Reflections on the Orthodox faith and life in this crazy 21st century world by an Orthodox priest and a few of his friends.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Revelation: Message To A Suffering Church - Part 2
This is the final installment of this discussion. Read part 1 here.
Here we see that for a certain period of time, troubles will come to Christians, but the tormentors will eventually come to naught. God will overcome. Those who remain faithful will spend eternity in the presence of God: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).
Understanding that this is the major theme of Revelation raises the question of the seeming events that are presented in the text. If they are not to be understood as historical events, then to what do they refer? The words of Archimandrite Athanasios again guide us rightly: “the Book of Revelation is not just for the Greeks, or the Americans. It is a universal book…its period is the history of the universe and eternity." This means that the events described in the book are not specific historical events, but are symbolic of a type of event. Whether the persecution that prompted the writing of the Revelation was the persecution of Nero, or the one of Domitian, the nature of persecution and tribulation was the focus. Long after the original impetus of the book, persecution continued to exist: the Decian , the Diocletian, those under the Islamic caliphates, the Soviets, North Korea, and more. Therefore, rather than pointing to any of these individual persecutions, the message of Revelation is relevant to any Christian enduring any persecution from any enemy of God.
Fr. Paul Tarazi correctly says that it is important to understand the proper use of the symbolism in the book. Revelation does not speak of a “literal succession of historical periods: it is rather an extended discussion of Judgment Day." This leads the discussion back to the original point that the message of Revelation is the Second Coming of Christ. The book is eschatological in the sense that each Christian, throughout history, must decide to remain faithful to Christ, regardless of circumstances, so that victory will be theirs, even if defeat looks all but assured. Christ will eventually prove victorious, as he “is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:18). Those who remain faithful are qualified “to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light… if indeed [they] continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which [they] heard” (Colossians 1: 12, 23). They are to hold on to what they have until the return of Christ (cf. Revelation 2:25).
In Revelation, numbers serve an import role. It is a common biblical literary technique to use numbers in a symbolic manner; it is not peculiar to Revelation. However, it is very prominent in this book, and much debate has been made over what the numbers actually mean. For example, some commentaries claim that the 144,000 people in Revelation 7 and 14 refer to “celibate ‘Jews for Jesus’” or to a specific group of people, finite in number, and once that number is reached there is no longer room for others in heaven. Yet a proper understanding of the use of numbers in biblical literature leads to a much more likely interpretation. Fr. Paul Tarazi explains that the number 12, in scripture, represents “all Israel” and is squared for emphasis. T.L. Frazier, considers the squaring of 12 to be a multiplication of the 12 Patriarchs, representing the Old Testament faithful, and the 12 Apostles, representing the New Testament faithful. In both approaches, the result is the same: 12 (and its square) represent all of the faithful, throughout all time. The number 10 normally means completeness, totality, or very large numbers. This is shown in Psalm 50:10, where the “cattle on a thousand hills” belong to the Lord. Multiplying the number adds emphasis, so 1000 clearly represents a large number of people, or the complete number of people. So we can see that the 144,000 in Revelation is clearly referring to all of the saved people, throughout all history, with none missing: 12X12X10X10X10 = 144,000. This is just one example of the use of numbers in Revelation, which can be easily misinterpreted if a proper Orthodox approach is not used.
Rather than focusing upon times, numbers, and events – looking to see if we are in “the end times” – Christians need to apply themselves to remaining faithful. Christian writers through the centuries have proclaimed that the “end times” began when the words were written, and will continue until Christ returns. So the prophetic nature of Revelation began when the words were penned, and “this same prophecy can actually continue until the end of times, until the Second Coming of Christ." The words of Jesus, in Revelation, declare this truth: “I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (Revelation 1:17-18). He is not bound by time. He is eternal and universal. Those who choose to be aligned with Him will also share in his victory over death. Christ is the “vanquisher of Hades, on his casting the devil, death, and hell into the ‘lake of fire.'" Persecution is not eternal, but Christ and his victory are.
We have not discussed the various methods of interpreting Revelation, as that would be the topic for an entirely different paper. However, what has been accomplished here is in accord with traditional Orthodox interpretation, providing “a peculiarly Christian historical perspective by which to judge human events." While the message of Revelation concerns the Second Coming of Christ, the focus of the book is actually all of the “divine economy” and is to be read in the context of the rest of scripture. Regardless of what sort of persecution or temptation a Christian might face, it is always the right choice to remain faithful to Christ, in order to receive glory that is superior to the tribulations. To fall away from Christ is to consign oneself to defeat and torment. By remaining faithful, “we can walk this golden and bright journey of the Church in the face of the blood-shedding and life-killing swords of the godless powers all throughout history."