“And it [the beast from the earth] makes everyone—small and great, rich and poor, free and slave—to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark: the beast’s name or the number of its name.”-Revelation 13:16-17
Recently a few theories have been put forward as to what the mark of the beast is from Revelation 13:16-17. Past nominees have been microchip implants and credit cards. Recent nominees are COVID-19 vaccines and masks. None of them are, but how do we know? What is the mark of the beast?
To understand this part of the Bible we have to know what kind of literature we are reading. The book of Revelation is a sub-genre of prophecy known as apocalyptic. It is a vision comprised of signs and symbols that represent real people, movements, or events. For example, the dragon of chapter 12 represents Satan. When we encounter an important sign like the mark of the beast in chapter 13 we need to ask what it represents.
In the vision the mark is a brand of loyalty. In Revelation 7:3-8 the saints are marked as belonging to the Lord. In chapter 13 those loyal to the beasts are branded as such. Those who bear the mark of the beast do so as a pragmatic compromise of their faith in order to buy and sell. They are sell-outs.
Robert Mounce explains the first century relevance of the mark of the beast,
“It symbolizes unqualified allegiance to the demands of the imperial cult.”
For the first readers of Revelation this part of John’s vision would have brought to mind the idolatry that was associated with the Roman economy. As Christians worked, bought, and sold in the marketplace they would have been expected to participate in the worship of trade guild deities and the emperor. From time to time that expectation grew into pressure and even persecution.
Would they honor Christ by not participating in public worship of Roman deities or the emperor and thus stand out? Or would they compromise their faith and get in line like everyone else? This was the direct relevance of the mark of the beast in its original literary context, and that relevance hasn’t changed.
The beasts of Revelation 13 are used by Satan to promote false worship. They stand for government authority that forces people to choose between fidelity to Christ or to the world. John clearly saw this at play in the Roman Empire, and believers since then have likewise seen these characteristics in their cultures.
Regardless of whether or not we are living in the climactic fulfillment of this vision, the spiritual truths it pictures are still relevant. Consider the rampant materialism that surrounds Christmas in our culture, or the potential religious litmus tests for political office or appointment to government positions. We must ask ourselves, will we sell-out? Will we openly deny Christ to keep a job or make a profit?
Rather than get worked up by dubiously trying to identify the mark of the beast, we would do well to recognize that Christians have always had to choose fidelity to Christ over the world. How can you be sure you don’t have the mark of the beast? Look yourself in the mirror and ask these questions:
- Am I compromising my faith for economic gain?
- Am I participating in idolatry to keep my position at school, work, or in society?
- Am I willing to be openly known as a Christian despite potentially negative repercussions?
We all have a brand declaring our loyalty. The question is to whom, the beast or the Lamb?
“Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him were 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.”-Revelation 14:1