We’ve come to the last of the nine New Testament books written during the Pressure Cooker days of extreme persecution endured by the struggling congregations of Christian believers during the last decades of the first Christian century. It’s the Book commonly referred to as “Revelations,” but which is more properly called “The Revelation of St. John” and actually refers to itself as “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1).
If you start reading the Book of Revelation from the beginning, you’ll enjoy some of John’s lofty expressions elevating Jesus Christ in God’s Eternal Plan (1:1-8). Then, you’ll read his description of how he received some graphic visions when he was “in the spirit on the Lord’s day” (1:10). You may be stunned by the first image he shares with us: an overwhelming description of the awesome majesty of the Risen and Elevated Jesus Christ (1:12-20). At that point, you may want to give your eyes a rest, and John obliges by telling us about individual “letters” he wishes to send to seven key churches in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) that were under his leadership influence (2:1-3:23).
However, beginning with chapter 4, and continuing through chapter 21, John gets into the heart of a series of complex visions he saw that day — about “Seven Seals,” “Seven Trumpets,” “The Four Living Creatures,” “The 144,000” selected from the “Tribes of Israel,” “The Two Witnesses,” “The Woman and The Dragon,” “The Beast” with the number “666,” “The Lamb,” “Babylon,” “The Thousand-Year Reign.” As you read this for the first time (and maybe for the 71st time), your head will spin. At that point, you will follow one path or another:
- “I can’t wait to find out more, to go deeper into the intricacies and interpretations.*
- “I can’t wait to get out of here and return to reality.
There doesn’t seem to be any in between. Most of us choose the second path, becoming quickly confused by the symbolism, the imagery and their original meaning to John and his readers. A minority of us are drawn to the mystery and the possibility of deeper discoveries and can’t seem to get enough of the latest interpretations and applications. (Some fanatics never return from this journey.)
The persecuted believers who first read John’s Revelation most likely took all of his visions as warnings about things that were going to happen in the near future. This was the hope John gave them: that the sufferings they were going through were the beginning of the end, that Christ was promising to return soon and bring with him the Final Judgment, when Good would win the great ultimate victory over Evil. In fact, the Book ends with Jesus’ assurance and their response:
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
“Amen. Come Lord Jesus.” (22:20)
During the next few generations, the church community held on to the “soon” promise, feeling the Lord was postponing his coming until they could reach out and win more people to the Gospel.
But by the Fourth Century AD, leaders in the Church were reinterpreting John’s visions in ways that made peace with the fact that Jesus’ was not coming “soon” in a literal sense. These interpretations took two forms:
- Spiritualizing the symbols by finding the truths God was trying to teach behind the images, numbers and symbolic characters. This was done quite effectively and was the dominant way of applying John’s timeless lessons for the next 500 years.
- Applying the symbolic language to events that were current in any given generation. This approach became increasingly popular as the year AD 1000 approached. Many Church leaders pointed to the Thousand Years (Millenium) in Revelation as predicting the end of human kingdoms and that the Final Judgment would come when the year AD 999 ended.**
Since then, every time there has been a significant event or world power shift, some Christian teachers have been quick to see a fulfillment of some prophecy in the Book of Revelation. Here are some examples:
- The Emperor Constantine formally converted to Christianity in the Fourth Century.
- The spread of Islam threatened Christian lands in N. Africa in the Twelfth Century.
- The Pope was labeled as the Antichrist in the Thirteenth Century, even before the Reformation.
- Luther and others called the Roman Church the “Babylon” of Revelation.
- The French Revolution.
- The rise of Napoleon as “Emperor.”
- Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Sadam Hussein all labeled “Antichrist.”
- COVID-19 the latest in a long list of “plagues” fulfilling Revelation prophecies.***
If that’s not confusing enough, the development of creative prophetic applications in the last 150 years overshadows all of these historical interpretations of John’s Revelation. But that will have to wait until next week.
– Pastor George Van Alstine
* If you’re in this minority group, I have a shelf full of books you can borrow.
** Sound familiar? remember midnight 12/31/1999?