The “mark of the beast” is something that has fascinated people down through the ages. What is it? How is it recognized? Some have taken it quite literally; that to have the “mark of the beast” is to have 666 tattooed on our foreheads. Others have been a bit more fancifully, seeing it as some kind of bar code inscribed on the back of one’s hand or on one’s forehead. This bar code will be required by the antichrist when he is finally revealed, and without it no one will be able to buy or purchase anything.
I don’t find either of those explanations convincing. First, they do not honor the fact that this is apocalyptic literature, a form of writing that uses images and numbers as symbols of a greater truth. When John wrote this book, neither he nor the Holy Spirit who was inspiring him meant for them to be taken literally.
Second, if they are only future events that will occur someday, they really don’t have a lot to do with me now. I can skip this portion of Scripture, leaving it for the day when the mark of the beast really is a problem.
Third, notice the contrast between verse 1 and verse 9. The 144,000 (again, a number not meant to be taken literally but as statement of God’s perfection and ability to save) also have a mark on their forehead; the name of God.
This seems like a pretty big clue to understanding what is going on here. These are people who are faithful to God, who live according to his purpose and calling.
With these things in mind, it seems to me that the mark of the beast is the life that fails to worship God. It is on the forehead because it represents thoughts that run counter to God’s thoughts; it is on the back of the hands because it represents works counter to God’s works. It is the life that is lived in such a way that it brings a little bit of hell to earth rather God’s kingdom (heaven).
When we understand the mark of the beast in this way, we understand it was something the people of John’s day struggled with just like its something you and I struggle with. In a sense, it is the struggle of our lives –and not just a reference to some obscure future event that was as irrelevant to John’s readers as such a reference would be to us.
To win this struggle will require endurance. It will require us to keep God’s commandments. It will require us to hold fast to the faith of Jesus. It is the faith of Jesus that will define our lives, not the world around us.
The good news is that for those who persevere, one day their labor will be over, and it will not be in vain. As The Message puts it, those who stay faithful to Jesus receive “blessed rest from their hard, hard work. None of what they've done is wasted; God blesses them for it all in the end."
I can’t wait.