**Disclaimer: Since the writing of this article (around 2016), I have shifted Eschatological views from Amillennial to Postmillennial. Thus, this article may not represent my current understanding but is left up for the purposes of archiving. I may write an update to this article at some point in the future.**
Revelation 13 finds itself right in the middle of a book which quite frankly scares many, even the most devout churchgoer. Its imagery of dragons, multiheaded beasts and speaking images is enough to make most shrug and exclaim, “that was weird!” Conversely, many others have tried to identify the Beast or Antichrist as every evil ruler from Nero to Saddam Hussein, conveniently matching their names to 666 through various creative methods. The popular Left Behind series sold some 32 million copies of the novels plus 18 million other products by January 2002! However, it advanced a fictional interpretation of the book which was based more on fanciful imagination than sound exegesis. Unfortunately, the cultural fear, fanciful interpretations and paranoia these have contributed within evangelicalism is less than helpful.
This is the concluding article in a 3-part series on Revelation 13. You can read the first article looking at issues and insights from the Greek text HERE and the second article on historical context and literary considerations HERE. In this article, having considered these things, we looks at what the text means for us today and how we apply it to our lives.
Much of the misunderstandings about the book of Revelation hinder people from seeing its encouragement and usefulness to the church today. It is truly unfortunate that this book is virtually absent from the pulpit in many churches (apart from maybe an occasional sermon out of the letters to the churches in chapters 1—3). For the few preachers who do venture beyond, many of the loudest popular voices can often muddle things—attempting to coincide current events, blood moons or natural phenomena with their own constructed timeline of how it is all supposed to go down. With current tensions in the Middle East, it won’t be long again before some televangelist tries to make a link or two to the apocalypse to validate their predictions of what is to happen.
Revelation, however, is not to be looked at as some sort of prophetic cryptogram or secret train schedule, telling us the exact time of Christ’s Second Coming. Rather it tells us something about how Christians might live in the face of an evil, hostile world and apparent hopelessness. Revelation’s message is very relevant for us today and we need to hear its exhortations and hope.
In order to help soothe some common fears to approaching the book, I will briefly mention a few interpretive keys to bear in mind as we move forward.
Firstly, the book opens off with a blessing to those who read aloud its words and who hear and keep what is written in it (1:3). So, we know that whatever God has revealed through John’s apocalypse (apocalypse simply means an unveiling or revealing) it is meant to bless us. Secondly, prophecy’s function in early Judaism and Christianity was not primarily to predict the future but rather to declare what God is doing now with the purpose to inspire a response in the present. Therefore, Revelation’s challenge to us is not to figure out some sort of roadmap to the future, but rather to discern what is the true nature of the things in light of God and his redemptive plan. Revelation frames up our everyday realities in the larger context of our faith so that we can interpret them in light of this eschatological perspective. Rather than needing to be interpreted, Revelation interprets us and our reality. So, take a breath, the pressure is off you to figure out every detail of the future.
What about all the weird symbols, visions and numbers?
The book’s repeated patterns of numbers and symbolic imagery lend a sense of sacredness to the reality about which John is writing. They borrow from sacred writings and traditions people of the time would have been familiar with. It tells us that we live in a God-ordered cosmos which is unfolding His ordained plan. You could try to mash together all these descriptions of multi-headed dragons, riders and beasts—however, to do so would be to miss the point entirely. The images don’t have significance in themselves alone, but rather it is the cumulative effect they have together which creates the sense of mystery, transcendence and awe which John wants to convey to us.
Revelation then is very much an experiential book. As we read the various visions and imagery used, be sensitive to the feelings and emotions they evoke within us, then look for the parts in the text where John speaks directly to us to help navigate through the journey he’s taking us on. The symbols and imagery direct us to the spiritual reality that lays behind what we see on the surface.
Before we jump in, it is helpful to keep in mind four overarching convictions which underlie John’s apocalypse:
The Battle has been won: from heaven’s perspective, God has already won the victory over evil and death.
God is in control: though evil and suffering seem to dominate in this world, it is all a part of God’s triumphant plan.
The End is sure: there is an ultimate goal to all of human history.
Glorification and reward: those who are faithful to Christ even in the face of martyrdom will share in His victory eternally.
We should keep these four points in mind as we read the book as a whole, and specifically today as we look at chapter 13.
Revelation 13:1—18 (my translation)
1 While the dragon stood on the sand of the seashore, I then saw a Beast coming up from out of the sea which had ten horns and seven heads. Upon its horns were ten crowns, and blasphemous names were on its heads. 2 This Beast that I saw was similar to a leopard, with feet like a bear’s and a mouth like that of a lion. The Dragon gave its strength, his throne and great authority to it. 3 I recognized that one of the Beast’s heads had been fatally slain, but the fatal wound was healed, and so the whole earth marveled and followed after the Beast. 4 And they worshipped the Dragon because he gave authority to the Beast, and they worshipped the Beast saying,
“Who is like the Beast, and who can war against him?”
5 The Beast was given a mouth uttering great and blasphemous things and it was given authority to act for forty-two months. 6 So, it opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His Name and His dwelling place (which is the people dwelling in heaven). 7 The Beast was also allowed to go to war with the saints and to overcome them, and it was given authority over every tribe, people, tongue and nation. 8 So, everyone on earth—those whose name had not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life which belongs to the Lamb who was slain—will worship it. 9 If anyone has an ear, that person needs to take heed:
10 If anyone is destined to go into captivity,
Into captivity that person goes;
If anyone is to be killed by the sword,
By the sword that person is to be killed.
This is an exhortation for the endurance and faith of the saints.
11 Then I saw another beast coming out of the earth, and it had two horns like a lamb but it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first Beast in its presence, and it causes everyone who dwells on the earth to worship the first Beast which was healed of its fatal wound. 13 It also performs amazing signs; it would even make fire come down to the earth from heaven before the people. 14 In this way, it leads astray those who dwell on the earth through the signs it was allowed to do in the presence of the first Beast and it orders them to make an image to the Beast which was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 It was also allowed to give breath to the image of the first Beast so that the image might even speak, and makes it so that as many as would not worship the image of the first Beast would be put to death. 16 It makes all—the small and great, the rich and poor, the free and slaves—to give themselves a mark on their right hand or forehead 17 and ensures that no one could buy or sell without having the mark, which is the name of the Beast or the number of its name.
18 This calls for wisdom: the one who has understanding must discern the number of the Beast, for it is a number of humanity, and its number is 666.
Literary Context of Revelation 13
The structure of John's Apocalypse is quite remarkable.
The book of Revelation is structured like a pyramid of sorts—called chiasm. Each section has a corresponding section which match each other from the first and last, then to the second and second to last. This continues until it ‘peaks’ in the middle. (See this table I made to illustrate this) Think of it like an ‘X” with the points on either side eventually coming together at the middle. This ‘peak’ is a tool which the author uses to bring emphasis to an important point. Also, the book of Revelation is written in cycles—called recapitulation—which functions like different camera angles of the same events. This is why the end seems to come six different times in Revelation.
It is as if each time the story ends, and we expect it to be done, John rewinds and tells it from another ‘camera angle’, telling a parallel account but progressing in its focus on the ultimate End. It's a structure also called "Progressive Parallelism." In chapters 1-11, John focuses on the outward struggle between the Church and the world. Starting in this cycle (chapters 12-14), John begins revealing the deeper background. As William Henderson comments, "We now see more clearly than in the preceding division that the conflict between the Church and the world is but the outward manifestation of the war between Christ and Satan." (More Than Conquerers, p. 134)
OK, that’s great, but what relevance do these ‘camera angles’ and the ‘peak’ have to us today? Well, we find chapter 13 right at the top of the peak and center of the cycles. It is the centre focus of the book. So then, its message must be very important for us to understand if we are to understand the book as a whole. In chapter 13 we find a focus on what Michelle V. Lee calls the ‘moment of decision’ to worship the Beast and receive its Mark or not. The Beast and its worshippers in chapter 13 is contrasted by the Lamb and His followers in chapter 14. Those marked by the Beast worship it, and those sealed by the Lamb worship him. These two chapters are paired together, and we see the main contrast which John is establishing in his apocalypse. In the midst of all that is going on, these are the two cosmic forces which are at war behind everything. You either belong to the Beast or the Lamb—there is no neutral ground. Lee comments that,
“the work culminates in chapters 13—14, where the believers must decide whether to serve the beast or Christ. This is a paradoxical decision in which saving one's life in the present means eternal damnation, but losing one's life willingly leads to eternal life.”
Those heavy words may not quite land on us the same today since we don’t face extreme persecution or threat of death for our faith. Therefore, we must first understand a little about the first century context in which Revelation was written. Many Christians go wrong in interpreting the book of Revelation by not properly understanding its historical context. This is where many Dispensational interpreters such as Tim LaHaye, John Hagee and others err. Before we look to apply it to ourselves today, we must ask - "What did the author mean to communicate to his original audience? What would they have understood?" Instead of using today's newspapers to interpret Revelation and looking for endless fanciful connections to current events, we should first consider what the original readers would have understood.
Around that time, there had been a real fear of a return to civil disorder and threat of hostile invading armies. People had fresh memories of a great deal of unrest and instability. Jewish revolts had been brutally crushed by Roman forces and this was stamped into their memory. Furthermore, before Rome rose to power, there was constant threat of invading armies which would ravage cities and villages.
Imagine what a welcomed security the might of Rome would be to people who may have lost land, property, friends, family and children in the past due to these types of unstable circumstances. With Roman rule came the Pax Romana—the peace of Rome—which later even benefitted Christianity’s spread to the rest of the world as it provided safe travel between Roman provinces. Therefore, many were gladly loyal to the empire—participating in the imperial cult to express their gratitude. Festivals were held, temples and statues were erected in honour of the emperors such as Domitian. This was part of the accepted reality of living under the beneficent Roman rule. This was the world in which first century believers lived.
However, because of Christians' avoidance of all forms of idolatry, they would not participate in the imperial cult and emperor worship. They would have been seen as disloyal to Rome. How dare they not show gratitude to the emperor who has afforded us this ‘utopia’ of sorts? Could it be that they are traitors threatening our peaceful civilization? Why else wouldn’t they want to show allegiance? How proud, how bigoted and narrow-minded! Everyone had their own religion, they just had to also pay homage to Rome’s.
In addition, Christians abstained from various parts of Roman social activities such as the theatre, army, literature and sports because they were so entwined with pagan worship. This made Romans such as the historian and politician Tacitus, who loved his culture and society, believe that Christians were haters of humanity. Imagine the immense societal pressure and disdain you would experience if you were not only thought of as a killjoy, but actually a potential threat to the status quo or one who didn’t give tribute to the power which clearly created the peaceful modern civilization we all lived in. Perhaps this is a closer parallel to the times we find ourselves in today that we might recognize! Does this sound familiar to you?
Our Point of Contact
Here is a point of contact for us today. Christians often stand out against our culture—holding unpopular convictions and being unwilling to pay homage to the ‘gods’ of this age. In fact, beastly world powers and governmental systems still exercise dragon-like authority and seem to be unchallengeable (v.4). The spirit of the age—a postmodern radically secular (and often leftist) worldview—‘marks’ those who follow after this world’s system, affecting even trade and commerce, threatening those who will not bow to its image with dire consequence. “Bigoted,” “homophobic,” “narrow-minded,” “backward,” and “intolerant” are the blasphemes it rails against the saints who hold fast to their faith (v.6). The leftist agenda of pro-abortion, pro-Marxist and pro-LBGTQ parties see Christian convictions as a threat—needing to be stamped out of existence. In recent times, in various developed Western countries, there’s been a few cases of a Christian businesses being threatened and fined because they choose to follow their convictions on Biblical sexuality.
Surveys from back to 2007 showed that the overwhelming opinion of Christians by young people outside the church seemed to be a negative one. In the US, only half a million out of twenty-four million saw evangelicals in a positive light. “In our national surveys, we found the three most common perceptions of present-day Christianity are anti-homosexual (an image held by 91 percent of young outsiders), judgmental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent).” The numbers in more recent surveys are even more stark.
Though some of this critique may be well founded, the fact remains that Christians who will not do obeisance to the god of this age and bow to its image by affirming its values are still seen as a threat to the stability of its civilization. The great irony is that Western civilization was predominantly founded on Christian convictions. North American and Western European influence through media continues to shape and filter down these hostilities to Latin America, the Caribbean and teh rest of the developing world. Though we may not yet face martyrdom, Christians today also find themselves at this ‘moment of decision’—to be marked by the Beast (13:16), or sealed by the Lamb (7:3).
The Unholy Trinity
Together, the Dragon, the Beast and the False Prophet form an unholy trinity—parodying and imitating the one Triune God. It is the ultimate blasphemy - immitating the Triune God. But who are the members of this unholy trinity? It is clear that the Dragon represents Satan - the 'god' of this age.
Who is the Beast?
"While the dragon stood on the sand of the seashore, I then saw a Beast coming up from out of the sea which had ten horns and seven heads. Upon its horns were ten crowns, and blasphemous names were on its heads." (verse 1)
The Beast is the parody of the Son. It is the 'incarnation' of the power of this unholy god (Satan). But who is the Beast John writes about?
One popular choice by many commentators of the identity of the Beast’s wounded head is the emperor Nero (37—68CE). Rome was known as the Septimontium - the city on seven hills (seven heads). Nero had put Peter to death and blamed Christians for the great fire of Rome which started a period of brutal persecution. Nero was actually nicknamed a "beast" by some of the writers of that time. Apollonius of Tyana writes,
"In my travels, which have been wider than ever man yet accomplished, I have seen many, many wilde beasts of Arabia and India. But this beast, that is commonly called Tyrant, I know not how many heads it has, nor if it be crooked of claw, and armed with horrible fangs... and of wild beasts you cannot say that they were ever know to eat their own mothers, but Nero has gorged himself on this diet." (Philostartus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 4.28)
Furthermore, the Beast is allowed to act for 42 months to make war against and overcome the saints (v. 5—7), and this was the exact time which Nero’s persecution of the Church lasted. His persecution was terrible - he is said to have started the great fire in Rome then blamed the Christians for it. He burned Christians as torches on the streets and crucified many. Nero's violent life included,
"murders of his own family members, the castration of a boy Nero 'married', and the brutal murder of his pregnant wife by kicking her to death. Bizarre behavious was noted by the historian Suetonius, who wrote that Nero even 'devised a kind of game, in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound to stakes.'" (R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, p. 186)
Nero was eventually censured by the Roman Senate and took his own life by the sword. However, there arose the Nero redivivus myth which spread soon after his death saying that he would return from the dead (Suetonius, LVII.1; Tacitus, Histories II.8; Dio, LXVI.19.3). There were even a few pretenders who claimed to be the resurrected Nero as recorded by Roman historians. Apart from the myth, the fact that the empire survived the time of unrest after Nero’s death and stabilized under emperor Vespasian is a marvel—thus showing that the Beast (the Roman empire) survived the mortal wound of one of its heads. This myth’s connection of Nero to the Beast seems to be confirmed by various early church commentators such as Sulpicius Severus. Nero even had a status of himself errected in the temple of Mars in 55 A.D. and inscriptions to Nero as 'God and Saviour' are found at Salamis, Cyprus and other places. In light of all of this, there is a strong case for the Beast referring to Nero.
What's the relevance of the Beast today?
So, does this mean that the Beast was only in reference to Nero in the first century and has nothing to say to us today? No.
Some equate the Beast of Revelation to the figure of the Antichrist. They posit that we cannot simply see the Antichrist solely as a past figure since the Bible speaks of antichrists which are present realities in the times of the New Testament and the church throughout time. Furthermore, the description of the Beast in verses 1—2 combines the four beasts in Daniel 7:1—7, which represent four successive pagan empires. So, here it seems like John is using it to represent all antichristian governmental powers with Nero as the personification of this evil rule. As Hendriksen notes, "here this composite beast cannot symbolize merely one empire or government. It must indicate all antichristian governments." (Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, p. 146)
The term ‘antichrist’ refers to any spirit, power or person against Christ. Various passages (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7; Matt. 24:24; 1 Tim. 4:1) show us a characteristic of the period of time between the close of the New Testament until the second coming where there are to be many various manifestations of evil opposition to Christ and attempts to overthrow His Kingdom. John is here likely using a contemporary example of an evil ruler (Nero) and government in his time (Rome) to establish a timeless principle: there will always be worldly powers and leaders that rise up against the people of God and His rule.
Throughout history we’ve seen the Beast rise and fall again and again. In Moses’ day, it was the Pharaoh and Egypt, or Assyria in Isaiah’s day or Babylon in the days of Jeremiah. For John, the Beast was Rome and the emperor. Evil demagogues, regimes and tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, North Korea, Marxist Dictatorships and ISIS are easy to peg as ‘Beastly’—bearing the conspicuous marks of Satanically empowered world powers that oppress God’s people. But how does this Beast appear to us in our context? Could it be that it is more insidious and subtler than we’d expect? What antichristian governmental systems want our utmost allegiance and threaten economic and societal estrangement if we don't take their mark? Could it be seen more broadly in the secular world system which promote a sort of ‘tolerance’ which tolerates everything but Christianity and lean towards a form of globalized soft-totalitarianism? You see - the Beast rises today as well...
The Beast in the text parodies and mocks the Lamb who was slain, imitating the appearance of a resurrection (v.3) and even the seal God puts on His saints with his own mark (v.16-17). So, could the Beast be seen in world leaders or powers who seem to convince the masses that they are the hoped-for redeemer, or saviour to rescue them and receive their adulation? They say, "give us your freedom, unobjecting allegiance, a pinch of incense on the altar, and we'll give you safety, success and well-being." Remember - the point of Revelation is to reveal the spiritual realities behind the outward circumstances of opposition the Church experiences.
What is sure is that John tells us what lays behind such powers—the Dragon (Satan). Regardless of the multitudes which worship and think it to be indestructible, this Beast is only in place by divine permission (v.5—7) and its days are numbered.
The False Prophet
But what of the second Beast—the False Prophet (v.11)? It is the mockery of the Holy Spirit, who directs worship to the Son—this False Prophet directs worship to the Beast. It’s lamb-like appearance seems harmless at first, but its sinister character is revealed when it speaks with a dragon-like voice (v.11). In John’s day, the imperial cult directed worship to the emperor as a means of mandatory tribute and allegiance to Rome by those under its power.
False religions and false teachers within the church are obvious reflections of this. Their appearance may be innocent at first, but their voice—their false teaching—betrays a dreadful danger and allegiance. The spirit of the age, the antichristian worldviews and leftist ideologies of postmodern secularism, Marxist Critical Theory, radical Gender Theory and other leftist agendas today can also serve as our modern imperial cult, making all to worship the Beast and to pay homage to it. People are compelled to pay homage, accept their dogmas and listen to their false prophets or else risk severe consequences.
We can see it deceiving the masses by a show of power, giving voice to the beastly image by means of media (v.14—15). It is no wonder why certain agendas are constantly being pushed in our faces through social media, TV, film and advertising. If we are bombarded enough with it, eventually the brainwashing takes root. An entire generation is being bred to think with their emotions devoid of any consistent worldview or logic. Their foreheads have been marked... These antichristian ideologies are the cult of the Beast and the seductive words of the False Prophet.
Gender confusion, and pro-choice movements push their mantras which are held apart from any sure science to support them. Critical Theories bent on destroying the family unit and deconstructing societies to reconstruct their annointed vision of a communist utopia populate our airwaves, hold tenure at universities and lead political parties. You must do the works of their religion - the right hand must be marked... Apart from the regenerating work and protection of the Holy Spirit to guard their minds and hearts, unregenerate people are open to this influence—their minds having been blinded by the god of this age (2 Cor 4:4). Thus, these anti-Christian ideologies and worldviews ‘mark’ those not sealed by the Lamb to think and act according to the Beast’s system (v.16—17). This is why the mark is on the forehead or right hand—to be accepted and flourish in the Beast’s economy, one must be marked by thinking and acting according to its ways.
Two Emphatic Warnings and Two Exhortations
How does this text encourage or equip us today? What possible hope does John offer us, caught between two beasts, seemingly surrounded, one coming up from the sea, and the other from the land? Within the Greek text of chapter 13, there is an escalation of emphasis and prominence which is not apparent in English translations due to the differences between the languages. It is to these two places in the text which he directs our attention, to warn and encourage believers who faced this situation in his time and those who would face it beyond. We would do well to pay attention to these warnings and exhortations.
First Warning: There is no neutrality
The first emphatic warning to us is found in verse 8. It is that “everyone on earth—those whose name had not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life which belongs to the Lamb who was slain—will worship the Beast.” Let it not be mistaken, those who are not written in the Lamb’s book WILL worship the Beast. Whether knowingly or unwittingly, unbelievers are caught up in a world system which is of the Devil. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers,” (2 Cor 4:4) and they are “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air.” (Eph 2:2) They are children of wrath (Eph 2:3), alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil (Col 1:21), suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). John needs his readers to see this clearly—that this adulation to the antichristian world powers is disordered worship which ultimately is directed to the Beast and the Dragon. There is no neutral ground—we either belong to the Beast or the Lamb. Who do you belong to?
First Exhortation: Trust God’s sovereignty over history
Thus, he exhorts believers to endurance and faith (v.9—10), “if you can hear this warning, take heed! Those who are destined to be taken captive or slain, they will be taken captive or slain.” Imprisonment and even martyrdom are all a part of the divine plan, and God is still in control despite outward appearances. Even the Beast itself is only able to do that which it is allowed and only for as long as it is permitted. This is where the call for the saints’ endurance and faith is rooted—in God’s sovereign rule over even what seems to be the darkest of times. It is a call to endure, even to the bitter end under the threat of death.
Jeremy Taylor published The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying in 1651 in the year of his wife’s death. He said, “it is a great art to die well.” One must be persuaded that there is a condition of living better than this, a country above better than ours here below. We must be convinced to learn to value and purchase it, so that death would be no formidable thing.  Taylor believed that the contemplation of Christian hope served as a solace and balm to those who fear death—and likewise to us who fear persecution, ridicule or great inconvenience for holding forth our profession of faith boldly. Paul admonished us to set our eyes on the unseen eternal things above which make these present temporary burdens seem weightless in comparison to the glory which awaits beyond (2 Cor 4:17—18). Future glory gives us hope for present perseverance.
Second Warning: Beware of capitulation and compromise
The second emphatic warning is in verses 16 and 17, “It makes all—the small and great, the rich and poor, the free and slaves—to give themselves a mark on their right hand or forehead and ensures that no one could buy or sell without having the mark, which is the name of the Beast or the number of its name.” Here John warns of the temptation toward capitulation to the beastly system for the sake of temporal advantage or economic incentive. “At the time John used this image, slaves were branded or tattooed by their owners. This indicates that anyone who ‘takes the mark’ is branded as a slave (or servant) of the beast and self-consciously renounces Christ to their eternal peril.”
Notice that they give themselves the mark. This is selling out to compromise. They cave to the pressure.
We too face many temptations towards compromising with the beastly system. How much easier would it be to just blend into society and fall in line with the imperial cult? After all, if we say ‘Caesar is Lord’ just with our mouth but still believe Jesus is Lord in our hearts we’re OK right? Why not just go along with the popular narratives of our secular society, overlook the truth and offer the pinch of incense - life would be so much easier! How enticing it could be to shrink back from affirming Christian convictions regarding the sanctity of life in the womb, human sexuality and identity, marriage, honest business practices, biblical justice, morality, ethics and holy living? Especially when all those around you consider those as antiquated ideas or even dangerous ideas and would cheer you on in discarding such useless values? They say, “Are we not modern people? Our society has evolved past its need for such old-fashioned ethics.” And so, the false prophet’s dragon-like voice deceives and tempts. It’s the same line from the garden repackaged, “has God really said thus? He just doesn’t want you to have this, but you know better.”
Compromise has always paved the road to the broad path which leads to destruction.
Second Exhortation: Don't take the mark of the Beast
However, John will have none of this. Compromise to the spirit of the age—taking the Beast’s mark—is to be eternally damned (14:11). He responds with an exhortation to discernment, “to discern that which causes people to bear the Beast’s mark requires wisdom. So, let the one who has understanding contemplate the number—that of fallen humanity, which mirrors the Beast who strives to grasp godly perfection (7) but constantly comes up short (6).”
Many have speculated about the number and mark of the Beast. Is it a microchip? Is it a vaccine? Is it a tattoo? Is the number a secret code for an evil world leader now? Everyone from Bill Gates to Trump to Hitler to the guy you don't like down the street has been proposed. However, the Mark isn't about a physical, literal mark - it is a spiritual mark. It is the Satanic mirror to the "seal" set on believers in chapter 7 & 14 (which is also spiritual and not a literal physical seal). It is placed on the forehead and hand to represent thinking and acting according to a certain ultimate allegiance. William Hendriksen comments,
"So 'receiving the mark of the beast' seems to mean 'belonging to the beast and worshipping the beast'. The 'mark of the beast' is the God-opposing, Christ rejecting, Church-persecuting spirit of antichrist, wherever and whenever it shows itself. This mark is impressed on the forehead or right hand (cf. Dt. 6: 8). The forehead symbolizes the mind, the thought-life, the philosophy of a person. The right hand indicates his deed, action, trade, industry, etc." (Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, p.150)
Rather than obsessing over whose or what's name adds up to 666, John is exhorting his readers to discern its meaning. It would be rather strange if John meant to communicate to us that we can avoid damnation by means of clever arithmetic skills. While I think that John probably had Nero in mind as a contemporary example (his name transliterated to Hebrew added up to 666), I think it is perhaps better to be understood as a model to warn believers to be wary of the fallen world system and powers which go against God. Nero was the embodiment of this in John's day and we are to be vigilant to discern the Beastly systems today. These things which are ‘antichrist’ are what it takes wisdom to discern (v.18). The Dragon, the Beast and the False Prophet try to set themselves up in place of God—exactly the same thing which got Satan expelled in the first place. To be marked by the Beast then is to follow in this rebellion against God’s Kingdom and reign. It is to be characterized by a worldly pattern of thought and deed. As such, those who follow after the Beast and take its mark will also share in its damnation (14:9—10).
Avoiding the Mark of the Beast
Many churches, denominations and Christians have compromised in their commitments to Christ and his Word - softening on biblical stances. However, instead of compromise, believers are to “not be conformed to the pattern of this world but to be transformed by the renewing their minds” (Rom 12:2) so that they might discern what is God’s will—that which is good, acceptable and perfect. We are to put off and put to death the old self and its deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of our minds to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:22—24; Col 3:5—17). We are to not become partakers with the things which define this world’s rebellion against God’s Kingdom, but rather to discern what is pleasing to the Lord—exposing the unfruitful works (Eph 5:7—11).
How do we discern the number of the Beast and avoid taking its mark?
This sort of discernment doesn’t come magically to us. Our minds must be renewed by God’s Word. We must let Christ’s word dwell in us richly, teaching and learning through Christian community and worship (Col 3:16). It is a call for us as Christians to do our best to show ourselves an approve workman, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15) so that we won’t be taken captive by this world’s philosophy or vain deceit (Col 2:8) to run after things which draw us away from Christ. The solution is not the abandonment of the Bible, but rather the thorough study and application of it boldly and counter-culturally in our world. That is what we offer as distinctly different. David Wells, in his book The Courage to be Protestant writes,
“The key to the future is not the capitulation that we see in both the marketers and the emergent. It is courage. The courage to be faithful to what Christianity in its biblical forms has always stood for across the ages.”
Many Christians when they hear of the Mark of the Beast it conjures up fear and worry in their hearts. However, John's point in Revelation is not that we would despair, but that we would have a better hope. The number of the Beast actually points us to why this should be so. Hendriksen comments,
"Let him remember that the number of the beast is the number of man. Now, man was created on the sixth day. Six, moreover, is not seven and never reaches seven. It always fails to attain to perfection; that is, it never becomes seven. Six means missing the mark, or failure. Seven means perfection or victory. Rejoice, O Church of God! The victory is on your side. The number of the beast is 666, that is, failure upon failure upon failure! It is the number of man, for the beast glories in man; and must fail!" (Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, p. 151)
Within the symbolism of the Mark itself is the surety of the ultimate demise of the Beast. We see in Revelation 20:10 that, "the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever." The victory has already been written, Satan is a defeated foe. As Martin Luther said in his famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God,
"And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us: The Prince of Darkness grim, We tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, For lo! his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him."
Praise God - Christ's life, death and resurrection has guaranteed this!
One may ask, why does John employ such strange imagery and extraordinary language to give us this message? Why not just tell us plainly? Well, for one, that would not have sold nearly as many novels or Nicholas Cage movies. But joking aside, John’s use of apocalyptic style is not without reason. So often our eyes can become glazed over and dull to the monotony of everyday life. The Book of Revelation sparks new vigor in our vision by vividly depicting to us the spiritual realities which lay behind the world we live in. It makes us keenly aware that oppositions to Christ and His Kingdom are not benign and harmless, but rather have a devilish source which seeks whom it may devour. In our postmodern time, where people are less inclined to purely propositional truths, perhaps the apocalypse can arrest our imagination long enough to wake us up.
John’s pastoral concern is to expose the true nature of the realities they encounter and the real crisis they face by use of the apocalyptic genre as an ‘unveiling’ to open their eyes to the spiritual dimension. Christ has fatally wounded the Beast (Luke 10:17-24; 11:14-22), and He has disarmed the principalities and powers, triumphing over them on the Cross (Col 2:15). However, though a defeated foe, that Beast still stubbornly seems to rise again and again, knowing that his time is short he wars against God’s people. So, we must hear John’s emphatic warnings and exhortations clearly today.
Firstly, we must be aware that there is no neutrality. To follow after the pattern of this world is to worship the Beast. We are exhorted to endure, even in the face of trials and persecution—to stand boldly on the confidence that God is in control and all things are ordered by Him. Secondly, we are warned of the temptation towards capitulation. To relax our biblical stance on truth and pander to the narrative of our secular societies, to water down the message of the Gospel and soften the call to repentance in order to win the world’s approval is to take its Mark.
The irony of this method is that in seeking to appease the unchurched, the church loses its appeal as it becomes nothing different to everything else around it. In fact, one other poll is helpful to frame this irony. For the formerly unchurched who started to go to church,
90 percent of them said that preaching was important to them, and not just any preaching. Almost the same percentage, 88 percent, said that what they came to hear was doctrine. The beliefs of the church were important to 91 percent. They wanted to know what the church believed. They wanted to have this laid out for them—with conviction. This was their preeminent concern.
May we recognize that there is no neutrality and stand boldly as witnesses to the world regardless of the cost—counting all things loss for the sake of Christ—trusting in His plan and providence. May we also not be tempted to compromise or shrink back and give in to the pressures of a world system in rebellion to God’s rule. Rather, may we discern those things which are antichrist—against the Lordship of Christ over all—and so be submitted to His rule in our lives, sealed by the blood of His Cross and patiently awaiting His appearing.
Articles in this series:
Revelation 13 | The Dragon, The Beast & the Mark - What does it mean?
Baldinger, Albert H. “A Beastly Coalition: An Expository Sermon on the Revelation 13:1— 18.” Interpretation 2, no. 4 (October 1948) 444—450.
Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1999.
Bratcher, Robert G., and Howard Hatton. A Handbook on the Revelation to John. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 1993.
DeSilva, David A. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004.
Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons. Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007.
Gonzales, Justo L. The Story of Christianty, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation. Revised and updated. Second Edition. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010.
Gregg, Steve. Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers, 1997.
Gribben, Crawford. “Rapture Fictions and the Changing Evangelical Condition.” Literature and Theology, Vol. 18, No. 1 (March, 2004) 77—94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23925696
Hendriksen, William, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation, Baker Books, 2015.
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Vol. 3. Seventh Printing. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2016.
Hoekema, Anthony A. The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Third Edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010.
Lee, Michelle V. “A Call to Martyrdom: Function as Method and Message in Revelation.” Novum Testamentum, (April 1998) 164—194. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1560983
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Fifth Edition. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Minear, Paul S. “The Wounded Beast.” Journal of Biblical Literature, (June 1953) 93—101. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3261346
Riddlebarger, Kim. A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, Expanded Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013.
Sulpicius Severus. “The Sacred History Of Sulpitius Severus,” in Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, translated by Alexander Roberts, vol. 11, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1894.
Wells, David. The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, MI: 2008
ENDNOTES  Gribben, “Rapture Fictions,” 92.  If an exegesis is dependent on current events, one should seriously reconsider its validity—especially in light of Scripture’s relevance not just to us today, but also the first audience it was addressed to.  Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 508.  De Silva, An Introduction to the New Testament, 885—889.  Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 510.  Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 519.  Author’s translation. Single-spaced for ease of reading.  See Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 228. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 223. For the sake of space, I assume an Amillennial view of recapitulation in Revelation. I've laid out my case for this in previous articles.  Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 231. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 223—226.  Lee, “A Call to Martyrdom,” 174—178.  Lee, “A Call to Martyrdom,” 164. Emphasis added.  De Silva, An Introduction to the New Testament, 901.  Gonzales, The Story of Christianity, 45.  See for example https://tinyurl.com/l93tckh and https://tinyurl.com/go2w7td for two different cases.  Kinnaman, Unchristian, 23—25. Polls can be misleading also—see Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, 42 for some counterpoints to the overuse of polls to accurately reflect reality.  Gregg, Revelation, Four Views, 286—290.  Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 151. See also Minear, “The Wounded Beast,” 94—96.  Gregg, Revelation, Four Views, 280—283.  See for example Sulpicius Severus, “The Sacred History Of Sulpitius Severus,” 111.  Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 152. For some of the objections to Nero see Minear, “The Wounded Beast,” 96—97.  Gregg, Revelation, Four Views, 279—281.  Hodge, Systematic Theology, 812—813.  Baldinger, “A Beastly Coalition,” 446.  McGrath, Christian Theology, 450—451.  Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 153.  Bratcher, A Handbook, 205.  Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, 21.  Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, 55.