Then I saw another beast which rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It works great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of men; and by the signs which it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast, it deceives those who dwell on earth, bidding them make an image for the beast which was wounded by the sword and yet lived; and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast should even speak, and to cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six. (Revelation 13:11-18, RSV).
Much has been made of the "Mark of the beast." Hal Lindsey, in his book of the 1970's, Late, Great Planet Earth, pointed out the potential for a global leader, an anti-Christ, to draw the entire world into one economic system of oppression. I even preached a sermon on the end times showing how such a system might come into being through advanced technology. It is easy now to imagine how computing systems could monitor and control all financial transactions in one global network. The protesters who protest against NAFTA and the World Trade Organization are afraid that multinational corporations will become unregulated instruments of oppression through a coordinated control of labor, prices, and goods throughout the world. Osama Bin Laden's recent attack on the World Trade Center was an attempt to bring down the world's financial dealings. I thought it prophetically ironic and frightening that One World Trade Center was the target of the attack. The address of the WTC in its name creates a double meaning. Is it ONE WORLD trade center, or One, WTC? I am sure the buildings builders had both meanings in mind.
While we could speculate on the material methods of the future antichrist and the physical nature of this 'mark,' recently I have come to the conclusion that the mark of the beast is probably not a physical mark at all, but an invisible, spiritual mark.
When I was a new Christian, one of the first books I read on The Book of Revelation, was Hal Lindsey's book. It was enough to frighten me and convince me of a future persecution of the Church by the powers of this world as they resist the Kingdom of God. Over the years, I've read a few more works in this same vein, but eventually gave up trying to make sense of Revelation because of the wildly varied interpretations of the book by people from various camps. (My wife is now reading the Tim Lehay Left Behind series, and is enjoying it very much.) It seems to me that anyone can read any current event into the book and come out with evidence to support their theories. Lindsey was convinced that the Soviet Union was going to attack Israel and start Armageddon. Well, the USSR is essentially defunct and Gog and Magog (Rev. 20:8) are places in Turkey and Asia Minor, not Russia; and the Soviet Union is no more. My point is that we need to be cautious when trying to apply prophecies to current political events.
Recently, I've read some commentaries by biblical scholars who point out how John relied on Old Testament imagery for much of his apocalyptic vision. This imagery would have been recognizable immediately to Jewish Christians of the First Century AD as images referencing events in the past in Scripture. What causes me to think that this mark of the beast is not a physical mark at all is because of the historical reference John may have been using in speaking of this worship of 'the beast.'
First of all, we must ask: "What is this beast and what worship does it entail?" The beast appears to be the worship of money or mammon personified in a global system of commerce. In the days of John, business contracts in Roman and Greek world were signed and sealed and introduced in the name of a god or deity. The trade or merchant guilds were dedicated to a particular god or deity, and one could only join the guild by swearing allegiance to the Greek or Roman god and goddess. This system of commerce, tied up in Rome, with the worship of the Roman Emperor as a god, meant that all Christians were effectively excluded from commerce by the very nature of the economic system. Christians could not sign contracts in the name of the divine emperor, Apollo, or any other demon deity. Without a signature or allegiance to this beastly system of economics, Christians couldn't join merchant guilds for business or trade. To consent to this form of commerce, to buy and sell, was to deny God and to worship man and a human system of economics as the god of your life! Those who did not submit could not buy or sell. John, it seems, had a very clear image of just who and what this beast was at the time he wrote the book. It wasn't all prophetic future, it was a real problem the Church was facing at the time. The Christians were being told to compromise their faith in order to secure their economic futures.
For the Jews, the number 6 represented the number of man. Man was created on the 6th day. At the time Revelation, the Roman Emperors, or Caesars, were considered divine beings. Citizens were required to prove their loyalty to the State by offering incense as a sacrifice of worship to the Emperor as a god of Rome. The number value of the alphabet of Nero Caesar's name added up to 666. Thus, this number was the number of a Man who symbolized all of man's rebellion against God by making himself to be a god and by requiring others to worship him.
My point is that the worship of the beast is the worship of a human being, swearing allegiance to a human being and a human system of government and economics as one's chief loyalty and object of devotion. Those who submit to this system have already received this mark of the beast, whether they receive it physically on their bodies or not.
Why is unnecessary to have a physical mark or number branded or implanted on your body? If we look at Ezekiel, we will perhaps find a clue as to John's meaning:
Then he said to me, 'Have you seen this, O son of man? You will see still greater abominations than these.' And he brought me into the inner court of the house of the LORD; and behold, at the door of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east. Then he said to me, 'Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too slight a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations which they commit here, that they should fill the land with violence, and provoke me further to anger? Lo, they put the branch to their nose. Therefore I will deal in wrath; my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity; and though they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them.' Then he cried in my ears with a loud voice, saying, 'Draw near, you executioners of the city, each with his destroying weapon in his hand.' And lo, six men came from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, every man with his weapon for slaughter in his hand, and with them was a man clothed in linen, with a writing case at his side. And they went in and stood beside the bronze altar. Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherubim on which it rested to the threshold of the house; and he called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his side. And the LORD said to him, 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.' And to the others he said in my hearing, 'Pass through the city after him, and smite; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity; slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one upon whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.' So they began with the elders who were before the house. (Ezekiel 8:15-9:6, RSV)
We see here that God puts a spiritual and invisible mark on all who are faithful to him. He marks all those who do not worship the abominations of idols and the false gods that have even been set up within the sacred Temple precinct! The mark is very real, but not visible to the naked eye! It is not a material mark on the skin, but it is visible in the Spirit to God.
What I think we have here in John is the converse of this spiritual mark. This time, instead of the faithful being marked, it is the unfaithful who are marked spiritually because of their devotion to this human economic system and to autocratic leaders who demand religious loyalty from their subjects. This invisible mark of devotion to mammon is the mark of allegiance to man above God; hence it is the number 6, the number of rebellion and idolatry. Why 666? Because while Nero was the historical actor whose name calculated to 666, Nero Caesar becomes in John's mind the symbol of all who worship the world's system of government and economics. And so this passage of scripture was just as true for Christians in John's day as it is for ours. Each of us could succumb to worshipping our present economic system, and a false religious savior, and be asked to give up our obedience to the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Since the number 666 is a symbolic number representing the world's system, it doesn't need to be fulfilled in a literal mark. It is a symbol of devotion to a type of antichrist, which happens in small and subtle ways whenever we are asked to trust government promises and human leaders for our security. Whenever we choose economic security over obedience to the Lord, we are acting in concert with the beast.
The question for the Christians in John's day is: "To whom do you give your ultimate allegiance and what will you be willing to do in order to get money? Will you betray Christ or swear to false gods in order to buy and sell?" The question John posed is as crucial to Christians today as it was in 70 AD
I have before discussed the typological nature of scripture. While Nero is a type of antichrist, he is not the Man of Lawlessness who is to come (2 Thessalonians 2). Nero will not be raised from the dead to take control over the earth, but he represents the type of man who will fulfill the prophecy and seek to be worshipped as god. The key to understanding this scripture then is not to look for some plastic ID card embedded beneath the skin with the prefix 666, but to realize that even Christians could fall prey to receiving an invisible mark of allegiance to a false system of security in a time of great economic upheavals. Will you betray Christians and Christ and report on people to the antichrist just so you can keep your job and maintain your business? Christians faced that challenge in Nazi Germany as they did in John's day. They had to decide to hide Jews or turn them in to the authorities.
The idea of the mark of the beast has both contemporary relevance as well as a future application. Today, each day, we must decide where our ultimate loyalties reside and to Whom. Will we compromise on moral matters to gain a profit, or will we suffer for honesty and integrity in business? Will we seek security in the things of this world, or will we seek security in the Only One who can assure us of our eternal future? Finally, there will come a day, according to Thessalonians, when a man of lawlessness does come who demands that all the earth worship him as god. In that day, those who bow down and sign contracts in this man's name will be allowed to do business and those who do not will be excluded. But this mark, which those who give their allegiance to the beast are to receive, may be visible only to God, who has had them marked on the foreheads [worship of agreement] or on the hand [worship of commerce and labor].
At the very least, it is something to think about.