Reminder: This blog contains my heuristic opinion on the Bible and theology. I realize that the material contained in this post might be divisive for some. That is not my intent. If you have questions, feel free to engage.
It seems that every few years the “mark of the beast” section of Revelation becomes vogue.
A while back, it was Monster Energy drinks that made the news. Their signature logo looks suspiciously like three Hebrew waw (sometimes used as the number 6). And the letter “O” on the can also contains a Christian cross, as least to the interpretation of some. Is Monster Energy brainwashing unsuspecting people around the world? But there’s a new viral YouTube video that’s bringing the mark of beast back into the minds of many. And within it, the creator claims that Bill Gates himself might be gearing up to implant Satan’s mark into millions around the United States.
But what exactly is the mark of the beast according to scripture? Are these legitimate concerns these people are bringing up? Or, is something else going on entirely?
What’s up with the Book of Revelation?
Revelation’s genre is three-fold. It is not only a circular letter to the churches under the apostle John’s care but also a prophetic and an apocalyptic text. All three of these genres are important to keep in mind as they each bring something unique.
While he never directly quotes from the Hebrew scriptures, John draws from them extensively. In fact, it’s almost as if John sees himself as writing in continuity with the Old Testament prophets. Revelation rehashes old prophecies and presents them in a way that assumes they will be fulfilled very soon. But the way John chose to reveal his prophecy in Revelation was through a complex apocalyptic literary work.
While the Hebrew prophets were primarily preachers whose message was written down by scribes at a later date, ancient apocalyptists were primarily authors who used written word. Because John was exiled to Patmos, it is possible that he had little choice but to share his message through written text and might have felt that apocalypse was the best way to share the great visions of hope he received from the Lord. And Revelation certainly has all of the main components of typical Jewish apocalyptic literature.
John enables his readers to see their situation through an out-of-this-world lens.
Through angelic mediation, heavenly visions, and vivid scenes of divine judgement, he explains why the righteous were suffering while reassuring his readers that Christ was still lord over the earth. Unlike other apocalypses written around that same time, though (think: 1 Enoch, 4 Baruch, the Shepherds of Hermas, etc.), Revelation is largely optimistic about the present age. The book not only reminds its readers that God is sovereign over all, but that Christ has already overcome the present world.
However, it might be most important for us to remember that the book of Revelation was originally written to a variety of different churches in Asia Minor.
The first chapter even contains a typical greeting like that found in Paul’s epistles, and it is not pseudonymous like most other apocalyptic works. This means, then, that the symbolism and vivid language within this book must have had some sort of direct contextual meaning for its first-century audience. The symbols are not timeless or allegorical but make reference to specific social, political, and cultural understandings in John’s day. Those who read or heard Revelation in John’s day would have known exactly what he was talking about.
So, what does all of this mean?
It means we need to interpret Revelation primarily through the lens of a first-century believer to discover John’s actual intent. And, it’s only once you’ve read this book as it was originally meant to be that you can begin to think about applying it to our current context now.
Back to the mark of the beast.
This phrase is found specifically in the 13th chapter of Revelation. It’s something that the second beast, or the beast of the earth, utilizes to stop certain individuals from buying or selling goods. But this beast is also described as a false-image of God, or one who is active in deceiving others into worshiping it. Jesus is symbolically portrayed as a lamb in Revelation. This beast has lamb horns, but also the voice of a dragon. This beast is able to perform miracles like Elijah the prophet; however, its source of power isn’t God but the “first beast” (Satan).
Verse 15 then tells us that this second beast demanded some sort of worship to an image that speaks, and those who do not bow to this image were slain. This is where the “mark of the beast” then appears. It’s within a subordinate thought connected to idolatrous worship. Those who bow to this image are enabled to wear the beasts “mark” which allows them free trade in the marketplace. Those who do not, cannot buy or sell goods.
This apocalyptic episode ends with 13:18’s call for wisdom. John explains that this mark is a number of a particular human man. And those who are wise would be able to deduce this man’s name from the number 666.
But why does John write this? It’s interesting that close to the time of John’s writing, the town of Ephesus had recently erected a statue of the then Roman Emperor Domitian. And citizens of Asia Minor were pressured to offer sacrifices on household alters as state processionals passed by. From the time of Julius Caesar, Roman emperors were regarded as gods and citizens were meant to worship them as such. Those who didn’t comply with this were shunned by the community as best, and persecuted, killed, or exiled at worst.
And “marks” were actually somewhat common practice back in John’s day too. Ptolemy Philopator branded Jews who refused to be “Hellenized” with a branding iron. These Jews were forced to wear the mark of the ivy leaf, which symbolized the worship of the Greek god Dionysus. In fact, the word χάραγμα (mark) was also the same word used for the technical designation for the seals that Roman emperors would use to stamp state documents. An emperor would mark his approval with one of these stamps, officially allowing citizens to buy or sell goods and so on.
But why the forehead and right hand? It is again an attempt to symbolically juxtapose proper worship of YHWH God with that of the beast. Deuteronomy 6:8, right after the declaration of the Shema, encouraged the people of Israel to bind God’s Torah law to their hands and between their eyes. Pious Jews still do this today in the form of religious phylacteries.
In sum, the faithful worship God in Christ by symbolically taking up his words on their foreheads and right hands but those who bow down to the beast bear the false image of Satan. And it might be the case that not wearing this false image will stunt one’s ability to buy and sell goods in the Roman marketplace, but one day God’s kingdom will come in it’s fulness and YHWH’s economy will reign supreme.
But what about 666?
Another hot thing at this moment in history is to point out similarities between the number of the beast in Revelation 13 and Bill Gate’s patent number for a wearable technology that tracks body activity currently in development. And while this doesn’t have much to do at all with the vaccine research the Gates Foundation is working on, it does contain the number: WO2020060606A1. Notice the three 6’s in there?
John calls Christians to use wisdom when deciphering this number. I’m not sure that this was the wisdom he was talking about.
In fact, there was already a pretty well-known tradition in John’s day that used numbers like this called gematria. This was the practice of interpreting words according to the numerical value of Hebrew consonants. Using this method, many scholars conclude that 666, at least originally, referred to Nero Caesar.
Admittedly, I am not completely sold on this interpretation. I think that John was likely familiar with gematria and very well may have been using it here in 13:18. But it’s possible that John was attempting to accomplish two things at once with this number. As we discussed above, the book of Revelation was partly written in the apocalyptic genre. This style of writing used heavy symbolism to discuss both present realities and point toward future hope. And symbolic numbers play a big role in this book for sure. The Holy Spirit is referred to as the “seven spirits of God” (Revelation 1:4, 3:1, 4:5, and 5:6) symbolizing divine perfection. The number of the saints with the lamb on mount Zion in 14:1 is 144,000, or 12 times 12, signifying the completeness of God’s people. So, it might make sense to also see 666 in this way as well.
Just as the second beast makes a parody of the miraculous, and his mark makes a parody of pious religious practice, this number might be a parody of God’s completeness and perfection.
666 isn’t 777. But, 666 also isn’t the patent number for a device supposedly being created to bring about world domination either.
What are we supposed to do with all of this?
So, and in light of all of the above, what are we to make of the “mark of the beast” presently? And what modern day application can the Christian appropriately draw from Revelation 13?
Well, just like the early Christians were tempted to compromise their faith because of political pressure or ability in the marketplace, we can face similar temptations now.
It’s easy to tell others what they want to hear. It’s easy to follow the crowd. But what if the current cultural mob mentality runs counter to God’s word? Many ministers during America’s Civil Rights movement refused to stand up for what was right within their churches out of fear of losing their job or good reputation. To some, job security matters much more than justice. How are we compromising our witness for the sake of comfortability?
And we don’t have to look for “marks” like those supposedly found on energy drink cans or within patent numbers to discern sinister beast-like activity in our world now.
In fact, to do so is often to look in the wrong direction.
The second beast in Revelation 13 disguised itself as “Christian-like” with the horns of a lamb in the hopes of tricking believers into worship. What in our Evangelical Christian church culture might be tricking us into false worship now? Is there anything within our normal religious practices that needs to be reevaluated?
Idolatry always comes from our best intentions; that’s why it’s so uncomfortable to let go of.
 See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0L08HvJN8X0. It should be obvious from this post that I very much disagree with the videos and articles cited here. But it is true. Bill Gate’s foundation is working on possibility of a dye that could help hospitals and health workers figure out if someone has received a vaccine for COVID-19 as there is no centralized health record database kept in the US. Tracking such things is up to individual hospitals and doctor’s offices. His intent isn’t to brainwash people or mark then with some malicious mark. It to help save lives as the lack of this centralized record system is the cause of many deaths per year. See this article for more information: https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/apr/09/instagram-posts/post-about-bill-gates-work-vaccine-tracking-distor/
 While other commentaries point this out to some degree as well, I think Bauckham does the best job explaining why this is and how the three genre’s function together. See: Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 2-22.
 Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 5.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, NICNT, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 4.
 Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 7-8.
 While suffering was a realistic expectation for the original audience, John gave them hope that their suffering would not be in vain, nor would it last much longer, as Christ has presently overcome through the cross. For examples of this, see Revelation 5:9 and 12:10-11. See: Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 7.
 Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 18.
 G.K. Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 281-282.
 Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 259
 Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 259
 Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, 284; Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 261-262; Craig S. Keener, Revelation, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 354-355. This type of reading is further backed by a textual variant found in later Revelation manuscripts. Some manuscripts don’t actually have 666 but 616. Nero’s name, when Latinized, comes to 616.
 Keener, Revelation, 365.