Podcast: What Is the Mark of the Beast? (Thomas Schreiner)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

How Should We Interpret the Book of Revelation?

In this episode, Thomas Schreiner discusses the book of Revelation. He reflects on the best way to approach the book when studying it for the first time, explains what the mark of the beast is really all about, and offers words of counsel and encouragement for pastors hesitant to preach through Revelation in their churches.

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ESV Expository Commentary

ESV Expository Commentary

Six experienced Bible teachers walk through some of the richest but more challenging books of the New Testament, helping Bible readers understand what they say about Christians’ hope for the future.

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Full Transcript

01:25 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Well, Tom, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.

Tom Schreiner
Matt, it’s great to be with you today.

01:33 - Approaching the Book of Revelation

Matt Tully
So I think if we’re all honest most of us Christians would probably not know what to do with the book of Revelation. I think for many of us it feels pretty overwhelming at times, or confusing, or just hard to really get into. So if before someone were to start digging into Revelation for the first time what would you want that person to keep in mind?

Tom Schreiner
I think I’d say realize that when you come to Revelation that it’s going to fit with, it’s going to cohere with, it’s going to agree with what you find in the rest of the New Testament. You’re not going to find some strange new doctrines that you haven’t seen anywhere else. So I think that’s helpful because I think some people think now we’re entering a world of newly disclosed mysteries. And I don’t think that’s what the book’s about.

02:39 - Key Misconceptions

Matt Tully
Interesting. So what do you think are some of the other key misconceptions that people often have about the book of Revelation?

Tom Schreiner
That’s a hard question to answer, Matt, because people have so many different . . . there’s different interpretive strategies for interpreting the book. But I think one key misconception is that what we have in Revelation is a prophecy chart that after you read the book you can kind of move through and you have an outline of what will happen in the future. Instead, I would say what we have in Revelation is that we have recapitulation of the same events told from various perspectives–which I’m happy to talk more about. But then maybe the second misconception–which fits with what I said earlier but I think it’s worth saying again–I think people don’t expect when they read Revelation that it’s going to reaffirm the main things we already know in the Christian faith. So I say to my students, "Look at how central the sovereignty of God is in Revelation. Notice how prominent the cross of Christ is. Consider how believers are called upon to persevere to receive a final reward. See how God wins the ultimate victory over evil." I mean those are all things we’re taught elsewhere. Those are some of the main themes in Revelation. So I think people come into the book expecting something so unusual that sometimes they don’t see that it coheres with what we read elsewhere.

04:47 - Focusing on the Right Things

Matt Tully
Yeah that’s so interesting. I do think that we often view Revelation as this book focused on the end of days and these future apocalyptic events, which it does talk about that stuff, but I think you’re right. We kind of miss the spiritual benefit that comes from it reaffirming things that maybe we already do know about God.

Tom Schreiner
And you brought up something that I think contributes to the confusion and that is the book is apocalyptic. It’s an apocalyptic genre. Apocalyptic has a lot of symbolism, we have unusual visions. So I don’t want to take away from the the fact that yes, there is interpretive challenges here and there are in the book difficult passages. But we can still focus on the difficult that we can miss the mainstream message of the book.

05:51 - 4 Different Ways People Interpret the Text

Matt Tully
So it seems like the history of Christian interpretation of the book of Revelation can be broken down into four broad categories. So the first category of people would be those who think that all of the events recorded in the book already happened. So soon after the book was probably written in the days of the Roman Empire. So that’s the first category. Second category would be those who think that the book is speaking prophetically about events that will happen in the future when Jesus returns. And I think that’s probably for our listeners today would maybe be the default way that we often think about the book of Revelation. And then there’s those who think that the events of the book happen throughout church history. So it was prophetic at the time it was written, but things have been happening throughout the history of God’s people since Christ. And then finally those who think that the whole book is sort of just symbolic and doesn’t necessarily correspond to real historical events. First, do you think that’s a fair breakdown of the broad ways people have viewed Revelation over the years?

Tom Schreiner
Yeah, I think that’s a good summary.

Matt Tully
And then it seems like each of these views has been popular or promoted by certain groups of people–Christians–at different times in history. Can you kind of summarize who has been proponents of each of these different views?

Tom Schreiner
Yeah. Well let me take those one by one. I mean first come–and you can jump in after each one if you want to–so first let’s take that first view that Revelation is basically fulfilled in the first century. There’s really. . . I mean I’m being overly simplistic but let’s talk about two varieties of that view. First, there are liberals who hold that view. By liberals I mean those who don’t think that Scripture is ultimately without err. So they’ll say, "Look, John expected Jesus to come soon, the whole book to be fulfilled in the first century. And he got it wrong. Jesus didn’t come back, John made a mistake, he thought Jesus would come soon, it’s obviously not true because two thousand years of passed." So that’s the liberal view. Then there’s an Evangelical view which usually argues that the book was written in the 60s and that Jesus returned, he came soon in the judgment of Jerusalem when Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70. So that’s a common view as well. Now, I don’t hold to either of those views, but I would say there’s a truth in this view. And that is the truth in this view is yes, this book was written to people in the first century, it related to their lives, and yes it was it was being fulfilled–at least in significant ways–during their lifetime. So I think we can take something good out of that view without embracing it entirely.

Matt Tully
Yeah that’s interesting. What would you say about that second view then, that though is that the book is speaking only about future events that will happen when Jesus returns?

Tom Schreiner
I’d say something similar here. We could call that view the "futurist view"– the notion that the book is fulfilled in the future–while obviously there’s a lot of truth in that. Jesus hasn’t come back yet. He hasn’t brought in the kingdom. Not everything prophesied in this book has come to pass. I think the weakness of the futurist view is the opposite of the first view we talked about. It doesn’t say enough how the book was fulfilled in the first century and how it relates to the historical context.

Matt Tully
Then how about the view that the events described in Revelation, or the prophecies there, have been fulfilled throughout church history?

Tom Schreiner
That view is the view I have the most trouble with. Very few interpreters would argue that view today because if you see the book as a prophecy of events throughout church history it becomes very arbitrary, I think, and usually that’s especially emphasized with the seven letters. So that the first letter is the early church, started out really passionate and then it lost its first love, and then people almost always say, "Well, now today we’re the Laodicean church–we’re lukewarm. But the problem with that is those letters weren’t written to us. Those letters aren’t actually prophecies. Those letters were written to real cities and John’s talking about what’s happening in those cities. So to construe those chapters as a prophecy I think is flawed. I think almost all the readings that read this as, "Oh, this relates to all of church history" are quite arbitrary. Is there anything good about that view? I would say–I think it goes overboard–but I try to see the good in every view and I think there’s a grain of truth in this view. The book relates to Christians all through history. So Christians all through history could read Revelation and be helped by it and it applied to them. That’s different from saying though that it’s actually a prophecy of what’s happening in say the year 1000 or the year 1500, the year 1700. I find those readings hard to believe and like I said, hardly anybody argues that anymore.

Matt Tully
Okay. And then that last view then is that the whole book is really just symbolic. It’s full of symbolic imagery that really isn’t intended to correspond to real historical events. What would you say about that view?

Tom Schreiner
I think to say that it doesn’t correspond to real historical events–I think even people who say the book is symbolic would say, "That’s not quite what I’m saying." So, say the beast is a symbol of Rome. So they would say, "Look, the beast is symbolic but it’s symbolic of something." So I don’t think anybody says it’s not symbolic of anything that relates to history, but I think the advantage of this view is that it’s spared from the kind of arbitrary strange interpretations that some people offer. Like, let me mention a wild one: when John says in Revelation 12 that "the woman is spared by the two wings of the eagle." An extreme futurist and I read said, "Hey, that’s the United States Air Force." When clearly the symbolic view would say, "No. That’s going back to Exodus 19:3 where the Lord delivers his people on eagle’s wings." So I think the symbolic view . . . there’s a lot of truth in it that we need to be careful about over reading the book. I suppose the danger in the symbolic view is if you don’t connect it with anything in the real world. If all you get out of the book is–which this is the main message of the book, but I think it says more than this–God win’s. Satan loses. God’s people are rewarded. Yes. Absolutely. That’s true. I think everybody would agree that that’s what the book is about. It says a little more than that.

14:26 - How Should We Read the Book?

Matt Tully
So as you then think about these four views and you’ve sort of highlighted dangers and maybe some helpful emphases that each view would have, where do you land? How do you kind of put them all together? Or how do you think about this question of how we should read the book? How do you kind of approach the book personally?

Tom Schreiner
I would hold to a combination view, I think. We need to read it in its historical context–the first view. We need to recognize–second view–that all the prophecies aren’t fulfilled. Third view: we also recognize we can apply the message to today at any time. And then fourth view: we do recognize that the book is fundamentally symbolic. So we have to be careful about over-literalizing what it’s saying. We have to be careful about over-reading a connection. Who’s most guilty of that? The futurist view. The futurist view tends to over-read the language or the images that are used. And usually what it does is it connects it to contemporary events.

15:46 - Who Is the Beast?

Matt Tully
Well, let’s jump into that. I think probably one of the prime examples that is often very confusing to us or we have speculative ideas, maybe we’ve seen it represented in popular culture or in fiction, but is the mark of the beast. So you already referenced this a little bit earlier and I just want to read a little section from Revelation 13, which is where we hear this language of the mark of the beast. And then I’d love to kind of talk through that with you. So Revelation 13 verses one through a little bit further on in the chapter, John writes,

And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.

And then later John goes on to talk about how

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.

So before we talk about the mark itself, let’s just talk about that beast. We kind of have that vivid description that it sounds like this mythical creature, a combination of multiple animals. Why or who is it? You’ve kind of already alluded to this, but just walk us through how you understand the beast.

Tom Schreiner
So the passage you read, the beginning of the passage, compares the beast to these various animals. And so the first thing–so this is just a key for interpreting Revelation–is if you just read that and you never read any other part of the Bible you just think, "What in the world’s going on? Why was he doing this?" But the key to reading Revelation, I would say–so this is so important for us–is not to engage in what I call "the newspaper eschatology", which is what a lot of people do today. They read something like that in Revelation and then they go to the newspaper and they try to figure out what it means. But I think that’s exactly the wrong way. The language of the beast that John uses those who know their Bibles well know that he’s referring to Daniel chapter 7. And Daniel Chapter 7 talks about these four beasts and they refer to four empires starting with Babylon. And then Mede, and Persian, and Greece, and then Rome. So Daniel’s talking about these four empires that resist Israel resist the people of God. Well, John picks up that language of the beast from Daniel 7. So there we see right from the beginning: Ah! If you know the Old Testament, John gives a signal to the readers, "When I’m talking about "the beast" I’m talking about government. I’m talking about a governing authority." This is a longer argument, but I think what John is telling us is, "Look, this beast is a combination of all the beasts in Daniel chapter 7. He’s that fourth beast in Daniel chapter 7." And I would argue that fourth beast is Rome. But here’s our problem, right? Our problem is most of us don’t know the Old Testament that well and so that makes Revelation hard.

19:55 - What Is the Mark of the Beast?

Matt Tully
So then turning to the mark itself, what’s the purpose of this mark? So if we know that the beast then is Rome, what’s going on with this idea of a mark on a forehand or on a hand?

Tom Schreiner
Yeah well the first thing I’d say is we notice it’s a means of persecution. It’s a means of singling out those who belong to the beast and those who don’t. So there’s economic discrimination against those who belong to the Lord. Here’s a here’s a key question and good people disagree, but is there a literal mark? And I would argue there’s not. Now, I could be wrong on that. We’ll see if in the future there’s a mark. But I think he alludes to Ezekiel chapter 9 where there’s a mark put on those who belong to God and then there’s those who were wicked. So I don’t think we ought to interpret such marks literally because of his Ezekiel chapter 9. And so it’s just a way of signaling those who belong to God and those who don’t.

21:30 - History of Interpretation

Matt Tully
So as we think about church history and the history of interpretation of this idea of the mark of the beast what are some of the ideas that people have had about what this mark would be if it was a literal mark?

Tom Schreiner
Well, regardless of whether it’s a literal mark or not the most popular interpretation in critical scholarship is that John is referring to the Emperor Nero who was the emperor in Rome from A.D. 54 to A.D. 68. And Nero started out good but he ended up being a very wicked cruel ember and when the fire of Rome came he started to persecute Christians. After Nero died there was a great fear that he was going to come back and wreak all kinds of havoc on Rome. So many people think that John is picking up that idea that Nero is going to return. So early on, at least in terms of critical scholarship, that’s the most the most likely view. I’ll have more to say about that. But then throughout history people have tried to identify who this beast is in terms of a particular individual. And I can’t even remember all the names that have been suggested, but you know in our own day–I mean I’m I’m older–I’ve heard John F. Kennedy, and Henry Kissinger, and I mean so many people. You know it’s kind of interesting that even Reagan, right? Reagan’s name, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Each name has six letters.

23:38 - What is 666?

Matt Tully
Well that’s the interesting thing about this is it does seem like there’s Christians have oftentimes really gotten into trying to tease out almost like a hidden meaning behind some of these things. And a lot of that has to do even with that number–that classic number 6 6 6–which I think culturally speaking today kind of has taken on its own even creepy significance even outside of the church. And so could you walk us through what’s going on with that number?

Tom Schreiner
Yeah. Well first of all, I want to say that’s exactly right. I remember when I was in a restaurant and the change was 6-6-6–six dollars and sixty six cents–and the waitress was freaked out about that. And I just wanted to laugh. I mean it’s just a number. You know there’s nothing to worry about. We’re not superstitious. It’s OK if your change is six dollars and sixty six cents. But the way I interpret the number–and other interpreters interpret it this way as well–numbers in apocalyptic literature are often symbolic. So in in Revelation the number seven is the number of perfection. There’s seven spirits, which I think refers to the Holy Spirit. And there’s not seven holy spirits, but the number is symbolic of the perfection and fullness of who the Spirit is. So if seven is the perfect number, then I would argue that he uses the number 6-6-6 to stand for that which is evil and that which is opposed to God. So I don’t understand the six-six-six to refer to a particular individual–trying to discern the name of a particular person who fits that number. Instead I think John is saying this beast is not 7-7-7. It doesn’t represent goodness and beauty and truth, but it’s 6-6-6. It represents that which is evil, that which is opposed to God. So you know, that’s a difficult matter. Maybe I’m wrong on that. As I already said, many think it’s referring the Nero. It may be a particular individual, but I lean in the other direction.

26:07 - What Does the Number Seven Mean?

Matt Tully

So why is it that 7-7-7, or the number seven itself I guess, has these connotations of perfection, of representing God, where does that come from?

Tom Schreiner
I think it comes from the Old Testament itself. It has the idea of completeness. The Lord created the world in seven days. So you know, it begins from the start. And then in Israel’s calendar: it’s a seven day week isn’t it? Which concludes with the Sabbath. And then you have sabbatical years. And as we go through the Old Testament there’s all kinds of references to these different feasts like tabernacles lasting seven days. So I think those are a literal seven days in the Old Testament, but I think this language prepares us for the idea in Revelation–which is an apocalyptic book–that the number seven is is symbolic. So I’m not, just to make sure I am understood, I’m not arguing that everywhere in the Bible the number seven occurs is symbolic. I’m arguing that John picks up the number seven in the book of Revelation and he implies it symbolically because it’s apocalyptic.

27:36 - Advice for Pastors

Matt Tully
I think many pastors might be somewhat intimidated by the idea of preaching through the book of Revelation. I think sometimes it probably just seems so difficult interpretively. And also just fraught with controversy and maybe on top of that there’s even the sneaking suspicion that the spiritual benefit of preaching through the book just wouldn’t be there, especially compared to other books where they just seem more relevant to our everyday lives, more easy to apply, maybe speaking more to some of the key doctrines of the faith rather than just stuff in the future. So I guess my question is two-fold: how would you respond to that feeling that a pastor might have, and then what advice would you offer to a pastor who was going to attempt to preach through the book?

Tom Schreiner
First, I understand that it can seem daunting. Secondly, I want to say I think Revelation is such a crucial book to preach. So I just want to give some examples. In chapter 1 it’s a great passage on Do you fear the future? Do you fear death? Jesus holds the future in his hands. Do you fear what the government might do to you? He’s the ruler or the kings of the earth. He’s the one who has the keys of death and Hades. I mean, everyone has to think of death–what’s their ultimate destiny? And chapter 4: God is the Creator. Who who rules the world? Is our life spinning out of control? So also when we think of the book as a whole we see more and more that society is opposed to the Christian faith. Well that’s what Revelation is all about. What do we do when society is turning against Christianity? And Revelation says here’s what we’re called to do: we’re called upon to persevere. And secondly, we ought not to be surprised that there’s a great war going on between Satan and God. Of course, God will win. But we understand we’re in the war. And another thing is Revelation over and over again says how can we have assurance that we belong to God. In chapter 1, in chapter 5, in chapter 7, chapter 12, he says we can be assured, we can have confidence, we can have hope, our guilty conscience can be assuaged because of the cross of Christ. So I’m going to say the cross is central to this book. And then Revelation warns us in chapter 17 and 18 about the dangers of unbridled materialism–I mean that’s a relevant message–and throwing your lot in with the world, loving the things of the world rather than the things of God. And then Revelation reminds us there is a final judgment. That’s important to know. Life on Earth doesn’t last forever. What’s going to happen to those who do evil? And does it matter? Does it matter that we do what’s good? Are we just frittering our lives away and there’s no meaning in life? No. There’s a meaning. There’s a new heaven and a new earth coming. There’s an amazing an unrivaled joy before us. And there’s a judgment and hell for those who reject. There’s more than I could say, but I think it’s a great and exciting book to preach. I preached through it myself and our congregation–and not because it was me, but just because of the message–I think they loved it.

31:34 - Avoiding Pitfalls

Matt Tully
That’s encouraging. Hopefully that would be an encouragement to pastors listening who . . . there might be the assumption that they and even their congregations would have about the book, but that’s good to hear there’s more to it than what we often assume. Practically speaking, what would you say are some of the biggest pitfalls that pastors would want to avoid when planning to preach, maybe planning out the series, actually doing the sermon prep, and then actually delivering the messages–do you have any practical advice for avoiding pitfalls?

Tom Schreiner
Yes. I would say don’t do too many messages. I think there’s a danger of spending too long in the book. Maybe you could do a shorter series but, I’d say 20 to 25 messages I’d recommend. You can get bogged down in a book and kind of lose where you’re going. So I think that’s a very manageable thing. Be sure to keep the big picture in mind. We always need to be reminded this as pastors: we’re to explain the text well, but also–maybe I’m speaking to myself here–let’s not get so much in the explanation that we don’t forget application. Whenever we preach a text, especially Revelation, we need to always keep in mind as preachers What does this say to people today? What’s the message for our congregation right now, my congregation right now? What is the Lord saying to us? And then fourthly, just admit on some passages, "I don’t know. Here’s my best shot". Maybe that’s not right. I think it’s good to communicate to the congregation, "I don’t have all the answers. We don’t have to have all the answers. I know what this book is mainly about, but I don’t know what every detail is about and good people disagree."

33:46 - Closing

Matt Tully
Well, Dr. Schreiner, thank you so much for spending some time talking with us today, sharing a little bit more about the book of Revelation, and the real gems that it contains for us. Appreciate you taking the time.

Tom Schreiner
Matt, I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. Thanks so much.


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