Please help me understand the prophecy about 666. Is it literal? Will
some people really get forehead markings?
As far as I know, the only use of the number 666 is in Revelation 13:18.
Almost without question this number is to be taken symbolically, not
literally. Of course, many have used the actual literal number to reach
all kinds of conclusion, but almost certainly these are not justified. I
remember a few years ago, many pointed out that Ronald Reagan’s beginning
middle and last names all have six letters in them. Coincidence, these
people asked? Ronald Reagan was the Beast according to these people. I
assume they have since moved on to other unjustified literal applications
of the apocalyptic literature in Revelation.
In order to understand the question of the number 666, it is key to bear
in mind that the visions in Revelation are written in what is known as
apocalyptic style. This was a common mode of writing for the Jews,
especially in the two or three centuries before and after the time of
Jesus. Some of the Old Testament books written in apocalyptic style
include all of Zechariah and of Joel, parts of Ezekiel and Daniel and so
forth. In most biblical writing, things should be taken literally unless
the context demands otherwise. With apocalyptic writing, the opposite
applies. The descriptions should be taken symbolically unless the context
demands otherwise. For example, in Acts 2:16-21 Peter says that the
description in Joel 2:28-32 was being fulfilled before their eyes. Joel
described an event including “signs on the earth below, blood and fire and
billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to
blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.” Peter
says this (ie the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost) is the
fulfillment of the prophecy in Joel. Here is the point, with apocalyptic
language, the description is symbolic.
The book of Revelation (except for chapters 2-3) is perhaps the most clear
cut example of apocalyptic writing in the Bible. We are not to take the
description of “the Beast out of the earth” literally. Neither are we to
take the number literally. In Hebrew literature, the number seven
represents perfection, while the number six is the number of man, or the
number of wordliness. It is the number of mankind in rebellion to God.
The passage in Revelation 13:18 confirms this interpretation; “for it is
man’s number.” When God states that the number of the beast is 666, he is
saying that this represents a great power which is aligned against God and
the spiritual forces in heaven. Let me share my opinion about who this
“Beast” is. I believe that in the context of Revelation, the Beast is
Rome and its power over humanity. It almost certainly is not an individual
person some time in the indefinite future, as many popular Christian
teachers claim. Rome was the great enemy of the saints. Rome tried to
destroy the church. I believe that all the descriptions in Revelation 13
apply very well to Rome, its power, and its opposition to the Lord’s
church. John was told that his vision concerned events which would soon
take place (Revelation 1:1). This causes me to assume that most of the
prophecies and visions in the book applied to the situation of the church
in the first centuries under the persecution of Rome. Those who look for
some sort of beast with a literal number 666, or for people to have that
number branded on them are most likely chasing a fantasy.
With any prophecy, a good piece of advice is to say, “time will tell.”
Perhaps time will show that my interpretation is not correct. Humility is
called for. Perhaps the visions in Revelation describe the persecutions
of Rome against the church, but also have a second fulfillment in the
future. It is my opinion that this is not the case, but we will see….