The mark of the beast is likely one of the most discussed topics in Christianity today, and yet, it is also one of the most misunderstood. Dramatization abounds through print and media regarding this mark which is mentioned very enigmatically at the end of Revelation 13.
The majority of what everyday Christians know about the mark, however, comes not from Scripture, but from science-fiction dramatization. In reality, the mark has to do with loyalty, loyalty to Christ or government, Christ or culture, Christ or family, Christ or friends.
What is the unforgivable sin?
One of the common beliefs regarding the mark is that it is unforgivable and that anyone who takes it cannot be saved. Yet, the Lord says very clearly that there is only one unforgivable sin:
And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but the slander against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.Matthew 12:31-32
The question that must be asked, therefore, is what does it mean to slander the Spirit? Well, if we back up and examine the context, a man who was afflicted by a demon that caused him to be both blind and mute had been brought to Jesus and had been healed so he could both talk and see. The people, therefore, in verse 23 were astonished and asked, “Could this be the Son of David?” This question was derived from the signs given by the Old Testament to identify the Messiah, as the prophet Isaiah says:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.Isaiah 35:5-6
The Pharisees, however, despite seeing with their eyes tangible evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, attributed the fulfillment of the signs to the power of Satan (Matt. 12:24). This was a peculiar kind of slander entirely unique to the first-century situation and cannot be committed today.
The nature of the mark of the beast
If the unforgivable sin cannot be committed today, we must now ask what is the mark of the beast? First, it must be noted that the mark is received upon the right hand or the forehead (Revelation 13:16). Of course, this itself has generated many speculative interpretations, but we must be careful to base our interpretations in Scripture. This is the same thing that believers are commanded to do with God’s Word in Deuteronomy:
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. … Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.Deuteronomy 6:6, 8
Therefore, the mark is a gross parody of God’s commandment. As believers we do not literally tie our Bibles to our hands or foreheads; we understand this to be symbolic of the Christian’s loyalty to Christ and his Word, evident to all in the same way as the forehead or main hand, not hidden away. One receives the mark of the beast when he or she decides to keep silent about an aspect of their faith in daily life, usually out of fear of what people will think. Today, we would call it a form of “political correctness,” or submitting oneself to Caesar (government) in opposition to Christ. Consider the words of the Lord:
Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.Matthew 10:32-33
In the first century, the religious establishment of Israel rejected Christ because he threatened their cozy positions of leadership granted them by Caesar (John 11:47-49). It was the religious Jews in Acts who continually stirred up the people against the preaching of the gospel (Acts 6:12; 14:2; 21:27), not wanting to upset the status quo, their devotion not rendered to God but to Caesar. John describes the religious Jews of his time as a “land beast” in Revelation 13, saying that they “caused the land and they who lived in it to worship the first beast” (Rev. 13:12), the first beast being Rome, the city of seven hills and seven Caesars (Revelation 13:1; 17:9-11).
The sixth of Rome’s seven heads, ruling at the time John was writing, was Nero, whose name, transliterated into Hebrew, is Nrwn Qsr, the value of the letters, 50, 200, 6, 50, 100, 60, 200, totaling 666. This practice of counting, each letter having a specific value, was common in the ancient world, graffiti in Pompeii found that reads: “I love her whose number is 545” (Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (1927; repr., 1980), p. 276). John’s words “Let him who has understanding” (Rev. 13:18) signifies that he expected his first-century readers to figure out of whom he was speaking, though it could not be too obvious or else the officials on Patmos responsible for the mail would have discovered the sedition. Thus, it was necessary to hide the meaning under a Hebrew transliteration, a language that most early Christians would have had some familiarity. John implies that what he is writing is hidden while still expecting his first-century readers to figure it out.
Taking the mark of the beast is a grievous sin; as Christians our loyalty to Christ should be as plain as our foreheads. Yet we all have moments of weakness, moments when our faith falters, and for whatever reason, we keep silent about what we believe. To act in such a way is sinful – there is no way to justify it – but it is not unforgivable. Revelation 14:9 is clear that only those who “worship the beast and its image and receive its mark” shall be condemned; it says “and” not or. The issue is loyalty and worship; if someone, out of an initial fear, is silent about their faith, going along with the crowd by giving a pinch of incense to Caesar, he or she is not beyond forgiveness. It is a sin for any Christian to try and be a secret believer, but they can always at any time render their allegiance to Christ alone. I have taken the mark more times than I would like to admit, usually in the form of being silent, not speaking up for what I believe as a Christian, and yet, the Lord is always ready to receive me back into his arms. If you have taken the mark, confess it and repent by actively making the decision to let others know what your Christian faith says about any given situation taking place in the world.
It is important, though, if this is a sin that you continually commit, that you examine yourself to see if you are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). The Lord says he will disown anyone who disowns him, anyone who chooses to be part of a so-called “silent majority,” their faith in Christ covered up rather than shining and giving light to others. John says in Revelation 14:11 that the smoke of the compromisers’ torment ascends up forever. Taking the mark is a serious sin that requires examination, but take heart in knowing that God’s grace can always wipe it clean from you. Christ can provide you with the strength to not compromise and to remain loyal to him (Philippians 4:13).
Below is one of my favorite songs by the great saint of God, Keith Green. The Christian life is not one of compromise, though we all compromise often. Listen to the words as brother Keith sings and repent (turn) from being silent about your faith. Look to Jesus and boast in him; be proud to to carry his name as a Christian and do not be ashamed no matter what reproach you may receive. After all, you may not receive any; you may find sweet fellowship with other believers like you! Even if you do, however, boast in Christ.
For more information on living out the Christian life, see Michael’s commentary: The Great Unveiling, available as in both paperback or e-book formats.