Suppose I owe you $700USD, but when it comes time to pay up I only give you $600. That would be frustrating. If I gave you $600pesos that would be ridiculous! There is a vast difference between $700USD and $600pesos. No one in their right mind would overlook such shortchange.
But that’s exactly what we’re tempted to do in this piece of the Bible. John goes on at length describing the second beast that supports the first through abuse of power, money, and propaganda. To cap it all off, John tells us who this beast is—identified by his number 666. Most scholars agree that’s a reference to Nero. Nero had died several years earlier, but there was a legend floating around that he had been resurrected (hence the reference to the ‘fatal wound that had been healed’). This was John’s way of saying that the current emperor, Domition, was going to be like ‘Nero all over again.’
But that identification doesn’t exhaust the full meaning of the number 666.
The whole reason John gave us the number was to point out the parody. This second beast looks like a lamb—but it’s not. It’s a fraud. The Lamb is 777—triple perfection, triple-consummation. But the beast is 666—triple failure, triple disappointment. The number 666 is less about identifying the individual name associated with the second beast, and more about identifying the characteristics of those who oppose God, parody the Lamb, and persecute the church.
NT Wright stands in a long line of biblical scholars who identify this second beast as the local Roman elites—either political or, mainly, religious—who promote the worship of the Emperor so as to improve their own position of power within the Empire. These are the sycophants and suck-ups, the toadies and lackeys, the wanna-be’s who curry favor, selling favors. Empires need this kind of support in order to thrive. All tyrannical regimes run on an engine of bullsh*t and greed, and those who follow the path of the second beast are fuel for the flames of Rome.
But their time of glory will soon end. The grass fades and the flowers die, but the word of the Lord stands forever. There will come a time when the unholy trinity of dragon, sea-monster, and second-beast are judged and their followers scattered. Those with the mark of the beast will be judged and punished (14.11, 16.2). There will come a moment when evil is exposed at every level, and exhausted. It will be a time for outstanding debts to be collected, and $666 is way short of $777.