What’s in a Mark? – 02/13/2022

Revelation 13: 11-18

Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 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 who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.

Sermon Text

We talked a few months ago about how we love to talk about the end of time, not just as Christians but as human beings. Perhaps this prompt gives us a great deal of room to work with, and so we just have more ability to build up end times discussion than we do other matters of the faith. Revelation, Daniel, and the other apocalyptic literature in the ancient world all use vivid imagery to describe their messages. There are monsters and signs and miracles and terrors of every shape, size, and color. If you want to make a compelling narrative using any of them, it does not take much. Beasts, literal and figurative, can be found in any person, place, or thing as long as we are creative enough to tie the right aspects of each together.

Very few images from Revelation have gripped the Church more than the idea of a “Mark of the Beast.” Though only being mentioned once in scripture, this concept overwhelmingly captures our imagination about what the end of history might look life. Since Revelation was first put on parchment, we have tried to figure out what its enigmatic description of this Mark could possibly refer to. The nature of the Mark has changed based upon the culture and time of those writing it and the perspective they have on Revelation. These perspectives fall into several broad categories.

There are those who read the book of Revelation as a step-by-step guide to the end of history. To these interpreters, every part of this book will happen as is written. The beasts that emerge from the sea are literal, the marks on the forehead and wrist are exactly as they are described – somehow conferring three sixes upon the flesh of their recipient. This literalist reading tends to be the most concerned with natural phenomena as a sign of Christ’s eminent return to the Earth. Whenever you hear people talking about blood moons and eclipses they likely fall into this category of speculation or sit adjacent to it.

The second category see a future reality in the words of Revelation but interpret it more broadly. Beasts are not literal creatures coming out of the ocean, but are world powers and important political figures. The signs in the heavens and the sudden shifting of natural features of the world are not necessarily 1:1 with what will transpire, but point to definite events. This group also interprets things like the Mark of the Beast more broadly – rather than being a number written on a person the Mark is allowed to take any form, so long as it bars commerce. People who see the Mark of the Beast as a microchip or some other piece of documentation tend to fall into this camp. I would also define this as one of the most common of these three broad perspectives.

The next most, or perhaps equally, common perspective on Revelation sees the book as a historical account of timeless ideas. Rather than seeing the book as a prophecy of exact events to come, the images of Revelation are interpreted as reflecting the present reality of the author and the future reality of their readers. This view is the least tied to specific events or features of the end of history. The beasts of Revelation are not specific world powers, but any power that works counter to the Church. The Mark of the Beast is not a singular thing which people take on to be able to buy or sell – but anything that makes people prioritize wealth and comfort over devotion to God. This perspective is, in my opinion, the closest to a proper reading of Revelation we can achieve.

Prophecy throughout the Bible is a complicated thing. We tend to think of it in terms of a word being uttered by a prophet and then immediately coming to pass. Sometimes this is definitely the case – such as Elijah bringing down fire. Other times it is far less clear. Jeremiah spoke of a day when God’s word would be written on the heart of all people and there would be no potential for evil in our hearts – something that has yet to come to pass. (Jer. 31)

Revelation is not a traditionally prophetic book. It does not cast a moral vision of what we should do as God’s people, although the opening letter to the seven churches effectively fills this role. Much like the latter half of Daniel or those many apocalyptic stories written between the Testaments, Revelation projects a message to the Church that – no matter what is going on in the world, we can depend on the truth of the Gospel to see us through. No matter what forces come against us, Rome or Babylon or any other earthly power, we are citizens of the New Jerusalem. No matter what beasts we face, plagues and wars or famines and vermin, God is in control.

To the original readers of Revelation there were probably very specific real-world analogues to the images within the book. The seven-headed beast mentioned just before the passage we read today, for example, is generally understood to be a reference to Rome and more specifically the Caesars that rule the city. A specific reference to one of the heads of the beast having been hit with a fatal blow, yet somehow surviving, conjures up the image of the Emperor Nero – the first great persecutor of the Church. Nero had arranged his own death through a slave killing him with a sword. There were those who believed that Domitian, the second emperor to actively persecute the Church, was one way or another a reborn Nero, a parody of the resurrected Christ.[1]

This produces the first interpretation of the Mark of the Beast which seems to have some validity. The number as it appears in the Greek scripture is written as three letters χις, although later texts spell out the number as separate words. Some scholars notice that when Nero Caesar is spelled using Hebrew letters and then translated into numerical values based on those letters, the result is none other than 666.[2] This triangulation is compelling in many respects, and a major component of historical readings of the Book of Revelation, but it is also one I find unsatisfying.

While this is a popular reading of the Mark of the Beast, it works better backward than forward. If I was given this number, with no reference to Nero as a Caesar and the specific spelling used by the person who encoded this message, I would never find its hidden truth. Likewise, and though I did not take the time to come up with any specific examples, there are endless numbers of letters in endless orders that would produce the same numerical value. Still more complicated, other manuscripts say the Number of the Beast is 616 not 666, further muddying the waters. If the Mark of the Beast is just a winking reference to Nero and his feared return from the dead, then it is not a very effective one. It should also be noted that Irenaeus, a first-generation Christian warned against trying to tie the Mark of the Beast to any specific person, seeing the practice as pointless at best.[3]

This lesson from Irenaeus removes a great deal of the speculation people apply to the Mark of the Beast. Outside of the Mark being tied to the head and hand, the only working information we are given is this threefold number. Knowing that it is “the number of a person,” does not help us understand what it is in itself, precisely because any name can be converted into six hundred and sixty-six with enough manipulation. My last name, Langenstein, for example, can have a number assigned to each letter of it based on its placement in the Alphabet. Adding these together, you get 120. Multiply that by (95/19) for the year I was born, 1995. Then add the abbreviation of where I was born, Waynesboro, PA, and you get 642. But where’s that missing 24? Well just add the time I was born multiplied hour by minute. 2:12; two times twelve. As you can see, number games don’t get us anywhere. We might as well be claiming Monster Energy is somehow satanic.[4]

This ambiguity means that this verse is ripe for abuse. John Wesley claimed that the Mark of the Beast was the acceptance of the Pope as a legitimate leader of the Church, something I think is grossly unfair and which remains a blemish on his legacy.[5] A ministry in Martinsburg, WV linked the Mark of the Beast to UPC codes, the little barcodes on all modern products.[6] Others link it to credit cards, others to crypto currency, and some people – God help us – tie it to vaccination or some microscopic product thereof. Like any obscure teaching of the Bible, we are able to make it expansive to the point of consuming much of our life and attention, even though the point of Revelation has little to do with this three number sequence.

As I have already stated, I see much of Revelation as a commentary on how to live as a Christian at all times – not just at one particular moment at the end of the age. Like our previous discussion of end times speculation focused on, we are always in the end of days, no closer to it than Paul and no further from it either. We live on a knife’s edge that is always moving closer and further from the moment that Christ returns in final victory. This means that, from my reading of the text, I have to be able to explain what is timeless about the Mark of the Beast if I am to sustain a compelling argument for my overall reading of the book. Will I succeed? That’s up to you all once I finish this next page or so of writing.

To me, the Mark of the Beast is not a microchip or a tattoo to be placed on the forehead or the wrist, but is instead a way of being in which we give up our identity as Christian for the sake of worldly goods – money, power, or even just social capital. Previously in Revelation 7, 144,000 of the tribes of Israel, and presumedly the untold multitude of Gentiles, were sealed by God on their forehead to protect them from the trouble to come. With this in mind, it seems to me that the Mark of the Beast, on the wrist or the forehead, is in direct opposition to this first seal. If I was feeling especially bold in my interpretation, I might point out that someone with the seal of the Lamb on their head could easily get the Mark of the Beast on their hand if they decided it wasn’t worth it to deal with all this other trouble.

In my mind we accept the Mark of the Beast whenever we accept an imperfect substitute for God. Returning to a more reasonably applied numerology, 7 traditionally represents perfection, and 8 often represents rebirth or baptism. Christ is sometimes rendered numerically as 888, the source of our new life, God is often associated with 7. What is more common to evil than an attempt to become like God through manipulation or violence, an imperfect attempt at perfection, like someone counting to seven and only ever reaching 6.[7] This reading is more consistent, I believe, with the history of Christian interpretation than most of our attempts today are.

So, do I think the Mark of the Beast is a specific thing Christians will one day be forced to take on or else face starvation? No, personally I don’t. When I read news stories of some people opting for RFID chip implants, I do not see a sign of the end times but a sign of a passing trend that is unlikely to go mainstream. Nor do I worry about vaccines or cashless societies or any other hot topic prediction of what those three digits could mean. To me, anytime we choose power or money or social standing over God and doing God’s work in the world, we trade the Seal of the Lamb for the Mark of the Beast. I don’t expect this answer to be pleasing to everyone, or even fully convincing, but it is the most honest one I can give, and if it gets us talking about scripture a bit more deeply, we all can count that as a win. We’ll pick up our discussion of the end times and readiness on the 27th, when we conclude this month of questions. – Amen.

[1] Mitchell G. Reddish. “The Two Beasts,” in Revelation (Macon, Georgia: Smyth and Hellwys. 2005) 251

[2] “Revelation.” In The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon. 2003)

[3] Irenaeus. Against Heresies V.30

[4] A popular meme and video was released alleging this based on a faulty understanding of Hebrew Numbering, the alleged “666” on the can would, if this argument had any validity, actually be “18.”

[5] John Wesley. “Revelation.” Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. Available at: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/john-wesleys-notes-on-the-bible/notes-on-the-revelation-of-jesus-christ/

[6] A complete recording of their VHS pitch of this idea is available at: https://youtu.be/iST5Ip8a9nk

[7] “Revelation.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 12. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon. 1994)

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