Our youth small group Bible study has been working its way through Revelation chapter by chapter this year. Knowing that this particular book of the Bible presents readers with unique challenges, I’ve been doing some reading in commentaries and other books in advance as we go through. Yesterday, reading through Eugene Peterson’s excellent Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, I had a bit of a revelation myself.
Yesterday we talked about Revelation 14. Both that chapter and the one before it mention the “mark of the beast,” which goes on a person’s hand or forehead. The question of the mark of the beast and what it is has been a hotly debated question for some Christians, particularly in more conservative circles, for a long time: is it a barcode tattoo? credit cards? debit cards? chip implants? Every time some new technology comes out it seems like someone brings up the mark of the beast. This is especially true when the new technology involves financial transactions, because Revelation 13 says that people won’t be able to buy or sell without the mark.
I’ve always thought a mark on the forehead or the hand was an odd place to put a mark, but then for a long time I’ve also known that Revelation is rich in symbolism and metaphor and so there is much there that should not be taken at literal face value. So I haven’t thought about the mark much, until it came up in our reading.
Then Peterson made a connection I had never heard before, but makes complete sense, especially given how much Revelation (re)uses Old Testament imagery. The mark of the beast is on the forehead or the hand. Way back in Deuteronomy 6, Moses speaks for God and says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” (this is the “Shema“), and then he goes on to tell Israel to tie this command to their foreheads and hands. From this we get the phylactery, a small box Jewish men would wear (or put on their doorposts) containing a little scroll with a portion of the Torah on it, probably even the words of the Shema itself, which reminded them of who they were: people of the One God, the God they were to love completely.
This correspondence between the phylactery and the mark of the beast was a lightbulb moment for me. Suddenly the mark of the beast made a great deal more sense. The phylactery is a symbol or mark identifying who a people belong to, who they follow, who they obey. It is a symbol of allegiance. It is a visible symbol of a life that is lived.
I realized suddenly that the mark of the beast is not about physical objects or marks like credit cards or tattoos. The mark of the beast is a way of life. Just as the mark of Christ, the seal of the Spirit, which the Christian bears, is love (and faithful endurance, to use the language of Revelation), so the mark of the beast is the opposite way of life (Revelation is filled with opposites, e.g. the Lamb that was slain and the beast that looks a like a lamb). Given the contexts of these chapters with dragons and beasts and buying and selling, the mark may play out in things like false religion (including perhaps most insidiously false Christianity), allegiance to a certain political system or market economy, self-interest, individualism, and all manner of idolatries, etc.
If the mark of the beast is a way of life then, on the one hand, the concerns of a more fundamentalist/literalist, end-times/tribulation focussed view—concerns about whether, say, debit cards are the mark of the beast or some future where we’ll have to make a choice about chip implants—largely disappear.
On the other hand, the mark of the beast as a way of life is much more insidious, because we tend to slide very easily and without much thought into the whatever current trend or way of life that comes our way, trends and ways of life that very often are or turn into idolatry. In other words, the mark of the beast is not necessarily something we consciously choose to receive, but something we may simply slide into without even consciously doing so.
This requires patient endurance from the saints indeed!