The Book of Revelation has been the source of much controversy since the time it was written. The early Church debated its inclusion in the canon of accepted scripture, and even today, it is not used in the liturgical services of the Orthodox Church. However, it was eventually included in the canon and is considered to be holy scripture. Its apocalyptic nature has led to many bizarre interpretations, often leading to confusion. Once its true purpose is ascertained, the confusion can be swept aside and the beauty of the book can be appreciated. While there is no official Orthodox interpretation of the book, the commentaries by St. Andrew of Caesarea, St. Arethas, and St. Ecumenios have allowed for a general consensus. The majority of Orthodox writing on the book has focused upon what is not included therein, such as an earthly millennium. As this is a negative approach to the content of Revelation, it is useful to study what is included, so that the true message can be made plain.
The central message, according to Archimandrite Athanasios Mitilinaios, is “the Second Coming of Christ as King and Judge." Yet this focus must be explained, in order to avoid the aforementioned confusion. Many of the bizarre interpretations result from seeing the focus of the book speaking only about this final consummation of all things at the Second Coming of Christ, ignoring all of the time that will have elapsed from the writing of the book to that eschatological event. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has stated that the “seemingly violent prophecy must be read in harmony with the rest of the Bible." By doing this, it is apparent that the message of Revelation was intended for its original recipients, and could be applied to all Christians in the intervening years, until Christ’ Second Coming. In this manner, the book is certainly eschatological, but in an ongoing manner.
Fr. Paul Tarazi has clearly shown that the book is an encouragement to remain faithful in the face of intense persecution. Those who succumb to the temptation of the persecution and become apostate will face a horrible end, while those who remain steadfast will enjoy a joyful outcome – regardless of how things appear in the present. This is accomplished, in Revelation, by presenting Jesus Christ as the “prototypical martyr to whom all martyrs will be likened and with whom they will reign in the coming kingdom of God." This difference in focus is not contrary to the message presented by Archimandrite Athanasios, but is complementary. This is evident due to the nature of Revelation as a theodicy, or a treatment of the “problem of evil.”
The date of writing and authorship of Revelation have been disputed since the earliest days of Christianity. Early Christian writers attributed it to the Apostle John, while later writers have considered various other authors, such as John Mark. I take the traditional opinion of the Early Church, that the Apostle John wrote it. Likewise, the date has been disputed, with the major considerations being pre-AD 70 or mid 90s AD. It is not possible, at this time, to make a definitive conclusion on either of these questions. However, regardless of who the author was, or when it was written, the message is still applicable to Christians. That does not change. Both of the dates in question were times of intense persecution of Christians, when many chose to turn their backs on Christianity. The author, regardless of who he actually was, was disturbed by the apostasy, and desired to encourage Christians to remain faithful to Christ.
The method that was chosen to accomplish this was to show that persecution was temporary, but Christ was eternal. To turn away from Him was to be condemned to eternal damnation, while to remain faithful was to be ultimately victorious – even if one died during the persecution. “The purpose of the book of the Revelation is both the preparation of the faithful to face the tribulation that awaits them, and the consolation and strengthening of the faithful that they might fight the good fight until the end (1 Tim. 6:12)." The nature of apocalyptic literature in the book exhorts “believers to stay true to their faith even at the expense of their lives if need be."
What must be avoided in interpreting Revelation is literally applying its words to specific future events. It is not a guidebook to such events in human history. The setting of the book is both heaven and earth, with reference to the entire universe. Rather than being limited to earth’s history, it moves into “universal history and eternity." It is a mistake to apply verses from Revelation to specific geographical locations or historical events. False interpretations are developed by doing this, with historical people, such as Nero, Hitler, President Obama, and others being seen in the interpretations. How encouraging could the book be to first century Christians, if the message of the Revelation was that President Obama was the Antichrist? How would that encourage them to remain faithful?
These strange interpretations are the result of misunderstanding the nature of the symbolism and apocalyptic nature of the book. This misunderstanding can take two forms: considering the book as a simple apocalypse or by taking the symbolism literally. In fact, the book is not merely an apocalypse, but has elements of parables and epistles, and is a type of prophecy, though it does include apocalyptic elements, as well. As such, the symbolic language is not to be taken literally. To do so limits the meaning of the book to one specific time and place, and makes the book irrelevant to any other. These faulty interpretations take the focus away from the true meaning of the book – an exhortation to remain faithful in the face of persecution, in order to receive eternal life in Christ.
This leads us back to the idea of Revelation as a theodicy. The problem of evil has troubled Christians (and non-Christians) for centuries. If Christians are truly the people of God, then why do they undergo persecution and trouble? Why are they not blessed with a peaceful existence? Would it not be better to forgo Christianity in order to live an easier life? Revelation attempts to answer this difficulty by pointing out that evil may hold sway for a time, but will not ultimately prevail. Revelation 20: 7-10 shows this:
Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea. They went up on the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them. The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
To Be Continued....