The book of Revelation contains the following riddle:
“This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.” (Revelation 13:18)
The recipients of this letter didn’t find this a difficult riddle because they lived within the context of these biblical writings. Over 2000 years later, the riddle is bloated with conjecture, assumption, and threat. So what is the Beast? Perhaps we can do better than an 80’s rock band album cover.
Last week I said Revelation is a semi-cryptic letter to local churches on a particular “mail” route (Revelation 1:4, also ch. 1-3). The writer, John, was in exile on the Island of Patmos. The early Christian church was facing tremendous persecution from Rome. Many scholars now agree that the quasi-cryptic writing was to help the persecuted church to be made aware of all that was happening and about to happen without exposing them to greater persecution.
This historical context (as I introduced last week) illuminates the writing in this book far more than a futuristic interpretation. Since the events prophesied in Revelation were “soon to take place” (Rev 1:1, 22:10) it wasn’t difficult for the readers to assemble the cast of characters which prepared the faithful.
Revelation depicts the “Beast” as a dual identity by stating there is a first and second beast (ch 13). You ready for this?
The First Identity of the Beast: Rome
“The first beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns… (Rev 13:1)” and ” The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated (Rev 17:9). Beyond the bible, Roman historian Suetonius called Rome the city on seven hills, and the Roman coin during the time of Vespasian featured the goddess Roma who personified the city of Rome.
Without being dogmatic, it’s easy to conclude from archaeology and history that the beast rising out of the sea is a literary term describing the biggest, most oppressive superpower around. That could only be Rome.
Further proof is in ch. 17:9-10, “They are seven kings, five have fallen,” These are: 1. Julius Caesar 2. Augustus Caesar 3. Tiberius 4. Gaius /Caligula 5. Claudius “…one is…” 6. Nero “the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.” 7. Galba-June 9th AD 68, 15th Jan AD69.
The Jewish war AD 67-AD70 is documented by Josephus and other Roman historians, recording the slaughter of over a million people. Rome severely persecuted Christians and Jews until after the death of Nero ~AD 68. Then Rome was in civil war until the destruction of the temple in AD 70. These dates of Nero’s reign and the war following correspond precisely to the 42 months described in Revelation 13:5. Also note that in 11:1-3, the temple is still there. This is clearly prior to its destruction in AD 70.
Here the bible aligns with many extra-biblical historical documents. Ignoring these facts and believing in a future beast erodes the credibility of the bible and ultimately contaminates what Christianity is all about.
The second identity of the Beast: Nero Caesar
Roman numerals and the hebrew alphabet were common knowledge to John’s audience. The first beast (identity) was Rome it thus the second beast (identity) was that of a specific man. The Hebrew spelling of Neron Qsr (Neron Kaiser) adds up to precisely 666.
Nero was the worst offender when it comes to persecuting Christians and Jews. Roman rule insisted the prideful caesars be worshiped. Nero was an abomination in the worst sense by the devout faithful. To say he was the anti-christ would be an understatement.
Historical and archaeological data repeatedly points to Nero Caesar as the beast prophesied in the book of Revelation.
I realize that this creates a lot of questions, especially for those who are reluctant to embrace post-millennialism. This perspective sets off a domino effect within our theological grids. It requires we move our faith from the evacuation and abandonment of the world to its restoration and healing. Frankly, I don’t think many in the modern church really want that.
The threat of tribulation and armageddon are huge power plays that dissolve like an Alka-Seltzer in light of biblical history. We must lay down our “otherness” and exclusivity, and recognize that the New World is not waiting for the elite of faith in one-day land, but is here, now among us, if we let love set our agendas.
What will it be for you? As long as the church sees the world as a lost cause, its mission and message will at best be a game of “Red-Rover” with our cities. As we can see, the bible is actually very easy to believe.
Since the bible “reveals” eschatology so clearly, what is keeping more people from believing in its message?
Since the Beast is the most fearful event facing the church, what is the church to do with this biblical knowledge?