THE BOOK OF REVELATION
Suggested Readings: Revelation 1:4-5:14, Revelation 7:9-17, Revelation 12, Revelation 20-21
The Book of Revelation is one of the most misunderstood and, from a Catholic perspective, one of the most often misinterpreted books of the Bible. According to some, Revelation is a book that tells the future, when an anti-Christ will rise to power and bring havoc to the Earth. This is soon to be followed by the end of the world. Or something like that. These themes are very popular with street preachers and Hollywood directors. For Catholics, the Book of Revelation has a serious message of trial and persecution suffered by Christians, and the risk of some growing stale in their faith, with the certain light of hope and glory promised by God at the end.
The book was written by a Christian named John in the last decade of the first century, during the reign of the Roman emperor, Domitian, who brutally persecuted Christians. This John was in exile on the island of Patmos, a penal colony in the Aegean Sea. Some Church Fathers attributed the book to the apostle John, while others rejected this attribution. The author himself never claims to be the apostle. Because there are similarities in the style and theology of this book with others from John’s school, it is possible that he was one of John’s many disciples. The book is written as a vision that John saw and was ordered to write down. The vision includes images of incredible people and beasts caught up in the battle between good and evil. There is a lot of symbolism in the book, with creatures, characters, objects and even numbers standing in for the people, places and things the early Christians of Asia faced as they tried to remain true to Jesus against the forces that threatened their faith.
The Book of Revelation is a type of writing called apocalyptic, from the Greek word meaning “unveiling.” In fact, the Apocalypse is the name given to this book in older Catholic Bibles. Apocalyptic literature is hard to describe, partly because we do not have any modern examples, so we are not used to reading this kind of writing. But it was very popular in the centuries just before and just after Christ. Apocalyptic writings describe visions that are given to a person by an angel or other heavenly being. These visions are about events that have taken place or are taking place and how those events tie in to the great struggle between good and evil, heaven and hell, God and Satan. The vision is addressed to people undergoing suffering at the hand of some terrible evil. Their only hope for relief is God’s intervention. God does intervene, and so the events of this world are given meaning in light of God’s promise of eternal life and glory in the next.
The book opens with a greeting from John to seven churches in Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. John has received a vision and has a message for these churches from Christ Himself. The message is to be given to the angel of each church. Some of the churches are praised for their faithfulness, others are rebuked for their failings. All of the churches receive encouragement to stand firm in the faith. Those who do so will be honored by God.
After the messages to the seven churches, the book begins describing a series of visions that are bizarre and complex. These include seals, trumpets, horsemen, horrors, and white-robed martyrs praising God. One of the images is a Lamb who is slain but lives again. The heavenly hosts sing:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain/to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength,/honor and glory and blessing.” Revelation 5:12
This is a symbol of Jesus, the Lamb of God, Who was sacrificed for our sins. The Lamb has seven horns, symbolizing that He is all-powerful, and seven eyes, symbolizing that He is all-knowing.
Continuing with the visions, a red dragon, two beasts, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, and a prostitute all symbolize the devil and his minions fighting against God’s people, plagues that torment the world, and an evil empire that murders the saints. But, just when everything seems lost, Jesus rides in on a white horse! The devil is imprisoned for a thousand years, then set free, only to battle God again and be destroyed. After this, comes the final judgment, when all are judged “according to their deeds” (20:12).
A new heaven and a new earth are seen. The old heaven and earth have vanished. A New Jerusalem, the Holy City, descends from heaven. “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order is passed away’” (21:3-4).
Pope Benedict XVI writes that the Book of Revelation promises “the certain unfolding of God’s victory.” Just as in the first century, Christians today suffer persecution, ridicule, discrimination, imprisonment and, sometimes, even death. Christians today are tempted, too, to turn from God and “worship the beast.” But, like the Christians of the first century, we can trust that God will be faithful to His promises and, though the power of evil may seem unbeatable, the victory of God’s Lamb, Jesus Christ, is already won. “Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20).
WHAT DOES THE BOOK OF REVELATION TEACH US ABOUT JESUS?
- Do not allow your faith to grow stale or lukewarm. Be firm in your faith and courageous in living your faith.
- The devil is real. Evil is real. We are caught up in a great battle between good and evil, heaven and hell, God and Satan.
- Do not lose hope, though all seems lost. Jesus is Lord of history.
- Jesus’ victory over Satan is already won! The suffering we endure in this world is nothing compared to the glory that awaits us in the new heaven, the new earth, the Holy City of the New Jerusalem.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.