By Hope Bolinger, Crosswalk.com
Scripture contains a vast amount of symbolism, and numbers symbolism is no exception. From numbers such as three all the way up to the infamous number of the devil, many numbers in the Bible contain a deeper meaning.
In Hebraic culture, in both the Old and New Testament, certain numbers can hearken back to major occurrences throughout Israel’s history. For instance, if someone were to hear the number “seven” they may think back to Genesis 1, or the Creation story, as God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.
In this article, we’ll dive into specific numbers and their symbolic meaning in the Bible. We’ll also address the problem of looking too deeply into symbolism. Christians can, at times, venture to extremes and miss the big picture of a passage when they scrutinize each number to determine a deeper meaning.
We also should note that this article cannot dive into every number that contains symbolism in the Bible, as that would take an extraordinary amount of space to cover, and entire commentaries and books have been written on the subject.
This article will explore the biblical symbolism of numbers three, seven, 12, and 666.
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The Meaning and Significance of Number 3 in the Bible
Three tends to represent completeness. We see this in the most obvious example of the Trinity: one God, three persons.
Whenever we encounter something in Scripture repeated three times in a row, for instance, the word “holy,” it can, as stated in the article above, describe the intensity of something. So if God is holy, holy, holy, he is the completeness of holiness.
The article lists a number of ways we encounter the number three. We’ll highlight three of them below:
“God says something 3 times: We see God repeating a phrase three times in several places in Scripture. Jesus goes back to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane three times (Matthew 26:4). God calls the prophet Samuel thrice (1 Samuel 3:8). Jesus repeats the phrase “feed my sheep” to Peter three times (John 21:15-17).”
In all of these instances, whether the passage meant it literally or figuratively, the emphasis on three wants to draw the reader’s eye to the importance of the events. Jesus prays fervently in Gethsemane, God emphatically calls Samuel in his service, and the thrice repetition to Peter reminds Peter of his thrice denial of Christ.
“The third day: We can’t talk three without talking about how Jesus rose after three days (1 Corinthians 15:4). In Jewish culture, three days past the time of death indicated they were truly dead. Therefore, Jesus truly conquered death by not rising until the third day.”
God didn’t arbitrarily choose the number three for the number of days in the tomb. This meant something in Jewish folklore, and also showed the intensity of the miracle.
“Three patriarchs: In Scripture, we have three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matthew 22:32). These were the fathers of the Israelite nation, God’s people.”
It’s common to see the phrase “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” in the Old Testament. One may wonder why people didn’t continue on in names, “Judah, Perez, Hezron, Ram…” The Israelites had three patriarchs for a very specific reason.
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The Meaning and Significance of Number 7 in the Bible
As explained in this article, number 7 appears far more often than most of its symbolic counterparts.
It’s so important that it’s often known as the number of God. After all, God created the world in seven days, the Israelites spent seven decades in captivity in Babylon, and we see plenty of instances of the Lord’s wrath in Revelation happening in septets.
Similar to three, seven tends to represent completeness. That’s why the devil takes on the number six (more on this in a moment), as six is one shy of seven, rendering it incomplete.
Seven also has ties to divine perfection. Hence the reason why we see seven linked with the judgments of God in Revelation and in the Babylonian captivity. Because of his holiness and perfection, all that falls short faces wrath.
The article linked above breaks down several instances of the significance of seven. We’ll highlight two below.
“Seven Churches in Revelation: The book of Revelation starts by addressing seven different churches (Revelation 2-3) who are in varying degrees of their spiritual walks. Some, like Smyrna, appear to have strong walks in the faith (Revelation 2), while others, like Laodicea, have no good marks and a terrible lukewarm spiritual fervor (Revelation 3:14-22).”
John writes letters to seven churches, the identities of which theologians have struggled with over the years, whether they were purely historical churches or symbolically represented churches in the modern day as well. In either case, John addresses seven of them, showing a completeness.
“Seven X 10 Weeks until God’s Everlasting Righteousness: In Daniel (Daniel 9), he mentions a period of 70 weeks which, at the end of those weeks, God will bring about everlasting righteousness. Theologians haven’t agreed on when this period started or ended, but at the 70th week, God will put an end to sin.”
A much-debated passage in Daniel, the seventy weeks show a period of time in which God will complete his mission and bring a new heaven and new earth.
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The Meaning and Significance of Number 12 in the Bible
We can probably draw examples right away from instances where we see the number 12 used in Scripture. Jesus appointed twelve disciples; Israel had 12 tribes.
Twelve, as described in this article, tends to mean authority or (similar to 3 and 7) perfection.
We can typically see the number twelve used in governmental or authoritarian positions. Twelve minor prophets preached the word of God, twelve sons of Jacob formed the twelve tribes of Israel, and the disciples helped form the early church.
The article linked above does list some other obscure ways twelve pops into the picture in the Bible:
- 12 spies scout the Promised Land
- Nebuchadnezzar's Dream (Daniel 4) fulfills 12 months later
- 12 baskets remain full after Jesus feeds the 5,000
Of course, as we’ll touch on briefly later, we can’t determine that every instance of the number 12 in Scripture has a deep meaning. Otherwise, we might find ourselves cherry-picking passages to say something they don’t.
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The Meaning and Significance of Number 666 in the Bible
Many say this is the most infamous number in the Bible.
As mentioned earlier in this article, the devil tends to associate with the number six, a symbol of incompleteness. And a trinity of those (three sixes) represents the totality of incompleteness.
As those of us who have read Revelation may know, 666 is the devil’s number.
“666 literally means a name. The number "666" is the number of the name of the coming Antichrist. Giving a number to a name is called "gematria," which is the Greek practice of adding up the letters in someone's name. In Latin, this practice is called "isopsephism." Each letter in the Greek language has a numeral equivalent. Add up the letters and you get the number of the name.”
According to the article by Dr. Roger Barrier, the number 666 has a historical and future fulfillment. Caesar Augustus Nero, spelled out in Roman numbers, forms 666.
Those familiar with church history will know that Nero was anti-Christian in every aspect of the word.
Of course, as is the case with typology in Scripture, we will encounter another anti-Christ (if we have not yet already) whose name has ties to 666.
The Danger of Number Symbolism in the Bible
One cannot write an article on number symbolism in the Bible without warning readers of the dangers of looking for symbols in everything in Scripture.
Many numbers do contain a significance in the Bible. Nevertheless, not every number does.
Although it’s important to know what certain numbers mean, especially in the case of 666 as we draw nearer to the End Times. We also need to practice discernment and not scrutinize symbolism to the point where we miss the big picture of the passage.
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