The apostle John tells of a vision in which an angel—the third of three—gives the message, “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury” (Revelation 14:9, 10).
Christians have endlessly speculated about who or what “the mark of the beast” of Revelation chapters 13 and 14 is. But what is more important, is what it means.
Obviously here is a warning against worshipping “the beast”—against receiving its “mark.” Worshipping the beast stands in stark contrast in the book of Revelation to worshipping “the Lamb,” “who was slain, to receive power ... and honour and glory” (5:12).
The lamb is Jesus, obviously. But Revelation paints a very different picture, revealing that rather than following Jesus, sadly, “The whole world was astonished and followed the beast [and] worshipped the dragon” (13:3, 4).
From reading Revelation 13, it is obvious that the mark of the beast is a sign of allegiance to the “beast”—an antichristian power—and that it is something internal, not just external.
Broader reading reveals it is a mark of loyalty to the beast, as opposed to loyalty to God, the Lamb. It is something that is the opposite of the everlasting gospel—salvation through faith in Jesus.
Every false religious system uses “good works” as its basis for salvation; every false religious system to some degree distorts the good news of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone.
So, if the mark of the beast is a sign of allegiance to the beast, it also represents allegiance to the beast's version of truth, a sign that shows one is following the beast's teachings rather than the pure teachings of the Bible. And this can happen, even right inside the Christian church, despite our good intentions.
When the Roman emperor, Constantine, publicly accepted the Christian faith in 312 AD, it spelled a new day for the church. Just a few years before, believers were being thrown to lions in the Colosseum and hunted like the wild animals of North Africa. But now, Christianity was to be accepted, and it would soon become the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Then, pagans who'd been worshipping Zeus and Caesar wanted to join the Christian church. Unfortunately, church leaders decided to make the transition easier, allowing them to keep some of their pagan ideas and customs.
Sun-worship had a strong hold on the people of the Roman Empire. And it didn't simply wither when Constantine and pagans began calling on the name of Jesus. So Constantine thought of a way to accommodate sun-worshippers, making them feel more comfortable inside the Christian church. In March of 321 AD, he issued a decree to this effect: “On the venerable Day of the Sun [Sunday], let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all work shops be closed.”
This was the first official step toward establishing Sunday over Saturday as the official day of rest and worship for Christians. And soon the church itself would forbid all work on a Sunday, establishing it as the official rest day (the Sabbath of the Creation week) of Christianity.
What most people don't realise today, is that the seventh day, Saturday, remained the Christian day or worship for many centuries after Christ's death. It was the Sabbath for all early believers. There is absolutely no evidence for a change in the official day of worship for Christians to be found anywhere in the New Testament. But, finally, Christian church leaders decided to accommodate its sun-worshipping constituents who worshipped on Sunday. After all, they reasoned, Sunday was also the day of the Lord's resurrection.
But why is this important? In fact, does it really matter what day of the week one goes to church? Wouldn't God be happy when we worship Him, no matter what the day is? Of course He is.
The important thing was what people were saying in their hearts, inside, when they began to worship on Sunday—what this new sign of allegiance meant to them. That is what God cares about. Were they really worshipping Christ, the resurrected Lord? Or were they really still worshipping the sun, clothed in Christian garb?
As you look at the history of the church, it's easy to discover that many of its members were still worshipping someone or something besides Jesus. In the middle of the fifth century, we find Pope Leo I rebuking worshippers at St Peter's Cathedral, Rome, because they kept turning around and bowing toward the sun before entering the basilica.
This mixing of pagan custom with Christian teaching greatly weakened the church, and the adoption of Sunday as the day of worship had much to do with the tragedy.
The rather arbitrary change in the day of worship from the seventh day of the week to the first contributed to another problem—the problem of church authority.
The Christian church kept increasing in power and authority right into the Middle Ages. It became the official interpreter of Scripture, and eventually, through the Inquisition and secular forces, persecuting any whom questioned its authority or its dogma.
When individuals challenged the church on points such as the change in the day of worship, church leaders would use an interesting argument to defend their right to do so, and to determine what God's truth was. They pointed to the observance of Sunday: “We did that by our own authority,” they argued. “There is no basis for it in Scripture!”
There's danger in making up one's own rules and signs. They can then become the test of allegiance. Whom are you really following? Who has the last word for you?
The church father, the apostle Paul, said, “Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:16).
You're either going to commit to obeying the Word of God—the Bible—or to some religious leader. If Scripture and Scripture alone don't have the last word, then trouble will follow.
Congregations in Constantine's time found this out. Before pastors realised how many people were still worshipping the sun on the new “holy day,” the church was irreversibly committed to and irreparably damaged by it. It became a question of allegiance. Sunday became, for them, a sign of allegiance to church authority. And who has the last word, the authoritative word, in your life is a question only you can answer.
As Christians, we can't make up the rules to govern the universe to suit ourselves, although we can try. We can't let anyone, even a good moral leader, be our authority no matter how well versed in the Bible, pious, powerful, charismatic and respected they might be, decide the rules aside from God's clear Word, for us. We have to give our allegiance totally and exclusively to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. He alone is a safe and trustworthy guide, leading us in untarnished love and truth. All that will count in the end is whether we chose to listen to, worship and follow Him.
We are falling headlong toward an impact with the end-times. God is eager to rescue each of us with His everlasting gospel. He doesn't want any shepherd who turns into a beast to get in the way of that rescue.
That is why the warning these three angels give is so loud, so urgent. That's why God's last altar call of love is so vivid.