Is it the end of the world today? Obviously not; and thankfully, not too many folks have predicted the end of the world as of June 6, 2006. Yet the 666 date has caused a number of people to reflect upon the end time speculations of "experts" such as Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame.
The truth is the 666 reference in the book of Revelation has nothing to do with events contemporary to our day and age. The book was written to first century Christians and concerns things that happened in the first century (Rev. 1:1-3, 2:5, 16, 3:3, 11, 22:6-7, 10, 12, 20). The only portion of the Revelation that has to do with a time future to the first century is in Revelation 20:7-10. In that passage we read:
Now when the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea. They went up on the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them. The devil, which deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
The primary characteristic of this portion of the Revelation is its brevity. The fact is, God doesn't want us to know much about the future. Apparently all He wants us to know is that at the end of this age, Satan will be allowed to briefly deceive the nations in the same manner that he deceived the nations prior to Christ's first advent. That deception will come at the end of a long period of time in which the kingdom of God will have covered the earth as the waters cover the sea (Is. 11:9). The Gospel will have gone forth and the kingdom of God will have triumphed. Yet even then there will be those who reject the Messiah (Ezk. 47:11). Those who have refused the offer of salvation through Jesus Christ will be aroused by the devil to rise up in persecution of the Church. The people of God will be scattered over the face of the earth, and so the "surrounding" of the camp of the saints and the beloved city simply means the Church at large; Christians wherever they may be found will be targeted by the ungodly. In other words, there will not be a single city or camp that is surrounded. The passage is speaking metaphorically. The end result is not a prolonged battle, but a sudden destruction of God's enemies once they have been revealed. As with the entire prophecy, this portion of the Revelation draws from an Old Testament account. In this case, John is referencing events that transpired in the Medo-Persian Empire when Esther was queen. At that time the enemies of God "surrounded" the saints and planned to destroy them wherever they might be found, "scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of" the kingdom of Ahasuerus (Esther 3:8). The enemies of God were aroused by Haman to rise up and persecute the Jews. However, God used the evil plan of Haman to reveal the adversaries of the Jews which allowed God's people to destroy their would-be destroyers. As we see in Revelation 20:7-10, a very similar event will take place at the end of history. The difference is that God will destroy the foes of His Church without our lifting a finger.
But what of the 666 reference in Revelation 13:16-17? Isn't that pointing to a time future to our day? To begin with, let's look at the passage:
He (the image of the beast animated by the beast from the land), causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
The primary enemy of the first century Church was Judaism. Those Jews who rejected Christ clung to a perversion of the old covenant religion and refused to recognize that the new covenant had superseded the old. In their fanaticism, they did everything they could to destroy the Church. They even went so far as to closely ally themselves with the pagan Roman empire - crying out at the trial of Christ, "we have no king but Caesar" (John 19:15).
In Revelation chapter 13 we read of the beast from the sea (the Roman Empire), whom the people of the land of Israel worship (not world; the Greek is ghs meaning land, as in, land of Israel in this case). A second beast with horns like a lamb arises from the land (of Israel). This is metaphor for the false religion of Judaism. Although it looks like true religion (lamb like), it preaches words of deceit (like a dragon). This second beast makes an image of the first (Roman rule in Palestine), and forces the people of the Land to worship it (the power religion of Roman might). Unless the people openly worshiped Roman power, they were not allowed to participate in the religious activities of Judaism. As I have written elsewhere:
The number of a man: and the preeminent man/Jew/Israelite was Solomon who received 666 talents of gold into his kingdom each year. The kingdom of Israel reached its greatest geographic extent under the reign of Solomon - fulfilling the covenant promise to Abraham (2 Chron. 9:26, Gen. 15:18-21). His counsel was sought out by kings and wise men from all over the earth; his wisdom and the wealth of his kingdom were unsurpassed (2 Chron. 9:22-23). There was no one like him or a kingdom approaching his in splendor. Yet, Solomon turned his back on God and did the very things the Law forbade of kings (1 Kings 10:26-11:1, Deut. 17:16-17). He even built altars for his pagan wives to be used in human sacrifice and joined them in the worship of their false gods (1 Kings 11:1-8). God intended for His people to be a nation of priests with world wide influence (Ex. 19:5-6, Deut. 4:6-8). Nevertheless, once that preeminence was achieved it was squandered by a king who considered his kingdom's prestige to be his own. This is exactly what happened in the first century: the Jewish leadership regarded God's people as their own (John 11:48), and appealed to false gods for favor (John 19:15).
The beast with horns like a lamb and a voice like a dragon represents the leadership of the religion that was a rival to Christianity: Judaism and the Jewish religious leaders who rejected Christ (Rev. 13:11-ff). Judaism, the religion of the apostates, tried to look like the real thing (the Lamb), but its "gospel" was the preaching of the devil (the dragon). This beast was like the ultimate "man", Solomon, who had received magnificent blessings from God and still turned his back on Yahweh. This beast required all Jews to worship ("buy or sell," Rev. 13:17, cf. Is. 55:1-2, Ezk. 28:16, 18, Rev. 3:18), indeed to think and to do (mark on the hand and head, an evil parody of Deut. 6:8), according to their apostate religion (John 5:23, 8:44, 15:23-25, 1 John 2:2-23), or to be persecuted out of the family of "man." The lamb-like beast required that all men/Jews be like the ultimate man/Jew (Solomon), and turn their backs on God and His Messiah and place their faith in the first beast (Roman State, Rev. 13:1, 12) as the ultimate guarantor of their apostasy.
Thus there is no future time when men, women and children will be forced to be branded or tattooed with an identifying mark in order to buy and sell. There never will be an anti-Christ who takes over the world and sets himself up as God. There is no future "Great Tribulation." The cataclysmic events described in the book of Revelation are metaphor for the fall of the Jewish social order and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. At that time the old covenant age came to a resounding conclusion as God poured out his vengeance on an apostate people. Certainly we can learn from the timeless truth of Revelation (just as we learn from any book of the Bible), but there is absolutely no reason to think that the Revelation is a prophecy regarding this day and age.
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