Text: Rev 13:18
Parallel Passage: Matt 24:23-25 And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.
Main Idea: The beast is a minion of Satan who leads people astray through deception.
This single verse has generated a great deal of interest over the years, such that people who are not very familiar with the Bible still know that the number "666" is associated with evil powers. The number 666 is found three other places in the Bible, but in each of those places it refers to a fairly innocuous tabulation.* But here, the number 666 casts a shadow far larger than its single reference would indicate. In fact, for many people, it is probably one of the first things that they associate with the book of Revelation. In fairness, John himself draws attention to this number. He underscores the need for wisdom in dealing with this. Then he directs us to "calculate" the number of the beast. We are told it is the "number of a man."
So, What does "666 mean", and who does this number refer to?
As you might imagine there are numerous suggestions about how to "calculate" this number. The ancient practice of gematria usually lies at the heart of most calculations. To understand gematria, you need to recognize that in the ancient world most numerical systems used letters as numbers. Those familiar with Roman Numerals would understand this. In that system, "X", "I" and "V" (among others) have numerical values, such that XLIII would mean "43." Much later, the western world adopted the Arabic numeral system to the relief of mathematicians everywhere. While Roman Numerals (and other systems) were pretty hard to use, they did have the intriguing possibility of associating numerical values with words or names. You could add up the value of the letters and achieve a numerical value for a name. With this system in mind, it is often suggested that the number 666 is meant to refer to the total value of all of the letters with numerical value in a particular person's name.
I will give (what I believe to be) the best guess at which particular name it could be below. But first a word of caution. Gematria is a fairly imprecise science when you try to move from a numerical value back to a particular name. In theory every name only has one value, but when you go the other direction, a huge number of names can have the same value. And, unfortunately, there is not an easy or obvious calculation for this particular number. As a result, history has offered a really large number of suggestions for who this might be referring to. In many cases, the proposals involve a fair amount of fudging. That is counting some letters and not others, or moving back and forth between various languages. (Again, I explain the leading suggestion below.)
By contrast, there is something that we can say about the symbolic value of the number. In the book of Revelation most numbers have clear symbolic value. Twelves, fours, and especially sevens appear frequently and have symbolic importance. Though it is not as common, the number six also has symbolic importance. In the Genesis account, mankind was created on the six day. For that reason, and because six falls short of the full "glory" or seven, it can be recognized that the number six has the symbolic significance of representing the incomplete striving of sinful humanity. If we would expect the number of divine perfection to be something like "7-7-7", then it follows that "6-6-6" represents the fullness of sinful humanity. In that symbolic sense, the number of the beast identifies him as the "supreme representative of unregenerate humanity, separated from God and unable to divine likeness - but always trying."**
In the flood of suggestions for who the number of the beast should refer to, there is one number that rises above the rest. "Nero Caesar" can be made to tabulate the total value of "666" - if it is transliterated into Hebrew and some alterations are made to the name.*** There is a compelling reason to tie this to Nero, given the first century context. Nero was the first Emperor to institute an official (though localized) persecution of Christians. During the 60's he persecuted Christians in Rome after a great fire burned down a large section of the city. The early church believed that both the Apostles Peter and Paul were killed during this persecution, perhaps the "fiery trial" that Peter warned of in his letter.**** While the actual Nero became mentally unhinged and died shortly later, he was a particularly beastly guy. There was a persistent rumor that one day Nero would return to resume his reign of terror. With that in mind, there are some other places where the figure of Nero seems to clothe the beastly figure of Revelation.***** While, Nero was dead and buried, the "spirit of Nero" was alive and well in Emperor Domitian, who would institute the first empire-wide persecution during the 90's. If this was the challenge that John's churches were facing, then it would be understandable that John would both think of Domitian as "Nero Part II" - and also that he would not want to put this explicitly in writing. While all of this is intriguing... I offer it with a word of caution, because it is not as clear as we might like, and because it can easily distract us from the central concerns of the prophecy.
Conclusion and Application
If we get too lost in the rabbit hole of trying to number the beast, then we can miss the point. In the vision of the two beasts, the power of Satan is working behind the political and religious powers. The central concern is about who you will worship. When we read about beasts 1 & 2, we probably imagine ridiculous images in our mind, and wonder how anyone could be deceived. But for those that are experiencing this beastly power first-hand, it is a far more difficult thing. When the power of the beasts looms large, it would seem like no one on earth can challenge them. The reflexive human response is "who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?"
John wants us to calculate carefully. Though the combined power of the state and the seduction of compromised religion may seem powerful, the beast is merely human. In every age, every manifestation of beastly power will not be able to escape the judgment of God. As God shakes the heavens and the earth, seemingly overwhelming human powers will crumble and fall. At the end of the day, beastly power is human power and it will sink beneath God's mighty hand. At the appointed time - either in history, or at the end of all things - all human institutions will be exposed as merely human before the awesome power of the creator. Looks can be deceiving. Calculate carefully, and offer your worship to God alone.
* Ezra 2:12-14 lists the number of descendants in a genealogy as 666, and the other two references (1 King 10:14 and 2 Chron 9:13) refer to the amount of gold coins paid in tribute to King Solomon. Neither appear to have any diabolical significance in the context.
** Greg Beale, Revelation a Shorter Commentary, p287.
*** The fact that the tabulation must be done in Hebrew, while Revelation is written in Greek is a significant objection to this name, however. And even in Hebrew, the most natural spelling doesn't automatically work. On the plus side, a common variation of the spelling for "Nero Caesar" would yield the total "616" which is a number found in some ancient variant scrolls of the Book of Revelation. That is, it appears some scribes made a error when copying this book, and in a couple of cases, that error was to write the number as 616. Maybe it means nothing, and maybe it means they were thinking of this other variant for Nero Caesar.
**** I Peter 4:13.
***** This idea is called "Nero Redivivus" by historians. The Wikipedia page is short and helpful. Other places in Revelation that seem to refer to this are pictures of the first beast as having a mortal wound that was healed (13:4,12,14.)