In this post I want to take a close look at the Mark of the Beast. There is a lot of confusion out there on this teaching of scripture and before I discuss those at length I am going to positively present what I believe the Bible is teaching here. That way the reader can more fairly compare the methodology I am using against the ones I will be rebuking and make their own discernment.
Right off the bat I am going to point out my material principle for interpreting the book of Revelation. Many who share their studies on this book fail to do that and I don’t believe that’s very honest of them.
Notice above that John proclaims a blessing upon all who hear and read the book of Revelation. Too often these days we assume that the book is talking only to a select group of people living at the end of the world. Based on this verse I believe that assumption is incorrect.
Thus any understanding that I am going to arrive at when interpreting the symbols is going to be limited to things that Christians across the past two thousand years would also understand. If I did not do this I would have to eisegete a dual blessing, and I am not comfortable with that.
That said, let’s take a close look at the verses regarding the Mark of the Beast in the Bible itself.
Right off the bat we should know that we are looking for the name of a man. John even seems to be nudging the reader to do some calculations to figure out what he is talking about. Kind of like he wants his intended audience to understand but not necessarily anyone else who happens to stumble across revelation.
This is another reason why I believe we need to keep first century Christians in view. It wouldn’t make any sense for John to direct them to run numbers on someone who wasn’t born yet. Based on the same reasoning I would also rule out tattoos, implants, debit cards, and anything else of modern invention as being in view here.
It is safe to say from the passage above that whoever has the mark of the beast is going to hell. Based on this I would argue that in one sense or another, receiving this mark is in and of itself unbelief. Below are some other relevant texts on the Mark of the Beast.
What you have essentially is two groups being presented, those with the Mark who go to hell and those without it that go to heaven. This is not unlike the distinction that Jesus makes between the sheep and the goats when he speaks of the last day.
Notice, I am essentially interpreting the Mark as unbelief in any age. The beast is the one who causes people to receive this Mark. Effectively, anyone who is enforcing unbelief by rule of law would fit the description of the beast. But who is John speaking of specifically? Why does he seem to imply he is speaking of only one person?
It was actually common in the first century to convert the names and deeds of famous people into numbers. See in the quotation below what I am talking about:
“transforming names into numbers (gematria) was common in antiquity. For example, in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars Roman historian Suetonius identifies Nero by a numerical designation equal to a nefarious deed. This numerical equality (isopsephism) is encapsulated in the phrase: “Count the numerical values of the letters in Nero’s name, and in ‘murdered his own mother’ and you will find their sum is the same.” In Greek the numerical value of the letters in Nero’s name (Greek: Nevrwn, English transliteration: Neron) totaled 1,005, as did the numbers in the phrase murdered his own mother. This ancient numerical cryptogram reflected the widespread knowledge that Nero had killed his own mother.
Finally, while “Nero” in Greek totaled 1,005, the reader of John’s letter familiar with the Hebrew language could recognize that the Greek spelling of “Nero Caesar” transliterated into Hebrew equals 666. Moreover, the presence in some ancient manuscripts of a variation in which 666 is rendered 616 lends further credence to Nero as the intended referent. The Hebrew transliteration of the Latin spelling of “Nero Caesar” totals 616, just as the Hebrew transliteration of the Greek, which includes an additional letter (Greek: “n”=50, English transliteration: “n”=50), renders 666. Thus, two seemingly unrelated numbers lead you to the same doorstep—that of a beast named Nero Caesar. Twenty-first-century believers, like their first-century counterparts, can be absolutely certain that 666 is the number of Nero’s name and that Nero is the beast who ravaged the bride of Christ in a historical milieu that included three and a half years of persecution. In the end, Peter and Paul themselves were persecuted and put to death at the hands of this Beast. Indeed this was the only epoch in human history in which the Beast could directly assail the foundation of the Christian Church of which Christ himself was the cornerstone.” – Christian Research Institute
Here is a visual representation of what the CRI author is talking about regarding Nero’s name.
It’s amazingly simple if you think about it. This man had made it illegal to believe in Christ and slaughtered Christians for entertainment. It also makes sense that John would use a common technique to hide a name in a language most Christian scholars would know. I don’t think there can be any serious debate on this, Nero is the man that John is talking about.
Has this happened during other periods of time where different rulers have done the same as Nero and made it illegal to believe in Christ? Of course it has. This is ultimately the warning in the passage. God is letting us know that he has permitted this to be a thing during our sojourn through this fallen world.
How can we be sure that this Mark isn’t something carnal though?
To answer that the best thing to do is to look to the rest of scripture and see how it handles this concept of the hand and the forehead as those are what is associated with the Mark of the Beast. Does this phrase come up in other parts of the Bible? How is it used?
“And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt.” Exodus 13:9 ESV
“It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” Exodus 13:16 ESV
“You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” Deuteronomy 6:8 ESV
The referent to law in the old testament was the Torah. Which is similar to a New Covenant Christian as saying “The Word of God”. There is nothing in the context of the above passages that would imply we are talking about something carnal. We are talking about the word of God as being something within ones being. These people are believers.
The contrast being that those with the Mark of the Beast receive unbelief in their very being. The bottom line is that revelation isn’t teaching us anything different than what Jesus explained more clearly in the Gospels or what Paul taught us in his epistles. Those in Christ escape death and hell by means of the cross and unbelievers outside of Christ suffer eternal torment in hell.
For me this is a great comfort. I don’t have to worry about guessing right on Revelation to avoid eschatological potholes or pitfalls. I can simply trust in Christ and what he has accomplished on the cross, it truly is finished. And should a ruler be placed over us with the same intent as Nero we need not fear at all. Too many portray this mark as if your ability to interpret it correctly is what your very soul hinges upon in the last days, which ultimately takes a teaching in scripture that should be a comfort to us but instead becomes something to dread.
If you are correct, then John was writing about an event and a man that had already come to pass. Now if this the case, and Nero is the man, then the Anti-Nicene church fathers should have all known this, especially the likes of Irenaeus who wrote about 170 AD and was only a generation removed from John the Apostle. But we find the very opposite in the early church fathers. They did not consider the prophesy already fulfilled in Nero. But you are right in that the church fathers of that time did believe that the number 666 was a calculation of the man’s name for Greek and Latin letters also had numeric value (as in Roman Numerals for example). However, very few knew Hebrew that extensively by 95 AD, so using Nero’s name in Hebrew to do the math is quite a stretch and an unlikely one at that. As extensively as the early fathers wrote about Revelation, they clearly were not looking to a past fulfillment but a future one. I do agree with you that the mark of the beast has something to do with the Antichrist himself, not with Social Security numbers, debit cards, etc. There appears to be something Satanically sacramental about the mark. I’m surprised more Lutherans don’t pick up on that. I would disagree with your suggesting that the mark is not carnal in any way. Like God’s sacraments which have the Word and a physical element attached, this mark will be a Satanic counterfeit with Word and physical element representing the Antichrist. Even the Old Testament Passages you quoted about the Law of God being on the foreheads of the Israelites refer to a physical thing– the phylactery that they would wear. So even there, the meaning is physical as well as spiritual.
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Do we know for certain that the phylactery wasn’t just a practice adopted later? How do you know that is precisely what Moses meant? I’d be interested if you ha e good evidence for this. Not because of this post but it would help on responses to SDA who use that example to say we have to keep the Sabbath. Sorry, side show.
Good points. I don’t really have an explanation for why Irenaeus (and others) looked only forward except to concede that I just disagree with them. I would point out though that even though they looked forward it was often within the confines and political dynamics of their time. Which are all obsolete now. My guess would be that they suffered from the same flaws we do. And that the book of revelation didn’t come with any clear explanation, written or verbal.
I don’t think it’s correct to read the blessing and command to heed in revelation 1:3 as only applying to future generation/s.
The reason I don’t see it sacramentally though is because I would expect to see a mark of a sacramental nature throughout church history. That would be a tricky hypothesis to prove would it not?
While unbelief by rule of law can be demonstrated throughout our history, speaking for myself, I’d have a hard time pinning it to a physical element consistently. That said, I wouldn’t exclude the possibility of a satanic sacramental mark. I just would hesitate to limit it to that.
I’d love to be proven wrong though. If you have any more thoughts please share.