“If we completely detach our modern-day applications from a text’s original, historical context, we risk misapplying the text—sometimes in embarrassing ways.”
In an article published last week on theLAB, COVID-19 and The Mark of the Beast, I claimed that the mark of the beast (666) is most likely not a physical or visible mark (Rev. 13:16). The biggest objection I received from readers had to do with this very point: how could the mark be non-physical and invisible if having the mark was what allowed people to “buy or sell” things (Rev. 13:17)? Wouldn’t the mark need to be visible in order to do that? Furthermore, isn’t there enough evidence that the vaccine is the “number” of the beast, including a bill currently before the House of Representatives (6666) and the very letters “C-O-R-O-N-A” themselves?1 These are good questions, and I think a response would be helpful. But first, we need to start from square one and do some background work.
Letter to the Churches
First, we must remember that Revelation is a first-century letter to seven churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 1:4, 11). Letters in antiquity are much like modern letters—situational, personal, and contextual. To understand a letter between two people (or groups of people), you really need to know a thing or two about what necessitated the sending of the letter in the first place. In other words, you need context. In order to rightly interpret the letter of Revelation, we need to investigate these churches’ historical situation.
Many evangelicals tend to skip over this step and jump straight to application. This is a grave mistake. If we completely detach our modern-day applications from a text’s original, historical context, we risk misapplying the text—sometimes in embarrassing ways. Revelation 13:17 (“no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name,” ESV) is one such text. In order to interpret it rightly, we need to know its context. We need some historical data from the letter’s time period in order to gain clarity into its meaning. Is there any such data that might shed some light on this passage? As it turns out, there is.
Worshiping the Emperor
If you want to reconstruct the historical context of Christian people living in first-century Asia Minor, you must take into account the Roman imperial cult. There’s simply no way around it. The cult itself presented clear challenges to early Christians. But what do I mean by “imperial cult”?
For starters, Roman emperors were often deified after they died, becoming “gods” for Roman citizens to worship. For example, after Julius Caesar died, he was deified. His adopted son, Augustus, took for himself the title “son of god.”2 The logic was simple. If his father became “god,” then he got to be called, well, you guessed it: “son of god.”