Question: What is the mark of the beast?
Many have inquired, “What is the mark of the beast?” Such queries no doubt come from Revelation 13:17, which reads, “And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”
This statement is couched in the pinnacle of symbolism. If we are to learn what is meant by the “mark of the beast,” we must give at least a cursory overview of the context in which it is located.
The time of the writing of the book of Revelation is near the end of the first century A.D. Christians were under great persecution at the hands of Domitian, who was the emperor of Rome from A.D. 81 to 96. The Lord, through the apostle John, gives the last and great book of the Bible to comfort the saints, which, from earth’s point of view, seemed to be doomed to destruction. However, the message of the book of Revelation is that the cause of the saints will prevail victorious and the enemies of God’s people will be overcome.
Chapters twelve and thirteen of Revelation present a very graphic picture of the enemies of God’s children. These enemies are three in number. One, the Devil himself is identified as “that old serpent called the Devil, and Satan” (12:9). According to verse seventeen, he made war with the faithful of God.
Two, the ally of the Devil is pictured as a beast, which John saw “rise up out of the sea” (13: 1). This ally “opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven. And it was given him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them” (13:6-7).
The Roman emperors, especially Nero and later Domitian, enforced emperor worship among the citizens of the empire. Of course, Christians could not and would not worship man or any image of him. Because of this refusal to participate in emperor worship, the Christians became the objects of great tribulation.
Three, a beast symbolically pictured as coming “up out of the earth” (13: 11) is said to have power to “cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed. And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (13:15-17). This beast is specifically identified as “the false prophet” (16: 13).
The false prophet is the religious agency of the beast out of the sea. It was the task of this second beast to force the people to worship the first beast, which in turn was the servant of Satan. Those who bowed to the desires or the powers of the false prophet who enforced emperor worship were marked or identified. Christians, who refused, were subjected to great atrocities. They were also boycotted by the world, and denied the privilege of trade or to earn a living.
Number of the Beast
The number of the beast is given as six hundred sixty and six (13: 17). By assigning numerical values to letters of the alphabet many fanciful interpretations have been configured from this number to arrive at the names of various notorious individuals in history. The very fact that so many have been contrived is evidence that such effort is fruitless. We should keep in mind the symbolical nature of the book of Revelation. It is not the name but the number which is significant.
To the Oriental the number seven was sacred and the number six was considered evil as it fell short of the sacred seven. In multiples of six – 666 – there is raised a power of evil which is indeed great. This is the number that was given to the beast embodied with political power and false religion.
We should not understand the mark to be a literal mark. Most likely it was simply the fact that their life and conduct openly identified them as those who worshipped the emperor.
Consistent with the symbolism of the book of Revelation, and in contrast to the mark of the beast, we find also that the saved of God are identified as “having the seal of the living God . . . in their foreheads” (7:2-3), and having “the Father’s name written in their forehead” (14: 1). The seal, or mark, is a symbol of ownership.
In context of Revelation those who are marked with the emperor’s mark are servants of his. Those who are marked or sealed by the Lord are servants of the Lord. Therefore, the “mark of the beast” is symbolic imagery identifying those who were following the dictates of emperor worship. This amounted to a rejection of God and all that is holy.