WHAT IS THE “MARK OF THE BEAST?”

Wayne S. Walker

     Question:  “What is the mark of the beast in the book of
Revelation?”

     The passage in question is Revelation 13.16-17 where John wrote,
“And 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, 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.”  Based on a misunderstanding of Revelation,
many hve assumed that this mark of the beast refers to some specific
event or thing that is currently happening or yet to come and is a sure
sign that the return of Christ is near.  But putting aside all human
speculation, what does this passage mean?
 

    First, we must understand the time-frame in which the book of
Revelation was written and the nature of its language.  In Revelation 1.1
John began, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to Him to
show His servants–things which must shortly take place.  And He sent and
signified it by His angel to His servant John.”  The book contained
things which would shortly take place–not thousands of years in the
future.  Also, it was signified, or written in signs and symbols with
highly figurative language.  Thus, the mark of the beast was intended to
signify something that was relevant to the people who lived when John
wrote.

     The best explanation involves placing the book in the historical
context in which it was written.  The Roman Empire was ruling the world
at that time and used both civil and religious power to exercise control.
 This created a conflict with the church.  The beast from the sea in
Revelation 13.1-10 most likely represented the Roman government, and the
beast from the land in Revelation 13.11-15 most likely represented
emperor worship.  The empire required an acceptance of Caesar as God
before one could engage in any buying or selling, and so gave a “mark” to
those who publicly worshipped the emperor in the form of a certificate
allowing them to participate in trade.  Since Christians refused to do
this, they were banned from commercial activity and persecuted.

     However, God promised that they would be rewarded for their
faithfulness to Him.  In Revelation 20.4 John wrote, “And I saw thrones
and they sat on them and judgment was committed to them.  And I saw the
souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for
the word of God, who had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had
not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands.  And they
lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”  This is simply
talking about those who did not give in to the demands of emperor worship
but remained loyal to God.

     While the primary application of all this is to the time when the
book was written, the message of Revelation is generally applicable to us
as well.  Just as some in the first century did conform to the world of
their day to do business, so many now conform to the world of our time to
carry on their affairs.  And it is just as wrong today as it was then.
Romans 12.2 says, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be
transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that
good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  We can take great courage
from the example of those recorded in Revelation who did God’s will.  But
the “mark of the beast” has no reference to some current or future event
which will be a sign that Christ will come soon.

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