By David Symons
Interest in the topic of the “beast” and his “mark” has always surged during times of peril and uncertainty. As people grapple with a lingering pandemic coupled with worldwide economic and political insecurity, their anxious search for what the future holds has once again ignited fear and wild speculation on the subject.
The phrase “the mark of the beast” originates in God’s Word, specifically in its last book—Revelation.1 And it is the Bible that holds the key to unlock the meaning of the mysterious symbols of this vital prophecy.2
So where do we begin? Logic tells us that if we are going to understand the mark of the beast, we must first understand who or what the beast itself is.
Revelation 13 tells us the story of the beast, beginning in verse 1: “I…saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.”
At first glance, this might sound like something out of popular fiction. But no, this is indeed the Bible. So what’s up with all this strange imagery? Is the Bible telling us that we need to beware of a creepy-looking sea monster at the end of time?
The very first verse of the book of Revelation tells us that its message was “signified,” or “put into symbols.” In other words, Revelation reveals vital truths about the future through rich symbolism. Thus, when John saw a beast rising up out of the sea, we can assume it was symbolic. As we’ve learned already, the Bible itself holds the key to unlocking the symbol’s meaning.
The Beast: The book of Daniel—the “twin sister” of Revelation—explains that in prophecy, a beast (i.e. an animal) represents a nation. See Dan. 7:23. Thus, in Revelation 13, John is being shown the rise of a mighty nation.
The Sea: What about the “sea” from which the beast arose? Revelation 17:15 tells us that it represents a large concentration of people. This mysterious nation arose from a highly populated area in the world. Just where that area was will soon become obvious from further clues.
The Heads, Horns, and Crowns: What else do we know about this beast? For one thing, it has “heads,” which have horns with crowns as well as blasphemous names on them.
The heads, horns, and crowns all point to the kind of government this nation has and the extent of its influence. In the Bible, heads are usually associated with rule and authority. For example, Christ is referred to as “the head of the church.” Horns can represent power and authority, especially the power held by kings.3 And crowns symbolize kingly power, suggesting that the beast would have an autocratic system of governance, as well as great influence over the nations among which it arose. Its leadership would demand unquestioning obedience, and its decrees would be strictly enforced in all nations under its dominion.
Revelation itself tells us where this power comes from. The beast inherited it from “the dragon.” Rev. 13:2. This dragon, mentioned first in chapter 12, has several identities—either the devil himself,4 or nations he uses to accomplish his evil purposes.5 In verses 1–4, it refers to the Roman Empire which, through its vassal King Herod, sought to kill Jesus (the “man child” in verse 5) around the time of His birth.6
Thus, this nation received its power from the Roman Empire. The Greek word translated as “power” suggests military might, meaning that this new nation and its leaders would hold sway over vast armies, just as the ancient Caesars did. And what would it do with this great military power? For 1,260 years,7 it would persecute God’s people. Rev. 13:4, 7.
Furthermore, the Roman Empire gave to this new nation its “seat”—that is, the place of its throne. The rulers of this mysterious new nation assumed the very position of the Caesars of Rome, including their titles, political authority, privileges (including being regarded and worshiped as gods on earth), and even the same capital city—Rome itself—located in central Italy.
This new nation arose in the populated region of Western Europe, in which Italy is located.
The Names of Blasphemy: Names in the Bible often suggest character or mission and purpose.8 Since the heads display a blasphemous name, the leaders of this nation have a blasphemous purpose and character.
What exactly is blasphemy? In the simplest sense, it is to show great disrespect for the name of God by the way we use it in our conversations. More than this, though, we find that blasphemy refers to the false claims of a man to be God, such as claiming the authority to forgive sins.9 It also refers to the false profession of Christianity.10
So, who or what is this mysterious “sea beast”? From what we have learned, it is a nation located in Rome, Italy, where it received the titles, territory, and political clout of the Caesars. It also is a nation that claims to be Christian, but whose leadership showed this to be false by its persecution of God’s people (and whoever else that challenged its decrees) and by its blasphemous claims to be as God on earth, including the authority to forgive men’s sins.
As we candidly consider history, it becomes plain that the beast refers to none other than the Roman Catholic Church State, which officially received political power to control the Western portion of the Roman Empire in ad 538 from Emperor Justinian, whose capital was in the eastern portion of the empire.
At that time, its leadership took the titles of “Pontifex Maximus” and “king of kings” among others and quickly began using its new political and military might to persecute all who would not accept its claims or its many and increasing false doctrines. This reign of terror became known as “the Dark Ages” and lasted until 1798, at which time its political power was stripped from it, and its pope, Pius IV, was forced to abdicate by the French armies of Napoleon.
Despite this loss of political power, its religious claims and nature have never changed. It still claims that it holds “on this earth the place of God Almighty,”11 and to this day it still offers “pardon” through various means.12
A Disclaimer: We must be clear that we are not condemning individual Catholics, who are often as sincere as any other believer in Christ. Nor do we negate the good work Catholic institutions have done. Rather, the issue is the system and its claims, which include placing man’s traditions above God’s commands and a priest or a pope between the sinner and his Savior.
The loss of political power in 1798 is referred to in Revelation 13 as a “deadly wound.” Verse 12 tells us that some day in the near future, this will be “healed,” meaning that the Roman Church’s political power will be restored and that the world will experience another “dark age.” Revelation tells us that the entire world, under the threat of persecution, will worship the beast (obey its laws) except those whose names are written in the Lamb’s “book of life.” Who are they that are written in this book? Those who belong to the Lamb of God—Jesus Christ.
Very soon this world will be plunged into the greatest crisis in history, and those alone who have given themselves—heart, body, and soul—to Jesus will have strength to endure. How is it with you, reader? Have you invited Jesus into your life? Have you given Him your sins? He loves you and longs to have you come to Him to find life and peace for the present and strength for the future.
For further study, see the following resources: The Great Controversy and The History of Tomorrow.
See Rev. 13:16, 17; 14:9, 11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4.
See 1 Cor. 2:13.
They can also represent kings themselves. See Ps. 89:17; Hab. 3:4; Dan. 7:24; 8:20, 21; Rev. 17:12.
A dragon/serpent is a beast or animal and thus represents a nation(s).
See Matt. 2:3–16.
A day in Bible prophecy is equal to a literal year. Num. 13:34; Eze. 4:6. Forty-two months refers to 1,260 prophetic days or 1,260 literal years.
Jacob’s name meant “supplanter,” well describing the way in which he overtook his brother and the firstborn’s privileges by deception. Gen. 25:26. Matt. 1:21 shows that the name “Jesus” was given to our Lord as it described His mission to save.
See John 10:33; Mark 2:7.
See Rev. 2:9. It uses the word “Jew,” which in New Testament times, referred to believers in Jesus. See Rom. 2:28, 29. Also compare Rom. 9:6–8 with Gal. 3:7, 26–29.
We can be sure of this because of Rome’s doctrine of “papal infallibility,” which means that the pope can never be wrong in what he says. Rome’s teaching that priests and the pope himself can offer forgiveness is still authoritative to this day.
David Symons is a pastoral evangelism graduate of Hartland College. He now serves as a Bible teacher at Purelight Missions in South Africa.