Today, Coffee with the King begins a new series in Revelation. Last year, we looked at Revelation 1-11. (We also spent some time looking at how we read Revelation. If you missed that, it’s worth reading it first, or you might have trouble working out what’s going on.) Today, we start with chapter 13. What happened to chapter 12, you ask? I’m saving that for our Christmas special in a month…
If you have ever: made the sign of the cross, owned a bankcard, gained entry to something using a barcode, used Microsoft software or attended church on a Sunday… then someone, somewhere thinks you have the mark of the beast.
We find it mentioned in this week’s reading, in Revelation ch13:
Revelation 13:16-17 [The beast] also forced all people… to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
So what is the mark of the beast?
For much of the past millennium, many Protestants believed that the beast represented the pope; and so the mark of the beast was the Roman Catholic sign of the cross.
Seventh Day Adventists see the mark of the beast as worshipping on a Sunday; they’re expecting a time in the future when it will be legally enforced.
When bankcards came out, many people noticed that the logo looked like three sixes; maybe credit cards were the mark of the beast. Soon you wouldn’t be able to buy or sell without them. These days it’s any system you need in order to buy & sell: barcodes, computer chip implants.
Ironically, many websites dedicated to unmasking the mark of the beast accept donations via PayPal. As of a few years ago, you can’t buy or sell on eBay without it.
Or it could be Microsoft; most of us just go along with the Windows operating system because everyone else has it. And all around us we see the tragic cost of non-compliance, as Mac users struggle to share files with others. And Linux users struggle to have real, personal relationships.
And here’s the spooky bit: you know how computers store every letter you type as a number? They’re called ASCII values. And if you add up the ASCII values of the letters in Bill Gates’ name they come to 666? If you write it as Bill Gates III. (I’m also told you can do a similar thing with Barney the Dinosaur.)
Others would see the mark of the beast as something more general: symbolic of human failure. 6 is one short of the perfect number, 7. So the number of the beast is 6 6 6; failure upon failure upon failure.
The problem with that is that Greek text says the number of the beast is six hundred & sixty-six. Which in the ancient world was not written—or even thought of—as the numeral 6 three times.
Our way of writing numbers in columns wasn’t used in first century Greek and Roman society. Instead, ancient cultures used letters to stand in for numbers: like the Roman Numerals you either learnt in high school or from movies with far too many sequels. For example, in Roman numerals, six hundred and sixty-six is written like this: DCLXVI, which looks nothing like VI VI VI.
The Mark of the Beast in the First Century
So what is the mark of the beast?
In my view, the way numbers were written in the ancient world is the key. And John tells us it’s something his readers were supposed to work out. We can do the maths, as it were. In the next verse, he says this:
Rev 13:18 This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is six hundred sixty-six.
As I said, in the ancient world they used letters to stand in for numbers This encouraged word-games with people’s names, called gemmatria. For example, in the ruined city of Pompeii, there’s an inscription—graffiti, really—there’s graffiti that reads “I love her whose name is five hundred and forty five.” The letters in his girlfriend’s name would have added up to that number.
Now we’re told that the number of the beast is the number of a man. And although it works with Bill Gates, he wasn’t around in the first century. He wasn’t known to John’s original audience. (Neither was Barney the Dinosaur, for that matter.) But someone who was known to them was a guy called Emperor Nero [pic]. Famous, among other things, for persecuting Christians a decade or so beforehand.
And if you add up the letter-values of his name using the standard Greek spelling, you get 666. Coincidence? Maybe. But there’s a small number of NT manuscripts which have a different number of the beast—not 666, but 616. That’s what you get when you add up the letters in Nero’s name, using the Latin spelling. It’s like a later, Latin-speaking scribe has gone: ‘hey, we know that’s supposed to be Nero, but the maths doesn’t work; I’ll just fix it.’
So I think the most probable explanation of the number of the beast is that it’s derived from Nero’s name. That it represented the Roman emperor. Not simply Nero—who by this time was dead—but all those emperors who ruled Rome, who persecuted God’s people, and who set themselves up as gods to be worshipped. Nero’s just their poster-boy.
And it’s this emperor-worship that’s the focus of Revelation chapter 13. In fact, it’s something that looms large behind all of the book of Revelation. Where the people of the empire were forced to worship the emperor as a god in order to fit in with society and the empire. And by doing so, John says, they would bear the “mark” of emperor worship. The mark of the beast.
Tomorrow, we’ll start working our way through chapter 13 and meet the first beast, which comes out of the sea.