For centuries Christians have speculated about the meaning of the "mark of the beast" and the number 666, both of which are discussed in Revelation chapter 13. We are told that a symbolic beast with two horns, and who spoke like a dragon, "forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead" (13:16). What is this strange "mark"?
The Beast’s "Mark"
The Greek word used for "mark" is charagma. It was the technical term for the Roman imperial stamp that appeared on various documents. The charagma was a seal stamped with the name and date of the emperor and attached to commercial documents. Apparently, it also stood for the emperor’s head stamped on coins. Thus, the charagma represented the likeness or name of the emperor.
The charagma was also a type of brand. In Roman times, disobedient slaves were often branded with marks of ownership, much like cattle are today. Religious tattooing was also widespread. Soldiers had a custom of branding themselves with the name of a favorite general. Devotees of a god labeled themselves with tattoos to designate their loyal devotion.
However, we should be careful about looking for some ancient practice of "marking" and thinking that this is what will happen in the future. John was writing to real people in the first-century church, not some "end-time" church, and his message applied to them. Whatever the "mark" was, it conveyed something they could understand.
What point was John trying to get across when he was speaking of a "mark"? The mark is probably not meant to be something visible to the eye, as was the Nazi practice of tattooing numbers on concentration camp inmates. Nor should we assume it to be an identity card of some kind, like a Social Security or credit card.
More likely, the mark is a symbol. It is something that identifies who belongs to the beast – or to God. There is an Old Testament parallel in Ezekiel on which Revelation draws. John’s readers would have readily understood the point he was making. In vision, Ezekiel saw a man with a writing kit at his side. He heard the Lord say to the man, "Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it" (Ezekiel 9:4). Here are people who are "marked" for protection.
In like manner, Israel was "marked" by blood smeared on the doorposts of their homes. On the eve of the Exodus, the death angel swept through Egypt, killing the firstborn. He passed over any door marked with blood (Exodus 12:21-23). This mark was merely a symbol, as the angel would have been quite able to distinguish between an Israelite and Egyptian.
Earlier in Revelation we read of the 144,000 servants of God who were sealed on their foreheads with "the seal [sphragis] of the living God" (7:2). They were also to be protected from the plagues that would devastate the earth (7:3). Those not having the seal were afforded no protection (9:4).
The "mark of the beast" is a counterpart to the sealing of the faithful people of God. The beast will attempt to identify and protect his people (and destroy his enemies) even as God knows and protects those who are his people.
How does the beast know who are his own? Simple: they are all willing to worship him and his image. Their worship is the mark by which they are identified! Those who refuse to worship will be exposed by their refusal to perform the act of idolatrous obeisance. Their steadfast loyalty to God, however, will be the evidence that they carry the seal of God. The "mark" of the beast is not visible writing, just as the "seal" of God’s servants is not done in writing. It is the behavior of the person that indicates where the person’s allegiance is.
Of course, the refusal to worship the beast will bring serious personal and economic consequences for the people of God. That’s because, "No one could buy or sell unless he had the mark" (13:17). Those who do not worship the beast are not allowed to participate in the economic life of the community.
The false political and religious system wields tight economic control over those whom it dominates. No one is exempt from this harsh economic repression. Whether small, great, rich, poor, free, or slave – all must comply (3:16-17). Individuals who refuse to serve the beast are not allowed to carry out the smallest economic transactions. This has always been a favorite way by which governments and authorities shut out undesirables from the system. They don’t allow them to participate in the benefits of the economy in one way or another.
That means they cannot buy food, obtain shelter, clothing or receive medical help. This implies starvation, exposure and death for those who do not worship the beast.
"His number is 666"
Revelation now gives us its definition of the beast’s mark. It "is the name of the beast or the number of his name" (13:17). This number "is a man’s number," and it is 666 (13:18). Most attempts at interpreting the number 666 begin with the fact that in ancient times letters were commonly used to stand for numbers. This meant every name was also a numerical sum obtained by adding up all its letters. A piece of graffiti from Pompeii is often used as an example of how letters stood for numbers. It reads, "I love the girl whose name is phi mu epsilon."
Some ancient apocalyptic writings do precisely what Revelation 13:18 does. They refer to people, in one case a succession of ancient emperors, by mentioning the number of the first letter in each of their names (Sibylline Oracles 5:12-42).
There is much ancient precedent in ancient literature in referring to someone by the number of his name. It is not an eccentric oddity of Revelation, as we might imagine. The point is, John’s original readers knew to whom he referred or what he meant when he spoke of the number 666.
Those who feel "666" referred to an individual living in John’s lifetime most commonly opt for Nero Caesar as the solution to the puzzle. We must, however, be cautioned on one point. If Revelation had reference to Nero in the number "666" it could not have been thinking of him in a literal sense – but only as a prototype of the beast.
Nero had persecuted the church and used the Christians as a scapegoat. Thus, he could have been a symbol – a type – of the beast in any age. John’s audience, knowing of Nero and the myth surrounding him that he was still alive or would be resurrected, would have gotten the point. In the thought of biblical scholar M. Eugene Boring, John would have been saying of the beast, "Watch out! It’s going to be Nero all over again."
Modern Christians may be making too much of John’s use of "666" precisely because we are so far removed from the time of his original audience. Whoever might be referred to here – if Nero or someone else – we must not assume that John was posing some riddle for his audience, the seven churches to which the book is written. If John was referring to a contemporary individual – even as a type – his audience would have known him. Thus, they would have known which letters made up his name, and their numerical equivalent. They did not need special insight to decipher the number. Yet, Revelation says, understanding the meaning of "666" "calls for wisdom" (13:18).
Wisdom to understand what, then? Why, the meaning of the name or number. In the words of M. Eugene Boring: "When Revelation was read forth in the worship of the Asian churches, the call for wisdom to calculate the number of the beast (13:18) was not a challenge to identify who the beast, the persecuting authority was – they knew that well enough already – but to recognize what it was, that it was in fact the beast empowered by Satan, not the cultural savior it claimed to be" (Revelation, p.162).
If John is referring to Nero or some other emperor, then he is a type of the beast. If he meant some local political (or religious official) of Asia, then his name is probably lost in antiquity.
Some commentators say that the number did not identify a particular individual at all. That is, the number itself had a meaning. "According to this view," says Robert W. Wall, "The cryptographic 666 falls short of the number 777, which symbolizes divine perfection" (Revelation, p.174). The beast or Antichrist does not measure up to the perfection of Christ, though he claims to do so.
A statement of John lends credence to this idea. He says 666 "is man’s number" (13:18). Man, however, is fallen, sinful and incomplete. On the other hand, seven is the number of completeness – and would refer to God and his work. The seven days of creation in Genesis 1 is an example. If the meaning of "666" is in the number itself, then the point is simple: The beast is nothing more than human government under demonic control. In that sense, the "beast" has always been with us, and it can be seen at work throughout the ages