By Dick Lentz
11 Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon … 15 He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refuse to worship the image to be killed. 16 He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, 17 so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. (Revelation 13: 11, 15-17, NIV)
What I have to say in the following post about the Mark of the Beast is not traditional; it will be controversial; it will be disputed. And when you get done reading what I have to say about it, you may even consider me to be a heretic. For I believe that the Mark of the Beast can have little if any effect on non-believers; I believe it is something that can only affect Christians. I also don’t believe that it’s a physical mark; I believe it is symbolic of something less tangible but much more perilous, especially for those who have put their faith in Jesus.
I hope that you will read my justification for this conclusion. For if my understanding of the Mark of the Beast is correct, it has profound implications for Christians today who are living in the midst of increasing amounts of opposition because of what they believe about Jesus.
The Traditional View – It is a Literal or Physical Mark
Over the years there has been lots of speculation regarding Revelation 13:11-17 and what the Mark of the Beast might possibly be. Many have speculated that it could be some kind of physical indication that a person has given their sole allegiance to a world power whose goal it is to supplant Christ – a literal mark that indicates that one has made a commitment to worship the antichrist for example. Some believe that it could be a microchip or some other electronic device that is embedded in a person’s arm or head to distinguish between those who are followers of this antichrist from those who are not. At some point everyone’s economic and physical welfare will be based on their allegiance to this antichrist, and their willingness to accept its mark will prove that they are loyal to him or the power he represents.
But is the Mark of the Beast meant to be understood as a literal or physical mark? Or is symbolic of something? Could it for example be a symbol of a change in the condition of a person’s heart and if so, whose heart?
A Non-Traditional View – It is Symbolic of Something
One thing that needs to be noted about Revelation 13 as well as all of the book of Revelation is its widespread use of symbolic language. For the most part, John was not being shown actual images of future events; he was seeing symbolic representations of them.
Consider for example these images recorded in Revelation 13:1-17:
- A beast comes out of the sea. It has ten horns and seven heads (vs. 1).
- The beast looks like a leopard but has feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion (vs 2).
- One of its heads has a fatal wound that is healed (vs 3).
- The dragon (Satan – vs. 12:9) is worshiped because he gave authority to the beast (vs. 4).
- The beast is given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them (vs. 7).
- All whose names are not written in the book of life worship the beast (vs. 8).
- Another beast comes out of the earth. He has two horns and speaks like a dragon (vs. 11).
- The second beast has the same authority as the first (vs. 12).
- The second beast sets up an image to honor the first beast (vs. 14).
- The image is given breath. Those who refuse to worship it are killed (vs. 15).
- No-one can buy or sell unless they receive a mark on their right hand or forehead (vs. 16-17).
Most if not all of these images symbolize something. I don’t believe for example that an actual beast will arise from the ocean that has ten horns and seven heads and that people will fall down and worship it. This image is meant to be symbolic. Perhaps it represents a world power or an individual who will rule in the last days. The same can be said regarding the second beast; it too is symbolic of something. By association, shouldn’t the Mark of the Beast be considered equally symbolic?
The issue here is being consistent in how we treat associated elements in Scripture. If we know for example that A is symbolic of something and that A and B are meant to be treated the same, then B is symbolic as well. “Beast” in the phrase “the Mark of the Beast” is typically interpreted as being symbolic of something or someone. To be consistent, shouldn’t its mark be understood the same way? Shouldn’t it be interpreted as being symbolic of something as well? Another way to put this is if the beast in the passage is not meant to be interpreted as an actual beast, then to be consistent, its mark should not be interpreted as an actual mark.
And so, if the Mark of the Beast is not a literal or physical mark, then what is it symbolic of? And who will it affect? To get some understanding of that, we’ll turn to the book of Ezekiel.
The Mark of the Angel
1 Then I heard him call out in a loud voice, “Bring the guards of the city here, each with a weapon in his hand.” 2 And I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with a deadly weapon in his hand. with them was a man clothed in linen who had a writing kit at his side. They came in and stood beside the bronze altar.
3 Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the Lord called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side 4 and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” 5 As I listened, he said to the others, “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. 6 Slaughter old men, young men and maidens, women and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark.” (Ezekiel 9:1-6, NIV)
Ezekiel was given this vision during the decline of Israel’s relationship with God, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. When I stumbled across it a number of years ago, I was stunned by how it mirrored what is recorded in Revelation 13:11-17.
Ezekiel 8 gives a glimpse of how bad things were in those days. Here’s a bit of what God said about the leaders of the Israelites:
12 “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” (Ezekiel 8:12-13, NIV)
I recommend reading Ezekiel 8 and Ezekiel 9 if you want a better understanding of what was happening in those days and how God was going to respond. Here are a few things I’d like to note:
- The primary issue was idolatry. The Israelites were giving themselves over to idols rather than worshiping God alone.
- God said that the result of the Israelites’ detestable behavior would be the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of their lives. Only those who grieved and lamented over the Israelites’ despicable behavior would be spared.
- Prior to God pouring out His wrath on the Israelites and the city, He said that a “man clothed in linen” would put a mark on the forehead of all those who were to be spared.
I do not believe that the marking referenced above, one I call “the Mark of the Angel,” should be interpreted as a literal marking. I don’t believe that an angel actually walked through Jerusalem and physically marked those who had remained faithful to God; the text doesn’t compel us to understand it that way nor does history support that this is what actually took place. It seems to me that the Mark of the Angel is a symbolic representation of a separation that was going to take place – a demarcation – between those who had stayed faithful to God and those who hadn’t.
Note that the Mark of the Angel had nothing to do with those who were not Israelites. God’s dispute was not with non-Israelites. His wrath was aimed only at those among His chosen people who had decided not to remain faithful to Him.
Could it be that the Mark of the Beast is similar to the Mark of the Angel in its symbolic nature as well as in whom it affects? Before addressing that, it’s important to look at what comes both before and after Revelation 13:11-17.
An Epic Battle
Genesis 1-3 describes what things were like in the beginning.
In the beginning, God had an intimate and personal relationship with mankind. Genesis 3:8 says that God actually walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden. But when Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan and then sinned by eating fruit from the forbidden tree, that relationship was torn apart.
Here are some things God said would happen as a result Satan’s treachery and Adam and Eve’s disobedience:
14 “Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman and your offspring and hers; he will crush you head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:1-15, NIV)
The one being cursed in verse 14 is Satan. It could be that the enmity between Satan and the woman noted in verse 15 is a prophecy that Satan and his minions would be at war from that point on with all of mankind; or it could be talking about the ongoing war that was going to take place between Satan and Jesus, the supernatural seed of women. But eventually “he”, Jesus, will decisively crush Satan even though Satan might have some limited victories in the meantime.
It’s possible that the images in Revelation 12 are providing more details on the conflict prophesied in Genesis 3:14-15. I recommend reading all of Revelation 12 so that you have a good handle on what some of these images are. Here are some things I’d like to note about them:
- A pregnant woman is on the verge of giving birth to a child (vs. 2).
- A dragon, who symbolizes Satan (vs. 9), wants to devour the child after it’s born (vs. 4).
- The woman gives birth to a male child “who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (vs. 5)”
- The woman and her child flee to the desert for 3 ½ years to escape from the dragon (vs. 13-16).
- The dragon is enraged, perhaps because it was unable to kill the child (vs. 17).
- The dragon decides to wage war against “those who obey God’s commands and hold to the testimony of Jesus. (vs. 17)”
It could be that Revelation 12 is describing in symbolic language some things about Jesus’ life as well as the history of the Israelites as a whole. For example, some of the attempts to annihilate the Israelites prior to the first century (Pharaoh in Exodus 1 for example and Haman in Esther 3) could have been sparked by Satan’s impassioned desire to prevent the birth of Jesus. Herod’s command to kill all the males two years or younger in Bethlehem following the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:16) could have been an attempt by Satan to “devour the child” after Jesus’ birth. And when the empty tomb proved that Satan’s plans to prevent the birth of Jesus or kill Him afterwards had failed, could it be that Satan simply changed his game plan and began targeting Christians in the hope that He could keep the truth about Jesus hidden or cause it to be discredited? Revelation 13:1-17 may in fact be describing the war that Satan has declared against Christians and what he’s trying to accomplish by doing so.
I want to point out something that comes after Revelation 13:11-17 that also needs to be taken into consideration.
The Final Judgment
8 A second angel followed and said, “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.” 9 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” 12 This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.” (Revelation 14:9-12, NIV)
This passage seems to be describing the final judgment, perhaps the same separation of “sheep” from “goats” recorded in Matthew 25:31-46. Most would conclude that there are only two groups this passage is referring to – the saved and the unsaved, believers and unbelievers. But I contend that Revelation 14:9-12 is actually referring to three groups. There are those who drink the wine of Babylon’s adulteries and by implication end up experiencing the result of God’s wrath; there are those who worship the beast or receive its mark resulting in them drinking from the wine of God’s fury as well; and there are saints who have remained faithful to Jesus.
It seems to me that the first of these three groups is unbelievers – those who when given the opportunity to follow Jesus didn’t “Fear God and give him the glory” or who didn’t “worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (vs. 14:7). The third group is Christians who have remained faithful to Jesus. But then who is included in the second group? I contend that it is Christians who have not remained faithful to Jesus – Christians who perhaps have not persevered in the midst of persecution – those who in the face of economic or physical threats deny knowing Jesus.
Christians believe that if you haven’t put your trust in Jesus – if you are an unbeliever – that you will not spend eternity with Him. It won’t matter if an unbeliever worships the beast or receives its mark; this will have no effect on their eternal destination. It will be their unbelief that is the issue, not whom they worship instead of Jesus. It seems to me that the only ones that can be affected by worshiping the beast or receiving its mark are therefore those who are followers of Jesus.
Here’s a passage that seems to share a similar sentiment:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away … 7 He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars — their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:1, 7-8, NIV)
Although this passage seems to be describing multiple groupings of people, I believe that they can be put into three groups.
The first group is unbelievers who have no relationship with Jesus – those who have never put their trust in Him. These are referenced explicitly in verse 8; it is “the unbelieving”.
The second group is Christians who have “overcome” (vs. 7), perhaps by persevering to the end or as Paul put it, finishing the race (2 Timothy 4:7). I believe this is the same group described in Revelation 14:12; it is Christians who have endured by obeying God’s commands and remaining faithful to Jesus to the end, perhaps in the midst of the threats described in Revelation 13:1-17.
The third group is those described as cowards, murderers, sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, idolaters, and liars (vs. 8). I don’t believe this is referring to unbelievers as they are mentioned elsewhere in the verse. And, as noted earlier, it is an unbeliever’s unbelief and not their lifestyle that separates them from God. There is no need to clarify this further my adding a list of what God considers despicable. If you are lost, you are lost. Being among those who do any of the other things mentioned in the passage doesn’t make one more lost than someone who isn’t. I believe that this list of abhorrent behaviors was meant to warn Christians that if they embrace behavior that is more indicative of the unsaved than the saved that they may suffer the same fate.
And it could be that the reference to those who are cowardly is referring to Christians who in the midst of threats to their economic or physical welfare deny knowing Jesus.
What this has to do with us
In the days of Nero, Christians facing lions in the arenas could sometimes get spared if they simply denied knowing Jesus. Christians today facing similar physical or economic threats because of their faith in Jesus are often given similar ways out; if they want to avoid ridicule, opposition, or persecution, all they have to do is to remain silent about what they believe about Jesus or deny that they are followers of Him. Could it be that this is what receiving the Mark of the Beast is meant to symbolize? Could it be something that can only affect Christians and that separates those who have remained faithful to Jesus from those who haven’t?
If this is so, than the Mark of the Beast is something that has existed in our world ever since the day that Jesus walked the earth and continues to be a threat for Christians living in our world today.
That is how I see it today.