Updated: Apr 30
Most people know we live in four dimensions: height, length, width, and time. Yet modern physicists claim that there may be an additional nine dimensions, but we can’t see them.
They’re there though.
Contexts of the Bible are like dimensions:
There’s more than you realize
We can’t see them
But they’re there
And they make all the difference in how we read the Bible.
In this series, we’ve glanced at various contexts of Revelation. Much of Revelation’s imagery can be explained from just these contexts, but others can only be understood in the context of cultural settings.
Revelation was written in the latter half of the 1st century to the Christians in Asia Minor.
We must know the context of that time and that place to understand this book’s amazing secrets.
Let’s take a peek!
Here, Christians were:
Amidst staunch paganism
Under Roman rule
In Roman culture
Influenced by Greek culture
Influenced by Jewish culture and literature
Asia Minor hosted these religions:
The imperial cult (emperor worship)
Cult of Artemis
Cult of Zeus
Cult of Apollo
Cult of Asclepius
In this melting pot of hostile cultures, Christians found themselves to be the minorities. This led to two big problems: persecution and syncretism (blending their faith with other religions).
Not only were they persecuted, but they were pressured to mix Christianity with the anti-Christian ways of other religions.
Anyone who didn’t join in public idolatry would be persecuted—especially by the imperial cult.
Christians were persecuted by losing:
They could also be banished, tortured, or executed.
John himself was exiled to the island of Patmos “on account of the word of God” (Rev. 1:9) and was purportedly boiled alive by the emperor Domitian. He survived but was permanently disfigured (says church tradition).
Especially dangerous was the imperial cult because the emperor, called “Caesar”, often demanded the harshest punishments for Christians who refused to worship him.
Caesar not only wanted to be hailed as a god, but he demanded that everyone swear full allegiance to him as lord and king.
This was a problem because Jesus also claimed to be the supreme lord and king, which caused violent divisions. Romans even accused Christians of “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7, emphasis mine).
This was a kingdom allegiance issue.
That’s why Revelation was written: to urge believers to stay faithful to Jesus as their supreme king, no matter what other kings threatened.
Now let’s see how this cultural context illuminates one of the most puzzling riddles in Revelation.
The Mark of the Beast
The beast “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” (Rev. 13:16–18).
When a 21st-century audience reads this, they imagine the mark is a:
Social Security number
These theories make sense to a 21st-century audience saturated with radically advancing technologies.
The problem is Revelation wasn’t written to us. It was written for us, but it was written to the Christians of Asia Minor in the 1st century.
What would they have seen this as?
First, since this is an apocalyptic book, they would assume (because of the nature of the writing) it is symbolic.
Second, the context of Revelation tells us that everyone has a mark on their foreheads—either with the name of the beast or the Lamb of God (Rev. 14:1), which is made by angels (Rev. 7:3).
This strongly suggests that these marks were symbolic of allegiance—a hot topic of the day as mentioned above.
Third, “name” usually represented the whole person, as in “You still have a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments” (Rev. 3:4).
Fourth, being inundated with the Jewish culture, they would have connected the ”mark” symbolism with the phylacteries worn by devout Jews of the time (Matt. 23:5).
These were small boxes with parchment slips inside. Written on them was a summary of the covenant commands given to Israel by Yahweh.
Guess where they put these?
Their hand and forehead: “You will bind them as a sign on your hand, and they will be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8).
These symbolically declared that one was loyal (or allegiant!) to Yahweh’s kingdom.
Fifth, symbolically marking one’s allegiance to a king was common in Jewish (Ezek. 9:4), Christian (Gal. 6:17), and pagan cultures (2 Macc. 6:7, 3 Macc. 2:29).
Sixth, this fits well in the context of Christians claiming throughout Rome that Jesus, not Caesar, is the supreme king—then suffering for it.
When John’s audience read about the mark of the beast, they would have recognized it as allegiance to the Roman empire (and any other anti-Christian system, see here).
The mark of the beast is “the number of a man” (Rev. 13:18).
This is weird to us, but not to them.
A popular Jewish practice was to take the letters of names, assign them a numeric value based on their arrangement in the alphabet, then add them up. This was the number of that person.
In English it would work like this:
For example, Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1 is arranged by fourteens. This is probably because David adds up to fourteen in Hebrew.
Later Christians even signed their letters with “99” for “amen”.
John carefully told his 1st-century readers to calculate the number of the beast, which means they had the ability to figure out who he was talking about.
Does anyone’s name in the 1st century add up to 666? Anyone in the Roman empire? Who persecuted Christians? Who they would’ve known?
Turns out, “Caesar Nero” adds up to exactly 666 in Hebrew and Greek.
There’s even a second way to spell Nero’s name that adds up to 616, explaining why some early manuscripts write “616” instead of “666”.
Like the beast, Nero also:
Was one of the most infamous enemies of Christianity
Decapitated his victims (including the apostle Paul)
Would strip them of the ability to work, buy, sell, trade, be in public, or even live if they refused to worship him
Was rumored to return after he died, and it's documented that for a brief period, a Roman emperor tricked everyone into thinking he was Nero—just like the head of the beast that is mortally wounded then healed (Rev. 13:3).
Not everyone agrees that 666 is Nero’s number, but it seems to have the greatest historical and biblical evidence.
Either way, we can learn the following:
The mark is not physical
The mark cannot accidentally be taken (like in a chip or a vaccine)
The mark is allegiance to a kingdom
The mark is loyalty to a king
We shouldn’t look for the mark of the beast in computer chips, but in nationalism where a ruler is esteemed as the savior.
We shouldn't look for the mark in vaccines, but in governments who are trusted in and followed like a messiah.
Everyone has either the mark of the beast or the mark of the Lamb.
This mark is on our hearts, evidenced by our lives.
Which mark do you have?