It’s an issue that continues to inflame debate about the end times and contributes to the overall hysteria that discredits the Christian community in the eyes of the world: Revelation 13:16–18 and the “mark of the beast.”
I have in mind the belief by many that the “mark” of the beast is a literal tattoo, or a chip implant, or an imprint of sorts, or perhaps some other physiological branding by which his/its followers are visually identified. The popular notion among many Christians (usually of the dispensational, futurist school of interpretation) is that some such designation—whether “the name of the beast” or “the number  of its name” (Rev. 13:17)—will be forcibly imposed on people living in the final few years prior to Christ’s second coming. If one wishes to buy or sell and thus survive in the days ahead, they must submit to this means of identification.
Popular, Yes. But Correct?
Again, this interpretation is largely based on a futurist reading of Revelation, such that what John describes pertains mainly (if not solely) to that last generation alive immediately before the second coming of Christ. If, on the other hand, the book of Revelation largely portrays events that occur throughout church history, this view is seriously undermined. As is evident from Revelation 7, we should understand the “mark” of the beast on the right hand or forehead of his/its followers to be a Satanic parody (a religious rip-off, so to speak) of the “seal” placed on the foreheads of God’s people (Rev. 7:3–8; 14:1; cf. 22:4).
Many believe the reference to receiving a “mark” is an allusion to the ancient practice of branding or tattooing. David Aune has documented several purposes for the latter:
- Barbarian tribes in antiquity practiced tattooing as a means of tribal identification.
- The Greeks used tattoos as a way to punish both slaves and criminals. As such, it was a mark of disgrace and degradation, which accounts for the methods of removal discussed in ancient medical literature.
- Tattooing could also be a mark of ownership, similar to branding cattle.
- In a number of ancient religions, tattooing indicated dedication and loyalty to a pagan deity.
That said, I don’t believe the so-called “mark of the beast” is a literal, physical mark on the bodies of unbelievers, either on their forehead or their right hand. Throughout Revelation we see Satan making every effort to copy whatever God does. For example, the three persons of the holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—find their evil counterpart in Satan, the beast, and the false prophet. And just as Jesus died and rose again from the dead, so the beast is portrayed as dying and rising to life.
I don’t believe the so-called ‘mark of the beast’ is a literal, physical mark on the bodies of unbelievers. . . . Throughout Revelation we see Satan making every effort to copy whatever God does.
The “mark” of the beast that unbelievers receive on their forehead or right hand is a demonic rip-off, a depraved parody, a counterfeit imitation of the “mark” believers receive on their foreheads. Look at the texts where the people of God are “sealed” on their foreheads:
Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads. (Rev. 7:3)
They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. (Rev. 9:4)
Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion, stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. (Rev. 14:1)
They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. (Rev. 22:4)
No one I know believes all Christians will literally and physically have the names of Jesus and the Father tattooed on their foreheads. This is simply a way of describing that those born again and redeemed by Christ’s blood belong to him and to his Father and are preserved in faith by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Mark of Belonging
So when we read that the false prophet causes everyone who isn’t a Christian to have the mark of the beast written on their forehead, we should understand this as a sign that they belong to the beast and are loyal to him. This “mark” on their foreheads or on their right hand is simply Satan’s way of mimicking the seal of God on God’s people. If you have the name of Jesus and God the Father written on your forehead, it simply means that they own you, that you belong to them, that you are loyal to the Lord God Almighty.
But if you have “the name of the beast” (Rev. 13:17) written on your forehead, it signifies that he owns you, that you belong to him, that you are loyal to the Antichrist.
Echoes from the OT
Some have found the background for the mark of the beast in the Jewish practice of wearing tephillim or phylacteries. These were leather boxes containing Scripture passages (cf. Ex. 13:9, 16; Deut. 6:8; 11:18; Matt. 23:5) worn either on the left arm (facing the heart) or on the forehead. The mark of the beast, however, was to be placed on the right hand.
Others have pointed out that the word “mark” was used of the emperor’s seal on business contracts and the impress of the Roman ruler’s head on coins. Perhaps, then, as Greg Beale argues, “the mark alludes to the state’s political and economic ‘stamp of approval,’ given only to those who go along with its religious demands.”
It seems clear that the “mark” of the beast on his followers is the demonic counterpart and parody of the “seal” placed on the foreheads of God’s people (see Rev. 7:3–8; 14:1; 22:4). Beale writes:
Just as the seal and the divine name on believers connote God’s ownership and spiritual protection of them, so the mark and Satanic name signify those who belong to the Devil and will undergo perdition.
Since the seal or name on the believer is obviously invisible, symbolizing the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, it seems certain that the mark of the beast is likewise a symbolic way of describing the loyalty of his followers and his ownership of them.
The mark of the beast is a symbolic way of describing the loyalty of his followers and his ownership of them.
If you’re wondering why both the seal on God’s people and the “mark” on the non-Christian is placed on the forehead, it may be that the forehead points to one’s ideological commitment and the hand to that commitment’s practical outworking.
This view seems to carry much weight in being consistent with the witness of all of Scripture.
- Dan Doriani on Matthew 24:15–16
- Miles Van Pelt on Judges 11:29–40
- Mark Gignilliant on Exodus 4:24–26
- William Ross on Psalm 19:7
- Jimmy Agan on Matthew 15:26
- Dennis Johnson on Revelation 21:1
- Greg Beale on Revelation 13:8
- Miles Van Pelt on Judges 16:1–3
- Jack Collins on Psalm 2:7
- Stephen Dempster on 1 Samuel 28
- Tremper Longman on Ecclesiastes
- Ardel Caneday on Hebrews 6:4–8
- George H. Guthrie on Hebrews 13:2
- John Currid on Isaiah 65:20
- Sam Storms on Exodus 1 and Joshua 2
- Tom Schreiner on Romans 7
- John Piper on Romans 7
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Romans 7