In a dystopian world, Gill Bates, tech multi-billionaire and founder of UberTough, the IT giant, has designed a vaccine that will alter your DNA, this mark will be inserted into your arm (close to your hand right) and to prove you’ve had it, you will also have to have a digital passport based on facial recognition. That’s right, you will bear his seal on your fore-head. A little bit of number crunching will show that either his name, that of the manufacturer or possibly the barcode on the product adds up to 666.
It all sounds plausible as an interpretation of Revelation 13 doesn’t it? Even if not so, there has been a lot of confusion and speculation about what the passage means over many years leading to novels with elaborate plotlines, heated discussions at late night conferences and plenty of conspiracy theories as people have attempted to identify the beast and the mark.
In an earlier article, I reproduced a sermon that argues if our attention is focused on this as a physical mark, we are probably pursuing a red herring. I want to explain why in a little bit more detail here.
First of all, we need to think about the context and purpose of the Book of Revelation. It tends to be treated as something written for a select remnant to be guided by many years in the future. But that’s not how New Testament literature tends to function. Revelation cones with a named, immediate audience, the recipients are 7 churches located in modern day Turkey. We probably want to be careful about separating out the first 3 chapters from the rest of the book. John brings revelation from Jesus to them. The big picture visions of seals and trumpets and dragons needs to be seen in that context. The aim is to help those churches know why it is important that they are to be faithful and fruitful, pure in word and deed, loving at heart and on fire for Christ.
In so far as the book offers the big picture of history, it does so in order to help its readers know how to live for Christ in their time and context. I find it helpful to describe it as helping us to see the whole of history through God’s eyes from the perspective of the end of time in order to know how to live in the here and now. The focus is on holy living as Christ’s people. It is therefore about our hearts, actions and speeches.
The book is rich in imagery, the presence of dragons, beasts and creatures as well as Christ portrayed as lion and (sacrificed) lamb show that this is meant to be read symbolically not literally. If we know that the beast is symbolic then that should caution us about treating the description of a seal as symbolic.
Here are three further clues that the mark described should be seen as a symbolic reperesentation in the narrative rather than the prediction of a physical branding. First of all Deuteronomy 6 instructs God’s people to write the law of God on the doorposts and to bind it to their heads and their hands. It is a law God will put on their hearts. The last point is crucial, if this is a heart law then we probably are not meant to be going around tattooing it or binding it to our heads and hands. Although some orthodox Jews do follow such a custom, most people would see Deuteronomy 6 as pointing towards the way that God’s Word is always on our mind and about how we in effect inhabit it so that obedience becomes habit forming in all of our (hand) actions.
Secondly, in Revelation 7:1-8, we see that God’s chosen people are marked or sealed with the Lamb’s seal. They are branded, or marked out as his own and so they are kept safe. It is worth saying that if we have received the lamb’s seal then we don’t need to worry about receiving a counter-seal from Satan. So, what is that seal? Well Ephesians 1:13 says
13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,
So, if God’s people are sealed with his Holy Spirit and his word, so that our lives reflect the fruit of the Spirit and heart obedience to God’s Word, then Revelation 13 points to the counter seal of the anti-Christ. That counter seal is about putting our trust in another Spirit and another word – an anti-word. The seal then is all to do with lives that instead of reflecting the fullness of the Spirt reflect the fullness of or obedience to Satan. If you wan tto know what that looks like, have a read of Romans 1:16-32.