Many of the visions in the Book of Revelation are like paintings created with colours and symbols that have been lifted off of Old Testament canvases. Thus understanding the original context in which the symbol appeared is often the key to correctly interpreting its New Testament usage. An obvious point in case would be the rather perplexing symbol of the mark of the beast. The passage we most often associate with this symbol is Revelation 13:11-18:
“Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.” (Revelation 13:11–18 ESV)
The symbol continues to feature in a variety of subsequent passages. It is worth tracing it out to the very end: In Revelation 14:9 the Bible says:
“And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”” (Revelation 14:9–11 ESV)
Revelation 16:2 says:
“So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.” (Revelation 16:2 ESV)
Revelation 19:20-21 says:
“And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.” (Revelation 19:20–21 ESV)
“Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” (Revelation 20:4 ESV)
And then finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, Revelation 22:1-5 says:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 22:1–5 ESV)
In brief, the story seems to revolve around a beast – two beasts and a devil actually. In the Book of Revelation our enemy is presented as a sort of gross parody of the Trinity; whereas we worship Father, Son and Holy Spirit we are opposed by the devil, the beast from the sea and the beast from the earth. This second beast looks like a lamb and speaks like a dragon and is sometimes referred to as “the false prophet”. This unholy trinity seeks to seduce, corrupt and destroy the people of God. In the part of the story we are looking at the second beast is attempting to get people to worship the first beast almost as if it were a god.
The first beast is often understood as representing governments and empire raised up in opposition to God. Not all government is demonically animated – in Romans 13:1-4 we are reminded that government in general is a gift from God – but here we are being told that a form of government will be raised up as a tool in the hand of the devil having the express purpose of seducing and destroying the people of God.
The second beast is attempting to get people to swear allegiance to that government. It is trying to woo and persuade and deceive people into treating that government as if it is god – able to determine right from wrong.
This of course would be a form of idolatry.
Idolatry happens when we treat a good thing as if it were a god thing and that is exactly what is happening here.
Toward that end the second beast makes use of a sort of mark. Having the mark is typically associated with worshipping the beast. The mark thus identifies those who have succumbed to this particular type of idolatry. The number associated with the mark is 666. There are two common explanations for this number. Some suggest that the Hebrew practice of gematria, wherein each number is assigned a letter of the alphabet, yields a connection with Nero Caesar – who then functions as a type or pattern of the type of idolatrous demands that will be made by this government. Others take a more general view and believe that it is a symbolic way of saying that this demonic government is essentially a form of idolatrous humanism. That is, it elevates MAN to the level of God. The number of God is often said to be 7 and the number of man is said to be 6 – thus 666 is man, man, man – again a gross parody of God who is holy, holy, holy.
All those who receive the mark are identified for judgment; all those who do not receive the mark are identified for salvation – in fact in the last use of the symbol in the book we discover that there are actually two marks. The mark of the beast which identifies people for judgment and the mark of God which identifies people for salvation. Thus the trials and tribulations associated with the end of the age serve to force all people into two exclusive camps. The camp of the Lamb and the camp of the beast and each person receives the mark that corresponds to their camp and thus to their eternal destiny. That it is applied to the hands and forehead likely indicates that we reveal who we are through our thoughts, beliefs, devotions and actions.
At the end of the age all people will manifest their essential identity. They will be known and outed as either the people of the lamb or the people of the beast and they will be judged accordingly.
That is the storyline associated with this symbol in the Book of Revelation.
But how may we check our interpretation?
Again, by revisiting the symbol in its original Old Testament context. The symbol of marking people in advance of judgment comes to us originally in Ezekiel 9:1-8. It is worth reading that story in full.
“Then he cried in my ears with a loud voice, saying, “Bring near the executioners of the city, each with his destroying weapon in his hand.” 2 And behold, six men came from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with his weapon for slaughter in his hand, and with them was a man clothed in linen, with a writing case at his waist. And they went in and stood beside the bronze altar. 3 Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub on which it rested to the threshold of the house. And he called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his waist. 4 And the LORD said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” 5 And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. 6 Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the house. 7 Then he said to them, “Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain. Go out.” So they went out and struck in the city. 8 And while they were striking, and I was left alone, I fell upon my face, and cried, “Ah, Lord GOD! Will you destroy all the remnant of Israel in the outpouring of your wrath on Jerusalem?”” (Ezekiel 9:1–8 ESV)
Thus in the original context the mark was put on the foreheads of people who had not identified with the mood, direction and idolatry of the nation. They had mourned the sin and the apostasy of their people. They longed for a return to the pure and faithful worship of the Lord. These people – swimming against the tide of their times – were marked out for salvation. All the rest were placed under judgment.
In addition to helping us understand the meaning of the mark in Revelation, this story also helps us understand the second beatitude wherein Jesus said:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4 ESV)
In the trials and tribulations that lie ahead – blessed are those who will not go along with the crowd. Blessed are those whose hearts will break while others cheer. Blessed are those who sigh and groan over that which is universally celebrated, for they shall be comforted. They shall see the face of the Lord. He will be their light. His name will be on their foreheads and they will enjoy him forever – thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.
To listen to an episode of the Into The Word podcast dealing specifically with the mark of the beast see here.