Revelation - The Final Victory of Christ's Kingdom
The Revelation is at once both the furthest, and the closest, New Testament book to the heart of the Church. It is furthest because it appears as a forbidding mystery, a strange enigma that has remained unsolved for some two thousand years now. Its numbers are inscrutable to the best mathematician; its symbols defy the shrewdest interpreter; and its visions often appear as frightening and portentous warnings of things to come. It is frankly a difficult book; and every humble Bible reader who makes his way here will approach cautiously, timidly, conscious of his own inadequacy to fully comprehend the broken seals or to withstand the trumpet blasts.
It is also closest to the church's heart because its songs and doxologies have penetrated every prayer, every fast, and every feast of church life. The Cherubic praise in the vision of the heaveny Throne, "Holy, holy, holy…,"1 is repeated by every church day and night in the expanded form of the Agios O Theos; and it is the basis for the section of the divine liturgy that begins with Agios, which immediately precedes the Institution Narrative. The angelic praise in the vision of the Lamb2 is the foundation for our Thok te ti gom during Pascha. And, of course, the entire Revelation is the theme of that holy night which we celebrate once a year, in which the passing of night to day is a figure of the rising from death to life.
Revelation is admittedly a difficult book; it does not easily yield its meaning. Both ancient and modern church fathers have hesitated in writing a commentary on it. Neither Sts Athanasius, nor Cyril, nor Origen, nor Chrysostom, nor Augustine, nor any of our patriarchs have ventured on this difficult task. Innumerable Protestant commentators have tried their hand at an interpretation, giving us a helpful observation here and there, but without much consensus. It is as if God is saying, "All those who inflate the chest for their biblical skills, let them approach here and learn." No-one may finish the Holy Bible saying "I have understood all." However, it should not for that reason be ignored; despite its pervasive difficulties, there are many precious lessons available for anyone to stretch forth and take.
The visions were given to the beloved disciple when, as he says, he was exiled to a distant and lonely island for bearing witness to Christ.3 St. John recorded them principally for the comfort and strengthening of the churches, which were staggering under the iron grip of persecuting Rome.
In our soft, relaxing days, it might be hard to imagine the significance of, for example, the souls under the altar crying aloud for justice,4 or the judgment bowls of God's wrath poured out upon the world of the ungodly,5 or the victorious multitude who sing the song of Moses after overcoming the beast,6 or the promise of a new heaven and new earth in which God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.7
St. John's day was an age "drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus."8 The unspeakable crimes of Nero and the villainies of Domition, both whom many see included in the vision of the Best from the Sea,9 caused so much suffering for the early church that the believers were in danger of collapsing into a pit of despair and surrender. The seven churches to which he writes were like "flickering candles in a blustery night."10 They symbolized lambs about to be devoured by ravenous wolves.
But St. John, the gifted seer from Patmos, looked past the long centuries with the eye of faith and saw, not a Church trampled and consumed by the beast, but victorious, joyful and reigning with the Lamb around His throne.11 And we can be certain that, if God ever willed that His Church be once again plunged into a devastating persecution, this Revelation would be one of the first books turned to for solace and inner peace.
All the trials, tribulations, pains, struggles, plagues, and wars mentioned in the book are preceded first by a glorious vision of the Son of Man.12 The sight startles John by its terrifying beauty. Christ is girded with a golden band; His head and hair are as bright as wool, and His eyes like flames of fire. He stands amidst the seven lampstands and holds the seven stars, protecting them, keeping them, which are the seven churches. St. John means to tell them, whatever woes may be revealed in this book, keep your gaze steadily on Christ. And the Lord Himself says He is the Alpha and Omega, that is, the beginning and author of all events, and the resolver and final judge of all things. This statement, along with "Behold, I am coming quickly!"13 of the last chapter, are the key and sum of the entire book.
The drama rapidly unfolds thence into a series of spectacular and vivid moving pictures toward the final consummation in the concluding chapters. In chapters 2 and 3 we have seven Johannine epistles to the churches he pastored, which by their number represent the virtues and vices of the whole range of churches from then to the present day. The Ephesian sloth, the Smyrnan struggle, the Thyatiran service, the Sardisian weakness, the Philadelphian perseverance, and the Laodicean lukewarmness are to be found in the every age of church history.
St. John then sees a gleaming vision of God's throne—the only throne in heaven, compared with the false thrones of the earth—surrounded by twenty-four elders (representatives of the twelve patriarchs and twelve apostles) and the angelic hosts. Then appears a mysterious scroll in God's hand, with seven unbreakable seals, whose contents hold the power to unleash world events.14 The Lamb of God, who alone has authority to break the seals, does so, and each time releases the hard realities of secular life.
At this point the reader must tread very carefully into the mass of ethereal visions that await him. The attempts to unlock the mysteries of chapter 5 through 20 have resulted in such a wide array of opinions—some tame, others as wild and bizarre as the apocalyptic creatures themselves—that to enter here into a detailed analysis would be impossible. It is helpful to keep in mind that if a book of interpretation on the Revelation itself needs an interpreter, you have cause to hold it suspect. Although we cannot unravel each vision of St. John's prophecy in this brief synopsis, a few brief notes may help.
More than any other book in the Holy Bible, Revelation infuses a mystical significance into numbers. It is firstly a "septenary" book; everything it deals with is in sevens. There are seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, and the book is divisible into seven main parts:
1. Christ in the midst of the seven lampstands (1—3)
2. The scroll with seven seals (4—7)
3. Seven trumpets of judgment (8—11)
4. The woman and Child persecuted by the dragon (12—14)
5. Seven bowls of wrath (15, 16)
6. The fall of the great harlot and the beasts (17—19)
7. The final victory (20—22)
This septenary feature points to the fact that God's dealings encompass the whole range of world and spirit events from the beginning until the end of time. Every calamity and every blessing are under His sovereign hand, and the final issue of all things will be a decided triumph for the Church.
If "7" indicates completion, then "3½" (a bisected "7") was an expression of incompleteness, of restless longing yet unfulfilled, of a suspenseful waiting in which the persecuted saints look for their deliverance. Such, for example, is the period of the trampling of the Gentiles upon the holy city15 and the preaching of the two witnesses.16 If, again, "7" is the sacred number of perfection, then "6" falls short of it and fails; it is the evil imposter of divinity. The uncanny triple-6 was the stroke of doom; it was the label of a man pretending to attain to God's stature yet coming just short, and thereby wearing the mask of the beast.17 Also, if "10" represents wholeness and perfection, then St John multiplies it three times to indicate that the saints will live and reign with Christ forever.18 He who takes "1000 years" literally must also grant that Satan will have his arms literally pressed behind his back with an iron chain.19 Also, the number of the redeemed, 12 x 12 x 1000, indicates that the gospel heralded by the twelve patriarchs and apostles will one day enjoy universal triumph.20
Finally, it is important to mark the parallelism of Revelation. There are several sections which, instead of following a chronological order, overlap and repeat identical events using different language. The most patent example: the seven spheres over which the trumpets announce their judgments (chapter 8) are identical with those over which the bowls of God's wrath are poured out (chapter 15). It is also useful to read 11:19 and 16:17—21 and realize they describe exactly the same event. There are some who believe that the seven sections outlined above are all parallel, but that is a question that can be considered by the individual reader.
The prophetic apostle ends his divine dream with one of the most beautiful visions in the Holy Bible. It is of the Holy City, coming down out of heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband. St. John requisitions all the most precious stones of the earth to set forth its glory, and even the reed the angel uses to measure its walls is golden. The tree of life is there, which no-one has seen since Eden. And in its midst sits the Lamb and King enthroned forever and ever, speaking those words which would have emboldened some poor suffering believer, bound in a dark prison and facing death, and which still grants comfort to the believing heart today: "Surely I am coming quickly." Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!