The original Toy Story movie opens by immediately introducing us to a cowboy toy named Woody. Woody knows what it means to belong to something amazing—to commit his life to Andy and adhere to the principles and lifestyle of Andy’s toybox. The other toys look up to him, rely on him for guidance, and trust in his wisdom and knowledge. Woody realized his purpose in life, and that the purpose for all the toys in Andy’s room is to be loved and adored by Andy. Woody is committed to convincing others that belonging to Andy, and being loved by Andy, is what it means to be a toy.
When Buzz Lightyear comes on the scene, he has no clue who he is. Buzz is delusional, thinks he’s in control, and is suffering from an identity crisis. When he realizes that he’s not a real space ranger, he “literally” falls to the ground. When Buzz’s life comes crashing down, Woody’s there to “literally” pick up the pieces. Buzz learns from Woody what it means to be a toy; what it means to belong to Andy, and that the ultimate purpose for all toys is to love and be loved.
Andy’s name, written in permanent ink, signifies the love he has for his toys. The toys are marked, and they can refer to their owner’s name whenever they question his love—whenever they doubt who they truly are. Andy’s name is the sign and seal of Andy’s love.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “Mark of the Beast” as described in Revelation 13:15–18 and Revelation 14:9–12, and how it could be related to the COVID-19 vaccination. Let’s unpack this appropriately and within context. In our Twitter and Facebook world, we all have the tendency to microblog our way through life and when it comes to interpreting Scripture, recapitulating something in 140 characters or less results in the abhorrent abuse of exegesis outside of the Bible’s original context.
Revelation 13:15–18 reads: “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. That number is 666.”
Immediately following, Revelation 14:9–12 reads: “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.’ This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.”
The book of Revelation is a piece of Apocalyptic literature written by the apostle John while he was in exile on the island of Patmos, around A.D. 90. John wrote Revelation to Jewish Christians throughout the Roman Empire in order to provide instruction, guidance, and encouragement during great persecution under Roman oppression. John uses symbolism and provides riddles in this piece of literature and he anticipates that his readers are equipped to recognize and interpret these symbols and solve these riddles in the first century. As most Apocalyptic literature from the first century, Revelation is teeming with references from the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.
Throughout the Old Testament, the right hand is a symbolic term for a position of power—the power of God.
“I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Ps. 16:8).
“For I am the Lord your God
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you” (Isa. 41:13).
“Your right hand, Lord,
was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord,
shattered the enemy” (Exod. 15:6).
Not only that, but the Old Testament also makes a connection between a seal or a sign or a mark on the hand and forehead as belonging to God or submitting to whomever that seal, sign, or mark represents.
“And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand” (Exod. 13:16)
“Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads” (Deut. 6:8).
Even in the book of Revelation, John alludes to this fact that those who have God’s seal or mark on their foreheads signifies that they belong to God.
“They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (Rev. 9:4).
Obvious to his audience, John is comparing and contrasting those who “belong” to God with those who “belong” to the Antichrist. Furthermore, the identity of this Antichrist was also obvious to John’s audience.
On July 18, A.D. 64, a fire began in the shops at the Circus Maximus in the city of Rome and raged for nine days. Nearly two-thirds of Rome burned, and hundreds died. Most of the populace knew that the Emperor Nero started the fire, but he blamed the Christians. He threw Christians to the dogs, nailed them to crosses, and burned them alive. It was obvious to early Christians that Nero was a great persecutor of their faith. Eusebius called him “the first that persecuted this doctrine” (II.25.4). Tertullian said Nero was “the first emperor who dyed his sword in Christian blood, when our religion was but just arising at Rome” (Apology, V). After Nero committed suicide by stabbing himself in the neck, there was a widespread belief that he would return from the dead (Rev. 13:12). For decades after Nero’s death, imposters arose claiming to be the resurrected Nero. This concept of Nero as the Antichrist continued to pervade the Roman Empire at the time John was writing his Apocalypse.
In the Testament of Hezekiah, Isaiah writes that the Antichrist will manifest himself as the incarnation of the dead Nero:
“And after it [the world] has been brought to completion, Beliar will descend, the great angel, the king of this world, which he has ruled ever since it existed. He will descend from his firmament in the form of a man, a king of iniquity, a murderer of his mother—this is the king of the world—and will persecute the plant which the twelve apostles of the Beloved will have planted; some of the twelve will be given into his hand. This angel, Beliar, will come in the form of that king, and with him will come all the powers of this world, and they will obey him in every wish….And he will do everything he wishes in the world; he will act and speak like the Beloved, and will say, ‘I am the Lord, and before me there was no one.’ And all men in the world will believe in him” (IV.1-8).
As far as the mark is concerned, in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, letters also represented numerals. You can then assign values to letters. By adding these values, numbers can then represent words and names. John’s audience knew this, and he even points it out to them. He writes: “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666” (Rev. 13:18). John knew that several readers of Revelation have the wisdom to put two and two together. He’s not writing to someone 2000 years later. He knows some of his readers have the wisdom to figure out who this man is. This method of assigning numbers to letters is known as isopsephia by the Greeks and gematria by the Hebrew-speaking Jews. When applying isopsephia to the name Nero, the number happens to be 666.
This wasn’t shocking to the Jews of John’s day and it shouldn’t be shocking to us. John is suggesting that those who swear their allegiance to Nero are wearing his mark upon their head or their hand, and those who swear their allegiance to God are wearing God’s mark upon their head or their hand. Unfortunately, in the Roman empire, sometimes you had to swear your allegiance to the emperor in order to buy or sell goods. Furthermore, the emperor’s mark was “literally” on their currency. If you didn’t possess money marked with the face of Nero in your hand, you “literally” couldn’t buy anything.
Now, let’s get back to the COVID-19 vaccine. The people who received the mark of the beast in the book of Revelation knew what they were doing. They weren’t deceived into receiving the mark and it had nothing to do with protecting themselves from a deadly airborne virus. If God torments someone for all eternity for doing something they were tricked into doing in order to save their lives and the lives of others, I don’t think I want to worship that God. If you have a valid reason for not getting the vaccine, I completely understand. If you’re afraid of side-effects…fine. If you don’t think it’s been researched enough…fine. If you’re unwilling to make a small sacrifice for the betterment of society…fine. Those are reasonable excuses. I don’t want to hear you complain about the pandemic, however, because you’re perpetuating the problem by not contributing to the solution. But fine. Misinterpreting Scripture to rationalize your cowardice and condemning your family and friends to torture upon burning sulfur and watching the smoke of their torment rise for ever and ever is—in my most humble opinion—cruel, crazy, and definitely not Christ-like.