Revelation Questions: Marks, Microchips, and More!

               In my last blog we began a discussion about Revelation and the fact that it was not written primarily as a road map for the end of the world, but as an “apocalypse” that showed us the spiritual realities behind the suffering that the first Christians (and we) can expect to experience in a world ruled by beastly powers. Now that we have an idea of Revelation’s purpose in mind, we can get a bit more into the weeds. This Summer, I thought we would examine a few of the most famous details of Revelation in popular culture and Christianity, and consider what those details might mean with John’s original readers in mind. As we do, I would like you to hold onto this quote by evangelical Bible scholar John Walton: “The Bible was written for us, but it was not written to us”. So many of our popular interpretations would have been totally irrelevant to a group of churches in Asia Minor, despite that they were the ones who received this letter. If we want to uncover the meaning of a book like this, we must first ask how John’s message would have been meaningful to them, and then understand how we might benefit from its implications so many years later. What questions were they asking?

But first, let’s start with a less than ideal question that I’ve heard a lot these last months…
“Wait, so which vaccine has the mark of the beast in it?”
Ah, the infamous mark of the beast. In pop-culture it has been imagined as some sort of government-issued microchip to buy and sell with, and in recent months, many have concluded that it must be administered via vaccine. This leads to all kinds of fears. Should I get vaccinated? Is that how the anti-Christ will track me? Which vaccine has it? Could I accidentally mark myself and get taken out of God’s book of life?

Before we all spiral into a panic, let’s slow down and get back to the basics. Return to the passage itself and ask “what would this “mark of the beast” have meant to John’s earliest readers? The passage in question is Revelation 13:16-18.
“Also it [the beast's prophet] causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666”
John’s original audience was at a crossroads. Christianity was being viewed more and more as a threat to the empire, and as the emperor himself came to be seen as an image of the gods deserving of worship, Christians were being compelled to sacrifice and give their allegiance to him, or be alienated, imprisoned, or killed. They would lose everything. The question on their minds would have been, “what should Christians do in the midst of this? Could they worship the emperor and Jesus?” Could they sustain a livelihood if they were solely Christ’s?
John portrays this choice with an allusion to the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy, there is a famous prayer that every Jew would have known by heart called the Shemah. It was a prayer of allegiance: “Hear O Israel- the LORD is your God, the LORD alone…” The Jews were then to make a practice of writing this prayer and attaching it to clothing on their forehead or hands. It was a symbol that every thought and action was done with allegiance to the LORD, the only true God  who could sustain them.

John presents this new choice of allegiance to the emperor as an anti-Shemah. There is no way that these Christians could worship Jesus and the emperor because Rome was calling them to give the allegiance that belonged only to king Jesus to Caesar. They would have to replace the Shemah- a dedication to and dependence on God alone, with a new “mark”- a dedication to and dependence on the economic and military power of Rome. John warned that life without this kind of allegiance to Rome and Caesar would not be easy. Without it, they would be looked on with suspicion and alienated from the public. They would not be able to go about their daily lives buying and selling. They would lose their place in society.

The Mark of the Beast isn’t about microchips and it’s not about vaccines. Instead, it’s about a very deliberate choice that every person must make: to whom will your allegiance go, and where do you find security? Every beastly kingdom of this world, whether it be 21st century America or ancient Rome, will at some point demand the allegiance due only to God. It will tell us to rely on it for security- that it’s wealth and power and influence can offer us salvation and a good life so long as we give our full allegiance to its ways. John admits that to reject the offer to be like the kingdoms of this world- to give up seeking control through power and wealth, may result in us losing everything, but ironically, this is how Jesus overcame. By entrusting himself entirely to his Father he overcame the kingdoms of this world. Loving and dying for his enemies, he was resurrected and vindicated by God as the true king. His sacrifice has defeated death and all the powers of our world, and now he calls us to do the same as we await the fullness of his kingdom that comes with his return.

Dan Vandzura