“The Mark” – Revelation 13:16-14:1

by Roger McCay
10 December 2023
Sermon Passage: Revelation 13:16-14:1
Link to Audio Version

During Covid, I remember reassuring a certain person that the Covid vaccine was not the mark of the beast. Truly! No, getting the Covid vaccine does not put your eternal salvation in jeopardy. The mark of the beast is also not barcodes, something of which there was some hype about a few years back, due to the 666 on them. Nor does the mark consist of microchips that might be implanted in us. And that’s just scratching the surface of current candidates, as people seem to be regularly updating the list of possible things that could be the mark of the beast.

But these speculations, originating from sadly misleading interpretations of our passage today, are just not helpful. Such misinformation has only served to invoke paranoia in many believers, with the Covid vaccine being a fairly recent example.

Now, as we come to this passage today, how we understand it flows out of what we’ve been studying in Rev. 12 and 13 over the past few months, including the identity of the first and second beast, and how Satan was using them as his tool in his war against Christ’s Kingdom and the people of God (the Christians). And remember, these passages in Revelation spoke to events that would occur “soon” from the author’s point of view (Rev. 1:1). John was writing around the year AD 65, in the midst of real-world tribulations for the Christians, who were under attack by two great beasts (the Roman Empire headed by Emperor Nero; and the subordinate beast, the False Prophet, consisting of the Jewish religious leadership with the high priest at its head, which we’ve thus identified as the high-priestly aristocracy). Satan was behind the attacks of both the Beast and the False Prophet, and John’s writings here (addressed to the seven churches in Asia – Rev. 1:4) speak to realities that were past, present, and in the very near future of his time of writing. But like Paul’s epistles, which spoke to first century realities (like his letter to the church in Philippi and so forth), eternal truths and principles are revealed to our benefit.

So, a few weeks back we identified the image of the beast to be the temple in Jerusalem—the one destroyed in AD 70, which was the seat of power for the Jewish religious leadership, headed by the high-priest. We also saw how the high-priestly aristocracy was subordinate to Roman authority and was fully supportive of Roman power, even invested in it, as they owed their own position and power to the Roman Empire, thus the emperor. And from the temple, the False Prophet, empowered by the Beast and according to the will of Satan, spoke out against the Christians, thus was responsible for their persecution and death not only in Jerusalem, but throughout the nation and even beyond (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2).

It is from that point in v. 15, that we come to the much puzzled over statement in v. 16:

16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead.

Now, the pronoun “it,” in v. 16, is a reference to the False Prophet, the high-priestly aristocracy. The Jewish religious leadership had power over “the land and its inhabitants” (v. 12), given to them by Rome. And “the land and its inhabitants” was a specific reference to the land of Israel and the Jewish people. Further, the Jewish religious leaders deceived the Jewish people, making them think that all was right and well with their religion, when it was not (v. 14). Not only were they under the thumb of Rome and the emperor, subservient to the point of idolatry, but also, in order to keep their position and authority under Rome (with all the benefits of power and influence that came along with it), they went to great lengths to murder the promised Messiah, Jesus, for whom the Jewish people longed. They murdered the Messiah, the Christ. And they went to great lengths to discredit him, so that the Jewish people would not turn to him. This was true before his death, but their efforts became even more intense as the gospel of the resurrected Lord spread. Jesus had fulfilled the Covenant of God, the Old Covenant, bringing that Covenant to an end. But the Jewish religious leaders couldn’t have that. All that they were was wrapped up in their identity as priests and temple worship, with the temple itself an idol for them, and the temple being their seat of power. So, after Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant and established the New Covenant, temple sacrifices were no longer necessary, and neither were priests, for that matter (the book of Hebrews speaks to this at length – eg. Heb. 8:13 – In speaking of a new covenant, he [Jesus] makes the first one obsolete”). So, the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaimed by the apostles, was horrific to their ears. Thus they went to great lengths to discredit the message of the gospel and to stomp out the Lord’s followers. They sought to crush the Christians, even to the point of killing them, for they saw them as a real threat to their position, their power. The truth didn’t matter to them. Only keeping the status quo of their power mattered to the high-priestly aristocracy.

Again, v. 16: Where it says “all, who are small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave,” we understand by context to be a reference to the Jewish people who were deceived by the Jewish leaders. And this deceptive influence was centered at the temple in Jerusalem and expanded outwards throughout the world. So, for the seven churches, in a more immediate sense to them, it would have included the Jews of the synagogues in their areas (“synagogue[s] of Satan,” as Jesus calls them – Rev. 2:9 & 3:9). And the reference to those caused to be marked, of course, could be extended to any who came under the sway of the Jewish religious leaders, such as Gentile converts to Judaism and perhaps even Gentile God-fearers.

So then, what was the nature of the mark? Well, John uses all sorts of textual clues to help us understand. First off, he puts the mark of the beast, textually, in juxtaposition to the seal of the 144,000, in ch. 14, v. 1. They are right there together for comparison. And what we see is that the two are of a similar nature, but they contrast in a critical way.

Take a look at Rev. 14:1:

Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.

When we studied Rev. 7, we saw that the seal of the symbolically numbered 144,000 was, in fact, the seal of the Holy Spirit upon the elect Jews, who lived corresponding to the time of Revelation’s writing and the events it portrays, in the first century. Of course, from the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), the Holy Spirit remains the seal of salvation for every Christian, both Jew and Gentile. He is God’s very signature, written upon his people, claiming them as his own—the name of the Lamb (Jesus) and the Father. His coming upon us, his indwelling us, seals the covenant of grace with the Lord’s people. Thus we baptize with water as an outward sign and seal of this inward reality. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus concerning the seal of the Spirit (and which was also one of the seven churches in Asia of Revelation), in Eph. 1:13-14:

“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

As for the 144,000, in Rev. 7 and 14, these were representative of those first century Jews whom the Lord had sealed and who were preserved by him through the great tribulation (which culminated with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, in AD 70). God sealed them and preserved them, as his people, even as his righteous wrath came down upon apostate Israel, destroying the Jewish nation and the very heart of their religion. And we’ll cover the 144,000 a bit more when we pick up in ch. 14.

But as for the nature of the mark, in juxtaposition, here our passage today, David Aune has aptly said, “There can be little doubt that this brand is a parody of the seal of God that is placed on the foreheads of his servants.”[1]

So, let’s jump back to this parody, as it’s described, in v. 17-18:

… the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 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 [six hundred, sixty, six].

Again, the seal of the Spirit (the seal of God’s covenant of grace with his people), is symbolically described as being the name of the Lamb and the Father written on the foreheads of the 144,000 Jews. In contrast to this, the mark of the beast (the Sea Beast from 13:1-10) is symbolically described, but rather as being the name of the beast or the number of its name, marked on either the forehead or hand of the Jews who do not have the seal of God. So, let’s identify the number and name, before we consider its placement and meaning.

Now, as we’ve worked through ch. 13, we’ve identified the Beast based on certain logical principles, to only get to a mention of its number at the end of the chapter. This should be a clue that to try to identify the Beast by starting with its number is backwards. John did not put the number first; he described the Beast first. Trying to start with the number is how some people come up with the frankly obtuse-headed argument that the number can be applied to any number of people throughout history, as a way of saying we can’t really know for sure who it is. However, the number “six hundred, sixty, six;” and note that John did not write the number as 666 – as three sixes, as most English translations unfortunately have it. Rather, he wrote the number out, as “six hundred, sixty, six.” The number merely serves as a confirmation for “the one who has understanding” that what he or she had already figured out is correct. And they figured it out based on the description within the historical context of which Revelation was written (circa. AD 65)—a context the recipients of the epistle/book were living through, as John’s fellow “partner[s] in the tribulation” (Rev. 1:9). To make any sense, the name has to be relevant to the historical and textual context. And with these contexts in mind, we can be sure of the name which the number signifies. As such, Kenneth Gentry puts forward five “textually derived, limiting principles” to help us zero in on the beast’s identity. And we’ve already covered four of these in our studies: “The beast is an evil man of debased character;” “The beast possesses ‘great authority;” “The beast is one of John’s contemporaries;” and “The beast is relevant to first century Christians.”[2] As we’ve seen in our studies of Rev. 13, the description of the Sea Beast historically fits the Roman Empire generically and emperor Nero specifically. So now, when we come to the fifth limiting principle, in our passage today: “The beast’s number is that of a man.” When we ask, what man? Who else could it be, but Nero Caesar?

Even so, to confirm that it was Nero, the number must fit his name. And it does. How so? Well, first off, the number is a cryptogram. And making cryptograms was a fairly common, known practice. Both Greek and Hebrew letters were used as numbers, which made it easy to do. So, a name would be codified into a number by applying the number of each letter and, as Gentry explains, “adding them together to get the mathematical value of all the letters of the name.”[3] The Jews called this gematria. Now, we had a class on this topic a while back, for the evening service, and the audio and slides are posted online if you want to dig deeper. You’ll also find a quote on the front of the bulletin by David Aune (author of an excellent technical commentary on Revelation), which spells it out.[4] So I’m not going to go into all the details today, as how it fits letter by letter, number by number. But to sum it up, the Greek spelling of Nero Caesar (name and title) was Neron Kaiser (Νέρων Καῖσαρ). When his Greek name and title are transliterated into Hebrew and the Hebrew letters are then assigned to their corresponding number, the sum of the numbers equals six hundred, sixty, six.

So why did John transliterate from Greek to Hebrew? Why complicated it? Well, John was very much a Hebrew and Revelation is a very Hebrew book. But even more than that, as many have pointed out, if the code was too easy to crack, it might have caused even more problems for the churches (and for John who was imprisoned by the Romans on the isle of Patmos) if the Romans (be it guards or officials) were to decode it—as it derided the emperor. It could have even resulted in the book’s destruction before it gained traction, for being subversive. Like Robert Hillegonds puts it:

A Roman who lived during the time of Nero and who understood the Greek but not Hebrew, would not likely be able to make the proper decoding. It would, in fact be impossible, unless he knew the Hebrew letters that were the starting point for solving the puzzle. So, 666 is the encoding of Nero in Hebrew while the book of Revelation was written in Greek. This is a very simple, but effective, method of double encoding that would baffle someone not knowing the correct starting point.[5]

And then, there’s the fact that the seven churches knew John quite well. So perhaps, through that relationship they had the key to the number. But whether that is so or not is lost to history.

There is, of course, much discussion on this and more to say, but like Aune says, “most scholars agree that this is the most likely solution,”[6] and I agree with them. But one final historical note on the number. Isn’t it interesting that Agrippa II had a provincial Judean coin made, that was in circulation around the time of John’s writing Revelation, which had stamped on it Nero’s head with the name “Neron Kaiser”?[7] Coincidence? I think not. Take that coin, transliterate Νέρων Καῖσαρ into Hebrew, and add it up. Six hundred, sixty, six. The number of a man. The number of the beast. And like we’ve detailed before, Nero was a dreadful, monstrous, beast of man.

Now, as a Christian, you have the seal of the Holy Spirit. Look around to your right and left. See anyone with the name of the Father and the Lamb written on their foreheads? Of course not. Although that might prove a notable tattoo. Like the seal on the 144,000 was symbolically written on their foreheads, so the mark of the beast was symbolically marked on the Jews forehead or hand. And John doesn’t bring to mind the forehead and hand willy-nilly. This hearkens back to the Torah, the Law—The Old Covenant itself.

There are some who see this literally played out with the phylacteries (or “tefillin”), worn by Jews (particularly the men 13 and older). These were boxes with Scriptures inside them tied to their forehead and hands, and worn during certain times of prayer. You may remember Jesus criticizing the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees for wearing them, so they might be seen by others, saying, “they make their phylacteries broad” (Matt. 23:5). But these boxes seem to have begun being used sometime after the return from exile (and orthodox Jews still use them), based on the oral law, with roots found in the Torah, the written Law. For example, in Ex. 13:9: “And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth.”[8] But neither Ex. 13:9 nor other similar passages in the Torah say anything about making phylacteries/tefillin. To do so goes beyond the requirement of the Law of God. Rather, these passages emphasize that they must keep God’s law like marks on their hands and between their eyes. What this means, as some have said, is that “The ‘forehead’ represents their ideological commitment and the ‘hand’ the practical outworking of that commitment.”[9] Or as Gentry describes, “The hand and the forehead represents total devotion, as in the OT in Deut. 6:8 where the law of God is to govern your hand (actions) and your head (thoughts).”[10] And I suspect you instinctively understand the symbolism, there. And such is the mark.

But how could the keeping of God’s law be the mark of the beast? It’s because keeping the law outside of Jesus Christ (outside of a relationship with him saved by grace through faith) keeps one under the penalty of the law. This means death. As Paul says in Rom. 4:15, “For the law brings wrath.” And that’s the mark of the beast. Concisely stated, the mark of the beast represents the bondage of being kept under the law. I’ll say that again, “the mark of the beast represents the bondage of being kept under the law.” This is what is in contrast to the seal of grace on the 144,000. Paul speaks of the curse of the law in Gal. 3:10, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.” Then, in Gal. 4:25, Paul speaks of the bondage of being under the law: “Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.”

What was going on was that the Jewish people were deceived by the Jewish high-priestly aristocracy into continuing the practices of Old Covenant Judaism. In their rejection of the Messiah, they deceived the people by insisting that their adherence to the law, (by making sacrifices, and so on) … their doing these things, (which supposedly were meeting God’s requirements) meant that everything was fine with God. But it was a lie. Judaism had become apostate, abandoning God’s covenant when they rejected the Messiah. Rather than the keeping of the Law being the means to enter God’s Kingdom, their slavery to the law actually marked them for death. The Kingdom of God could not and cannot be gained by keeping the law. “None is righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10). “For all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). The Kingdom of God, forgiveness for sin, justification, righteousness, salvation could and can only be found in Christ Jesus, by the grace of God.

So, you might ask, why, if the mark was about bondage under the Law, was it a mark of the beast, Nero Caesar? This is because the Empire’s control over the high priestly aristocracy kept the Jewish Religious leaders committed to the system of the law, for the sake of their own interests and power. They belonged to the Beast, so their actions were stamped with their master’s name. It all traces back up to Satan’s war with the woman and her offspring, mentioned in Rev. 12 and which flows through ch. 13, with Satan’s empowering the Beast, to the subordination of the False Prophet. Like the temple had become an image of the beast, bondage to the Law was now a mark of the beast.

Thus, as Rev. 13:17 highlights, for the Jews (with the high-priestly aristocracy in power), to become a Christian was risky business. We’ve considered persecutions and murders carried out before, by the False Prophet (just read Acts). But here in v. 17, a particular persecution is mentioned: “so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark.” I mentioned the Judean coin with Nero Caesar on it, earlier, which interestingly fits in the scenario. But that’s not what is critical, here. Many have noted the consequences of excommunication for a Jew, in those days. Gentry, for example, comments how “in the tight nit Jewish society, excommunication was economically dangerous.”[11] As this was a tremendous power, there was a fear of the Jewish leadership, mentioned in John 7:13, “no one was speaking openly of Him for fear of the Jews.” Josephus speaks of certain people who, in Israel’s history, were banished, or excommunicated, in his book The Antiquities of the Jews: “their substance should be appropriated to the uses of the temple, according to the sentence of the elders.” [12] So, as Gentry, summarizes, “If you don’t follow along in the system, then your substances (your house, your clothing and all) will be taken over as the property of the temple according to the sentence of the elders.”[13] We know the Christians were being hunted, caught, and imprisoned on the high-priest’s order, even killed. So, losing all your possessions, and losing economic privileges seems to fit that scenario.

And there is further evidence of economic restrictions against Christians that the Jews continued with even after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Gentry, for example, draws attention to the Tosefta, which, “was a supplement to the Mishna, and is part of the Talmudic system, the early forerunner of the Talmud, [which] speaks of the Minim (that is the heretics, the Christians).” Basically, The Tosefta is a record of the oral law of the Jews, as it had been passed down, which was compiled in the second century. In Tosefta Hullin 2:20, it says: “One does not sell to them or receive from them or take from them or give to them. One does not teach their son a trade.” So, the Jews with the mark (who were under bondage to the law), were forbidden to buy from or sell to a Christian, or, basically, to help them economically in any way.[14

Now, how all this applies to us can involve quite a bit of discussion. But I’m going to keep it tight and leave you with some things over which to reflect and ponder.

First off, I hope that coming into the realm of understanding for this passage eases your mind as to whether barcodes, microchips, the Covid vaccine, or other type things are the mark of the beast. If you’ve been influenced by strange teachings that would lead to such conclusions, I hope that you’ve seen the light, and your mind is eased.

Secondly, if we could hone in on a mark that is similar today to the mark of the beast (other than on the Jews who continue to be in bondage to the law), perhaps it would be a type of legalism that extends from the church. An example, perhaps, ties into the flow of application we’ve had over the past few sermons. There is a devious kind of legalism, where the church can put people into the bonds of holding to certain political positions, party, and supporting certain candidates or political leaders. For example, in our current political situation, saying, “If you are a [fill in the blank political party] you must not be a Christian.” And don’t scoff. I’m aware of this happening in certain pulpits, and perhaps you are too. To do such is legalism, and it is wrong.

My friends, Christians are secure in God’s grace. There are strong Christians who are members of different political parties, who support different political leaders, and have different political ideas. Such has nothing to do with their salvation or their standing in Christ. Rather, such falls into the realm of discipleship, and their living faithfully before the Lord, according the biblically Christian ethic, following Jesus the best they can, being sanctified by the Spirit along the way.

And finally, my friends, remember, if you are in Christ; if you, having repented your sins, trust in him to save you from your sins; if you trust in him as Lord, “you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). You are free in Christ. He has redeemed you so that you do not have to fear the penalty of the Law. He took that penalty upon himself. He took the curse of the beast’s mark (the penalty for our sins) upon himself, dying on that cross, so that you might have the seal of God placed upon you. The Spirit indwells you. God’s very name is written upon you, claiming you as his, forever. Even if you suffer and lose everything in this life because of the enemy’s war against Christ and his Kingdom, you are forever secure in the Lord. Let us take comfort in that truth. Because Christians have the seal of the Spirit, we should rest secure in God’s grace.


[1] David E. Aune, Revelation 6–16, vol. 52B, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 768.

[2] Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., The Beast of Revelation, Second Edition (Fountain Inn, SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2002), 7-10.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] The particular quote by David Aune was “If the name of “Nero Caesar” is transliterated into Hebrew from the Greek to form קסר נרון, the numerical value is 666: נרון nrwn = 306 plus קסר qsr = 360, making 666 (נ = 50; ר = 200; ו = 6; נ = 50; ק = 100; ס = 60; ר = 200). This possibility appears to have been confirmed by the discovery of an Aramaic document at Wadi Murabbaʿat that transliterates the name and title of Nero as קסר נרון qsr nrwn, “Neron Caesar,” from the Greek form of the name, with the combined numerical value of 666 …, and most scholars agree that this is the most likely solution.” Aune, Revelation 6–16, WBC, 770.

[5] Robert Hillegonds, The Early Date of Revelation And the End Times (Fountain Inn, SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2016), 131.

[6] Aune, Revelation 6–16, WBC, 770.

[7] Cf. Hillegonds, who shares a picture of one of these coins, which he owns (pg. v), and discusses this issue at length, in ch. 11 (pgs. 120-141).

[8] See also Exod. 13:16; Deut. 6:8; 11:18.

[9] G. K. Beale and Sean M McDonough, “Revelation,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Academic, 2007), 1130.

[10] Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Survey of the Book of Revelation, Video Series (Chesnee SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2012), DVD 3, lesson 16.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 295. Antiquities, 11.5.4. This occurred shortly after the temple was built after the return from exile, so wasn’t an immediate example. However it shows the precedent among a population that held to traditions as law.

[13] Gentry, Survey of the Book of Revelation, lesson 16.

[14] See also Justin Martyr, Dialogues with Trypho the Jew, 110: “Each Christian has been driven out, not only from his own property, but even from the whole world, for you permit no Christian to live.”