If the “mark of the beast” meant Domitian’s coins, how can there also be a future fulfillment?

Q. In your Daniel-Revelation guide, you say that taking the “mark of the beast” in Revelation could have originally meant using or wearing Roman coins that gave the emperor Domitian the titles “lord and god.”  But you also say that this historical background is “only a starting point for understanding the symbol,” and that it “shouldn’t limit its meaning” (p. 107). Doesn’t this leave the door open for the speculation and foolish debate that often arise over this topic?

I agree that it’s unfortunate when a lot of time, energy, and emotion are spent trying to figure out what one thing the “mark of the beast” must correspond to. We don’t need to do this.

The symbol did mean something specific and definite at the time when the book of Revelation was written. I’ve suggested one likely possibility in the study guide, Domitian’s coins, which “would be held in the right hand for transactions” and which “were sometimes also worn in a band on the forehead.”  This would explain John’s statement that everyone was forced “to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark.”

The Jews were already sensitive enough to the blasphemous and idolatrous depictions of emperors on Roman coins that these coins were not allowed in the Jerusalem temple.  That’s why there were money-changers there.  (Unfortunately they cheated the people who needed to convert their Roman currency; that’s why Jesus overturned their tables, for making his Father’s house a “den of thieves.”)  And so it’s quite reasonable that John in Revelation would express a similar sensitivity to the way emperor worship was being advanced insidiously through the necessities of economic life. This is a respected interpretation among New Testament scholars.

But I also say in the guide that in the books of Daniel and Revelation, events in the near future and the far distant future may be simultaneously envisioned, “as a definitive crisis in the life of God’s people evokes the ultimate crisis at the end of this age” (p. 122).  So there may well be something in the final conflict between good and evil at the end of history that closely approximates the “mark of the beast” as it was experienced in John’s time—some form of coercion to participate in a godless system, upon threat of being excluded from buying and selling.

But the best way to be prepared for such a challenge, if we ever have to face it, is to recognize even now that fallen cultures will always try to get their people’s allegiance at the expense of their allegiance to God.  Followers of Jesus need to be perpetually aware of this danger and resist it.

Ultimately, what represents a present-day manifestation of the “mark of the beast” (coercion to join a godless system) will vary in different places and times. And so rather than engaging in speculation and debate about a unique meaning for the symbol, believers need to be spiritually alert and uncompromising in every situation.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

9 thoughts on “If the “mark of the beast” meant Domitian’s coins, how can there also be a future fulfillment?”

  1. Rev was written to the 7 churches of Asia, in symbolism about the Revelation of who Jesus is; that soon had to take place. That is in the first 3 scriptures. People who were under great persecution. God would not write to these people of things 2000 years in the future that would never affect them.

  2. There aren’t any references in your book and I’m wondering where you get the idea that Domitian had coins with “Lord and god” on them and that he carried a thunderbolt? The picture of the coin on this page doesn’t show that. Also, states can’t require the pledge of allegiance as the Supreme Court has upheld the right of students not to pledge.

    1. Thank you for your question. It has led me to look into this further and I can offer the following correction to what’s written in this post and in my Daniel-Revelation study guide. Two Roman historians who were contemporaries of Domitian say that he used the title Dominus et Deus for himself, for example, in letters. However, he actually didn’t issue any coinage or edicts using that title. It may still be the case that individuals and cities that were seeking the emperor’s favor (such as the seven cities of Revelation) used the title in addressing Domitian in order to flatter him. If so, then the faithful believers in view in Revelation would still have had to stand against this practice and insist that Jesus is the only true Lord and God.(I think there are echoes of this in Revelation, for example, when the elders sing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” This is a delegitimation of the idea that Domitian is “lord and god,” in favor of the God who created the universe. One of Domitian’s coins does show an eagle standing on a thunderbolt, a symbol of Zeus. The eagle represents Rome and, by extension, its emperor:
      null
      And so followers of Jesus may well have felt that using Domitian’s coins was a spiritual compromise, since they bore such symbols and his image (his face), given that there was at least an informal cult of emperor worship growing up around him.
      As for the Pledge of Allegiance, you’re right, the U.S. Supreme Court did rule that states could not require students to say the pledge. However, many local school districts still require that it be recited every day, even though no individual student is compelled to say it. So if I were going to revise the Daniel-Revelation study guide, I’d say something like, “Many school districts in the United States require the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited at the start of every day: ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands . . .’ Even though no individual student can be compelled to say the pledge, or punished for not saying it, the school district and the homeroom teacher are conveying a clear expectation that students participate. Are you in favor of this policy? Why or why not? Compare this situation (or a similar one from your own culture) with the one here in Revelation.”
      Thank you again for your helpful question and observations.

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