By a “remarkable coincidence”, I am taking up the Book of Revelation as the final topic in my series on the books of the Bible. The coincidence is that this book, also called The Apocalypse, is of course the last book written that is the revealed Word of God. Penned by St. John near the end of his life, it is the final piece of Divine Revelation, which closed with the death of this last of the apostles. As the name suggests, this revelation to St. John for the Church concerns itself with the consummation of all things, including the end of the world. It is therefore a prolonged exhortation to prepare for God’s judgment.
The book is written in the striking symbolic imagery of the apocalyptic genre, which we have already seen, for example, in the Book of Daniel. There is no reason to question the authorship: It was written by St. John, shortly before his death near the end of the first century, to convey revelations of the end times which he received in visions.
However, the Book of Revelation is so difficult to understand that it will do little good to attempt to summarize it in a single installment. Perhaps the most helpful thing the reader can do for personal study is to get a copy of The Navarre Bible’s volume on Revelation, which in the space of 125 pages provides the English text (RSV), the Latin text (New Vulgate) and a very intelligible same-page commentary throughout. There is also a 15-page introduction which orients you to the book as a whole. For the very affordable paperback edition, see:
The Biblical book is divided into two main parts: (1) The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia (chapters 2-3); and (2) Eschatological Visions (that is, visions relating to the last things, death, judgment, and the destiny of mankind both personally and collectively) (chapters 4-22). The second part is far larger than the first. The Book opens with a greeting and an explanation of how John was commissioned by Christ to write the book (chapter 1) and closes with a final dialogue between Jesus and the Church, final warnings, and a farewell (final verses of chapter 22). In this essay I will consider Part 1.
The Letters to the Churches
The nature and purpose of the book is explained in the first chapter: It is a revelation of Jesus Christ to St. John for the Church. From the first, the tone is urgent: “Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein; for the time is near” (1:3). John begins by giving glory to Christ and proclaiming the theme and the warning of the book: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (1:7). For all things will be consummated in Christ: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (1:8).
John explains that, in his exile on the island of Patmos, he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day”, and had this vision which he was commissioned to write to the seven churches (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea). These are the churches in Asia of which John was the leader (the “elder” as he calls himself in his letters). The vision gives different messages to each of these churches, including some specific references that we do not fully understand (such as the warnings against the Nicolaitans and the false Jews of the Synagogue of Satan).
But given that particular historical applications of Christ’s messages to these Catholic communities are hard to determine, it is probably most fruitful to read them in a more symbolic light, understanding what is being praised and condemned in each community as representative of the different types of failings which characterize the various Catholic people in every age. Indeed, the number seven (seven churches) was in Jewish numerology a symbol of fullness or wholeness, so it is best to take each “letter” as applicable in various ways to the whole Church.
Each “letter” is addressed to the “angel” of that particular Church. This should be understood as a reference to the Divine protection afforded to each church and so to the church community which benefits from this care. Each also begins with a striking apocalyptic description of Christ and his words, which I will quote for each church. In addition, each ends with this warning: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”—and a specific eschatological promise to each church, which I will also quote below.
“The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands” (2:1)—probably a reference, using the number seven, to the plenitude of Divine power, as similarly expressed in things like the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; and the vision is explicit that stars are the angels who minister to the churches, and that the lampstands are the churches themselves (probably based on their witness to Christ the light of the world).
Christ praises the members of the Church at Ephesus for their “works”, “toil”, “patient endurance”, and refusal to accept “those who call themselves apostles but are not”, because they have “tested” them and “found them to be false” (2:2). It takes little imagination to apply this to many situations in the universal Church today: “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (2:3). But have we grown weary?
In any case, Christ continues: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first” (2:4-5). If repentance is not forthcoming, Christ will “come to you and remove your lampstand from its place”—a fairly clear reference to a decline which can lead to the loss of the Church’s presence in particular regions.
Promise: “To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (2:7).
“The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life” (2:8).
Christ understands the Smyrneans’ suffering and poverty and the slander they suffer from the “synagogue of Satan” (false Jews in that time, but we may surely take this today as a reference to those who, in the Catholic name, disrespect and oppress less powerful Catholics who are true to the Faith). But He assures them that they are rich in what matters most. They are not to fear what they will suffer during a short period (“10 days”) of tribulation. If they remain faithful unto death, He will give them “the crown of life” (2:10), a point emphasized in the final promise below.
Promise: “He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death” (2:11). Note that the “second death” in the Book of Revelation is the eternal torment of hell to which damned souls are consigned at the final judgment.
“The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword” (2:12).
Christ understands that the Christians of Pergamum dwell in a place of great evil (“where Satan’s throne is”), yet they “hold fast my name” and did not “deny my faith”. For this He commends them, but he has “a few things” against them: (a) Some hold the teaching of Balaam (a reference to participation in pagan ritual banquets); (b) Some hold the errors of the Nicolaitans (meaning uncertain, but most likely also involving concessions to paganism). Therefore, these must repent or Christ will war against them with “the sword of my mouth”. It is not hard to discern here the many compromises Christians too often make with the dominant pagan culture, sometimes almost without realizing it.
Promise: “To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it” (2:17) (a reference to using white stones bearing a mark as a token of admission to a feast or banquet; these will be tokens of admission to the heavenly banquet).
“The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (2:18).
Our Lord again states that he knows the works, love, faith, service and patient endurance of the Thyatirians. But He has this against them, that they tolerate Jezebel the alleged prophetess, who is drawing them into immorality (in the New Testament, “immorality” always refers to impure and unnatural sexual practices) and eating food sacrificed to idols. “Jezebel” is almost certainly a Scriptural reference, but perhaps there was a real person in that time who was seducing members of the Church to various forms of infidelity (or, again, it could be the spirit of the times). He will punish this “Jezebel”. But for those “who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan” (2:24), he does not lay upon them any additional burden. They must simply “hold fast what you have, until I come” (2:25).
Promise: “To him who conquers and who keeps my word until the end, I will give him power over the nations, and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received power from my Father; and I will give him the morning star” (symbol of rebirth or resurrection) (2:26-28).
“The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (3:1)—again a reference to the fullness of Divine power (spirits of God) and to the Church which is supported by the angels (stars).
The judgment on this church is harsh: “I know your works; you have the name of being alive, but you are dead” (3:1). How easy it is to see in this that self-righteous secularism which so often proclaims as good and charitable that which is evil, while being dead to God and grace, and lacking utterly in true works of sacrificial love. “Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God” (3:2). Our Lord calls them to repent, warning that if they will not wake up, He will come upon them like a thief. Yet he acknowledges that there are still a few who have not soiled their garments, and “They shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (3:4).
Promise: “He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels” (3:5).
“The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens” (3:7).
Here we have Our Lord’s approval of those who are faithful to Him in word and deed, despite being very weak and relatively powerless: “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut; I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (3:8). Here again He refers to the synagogue of Satan (which we can surely take to refer to all misguided worldly powers), promising that its members will “bow before your feet, and learn that I have loved you”. Because the Philadelphians have kept His word, He will keep them from the hour of trial “which is coming on the whole world”. One thinks of many powerless Christians (including surely the temporally weak but spiritually strong churches in Africa, in Islamic countries, and in China). “Hold fast what you have”, He says, “so that no one may seize your crown”, for He is coming soon.
Promise: “He who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God: never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (3:12).
“The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation” (3:14).
Here we have Christ’s famous (and certainly chilling) condemnation of the lukewarm: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor not, I will spew you out of my mouth” (3:15). He tells the church in Laodicea that they say “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17). Surely this applies especially to many members of the Church throughout the West today.
Christ counsels instead that they should “buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes that you may see” (3:18). He emphasizes that they must be zealous and repentant because He reproves those He loves. He says He stands at the door and knocks, and wishes to come in and eat with those who will simply open their doors.
Promise: “He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (3:21).
In fear and trembling
This very short first part of the Book of Revelation is extraordinarily rich in warnings which define the ways we have of minimizing our Faith, and the dire consequences of doing so. As we will continue to see as we work through the entire book, there is a great battle being waged for control of our eternal destiny, so that we must take our struggle against sin and error with full seriousness. There is absolutely nothing in this culminating book of the Bible to suggest any sort of easy salvation, let alone universal salvation. To read and understand it is to begin again to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). The alternative is to lose the promises of Christ.
The full cosmic scope of this battle of Christ for our souls—this battle between good and evil, God and Satan, fidelity and betrayal—is the subject of the remaining nineteen chapters of the Book.
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