The Mark of the Beast

Guys. I’ve done it. I’ve solved the puzzle. Finally, after 2,000 years, because of my hard work and intellectual prowess, we can now know exactly what the mark of the beast is. Every towering genius of the past quakes before me. This mystery, which has been studied and debated by scholars of Scripture for centuries, will now finally be revealed in this blog post. By me. A genius. No. Even better: A galaxy-brained genius.

Ok, so maybe I don’t know what the mark of the beast actually is. The book of Revelation is super confusing, and the further we get from the time of its writing, the more difficult it is for us to discern its mysteries. It’s not written in a straightforward way. It’s timeline is most likely non-linear. The images, exploding off the page as they do, are so vivid and strange that they mask the reality to which they point. Is it past? Is it present? Is it future? The answer is an emphatic, “Yes!” It is all of these. It is history and prophecy, of both the physical and spiritual realms. It is current events — the news. It was the news. It is the news. It will be the news. Get it? Hardly. But I do have some thoughts.

The book of Revelation was the news, is the news, and will be the news.

Lots of folks think we’re living in the days prophesied in Revelation — the end times. People have always thought this, though, and I have a feeling that they’ve always been a little bit wrong but a whole lot right. We’ve been living in the last days ever since Jesus ascended back into the Father’s presence. His death, resurrection, and ascension kicked off an entirely new age in world history. We’re in the last days, the last phase of this world before Jesus makes everything new. The end is near! We’re just not quite to the last hour yet.

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open and shut
To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
-Revelation 3:7-13

Jesus is pretty intent on making it clear to the church in Philadelphia that he is the Jewish Messiah. As far as he’s concerned, it’s an open and shut case. Obviously. He calls himself the Holy One and the True One. He says that he holds the key of David. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it’s obvious that all of these are significant claims. He also seems to know who is and is not authentically Jewish, and the local synagogue is definitely not a true Jewish synagogue. In fact, he goes so far as to call it a synagogue of Satan. As the Jewish Messiah, Jesus is able to discern who is and is not a real member of God’s family.

What Jesus opens no one can shut; what Jesus shuts no one can open.

When Jesus tells John to tell the church in Philadelphia that he holds the key of David, I think what he means to say is this: I am the only one who can open the door to the Messianic kingdom. The new reality that awaits the people of God is locked, and only Jesus can take us into this awe-inspiring, wonderful space. He is the one who opens or closes the door to new creation. In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to himself as the gate, and access into God’s family is only granted through him. Here in Revelation, Jesus puts it in even starker terms: What I open no one can shut; what I shut no one can open. There isn’t another way into the Messianic world. It’s Jesus or nothing.

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Strengthen what remains
To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
-Revelation 3:1-6

The reputation is not always the reality. The church in Sardis had a reputation for being alive, but the spiritual reality of their condition was that they were dead. Maybe they were coasting on the spiritual vitality of a previous generation. They weren’t creating any momentum for God’s kingdom themselves. Stuck in neutral, they were enjoying the downhill speed created by the courage and faithfulness of their parents’ generation. But a steep climb is coming, and they aren’t going to make it unless they wake up and hit the gas.

Strengthen what remains but is about to die.

Or maybe they’re just blind to the reality of their actual spiritual condition. It’s hard for me to see what’s wrong with me. It’s difficult for me to diagnose my own disease. What isn’t already dead is dying, and I’m out here believing my own hype, coasting on the work of others without adding any forward momentum of my own. This is what it’s like to be in Sardis, the corpse-church that thinks it’s doing just fine. “You’ve got the reputation of being a fine vineyard,” Jesus says to them, “but you can’t show me a single grape you grew yourself.” What are you going to pass on to your children? A stalled car at the bottom of the hill fresh out of gas. Wake up, Sardis. Wake up, America.

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Jesus's Patient Intolerance brings us to repentance
To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.’ To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations— that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’ —just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
-Revelation 2:18-29

Jesus is, once again, upset with one of the seven churches because of their tolerance of, let’s call them alternative teachings within a congregation. Do you remember when tolerance was the big cultural buzzword? It was considered a virtue to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs, decisions, and ways of living. Who are we, after all, to judge another person? There was some truth to this perspective. Christians need to understand that it’s none of our business what those do who are outside of the church (see Paul in 1 Corinthians 5). We are, however, supposed to express a certain level of intolerance toward those who are inside the church — those who, like Jezebel from this passage, are teaching and practicing things that are transgressive, that are against God’s laws.

That which we tolerate will dominate.

If you’ve been paying attention to the culture over the past couple of years, you may have noticed that tolerance isn’t good enough anymore. It is an insufficient minimal virtue. We have moved beyond tolerance, and the new minimal social demand is acceptance. The call to tolerate the transgressive has become the demand to accept the transgressive, and is quickly becoming the mandate to celebrate the transgressive. It is no longer culturally acceptable to let other people live their lives, even if you disagree with or disapprove of their choices. We must now at least accept, if not outright celebrate, every choice. (Well, not every choice, but you know what I mean.) We might call this “the transgressive journey,” where something which was once roundly condemned slowly becomes tolerated, then accepted, then celebrated, and finally it will dominate and redefine the culture itself.

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Remain True
To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
-Revelation 2:12-17

Have you ever been somewhere and felt a dark, oppressive presence? Have you ever visited a house or a church and gotten angry for no apparent reason? Maybe there was just something about this place that felt off to you. Maybe you would go so far as to call it demonic. My wife and I felt this when we visited Las Vegas on the last leg of The Zekey Trip in 2014. I know that Vegas is considered “sin city,” so it has a reputation to uphold, but we had been pretty open-minded about staying the night there. It didn’t take long, however, for us to realize that this was not a place we wanted to be for long. (No doubt that some parts of Vegas are perfectly lovely, but this particular spot felt spiritually dark to us.) We stayed in the RV that night and left as soon as we could the next morning.

The spirit of a place can be dark and oppressive.

The spirit of a place can be dark and oppressive, and ancient Pergamum was such a place. Jesus even called it “the place where Satan has his throne.” That sounds pretty dark to me! Pergamum was a spiritual stronghold in a geographic sense, as the church there could attest, having endured the martyrdom of their bishop, Antipas, shortly before the writing of the book of Revelation. (See this article for more information on Pergamum.) Jesus’s praise of the Christians in Pergamum, “You remain true to my name,” demonstrates the power of their courage and character in the face of violent persecution and severe resistance from the dark spiritual powers who had made their home there.

It’s hard to remain true to Jesus in dark places because dark places are owned by dark spirits. Their presence is often manifested through human beings as false teaching, false religion, or cultic practice. This false teaching spreads from person to person as a majority of the community comes under the sway of the evil spirit. Sometimes evil spirits will possess a particular person in a horrifying way, but I think it’s more often the case that these spirits “hover over” a certain place as if they are governing it. And if you think this sounds a bit like Stranger Things, then you’re getting my point.

Dark spirits resist the presence and spread of Christianity through persecution and colonization.

These evil spiritual beings are invested in their own power and position, and the last thing they want to do is give any ground, spiritually or physically, to the kingdom of God. Dark spirits resist the presence and spread of Christianity, and will always seek to take out believers and churches who are trying hard to remain true to Jesus. These spirits tend to do this in two ways. The first weapon an evil spirit will use against Christianity is a blunt cudgel — persecution. Violence and oppression are effective means of eliminating a particular belief system or way of living, especially when that system is in its early phases. But as the system gains a foothold in a community, persecution is no longer a viable option. That’s when the second weapon of evil spirits comes out — colonization.

Colonizing a church is a more sophisticated weapon against the spread of Christianity. It’s also much more effective than persecution, even if it takes a lot longer to accomplish. To colonize a church means to take it over from the inside, to convert its leaders to the dark spirit’s preferred ideology or religion, thereby making it a culturally respectable institution of false teaching rather than a spiritually dangerous outpost of Gospel belief and practice. In America, a colonized church is one that teaches political ideology more than the Gospel — and this is true whether that ideology is conservative or progressive. (Christians in America need to wake up to the reality that there are dark spirits and false teaching to the right of us.) A colonized church looks and sounds almost exactly like the other respected institutions of its community. It takes up the same causes and harbors the same prejudices that the evil spirit has led the rest of the community into.

It is not easy to resist the colonizing efforts of the dark spirits in your community, much less to revolt against the presence of these spirits once they have placed their throne in your sanctuary. And that is what every dark spirit is trying to do. It is trying to smother the light of the Gospel and pervert the witness of the saints. It is incumbent upon us, in order to remain true to Jesus, to resist these attacks both in ourselves as individuals, and within our midst as a church body. There are many ways that we can do this, but I want to highlight two that I think are especially important today.

A colonized church becomes a culturally respectable institution of false teaching rather than a spiritually dangerous outpost of Gospel belief and practice.

First of all, we must understand what is false about false teaching. We live in a chattering and arguing age, and bad arguments do not help the cause of God’s kingdom. The ignorance of the saints actually empowers the darkness to spread further and thicker over our communities and into our churches. Let me be blunt: Your ignorant social media posts are making things worse. Spreading conspiracy theories is spreading darkness. Insulting other human beings and believing the worst of them is not how we are supposed to fight, because our struggle is not against flesh and blood. We are not fighting people; we are, in a sense, fighting ideas. We are fighting lies. And we need to educate ourselves about these deceptive ideas in order to be victorious over them. You don’t need to know everything about a subject before you speak about it, but you should be able to anticipate some objections and then respond by speaking the truth in love. Being victorious doesn’t mean that we win an argument or make someone else look foolish; it means that we have loved someone out of the darkness of these dark spirits and into the light of Christ.

The second thing we need to do to remain true to Christ is more challenging because it involves confronting people that we know, love, and respect. Jesus was critical of the church in Pergamum because of their tolerance — they let beliefs that were contrary to the Gospel fester in their congregation. We cannot tolerate false teachers, or even people who are invested in these lies, among our church leaders, and that includes pastors, elders, and staff. A church leader who is under the sway of a false teaching will bind that church to the dark spirit rather than to the Lord. Such people should be rebuked, and if they don’t repent, then they must be removed from their positions of authority. Paul warned us that “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough,” and that’s exactly what happens through people who are under the deception of these lies. An entire church can be colonized by a dark spirit because of the deception of a single, well-placed individual.

But we need to be careful with our accusations. All too often it is the person doing the accusing who is under the sway of the dark spirit, and not the pastor or elder who is being accused. The Bible is clear that an accusation against a church leader should not be entertained unless it is verified by two or more witnesses. You need to check your own heart and mind, first, and the person that you should be most critical of is yourself. Dark spirits have a way of making their darkness look like light to our eyes, which is why they can so easily deceive us. You might be angry at your pastor for preaching the social gospel, but it could be your overly-conservative politics that is the real lie. Or you might think your elders are unloving because of their position on LGBTQ issues, but it could be that you have fallen under the sway of the sexual revolution. Examine yourself first, and be committed to remain true to Jesus in this dark and oppressed world.

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