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The Revelation to John

Read Revelation 1-2, 4-5, 20-22.

This book presents "the revelation of Jesus Christ" that was sent via an angel of God to John, the author, who is writing to seven churches in the province of Asia Minor about the coming time of judgment. The author greets the churches with a salutation that reminds us of Paul but is distinctly different: "Grace be to you and peace, from him who is, who was, and who is to come, from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth." We recall, however, that in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul, too, argues that Jesus is the firstborn from the dead. Perhaps the author of Revelations was familiar with Paul's writings, or at least with some of the arguments contained in them.

The message addressed to the seven churches urges the faithful to persevere in the face of persecution. Those who have fallen away from the truth are admonished to repent. They are warned that those who do not repent will be judged harshly on the last day. The Revelation of John presents as prophecy a series of visions that reveal what is to occur in heaven and on earth. The Lamb who was slain is found worthy to break the seals of the scroll that holds the key to the struggle between Satan and Christ before the final judgment.

The images of Revelation are drawn largely from the Hebrew scriptures. The reference to Jezebel (Rev. 2:20), the idolatrous and wicked queen of Ahab (1 Kings 16:31, 2 Kings 9:22, 30), in the message to the church at Thratira, is a way of castigating a woman in the community for her false and misleading prophecies. Only those who are familiar with Jewish scripture, however, understand the full import of the attack. The image of the book of life, which occurs first in Revelation 3:5 but is repeated several times (Rev. 13:8, 17:8, 20:2, 15), is deeply rooted in Jewish scripture (Ex. 32:32, Psalm 69:28, Daniel 12:1, and Malachi 3:16). The images in Revelation 4 of the throne of God in heaven come largely from the books of Ezekiel and Isaiah, and the marking on the foreheads of "the seal of the living God" reflects knowledge of Ezekiel 9:4-6.

There is no rejection of the Jews in the saving events envisioned by the author of Revelation, as 144,000 are marked out with the seal from the "tribes of Israel." (Rev. 7:4-8) During the reign of the beasts the author has a vision of a second 144,000 redeemed from the earth who have marked on their foreheads the names of Christ and the Father (Rev. 14:1-5). These are both virgin and spotless, for they "follow the Lamb wherever he goes." (Rev. 14:4) The author's vision embraces Paul's affirmation in Romans that the Jews as well as the followers of Christ will be saved by the God of love and justice. The image of virgin Christians, however, is more in keeping with the teachings in the gospel of Matthew that emphasize being perfect and encourage renunciation of "marriage for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven." (Mt. 19:11-12)

The Revelation to John also acknowledges the spread of the church to the Gentiles. After listing those sealed from among the tribes of Israel, the author has a vision of "a vast throng, which no one could count, from all races and tribes, nations and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb." These people are robed in white (the symbol of purity) and with palm branches in their hands they shout: "Victory to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" Similarly, in chapter 14 after seeing 144,000 marked both with the name of Jesus and his Father, the author sees "an angel flying in mid-heaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those on earth, to every race, tribe, language, and nation." (Rev. 14:6) Clearly, there is a place among the saved on the last day for Gentile and Jewish Christians as well as for Jews.

At the end of all the calamities, the author sees the book of life opened before the One who sits on the heavenly throne and then the appearance of a "new heaven and a new earth." A new Jerusalem descends from heaven as a dwelling place for those who are saved with God. The city is without a temple, as the temple is the sovereign Lord and the Lamb within it. Nothing unclean shall enter the city, but only those "whose names are inscribed in the Lamb's book of life." The angel who has brought all these visions to John tells him that the end will come soon. Revelations ends with a fervent affirmation on behalf of Jesus: "Yes, I am coming soon." The author's response is: "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus."

The images of the Revelation to John seem more related to the gospel of John than to other books in the New Testament. They have been a fertile source for imaginative interpretations throughout the history of the churches, but they reflect the essentials of the gospel message that reverberates throughout the New Testament. As the liturgy of Christian worship affirms, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." The future is marked by hope, because God has offered salvation through Jesus Christ to those who respond in faith. God does not demand that we be free of sin nor are we expected to be able to keep the law of Moses. We need only have faith, as Abraham had faith, in the justice and mercy of God.

Protestant interpretations of Revelation range from reading the text as a prophecy of the apocalypse to reading it metaphorically as resistance to oppression. The Catholic Study Bible agrees with the later interpretation: "The Book of Revelation cannot be adequately understood except against the historical background that occasioned its writing. Like Daniel and other apocalypses, it was composed as resistance literature to meet a crisis. The book itself suggests that the crisis was ruthless persecution of the early church by the Roman authorities; the harlot Babylon sympolizes pagan Rome, the city on seven hills. The gook is, then, an exhortation and admonition to Christians of the first century to stand firm in the faith and to avoid compromise with paganism, despite the threat of adversity and martydom; they are to await patiently the fulfillment of God's might promises."

 

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1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study Copyright 2000 by Robert Traer