The Book of Revelation – Introduction

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Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov

I have spent my entire adult life looking for the truth about God, the Bible, Jesus Christ and Christianity. The first decade was spent wandering through a sea of chaotic spirituality, rummaging through various Evangelical churches and mainline Protestant denominations. I even briefly delved into the foreign religions of Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses for a short time, just to investigate all possible options. As an Evangelical Protestant, I explored the Messianic Jewish Movement, which eventually led me to appreciate the concept of liturgy, and read the writings of the ancient Church Fathers. By the age of 30, and by the unmerited grace of God, which I am convinced was bestowed upon me unworthily through the prayers of my deceased grandparents in heaven, I was received into the Catholic Church in the year 2000. Since then, I have spent the last two decades learning the depth of the riches of Catholic teaching, from studying patristics (Church Fathers) to scholasticism (Aristotle & St. Thomas Aquinas), and formally training as a certified catechist through Dayton University. I have spent a lifetime asserting myself toward the truth, while simultaneously living as a layman husband and father in a secular vocation.

I am a bit conflicted when reflecting upon my own adult life. On the one hand, I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned so much, and for the opportunity to share it with others. On the other hand, I feel as if I was robbed of my birthright as a Christian, and I shouldn’t have had to spend so much time learning some basic truths that every Christian should already know. Every baptized member of the Body of Christ is (in my mind) entitled to two things: (1) access to the sacraments, and (2) sound catechesis (Christian teaching). Due to the Protestant Revolt, some 440 years before my birth, I was deprived of both, as are millions more just like me. Access to the sacraments and sound catechesis would have eliminated the need to search so hard for basic Christian truths, and the fullness of Christian life that every baptized member of Christ’s Mystical Body so desperately needs. I was one of the lucky few. By God’s unmerited favor, given as a result of the constant prayers of those who love me, I was able to find the truth. So many others are not so fortunate. You, the reader, are even more fortunate, because by reading this blog you will get a shortened, and synthesized, version of catechesis that took me years to obtain on my own. This catechesis will lead you straight to the sacraments to nourish your soul in these troubling times of so much confusion and division between Christians. You won’t need to spend years with your nose buried in books and ancient writings. I’ll give you what you need here, free of charge, and with no obligation. All you have to do is read on.

The United States of America (USA) is like a used car-lot of religions. Here, were religious liberty is enshrined into the US Constitution, any hack with a Bible and a charismatic personality can start a church, gain a following, and make a living as a “man of the cloth.” It’s a fairly easy trade, and lots of people do it. Some are sincere men (and women) who really are trying to do something good. Some are just con-artists, looking for an easy buck. The result is an assortment of different churches, denominations, affiliations, independent chapels, and sects, that resemble a used car-lot filled with vehicles of all colors, makes and models. Take your pick! If you’re so unlucky as to be shopping for a church home in the United States, you had better know a thing or two about religion before you get started, or you’re liable to drive off with a lemon! You wouldn’t walk onto a used car lot with no knowledge of cars, would you? I hope not. Many people do, and that’s how people drive off with lemons. The more savvy car-shopper will study cars for a while before walking on to such a lot. There is, of course, the other method. You could just bring somebody with you who knows a thing or two about cars, and can advise you on the best possible purchase. When it comes to America’s used car-lot of religion, allow me to be that knowledgeable somebody who knows a thing or two about religion, before making a decision on a church home. By reading this commentary on the Book of Revelation, I think you’ll get a good idea on the best possible choice.

I am convinced that much of the division in Christianity is based on erroneous interpretations of the Book of Revelation. When we look at the writings of the founder of Protestantism, the 16th-century priest, Martin Luther, we see that he was obsessed with it. Division after division, in century after century, down to our own time, we see that erroneous interpretations of the Book of Revelation play a central role in the making of new churches, and the breaking of old denominations. This book as becoming a curse in the Western Christian world, but it doesn’t have to be. Certainly, it was never intended to be. St. John the Apostle, who wrote the Book of Revelation, announced a blessing upon anyone who reads it or hears it read (Revelation 1:3). However, St. John assumed it would be read out-loud by his own disciples, who understood his teachings and had a well-rounded understanding of the Gospel. With the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, followed by the Protestant Revolt in the 16th century, this Book of Revelation fell into the hands of common people who had been forcibly removed from the traditions of the Apostles by religious upheavals. Consequently, their interpretation of the book lost all connection with the Early Church and the traditions thereof. This made it a complicated book, interpreted and reinterpreted in a vacuum. Such is a recipe for religious chaos.

In the pages of this blog, I will spend the next year commenting on the Book of Revelation in the context of patristics (Church Fathers), Early Church history and Medieval reflections, which is the only context the Book of Revelation should ever be interpreted in. Rich in Old Testament symbolism, and cloaked in the apocalyptic style of his Synoptic Gospel contemporaries (Matthew, Mark and Luke), St. John takes the Olivet Discourse to a whole new level. What his Synoptic Gospel contemporaries covered in just a chapter or two (Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 21), St. John expanded into a whole book, giving intricate details that simply could not be covered in the Synoptic Gospels. John’s Gospel is unique among the four, setting his version of events apart from the rest, agreeing with the other three entirely, but giving a perspective not found in the Synoptic Gospels. This was intentional. St. John didn’t want to just repeat what had already been done three times prior. His Gospel narrative of Jesus’ ministry was intended to make a very different statement, punctuating his divinity as God in the flesh. John included details of the events surrounding Jesus’ life that are not found in the Synoptics, but simultaneously he omitted things found prominently in them. One of the most notable things missing from John’s Gospel is the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 21), where Jesus very plainly teaches his disciples about the coming end of the Jewish nation, followed by the end of the entire world, followed by details concerning his Return and the coming world without end. This is a key component of the entire Gospel message. How could St. John omit that? The answer is, he didn’t. Rather, he delayed its release. The Book of Revelation is the sequel to the Gospel of John, wherein he takes the missing one or two-chapter Olivet Discourse and expands it into an entire book of twenty-two chapters! The Book of Revelation is St. John’s Olivet Discourse.

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Click to Enlarge

The first thing we need to understand about the Book of Revelation is that it was written somewhere between AD 41 to 96, toward the end of St. John’s life and shortly after he wrote the Gospel According to John. In the early chapters of Revelation, John states that he was on the Island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9), which was a penal colony of the Roman Empire. John was imprisoned there as part of a persecution against Christians by the imperial government. Apringius of Beja tells us this happened during the reign of Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54), but St. Bede tells us this imprisonment happened during the reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96). There is no way to know for certain who is correct. The best guess is to say the book was written, at the earliest, around AD 50, and at the latest around AD 90. Take your pick. An earlier composition date would make the book considerably more prophetic in outlook, forecasting both the fall of the Jewish Nation (AD 67-70) and the future events surrounding the end of this present world. That’s more consistent with the narrative we find in the Olivet Discourse contained in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 21). For this reason, I personally tend to favor the earlier composition estimate of around AD 50. As for St. Bede’s account of around AD 90: I love his work, but I think he just got it wrong on this one. Apringius’ account predates Bede’s by about a century, and when it comes to date-setting for books, I tend to favor the accounts of those who lived closer to the time period in question. Admittedly, Bede’s commentary is more complete than Apringius’, but that’s because we only have fragments of Apringius’ original manuscript today. They’re both excellent sources of Medieval commentary on the Revelation.

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St. John the Apostle, by Jacopo Vignali, 17th century

A little background on St. John is in order. First and foremost, while the authorship of the Book of Revelation has been questioned by some, both in antiquity, and especially in our time, the vast majority of commentators on the book agree that St. John the Apostle was the author. This has also been the established Catholic position for centuries. It should be noted that those in antiquity who doubted the authorship of St. John often had problematic issues with the book itself, and their claims were later disputed by other commentators. It is my general rule of thumb that the older traditions are usually more accurate, namely because people lived closer to the time period in question, and probably had better access to resources that were not available in later centuries. As for modern assertions that the book was not written by St. John, I just don’t take them seriously at all. It’s very difficult for me to believe critics living twenty centuries after the book was written. I can say the same for a great deal of modern scholarship, which has done little to clear up any questions, but usually creates more in the pursuit. In this time of so much doctrinal confusion, and so little unity among Christians, I’m inclined to dismiss the doubts of modern critics on most things, and that would include the authorship of the Book of Revelation. The closest sources, to the time period it was written in, overwhelmingly agree that the author was St. John the Apostle.

This, of course, is consistent with the known location of St. John during the time period in question. Early Christian tradition clearly holds that St. John took care of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ, after the crucifixion (John 19:25-27) and that she stayed with him for the remainder of her life. The two were living in Ephesus, on the west coast of Asia Minor (Turkey), during the time period in question. The nearest Roman penal colony was the Island of Patmos just off the west coast of Asia Minor. St. John had helped to plant several churches in Asia Minor, and was likely insuring their orthodoxy and growth when he was arrested. The Book of Revelation is specifically addressed to seven particular churches in this area (Revelation 1:11).

The original name of the Book of Revelation was the Greek word Apocalypse (ἀποκάλυψις), which translates to English as “Revelation” or an unveiling (unfolding) of things not previously known. For this reason, the title of “Revelation” seems most suitable for the English language, but some older English versions of the Bible retain the Greek title of “Apocalypse.” A common mislabeling of the book is “Revelations” (with an “s”) as in plural. This is often heard in vernacular speech, but that’s inaccurate. There are not many revelations in this book, but only one, which is the “Revelation of Jesus Christ” as God made flesh and his eventual return to judge this fallen world before he makes a new world without end.

The word “apocalypse” itself is used to describe a certain type of literary style in the Bible called “apocalyptic literature.” Indeed, it was a literary style very common around that time period. Rather than explaining things plainly, using common speech, writers would create word-pictures, using various methods, to create the mental image of something fantastic and unbelievable. The purpose of doing this is twofold. The first is to illustrate the gravity of the lesson being taught. The second is to help the reader remember that lesson. Modern memory experts use similar mental techniques to remember vast amounts of information.

Let’s use a modern word-picture, of my own making, as an example. Suppose I wrote the following…

During the 20th century a great eagle from the west, with the head as white as the snow, fought a great battle with a golden eagle in the east. The great eagle from the west was victorious, ripping the golden eagle in half, and then went on to slay a pheasant in the west, torching it with fire from its beak. The great eagle moved to conquer all those animals that might stand against it. However, a bear arose in the east to assist any animal willing to fight the eagle. The winged horse rose up to assail the eagle, but the white-headed eagle tore it in two, like it had previously done to the golden eagle. Then a tiger rose up against the eagle, and with the help of the bear, it prevailed. But the eagle allied with a snow leopard, and another eagle with a tail as white as the great eagle’s head. Together these three drove the bear away.

Now that’s an interesting word picture. Suppose I told you it’s a symbolic representation of the end of World War II and the following Cold War, written in an “apocalyptic” format. In my very simplistic apocalyptic word-picture, the great white-headed eagle represents the bald eagle of the United States, which was victorious over the golden eagle of Germany toward the end of World War II. The pheasant is Japan. The bear represents Russia. The winged horse represents North Korea. The tiger represents Vietnam. The snow leopard represents Afghanistan, and the eagle with the white tail is Poland. Working together, the United States, Afghanistan and Poland forced the Soviet Union, dominated by Russia, to retreat from global conquest in the Cold War and eventually collapse under its own weight. The word picture helps the reader remember the order of events and the players involved.

This apocalyptic writing style was fairly common in the first century, and it was employed by no less than a handful of religious and pious men. We see it used in the Synoptic gospels, especially relating to those events concerning Christ’s judgement against the ancient Jewish nation and the future end of this world. So we must understand that the Book of Revelation (or Book of the Apocalypse) is filled with the apocalyptic writing motif. The images from this book are word-pictures. They’re not to be taken literally. Rather, they’re designed to create an image in one’s mind that graphically illustrates a concept or understanding of the world as it was in the late first century, and principles that can be applied to any time period thereafter. Thus, when we encounter the seven-headed beast from the sea in chapter thirteen, we shouldn’t take it literally. This isn’t a prophecy concerning a Japanese monster flick like Godzilla. No. These are word-pictures, designed to shape our thinking about world systems and religions.

Using the apocalyptic writing motif makes a lot of sense when we think about where St. John was when he wrote the Book of Revelation. He was imprisoned on the Island of Patmos, a Roman penal colony mainly for political prisoners. St. John was placed there, in my opinion based on the writings of  Apringius of Beja, during the persecution of Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54). Apparently, he must have been treated fairly well, considering he was given the necessary tools for which to write this book. That being a quill, ink, parchment and time. From this we can conclude that he wasn’t subjected to hard labor or inhumane conditions. However, he was most certainly being watched. Any correspondence he had with the outside world would have surely passed through a censor. Thus, any criticism he might write against the Roman government and religious system could easily be caught, censored and used against him. Using the apocalyptic writing method makes perfect sense under these conditions. To any Roman censor, the text itself would look like gibberish, the ramblings of a crazy old man, high on some kind of hallucinogenic drug. So his writings would have easily passed by the censor with no problem. “He’s nuts!” the censor likely said, as he passed on the scroll to the delivery boy. Conveniently, a similar (although less intense) writing style was employed by his Synoptic contemporaries (Mathew, Mark and Luke) in their telling of the Olivet Discourse. Thus, St. John was keeping with that apocalyptic theme in the Book of Revelation.

Sadly, the Revelation has been horribly abused in the Western world, namely by subjecting it to interpretation methods that impose a predetermined mindset on the book used to force its interpretation into a specific ideology. These three interpretation methods are described as (1) Preterist, (2) Historicist and (3) Futurist. The Preterist method limits interpretation of the Book of Revelation to the first century only, stating that everything contained therein was fulfilled in the first century and doesn’t have much relevance to Christians today. The Historicist method turns interpretation of the Revelation to a running timeline of history, starting from the Apostolic Age and going through to the Second Coming of Christ. This method was extremely popular among the original Protestants, particularly Martin Luther in the 16th century. The Futurist method limits all interpretation of the Revelation to future events that have not happened yet. This method was popularized by John Nelson Darby in the 19th century and has become extremely popular among Evangelicals today.

The Book of Revelation is not a crystal ball to future events, though sadly, many people have used it that way. Nor is it a history lecture for the first century only. It’s also not a running history book of all the centuries between Christ first coming and second. Rather, the Revelation teaches us principles, doctrines, and basic truths of the Christian faith. It uses word-pictures to help us understand very big concepts, and it’s designed to be applicable (in some way) to all Christians of all time periods. Therefore, trying to fit the Revelation into a Preterist, Historicist or Futurist mode of interpretation is like trying to put a square peg through a round hole. It won’t work, and it doesn’t, though a great many people have tried. Within the Revelation, we’ll see elements that point directly to first century events, as well as some that point to the future end of the world. But we could easily say that throughout history, there are parallels in every time period. Probably the worst thing we could ever do is try to pin the Revelation to any particular time period in history; past, present or future. As it seems to comprehensively apply to all in some way or another.

There is a rule of thumb that we should keep in mind whenever we interpret any book of the Bible. Whatever interpretation we come up with, it can never mean more to us today than it did to the people of the time period it was written in, to the people who wrote it, and to the people it was written to. Every book of the Bible always has more meaning and significance to the people of that time period then to the people of today. The same is true for any work of literature printed in our time. It will always have more meaning to us than to future generations. The same is also true for the Book of Revelation. It may be very meaningful to us, but at the same time we have to admit that it was more meaningful to the Christians of that time period, to whom it was written. These word-pictures, painted in the Revelation, might have some application to events in our own time period, but they were never more perfectly accurate than they were in St. John’s time period. Therefore, no interpretation of the Revelation can have the end result of being more meaningful to us today than it was to the people of that middle to late first century. This rule of thumb will become more important, and more obvious, as we move on.

I’ll include a hyperlink to ancient commentators if available. They encompass all the known commentaries on the Revelation from the Church Fathers in Antiquity to the Church Fathers from the Middle Ages. This project is based loosely on Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament XII, Revelation, edited by William C. Weinrich. However, this project does not quote this work verbatim. It is rather my own abbreviated summary, and extrapolation, in my own words. If you want to see the actual commentary from these ancient sources, I highly recommend purchasing the book. You’ll get much more detail. In using my own words, you’re merely getting my own synthesis of the Church Fathers’ commentary, along with my own extrapolation, and I may include Scripture references and other connections to help complete the picture. These may not always be found in the original commentaries.

You’ll notice from time to time these Church Fathers don’t always agree with each other on the interpretation of various passages. That’s okay. We should expect that. Subtle differences in interpretation are normal when studying the Bible. Each Church Father, however, had something we don’t have today. They had full access to the traditions of the Early Church, as well as the common knowledge of recent history, and probably a fair degree of access to historical documents that are no longer with us today.

For the sake of this project, I will primarily cite Scripture references from the World English Bible – Catholic (WEBC), which is in the public domain. Since I’ll be quoting large sections of Scripture, which will ultimately include the entire Book of Revelation, this helps me avoid any copyright violations. All passages of cited Scripture will be from the WEBC unless otherwise indicated. While I would prefer another Catholic source of scripture, I am limited to the Douay-Rheims Bible (DRB) in the public domain. While I love the nuance and accuracy of the Sacred English used in the DRB when translating Greek and Hebrew text, I recognize that it’s problematic for those not accustomed to Archaic (or Sacred) English. I don’t want to place any unnecessary hindrances upon the readers of this commentary. So a more Common English translation is called for. Since I will be quoting large portions of Scripture, I really need to use a public domain Bible for this. I’ll be citing one chapter at a time, followed by reference to verses therein, and other passages as well. When creating a commentary like this, I can’t be limited to the copyright restrictions of more popular Catholic translations like the Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition (RSVCE) or the New American Bible – Revised Edition (NABRE).

I hope to one day combine these blog posts into a single-bound book for purchase, but this is just for convenience sake to anyone who wants it. (Some people just prefer reading books.) Almost everything in the book will also be contained here on the Internet, and free of charge, namely because I think this information is so important that it should be made free to anyone willing to read it. In doing this I hope to make my small contribution toward ending unnecessary divisions between Christians, as well as ending the poor catechesis that brought us to this sad point in history. So that Christians may work together toward the unity that Jesus Christ prayed for in John 17:20-21

Not for these only do I pray, but for those also who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me.

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