The Mark of the Beast is a question that has haunted, frightened, entertained, irritated, fascinated, inspired, and overwhelmed many people in various ways throughout history. This topic alone has been interpreted in so many ways, many of them plainly ridiculous and out of context. So what makes us think that we can come along and drop a blog on you that will somehow "solve" the mystery for you? How do we know that we can correctly identify exactly who the Antichrist is (or will be?) and what the Mark of the Beast is?
The answer is simple: we are not going to even try to do all of that. We are, instead, pulling back to look at the bigger picture - how the Mark of the Beast fits into the overarching themes of the book of Revelation and to the rest of the Bible, and how this context helps to clarify what kind of question John is actually addressing. Within this context, it is very easy to make sense of Revelation.
For starters, we need to look at the passage in question:
11 Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon. 12 And he exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence, and causes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed. 13 He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. 14 And he deceives those who dwell on the earth by those signs which he was granted to do in the sight of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who was wounded by the sword and lived. 15 He was granted power to give breath to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 16 He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, 17 and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.18 Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666. (Revelation 13:11-18 NKJV)
There has been some conjecture that the number in verse 18 is actually 616 rather than the famous 666. This idea came about near the end of the 20th century when an artifact - Papyrus 115, which contained fragmented paper copies of Revelation from about 275(ish) AD - was discovered in Egypt. While the overwhelming majority of manuscripts of the New Testament clearly say 666 (ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ in Greek - six hundred, sixty, six), the P115 fragment simply says [...] η χιϛ. If you click on the linked Wikipedia article above, you can actually see where massive chunks of the page are simply destroyed - leaving it ambiguous as to what the number actually reads. What we have here is essentially one fragmented copy - among thousands of complete ones that say 666 - which maybe reads sixhundred sixteen. Too much is cut off the page to know for sure what is going on. It is very safe to assume that the most likely original reading was 666, not 616.
But beyond the textual evidence, it makes much more sense for the number to be 666 when we look at the broader themes of Revelation. The number 6 falls just short of the number 7 - which throughout the Bible is routinely associated with God. The Sabbath especially sets up the number 7 as the number that regularly reminds people of God's role as Creator. The number 6 also has some cultural ties to Babylonian culture, and Babylon is referenced or alluded to several times in Revelation as the paradigm for nations that oppose God. 666 is the perfect symbolic summary of what it means to oppose God and to fall short of his standards.
Within chapters 12-13, John shows us a vision of God's people - represented by a woman and her child - being hunted down by the Dragon - also known as the Devil or Satan (Rev. 12:9). While attacking God's people, the dragon summons and sends out two other beasts. Contrary to popular belief, there is no character in the book of Revelation known as the Antichrist. This term has been borrowed by Christians from other parts of the Bible that St. John wrote, but it is not the term he uses here.
When John describes the beasts that the devil sends after God's people in Revelation 13, he is drawing on earlier stories from the Hebrew Bible. Specifically, he has in mind Daniel 7, where we see an assortment of four beasts that we have discussed in a previous post. These four beasts are reprised here in Revelation 13 - all mashed up in one super beast. This new beast encapsulates all the worst tendencies of the previous ones in the way it harms people and opposes God. The first beast that appears is this amalgamated one that matches the ones in Daniel 7. The second beast is different - it has the appearance of a lamb, but the voice of a Dragon. Its main action is to lead the world to following and worshipping the first beast.
This is the moment when the Mark of the Beast is given. But what is the mark? Is it a literal marking on the forehead or hand? Is it the actual number 666, or a name whose "numerical value" adds up to 666? Is it the name of a person, a nation, a government, an organization, or something else? Is it a computer chip, or some other technology that the author of Revelation would not have known about?
The reality is that the Bible does not tell us to calculate the number of the beast, but only to do so if we have understanding, the ability to do so. It may be the case that some of us today simply may not understand the full meaning of the number 666. However, we can understand the clear moral implications of the Mark of the Beast:
- It is given to people to offer their worship to a power or system other than God - and specifically a system that has a history of persecuting Christians.
- It has strong cultural ties to Babylon and Rome, and will deny or compromise God's fundamental identity and authority as the Creator.
- It has financial, social, and political implications - since no one can engage in commerce or business unless they have the Mark.
The Mark of the Beast is not meant to be a huge, indecipherable mystery, precicely because it is a clear warning to any system that would try to set itself up in such a way. It is a warning against any system that forces peoeple to worship a certain way, imitates the violent and oppressive practices of ancient empires, and disenfranchises people. It tells the leaders of nations and organizations who do these things that they are straying dangerously close to "beast-like" behavior.
But the Mark of the Beast is not the only mark to be received in the book of Revelation. There is also the Seal of God (Revelation 7:1-4). This seal marks out those who stay true to God, those who do not engage in the ways of Babylon and the Beast, and those who do not receive the Mark of the Beast.
Revelation as a whole is ultimately concerned with loyalty, with people keeping their allegiance with God, even through hard times. It is not meant to make you nervous about new technology, or about being forcefully denied your salvation because a government agent put a microchip on you. As the opening chapters of Revelation make clear, the whole book is concerned with God's people choosing to stay on his side, remaining faithful, and not adopting the violent, sinful, selfish, and destructive practices of the world around them.
The Mark of the Beast will be given to people who have chosen not to walk with God. We can all choose against that Mark today.
- Revelation 12-13 tells us the story of the Dragon and his conflict with the woman. Read Revelation 12:1-6. Judging by the description of events here, who is this woman? For clarification, look at Ephesians 5:22-23, 2 Corinthians 11:1-2, Genesis 37:2-11, and Hosea 2:2. Note the way God speaks of his "wife" in Hosea, and especially the language use to describe Jacob/Israel's family in the dream in Genesis 37.
- Read Revelation 12:7-10. Many people have used this to describe how Satan was kicked out of heaven in the very beginning of the Biblical story. However, where does this passage seem to place this event? If the male child described in the verses before is Jesus, when was the devil cast out of heaven? Compare Job 1:6-12 with Revelation 12:7-10. What is Satan no longer able to do in heaven?
- Read Revelation 12:13-17. Who do the woman and her offspring (besides the male child from earlier) represent? How might this passage have comforted early Christians who were being persecuted by Rome?
- Read Revelation 13:1-10 and compare it to Daniel 7:1-8. What similarities do you see? What does the first beast of Revelation have in common with the beasts that came before in Daniel? How does one avoid worshipping this beast?
- Now look at Revelation 13:11-18, which describes the second beast. Which other character from Revelation is this beast said to look like? What might that mean in practical, real-world terms?
- There are numerous references to the first beast being mortally wounded, but then healed. The second beast seems to revive the world's interest in the first beast. Are there any world powers you know of that might have diminished in power but could still come back?
- Look specifically at Revelation 13:16. This "mark" that goes on the forehead and/or hand is the same famous "Mark of the Beast" associated with the number 666. Read Deuteronomy 6:4-8. What are the similarities and differences between these two passages? Based on what you read in Deutronomy, what could you conclude the Mark of the Beast is?
- Look at Revelation 13:13-16. Is the ability to perform miraculous signs or stunts a for sure proof that someone's power comes from God?
- This storyline wraps up in Revelation 14. Look especially at 14:6-12. Summarize in your own words what the three angels in this passage declare. How might this have instructed or encouraged the early Christians? How might it help us today?