The last book in the biblical canon of the New Testament is the book of the Apocalypse (a.k.a. Revelation), written by John toward the end of the reign of Emperor Domitian (A.D. 95), when he was in exile on the island of Patmos. John s authorship is affirmed by Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and the Muratori fragment really by the entire tradition of the Church from the second century forward. The doctrine contained in this book and that in the fourth Gospel run parallel to each other, but naturally the two books differ in language and style because they belong to different genres. To give just one example: John is the only inspired New Testament writer to call our Lord the Logos, a description which we find both in the Apocalypse and in the fourth Gospel. Also both books have a pronounced preference for contrasts, such as light and darkness, truth and lies, life and death, the Lamb and the Beast, Jerusalem and Babylon, the archangel Michael and the Dragon.
The last book of the Bible belongs to the genre of apocalyptic literature, a variant of prophetic literature differing from the latter in that prophecy takes, as its point of departure, human events, judging them in the light of the Covenant, whereas an apocalypse is a revelation which God communicates to man by projecting a vision of the future, although sometimes it does make reference to present, historical events insofar as they help to announce future events.
The aim of the Apocalypse, the most difficult book of the Bible to interpret, is eminently practical. It contains a series of warnings addressed to people of all epochs, for it views from an eternal perspective the dangers, internal and external, which affect the Church in all epochs.
As far as external perils are concerned, the book uses as its starting point the persecutions the early Christians suffered from the time of Nero onward, particularly those experienced in Rome and in Asia Minor, which were the places where Christianity had put down its deepest roots. Internally, the danger came from heresies which were beginning to develop and from defections which were beginning to undermine the unity of the Church, a situation not helped by those who had lost the fervor of their first charity (2:3-7). Many Christians thought that, after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (in the year 70), after which Judaism was no longer a threat of any kind, the Church would enter into an era of peace and tranquillity; instead, they had to cope with new and very violent persecutions; more obstacles, and more formidable ones, seemed to face them. Inevitably they asked: When will our Lord show himself and come to the rescue of his own and establish his kingdom once and for all? In the Apocalypse John,inspired by God, tries to answer this question. The first thing which God has given him to “see” is that the Redeemer is indeed triumphant and that the faithful are victors with him. But he also points out that the Church will be persecuted throughout its pilgrim way on earth, and the faithful will suffer the same lot, if they stay united to the Lamb. The powers of darkness will make war unceasingly against the Spouse of Christ and will try to undermine the faith of believers. But they should not be dismayed: The Church will always triumph over its persecutors, and in union with the Church the faithful who stay true to the end will also achieve victory.
John, therefore, identifies the prime enemy of the Church in his own time as the Roman empire (= the beast), the tool of the Dragon (= Satan). Because it has prostituted itself (Babylon = Rome) it cannot win. It will be completely overthrown, and the Church is sure to triumph.
This prophecy is as it were the hub of the Apocalypse. Around it John gradually unfolds the plan God has for the future of his Church. To do this he uses images very like those used by the prophets of old (Ezechiel, Daniel, Zechariah) to predict these persecutions, all these predictions being only an echo of what Jesus himself foretold: “In the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, Luke 18:7ff). Then, as now, all that the faithful need do to obtain victory like their Master is to persevere until the end. As our Lord promises: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10ff), for “behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay everyone for what he has done “(22:12)
In a series of elaborate and beautiful images John goes on to develop in successive cycles the subject with which he opens his book. To understand his meaning correctly it is important to realize that apocalyptic literature goes in for a great deal of symbolism-concrete material things being used to convey spiritual realities beyond the grasp of man’s mind. Among the symbols John uses are:
- Colors: White symbolizes victory and purity; scarlet, luxury and extravagance; red, violence; black, death; green, decomposition.
- Numbers: Seven is the symbol of completeness or fullness six, of imperfection (7-1) twelve, of Israel, old and new four, of the created world (the four elements: air, earth, fire, water; the four parts: sky, earth, sea, abyss; the four points of the compass) one thousand, a figure used to represent a long period or something vast
- Things: A lamp stand symbolizes a particular church seven burning lamps or seven eyes, the seven spirits of God the seven heads of the Beast are the seven hills (of Rome) or else seven kings the stars represent the angels linen, being white, symbolizes the good work done by the faithful.
Although Jesus Christ, because he was God, knew the entire course Church history would take, he never wanted to speak very explicitly about future events. This is why, like the prophets, he chose apocalyptic language-then in frequent use-when he predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the perils his disciples and their whole generation would experience. Thus, for example, he had warned:
“For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man. . . . Immediately after the tribulations of these days the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven” (Matt. 24:27-30).
Our Lord is referring here not only to the end of the world nor to this being the result of some sort of cosmic cataclysm, though that could be a legitimate thesis. He is simply (cf. Daniel and Ezechiel telling us to be on guard again unfaithfulness: he uses the event of the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 as a vivid illustration.
As a revelation of the course Church history will take the Apocalypse seems to divide into three parts: an introduction (1:1-8), an epilogue or conclusion (22:6-21) and a series of teachings (1:9-22:5) which in turn can be divided into three parts:
1. In a vision in which he sees the Redeemer (1:9-3:22), John is charged with writing to the seven churches of Asia Minor. These letters stresses the danger resulting from incipient heresy, opposition from the Jews (the synagogue of Satan) and some Christians’ lack of zeal and true charity. It should be pointed out that John writes to only seven churches but the figure seven symbolizes totality, completeness, and therefore in fact he is addressing the entire Church on behalf of “him who is and who was and is to come” ; Jesus is lord of time, because he is eternal-which is reminiscent of the revelation God gave to Moses when Moses asked him what his name was: “I am who I am “(Ex. 3:14).
2. In the central part of the book John has a series of visions:
A. Transported to heaven, he sees God’s throne and court (chap. 4). Here Jesus will be enthroned as Redeemer, symbolized by a slain Lamb.
B. The Lamb opens the seven seals, letting loose all the evils which will plague the world (6-8:1).
C. Then comes the vision of the seven trumpets, which are sounded to announce a series of divine punishments (8:2-11:18).
D. John also sees the seven signs of the incarnation of the Son of God, the incarnations of the dragon, and, finally, the visitation of God s judgment (11:19-14:20).
E. Another portent is the seven bowls of God’s wrath against Rome (15- 16), with the announcement of the judgment which will be meted out to Rome, of the destruction of Rome and the consequences which will follow it (17:1-19:21).
F. Finally, we are given the prophecy of the millennium and of the battle again Gog and Magog (20:1-10).
Over the centuries, many interpretations have been offered of the thousand years , but most have made the mistake of identifying it with a particular time when the world will come to an end.
John refers to the power of the dragon (Satan) being controlled by a superior power (Jesus Christ, who will vanquish the devil by dying on the cross) for a thousand years (a symbolic number indicating the time that must pass between the beginning of Christianity and the end of the world). Before the world comes to an end Satan will be let loose for a while (the reign of the Antichrist) and then he will be destroyed for all eternity.
3. This central part of the book closes with the la judgment (20: 11), the new Jerusalem and the glory the saints will enjoy in heaven. We should remember that this glory, in which the bodies of the saints will share on the day of the final resurrection, involves also the renewal of all creation (” a new heaven and a new earth” ), because thanks to the redemption all created things will share in the incorruptibility of glorified bodies (cf. Acts 3:20-21): this is the new Jerusalem, of which the Church during its sojourn on earth is the type and figure.
To sum up, we can say that the message of Revelation is a message full of hope, albeit in the mid of tests which those who remain firm in the faith will always undergo. It is a message which applies to all men of all periods, because all will be besieged by a series of external perils and particularly internal hazards, hazards whose source lies in the after-effects of original sin-ambition, pride, greed, sensuality, indolence.
But Jesus Christ will always stay with his Church, and therefore the Church s ultimate victory is assured, which is why the Apocalypse, the “eternal good news” (it has been called the eternal Gospel ) is to be proclaimed to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and tongue and people” (Rev. 14:6).
The entire theology of the book of Revelation consists in an inspired poem about the Son of God. The sacrificed and risen Lamb is the focus of the struggle between the city of God and the city of Satan: to him will go both heaven and earth. Revelation is the final synthesis of the ideals and.aspirations of the New Testament, and the prophecy of the new or la times, that is to say, of the messianic era, the definitive era ushered in by the incarnation of the Word.
This was the hope which inspired John s life and which he passed on-as he expressly states in the la verse of the book. These echo the original source from which the revelation comes, to him who bears witness to everything that has been revealed and who says: ” Surely I am coming soon.”
For John this is what really matters, as he logically expresses in his final prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus!” , which is, a sort of la golden c.asp on the Apocalypse and on the entire revelation begun with the books of the Old Testament.
It is a prayer which should be frequently on our lips, to have the Lord fill our lives, our actions, sufferings and joys, until that day comes when-by his good grace—we see him face to face in heaven.