Question: "What is the mark of the beast in the book of Revelation?"

Answer: The passage in question is Revelation 13.16-17 where John wrote, "And he causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name." Based on a misunderstanding of Revelation, many have assumed that this mark of the beast refers to some specific event or thing that is currently happening or yet to come and is a sure sign that the return of Christ is near. But putting aside all human speculation, what does this passage mean?

First, we must understand the time-frame in which the book of Revelation was written and the nature of its language. In Revelation 1.1 John began, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to Him to show His servants--things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John." The book contained things which would shortly take place--not thousands of years in the future. Also, it was signified, or written in signs and symbols with highly figurative language. Thus, the mark of the beast was intended to signify something that was relevant to the people who lived when John wrote.

The best explanation involves placing the book in the historical context in which it was written. The Roman Empire was ruling the world at that time and used both civil and religious power to exercise control. This created a conflict with the church. The beast from the sea in Revelation 13.1-10 most likely represented the Roman government, and the beast from the land in Revelation 13.11-15 most likely represented emperor worship. The empire required an acceptance of Caesar as God before one could engage in any buying or selling, and so gave a "mark" to those who publicly worshipped the emperor in the form of a certificate allowing them to participate in trade. Since Christians refused to do this, they were banned from commercial activity and persecuted.

However, God promised that they would be rewarded for their faithfulness to Him. In Revelation 20.4 John wrote, "And I saw thrones and they sat on them and judgment was committed to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years." This is simply talking about those who did not give in to the demands of emperor worship but remained loyal to God.

While the primary application of all this is to the time when the book was written, the message of Revelation is generally applicable to us as well. Just as some in the first century did conform to the world of their day to do business, so many now conform to the world of our time to carry on their affairs. And it is just as wrong today as it was then. Romans 12.2 says, "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." We can take great courage from the example of those recorded in Revelation who did God's will. But the "mark of the beast" has no reference to some current or future event which will be a sign that Christ will come soon. Brotherly, Wayne S. Walker

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