The Mark of the Beast is an iconic image from John’s Apocalypse, a number, or a name, etched into the hand and/or the forehead of every person living in the time of the dragon and its creatures.
All three languages common to the time this Apocalypse was written – Hebrew (Aramaic), Greek, and Latin – used letters from their alphabet to serve as numbers as well. “Gematria” was also a well-known and well-liked activity during this time, calculating the numbers represented in a person’s name. Furthermore, many famous names could add up to “666” (or “616”).
Holy Roman Empire
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 202 CE) is the earliest known Christian writer who attempted to decipher John’s puzzle. In his opinion, the name is really a descriptor of the last of the four kingdoms in Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: “Lateinos” or Latin. In this case, the name of the creature would be the Latin world, what would become the Holy Roman Empire, with its Latin church, patriarch, clergy, kingdoms, and councils.
Because Irenaeus wrote one hundred years before the creeds and liturgy had been translated from Greek to Latin, his theory is all the more compelling. Late in the fourth century, the Roman church adopted Latin as its official language for the church universal even when many local populations could not understand it.
The Church’s “Mark”
Historicist interpreters point to the practice of branding enslaved captives with the name or token of their slaveholder, and soldiers with the name or emblem of their emperor. In the case of the Roman church, this “mark” translates into some unquestionably distinctive badge that would permanently mark its recipient as belonging to the Roman church.
Down through the centuries, various popes did forbid those in the church from dealing with those deemed as heretics or Protestants. Such were to be denied the privilege of “buying and selling” in the company of Roman church members. Two popes in particular (Pope Alexander II, 1061 – 73, and Pope Martin V, 1417 – 31), mandated that no one may:
- Have such in their homes.
- Have them on their lands (i.e., hire them, or benefit from their labor).
- Interact with them in any way.
- Allow them to have houses in their districts.
- Enter into contract with them.
- Allow them access to their markets, or commerce (presumably this also meant banks, credit, and investments).
Though many names have been proffered, most historicists’ theories suggest the papacy as probable.
Commentators in this camp tend to look no further than Nero using severe economic pressure against Christians in order to force them to comply with Caesar worship.
They reason John’s mystery was not intended to be hard for his readers to understand. It is thought John intended his audience use the Hebrew alphabet so as to keep the name hidden from those more apt to use the Greek or Latin alphabet (such as Roman officials).
[As an aside, I question this idea. The reason the Hebrew scriptures had been translated into Greek in the third century BCE had to do with the decline of Hebrew as a spoken language among most Jewish communities.
Though there is much imagery from and many references to passages in the Hebrew scriptures, the people would have been just as familiar with them from having heard them read and explained in Greek. And the transliterated words found in John that pertain to Hebrew also pertain to Aramaic, the lingua franca of Palestine.
The writers of the New Testament tended to quote from the Septuagint, which tells me John’s audience most likely used Greek, not Hebrew, to calculate John’s gematria number.]
Chip or Bar Code
Unsurprisingly, those who look to the future for fulfillment envision world economies that no longer deal in cash, but in credit and debit. Only, there will be no cards as we have today. Instead, individuals will be assigned a specific credit/debit account which will be accessed via a chip embedded somewhere on the individual’s body, or a laser tattoo of, perhaps, a UPC bar code.
Incredibly, this capability is actually being made available today!
The British-Polish company Walletmor has created a microchip that can be implanted inside a person’s hand and used as one would tap a credit card for payment.Laura Morrison, “Hand implant allows people to pay with chip,” Nexstar Media Wire, April 17, 2022
Other commentators demure at taking John’s meaning to be a literal mark and write instead of either being addicted to something the dangerous animal provides, or conforming to certain customs or regulations.
Martyrdom or Hell
Either way, intense economic pressure will be brought to bear on anyone who resists compliance. Perhaps this will mean forced membership in labor unions, or risk having no work. Or, maybe to use money at all, people will have to agree to certain requirements. Concomitant with compliance will be some kind of badge that signifies alliance with the creature.
It will be a life-or-death choice.
But only believers will understand by how much. They will welcome martyrdom, remembering Jesus’s prophetic words:
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”Jesus, Matthew 10:28 (NRSV, italics mine)
Those who comply with the beast will avoid physical death in that moment, but, as John will later see in another oracle,
“… they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the brand of its name.”Revelation 14:10-11, emphases mine)
Numerous attempts have been made to link “666” with world leaders. Probably the most well-known was Hitler. Possibly, as one scholar suggests, “666” means “apostacy” and “tradition.” Or, perhaps a new iteration of Nero or even Judas Iscariot is meant. One possibility returns to Irenaeus’s theory, positing a renewed Roman empire.
Or, maybe the meaning is found in the number “six” iterated three times.
Emphasis in ancient times was created by repetition rather than by modifying a script, such as with italics, underlining, or boldface. If there is to be an emphasis on the holiness of God, for instance, then the seraphim cry “Holy” three times.
Seen this way, the number seven represents the perfection of God. Three times six, then, would emphasize falling short of God’s glory, as humankind does. The dangerous animals, then, will be human beings who stand in alliance with Satan and defiance of God.
Scholars liken the creature’s mark with the invisible Spirit’s seal and Father’s name described earlier in Revelation. The beast’s mark signals, and is the same as, those who worship the dangerous animal, just as the Spirit’s seal identifies all those in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Philosophy and Action
What is marked on the forehead indicates what the mind thinks and the will intends. What is marked on the hand implies follow-through. What we think and believe, we will certainly live out, and the spirit that inspires us will be readily demonstrated in what we communicate and do.
Cancel culture today vividly illustrates what happens to those who do not go along with a prevailing attitude or cultural ethic—cancel culture’s target will be publicly humiliated in every possible forum with economic repercussions soon to follow. Hate mail, death threats, even physical assault are not uncommon, trashing of the target’s property, spurious law suits, community boycotts, expulsion from organizations, loss of work, blackballing, contracts denied, and the list goes on.
It is possible the church in Smyrna was suffering this very thing.
The number of the beast may have meant Nero, but ultimately represents false religion.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg