When I was a teen, bar codes—those “Universal Product Codes” that are printed on everything we purchase—were a little over a decade old. They were also said to be the mark of the beast the apostle John mentions in Revelation 13. Since John said that the time was coming when one could neither buy nor sell without the mark, and since UPCs were becoming ubiquitous, clearly bar codes were the mark. Then in 2014 it was “Monster Energy Drink” because its logo, which is an “M” scratched by some sort of monster, can look like three instances of the Hebrew letter vav, and since vav is the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the Monster Energy logo is “vav vav vav”—666.
It has long been common for people to wonder the meaning of the infamous “666” in Revelation. More recently some have claimed that Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is behind the ongoing vaccinations against COVID-19, including some sort of microchip in the vaccine. (I’ve yet to see someone receive the vaccine in either the right hand or the forehead. Strange.) Many think John was referring to “Nero Caesar” through a thing called gamatria. In gamatria, one substitutes a numerical value for a letter, and if you spell “Nero Caesar” in Hebrew letters and then calculate the value of that name with gamatria, you get, well, not 666. You have to misspell his name in Hebrew to get that. Besides, his name was actually Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus; how would John’s readers know which combination of his names to spell—er, misspell—in Hebrew? Another difficulty with this understanding is none of the earliest writers commenting on Revelation 13 thought of Nero Caesar misspelled in Hebrew. Irenaeus, writing less than 100 years after Revelation was written, wondered if it were gamatria for a guy named Euanthas (we don’t know who this is) or mabe Lateinos (“the Latins”—Rome) or possibly even Teitan (“the Titans”). I’m skeptical.
What did John write, and what is the mark of the beast? Here’s the text in question.
Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.Revelation 13:16–18 ESV
A few years ago we worked our way through Revelation. One thing we saw repeatedly was John’s use of apocalyptic imagery, including the symbolism of numbers. John says the one who has understanding should calculate the number of the beast. This is what has led some to think of gamatria. Given the symbolic nature of numbers, a more straightforward explanation seems appropriate. In apocalyptic literature, the number 7 represents the perfection of God. There are seven days in a week and the menorah in the temple had seven branches. In Revelation John has seven visions and sees the seven spirits of God, seven lampstands, seven bowls, seven trumpets, seven scrolls, seven seals, and writes to seven churches. Seven is the fullness of God’s perfections. What does the number 6 represent then? Less than 7. Seven represents fullness and completeness and perfection, which means 6 is less than fullness and less than completeness and less than God’s perfection. The beast John refers to is one who will always fail to rise to the level of God. So what is this mark? What John wrote before this is helpful:
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”Revelation 13:1–4 ESV
The beast John refers to is empire and he says empire receives its power from the dragon—from Satan. The outcome of the beast’s power is people worship the beast for having such great power: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” No one. The beast is unstoppable. In the late first century the Roman empire continued to expand. It truly appeared to be unstoppable. Who could fight against the empire? All empires fall, however, for as great as they may appear to be, no empire can ever reach the status of the kingdom of God. Even the greatest empires are just 666. It doesn’t matter how many 6s you put together, 6 will never be greater than 7. What does this have to do with the mark of the beast, whose identity is that of empire, of power and of conquest? What John writes after revealing the number of the beast will show us.
Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.Revelation 14:1 ESV
The 144,000 are the same group as the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:4–11). In Revelation John frequently hears one thing yet sees another that only appears to contradict what he heard. What he sees actually clarifies what he heard. In chapter 5 he heard the Lion of the tribe of Judah had conquered, yet what he saw was a slaughtered Lamb. The victory of the Lion was clarified by the greatness of the Lamb’s slaughter. Notice in 14:1 that this uncountable multitude who worship the Lamb have his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. This is their mark of identity. They are identified as the people of God. What, then, is the mark of the beast? Those who have the beast’s number on their foreheads are those who identify with empire, with worldly power and might. Those who glory in military power and conquest worship the beast, just like that famous Roman Country & Western singer Tobias Keithicus who sang, “We’ll light up your sky like it’s the Fourth of July” and “We’ll put a boot of your backside—it’s the Roman way!”
The message of Revelation is this: what you hear is that empire is winning, but what you will see is that the Lamb has already won by dying. As we look around at our world and we hear the news of ever-rising COVID-19 death counts and violence and hostility being perpetrated against people of Asian descent and we hear about political corruption and economic struggles both in our nation and around the world and as we hear our own struggles with illness or sin, we need to see that Jesus Christ won the victory when he walked out of his tomb on that first Easter morning. Over and over again John repeats his assertion in Revelation that when you hear that it’s really, really bad, look to Jesus, for there you will see the truth: he has already won.
We don’t need to fear the news. Our response should always be the response of faith, for God in Christ through his Spirit is victorious. We don’t need to fear bar codes. We don’t need to fear Monster Energy drinks. We don’t need to fear vaccines. We don’t need to fear COVID-19. We don’t need to fear wars and rumors of wars. We don’t need to fear. Our identity is firmly rooted in the one whose victory has already been secured. We have his name and his Father’s name firmly stamped on our foreheads.