Revelation, Living by Sight, not only by Faith
Was John, the author of the Book of Revelation the same person as the writer of the Fourth Gospel and of the pastoral epistles, 1, 2 and 3 John? Believers think so. Academics think not. The latter suggest that the language of the Gospel, Letters and of Revelation is too different to have been written by the same author. They say that the Greek in Revelation is not refined. The tradition that John, the beloved disciple wrote Revelation is very old going back to Justin Martyr in 140 AD and supported by Irenaeus (c 130 – 200 AD) and others. Irenaeus attested that John lived in Ephesus as a very old man in the reign of Trajan who ruled from 98 – 117 AD. This is held to be the fulfilment of Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question about what would happen to John. ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.' Because of this, the rumour spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?' (John 21 : 22 - 23)
Let us compare the language. John’s Gospel 16 : 25 - 28 has ‘Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father’. 1 John 2 : 1 – 2 has ‘My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’. Revelation 19 : 1 – 2 has ‘After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: 'Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants’.
There is a distinct difference in the language of Revelation compared to the language of the Gospel and the Letters. How might we account for this other than that Revelation was written by a different person entirely. The style of the novelist James Joyce (1882 – 1941) in ‘The Dubliners’ is different from his style in ‘Ulysses’. In the former he wrote ‘He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a verb in the past tense’. In ‘Ulysses’ Joyce wrote ‘I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes’. The poet, playwright and literary critic TS Eliot (1888 – 1965) used different styles of language for each of these disciplines. ‘After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me’ (The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock). ‘They speak better than they know, and beyond your understanding. They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer. They know and do not know, that action is suffering And suffering is action. Neither does the agent suffer Nor the patient act. But both are fixed In an eternal action, an eternal patience.’ (Murder in the Cathedral) ‘What is this self-inside us, this silent observer, severe and speechless critic, who can terrorize us, and urge us onto futile activity, and in the end, judge us still more severely for the errors into which his own reproaches drove us?’ (Essay on Critics and criticism). These contrasting literary styles belong to the same person.
In John’s case it is the tone and content of Revelation which is also markedly different. What turned the spiritual, pastoral John into the rabid prophet of election for followers of Jesus and doom and destruction for all else? Had John just become a grumpy old man? Is it not more likely that the persecution of Christians by the Roman authorities, the cruelty, tortures and murdering had clarified in his mind that good and evil on this scale are irreconcilable? He writes, ‘I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’ (1 : 9). He was in extreme circumstances. The vision he describes was given to him in compensation for his suffering. That has often been the way those who seek God earnestly have been rewarded, though John’s Revelation is exceptional in its scale, intensity and content. It has context however. Joel 2 : 10 – 11 reads ‘Before them the earth shakes, the heavens tremble, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty is the army that obeys his command. The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?’ Yet Proverbs 24 : 17 – 18 counsels ‘Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them’. How can we reconcile this teaching with Revelation’s ‘Threefold hallelujah over Babylon’s fall’ (19 : 1 – 4)?
In historical fact Rome became Christian in 313 AD. John did not foresee this. It did not save Rome from the Visigoths and Vandals. The city was overrun in 410 AD. Yet it became the headquarters of the world wide visible Roman Catholic Christian Church and it is still today surviving, the eternal city. Some Romans blamed Christianity for Rome’s capitulation. St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo wrote ‘City of God’ between 413 – 426 AD to answer Christianity's critics. Augustine’s thesis depicts the history of the world as universal warfare between God and the Devil. This war is not limited by time but only by geography on earth. In this war, God moves (by divine intervention, Providence) those governments, political, ideological movements and military forces aligned (or aligned the most) with the Catholic Church (the City of God) in order to oppose by all means—including military—those governments, political/ideological movements and military forces aligned (or aligned the most) with the Devil (the City of the World). This concept of world history guided by Divine Providence in a universal war between God and the Devil is part of the official doctrine of the Catholic Church as most recently stated in the Second Vatican Council's ‘Gaudium et Spes’ document: ‘The Church... holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history... all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness... The Lord is the goal of human history the focal point of the longings of history and of civilisation, the centre of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings’. Augustine’s vision was existential, reflecting events. John’s vision was eschatological, looking forward to the end of history which he expected to happen soon.
Much later in Christian history John Bunyan (1628 – 1688) an English Puritan preacher testified to receiving a vision of the Holy City, the City of God, the New Jerusalem. In his book ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ written while spending 12 years in prison for not attending Anglican worship and for not agreeing to stop public speaking. Bunyan’s description ran, ‘After crossing the River of Death Christian and Hopeful continue on to Mount Zion and the Celestial City. The King’s trumpeters welcome them with joy. Approaching the gate, the two pilgrims find “written over it, in letters of gold, ‘Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the Tree of Life; and may enter in through the gates into the city’ (Rev. 22 : 14)...‘The talk they had with the Shining Ones was about the glory of the place; who told them that the beauty and glory of it was inexpressible. There, said they, is the Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the innumerable company of angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect’.
John did not live only by faith. Hebrews 11 : 1 says ‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see’. But John saw. Rev 1 : 12, 17, 4 : 1, 5 : 1, 2, 6, 11, 6 : 1, 2, 9, 12, 7 : 1, 2, 8, 8 : 2, 13, 10 : 1, 5, 12 : 1, 3, 13 : 11, 14 : 1, 6, 14, 15 : 1, 2, 5, 16 : 13, 17 : 1, 6, 17 : 15, 18 : 1, 19 : 11, 17, 19, 20 : 1, 4, 11, 12, 21 : 1, 2, 9, 10, 22, 22 : 1, 7, 12. He also heard. Revelation describes an audio-visual experience, one sense corroborating the other. And John recorded what he saw. William Blake (1757 – 1827) was a poet and painter. One of his most famous works in ‘The Ancient of Days’ depicts Daniel 7 - 12 which informed the writer of Revelation. In a letter to Thomas Butts, dated 25 April 1803, Blake wrote: ‘Now I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to anyone else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy'd, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv'd & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals; perhaps Doubts proceeding from Kindness, but Doubts are always pernicious, Especially when we Doubt our Friends’. Did he not also write the hymn ‘Jerusalem’? ‘I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand Till we have built Jerusalem In England's green and pleasant land’. Some thought Blake mad, William Wordsworth among them. The point is that people testify to having access to the realms of existence beyond our five human senses. Christianity is generously sprinkled with mystics, visionaries and prophets. Many on the fringes of Christianity have proved to be socially and politically radical, deriving their inspiration from Revelation.
In Revelation 18 : 10 – 13 Babylon is an allegory for Rome. ‘When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: ‘Woe! Woe to you, great city, you mighty city of Babylon! In one hour your doom has come!’ ‘The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves’. John was an abolitionist. The Bible does not universally allow slavery. John was here being anti-materialist and it is not possible to use him to defend modern global capitalism. Paul in contrast was politically conservative. ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving’. But is not this the Kingdom of Jesus which is not of this world? Is that not the point of Paul's conservatism? Did Paul or John inspire socialism, the Labour Party, ‘Liberation Theology’?
Where are we today? Christianity’s worldly apocalyptic external enemies are Islam and the Chinese Communist Party. Western decadence, agnosticism, atheism and secularism are less co-ordinated but they are destructive from within. Mainline Christianity does not offer prophetic warnings about the end of the world and God’s judgement. Some Protestant churches and fellowships do however seek to align the times with the Second Coming of Jesus and final history. Yet this does not happen in any visible obvious way. John might belong to one of these groups if he were living today. What is so extraordinary is that his thoughts and words have found their way into the language of humanity. His perspective is incorporated in commentary. It is not taken literally but is taken as possibility.
Iain McWhirter in The Herald on 11th August 2021 wrote ‘The press has been filled with apocalyptic visions straight out of the Book of Revelation – a world destroyed by fire and flood. People see these hell-fire headlines every summer and promptly forget about them’. On the very same day Philip Johnston wrote in The Telegraph ‘Reaching for a theological allusion to capture a sense of foreboding is understandable since most religions are an attempt to come to terms with our mortality and tend to have an eschatological, or end-time, element to them. The Revelation to John, the last book of the New Testament – also known as the Book of the Apocalypse from the Greek apokalypsis, meaning “unveiling” – has often been the narrative of choice for Christians when disaster strikes. Maybe those poor Greeks whose forests and islands are burning are consulting it once more. The Book of Revelation has been widely cited during the coronavirus pandemic, especially online, as the harbinger of the long-predicted catastrophe now being visited upon mankind. The fact that it is nothing like an Extinction Level Event on a par with the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs seems not to matter to the end-timers. To them, we have all had it anyway and it’s just a matter of deciding which calamity will deliver the coup de grace’. Even in our post-Christian nation, the Bible still provides language and context. Recent floods have been described as ‘Biblical’. Journalists used to employing hyperbole have only this resort left for their exaggerations.
The Holy City John described in Revelation 21 is vast. 1400 miles long, wide and high. That is the distance from Glasgow to Bari in southern Italy. Imagine a cube that size. Why does John describe the spiritual Holy City in terms of the world’s riches, gold, jasper, emeralds, rubies and all sorts of precious stones? Was he thinking of Isaiah 54 : 11 – 13? ‘Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with lapis lazuli. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones. All your children will be taught by the Lord, and great will be their peace’. This is an image of prosperity and peace which was never realised on earth. Jerusalem today seen from the Mount of Olives does shine like gold and precious jewels in the sunlight. But will heaven really be like this? Is it personal therapeutic vision? The New Jerusalem is the length, breadth and height of luxury, comfort and grace. It must have elevated John to ecstasy. He must have rejoiced every day for the rest of his life. It was a living vision which remained part of his consciousness. It was the reality, internally perceived, of his relationship with God, with the Risen Jesus Christ and with other Christians of the time. This is the marriage of Jesus and the Church. ‘I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband’ (Revelation 21 : 2). This is the reward of those who seek God through Jesus, who find God in Jesus and who love and follow Him in faithfulness in the time given to them on earth. Is John’s vision an objective reality to be understood literally? Is it not a subjective experience given to him via his extreme piety ‘on the Lord’s day in the Spirit’ (1 : 10)? Is it not an amalgam of Christian experience, vision, mystical encounter, dream state imagination and Jewish eschatological thinking?
We cannot leave Revelation as a happy ending though. It is not a fairy tale. Beautiful as the New Jerusalem may be and paradise for Christians, the text is uncompromising. Entry and denial of entry is based on moral purity. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.’ (Revelation 22 : 14 - 15) This then represents the very large proportion of humanity in every age. Law not Gospel. Condemnation not forgiveness. Distinction, discrimination between good and evil at the last. 21st century western living reflects an inclusive lifestyle free for all. Judaism and Christianity offer correction and perspective based on the very unusual idea that there is a Creator and that behaviour matters and that creation has beginning, purpose, continuation and conclusion. This the teaching and example of Jesus Himself. But of One rejected, persecuted and judicially murdered on earth before returning to the eternal life of His Father and ours.
Only in 1 Thessalonians 5 : 23 did Paul end ‘May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’, thus reflecting the hope of first century Christians for Jesus’ immediate return. He concluded all his other correspondence with community and fellowship greetings indicating ongoing life and living.
John’s Revelation in contrast ends thus. ‘He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus' (22 : 20).
He did not do so however.