Several years ago I received an email warning that the “mark of the beast” was imminent. The message explained that a company that develops smart card technology, in concert with a mobile phone provider, was manufacturing biochips to be placed in our right hands and foreheads. The email made other frightening claims. As is customary with sensational emails, there is always the manipulative plea at the end pressuring the reader to forward it on to everyone they know. There was only one problem: it was a hoax.1 Unfortunately, many gullible people forwarded it on to their family and friends.
An Adventist perspective
This whole episode should reinforce for us the importance of clarifying, in our own minds and the minds of our church members, the truth about the controversial question of the mark of the beast. Many Christians do, indeed, believe that the mark of the beast is some form of technology that will be used to control the economic lives of earth’s citizens at the end of time.
Seventh-day Adventists, of course, have offered a very different explanation. Our explanation is not focused on technologies, seeing that as peripheral or even potentially irrelevant. The book of Revelation does not predict future technologies. Its interests are theological, spiritual, and moral, drawing on the wider biblical narrative to develop its concept of the mark. The Adventist understanding seeks to build on this recognition.
What is the Adventist view? First, we should note that this explanation remains controversial and often misunderstood. We believe that at the end of time the whole world will have to choose between obeying God and receiving the seal of God or disobeying God and receiving the mark of the beast. The seal of God is understood to include the keeping of God’s seventh-day Sabbath; in contrast, the mark is considered a rejection of this for a man-made alternative. 2 In a healthy Adventist understanding, the seal of God is much more than Sabbath keeping.
To see why this is controversial is easy. It is often misunderstood because some think this is a claim about the present. However, we do not believe the mark presently exists, and will not exist until the final events of Revelation 13 take place. We do not actually believe that Sunday keeping per se identifies the mark of the beast (though unfortunately some Adventists do not properly grasp this point). The mark entails much more than this alone, and is restricted to a short period of time immediately before the Second Coming. For us, current Sunday keeping is only a man-made tradition. It will eschatologically become part of the “mark” but not until the fuller events portrayed in Revelation materialize.
What evidence is there for the Adventist view? We have developed several explanations for this belief. These explanations have proved valuable, but more recent studies have helped produce an even stronger case. Some arguments have been external to the book of Revelation and are still useful.
For instance, some often explain that the seal of God and mark of the beast are opposites. Therefore, if we can find out what the seal is, we can figure out the identity of the mark. This is clear and uncontroversial. The evangelist might explain that a seal has three necessary components: the name, title, and territory of the ruler. It will then be shown that the Sabbath fulfills these criteria, with its mention of the Lord (name), as the Lord God and Creator (title) of the heavens and earth (territory). This is a reasonable line of evidence, although external to Revelation 13.
A stronger line of evidence notes that imagery of a mark placed on the forehead and hand is drawn from verses that speak of the commandments being placed in the forehead and on the hands (Deut. 6:6–8; Heb. 10:16; Prov. 7:2, 3). This strongly suggests that the mark of the beast is the opposite of the commandments of God (including the Sabbath commandment). Accumulatively a case has been made, but much of it is indirect and external.
All this is good, and compelling, at least as far as it goes. But, is there more?
A deeper perspective
Does further collaborating evidence exist within Revelation 13 supporting the Adventist position and identifying the mark of the beast? In short, the answer is—Yes.
One example, in one of Jon Paulien’s articles, is that God’s response to the beasts is to call people to worship Him as Creator. Worship is a central issue in Revelation (see Rev. 13:4, 8, 15; 14:9–11), and God’s call to worship directly alludes to the Sabbath commandment (Rev. 14:7).3 Sabbath-based worship of God is the opposite to worship of the beast. This complements another important point, long noted by Adventists, of the identifying description of God’s people as those who “obey God’s commandments” (Rev. 12:17; 14:12).4
Which commandments are these? The Ten Commandments, of course. There is a special focus on the first four commandments, which deal with worship and obedience to God.5 From here a clear and consistent case begins to emerge.
Take, for example, the beast’s attempt to force the world to worship an “image of the . . . beast” (Rev. 13:15). This is a clear violation of the second commandment, which forbids the making and worshiping of images. A number of scholars have noted that more than one of the first four commandments are attacked or broken by the dragon and the beasts.6 In fact, we can see that all of the first four commandments are deliberately and consistently attacked by these entities.7 The consistency of the attacks on the commandments suggests that it is not possible to understand the mark of the beast unless the mark is understood in light of the beast’s antinomian actions. We should expect the mark to oppose, replace, break, or counterfeit one of the commandments. When we examine the mark of the beast more closely, we find that it is actually a parody of the Sabbath. It is helpful to think of the mark of the beast as an anti-Sabbath. The diagram above illustrates the parallels between Exodus 20 and Revelation 13 and brings out the importance of the commandment and the Sabbath.8
In this diagram we see the whole world led into one final, universal rebellion against God. All of the commandments that concern our love and worship to God are attacked, counterfeited, or replaced.
The climax is the attack on the Sabbath. The mark and the Sabbath express totally different realities. Whereas the Sabbath focuses us on the true Creator God, the mark leads us to obey false gods. The Sabbath provides people economic freedom and rest; the mark is enforced by economic sanction and oppression. Both of the commands are universal in their extent. Unlike the Sabbath, which calls us to remember and honor our faithful Creator Redeemer, the mark exalts the authority of the creature. The two different marks are signs that reveal the true character of their authors.
Our study may also help us understand the tight connection between the mark, the name, and the mysterious number of the beast (666). The text says that “no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666” (Rev. 13:17, 18). The call to calculate, using insight or wisdom, encourages us to look at the number six, scripturally and theologically, rather than mathematically or numerically. We need to examine the meaning of a number from its place in the scriptural narrative.
The number of the beast, 666, is defined as the number of humanity. It is not God’s number. What is God’s number—and by extension His mark or seal? Our study suggests that the Sabbath is God’s mark bearing His name (Lord your God) and number (seventh day).10 Interestingly, the symbolic roots of the numbers of both the beast’s mark (666) and the Sabbath (7th day) share the same biblical background. In Genesis 1, humanity was created on the sixth day. In creation, “6” is the number of humanity. But in Genesis, creation was not complete until the seventh day when God Himself rested, blessed, and sanctified it. In creation, then, “7” is the number of God and His Sabbath.11
What does this mean? The number 666 appears to point to a final human refusal to worship and acknowledge the Creator and His memorial sign—the Sabbath. Humanity not only refuses to worship the Creator, it also sets up an alternative mark—an anti-Sabbath. Genesis shows that we are complete only in our Creator.
Instead, creation’s goal is God with us and us with God. That is Sabbath. The Sabbath shows we find meaning and completion only in our Creator God.12 The Sabbath points beyond itself to God. The final crisis is not just about obedience but about a revelation of God’s character in comparison to the dragon and the beast.
The mark of the beast is not about biochips, but about relationship, faith, love, and obedience. Someone could tie you down and tattoo “666” on your forehead or they could insert a biochip into your right hand. But neither of these acts would mean that you would have the mark of the beast. The issue is not technology or literal markings on our bodies. The real issue is worship, the yielding of heart, mind, body, and all to God. It is about who God is and what He is like.
1 See http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/mondex.asp.
2 The seal of God in Revelation is not identical to the seal of
the Holy Spirit described by Paul in Ephesians 1:13; 4:30.
The seal of the Spirit happens at conversion and is true for
all time. The seal of God in Revelation is an eschatological
seal for a specific end-time situation. The imagery of the
seal of God/mark of the beast is not drawn from Ephesians
but from Old Testament sources like Ezekiel 9:4. In Ezekiel
just before the judgment of Jerusalem God marks the
faithful on the forehead (compare Rev. 7:1–3; 14:1–5).
3 See Jon Paulien “Revisiting the Sabbath in the Book of
Revelation,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society,
vol. 9/1, 2 (1998): 179–186.
4 All Scriptures, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from
the New International Version.
5 Even the introductory and concluding scenes to the vision
of chapters 12–14 highlight the Ten Commandments (see
references to the “ark of the covenant” and “testimony” in
Rev. 11:19; 15:5).
6 For examples see, Anthony MacPherson, “The Mark of the
Beast as a ‘Sign Commandment’ and ‘Anti-Sabbath’ in the
Worship Crisis of Revelation 12–14,” Andrews University
Seminary Studies, 43, vol. 2, 267–283, 2005.
7 Ranko Stefanovic on page 415 of his commentary
Revelation of Jesus Christ (Berrien Springs: Andrews
University, 2002), concludes that the sea beast’s activities
are well-planned attacks on the first four commandments
of the Decalogue.
8 This diagram is adapted from my AUSS article,
9 To “not work” on the Sabbath in Exodus is explained
as to not “buy or sell” in Nehemiah 10:31; 13:15–22. It
has the same meaning as the beast’s mark. The mark is
about worshiping the beast, while the Sabbath is about
worshiping the true God.
10 The Treaty of the Great King. The Covenant Structure of
Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1963), 18,19; emphasis supplied. Studies in
ancient Near East covenants suggest that the Sabbath is
the mark or a seal of God within the Ten Commandments.
Meredith Kline writes, “As a further detail in the
parallelism of external appearances [between suzerainty
treaties and the Decalogue] it is tempting to see in the
sabbath sign presented in the midst of the ten words
the equivalent of the suzerain’s dynastic seal found in the
midst of the obverse of the international treaty document.
Since, in the case of the Decalogue, the suzerain is
Yahweh, there will be no representation of him on his
seal, but the sabbath is declared to be his ‘sign of the
covenant’ (Exod. 31:13-17). By means of his sabbathkeeping,
the image-bearer of God images the pattern
of that divine act of creation which proclaims God’s
absolute sovereignty over man, and thereby he pledges
his covenant consecration to his Maker. The Creator has
stamped on world history the sign of the sabbath as his
seal of ownership and authority. That is precisely what
the pictures on the dynastic seals symbolize and their
captions claim in behalf of the treaty gods and their
representatives, the suzerain.”
11 We can also note that it is only in the mark of the beast
and the Sabbath that we appear to have a converging of
mark (seal/sign), name, and number.
12 This is true of salvation as much as creation. Just as
humanity refuses the Creator’s love and authority, so it
also refuses the Savior’s grace and mercy. People seek to
establish a religion of human traditions and works of their
own making. In contrast, the Sabbath memorializes God’s
saving and sanctifying work. Just as we find life only in
the Creator, so we find forgiveness, grace, and spiritual
rest only in our Savior. An identifying mark of God’s people
will be that they trust in His grace and mercy and submit
to His authority and commands. The other side to this (and
the more important side) is that the true God is a saving,
gracious God who provides physical and spiritual rest to