My family is Gentile as all get-out, but (as I’ve written about before) sometimes we behave a little Jewishly. In our homeschooling years, we often celebrated the holidays of the Israelite people as opportunities for biblical lessons. We still joke to this day that Mom is basically a Completed Jew! One piece of evidence for this is hanging next to our front door in the form of a mezuzah.
A mezuzah is a case containing a piece of parchment with some specific words of Scripture on it. Traditionally, these verses are a Jewish prayer referred to as the Shema Yisrael (or simply “the Shema”), named for its opening words. It comes from Deuteronomy 6, verses 4-9:
“Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
This commandment – “love the LORD your God with all your heart” – might sound familiar. In Matthew 22, Jesus tells a religious leader that it is the greatest commandment in the entire Law. There is great theological depth to be explored here, considering the oneness of the Creator God, the God so holy that even His name “Yahweh” is translated in the all-caps “LORD” out of reverence. In light of His holiness, it shouldn’t be surprising that many Jews took the guidelines after this command very literally. Many zealous Israelites actually tied this passage on their arms and foreheads in boxed-up scrolls called phylacteries, or hung it on their doors in mezuzahs. And while there is something honorable in their desire to obey the LORD in this way, actual obedience in God’s eyes is not dependent on those added practices. The text is emphasizing that the entirety of God’s command be impressed upon His people on a spiritual level – on their hearts.
The physical practices are good and even important reminders, but the emphasis is on a spiritual reality – being marked by love for the LORD, Yahweh, the covenantal Creator God.
This passage helps us interpret a trickier one later in Scripture. (Like Deuteronomy 6, the emphasis here is on a spiritual reality. Be prepared: there’s a lot of confusing imagery! Just remember that it is intended to point followers of the LORD God towards continued faithfulness.)
Let’s jump into the thick of Revelation 13, focusing on verses 15-18:
“The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. The number is 666.”
Before any consternation arises, let me skip to the end: the apostle John was not writing Revelation to address cryptocurrency, the COVID vaccine, or any other conspiracy theory. Many of the Christians in John’s original audience were converted Jews – and John himself was a Jew, growing up with much exposure to the Hebrew Scriptures (now our Old Testament!). I’d like to suggest that, to an audience familiar with the Old Testament, Revelation 13:16 would immediately bring to mind Deuteronomy 6:4-9. In this context, “the mark of the beast” is first and foremost a spiritual reality, paralleling those who are “marked” by love for Yahweh. This mark is a spiritual distinction between people who follow the LORD God and people who do not.
In every way, Revelation 13 sets the beasts up as being anti-God. Where the true God breathes life, the beast raises dead images. Where the number 7 symbolizes wholeness (and three repetitions emphasize completeness), the number 666 is a symbol for utter unholiness. The LORD is one, and His name is known to His people; the beast is other, lesser, evil, false. It takes wisdom to discern this spiritual reality! Sadly, much of our “wisdom” in interpreting this passage, attempting to predict precise events from an intentionally poetic text, misses the point entirely. I wonder if John, seeing our treatment of Revelation 13, might echo Paul’s words in Colossians 2:
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
For in Christ, all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands [i.e. a spiritual circumcision]. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
Those of us who have been raised to life in Christ are marked by love for the LORD God. As a result, we don’t need to fear any other spiritual power. No beast can mark us! And while there are plenty of other wise reasons to not get a microchip implanted in your body, we do not need to live in fear of conspiracy theories and deceptive philosophies. “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). I hope this has been a good reminder of the usefulness of biblical interpretation as a discipline, as well as an encouragement to live fearlessly in pursuit and praise of Christ alone.