Mark of the Beast

Question

What is the "mark of the beast," and how do we know if we have it? What is the seal of God, and how do we know if we have that? When the Bible speaks about having the mark of the beast on your hand or forehead, and not being able to buy or sell unless you have it, does it speak literally metaphorically? I have heard rumors of a nationwide chip that is to be placed in everyone's hand, and that you will not be able to buy anything, sell anything, or go anywhere without it.

Answer

Let me preface this answer by saying there is incredible disagreement over the interpretation of Revelation, and great speculation in many cases. In approaching this difficult book, I presuppose a few things about prophecy with which many people disagree.

First, prophecy was not given in order to inform the original audience about specific events in the distant future. Rather, it was given to motivate its original audience to action by telling them things that related to their own times. Sometimes prophecies did pertain to more distant events, but these distant predictions were always intended to motivate some action in their contemporary audiences. In fact, I think we see this rather clearly in Revelation 2-3 in the letters to the seven churches. Each church received specific exhortations, and all were encouraged to overcome. These letters were not separate documents from the rest of Revelation -- they were more like cover letters. The rest of Revelation told these churches the things they needed to know in order to overcome. Some of what they needed to know most certainly pertained to things they recognized in their own day (e.g. the five kings who had been, and the one that then was), while others pertained to the more distant future (e.g. the New Jerusalem). In conjuction with this, the authors understood what they were describing, even if they didn't know how the prophecies would ultimately be fulfilled.

Second, prophecy is fundamentally conditional, so that the things prophesied may or may not come to pass, depending on how God responds to what people do when they hear the prophecies. We have an excellent article on our site by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr., that addresses this issue: Historical Contingencies and Biblical Predictions. Thus, the things predicted in Revelation were not necessarily set in stone. They were open to modification, cancellation, delay, etc.

Third, prophecy is highly metaphorical and frequently hyperbolic. Thus, we need to understand what the author's original meaning was, and to interpret his metaphors as metaphors, his non-metaphoric language as non-metaphoric, and his hyperbole as hyperbole. For example, in Micah 1 we read that the Lord himself is going to come to earth, and that when he comes the mountains will melt and the valleys will be split. As we read further in Micha's prophecy, however, we find that what he is really talking about is just the invasion of Israel by Assyria.

Fourth, prophecy is primarily a tool by which God prosecutes his covenant(s), so that its threats and curses are most typically covenant judgments, and its offers and blessings are covenant blessings.

So, when we come to Revelation, one of my first assumptions is that the imagery and metaphors would have been recognized by the original audiences, and that the authors knew what they were talking about and what they had seen in their visions. Thus, the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:16; 16:2; 19:20) would not have have been any sort of modern technology, but something that John and his audience would have been likely to recognize. Whether or not the mark metaphorically represented something else is a bit more difficult to determine. Personally, I'm inclined to believe that these details are rather specific (the location of the mark, the inability to engage in commerce, etc.), and therefore that they probably pertain to things known to the original audience, not to things from a much later period of history (such as ours). This does not mean that the principles taught in Revelation are inapplicable in our day -- we must still remain loyal to God no matter what adversity strikes us in life, and we may still trust God to grant us the faith and perseverance of the saints. However, the specific adversities faced by the first century church are not the same as those we face today. Thus, on the one hand, we might think of the mark of the beast as something that no longer exists, and that never will exist again. It plagued the churches that received Revelation, but it does not threaten anyone anymore. On the other hand, the significance of the mark of the beast may well be paralleled repeatedly throughout history. The principlies we learn in Revelation apply to anything which demands that we deny God. The prophecy should encourage us, as it did the original audience, to remain faithful to God no matter what men threaten against us because, if we do not, God himself will do things to us in judgment that are far worse than anything man can do to us. We may go hungry if we refuse to reject God (Rev. 13:16-17), but we will burn in the lake of fire if we do reject him (Rev. 19:20).

The "seal of God" (Rev. 7:2ff.; 9:4) I do not take to be a visible sign of some sort, but rather a metaphoric representation of salvation and God's blessing, perhaps with particular emphasis on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who is often associated with sealing (e.g. 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30). In revelation, it is God's declaration that these belong to him, and that he protects them. The seal demonstrates to the angels who dole out God's covenant judgment that these individuals are not to be harmed. Whoever does harm them will have to answer to God. The believers in the original audience (those who overcame, and who did not fall under the judgment of the seven letters in Rev. 2-3) should have taken great comfort from this knowledge, especially since a normal assumption would have been that great tribulation was a form of divine retribution. But John assured the seven churches that no divine judgment would befall them. Despite whatever tribulation they endured, God was not against them. He was for them, and he would avenge them should they be harmed (as the martyrs in Rev. 6:9). Believers today may also trust that God will not judge us (Christ has taken our judgment upon himself), and that he will avenge our wrongs (cf. Rom. 12:19). When and if we endure great persecution, this can be tremendously reassuring.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.