Introduction To The Book of Revelation
In the book ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone’ written by J K Rowling Harry meets a half-giant, Rubeus Hagrid, who is also his first contact with the wizarding world. Hagrid reveals himself to be the Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts as well as some of Harry's history. Harry learns that, as a baby, he witnessed his parents' murder by the power-obsessed dark wizard Lord Voldemort and by Albus Dumbledor who subsequently attempted to kill him as well. Instead, the unexpected happened: Harry survived with only a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead as a memento of the attack, and Voldemort disappeared soon afterwards, gravely weakened by his own rebounding curse.
As its inadvertent saviour from Voldemort's reign of terror, Harry has become a living legend in the wizarding world. However, at the orders of the venerable and well-known wizard Albus Dumbledore, the orphaned Harry had been placed in the home of his unpleasant Muggle relatives, the Dursleys, who have kept him safe but treated him poorly, including confining him to a cupboard without meals and treating him as their servant. Hagrid then officially invites Harry to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a famous magic school in Scotland that educates young teenagers on their magical development for seven years, from age eleven to seventeen.
With Hagrid's help, Harry prepares for and undertakes his first year of study at Hogwarts. As Harry begins to explore the magical world, the reader is introduced to many of the primary locations used throughout the series. Harry meets most of the main characters and gains his two closest friends: Ron Weasley, a fun-loving member of an ancient, large, happy, but poor wizarding family, and Hermione Granger, a gifted, bright, and hardworking witch of non-magical parentage. Harry also encounters the school's potions master, Severus Snape, who displays a conspicuously deep and abiding dislike for him, the rich brat Draco Malfoy whom he quickly makes enemies with, and the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Quirinus Quirrell, who later turns out to be allied with Lord Voldemort. He also discovers a talent of flying on broomsticks and is recruited for his house's Quidditch team, a sport in the wizarding world where players fly on broomsticks. The first book concludes with Harry's second confrontation with Lord Voldemort, who, in his quest to regain a body, yearns to gain the power of the Philosopher's Stone, a substance that bestows everlasting life and turns any metal into pure gold.
In the book ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ Book 2 written by J R R Tolkien after a failed attempt to cross the Misty Mountains over the Redhorn Pass, the Fellowship take the perilous path through the Mines of Moria. They learn that Balin, one of the Dwarves who accompanied Bilbo in The Hobbit, and his colony of Dwarves were killed by Orcs. After surviving an attack, they are pursued by Orcs and a Balrog, an ancient fire demon from a prior Age. Gandalf confronts the Balrog, and both of them fall into the abyss. The others escape and find refuge in the timeless Elven forest of Lothlórien, where they are counselled by the Lady Galadriel. Before they leave, Galadriel tests their loyalty, and gives them individual, more or less magical, gifts to help them on their quest. She allows Frodo and Sam to look into her fountain, the Mirror of Galadriel, to see visions of the past, the present, and perhaps the future. Galadriel's husband Celeborn gives the Fellowship boats, elven cloaks, and waybread, and they travel down the River Anduin to the hill of Amon Hen. There, Boromir tries to take the Ring from Frodo, but immediately regrets it after Frodo puts on the Ring and disappears. Frodo chooses to go alone to Mordor, but Sam, guessing what he intends, intercepts him as he tries to take a boat across the river, and goes with him.
These books are fictions, made up tales of weird and wonderful beings and worlds, goods and evils, heroes and villains. There is also a strong tradition of Christian fantasy. Fantasy which tells truth. Augustine’s ‘The City of God’, Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ and C S Lewis’s ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ are examples. The Book of Revelation is a work of great human imagination. The difference is that it scraped into the canon of the New Testament, not without opposition. The New Testament would have been the lesser without Revelation. It completes the Bible from Genesis and creation to the end of time and history and into eternity. Judaism gave the world this sense of history, of progression and purpose and conclusion. We take this for granted but Greek religion and philosophy were circular in motion and direction and Hinduism and Buddhism have no comparable historical and teleological understanding of life and destiny.
Revelation became Holy Writ, in the eyes of some the living Word of God inviolate and incontestable. It is not fiction. It is spiritual vision humanly described and interpreted. John repeatedly says ‘Then I saw’. He is describing life as a Christian subject in the Roman Empire at the end of the first century AD. But his is a living vision connecting his life with the present life of God and of the risen Jesus Christ. He writes that ‘On the Lord’s day I was in the Spirit’ (Revelation 1 : 10). What does that mean? Paul wrote about being taken up into the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12 : 2). Isaiah testified that ‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted’ (6 : 1). John then through prayer was in touch with God and his mind was in an altered state of grace, blessing and clarity. What is difficult to ascertain however is where his descriptions move from the reasonable to the phantasmagorical and to what extent dream imagination has taken over credible experience. John uses allegory to describe parts of his vision. He cannot mention Rome by name. It is easy to sit in comfort and dismiss John as a crank. Christians suffering in the world today are not thinking so. Revelation expresses the apocalyptic strand of Jewish thought which is seen in Daniel chapters 7 to 12. Judgement and retribution upon the People of God were central to the message of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In Daniel this is broadened to include the empires of the time. The sovereignty of God is thus vindicated in the the fate of earthly political powers. Jews articulated this understanding. Christians followed suit.
Revelation can be compartmentalised as follows:
Greetings and Doxology (1:4-8
Jesus among the Seven Churches (1:9-20)
The Letters to the Seven Churches (chapters 2 and 3), Ephesus (2:1-7), Smyrna (2:8-11), Pergamum (2:12-17), Thyatira (2:18-29), Sardis (3:1-6), Philadelphia (3:7-13)and Laodicea (3:14-22),
The Throne, the Scroll and the Lamb (chs. 4-5)
The Throne in Heaven (ch. 4)
The Seven-Sealed Scroll (5:1-5)
The Lamb Slain (5:6-14)
The Seven Seals (6:1;8:1), The White Horse (6:1-2), The Red Horse (6:3-4), The Black Horse (6:5-6), The Pale Horse (6:7-8), The Souls under the Altar (6:9-11), The Great Earthquake (6:12-17), The Sealing of the 144,000 (7:1-8)
The Great Multitude (7:9-17)
Silence in Heaven (8:1)
The Seven Trumpets (8:2;11:19), Introduction (8:2-5), Hail and Fire Mixed with Blood (8:6-7), A Mountain Thrown into the Sea (8:8-9), The Star Wormwood (8:10-11), A Third of the Sun, Moon and Stars Struck (8:12-13), The Plague of Locusts (9:1-12), Release of the Four Angels (9:13-21), The Angel and the Little Scroll (ch. 10),
The Two Witnesses (11:1-14)
Judgements and Rewards (11:15-19)
Various Personages and Events (chs. 12-14)
The Woman and the Dragon (ch. 12)
The Two Beasts (ch. 13)
The Lamb and the 144,000 (14:1-5)
The Harvest of the Earth (14:6-20)
The Seven Bowls (chs. 15-16), Introduction: The Song of Moses and the Seven Angels with the Seven Plagues (ch. 15),Ugly and Painful Sores (16:1-2), Sea Turns to Blood (16:3), Rivers and Springs of Water Become Blood (16:4-7), Sun Scorches People with Fire (16:8-9), Darkness (16:10-11), Euphrates River Dries Up (16:12-16),
Tremendous Earthquake (16:17-21)
Babylon: The Great Prostitute (17:1;19:5), Babylon Described (ch. 17),The Fall of Babylon (ch. 18), Praise for Babylon's Fall (19:1-5),
Praise for the Wedding of the Lamb (19:6-10)
The Return of Christ (19:11-21)
The Thousand Years (20:1-6)
Satan's Doom (20:7-10)
Great White Throne Judgment (20:11-15)
New Heaven, New Earth, New Jerusalem (21:1;22:5)
Conclusion and Benediction (22:6-21)
Revelation firstly expresses the direct critical interaction between the risen Jesus Christ and seven churches of the time which are not perfect in obedience. There follows an insight into the highest heaven with the Lamb of God at its centre. Revelation then goes on to offer a vision of the final judgement and victory of God over elemental and political powers and the redemption of the followers of Jesus with their admission in permanency into the New Jerusalem. Revelation is multi-dimensional. John’s allusion to Rome is far from subtle. It is all very different from the thought of St Paul.
In Romans 13 : 1 – 7 Paul writes ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. or rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour’.
Revelation is even different from the teaching of Jesus Himself. In Mark 12 : 13 – 17 we read ‘Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him’. Before Pilate, Jesus said ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place’. (John 18 : 36) and ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above’. (John 19 : 11) Revelation is a description of the outcome of this confrontation. Jesus was crucified ‘under Pontius Pilate’ but He is now manifested as Lord and God.
Revelation is a great contrast to the social conservatism of St Paul. Not just in relation to governmental authorities, but in relation to Christian social living, Paul domesticates Jesus and makes Christianity possible and manageable for ordinary people living ordinary family lives, working, raising children, and belonging to Christian congregations. The Christianity of the very large majority of Christians living in the world is Pauline. It is not Johannine as in Revelation. The Reformation was Pauline. There is a straight line between Jesus’ death on Calvary and Revelation 5 : 6 ‘Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain’. There is a straight line between Jesus teaching of his disciples (‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’, Matthew 5 : 48) and the letters to the seven Churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. There is a straight line between Jesus’ apocalyptic warnings in Matthew 23 and 24 and John’s understanding of the end-time judgement on the world and the return of Jesus Christ (chapter 19 and following). There is a straight line from Daniel’s out of this world experiences and John’s.
Paul on the other hand worked out a theology that was rational and comprehensible following the literary tradition of prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. Saul had been a Pharisee of course dealing with the minutiae of daily observance. His Christianity reflects his now being transformed and imbued by the risen Jesus Christ and by the fullness of the Holy Spirit and by the grace and mercy, faith hope and love which flowed from his relationship with Him. He has a majestic understanding of the true meaning and purpose of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection but he also writes about relationships and clothes and foods. If the New Testament had gone from the Book of Acts to Revelation without Paul’s letters there might not have been a worldwide Christian Church. Paul taught an inclusive, universally applicable Gospel. Revelation is about division, here and hereafter. Paul’s vision of life after death is personal and individual. John’s is about numbers and cataclysmic events. Paul is edible fare. John is acquired taste.
Central to some evangelical Christians understanding of Revelation is what is called 'the rapture', the snatching up of Christians to heaven and the leaving of all others to judgement. Some hold that the rapture will precede the seven-year tribulation described in Revelation, which will culminate in Christ's second coming and be followed by a thousand-year Messianic Kingdom. This is the most widely held view among Christians believing in the rapture today. Most Christian denominations do not subscribe to rapture theology. Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Methodists, the United Church of Christ, and most Reformed Christians reject the idea that a large segment of humanity will be left behind on earth for the seven year tribulation period awaiting final judgement. Very liberal thinkers do not take anything written in Revelation seriously. Even evangelicals allegorise the language of beasts, water turning to blood, earthquakes and prostitution.
What distinguishes believers in the rapture is that they think that this event will occur within human history at some point in the future. They interpret Revelation literally in this respect as God’s Word, the Bible itself as a whole inerrant. A more reasonable and rational interpretation (‘Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord’, Isaiah 1 : 18) in keeping with the continuing near 2000 year history of Christianity in the world as we have and do experience it is that the rapture has been, is and will continue to be a way of describing the journey of Christians through death and into eternal life.
There has never been any agreement on interpreting Revelation. Even Bible believing Christians have different views. Scholarship has offered alternative structures for Revelation as a whole. One suggests that it refers only to the events of the apostolic era (1st century). Another that it represents a broad view of history from the time of Jesus until His Second Coming. A third emphasises future events (the end of the world) and a fourth considers that it does not refer to actual people or events, but to the spiritual path and the ongoing struggle between good and evil. The terms used are preterist, historicist, futurist and idealist. They are somewhat academic and distanced from the intensities described in Revelation.
Revelation is certainly existential. It was for its writer reflecting the contemporaneous experience of living in both Christ’s Kingdom and in the world at the same time and offering means for the psychological and spiritual overcoming of oppression based on the lively apprehension of post resurrection Jesus Christ. This surely is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (John 16 : 33). Revelation is clearly also eschatological pointing towards the future beyond life on earth for humans. It is retributive and judgemental with raw divine power and with rejoicing in the defeat of elemental and worldly political powers. There is little of Jesus' own sentiment in dying ,'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing' (Luke 23 : 34). There is no peace after death. There is warfare. Paul’s understanding of principalities and powers (Ephesians 6) also reflects the Lordship of Jesus over supernatural agents which influence and dominate human life. For all that today’s fiction reflects such principalities and powers in films and literature, we are governed by physical knowledge and science and so Revelation’s prognostications are mere poetic conjecture for many outside the experience of living faith in Jesus Christ.
Revelation’s message is very much about the overthrow of the powers that be in the world, specifically in John’s case, the Roman Empire. It is a book about God’s full sovereignty, permitting of evil in the world under licence for a time, the ultimate triumphant destruction by Jesus Christ of His enemies and the salvation of those who name Him as Lord. Nick Page (Revelation Road, Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) suggests that John sees the Roman Empire as a ravening beast supported by toadying smooth-talking con men. ‘And he preaches revolution. What John has given us through these images is a book which inspires us to fight...against all the monsters of history’ (p.250, 251). Christians living in China today might find hope and encouragement in their current predicament which is not unlike the suffering of Christians in the first centuries of Christianity.
The Chinese Communist Party has stepped up repressions of Christian churches, closing some and replacing religious icons in others with portraits of President Xi Jinping and chairman Mao Zedong. Bitter Winter, a think tank based in Turin, which monitors human rights and religious freedom through a network of hundreds of Chinese correspondents, reported that congregations resisting state control are seeing their churches closed. Others have been renamed, with followers told to worship communist party luminaries. A Bitter Winter correspondent in Ji’an, a city in the south-eastern province of Jiangxi, reported the local Catholic community, who paid for and built a church, had been forced to paint over its original name, The True and Original Source of the Universe. They were made replace it with a slogan: “Follow the Party, Obey the Party, and Be Grateful to the Party”. A painting of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child had been discarded into a dark corner, and replaced with a portrait of Mr Xi in the centre of the church, surrounded by propaganda slogans. “A few days later, officials confiscated the keys to the church and locked all its doors and windows,’’ Bitter Winter reported. “The congregation lost their place of worship.’’ In September 2020, elderly worshippers meeting at an underground Catholic church which operates outside the control of the state-sanctioned Patriotic Association were told their pensions would be stopped if further meetings were held. That church’s cross, a painting of the Virgin Mary, and other religious objects were replaced with portraits of Xi and Mao. China’s communist party policy is to eradicate even the thinking of thoughts which are not wholly directed to its own totalitarian control of mind and life.
Respect for John. He recorded his own ecstatic Christian experience witnessing to the connection between our life and living and the life and living of our Maker and Redeemer. He admitted the imperfections of the churches. His testimony is both rational and beyond rationality. He described the aftermath of humanity and the after life of the saved. He reminds us of the morality and justice of our Maker and His inevitable last word on the practice of wrong in the world. John wants Jesus to return there and then and he ends thus ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.’ (Revelation 22 ; 21)