This sermon title has a familiar if ominous ring. Even people who know nothing about the book of Revelation know about the mark of the beast. We read, “If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.” In ancient times each letter of the alphabet had a numeric value (akin to Roman numerals). Deciphering a number from a name was simple. But deciphering a name from a number remains downright impossible. This explains why 2000 years later we’re still guessing at the identity of the beast.
Most scholars believe that John, the presumed writer of Revelation, was referring to the ruthless Roman emperor Nero. The only problem is that for Nero Caesar to add up to 666 requires a Hebrew transliteration of the Greek form of a Latin name—and that with a defective spelling. The normal spelling of Nero produces the number 616, which is the area code for Grand Rapids, MI. Bad news for Calvin College and numerous Christian publishing houses. Mathematical finessing of the numeric 666 has produced all sorts of candidates. After Roman persecution of Christians ended, some early church fathers thought the beast to be an apostate Jew from the tribe of Dan, since Dan is missing from the tribal list in Revelation 7. The later Middle Ages turned their attention back to Rome and to the corrupt occupants of the Papacy. By the Reformation, every occupant of the Vatican was suspect. The 1646 Westminster Confession read: “The Pope of Rome is that Antichrist, that man of sin, that son of perdition, who exalteth himself in the church, against all that is called God.” Of course on the other side, Roman Catholics also had a name for the Antichrist: they called him Martin Luther. Hitler, Stalin, Ayatollah Khomeini, Prince Charles and Ronald Reagan have all made the list too. As have American Airlines, Microsoft and Mastercard.
The possibilities remain endless. The erstwhile children’s television character Barney the Dinosaur has been linked to 666. As a dinosaur, Barney is clearly a beast, albeit a cute one. Take the phrase CUTE PURPLE DINOSAUR, change the U’s to V’s, extract all remaining Roman numerals in the phrase, convert them to Arabic, add and you get six-hundred sixty-six. My first name has six letters. Slide just one letter from my last name over to my middle name and you get a sequential 666 (not a surprise to some of you).
If 666 referred to a specific individual, we assume that John and his persecuted readers knew the name. Thus 666 may be not so much about deciphering an identity as about describing that identity. Throughout Revelation the number 7 symbolizes perfection and completion. Revelation’s seventh seal, seventh bowl and seventh trumpet all herald the kingdom of God, the abode of the faithful. By contrast, the sixth seal, the sixth bowl and the sixth trumpet all herald God’s judgment and wrath, the destiny of evil.
We took a detour from Revelation last month to look at the book of Leviticus (a book that ranks right up there with Revelation in terms of incomprehensibility). It was Christmas, therefore, when last I preached from Revelation. Chapter 12, you may remember, offered an interesting twist on Christmas: A mother gives birth to a child destined to rule the nations. An evil adversary seeks to devour this threat to his power. But rather than some small-time tyrant, the adversary of Revelation 12 is a serpent, a dragon, the very devil of hell.
The battle lines between drawn are long established ones. God said to the serpent in the Garden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers, he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Throughout Israel’s history her enemies all were portrayed as serpents: the Egyptians, the Assyrians the Babylonians. It is no surprise that a serpent shows up in the final book of the Bible. He’s here to finish what he started in Genesis. The dragon knows the Genesis curse as well as anyone, which is why he crouches in wait to make a meal of the newborn king before the king crushes him. Yet like Herod in the Christmas story, God foils the dragon. The child gets snatched up to heaven while the dragon gets hurled down from heaven. Satan falls to earth eliciting cheers from above. “Now has come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ,” we read, “for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down.”
Unfortunately the news on the ground is not so upbeat. Chapter 12 continues, “Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you filled with fury.” Some commentators try to wrangle the Greek to make it read as if only unbelievers are subject to Satan’s fury. But an authentic rendering and common experience both teach that the devil has the church in his crosshairs too. He’s mad because God has tossed him out of heaven. And he’s mad because God has numbered his days. That he would take out his anger on God’s people should be expected. That God lets him do it presents a perennial problem, but that is not Revelation’s problem. For John, Satan’s fall to earth is ironic good news since it represents the first step in a two-step demotion. In chapter 20 the devil will be hurled the rest of the way down into an eternal lake of fire.
Yet in the meantime, like any frustrated predator, his fury is stoked by his being so dismissively kicked to the ground. Therefore, upon landing on earth, the dragon lunges after the mother, chasing her into the desert. But as with the Israelites of the Exodus, God rescues the woman and evil is thwarted, which is what always happens to Satan in the desert (Jesus defied the devil there too). So the dragon turns to take on the rest of the mother’s offspring, those faithful Christians “who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”
For the early Christians, persecuted and martyred as they were by the Romans, this explained everything. Though they had been saved by the blood of the lamb, they nevertheless suffered like sheep led to slaughter because they were not ashamed of the gospel. The vengeful dragon was still on the loose. Only now he recruits henchmen. Chapter 13 opens with the dragon looking out on the sea, the domicile of potent evil. From it ascends another monster, a beast with ten horns and seven heads. Note the family resemblance. Both dragon and beast have seven heads and ten horns, perfect and complete numbers that here emphasize perfect and complete wickedness. Old Testament readers will also recognize the resemblance to Daniel’s vision of four beasts, which here John rolls into one ferocious fiend. In verse 3 we read that one of the heads of the beast seemed to have a “fatal wound that had been healed.” At first you think: “Genesis head-crushing curse.” But a more literal rendering of verse 3 has the beast looking “as if it had been slain,” which on second thought is the exact same expression used to describe Christ the crucified Lamb in chapter 5. Suddenly you realize that the beast from the sea is a demonic parody of Jesus, a genuine anti-Christ. Toss in the dragon who grants his power and authority to the beast, as well as the second beast-to-come who inspires the world to worship the antichrist, and what you really have is a complete anti-Trinity.
The contrasts are clear. God in heaven sent Christ the lamb to suffer and die for others. Satan who is kicked out of heaven sends the beast to make others suffer. God grants His power to the Lamb who abjures its violent use. The dragon grants his power to the beast who violently wields it. The Lamb endures death for people from every tribe, language and nation. The beast inflicts death on people from every tribe, language and nation. The Lamb establishes a heavenly kingdom to bless God’s people. The Beast operates behind worldly kingdoms to oppress God’s people. Like Daniel’s beasts that represented historic earthly regimes hostile to God, there is little doubt that for John the beast was manifest in the tyrannical Roman Empire which claimed religious sanction for its gross injustices. Caesar decreed that he alone was “Lord and God.” This was the ultimate blasphemy. The Bible may command obedience to governments, but once the state oversteps its bounds and demands worship of itself, Christians must refuse to submit.
Nevertheless, verse 10 commands that Christians who refuse to submit to the state must still submit to the punishments the state lays down for noncompliance. John writes, citing Jeremiah, “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed.’ The citation seems odd. In Jeremiah, God allows Israel’s captivity and death as punishment for their unfaithfulness. Are we to understand that God allows the same punishment here for the faithful? Ironically, yes. Such is way of the cross. The captive suffering Israel suffered as punishment for their sin gets redeemed by the cross into the voluntary suffering Christians suffer for their faith. John calls it the endurance and faith of the saints. Paul experienced it as strength made perfect through weakness. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”
How this operates has been evidenced no better than in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. “We’ve come to see the power of nonviolence [and endurance],” Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. “We’ve come to see that this method is not a weak method, for it’s the strong man who can stand up amid opposition, who can stand up amid violence being inflicted upon him and not retaliate with violence. You see, this method has a way of disarming the opponent. It exposes his moral defenses. It weakens his morale, and at the same time it works on his conscience, and he just doesn’t know what to do. If he doesn’t beat you, wonderful. If he beats you, you develop the quiet courage of accepting blows without retaliating. If he doesn’t put you in jail, wonderful. Nobody with any sense likes to go to jail. But if he puts you in jail, you go in that jail and transform it from a dungeon of shame into a haven of freedom and human dignity. And even if he tries to kill you, you’ll develop the inner conviction that there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for.”
I get convicted by these words. They scare me too. So much so that I often will reduce my own faith down to matters of my own personal salvation and my own personal comfort. It makes following Jesus easier to manage. Best not to think too much, or at least too seriously, about everything else Jesus requires of me—be it evangelizing the world, eliminating injustice, making peace, promoting life or just plain feeding the poor.
Author Brian McLaren writes recently of a meeting of ministers he attended in Cape Town, South Africa. As the pastors discussed their ministries to the poor, a healthcare worker also in attendance grew agitated. Eventually he blurted out, “You pastors are causing such destruction, it reaches to the skies. I know you mean well, but you don’t realize the that you cause devastation in the lives of the people among whom I work. You come to the slums every Sunday and you set up your tents, which is good, but then you only preach three things: be healed, be saved and tithe. You tell people that they can be healed of their HIV and some of them believe so they stop taking their medications. But when they stop, they develop new resistant strains of the disease and they spread these tougher infections to other people, leaving them much sicker than they were before. You tell people they need to be born again, but after they’re born again on Sunday, they’re still unemployed on Monday. If they’re unemployed, they’re going to be caught in the poverty web of substance abuse, crime and gangs, domestic violence and HIV. And then you tell them to tithe. You tell them to sow financial seed into your ministries and they will receive a hundredfold return. But you’re the only ones who get a return.
“You could be helping so much. Who else loves the poor and forgotten people of the townships? You could motivate them to learn employable skills, you could teach them how to be friends without having sex, you could help them find things to do—sports or music—or better, teach them the necessity of getting up and showing up and keeping your word and working hard and being honest. You could network through your churches and other contacts to start businesses so the people could get jobs.”
Naturally the pastors on the receiving end of this rebuke got defensive—and furious. They denounced this fellow Christian healthcare worker as a heretic. Did he not know that getting saved, getting healed and tithing were biblical? But of course, so are economic justice, friendship and honest work. We believe in Jesus, yet so often we reduce that belief down to matters of our own personal salvation and our own personal comfort. It makes following Jesus easier to manage. It also makes our faith “a benign and passive chaplaincy to a failing and dysfunctional culture” [McLaren], rather than a force for societal transformation.
John would have recognized this dilution of the gospel as the perverse work of the second beast from the earth, the last member of the unholy trinity. This second beast will get labeled “the false prophet” by the time we get to chapter 16. He also has horns like a lamb, but the reference is more literal here. The lamblike appearance of the second beast denotes gentleness and harmlessness, the kind of false prophet Jesus warned comes as a ravenous wolf in sheep’s clothing. The second beast speaks like the dragon, yet his voice is not a fire-breathing rant; it is the slithering and deceptive whisper of the serpent. This false prophet performs great and miraculous signs, verse 13, “even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all people.” But Jesus warned about that too. He said, “False christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to deceive even the elect—if that were possible.”
By adding if that were possible, Jesus assures against the believer’s deception. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” he said. “No one can snatch them out of my hand.” These sheep are the same elect Revelation describes in chapter 9 as having the mark of God on their foreheads. Yet if you’ll remember back to chapter 9 you’ll remember that these marks hearken back to Ezekiel and the forehead marks there on those who expressed remorse for Jerusalem’s ruin—a ruin for which they were to blame. The Ezekiel passage has a definite Passover feel to it. Just as the angel of God passed over those in Egypt whose doorposts were marked with the blood of the lamb, so in Ezekiel’s Jerusalem, those who were marked with the mark of God likewise were passed over when judgment arrived. So many years hence, this same judgment has been understood as doom for all who refuse to repent and heed Christ as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus rescues us from the final judgment Revelation portends.
Yet as I mentioned on Maundy Thursday, there’s a problem when you turn to the apostle Paul. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” Paul’s pronouncement of final Christian judgment tacitly indicts that ancient tendency believers have always had to take God’s grace for granted and to treat the doctrine of election as unchallenged incumbency. We read “Jesus loves me just as I am” as permission to stay that way. It is the gospel truth that just as you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you can do nothing to lose it either. But at the same time, you must do something to show you’ve received it. Revelation labels the faithful as those “who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom,” Jesus said, “but only those who do the will of my Father.” “My sheep listen to my voice and they follow me.”
“They will not follow a stranger,” Jesus said, “but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” This may be why the false prophet chooses familiar language. He constructs an impressive talking idol of the first beast, a foreshadow, perhaps, of the technologies in our own day that so effortlessly entertain and distract. He yanks an economic leash, an acknowledgment perhaps, to money’s own pull to which we so readily succumb. The beast may be a parody of Jesus, but sometimes we prefer the parody: A Jesus we construct in our own image. I’ve mentioned before a book from a few years back by BU religion professor Stephen Prothero entitled, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. Professor Prothero resourced sermons and theological works, but also movies, novels, news media and popular music in order to show how “Americans of all stripes have cast the man from Nazareth in their own image.” Democrats portray Jesus as a democrat, Republicans have him resembling republicans. Jesus comes off as a radical for the radicals and a corporate
In the end, there is support for understanding 666 as a generic symbol of imperfect and incomplete humanity. People marked with the mark of the beast are people devoid of endurance and devoid of faith: both faith in Christ and faith like Christ. Martin Luther King Jr. was right: “There are some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”