7. Theology by numbers (Revelation 7:1-17)
[This is the seventh in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation. I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]
Two types of symbols
The book of Revelation is full of numbers. Clearly, they have symbolic meaning. But there are different kinds of symbols. We can break symbols into two categories: specific symbols and general symbols. With specific symbols, one particular meaning is meant by the symbol. Like with the American flag—the thirteen stripes symbolize the original thirteen colonies and the fifty stars symbolize the current fifty states.
With general symbols, the meanings are much broader, more dynamic and subjective. Think again of the American flag—what does the flag itself symbolize? Tons of things. Democracy, religious freedom, the destination for many of our ancestors fleeing trouble—and, empire, war-making, global domination, hypocrisy.
I think the numbers in Revelation work both ways—some symbolize specific things, others are more general. Without explaining why right now, I suggest that “666” and “7” are two examples of general symbols—7 having to do with wholeness in a broad sense, applied in different ways in different settings; and 666 having to do with a general sense of humanity resisting the wholeness of God’s shalom (the “6” meaning just short of the “7”, intensified by being repeated three times). On the other hand, I believe that 144,000 is a specific symbol. It has one particular meaning. And it is one of Revelation’s most important numbers.