Reading through the Apocalypse of Saint John (aka. Revelation)

And finally, here is my last short essay on a book of the Bible that I’ve just finished re-reading from top to toe, part of my great journey through the Bible, recently completed. Since August, I’ve been doing what I’ve wanted to do for a few years and read through the entire Knox English version of Holy Scripture, a copy of which I acquired when I was at the cathedral in Nottingham. Monsignor Knox was a twentieth-century Anglican clergyman who became a Catholic, following an intellectual pathway comparable to the great Saint John Henry Newman in the century before. He was an excellent author and essayist in English and is well known for his homily collections on various subjects, his satires and even his murder mysteries. At one point, by the request of the English bishops, he produced this excellent translation of Scripture, which has become known as the Knox version. You can get a new and well-bound copy here.

To begin this short post on Apocalypse, let’s have a quick look at the traditional origin of this book, which is now frequently thrown in doubt by biblical scholarship. I shall take this from the bishop Eusebius’ church history. This is what he says in Book III of that history:

“It is said that in this persecution [of the Emperor Domitianthe Apostle and evangelist John, who was still alive, was condemned to dwell on the island of Patmos in consequence of his testimony to the divine word. Irenæus, in the fifth book of his work Against Heresies, where he discusses the number of the name of Antichrist which is given in the so-called Apocalypse of John, speaks as follows concerning him: ‘If it were necessary for his name to be proclaimed openly at the present time, it would have been declared by him who saw the revelation. For it was seen not long ago, but almost in our own generation, at the end of the reign of Domitian.‘ To such a degree, indeed, did the teaching of our faith flourish at that time that even those writers who were far from our religion did not hesitate to mention in their histories the persecution and the martyrdoms which took place during it.”

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical history, book III, chapter 18

So, then, Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, who lived within two generations of Saint John, passed on a tradition that the Apostle received the revelation or apocalypse in the reign of Domitian, while he was exiled to the island of Patmos. He would later return to action in Asia Minor, ending up in the west at Ephesus. It would be natural for him to receive messages to carry back to the several churches in Asia Minor. Right. On to the book, and there are messages to carry back to churches in Asia:

Thus John writes to the seven churches in Asia, Grace and peace be yours, from Him Who is, and ever was, and is still to come, and from the seven spirits that stand before His throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, First-born of the risen dead, Who rules over all earthly kings. He has proved His love for us, by washing us clean from our sins in His own blood, and made us a royal race of priests, to serve God, His Father; glory and power be His through endless ages, Amen. Behold, He comes with clouds about Him, seen by every eye, seen by those who wounded Him, and He shall bring lamentation to all the tribes of earth. So it must be, Amen. ‘I am Alpha, I am Omega, the beginning of all things and their end,’ says the Lord God; ‘He who is, and ever was, and is still to come, the Almighty.’ I, John, your brother, who share your ill-usage, your royal dignity, and your endurance in Christ Jesus, was set down on the island called Patmos, for love of God’s word and of the truth concerning Jesus. And there, on the Lord’s day, I fell into a trance, and heard behind me a voice, loud as the call of a trumpet, which said, ‘Write down all thou seest in a book, and send it to the seven churches in Asia, to Ephesus, and Smyrna, and Pergamum, and Thyatira, and Sardis, and Philadelphia, and Laodicea.”

Apocalypse, 1: 4-11

It’s worth including this whole block of text because of its inclusion of a basic Christian creed: Church is risen, He reigns over all forever. Behold, He comes with clouds, he comes with clouds descending… now listen to this lovely old Wesleyan hymn, which is a summary of the return of Christ as given by Apocalypse:

Wesley, Lo! He comes with clouds descending

Following this listing of the churches is a frightful vision of Christ, as seen in the great vision, and it has the aspect of those wonderful visions of prophets like Jeremias and Ezechiel:

“…One who seemed like a son of man, clothed in a long garment, with a golden girdle about His breast. The hair on His head was like wool snow-white, and His eyes like flaming fire, His feet like orichalc melted in the crucible, and His voice like the sound of water in deep flood. In His right hand were seven stars; from His mouth came a sword sharpened at both its edges; and His face was like the sun when it shines at its full strength. At the sight of Him, I fell down at His feet like a dead man; and He, laying His right hand on me, spoke thus: ‘Do not be afraid; I AM before all, I AM at the end of all, and I live. I, Who underwent death, am alive, as thou seest, to endless ages, and I hold the keys of death and hell.’

Apocalypse, 1: 13-18

I do so love that Christ uses the same language here in his fearsome aspect that he used in the Gospels, when He also terrified men like John by walking over the water to them on a stormy sea. He at once explains that the seven stars in his hand represent seven angels that have the care of the seven churches, which are represented as candlesticks here. There follow the messages to the churches. To summarise, Ephesus has done well since it first received the Gospel and had even rejected the Nicolaitan heresy, but has suffered a loss of charity; Smyrna has done well and will soon suffer persecution; Pergamum has remained faithful in a pagan atmosphere but has lost some of its Christians to the Nicolaitan heresy; Thyatira has remained largely faithful but has been infected with a gnostic religion centering on a woman (named Jezabel here); Sardis has declined greatly and there remain only a few faithful Christians there; Philadelphia has remained faithful and will soon receive several Jewish converts; Laodicea is accused of being lukewarm, which I take to mean lacking in devotion to the faith and trusting in its own prosperity. Chapter four gives us a vision of the Throne:

“And all at once I was in a trance, and saw where a throne stood in heaven, and One sat there enthroned. He who sat there bore the semblance of a jewel, jasper or sardius, and there was a rainbow about the throne, like a vision of emerald. Round it were twenty-four seats, and on these sat twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with crowns of gold on their heads. Lightnings came out from the throne, and mutterings, and thunders, and before it burned seven lamps, which are the seven spirits of God; facing it was a whole sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst, where the throne was, round the throne itself, were four living figures, that had eyes everywhere to see before them and behind them. The first figure was that of a lion, the second that of an ox, the third had a man’s look, and the fourth was that of an eagle in flight. Each of the four figures had six wings, with eyes everywhere looking outwards and inwards; day and night they cried unceasingly, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who ever was, and is, and is still to come.’

Apocalypse 4: 2-8

Many of our Mass texts come from the book of Apocalypse, for this book is about the unceasing divine worship in heaven, of which our Mass is a participation. Hence, above, we see the twenty-four elders in white and the four great seraphs who present worship of the Holy One in the immediate vicinity of the throne. The vision continues with the discovery of a scroll/book in the hand of the Holy One, a scroll/book written inside and out and sealed with seven seals – a book of judgement and punishment, no doubt. Only one person could open this scroll and disclose its content: Christ Himself, the Bridge between God and mankind, here presented in a new vision: that of the Lamb of God. 

“But there was no one in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth, who could open the scroll and have sight of it. I was all in tears, that none should be found worthy to open the scroll or have sight of it; until one of the elders said to me, ‘No need for tears; here is One who has gained the right to open the book, by breaking its seven seals, the Lion that comes from the tribe of Juda, from the stock of David.’ Then I saw, in the midst, where the throne was, amid the four figures and the elders, a Lamb standing upright, yet slain (as I thought) in sacrifice. He had seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God, that go out to do His bidding everywhere on earth. He now came, and took the scroll from the right hand of Him Who sat on the throne, and when He disclosed it, the four living figures and the twenty-four elders fell down in the Lamb’s presence. Each bore a harp, and they had golden bowls full of incense, the prayers of the saints. And now it was a new hymn they sang, ‘Thou, Lord, art worthy to take up the book and break the seals that are on it. Thou wast slain in sacrifice; out of every tribe, every language, every people, every nation Thou hast ransomed us with Thy blood and given us to God.'”

Apocalypse, 5: 3-9

As in the letter to the Hebrews, Christ receives His great authority as a result of His voluntary self-sacrifice. The rest of the chapter is about divine worship, not only of the Holy One Who sits upon the throne, but of the Lamb as well. Chapter six describes the result of the opening of the scroll of judgement/vengeance, a sequence of plagues upon the world. The notable vision results from the breaking of the fifth of the seven seals on the scroll, for it describes the pending reward of the Christian martyrs, who had given their lives for the faith. I call it notable because it points directly to the Mass again, where the sacrifice of the Lamb is offered upon an altar that contains the relics of the Saints, often including martyr Saints.

“And when He broke the fifth seal, I saw there, beneath the altar, the souls of all who had been slain for love of God’s word and of the truth they held, crying out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, the Holy, the True, how long now before Thou wilt sit in judgement, and exact vengeance for our blood from all those who dwell on earth?’ Whereupon a white robe was given to each of them, and they were bidden to take their rest a little while longer, until their number had been made up by those others, their brethren and fellow servants, who were to die as they had died.

Apocalypse, 6: 9-11

In the next vision, in chapter seven, we find a fuller description of the martyrs of the Church who had suffered through the persecutions of Saint John’s time (‘the great afflication), a great multitude indeed. The Church has always greatly honoured those men and women who have payed the ultimate price for their allegiance to Christ.

“And then I saw a great multitude, past all counting, taken from all nations and tribes and peoples and languages. These stood before the throne in the Lamb’s presence, clothed in white robes, with palm-branches in their hands, and cried with a loud voice, ‘To our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, all saving power belongs.’ And all the angels that were standing round the throne, round the elders and the living figures, fell prostrate before the throne and paid God worship; ‘Amen,’ they cried, ‘blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and strength belong to our God through endless ages, Amen.’ And now one of the elders turned to me, and asked, ‘Who are they, and whence do they come, these who are robed in white?’ ‘My Lord,’ said I, ‘thou canst tell me.’ ‘These,’ he said, ‘have come here out of the great affliction; they have washed their robes white in the Blood of the Lamb. And now they stand before God’s throne, serving Him day and night in His temple; the presence of Him Who sits on the throne shall overshadow them. They will not be hungry or thirsty any more; no sun, no noonday heat, shall fall across their path. The Lamb, Who dwells where the throne is, will be their Shepherd, leading them out to the springs whose water is life; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Apocalypse, 7: 9-17

The seals all broken on the scroll, a dead silence falls upon the great assembly of worshippers, and then we discover the angel that is mentioned at every Mass during the Eucharistic Prayer offering a burning of incense to God which is composed of the prayers of Christians:

“There was another angel that came and took his stand at the altar, with a censer of gold; and incense was given him in plenty, so that he could make an offering on the golden altar before the throne, out of the prayers said by all the saints. So, from the angel’s hand, the smoke of the incense went up in God’s presence, kindled by the saints’ prayer. Then the angel took his censer, filled it up with fire-brands from the altar, and threw it down on to the earth; thunder followed, and mutterings, and lightning, and a great earthquake.”

Apocalypse, 8: 3-5

The this same angel apparently starts off the plagues that will afflict the earth. I often say that the whole theme of the Old Testament is the ending of idolatry, but we could say that this is the theme of the whole of Scripture. For the New Testament continues this theme (even drawing non-Jews out of idolatry and towards the worship of the one, true God), and here Saint John tells us that in spite of the great plagues, most of the inhabitants of the world refuse to give up their idolatrous acts and the sins that proceeded from these acts:

The rest of mankind, that did not perish by these plagues, would not turn away from the things their own hands had fashioned; still worshipped evil spirits, false gods of gold and silver and brass and stone and wood, that can neither see, nor hear, nor move. Nor would they repent of the murders, the sorceries, the fornications, and the thefts which they committed.”

Apocalypse, 9: 20-21

Chapters ten and eleven are reminiscent of Ezechiel’s own descriptions of swallowing a word of prophecy that is to be delivered to the people and then of measuring the Temple of God. And there is mention of the two olive trees or candlesticks in the book of Zacharias, a book that was used multiple times by the Gospel writers. If I read it correctly, these two witnesses to God were the twin ministries of the governor/administrator and the Temple high-priest, which had been erected with the establishment of the Second Temple under the priest Ezra (described by Zacharias), but which would now die together with the Temple, under the Romans (who may be the great beast coming up out of the abyss). It seems that this system is to be restored before the establishment of the divine sovereignty, which is sung about at this point.

“Then the seventh angel sounded, and with that, a great cry was raised in heaven, ‘The dominion of the world has passed to the Lord of us all, and to Christ His anointed; He shall reign for ever and ever, Amen.’ And the twenty-four elders who sit enthroned in God’s presence fell prostrate, worshipping God and crying out, ‘Lord God Almighty, Who art, and ever wast, and art still to come, we give Thee thanks for assuming that high sovereignty which belongs to Thee, and beginning Thy reign. The heathen have vented their rage upon us, but now the day of Thy retribution has come; the time when Thou wilt judge the dead, rewarding Thy servants, prophets and holy men and all who fear Thy Name, little or great, and destroying the corrupters of the world.”

Apocalypse, 11: 15-18

But how will all this be? What made all this possible? In chapter twelve we receive the great vision of the Immaculate and her eternal foe.

“And now, in heaven, a great portent appeared; a woman that wore the sun for her mantle, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars about her head. She had a child in her womb, and was crying out as she travailed, in great pain of her delivery. Then a second portent appeared in heaven; a great dragon was there, fiery-red, with seven heads and ten horns, and on each of the seven heads a royal diadem; his tail dragged down a third part of the stars in heaven, and flung them to earth. And he stood fronting the woman who was in childbirth, ready to swallow up the child as soon as she bore it. She bore a Son, the Son Who is to herd the nations like sheep with a crook of iron; and this Child of hers was caught up to God, right up to His throne…”

Apocalypse, 12: 1-5

And so heaven calls out again to declare the reign of God, as before, but qualified by the vision of the birth of the Child, and the defeat of the ancient serpent (by the sacrifice of Christ, which has enabled the martyrs to triumph), the enemy of the Lady’s spiritual children:

“Then I heard a voice crying aloud in heaven, ‘The time has come; now we are saved and made strong, our God reigns, and power belongs to Christ, His anointed; the accuser of our brethren is overthrown. Day and night he stood accusing them in God’s presence; but because of the Lamb’s blood and because of the truth to which they bore witness, they triumphed over him, holding their lives cheap till death overtook them. Rejoice over it, heaven, and all you that dwell in heaven; but woe to you, earth and sea, now that the devil has come down upon you, full of malice, because he knows how brief is the time given him.'”

Apocalypse, 12: 10-12

Now the vision deals with the malice of the devil worked out upon the inhabitants of the earth. Chapter thirteen now describes the beast that received the authority and power of the defeated serpent and established a particular religion that centred on it – an anti-Christian religion of rebellion against the rule of God. 

“And he was given power of speech, to boast and to blaspheme with, and freedom to work his will for a space of forty-two months. So he began to utter blasphemy against God, blasphemy against His Name, against His dwelling-place and all those who dwell in heaven. He was allowed, too, to levy war on the saints, and to triumph over them. The dominion given to him extended over all tribes and peoples and languages and races; all the dwellers on earth fell down in adoration of him, except those whose names the Lamb has written down in his book of life, the Lamb slain in sacrifice ever since the world was made.

Apocalypse, 13: 5-8

There is here an exhortation to Christians to remain true and faithful to the Christian faith and the Christian religion, reminiscent of the warnings in the letter to the Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament. The great persecutions of the nascent Church resulted in a great temptation for Christians to give up the fight and return to traditional religions or to the protected Jewish religion. The beast must always represent the cruel governments and corrupt cultures and societies that draw people away from the Christian religion. But the chapter ends with the famous reference to the number 666, which it seems clear referred to the persecuting Roman authority of Saint John’s time. 

Here is room for discernment; let the reader, if he has the skill, cast up the sum of the figures in the beast’s name, after our human fashion, and the number will be six hundred and sixty-six.”

Apocalypse, 13: 18

But the challenge is not unanswered and chapter fourteen shows a vision of Christ and his company of 144,000 martyrs, attended now by consecrated virgins. Christians are bidden by several angels to remain true to God in the midst of the reign of the beast, ‘by keeping true to God’s commandments and the faith of Jesus.’ This is followed by another great judgement of the earth by several angels with sharp sickels for reaping, and more plagues for the followers of the beast. In chapter seventeen, we find the vision of the so-called whore of Babylon – pagan Rome – that had so gutted the Church in Saint John’s time.

“And now one of the angels that bear the seven cups came and spoke to me. ‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will shew thee how judgement is pronounced on the great harlot, that sits by the meeting-place of many rivers. The kings of the world have committed fornication with her; all the dwellers on earth have been drunk with the wine of her dalliance. Then, in a trance, he carried me off into the wilderness, where I saw a woman riding on a scarlet beast, scrawled over with names of blasphemy; it had seven heads, and ten horns. The woman went clad in purple and scarlet, all hung about with gold and jewels and pearls, and held a golden cup in her hand, full to the brim with those abominations of hers, with the lewdness of her harlot’s ways. There was a title written over her forehead, ‘The mystic Babylon, great mother-city of all harlots, and all that is abominable on earth.’ I saw this woman drunk with the blood of saints, the blood of those who bore witness to Jesus; and I was filled with great wonder at the sight.”

Apocalypse, 17: 1-6

This woman and her beast fortunately stand no chance against Christ and his legions of martyrs. This woman might as well represent every other anti-Christian being or institution that tortures the Church. For itn the midst of that torture, Saint John continues to call for perseverance in the Faith. 

“After this I saw another angel, entrusted with great power, come down from heaven; earth shone with the glory of his presence. And he cried aloud, ‘Babylon, great Babylon is fallen; she has become the abode of devils, the stronghold of all unclean spirits, the eyrie of all birds that are unclean and hateful to man. The whole world has drunk the maddening wine of her fornication; the kings of the earth have lived in dalliance with her, and its merchants have grown rich through her reckless pleasures.’ And now I heard another voice from heaven say, ‘Come out of her, my people, that you may not be involved in her guilt, nor share the plagues that fall upon her.’

Apocalypse, 18: 1-4

I suppose there are limits to inculturation, and there comes a time when the Church must pull up the drawbridges and lock the gates against the evils of the culture surrounding her, to avoid sharing in its guilt, etc. Chapter eighteen seems to indicate a particular destruction of the fortunes of Rome, perhaps as a result of a natural disaster that briefly ruined the trade interests of the City or such things as the great fire of Rome, which many thought old 666 himself (the emperor Nero) had started. In chapter nineteen, heaven declares triumph over the great harlot of Rome and Christ reappears in glorious vision to finally make war with the beast and conquer it and its many followers.

“Then, in my vision, heaven opened, and I saw a white horse appear. Its rider bore for his title, the Faithful, the True; He judges and goes to battle in the cause of right. His eyes were like flaming fire, and on his brow were many royal diadems; the name written there is one that only He knows. He went clad in a garment deep dyed with blood, and the Name by which He is called is the Word of God; the armies of heaven followed Him, mounted on white horses, and clad in linen, white and clean. From His mouth came a two-edged sword, ready to smite the nations; He will herd them like sheep with a crook of iron. He treads out for them the wine-press, whose wine is the avenging anger of almighty God. And this title is written on his cloak, over His thigh, ‘The King of kings, and the Lord of lords.’

Apocalypse, 19: 11-16

The beast taken captive and tossed into a lake of fire, it comes the turn of the dragon/serpent. Chapter twenty describes its imprisonment and final defeat, its joining the beast in the fiery lake. And this is to be followed by the establishment of the throne of judgement for Christ and the salvation of all those whose names are found in the Book of Life. And finally, in chapter twenty-one, the new Jerusalem descends from on high, a Jerusalem from right out of the visions of the Hebrew prophets (think Ezechiel), with the water gushing out the east of it. 

“And I, John, saw in my vision that holy city which is the new Jerusalem, being sent down by God from heaven, all clothed in readiness, like a bride who has adorned herself to meet her Husband. I heard, too, a voice which cried aloud from the throne, ‘Here is God’s tabernacle pitched among men; He will dwell with them, and they will be His own people, and He will be among them, their own God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, or mourning, or cries of distress, no more sorrow; those old things have passed away.’ And He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ (These words I was bidden write down, words most sure and true.) And He said to me, ‘It is over. I AM Alpha, I AM Omega, the beginning of all things and their end; those who are thirsty shall drink—it is my free gift—out of the spring whose water is life.’

Apocalypse, 21: 2-6

Clearly, this new Jerusalem, called the Bride of Christ, is Holy Church herself, also the Body of Christ. There follows a detailed description of the new Jerusalem, a city of pure gold, but with foundations of precious and semi-precious stone and actual pearly gates. A city with no Temple, for it is the Temple, enshrining within itself the eternal presence of God, which is a life-giving source of such potency that there is no requirement for sun or moon. The gates are ever open, all peoples flock to the city and there is no uncleanness anymore. The final chapter further describes the spring gushing forth from the side of the City/Temple. And, hello, at the other end of the Bible, there now appears the Tree of Life, once forbidden to the children of Adam on account of their rebellion. The rebellion and all profanation is now ended. 

“He shewed me, too, a river, whose waters give life; it flows, clear as crystal, from the throne of God, from the throne of the Lamb. On either side of the river, mid-way along the city street, grows the tree that gives life, bearing its fruit twelvefold, one yield for each month. And the leaves of this tree bring health to all the nations. No longer can there be any profanation in that city; God’s throne (which is the Lamb’s throne) will be there, with His servants to worship Him, and to see His face, His name written on their foreheads. There will be no more night, no more need of light from lamp or sun; the Lord God will shed His light on them, and they will reign for ever and ever.”

Apocalypse, 22: 1-5

The Tree of Life I would say is the sacramental life of the Church. Continue to wash your clothes in the Blood of the Lamb to have access to that fount of grace, that spring of life. Christ has the last word, too. Patience, He says, and persevere; avail yourself of the Sacraments, there is no room for idolatry and other sins; I AM; my bride calls for me and I am on the way; come to me and receive everything as a free gift.

“‘Patience, I am coming soon; and with Me comes the award I make, repaying each man according to the life he has lived. I AM Alpha, I AM Omega, I AM before all, I AM at the end of all, the beginning of all things and their end. Blessed are those who wash their garments in the Blood of the Lamb; so they will have access to the tree which gives life, and find their way through the gates into the city. No room there for prowling dogs, for sorcerers and wantons and murderers and idolaters, for anyone who loves falsehood and lives in it. I, Jesus, have sent My angel to give you the assurance of this in your churches; I, the root, I, the Offspring of David’s race, I, the bright Star that brings in the day. The Spirit and My bride bid Me come; let everyone who hears this read out say, ‘Come.’ Come, you who are thirsty, take, you who will, the water of life; it is My free gift.

Apocalypse, 22: 12-17
Harold Copping, Saint John on the isle of Patmos
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