The second beast causes all people to be marked on their right hand or forehead. If they do not have the mark of the beast they cannot buy or sell. One of the most tantalizing aspects in the New Testament is the meaning of the mark of the beast. John tells us it is the name of the beast, but it is converted into numbers: 666. John then invites the readers to use wisdom to calculate the number of the beast, inadvertently beginning 2000 years of speculation of what the number 666 means.
I will start by disappointing some readers: The number of the beast does not refer to any American politician. It does not calculate to Obama or Trump, nor does it refer to the mega-wealthy pulling the strings of the government (Soros, Gates, Bezos, etc.) It does not refer to a Visa card implanted in your head or a chip secretly hidden away in the new flu vaccine. Feel free to leave a comment with your favorite modern interpretation of the Mark of the Beast. In fact, 666 is not an “unlucky number.” It is not the devil’s number and there is nothing to fear. One famous Christian owned hobby store will give you a penny discount if your total comes to $6.66. I will admit there was a house near where i grew up that had the street number 666; we called it “the devil’s house,” but that was (mostly) a joke. Readers of Revelation need to check their modern conspiracy theories and focus on what John intended to communicate by the mark of the beast and the number 666. Here is an older post with more on the number.
Like everything else in Revelation, any attempt to understand what the mark of the beast is (or is not) must start with the Old Testament background. In Ezekiel 9 the Lord instructs a man clothed in linen to “pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” Those who do not receive this mark are slaughtered. The mark is the letter tav, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Moshe Greenberg points out similarities to the mark on the doorpost in Egypt at Passover (Exod 12:23) or the mark on Aaron’s head the forehead (Exod 28:38; Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20; AB, 177). It is also possible this marking is a parody of the Jewish practice of binding scripture on the hand or forehead during prayer (phylacteries).
The beast is not the only character in Revelation marking his followers. In the very next paragraph after the beast marks his followers his name, the Lord marks the 144,000 with the name of the Lamb and his Father on their foreheads (14:1). Later in the book, the servants of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem have his name on their foreheads (22:4). The Great Whore has a name tattooed on her head (Mystery Babylon), just as Christ bears a name no one knows but he himself (19:12). The words “King of kings and Lord of Lords” are written on his robe and thigh of the rider in 19:16 (Aune, 2:734).
What is the Mark of the Beast? People were marked in the ancient world for any number of things. For example, runaway slaves or captured soldiers might be branded or tattooed with a mark indicating their status. Third Maccabees 2:27-29 describes steps taken against Alexandrian Jews, including being branded with an ivy leaf, a symbol of the worship of Dionysus. (See also these posts on Apostasy in Third Maccabees and The Incident with the Elephants.)
Third Maccabees 2:27-29 He proposed to inflict public disgrace on the Jewish community, and he set up a stone on the tower in the courtyard with this inscription: 28 “None of those who do not sacrifice shall enter their sanctuaries, and all Jews shall be subjected to a registration involving poll tax and to the status of slaves. Those who object to this are to be taken by force and put to death; 29 those who are registered are also to be branded on their bodies by fire with the ivy-leaf symbol of Dionysus, and they shall also be reduced to their former limited status.”
The noun translated mark (χάραγμα) refers to something that is engraved stamped or etched, such as an inscription or a coin (BDAG). Acts 17:29 uses the word for an idol, “formed by the art of men.” But it is also used for written letters or an endorsement on a document, like an official signature or stamp (BrillDAG). As a modern analogy, this is similar to an officially embossed notary stamp. So the physical mark could be a brand or tattoo, or an official endorsement of some kind.
Because the mark permits buying and selling, many commentators on Revelation see the mark as limiting participation in economic life to those who have completed their obligations of emperor worship. Greg Beale, for example, states “The mark is clearly figurative of the ways in which the state keeps check on whether people submit to compulsory idol worship” (Revelation, 715).
Regardless of the background, the mark represents the final act of loyalty to the beast. By marking themselves, the people are accepting the Beast as their lord and savior and rejecting God. Those that refuse the mark are making their declaration for God and against the system of the Beast. And like the examples of Daniel and his friends, those who refuse the mark must be willing to die on account of this refusal to acknowledge the power and authority of the beast and his kingdom.
The mystery of this passage is in verse 17-18. The mark of the beast is the name of the beast, or the number of his name, 666. There are no numbers in many ancient languages, so letters sometimes substituted as numbers. A=1, B=2, etc. For example, there is a famous graffiti in Pompeii that reads “I love her whose number is 545.” Jewish Gematria found all sorts of meanings of words scripture by converting words to numbers and back again.
John invites the reader to figure this out, knowing that the name adds up to 666, who might this be? In the early church there were several suggested names, including a Greek word meaning “to deny,” meaning that the name of the Beast was denial of the Lord. The full Latin title used on coins of Domitian, the emperor at the time of John, allegedly adds up to 666. But the most common suggestion is the number 666 refers to Nero Caesar, but in the Hebrew spelling of the name.
It may be best to conclude that John and his readers knew the clue that unlocked the mystery of the number and who it referred to, and that we are unable to figure it out with any certainty today.
Whatever the mark is, it represents a final declaration of loyalty. At this point in the plot of Revelation, one is either for God or against him.