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, 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. 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 13:16-18
This passage has caused much speculation among Christians through the years. People are keen to know who the beast is and what it means to take his mark. The two questions have to be answered simultaneously because what you believe about the beast determines what you believe about his mark and vice versa.
Two things must be remembered about Revelation to properly understand it:
- Revelation was written to people in the first century as a warning and an encouragement. Therefore, what is written had meaning for them in that day and not just for people in some far distant future time (1:1).
- Revelation is written in apocalyptic style meaning it is highly symbolic. We must be careful when reading it not to do so as if it is the newspaper or an historical narrative.
If Revelation was written as a warning and an encouragement to the first century church and to the church throughout history, then the beast and his mark must be something relevant to both groups. I believe the beast is a specific person in ancient history, a persecutor of the church, perhaps a Roman emperor. However, in warning the church about this person, John also warns future Christians about those who govern the same way. There may also be a final manifestation of this type of ruler before the return of Christ who is worse than all those before him. So he could be a specific person in the future as well.
However, our concern needs to be identifying the characteristics of the ruler described rather than identifying an individual by name. Kim Riddlebarger in his book “The Man of Sin” says:
It is more important to understand what the number means than to identify the individual to whom it is referring.
Several characteristics of the beast are mentioned in the extended passage but I want to concentrate on those associated with his mark.
The mark is required to engage in commerce. In other words, this ruler requires people to have the mark in order to make a living, buy food, etc. The mark is equivalent to the ruler’s name. So the ability to buy and sell is related to the person’s support for and acknowledgment of the ruler. The mark is to be placed on either the hand or the forehead. This last point is especially interesting.
Why the hand or the forehead?
Think back to God’s instructions concerning His law after freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt:
You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. – Deuteronomy 6:8
The Lord’s commands were to be with the people of God always. They were the guide for their actions (hands) and thoughts (foreheads). Their ultimate allegiance in all things was to God. So in describing the locations of the mark, John reveals it is usurpation of God that the beast seeks – the desire to be worshiped and to be the source of ultimate authority.
The beast is any government or ruler who sets themselves up as God and demands ultimate allegiance. The beast has risen and fallen many times throughout the history of the world and will continue to do so until Christ returns.
His mark is not necessarily physical, not a tattoo or a computer chip or a bar code. It is something more sinister. We take the mark when we acquiesce to the demand of those in authority that we worship them instead of Christ. This is why first century Christians refused to worship Caesar even under penalty of death – because to do so was to dishonor the Lord and abandon the faith.
Today, the beast is active in the Netherlands, cloaked in “tolerance.” In Egypt, India and Nigeria, he wears the garb of religion. In China, he seeks national unity via the Communist Party. Those claiming to be followers of Christ in the United States have by and large not had to deal with him on this level yet. But, these events around the world remind us that the beast is crouching at our door. The day is coming when he will demand we choose whom we will serve. My prayer for the American church is that we be given grace and strength from the Holy Spirit to choose as Moses did and as many of these brothers and sisters around the world are doing, “rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.”