The book of Revelation and the imagery contained therein is a popular subject in our society, as it has been ever since John penned his visions. One of the most popular of the visions involve the “beast” and the “mark of the beast”, concerning which there has been no end of speculation. The “mark of the beast” derives from Revelation 13:16-18:
And he causeth all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free and the bond, that there be given them a mark on their right hand, or upon their forehead; and that no man should be able to buy or to sell, save he that hath the mark, even the name of the beast or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. He that hath understanding, let him count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man: and his number is Six hundred and sixty and six.
For two thousand years people have been trying to establish what the “mark of the beast” is. It has been almost universally interpreted to be something present in society, be it from the fifth century, fifteenth century, or now in the twenty-first century. Is this what John (or Jesus) intended with the Revelation?
There are some important things for us to establish. First of all, the “Antichrist” is never mentioned in the Revelation; the concept is imported from 1 John 2. He is also identified with the “son of perdition” in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, never mind that the “mystery of lawlessness” was already at work in the first century (2 Thessalonians 2:7). Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Revelation is just that– a revelation, a vision which John saw while “in the Spirit” (Revelation 1:10, 9:17). We do not doubt that John “literally” saw the images he describes; the question, however, is what the images represent.
In order to be good Bible students, we must first understand the context and purpose of anything written in the New Testament. We must establish who is writing, to whom they are writing, and the purpose of the writing.
This is as true with Romans and Hebrews as it is with the Revelation which John received. We see in Revelation 1:1, 4 that the author of the Revelation is John, and it represents the revelation that Jesus gave him. It is addressed to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. While there is some dispute over when it should be dated (whether before 70 or in the 90s), there is no doubt that it is written in the first century to first century Christians in Asia. The purpose of writing is first to send specific instructions to the churches (Revelation 2-3), and secondly to inform them about what will “shortly” take place, so that they may stand firm (Revelation 1:3, 19; Revelation 22:7, 20).
We can know for certain, therefore, that whatever the “mark of the beast” is, or whoever the “beast” represents, that it is directly relevant for the life of Christians in Asia in the first century. How can events in the twenty-first century be thus relevant to such persons? Why would God reveal a message to these Christians that would have nothing to do with them, or with anyone else in the first century, but would only be relevant to Christians almost two millennia later?
One could come up with many different possibilities for the “mark of the beast”: something bearing Caesar’s inscription and profession of godhood, a certificate indicating that someone sacrificed to the gods of Rome and cursed Christ, or something else involving Rome against Christians. The “beast” has been variously interpreted as any Roman emperor, Nero in particular, Diocletian, Julian the Apostate of the fourth century, the pope, and so on and so forth. Whatever the specifics, we can be confident that it involves the relationship between Christians of the day and Rome, the power that arose in persecution against them. There is no good interpretive basis to project the beast or his mark as a present-day phenomenon, as has been true for almost 1600 years.