Lighting Up the Apocalypse 40: Revelation Inside Out

Traveling through the Apocalypse is an arduous experience.  We have been able, in 39 episodes, to trace significant numbers,  themes, images, and patterns , as illumined by the Old Testament, and our Church Fathers. There are seven churches with seven letters, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls.  There are the three female figures associated with humankind—the mother Queen with the crown of stars in the desert, Babylon the Whore, and the bridal New Jerusalem.  There is the evil trio who present themselves as a cynical mimicry of our Holy God—the dragon, the beast with the number 666 (not 777!), and the prophet. There are the four horses, the four corners of the earth guarded by four angels, and the four creatures around the throne. There are the twenty-four elders, the 144,000 who follow the Lamb, the twelve gates of the holy city, and its twelve foundations.  There is the strange incomplete number of 3 1/2 years, also indicated by 42 months and 1260 days—this is a time cut short, not the perfect cycle of seven.  There are the themes of worship, judgment, blessing, curse, war, and communion.  There are images of light and darkness, red and green, high and low.  And then there are patterns—three patterns of seven, the overarching patterns of the two scrolls, and the matching beginning and end.

All these things are signposts to us as we read through this kaleidoscopic series of visions with its plots and sub-plots, its words from God and his angels, and its strange figures.  Reading from beginning to end gives us the feeling both that the book unfolds in series of repeating sevens, but also that it has a momentum, leading us to the final conclusion.  This cyclical yet forward-looking movement is a little confusing—are we to think, as we experience each cycle, “here we go again!” or “what will happen at the end of all this?”  Both things seem to be true.  We receive, from the wisdom of God, the sense that there is nothing new under the sun, and that thus God has all these ins and outs in view;  we also see, from the promises that are fulfilled by the end of the vision, that everything leads towards God’s will, and that “all manner of thing” (as the prayer has it) “will be well.”

When we are becoming familiar with a complex and beautiful piece of architecture, there are various ways to approach it.  The first, of course, is to enter at the door, and to see up-close every room, every floor, and every nook and cranny that we can.  This we have tried to do in our exploration of the book of Revelation, though there are so many details it would take far longer to find them all. But it is also helpful to take a bird’s-eye view, and to look at the building from a distance, to see its overall shape and impact.  If, for example, we could have something like eagle’s eyes, looking down from the sky on the Old Testament Mount Sinai, or on the OT Tabernacle, we could notice its construction in a set of concentric circles:  Moses with God in the very center at the summit of the mountain, or the high priest in the inmost holiest place; the elders part way down the mountain communing with God, or the priests in the holy place; the people standing afar at the base of the mountain, or the men and women of Israel in their respective places standing in awe in the outer court of the Tabernacle.  The book of Revelation can also be seen to have a similar concentric pattern, with its holiest of mysteries in the very center of the book—that is, chapter 12, verses 10 through 12.  There, in the midst of the little scroll sequence, we watch the casting down of Satan from heaven, and hear a potent declaration:

Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.  And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

Here is the very inner shrine, the very nugget of the entire book.  Jesus is victor, reigning with the Father, and the pretender has been vanquished.  The victory involves all that Jesus has done, including his death, as well as the faithfulness of those who follow him.  This casting down, for the present time  (and the time is short!) means both joy and sorrow—joy in heaven, for the victory is real, but woe on earth, until Christ completes the mopping-up operation, and returns. Christians, whose lives are hid with Christ, experience heavenly joy, even while they live in the midst of the sorrows of earth.

Everything else in the book of Revelation is really an expansion of this declaration.  I find it helpful to think about the rest of the book of Revelation as a series of brackets surrounding this central vision and oracle. From this rich center, we move out to both sides of the little scroll, seeing the persecution of the witnesses and the Queen of heaven on one side (chapters 11-12), and the harassment of the earth and final judgement on the other (chapters 13-14).  This whole central section, introduced in chapter 10 and completed at the beginning of chapter 15, all concerns the “little scroll” that has been swallowed by John, who experiences it as both sweet and bitter, brining both joy and woe.

Moving further out from the inmost sequence of the little scroll, we see the contents of the large scroll held in the hand of the heavenly Lamb. This large scroll surrounds the events of the little scroll, with chapters 4-9 coming on one side, and chapters 15-19 on the other. Chapters 4 through 9, in the first part of this section, introduce this larger scroll, whose seals are broken, leading to the sounding of the seven trumpets. On the other side of the central little-scroll section are chapters 15 through 19, where we hear about the outpouring of the seven bowls that culminates in the downfall of Babylon. Chapters 4-9 and 15-19 thus form a large sandwich, encompassing the little scroll. It is in this double section that we find the bulk of the visions, giving us that double sense of a repeated cycle and a crescendo to a climax.  Seals, trumpets, and bowls are increasingly more powerful in their impact, and end in the utter destruction of God’s enemy. And, both beginning and ending this sandwich is a glimpse of heaven—the worship around the throne in chapter 4, and the joy of the saints with the One on the throne in chapter 19. Though this triad of sevens shows violence and suffering, it also emphasizes the sovereignty of our God.

From our bird’s eye view, we see yet another sandwich surrounding the section of the large sealed scroll:  these are the sections of promise, and fulfillment.  The promises, beginning at 1:9, and continuing through to the end of chapter three, are introduced when John has a stupifying vision of Jesus, who gives him messages for the seven churches.  In the course of these messages, we hear about “the holy city,” “the tree of life,” “the paradise of God” “conquering the second death,” “the crown of life,” “the new name,” “the morning star” “a name in the book of life,” “the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven,” and “sitting on the throne” with Jesus and the Father.  All these assurances come to fulfillment in the second half of this section, beginning at 19:11, at the place where Jesus appears on the horse to gather his own, and continuing almost to the end of Revelation in chapter 22:9. We see the Holy City, the New Jerusalem coming down from God, we zoom in on the tree of life in the paradise of God, we hear about those who escape the second death, who reign with Christ, who have the very name of God printed upon them, and who behold always the morning star that enlightens them forever.  What the churches hear as words, we see in the final vision of glory.

And then, finally, there is the outermost bracket of the Apocalypse, in which we hear about John, and about the book that we will read, in the first eight verses, and in which we hear about the instructions that he is given and the solemn nature of this vision, which speaks not only to him, but to anyone who reads the words of his prophecy (1:1-8 and 22:10-21).  These two short sections are like the beginning and conclusion of a letter, and bracket the visions themselves.

Here, then, is what we have seen, moving from the inside out—the inmost declaration of Jesus’ victory within the central bitter-sweet “little” scroll;  then, the next bracket as three series of seven—seals, bowls, trumpets—in the sealed scroll that surrounds this little scroll,  and that get increasingly more pointed;  then, surrounding the sealed scroll, the promises of the seven messages to the churches, fulfilled at the end when Jesus returns and the New Jerusalem is seen; and finally the beginning and end of this strange book which is an apocalypse, a prophecy, and a letter to the Church. It is like a set of Russian dolls, with the beginning and ending addressed to us, with its assurances and conclusion, with much fearful action punctuated by reminders of God’s rule, and with the joys and woes of our present life caught up into the actions of heaven.

Indeed, the book is like a Temple in itself, with various parts and interlocking bits, all of which direct us to the Lamb and the Father on the throne, surrounded by the glory of the Spirit who indwells the saints.  When we look at the Apocalypse as a whole, we see that it is neither a road-map to the future, nor a message of gloom-and-doom, but a book that invites us to worship joyfully, while not leaving our present situation behind, as though we were ostriches with our heads in the sand. It is a book that shows the connection of all of God’s times and worlds, and that highlights the will of God unrolling before our eyes, while it actually includes us as participants.  How incredible, that the devil should be cast down by the blood of the Lamb, and the faithful witness of His people!  The final vision of the faithful of God ruling with Christ, and serving as priests take us back to the OT promise for God’s people, that they should be “a kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:6) serving Him.  Nor is this only something for the future, since Jesus has already called us “no longer servants, but friends.”

Indeed, though the Apocalypse still harbors mysteries, its unveiling is part of what gives to our hearts and imaginations the strength to be “coworkers” alongside Christ (see 2 Corinthians 6:1).  The visions themselves give us a bird’s eye view of our current situation; this divine perspective can embolden us, though it does not give us all the ins and outs, all the details, of the future.  We have been forwarned that there will be “woe:” then, we will not be surprised!  We have been assured that even our sorrows have a meaning, for they are caught up in Christ’s own sacrifice!  We have been reminded that though we are on earth, we are children of the Queen whose proper place is in heaven.  We have been illumined by words, pictures, and images that fill our mind’s eye, and direct us to worship, with all the hosts of heaven, the Lamb upon the throne.

How sad it is that so many unimaginative readers try to make of the Apocalypse something it was never meant to be.  By misreading it, some have started to protect themselves physically against a “future tribulation,” stockpiling supplies, and living in paranoia.  By misreading it, others have thought that they could decode all the details of the news, and identified particular leaders with the Beast.  By misreading it, still other have gathered cult followings, misleading the easily led, and leading minds and hearts away from Christ, the only Lion-Lamb.  They have compiled time-lines and details, and have done so for centuries—only to be proven wrong.  For that is not what the book is for.  It is not to give us NEW information, but to make vivid all that we have learned already in the gospels and the epistles, with the help of the fathers. One sensitive reader encourages us to encounter the book of Revelation as we would receive a sacrament, to strengthen us.  He says this:

The conviction that Revelation really is meant to reveal truth, and not to obscure it, and that its treasures really do lie on the surface if one looks for them in the right light, is by no means the same as a belief that its meaning will be spelt out for us verbally, with logic and precision.  Of course God does not despise verbal communication; after all, ‘the Word’ was the name he gave to his own Son.  But his words, his declarations, and arguments and reasonings, have all been spoken by the time he brings John to Patmos.  What he has in store for his last unveiling is a word of a different sort: an acted word, a word dramatized, painted, set to music—a word you can see and feel and taste.  In fact, it is a sacrament.

It is no use reading Revelation as though it were a Paul-type theological treatise in a slightly different idiom, or a Luke-style history projected into the future.  You might as well analyse the rainbow—or the wine of communion or the water of baptism. Logical analysis is not what they are for.  They are meant to be used and enjoyed.

We… of all people, should understand this.  We live in a post-literate age, which, tiring of words, is beginning to talk again in pictures.  So television replaces radio, and the noun ‘image’ comes back into use with a dozen connotations.  Well, God knew about it long ago and when his children have had enough of reciting systematic theology, he gives them a gorgeous picture-book to look at, which is in a different way just as educational.

 Pictures, potent images of Christian truth, to use as we use the sacraments—that is what we are given in Revelation….It is the images that stick.  John’s pages are studded with them…that our imagination, as well as our mind, should grasp the key concepts of the faith.  So, till the bridegroom returns—till the city descends from the sky, and the day of the wedding-feast dawns—we do this, in remembrance of him.

(Michael Wilcock, The Message of Revelation, pp. 24-25)

And that, I think, is just about right.  The LORD cares about our minds, our bodies, and our hearts—and so, by means of this vibrant Apocalypse, invites us to take hold of the key concepts of the faith.  Even more, the book invites us to be grasped by the LORD, so that we should worship Him in everything that we say, do, or think.  Reading inside out, beginning with the heart of the visions, helps us to see the wonder of His plan, and impresses upon our hearts that He is Victor and the One who loves humankind —we belong to Him!

Join us in two weeks for the beginning of a new series in A Lamp for Today, on the liturgical canticles, as illumined by the Old Testament.

 

 

 

4 comments:

  1. Thank you Dr Humphreys. I will look forward to your new series. Many blessings in Christ to you and in the endeavors you do for us the pilgrims along the way.

  2. I have been late in discovering Lighting Up the Apocalypse. What a treasure this is! Having grown up protestant, with all the crazy, confused interpretations of Revelation, I decided to basically ignore it, and continued to do so after I became Orthodox. This has been a joy to read—I’m still reading the first several posts, but have read a few of the most recent as well. I do hope these posts will be turned into a book! Thank you again for this beautiful, illuminating series.

    1. Alison, I am so glad that this is helpful. Thank you for the encouragement. I am going on next week to discuss the Biblical Canticles (of MOses, of Mary, of Zechariah) in the light of the fathers and the Scriptures. HOpe you like it, too!

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