Speculating on the “Mark of the Beast”

Okay, so when I was young, like in the 1970s and 1980s, I was told in books (Hal Lindsey’s books come to mind, but there were others) and occasionally in some church groups that the “Mark of the Beast” on the forehead and hand (Rev. 13:16-17;

close up photo of hand with tattoo
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14:9-10; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4) was some sort of tattoo. I believe that the spin on it was that it would be a bar code. (Today, they might have pushed for more like a QR code.) Such a code would essentially be like government regulated credit card I suppose.

But there were problems. Human nature is likely to balk at having a barcode on one’s forehead, and probably even the hand. It is too reminiscent of slavery. (We will get back to that idea later.) So later, there was a bit of a shift among some Christians to suggest the mark would be an ultraviolet (“black light”) tattoo. These utilize dyes that are nearly invisible when exposed to visible light, but glow quite visibly under UV lighting. They would act like the visible light tattoo as described before but is less likely to be rejected societally due to human vanity. Negatively, we are starting to play more fast and loose with the idea of a mark. Is a mark that is only visible under special lighting still a mark? Maybe, but then, would a tooth filling be described as a mark then since it is visible with an fluoroscope or x-ray photography?

More recently, special new ideas for the mark have been brought up including nano-devices. RFIDs have gained a certain fascination in eschatological circles. However, we are moving still further afield from “the mark,” as well as its placement, since it is quite unlikely to end up on forehead and hand.

These ideas spring from a rather literalist interpretation of Revelation. Yet, these literalists are tending to become less and less literal in the interpretation. I thought, therefore, that I would continue the trend to be less literal.

The Revelation is an apocalyptic work written to the early church. I won’t get into theories of authorship and exact date of writing. I am not competent to evaluate these. However, it is clearly written to several relatively early and highly persecuted churches in present-day Turkey. The work appears to have two main purposes– to give warning to the churches to remain faithful to God, as well as comfort that God is ultimately in control and will prove faithful to His own.

Although some see elements in the work to suggest a late-date writing, one reason to believe that it is fairly early is that the writing uses an awful lot of imagely that would be familiar and comfortable to Jews. This could suggest that the seven churches who were the primary recipients were still predominantly of Jewish background.

When we read Scripture, we need to remember that it was written FOR US, but not, strictly speaking, TO US. John wrote his revelations for our benefit, but to the seven churches in Asia Minor.  Thus, we should be cautious of an interpretation that makes an awful lot of sense now, but would be completely mystifying then. I am not saying it is impossible that John gave a message that only we 2000 years later could understand (I believe in the possibility of predictive revelation) but we should first look elsewhere. If the primary recipients would interpret it as (A) we should first consider (A) before going to (B).

Assuming a largely Jewish or Jewish-influenced primary recipient, I would have to think that the mark on the forehead and hand would make them think of the Shema. This passage of Jewish identity. Speaking of God’s message through Moses to the people of Israel,

“Bind them as a sign on your hand and as a symbol on your forehead.”   -Deut. 6:8

Perhaps even more clearly, the same message is shared again,

“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your hearts.”   -Deut 11:18

Both passages enforce an interpretation that the Word of God is to impact ones thoughts and actions. Therefore one should hear the message of God, meditate on the message of God and act according to the message of God.

These are not the only places where such language is used. The Passover Feast, one of most important religious celebrations in the Jewish calendar was instituted in Exodus 13. In that passage, the importance of the feast is laid out:

Let it serve as a sign for you on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth.  –Ex. 13:9a

Later in the same chapter a similar wording is again used for keeping of the Passover:

“So let it be a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead, for the Lord brought us out of Egypt by the strength of His hand.”  –Ex. 13:16

In these passages, the language of signs or symbols on forehead and had suggest learning, remembering, and obeying.

Another interesting passage is Ezekiel 9:4, in talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, where

“…the Lord said to him, ‘Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”    -Ezek. 9:4b

The suggestion here is that those who are faithful to God will receive a “mark” on their foreheads by God and will be spared in the massacre. John utilizes that same imagery in Revelation 7:3 and 9:4 where the mark is described as a “seal of God” on their foreheads.

Most people I know would not accept the idea that the saved have (or will have) a physical seal placed on their foreheads. I agree and think it is meant to be more… symbolic. The mark suggests an identification for protection. In less comfortable language, it establishes the faithful as the “property of God.”

Bringing these images from Scripture to the “mark of the Beast” it seems likely that the mark is not a physical or visible mark, and the same is true of the mark or seal of God on the faithful.

The mark of the beast would then suggest belief in the message of the beast, and obedience to the beast. It may also suggest enslavement to the beast. Certainly, such marks can be read as branding for the purpose of property, and this is reinforced with the idea that only those with such a mark are able to buy and sell.

But why does this matter? Stuff matters when beliefs turn to action.

Right now we live in a time where people are rejecting vaccinations because they believe they will herald the “new world order” and will be implanted with nano-chips that will mean that they are under the control of the Antichrist. Strangely, this is a highly imaginative and non-literal interpretation from people who are alleged proponents of literal interpretation of prophecy. And, if they are wrong, they are risking the health of themselves, their children, and their neighbors. It seems to me this interpretation is not only HIGHLY dubious, but also highly destructive.

The far more likely interpretation is that one is to trust in God’s word, be faithful to God, and be obedient to God even when we live in a world of power(s) at war with God.

We really need to be cautious of interpretations of Scripture that are based on a shaky foundation. I actually have a very personal reason for this, I have heard so many discussions about what 666 (6 three score and 6) means. Some are so far from good Biblical scholarship that they are nothing more than “sanctified” numerology. That concerns me greatly, in part, because of my name. Count it out if you want. God bless.

ROBERT    HAROLD    MUNSON

PS. I know this is not my typical stuff on missions, but I do like to point out that theology has consequences. Missions has to be grounded in good theology, and is (unsurprisingly) damaged by bad theology.

 

 

 

Ethical Loyalties in the Church (by looking at the same in the military and police)

I was reading an interesting article entitled, “Why the US Military Usually Punishes Misconduct but Police Often Close Ranks.”

The article promotes the idea that while both

army authority drill instructor group
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the military and paramilitary (police) may cover-up crimes done by members, it is far more likely for the police to do this, and more likely that the military will successfully police itself.

I had to think about this for a bit. I have never served in the police, and only interact with the police rarely (ministerially or otherwise). I did, however, serve in the US Navy. My initial reflection on the US Navy is that when something disgraceful comes up, the institution first goes into cover-up mode— and if that doesn’t work, then it goes into witchhunt mode.

But as I thought about it more, I realized that my distinct memories of these occasions of corruption stick out in my memory 30 years later, in part, because of its infrequency. As I thought about it more, I do remember distinctly a cultural attitude that when someone broke the rules, it was likely that fellow sailors would normally want justice imposed on the violator. Often the harshest judges would be peers and colleagues.

Why is this? According to the author of the article above, the military (US military at least) tends to create a culture of loyalty to the organization, while the police (at least US police forces) tend to create a culture of personal loyalty.

Let me give an example— I was on shore patrol at a liberty port in the Med (as in Mediterranean Sea). While I was there a couple of enlisted shipmates were walking a fellow sailor (a gunnersmate, or GM) back to me and the ship van. He was heavily drunk. He had gotten into an argument in a bar, and that argument had gotten violent. Being heavily drunk that violence hurt himself more than anyone or anything else, so no one at the bar wanted to press charges. I felt good. I can just get him onto the ship’s van and back to the ship before he creates any more problems. Sadly, as he was getting into the van he started loudly making drunken racist statements. I thought to myself, “Oh crap… well, at least I tried to help him.” He goes back to the ship. A few days later he went to Captain’s mast (non-judicial hearing), and then from there to a process where he was “kicked out” of the Navy.

From my example, here is my point. It never occurred to me that anything different would happen. I knew that he would not get in trouble for bad behavior in the bar IF no civilians in the bar would press charges. I knew that there would be no problems. If I could get him back on the ship at this point, about the worst thing that could happen is he might be charged with drunkenness and have a minor punishment placed on him. I also knew that once he shot out with the racial slurs that there was no coming from this. I knew that no one would cover it up or try to place the blame elsewhere. Why did I know this? Because it was understood that the gunnersmate had violated the rules of the military, and had placed shame on his own shipmates. As such, his friends and other shipmates may wish him well in life, but still recognize that he must go.

According to the author, it is more likely for paramilitary (police) forces, it is more likely that things would go differently. If a police officer behaved like the gunnersmate, rather than expressing loyalty to the police force, and hold individuals accountable when they shame their organization and colleagues, they would express loyalty to the officer and lie and do other things to shield him (or her) from prosecution and just consequences.

Cultures are never that cut and dry, and as I said, I have certainly seen cover ups in the military. Still, culture includes a bunch of tacit beliefs and assumptions about what is good or bad.

What about in church or on mission teams? What is the culture of churches and mission teams? I think it varies.  Churches especially, can embrace a war metaphor— the idea that we live in an us versus them world— good versus evil. I believe that makes the personal loyalty drive stronger. You might think that this is opposite. After all, it is the military that primarily carry out war, so shouldn’t the war metaphor promote organizational loyalty? I don’t know, but historically, the military drift most into cover-up mode during wartime. Under such stress, members of an organization will commonly feel that protecting a member means protecting the organization. Under less stress, the military will see holding members accountable maintains integrity and reputation, and THIS protects the organization.

I know it seems to make sense to cover up problems. However, accountability works better long-term.

Churches and mission teams claim to serve God. If God is the standard, then the standard is not organizational culture, or community standards. How do we demonstrate that? Toxic organizations are like toxic families— they are as sick as their secrets.

The goal is to avoid cover up (because we must hold each other accountable because of loyalty to… God). However, the goal is also to avoid witchhunt. Our goal is not to kick everyone out who fails, but in accountability, work towards repentance, recompense, and restoration.

 

 

 

Caught Being Weak in the Garden

Okay, it happened again. I was reading some commentary on a Biblical passage. This one was from when Jesus in the Garden,

To His disciples He said,

“My soul is consumed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with Me.”

Going a little farther, He fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

The commentary argued that Jesus was not under great stress. After all, expressing a wish to have “this cup” removed might suggest that Jesus wasn’t fully committed the Father’s will and plan. The same commentator suggested that when Jesus on the cross expressed “My God, My God. Why hast Thou forsaken Me” He was simply quoting Scripture to (allegedly) fulfill prophecy.

I have a lot of problem with this. Makes me have a few questions

  1.  Is it possible that Jesus was fully committed to the will of the Father, while still being absolutely horrified at the path ahead?
  2. Did Jesus need the support of friends in a time of psychological and emotional stress?
  3. Could it be that Jesus in time of great pain and distress felt a sense of abandonment from the Father… much as many of us can feel abandoned in times of great trials?
  4. Is it possible that the story of Jesus in the Garden was placed there to help us understand that the path of God is not easy, but we have the example of one committed to faithfulness no matter the cost?

I struggle understanding the motivation of undermining the pathos of the Crucifixion story. What is gained (logically, exegetically, narratively) in suggesting that Jesus did not feel the pain He quite understandably would feel, but was instead quoting lines of Scripture that were disconnected with His situation?

Generally, I think it comes from the discomfort many theologians or expositors have with feelings. Feelings are unreliable, untrustworthy. Weakness is to be denied. Many a Christian Theologian appear to prefer a Gnostic Jesus– one who is disconnected from humanity, human emotions, and physical pain.

I am reminded of the quote by B.B. Warfield

Our Lord’s emotions fulfilled themselves, as ours do, in physical reactions. He who hungered (Matt. 4:2), thirsted (John 19:20), was weary (John 4:6), who knew both physical pain and pleasure, expressed also in bodily affections the emotions that stirred his soul… Not only do we read that he wept (John 11:35) and wailed (Luke 19:41), sighed (Mark 7:34), and groaned (Mark 8:12), but we read also of his angry glare (Mark 3:5), his annoyed speech (Mark 10:14), his chiding words (e.g. Mark 3:12), the outbreaking ebullition of rage (e.g. John 11:33 and 38), of the agitation of his bearing when under strong feelings (John 11:35), the open exaltation of his joy (Luke 10:21), the unrest of his movements in the face of anticipated evils (Matt. 27:37), the loud cry which was wrung from him in his moment desolation (Matt. 27:46).”
-BB. Warfield

 

Paul said in II Corinthians 12 that God allows us to remain weak so that we can experience God’s grace. Strength is found in overcoming the weakness, not denying the weakness.

I have likewise heard similar words on Elijah where a commentator expressed shock that God would call such a “weak” man as Elijah… one who WHEN THREATENED WITH DEATH… runs away. I wonder whether that is the point. God works with lots of weak people. I don’t think God created any strong people, and if He did, I doubt He ever would work with them.

God only works with weak people.

 

Missionaries as Colonizers

The following is an extended quote from the new book by Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola, “PERSPECTIVES OF THE AFRICAN CHURCH ON AFRICAN MISSIONS: The Past, Present & Future Challenges to Missions In Africa.”  Missionaries during the colonial era struggled with their role of utilizing the advantages of having colonial powers in charge in their mission field without becoming pawns of the colonizers. Some missionaries, however, did not struggle with this as they embraced both roles. There is a lot of disagreement in this area. However, Olayiwola expresses a common African perspective– and perspective is important.

According to Lamin Sanneh, “At its most self-conscious stage, mission coincided with western colonialism, and with that juncture students of the subject have gone on to make all kinds of judgments about the intrinsic bond between the two forces.”i He claimed further that, “In the nineteenth century this idea persisted under the slogan of “Christianity and 6percent,” by which it was understood that mundane interests prospered under a religious guise. Thus mission came to acquire the unsavory odor of collusion with the colonial power.”ii Michael Crowder believed that, “the functional relationship and unity, which existed between missionaries, traders and administrators in colonial Africa, was not accidental. Early missionaries in West Africa had a dual purpose to promote legitimate trade between African and Europeans and to convert Africans to their own religion.”iii

Since missionaries, the traders and even the colonial governors and administrators knew they were British, Spanish, and Portuguese residents in various part of Africa with a common interest to protect. Okon claimed that, “they cooperated and united as vital element in the attainment of their set goals. Missionaries in critical times of need, depended on traders for funds, and relied completely on administrators for physical security and protection.”iv Mbiti even claimed that, “A Gikuyu proverb says that, there is no Roman priest and a European- both are the same!”v Although, there is a no scholarly consensus on the role of the missionaries in the colonization of Africa, Okon insisted that, “the argument seems to favor the view that some missionaries cooperated essentially with colonial authorities in the exploitation and cultural subjugation of Africa.”vi

Walter Rodney in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa contended that missionaries were agents of imperialism. He claimed that, “The Christian missionaries were as much part of the colonizing forces as were the explorers, traders and soldiers… missionaries were agents of colonialism in the practical sense, whether or not they saw themselves in that light.”vii Okon claimed that, “Rodney accused missionaries of preaching humility and submission in the face of gross injustice, inhumanity and dehumanization. While British traders were exploiting their African customers, the missionaries preached peace, forgiveness and good neighborliness, which actually prevented genuine rebellion, self-preservation and determination. Missionaries worked towards the preservation of the status quo and upholding of the master-servant relationship between Africans and Europeans.”viii

Rodney lamented that, “The church’s role was primarily to preserve the social relations of colonialism… the Christian church stressed humility, docility and acceptance. Ever since the days of slavery in the West Indies, the church had been brought in on condition that it should not excite the African slaves with doctrine of equality before God.”ix Okon claimed that, “If it is correct that missionary sermons suppressed genuine rebellion that could have ushered in freedom for the oppressed, and then the linkage of the missionaries with all the visible evils of colonialism may be justifiable.”x

i Lamin Sanneh, Translating The Message: The Missionary Impact On Culture. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989), 88. In Okon, 198.

ii Sanneh, (1989), 88. In Okon, 198.

iii Michael Crowder, The Story Of Nigeria. (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 111. In Okon, 198-199.

iv Okon, 199.

v Mbiti, 231. In Okon, 199.

vi Okon, 199.

vii Rodney, 277. In Okon, 199.

viii Okon, 199.

ix Rodney, 278. In Okon, 199.

x Okon, 200.