666: Interpreting the Apocalyptic in the Book of Revelation

sanctuary-lambGeorge Orwell’s book, 1984, a dark vision about a Britain taken over by a totalitarian regime that uses “doublethink” and “Newspeak” to mislead and control its citizens, was published in 1949, but has apparently returned to the best-seller list. And you probably know why.

In the 1990’s as the new Millennium approached, there was a similar spike in interest among Christians in Bible prophecy.  Some commentators called it ‘PMT’ or ‘pre-millennial tension’. Revelation 13 is one of those passages of scripture that continues to arouse considerable speculation and a disproportionate amount of ink if not blood spilt. How are we to make sense of this passage and its enigmatic signs and symbols? How are we to decode them? Do they refer to history? To the present? Or to the future? We are not going to answer these questions today. And I am not going to give you a verse by verse analysis. Not because of a lack of time or because they passage is too difficult.  The fact is godly men and women who hold a high view of scripture, disagree on the meaning and application of the passage before us today.

I would like to recommend a commentary on Revelation edited by Steve Gregg. Its called “Revelation: Four Views – a Parallel Commentary. It draws on over 50 commentaries and outlines in four columns, four traditional ways of interpreting Revelation:

Preterist Fulfilled (1st Century)
Postmillennial Historicist – Church age (1st-21st Century)
Premillennial Futurist or speculative (20th Century)
Amillennial Spiritual or metaphorical

Martin Luther wisely observed of the Book of Revelation, ‘everyone thinks of the book whatever his spirit imparts.’

Instead, I would like to give you some tools to help you interpret passages such as this for yourself drawn from my book, Zion’s Christian Soldiers[1].

  1. The Historical Setting of Apocalyptic Literature

Historically, biblical apocalyptic literature arose between the time of the Babylonian captivity (Ezekiel and Daniel) through the return of the exiles (Zechariah) to the Greek and then Roman occupation of Palestine (Revelation).  The time therefore between around 586 BC and 100 AD was one of great ferment and anxiety for the Jewish people.  The apocalyptic writings describe the rise and fall of empires as well as rulers who at various times tolerated or persecuted God’s people. Sometimes the text itself helps us to understand that what is described, while using human imagery, is intended to be interpreted figuratively or symbolically. Apocalyptic literature portrays ‘history’ between the now and the not yet – between the present and God’s future intervention to rescue and vindicate his people. This is the period known as the ‘End-Times’ or ‘Last Days’. We must recognise however that these terms don’t just refer to events since 1948 or 1967. This is called ‘Chronological snobbery’ – the idea that our generation is the one being described. Quoting Isaiah 44:3, for example, Peter describes the events of the Day of Pentecost as the fulfilment of these ‘Last Days’ (Acts 2:16-17). We must not therefore be naïve in thinking we alone are living in the End Times.  Let me quote once more from Pate and Haines,

“Put another way, end-time prophecy, because it more often than not emerged from a persecuted minority, is a coded language in need of deciphering. The reason for the use of coded language is obvious – it protected both author and recipients from the dominant, oppressing regimes of the day. Hence, for example, the prevalence of heavenly visions, enigmatic symbolism (for example, beasts representing political empires), gematria (figurative meaning attached to numbers such as 666), dualism (the clash of people groups described in terms of a struggle between supernatural powers). As such, eschatological prophecy’s primary focus concerned the particular life setting of the biblical author and recipients, though its parameters also include the distant future.”[2]

  1. Distinguishing Prophetic from Apocalyptic Literature

As we try to make sense of Revelation 13, it is important to understand that there are some essential ways in which prophecy differs from apocalyptic literature. They are not synonymous.[3]  Prophecy is associated with forth-telling and foretelling God’s word. Invariably the prophets had a message for their contemporaries (forth-telling) and a message concerning the distant future (foretelling). Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the one from the other as in Isaiah 7:1-17. Apocalyptic literature, which means ‘revelation’ or ‘unveiling’, however, tends to focus on the events leading to the end of time.

Prophecy Apocalyptic
Initially spoken then later written Initially written
Separate brief message Longer and more repetitive
Plain language Symbolic language, (e.g. animals)
Dualism is common (Jesus and angels vs. Satan and the Anti-Christ)
Castigates nominal believers Confirms and encourages remnant
Focus on repentance and faith Pessimistic about human ability to change events

Both prophecy and apocalyptic literature share much in common. They both emphasize God’s sovereignty in human affairs as well as his future intervention at the end of time to deal with sin and bring justice and peace. Both promise that the faithful who stand firm will be redeemed. The writings of the prophets are clearly identified in the Bible and include the writings of 16 prophets from Isaiah to Malachi, together with others like Samuel, Elijah, Elisha and even Saul (1 Samuel 10:5-11).  The biblical passages associated with the apocalyptic include Ezekiel 38-39; Daniel 7-12; Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21; 2 Thessalonians 2; and Revelation 6-19. Sometimes Biblical books contain both the prophetic and the apocalyptic.
The Book of Revelation is one example.

Prophetic Apocalyptic
Revelation 1-3

A series of exhortations to the churches of the 1st Century.

Revelation 4-22

A series of heavenly visions about the future.

  1. Typical Characteristics of Apocalyptic Literature

It is important when reading apocalyptic literature to know a little bit more about their common characteristics before attempting to interpret and apply them. Marvin Pate and Calvin Haines, very helpfully list the typical characteristics of apocalyptic material. These include:

  • The writer often goes on a journey with a celestial guide who shows him interesting sites and comments on them.
  • The Information is usually communicated through visions.
  • Visions often contain strange or even enigmatic symbolism including depictions of animals and other living beings.
  • Visions are usually pessimistic about people being able to change the outcome.
  • Visions usually end with God destroying evil through his personal and cataclysmic intervention.
  • The vision is intended to comfort and sustain the righteous remnant who will be rewarded when God establishes his kingdom.[4]
  1. The Interpretation of Apocalyptic Literature

While apocalyptic literature is like an animated picture book, full of detail, movement and action, it is not a puzzle book intended to confuse. That is why it is important to focus on the broad themes and not get hung up on the detail. Michael Wilcock makes this very helpful assessment:

“The conviction that the Revelation really is meant to reveal truth, and not to obscure it, and that its treasurers really do lie on the surface if one looks for them in the right light, is by no means the same as a belief that its meaning will be spelt out for us verbally, with logic and precision… It is no use reading Revelation as though it were a Paul-type theological treatise in a slightly different idiom, or a Luke-style history projected into the future.”[5]

This is why apocalyptic literature like Revelation should be interpreted in harmony with the teachings of the entire Bible. There are, for example, over 400 references or allusions to the Old Testament in the Book of Revelation.  William Hendriksen reminds us that

‘In emphasizing this basis of the Apocalyptic visions in the subsoil of the sacred Scriptures we must always bear in mind that it is wise to proceed from the clearer to the more obscure and never vice versa.’[6]

With that introduction, lets briefly look at Revelation 13.

I want to make a few observations about the historical context, the biblical interpretation and the abiding application. And here I am relying heavily on the IVP New Testament commentary available from www.biblegateway.com

5. The Biblical and Historical Context

“And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed.” (13:1-3)

The most conspicuous biblical reference point for John’s beast from the sea is Daniel’s dream of four great beasts from the sea, the first like a lion with eagle’s wings, the second like a bear, the third like a leopard, and the fourth, different and more terrible than the others, with ten horns (Dan 7:1-7). In John’s vision the order of the first three is reversed (leopard-bear-lion), and Daniel’s four beasts have been rolled into one. Or, to put it another way, Daniel’s terrible, unidentified fourth beast seems to have “swallowed” its three predecessors and to have taken on the distinguishing characteristics of each.

Liberals tend to view John’s description of the beast as the stuff of which science fiction is made, while Fundamentalists use the passage as a club to wield against personal or national enemies. Biblical scholars by and large tend to believe John was making a veiled political statement about the Roman Empire in his own time. On this view, the beast is the empire, its many heads are a series of emperors, the wounded head is Nero, the first persecutor of Christians, who had died and, according to some versions of a popular legend, was expected in some way to return to power with an army of the hated Parthians.  Tempting as it is to believe the lion represents the British Empire, the eagle the United States, the bear with the Russian Empire and the beast too awful to describe represents the United Nations, we should exercize caution against identifying John’s beasts too quickly or too exclusively with one specific empire or political system, whether past or future. We should first appreciate John’s vision for what it is – a vision and should try to put ourselves inside the fascinating (though frightening) world it describes for us.

6. The Theological  Interpretation

John’s use of I saw (vv. 1, 2) marks a return to the first-person narrative style that dominated chapters 4-10. In chapters 11-12 John could say something “appeared” in the sky or in heaven (11:19; 12:1, 3) without specifying that it appeared to him personally. But now he abruptly becomes an eyewitness to the events he describes:

Something more is therefore presupposed here than the “war in heaven” and the conflict between the dragon and the woman described in chapter 12. The beast’s wounded head suggests a previous encounter between the Lamb and the beast, probably centered in Christ’s death on the cross. Both the Lamb and the beast were “slaughtered” or “slain” in that encounter, yet both are “alive” (1:18; 13:14), and each in his own way is a “victor” or “conqueror” or “overcomer” (for the Lamb, see 3:20; 5:5; 17:14; for the beast, 6:2; 11:7; 13:7).  No other figure in the book of Revelation has captured readers’ imaginations quite like the beast of chapter 13. Above all, the challenge at the chapter’s end to “calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number . . . 666” (v. 18) has drawn a chorus of responses from John’s time down to the present, many forged in the heat of later but now long-forgotten controversies, and none very convincing. I have to say I don’t believe John should be seen as a Nostradamus figure enigmatically predicting events in the distant future. Instead, as an eyewitness he is interpreting first and foremost (albeit not literally, but very imaginatively) developments in his own day. Once we stop looking for a blueprint of the future, we can gain insights into the conflict between good and evil in every generation–including our own.

7. The Abiding Application

“If anyone is to go into captivity,
into captivity they will go.
If anyone is to be killed with the sword,
with the sword they will be killed.”

This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.” (Revelation 13:10)

The significance of this brief prophetic oracle in verse 10 can scarcely be overestimated. Time and again, from the ill-fated Muenster kingdom of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists to David Koresh at Waco in the 1990s, the book of Revelation has been linked in the public mind to violence, war and armed rebellion. The book has been blamed for everything from social revolutions in Latin America to the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. John’s oracle here gives the lie to all such interpretations, whether offered by those who would justify violence or those who would denigrate Revelation because of the violent world it evokes. Revelation is most emphatically not a call to arms, but a call “for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints” (13:10). The burning question in the minds of John’s readers must have been, If all these terrible things are going to happen, what should be our response?

The answer in this verse – as it is for the whole of the  Book of Revelation is simple – retaliation is forbidden because resistance is unnecessary: first, because armed resistance will be futile and second (and more importantly), because God and the Lamb have already guaranteed them victory. Those who “overcome” do so not with the sword, but with “the blood of the Lamb” and “the word of their testimony” (see 12:11). John is saying, for a relatively brief period, until the beast’s forty-two months are up (13:5), those destined for imprisonment will go to prison and those destined for death will be killed. The responsibility of Christians in times of persecution as much as in times of prosperity is to be faithful and to wait out the storm. God and the Lamb will intervene at the right  time. John’s point is not unlike that of Paul in Romans 12:

“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:19-21)

Where John differs from Paul is that Paul still had confidence that the state “does not bear the sword for nothing,” but is “God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). Because of developments in the Roman Empire since Paul’s time, John has lost confidence in the state. Instead of the state’s executing God’s wrath on wrongdoers, God will execute wrath on wrongdoers in the state. This is pronounced in terrifyingly graphic symbolism in the next six chapters. For now and for us, the call to “patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saint” is a call to peace.

It is a call to peace-making, leaving the judgment of our enemies in the hands of God and the Lamb. The recent political earthquakes on both sides of the Atlantic are a reminder of the message of Revelation 13.

“Throughout the history of the church, then, the beast from the sea will be active and Christian people will always have the dragon-manipulated state to contend with in their daily lives.”[1]   Or to put it another way, no matter what the day, the season or month, the year is always 1984. The difference is, we know this is not fiction or indeed even the revelation of John the Divine This is the Revelation of Jesus Christ who gave it for our benefit,

“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.  Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” (Revelation 1:1-3)

Even though it may feel like 1984, we have Jesus and we know how history will end. The Lamb wins! We can therefore respond to him with confidence,

“The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” … He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” (Revelation 22:17, 20)


[1] Stephen Sizer, Zion’s Christian Soldiers, IVP

[2] C. Marvin Pate & Calvin B. Haines Jr. Doomsday Delusions, p. 28.

[3] Adapted from J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1980), pp. 86-87.

[4] Adapted from C. Marvin Pate & Calvin B. Haines Jr. Doomsday Delusions, p. 24. See also Leon Morris, Apocalyptic (Leicester, IVP, 1972), pp. 34-61.

[5] Michael Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened: The Message of Revelation (Leicester, IVP, 1975), p. 24.

[6]  William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation, (London, IVP, 1940), p. 49.

[7] Michael Wilcox, The Message of Revelation, IVP, pp.125-126