Imagine that you are the leader of a burgeoning movement that is being persecuted by the government. You have an important message to convey to the whole group – a message from the very Leader of the organization. You must be sure that the members understand what you are saying, but those outside the group don’t. You were sitting in a cave on a small island where the government has banished you. You got this message from the Leader in a vision while you were praying, and he showed you the future. How would you write the letter to your people?
If you were St. John the Beloved, you’d have penned one of the most misunderstood portions of the New Testament – The Book of Revelation.
Let me set this up for you. St. John is the bishop serving several churches in Asia Minor. He is the last living Apostle of the original twelve, the others having been martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ. St. John has been exiled to the island of Patmos and from his prison he sends a message of encouragement, correction, and hope to the seven churches under his care. He shares with the faithful under his loving care the images of his vision, which certainly contain some very disturbing pictures, as well as some pointed correction. But the most important message is that regardless of the present persecution, Christ will conquer and His Church will prevail in the end.
Whole, new, Christian denominations have formed from a (mis)reading of the Book of Revelation. Books have been written trying to “explain” St. John’s visions recorded there, and religious speakers have made a career out of expounding their own private interpretations about what is recorded in this portion of the Bible. A recent popular fiction series about end of time that followed one of these novel interpretations of the Book of Revelation even made it to the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Modern Christian movements and denominations, untethered from the wise and balanced understanding of the Book of Revelation proclaimed by the timeless Church, have both sensationalized and confused the message of St. John to the Church. And this has lead to particularly slanderous and harmful teachings about Christ, and His loving desire that the whole world come to a loving relationship with the Holy Trinity. Foolish teachings that depict Christ literally slaughtering His “enemies” on a literal battlefield have more in common with the pre-Christian paganism of our infantile past than the glorious vision of St. John of the victory of the Christian faith over all error because of the Words of Christ and the Truth He embodies for all humanity.
So, how are we to read and understand this very powerful book in our New Testament? Here are three guiding principles that will help us avoid the sensational and get to the meaningful truth St. John penned in his last letter to his flock.
First, Read Revelation as a Letter. Don’t forget that much of the New Testament consists of letters written to real people, and the Book of Revelation is no exception. But it is no ordinary letter. It is part of what scholars call “apocalyptic” literature. That means that the Book of Revelation uses symbolism and metaphor to communicate cosmic ideas in ways the reader can understand. St. John was shown a vision of the end times, but his real message wasn’t to satisfy the curiosity of people about just when the end of the world was coming. His goal was to encourage his people to keep the faith, because the enemies of Jesus and His Church will ultimately fail.
Second, Read Revelation with the Church. As with any scripture, we don’t read the Bible by ourselves. We Orthodox are part of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, we are a part of the Church, and the Bible is the Church’s Book. It should be read from the Church’s perspective. We always allow the deep wisdom of the Church to inform our understanding of the scriptures. That way we don’t fall prey to the whim and whimsy of this or that rumor or fanciful notion. We want the wise insight of the Fathers and the whole Church through the centuries to protect us from narrow misunderstandings of the Word of God that lead away from Christ rather than towards Him.
Finally, Read Revelation while focused on Christ. The Book of Revelation begins with these words: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants what must soon take place.” (Revelation 1:1) This is the revelation of Jesus Christ. The book’s message is that Jesus Christ is Who He says He is, and that He will prevail over all those who may reject Him. St. John records this glorious revelation from Christ to encourage beleaguered Christians to not give up hope and to ultimately rest in Christ’s victory over all His enemies, especially sin, death and Satan. This victory is sure, eternal, and irrevocable. Christ is the Master of the whole universe.
Far from being intended to create a cottage industry for fiction writers, God’s revelation of Himself, given to Christ and revealed by Him to us through St. John, is meant to encourage us to persevere in spite of those who may mock or persecute us for our devotion to Jesus. While the whole world may reject the message of Christ, we Christians should heed the message of the Book of Revelation and say with the Apostle John, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen.” (Revelation 22:20-21)
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