Q: The mark of the beast in Revelation 13:18 is listed as 666. What is the best explanation for this number and why it is called “man’s number”?
A: The book of Revelation is filled with much symbolism. Although the numbers appearing throughout the book have received a wide range of interpretations, it is safe to say that the number seven stands for “holiness” and “completeness.” In the Hebrew language the word “seven” is similar to the word “Sabbath.” Bible scholars have speculated that seven, being the combination of three and four depicts perfect unity between God and the world: the number three symbolizing the Trinity while four represents the earth (its four directions).
If seven stands for holiness, then the number six is understood as the number of “incompleteness.” The fact that “six” occurs three times emphasizes that this “unholiness,” while attempting to mirror the Trinity, falls short. The mark “666” is therefore utterly devoid of holiness, which alone comes through Christ, despite any imitation of “the Lamb.” For the beast coming out of the earth is described in Revelation 13:11 as having “two horns like a lamb,” while nevertheless speaking “like a dragon.”
Does the number refer to antichristian forces in the world generally or does it characterize a particular individual? Notice how this number of the beast is described by the apostle John: “…no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666” (Revelation 13:17,18). In the original Greek, the words rendered “man’s number” in the New International Version can also be translated “the number of a man.” Our preference is to take the number as designating a specific individual in the course of history. This agrees with the parallel section in 2 Thessalonians chapter two, where the “man of lawlessness” who “sets himself up in God’s temple proclaiming himself to be God” is said to continue until the brightness of the Lord’s coming (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
Lutherans generally have not been foggy about identifying this “man of lawlessness.” Our Lutheran Confessions label him as the papacy. The Roman papacy is a perpetuating office, where a man sits as a ruler within the visible church, and – since Reformation days – anathematizes all who believe they are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ apart from the works of the law. Luther wrote in the Smalcald Articles: “The pope is the real Antichrist. . . for [he] will not permit Christians to be saved except by his own power. . . . This is actually what St. Paul calls exalting oneself over and against God” (SA, II, IV:10-11).