So this week we return to Revelation! We are going to cover an awful lot of territory on Sunday, but there is a really important reason for that—there are several 800 pound gorillas camped out in the pages of Revelation. Unfortunately, the lectionary skips over said gorillas, but we aren’t going to let sleeping gorillas lie.
I wanted to touch on one of those gorillas here to prepare you for Sunday. Perhaps one of the most memorable images from revelation is the beast marked 666 (Revelation 13:11-18). This image captures so much of the imagination. Funny thing is, there are numerous beasts within the pages of Revelation, and this one is arguably not even the most important. Nonetheless, it is worth some attention to “decode.” So is this some hideous beast that will come about at the end times? No. This beast was emperor Nero. We can say that pretty definitively because of mistakes that we have caught in the translations over the years. You see, some ancient copies of Revelation don’t read 666, but 616. What is the reason for this change in the number? A copying mistake? Nope. A mistake in adding up the letters of Nero’s name. Numerology was very important in Hebrew apocalyptic writing, called Gematria. This was a practice of coding certain words that was borrowed from the Assyrians, Babylonians and Greeks. There are other examples of this in the Bible in places like Daniel, Ezekiel and even the Psalms. In this case, some copyists didn’t understand the ancient Hebrew language that added an “N” onto the end of Nero’s name—the missing “N’ has a value of 50. Thus the difference between 616 and 666. If you need further evidence that this is how you are supposed to understand who the beast is, just read the actual verse, “18 This calls for wisdom. Let the one who understands calculate the beast’s number, for it’s a human being’s number. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.” (Rev. 13:18). It actually tells you that this is a code for a human being that you have to figure out. Of course, so called “biblical literalists” don’t actually read the text, they just make predictions of the end of the world off the text. If you want a further explanation of the Gematria click here.
Why is this important? Because we have to understand that Revelation is a coded critique of the political climate of John’s times. As I have said before and will say again, Revelation is about the past, present and future, but not about the “End Times.” You have to understand that Revelation spends a lot of time re-living the past experience of the Israelites. For example, Revelation chapter 11, is a commentary on the work of Elijah and Moses, and how the law and prophets figure into Christ’s ministry and Transfiguration. Revelation 8 and 9 are rehashing another experience of bondage and oppression in the history of God’s people—Egypt, Pharaoh and the 10 plagues.
So why is Revelation coded? John was living in oppressive times under the Roman Empire, and he couldn’t just come out and call the Roman Emperor (considered a God by his subjects) an evil beast. This is so important because it helps us understand the purpose of Revelation. It is not about scaring the pants off us for some future challenge to come, it is about seeing the challenges, corruptions and evils in the world around us right now for what they are. If we only reserve the translation of Revelation for some future “end time,” than it doesn’t allow the people of God to see themselves reflected in this text right now. Even though much of Revelation is about the trials that face John and the early Christian community, it is also about us and the challenges our Christian community faces today. Ultimately, the message that it gives us is a reminder of the hope we have in Christ, even amidst the evils we will face in the world.