Albert Schweitzer once wrote:
The Reformation fought and conquered in the name of Paul. Consequently the teaching of the Apostle of the Gentiles took a prominent place in Protestant study. Nevertheless the labor expended upon it did not, to begin with, advance the historical understanding of his system of thought. What men looked for in Paul’s writings was proof-texts for Lutheran or Reformed theology; and that is what they found. Reformation exegesis reads its own ideas into Paul, in order to receive them back again clothed with Apostolic authority.
Schweitzer’s stinging rebuke here refers (at least in part) to how Lutherans saw justification by faith as the absolute center of Paul’s theology, the center of gravity, the center around which everything must turn and thus the center of all Christian theology. Schweitzer himself believed this place should better be given to being ‘in Christ,’ an opinion (I suggest) Calvin would have shared despite his obvious love for the doctrine of justification. The substance of Schweitzer’s warning, therefore, is mostly a warning against overemphasis — taking something good, something biblical, and overemphasizing it in a way that throws everything out of balance.
We do much worse when we read our own ideas back into a text wholesale! What a frightful trap to fall into. In that case we are not simply giving a clearly biblical principle more prominence than it deserves, getting the balance wrong; instead, we are potentially reading “stuff” into our Bibles that is not there at all, just our own fancies, our own ideas, our own “brand” (if you like), making the Bible’s “brand” apparently support what we want to say. This is what it means (pure and simple) to misuse the Bible. It is bad enough to have an erroneous loop running around inside our own heads — worse if this loop is not just a matter of wrong priorities but actually false ideas. Ouch! Then there is the disaster of making it public, bringing others into our loop — a particular disaster if we embroil other sincere Christians, if we bind their consciences by suggesting that our own ideas are actually the Bible’s. It is better to say, “Personally I think… In my opinion.” Why not? Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But when we shroud what are actually only personal opinions in biblical garb, incorrectly declaring that the Bible actually teaches what we are saying, this is a huge disaster!
It is those who brim with confidence in their own opinions who are most likely to get caught in this trap. Beware! We get hits, lots of hits, lots of positive feedback on social media about our ideas and like a drug this convinces us that we are the captain of all truth, the master of all that is right. Like Midas all we touch — including the Bible — must turn to gold, gold to be spent in furthering our own pursuits. But as William James once cleverly warned: “a great many people think they are thinking, when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” We would do well to ponder this because pride is a very powerful drug!
I recognize, quite readily, that this is a direct, even aggressive, beginning to an article. I’ve pulled no punches. But I feel compelled to say it this way because this is such a crucial issue. We can lead people astray! In wanting to become ‘influencers’ we can influence people towards what is wrong, becoming bad influencers. And if we unwittingly or willingly try to make the Bible say what it isn’t saying, there is every possibility that we will be creating a disaster. Why? Because by shackling the Bible’s ‘brand’ to our own, one will rise or fall with the other. This is akin to the warning in James 3 that not many should be teachers, since the spark that sets the fire ablaze is like the tongue that most surely can ‘influence.’
All this, however, has an immediate touch point, a direct application, as this article’s title suggests, because one instance where people are doing exactly as I have described is this question: “Is the COVID Vaccine the Mark of the Beast?” Here is what happens. Revelation 13:18 refers to the fact that Satan’s system is established, a system in which no person can trade if he or she has not received the mark of the beast, the mark 6-6-6, a reference notoriously oblique. But with obliqueness comes mystique, and so throughout history people have become enamored with what this enigmatic verse might mean. On the one hand we can see why a sincere person might want to fit this verse with the COVID vaccine. There are certain parallels. It may happen that if someone gets the vaccine, in the future this person may be allowed to travel or return to work or attend certain meetings, where others may not — for the sake of safety. Further this vaccine is being rolled out worldwide in a kind of ‘one world’ way. This scares people, because it sounds like a larger conspiracy. So, to be fair, a sincere person seeking to believe the Bible and take it seriously might wonder if the COVID vaccine might be the mark of Revelation 13:18. But what I want to now show in this article is that there are many reasons why this verse has nothing to do with receiving a COVID vaccine and everything to do with taking stock of much more obvious and immediate issues in our lives. In other words, I want all at once to show why this verse has nothing to do with vaccinations and everything to do with something more challenging to those of us living in modern western society. Revelation 13:18 actually speaks to the snare of getting too caught up in politics, wrong political allegiances, and also the danger of toxic economics, making money everything. Let us see how.
Revelation 13:18 speaks of 666 being the number of the beast, raising the obvious prior question: who is the beast? In Revelation 17:9 we are told that the beast has “seven heads,” symbolizing “seven hills.” This is both an important and transparent clue. Anyone living in that day would have known that Rome was called the city of seven hills, being traditionally founded on the middle mountain, the Palatine Hill, which was then surrounded by six other hills in clockwise order — Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, Aventine, and Capitoline — all of which were like natural turrets, standing as high ground inside a wall eventually enclosed the enlarged city. People desiring to make the Bible real and applicable today may balk at such a connection because it seems to “naturalize” the Bible too much, in ways that more “spiritual” interpretations do not, taking us a step away from the Bible as applicable to all of life. But in fact, this reading leads to the most powerful application for today.
Revelation 17 provides another crucial detail. A woman is riding on this beast. Who is she? She is called a prostitute, the prostitute called “Babylon,” riding on this beast. Most obviously she is not the beast itself, as the beast turns and eventually devours her. She is a city too. But which city? Well, who did Rome devour? Most obviously Jerusalem/Zion, representing physical Israel, destroyed in 70 A.D. If we carefully read Revelation 12-17 we find that a woman with 12 stars on her head gives birth to Jesus in Revelation 12 (remember that Jesus was a Jew, birthed from Israel), only for her to be whisked into the desert on eagle’s wings — an echo of what happened to Israel when they were brought out of Egypt. But then as John is taken into the desert for the first time by the angel, whom does he see? A woman, but now a prostitute. The woman as a prostitute was a regular – even the regular – metaphor for faithless Israel in the Old Testament, as Israel herself became corrupt after being rescued out of Egypt into the desert. She is riding on the beast, probably a sexual reference. In Revelation 11:8 Jerusalem is given allegorical names of other wicked cities: “the street of the great city, which is allegorically called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.” Even the term “the great city” (used here for Jerusalem) only occurs again in Revelation 18:10, in that case connected to the city Babylon.
This is no rabbit trail. There is actually only one woman described at length in Revelation, a woman who like yin and yang is a two-sided character, either a negative earthly city that should have been the faithful people of God but wasn’t, or else the positive woman, the heavenly Jerusalem, who is the real and faithful people of God. The only woman described at length in Revelation is Jerusalem, Jerusalem who is either the earthly city that has prostituted herself to foreign ruler — like Israel had done in Hosea’s day — or the pure bride, the true people of God married to Christ at the great wedding supper of the lamb (Revelation 19). This context explains Revelation 13, the chapter found in-between, coming right on the heels of Revelation 12, the chapter on the woman with the stars on her head. The beast that comes out of the sea, i.e. Rome, joins with the beast of the land (the “false prophet,” who like all false prophets comes from within Israel) leading God’s people astray.
What then is the message of Revelation 13:8? Don’t get worldly! Don’t get caught up in buying and selling, practicing prostitution with Rome, as Israel did. We should likely understand the three-fold repetition of 6-6-6 (“man’s number”) meaning (in a Jewish context) “work-work-work,” especially since the immediate context is economics — humans always falling short of the divine rest, the divine 7 of God’s rest from his works in creation. This is not a hill (pardon the pun) I would die on. Maybe 6-6-6 is Nero’s name, which would also fit with the context and still match the warning for God’s people against worldliness. But the interpretation here does capture powerfully the immediate economic context of Revelation 13. While this is not a hill to die on, this detail, what I do certainly think is worth dying for is the challenge that Revelation as a whole gives as a warning to Christians not to get caught in the world’s ways, means its politics and economics!
I will end just as I started, by pulling no punches. Are we so married to the politics of this world, giving our devotion to governmental rule that we are effectively in bed with a beast? Are we so married to our jobs that life revolves around buying and selling, justifying questionable ethical deals in the name of “business”? Are we indeed so caught up in the economics of the world, having more, climbing the ladder, that we are neglecting spiritual maturity and the spiritual health of ourselves, our spouse (if we are married) and our children? If ever there were a powerful juggernaut of all consuming political and economic power, threatening to pull us in like the sirens of Greek mythology, charming us with their beautiful song, it is our entire governmental and economic system.
So, before we become smug about others who misinterpret Revelation 13:18 to say it is about vaccinations, let us ponder what it actually is saying as a powerful application to us! Neville Cardus said, “It’s a dreadful pity when a beautifully spacious generalization is upset by one or two simple facts.” Let us be careful in imagining that our own generalizations are immune to the challenge of the simple facts from the Bible.
But back to the COVID vaccine – what should we do? Revelation 13:18 has nothing much to say about whether we get the vaccine or not. All evidence points to this not being some global conspiracy to infect us with something else, but rather just good old-fashioned human responsibility, attempting within the world God has placed us to manage “life,” which God loves. As a New Testament professor but also a scientist by training it seems to me that the data simply supports loving others by getting the vaccine so the virus may not use you and me as stepping-stones to infect others who may be more vulnerable. Even if we are not at risk, it behooves Christians to love the vulnerable. So, I would say, get the jab! I would. But this indeed is my opinion. You may choose not to get it – that is your opinion. But to choose not to get it because of the book of Revelation would most certainly be a mistake!