My personal belief is that the essence of the mark of the beast has to do with loyalty, but please note that the exact meaning of the mark has not been revealed.
I suspect that the “mark of the beast” is a tool that will be used to attempt to co-opt those freedom-loving people across the world — those who have not otherwise been overcome by force — into a new world order.
The propaganda machine of the beast will (or has and will continue to) advertise it as a tool of benevolence, even if completely Godless.
I think we’ve seen its manifestation in many ways already. For example, many people have been fired for their faithful views on marriage and gender, thus removing from them the ability to “buy and sell.”
It is expected that this kind of faith-related persecution will continue to get worse, so our loyalties obviously work into this somehow. Will we throw out our faithfulness in order to be able to easily engage in commerce, or will we remain true to the faith despite the hardships?
It’s possible that there might also be a literal, physical fulfillment yet to come, but why would anyone accept it (whether literally physical or spiritual and symbolic only)?
Imagine you’re completely uncertain about your future. There is chaos all around you. You believe that you and your family might starve, be homeless, or be raped and killed. Then you hear a salesman who says, in effect, that if you’ll just redirect your loyalty to the beast (though they probably wouldn’t call it that), you’ll never have to worry about your future again. You’ll join a forward-thinking Godless collective that has solved the problems of hunger, thirst, and exposure.
It’s something you’ve been warned to not do by scriptures and prophets. But because the beast is so good at both counterfeiting and guile, he’ll convince those whose faith is wavering that he’s not actually so evil; after all, would an evil entity try to provide food, water, clothing, and shelter to the needy? And, wouldn’t a benevolent God want you to humble yourself and accept this help on behalf of your family? He’s a smooth operator.
The trial of faith will be (and has been) intense, but our choice will be a clear sign to God of our loyalty to Him and His Christ.
And we’ve been practicing our response to the invitation of the beast every day. We practice with the decisions we make on Sunday to keep that day holy. We practice with decisions about debt and our willingness to sacrifice present-day wants for future needs. We practice with decisions to contribute tithing and fast offerings. We practice with decisions about pornography, to not use it despite its prevalence in our culture. We practice with decisions to pray to God daily and to search the scriptures frequently. We always practice.
We don’t have to be perfect now, but we need to realize the reality and gravity of our situation and commit to improve, with Christ’s help, day by day.
Suggested study guide: New Testament Manual