“He also caused everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to obtain a mark on their right hand or on their forehead. No one was allowed to buy or sell unless he had the mark of the beast – that is his name or the number of his name.” (Revelation 13:16-17).

Have you ever heard that the number 6 recurs three times on every barcode? No one could ever demonstrate to me how it worked, but they were convinced of it all the same. Nor did they explain how the numbers underneath the barcode, which it represented, didn’t all have the number 6 three on them times.

Twenty or so years back when barcodes were being used to mark everything, there was a popular scare going around that this was how the devil’s global government would mark everyone, on their foreheads or hands, so they could buy and sell. If you refused the mark, you wouldn’t be able to trade.

Slightly later, when microchips were being implanted into animals to identify them, a similar scare arose. Satan’s followers would have microchips implanted in their hands or foreheads, carrying all our identifying information. It would be part of our transformation into a cashless society.

Revelation 13:16f talks of this. Note verse 18 – “this calls for wisdom”. That would have set off alarms in the minds of John’s Jewish audience. An assertion about needing wisdom, or “whoever has ears, let him hear”, is a literary marker that tells the listener or reader that what the speaker is saying isn’t to be taken at face value. It is a puzzle that needs to be thought through and understood. The subject of the puzzle isn’t explicitly named, possibly because the reference was to a person or people who had power over the readers – like the Roman government of the day. If they’d found out that John was sending out letters that implied, or stated straight out, that Christ would destroy the Empire, that Empire may well have tried to exterminate Christianity: as the governor of Asia Minor (modern eastern Turkey) was apparently trying to do to the new religion in the area under his control.

This call for wisdom, or to listen or understand, is one of the aspects of wisdom and of apocalyptic literature, such as the books of Revelation and Daniel. It is meant to be obscure, especially to those who don’t share the culture and understanding of the author and his audience. (It’s ironic that a message meant to be obscure should be called a revelation, an unveiling, the explanation of a puzzle. But Revelation is so called because the message and interpretation was revealed to John. But John had to hide it for his audience, in case the Roman authorities found out about it.)

But this isn’t all. Why is the mark only on peoples’ foreheads or right hands? Compare this to the next verse, verse 1 of chapter 14, where Christ Jesus (“the Lamb”) is standing with the (144,000) people He has redeemed, who “have his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads”.

So what’s the deal with putting names and numbers on parts of peoples’ anatomy? It indicates ownership, what side we’re on; but it’s more than that. Look at Deuteronomy 6:6-9.
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.

Some people holding to a Jewish faith follow this as literally as possible. They use phylacteries, small leather boxes with portions of Scripture inside, which they tie to their foreheads and arms when they pray, and mezuzahs, the metal boxes or the actual pieces of Scripture, which are attached to their doorposts.

In Jeremiah 31:31, God gave a promise to match His command in Deuteronomy:

“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

Could this be done literally? If a cardiologist performs heart surgery on a Jew or a Christian, are they going to find God’s words inscribed or tattooed on that muscle? How would we impress them on our children? So-called permanent markers aren’t on skin, so it’s a choice between a tattoo and a brand.

Even if it could be done, what would we, or God, inscribe? The name of God, Yahweh? And if Jesus’ name was to be written, in what form? Greek, Hebrew, English? Would we write Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? Or as Christians used the fish as their symbol, could we?

And these are the problems associated with inscribing God’s name: what about when we start inscribing His laws? Even just the Golden Rule would be problematic! We wouldn’t be able to see our faces for the words. If it were done at a microscopic level, we wouldn’t be able to see what was inscribed. Perhaps the fact of having the inscription is all that we need. In that case, why don’t we just get circumcised? Of course, circumcision in the flesh didn’t help Israel; how could it help Christians?

The head and the hand: the one represents our thoughts, the other represents our actions. God is to be in charge of everything we think and everything we do. This is what it means to write God’s law, or God’s name, on our heads and hands.

copyright Troy Grisgonelle 2007.