While many are worrying about health and returning to work, some apocalyptic-minded Christians are concerned with theorizing about the cause of our current crisis. This past week, my dear mom was grocery shopping when a lady handing out tracts approached her and said, “Don’t take the chip!” She went on to explain that microchip tracking is coming and that it is related to buying and selling, global food shortages, and 666. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted suspicion of a conspiracy to mark everyone.
The verse this woman was referencing is Revelation 13:16–18, which states that the beast “causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads,and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666” (NKJV).
Many fear that in this passage, John is prophesying an antichrist who will exercise government-based economic control over mankind in a way that will affect the entire population. While the Bible does not offer a blueprint of specific events, we are given enough information to help us understand the basic issues that will arise as history moves to its climax. Jesus’ prophetic words warn us to watch out for false prophets in sheep’s clothing who are inwardly ravening wolves (Matthew 7:15). That’s what the beast nature is. In a religious guise, it pretends to be something it isn’t as it seizes false authority and power. It’s spiritually attractive, yet deceptive. It’s demonic identity is concealed. Sometimes, it’s hard to discern the truth, but God has long warned that truth must be applied even to miracle-working prophets who come in God’s name (Deuteronomy 13:1–3). Jesus warns us to be wary, so we can avoid being deceived, for many will come in His name imitating the truth (Mark 13:5).
Some go beyond John’s interest in God’s character, however, analyzing political circumstances to find reasons or explanations for a crisis. Pinpointing specific activities may reduce our sense of uncertainty, but we often find only dead ends. Revelation 13 shows what’s really at stake. There, we find a cosmic conflict between good and evil operating behind the scenes, masked by the complexity of human reality. The larger issues are hidden, but John seeks to uncover what is beneath the surface. The opposing sides in this conflict dispute God’s character and authority, which are to be brought out into the open. John understands God’s side in the conflict as deployed by the slaughtered Lamb. The dragon empowers two surrogate beasts to carry out his wishes—to do dragon work. In apocalyptic fashion, politically oppressive and religious powers seek to usurp God’s holiness. The dragon works in parody of God’s name—in a threefold union with miracle-working powers, dying and rising signs, and a lamblike appearance—but ends as a dragon. The demonic identity works in concealment. It does not speak for God. It’s a deception.
It seems to me that the logic of Revelation dictates that the mark has a representative function that should not be limited to a specific event like electronic-readable devices under your skin. John’s story is shaped by the biblical narrative, not modern-day technological concerns or whatever the latest conspiracy theory might be. John knows that God tells Jewish parents to teach their children the Scriptures in Deuteronomy 6. The Israelites are told to bind God’s words “as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8, ESV). These tokens of God’s words in one’s mind and actions signify allegiance and the development of values that molds and shapes the character after the divine similitude. God pouring out His love into our hearts by the Spirit and deepening our loyalty is how we are sealed (Romans 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30). The mark of the beast is a parody or imitation of God’s mark and an outward manifestation of such character and identity. Each mark represents the reality of the entity it brands.
In Revelation, everyone has a mark. The question is: which one will you carry? Are you so fully embracing the imprint of the dragon that you pattern your life after his thinking? What values are you binding to your head and hands—what beliefs and behaviors? Are you making God your highest love? Are you directing your life according to convenience, or do you seek God’s direction to become welded to Him? What underlies your decision-making patterns? Whose identity do you bear?
Mature Christians should learn the difference between the two antagonistic motives in this cosmic conflict—and decide upon which they will rely. The conflict between God bringing His purposes to be realized and the dragon’s work through human and religious powers characterizes the interplay between heaven and earth. Those who bear the mark of the beast collude with a deceptive identity. Hopefully, we will become melded into the truth about who God is and how He works.
I read the tract my mom received while grocery shopping with much interest, but I don’t think disseminating tracts is clarifying in moments like these, especially when those tracts are premised on escaping suffering and eternal punishment. What is missing from Revelation is the so-called secret rapture that gets us out of this mess. There is a second coming, to be sure, and God promises to provide protection and preservation by His presence, but I don’t see an extraction of believers prior to earth’s turmoil and tribulation (1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:4). The seal has to do with God’s character and people in the midst of suffering. I think we are learning with this current crisis that we are all in this together. That is, it doesn’t matter whether we are believers, for there’s no secret escape before times of testing. The mark of the beast is not a doomsday prediction that we can’t escape, but a warning to change our identity and follow the Lamb. I also can’t help but notice that God’s mark is noncoercive and truly lamblike, while the beast is deceptively lamblike as it harnesses coercive power to enforce its authority and control.
One thing we should have learned by now is that pandemics don’t occur because God is angry and sticks it to us; they are consequences of our self-inflicted wounds. In the Bible, I don’t think the mark refers literally to a electronic tattoo or microchip implanted in one’s skin, as everything in Revelation would have made sense to the original audience. While each mark may have era-associated tokens and symbols, marks are more internal than external. I think John would direct us to see control elements that overpower freedom of conscience as the hallmark of the dragon’s work. Instead of speculating about what the mark of the beast is, watch for coercion of others’ behaviors and morals, especially under the guise of religion.
What is the catalyst that will trigger Revelation’s final scenes of crisis and tribulation? I don’t think we should be looking for a specific act or event because history is not a series of disconnected events. Jesus tells us to watch, for we do not know the day or the hour (Matthew 25:13). We see that there is uncertainty in our world. People today fear losing jobs and going hungry as the economy tanks, and they see officials not knowing what to do. They are distrustful of the information being provided. It may seem that the world is spiraling out of control, becoming more susceptible to panic and fear. We all recognize that we are living in new and different times and the stakes are high, but there’s no better time to portray God in a wonderful and meaningful way.
This is where our focus needs to be, on the quality of God’s character. The issue is the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. Despite the present chaos, confusion and uncertainty we are cared for by God as He brings all things to a final consummation.
Craig Ashton Jr.