16 And he makes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free and the slaves, so that he might give to them a mark upon their right hand or upon their forehead, 17 and so that no-one may be able to buy or sell except the one having the mark–the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
We covered these verses very briefly last time, so before launching into verse 18, which will take all our time when we next meet, I thought it would be good to go back and look at them a little more fully. Verse 18 is one of the most famous (infamous?) verses in the entire Bible, which is why I’ll be devoting a whole lesson to it, and why it’s important we set it up properly.
As we noted last time, the Greek word used for “mark” here, charagma, was the word used to describe the Emperor’s seal on business contracts, and the imprint of the Emperor’s head on the coinage. So in its most basic usage, it denotes some kind of seal of approval. We also mentioned the libellus, which was a document given to those who proved their loyalty to Caesar by renouncing all other gods (especially Jesus), and paying homage to, or worshiping, an image of Caesar. This would serve as a “seal of approval” that people could show to suspicious officials to demonstrate they are good citizens of the Empire.
The mark of the Beast is to be carried upon the right hand or the forehead. It’s very possible this is a parody of the injunction in Deuteronomy 6:8, where the Lord exhorted His people to bind His commandments upon their hand, and as frontlets between the eyes. What was possibly intended as a poetic exhortation to make God’s commandments a part of one’s daily activity (hand) and thinking (forehead), was taken literally by Jews in later years with the practice of wearing phylacteries. These are small boxes strapped to the right hand and the forehead within which are portions of Scripture. As the Lord wants His commands to be ingrained into the lives of His people, so the Beast wants his name, his identity, to be in the deeds and minds of his people.
The intention of the Beast is for his mark to be worn by people of every societal strata: rich, poor, important, insignificant, free, and slave. The Beast is inclusive in his deception, discriminating against no-one, well, almost no-one. As we saw in verse 15, the second beast has authority to kill those who don’t wear the Beast’s mark. The fact that the mark is given without regard to social or economic privilege is, perhaps, a reflection of the way Christ has sealed his myriad of people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (see chapter 7). An important point to notice here is that there is no middle ground. You either have the mark or you don’t. And if you have the mark, you have the protection of the Beast, and the ability to buy, sell, and function fully within society. If you don’t have the mark, you are denied the marketplace, and risk execution. Those who carry the mark are the earth-dwellers, those who look to physical security and worldly progress over faithfulness to the Lord. The ones who refuse the mark are the ones who belong to Christ, the heaven-dwellers, those who would rather die than deny the Lord. There are no “heavenly earth-dwellers,” or “earthly heaven-dwellers”–you’re either one or the other.
The economic sanctions on the heaven-dwellers may reflect what we saw with the church in Smyrna: “I know your poverty,” Jesus told them, “but you are rich…” (2:9). We noted back then how participation in the trade guilds would require devotion to the trade’s deity, which, of course, would be anathema to the faithful Christian. As a result, allegiance to Christ would bar the believer access to the guild, and hence to the reputation and business contacts that would come as a benefit of membership. We also saw in 6:5-6, the third seal, where the rider of the black horse carries scales, accompanied by a voice saying “a quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius!” Each of these items would cost a laborer his day’s wage, and would barely be enough food. This is the third “Horseman of the Apocalypse” bringing economic privation, a picture of the “poverty” experienced by the believer for whom the regular avenues of trade are prohibited.
Verse 15 says that everyone not bearing the beast’s mark would be killed. However, verse 17 clarifies for us that this is not a hard-and-fast rule. There will be those without the mark who will want to buy and sell, but can’t because they are not Beast-worshipers. This indicates that the Beast has granted the second beast authority to kill them, but he has not mandated that they must be executed.
But what is this mark? Verse 17 says it is “the number of his name.” So the number of the Beast is some kind of numerical representation of the Beast’s name. And this is where we get into a whole world of speculation, and not without some warrant, since verse 18 says that understanding the number of the Beast requires “wisdom,” or “discernment.” However, that doesn’t give us license to be reckless in our reasoning. It requires some “special thinking,” perhaps, but it must be thinking that would make sense both to John’s readers and to us. This is a number that can be “reckoned.” The Greek word there is psēphizō, which is an accounting term, used for the act of calculation. The psēphos, from which the verb is derived, is the name the Greeks gave to the small pebble they would use to help keep count.
It seems, then, John is inviting the reader to reckon, or figure out, the name of the Beast from this number. Next time, we shall explore and evaluate the ways people have tried to do just that, and see if we can draw some conclusions of our own about the meaning of this number.