As the early Church began to expand in the first century through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the missionary journeys of Apostles and first disciples, the letter writing became a major form of communication to the Church communities throughout the Roman Empire. As a result, many of the letters were saved and are still with us. The Gospels, letters from Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude (and possibly some unnamed authors) all comprise what we know today as the New Testament section of the Bible. Yet, there is one book that remains very mysterious to this day.
Before the death of Apostle John, the Beloved Disciple, we have a curious vision by John that is the final book of the Bible. Named the Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelation, this document has encaptured, enthralled, and mystified the hearts of many biblical scholars even to this day. We do not have a clear interpretation of the book. Many viable and less than viable explanations have been submitted. But what we do know is that this vision is divinely inspired, and it reveals to us the whole of salvation history through the lens of someone who is outside of time.
The tradition is that St. John was the last apostle to die. Because he followed Jesus’ footsteps and was present at crucifixion, it is said that he was spared martyrdom. This did not mean that the Romans did not try to kill him. He was led to the Roman colosseum where he was to be boiled alive in oil. However, when he was dunked, the oil had no effect on him. He emerged unscathed, and it is said that the whole colosseum was converted to Christianity on that day. As a result, they exiled him on the Greek island of Patmos.
On Patmos, John is caught up in a vision on Sunday, the Lord’s day. He is given messages to send to seven churches, he sees violent images like beasts and horsemen, and he is given a glimpse into heaven. The vision is guided by an angel and other voices giving instruction to John. By the end of the vision, John will see the coming of God’s new city descending from heaven.
As mentioned above, much has been theorized about John’s vision from Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, and non-believers alike. Yet, what remains clear (somewhat) is that God is giving us a glimpse into how He sees salvation history. We are first given warnings (directed to churches, but ultimately to all readers) about major sin that befall a Christian community that is not fully dedicated to God. There is also encouragement to virtuous communities. Then we see what some scholars would suggest is the heavenly liturgy. Complete with Judea-Christian imagery of lampstands, incense, and an altar, people and angels worship God and His Word. Intermingled throughout the excerpts of heavenly worship is a great battle that takes place in heaven and then on earth between God and His righteous and those who have rebelled against God. The chief antagonist, the dragon, has his minions (beasts), and He persecutes the righteous. However, we see that God is victorious through His Word who is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. With the conquering and punishment of Satan and the unrighteous, a new heaven and new earth are formed and the new Jerusalem is the place where God dwells with His people. In this city, there is no more sin or the negative effects of sin because God is there. The vision and consequently the Bible ends with Jesus promising to come again soon.
Much more could and has been said about the book of Revelation, and it is almost certain that many more secrets will be revealed that are hidden within its narrative. Yet, Revelation should be a book of hope and wonder rather than fear. First, we know that God wins the cosmic struggle, and He honors and defends those who suffer in His name. The apostles, prophets, and martyrs are all avenged by the Word of God and consequently are honored to worship in His presence. Next, is that we get a glimpse into angelic and heavenly worship. In examining our own mass, we see that we participate in that very same worship, even if our eyes are veiled from this reality. God honors us with His heavenly gift of worship and presence even though we are yet sinners. Finally, the suffering and strife will not last forever. God promises us a new heaven and earth where sin, pain and sadness are all vanquished. And this will last for eternity. There is no greater hope than this. Thus, as we hear the full story of salvation history both from the Bible and the book of Revelation, we are left with one response and that is asking for Jesus to fulfill His promise of coming back soon. Come Lord Jesus.