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The Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse which means that which has been disclosed, and also called the Revelation to St John, is traditionally considered to be the work of the Lord’s apostle who later wrote the fourth gospel and the letters. It is dated in the middle of the last half of the first century.
St John received his vision “on the island called Patmos.” He was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” when he received God’s command to write the letters “to the seven churches of Asia” (1:4-10). Each of the seven messages contains the words of Christ for the specific church (2-4).
Following the seven letters in the book of Revelation, the apostle records his vision of God on His throne in heaven being hymned unceasingly by angels, the “living creatures”, and the “twenty four elders”: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come” (4).
There then follows the prophecies of the seven seals and the seven angels (5-11), and the visions of the “women clothed with the sun” and Michael and his angels engaged in battle with the “dragon” (12). Next come the images of the “beast rising from the sea” and the “other beast rising from the earth” (13). Then comes the vision of the Lamb and those who are saved by God, with the angels coming to earth from heaven bearing their “bowls of wrath” (14-16). The image of the “great harlot” follows (17), with the final prophecy about the downfall of”great Babylon” (18). The end of the book of Revelation describes the wonderful vision of salvation, with the multitude of those “blessed … who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” in the midst of the great celestial assembly of angels who sing glory to God and to Jesus, His word and His Lamb, the Alpha and the Omega, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. It is the image of the Kingdom of God and of Christ, the Heavenly Jerusalem foretold by the prophets of old in which the righteous shall reign forever with God (19-22).
Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exalt and give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and the Bride (the Church) has made herself ready. … (19:6-7).
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. … And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be His People, and God Himself will be with them; He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (21:1-4).
And He Who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” (21:5).
It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of life. He who conquers shall have this inheritance, and I will be his God and he shall be My son (21:6-7).
There was a certain hesitation on the part of the early Church to include the book of Revelation in the canonical scriptures of the New Testament. The reason for this was obviously the great difficulty of interpreting the apocalyptic symbols of the book. Nevertheless, since the document carried the name of the apostle John, and since it was inspired by the Holy Spirit for the instruction and edification of the Church, it came to be the last book listed in the Bible, although it is never read liturgically in the Orthodox Church.
It is indeed difficult to interpret the book of Revelation, especially if one is unfamiliar with the images and symbols of the apocalyptic writings of the Bible, that is the Old Testament, and of the Judeo-Christian Tradition. There exists, however, a traditional approach to the interpretation of the book within the Church which offers insight into its meaning for the faithful.
The wrong method of interpreting the book of Revelation is to give some sort of exclusive meaning to its many visions, equating them with specific, concrete historical events and persons, and to fail to understand the symbolical significance of the many images which are used by the author following biblical and traditional sources.
First of all, the letters to the seven churches have both a historical and a universal meaning. The messages are clear and remain relevant to situations which have always existed in the Church and which exist today. For example, many older churches in all ages of history can he identified with the Church of Ephesus. Those under persecution can be compared with the Church in Smyrna. And not a few—perhaps some in America right now—can be judged with the Church in Laodicea. The seven letters remain forever as “prototypical” of churches that will exist until Christ’s kingdom comes.
The visions and prophecies of the main body of the book of Revelation present great difficulties, but mostly to those interpreters who would attempt to apply them to one or another historical event or person. If the general vision and prophecy of the book is seen as revealing the correlation between events “in heaven” and events “on earth,” between God and man, between the powers of goodness and the powers of evil, then, though many difficulties obviously remain, some will also immediately disappear.
In the book of Revelation, one comes to understand that the Kingdom of God is always over all and before all. One sees as well that the battle between the righteous and the evil is perpetually being waged. There are always the faithful who belong to the Lamb, being crowned and robed by Him for their victories. There are always the “beasts” and the “dragons” which need to be defeated. The “great harlot” and the “great Babylon” are forever to be destroyed. The “heavenly Jerusalem” is perpetually coming, and one day it will come and the final victory will be complete.
One notices as well that there is a universality and finality about the symbols and images of the book of Revelation, a meaning to be applied to them which has already been revealed in the scriptures of the Old Testament. Thus, for example, the image of Babylon stands for every society which fights against God, every body of persons united in wickedness and fleshliness. The image of harlotry universally applies as well to all who are corrupted by their passions and lusts, unfaithful to God Who has made them and loves them. The symbolic numerology also remains constant, with the number 666 (13:18), for example, symbolizing total depravity, unlike 7 which is the symbol of fulness; and the number 144,000 (14:3) being the symbol of total completion and the full number of the saved, the result of the multiplication of 12 times 12—the number of the tribes of Israel and the apostles of Christ. Thus, through the images of the book of Revelation, a depth of penetration into universal spiritual realities is disclosed which is greater than any particular earthly reality. The insight into the meaning of the book depends on the inspiration of God and the purity of heart of those who have eyes to see and ears to hear and minds willing and able to understand.
In the Orthodox Church, the book of Revelation has great liturgical significance. The worship of the Church has traditionally, quite consciously, been patterned after the divine and eternal realities revealed in this book. The prayer of the Church and its mystical celebration are one with the prayer and celebration of the kingdom of heaven. Thus, in Church, with the angels and saints, through Christ the Word and the Lamb, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the faithful believers of the assembly of the saved offer perpetual adoration to God the. Father Almighty.
The book of Revelation, although never read in the Orthodox Church, bears witness to the divine reality which is the Church’s own very life.
The Spirit and the Bride [the Church] say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.
“Surely I am coming soon,” (says Jesus, the Lord.)
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (22:17, 20)