of the emperors of the first century. However, even if we cannot identify the specific man, we can certainly conclude that the symbol of the sea beast was connected with events in John’s day and not with the end of the world!