What is the message of the book of Revelation? – Monday, 33rd Week in ordinary time – Revelation 1:1-4, 2:1-5a
The word ‘Revelation’, referring to the last book of the New Testament, is a translation of the Greek word Apocalypse. When we speak of apocalypse as a term in Greek, it literally means, ‘to pull the lid off something.”
The 22 chapters of this book are filled with symbolic descriptions. Sadly, many have approached this book as a road map for reading its alleged ‘hidden secrets’ about the end of the world. Let me say this plainly, the symbolic descriptions in this book are not to be taken literally nor is the symbolism meant to be pictured realistically. One would find it difficult and repulsive to visualise a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes; yet Jesus Christ is described in precisely such words (Rev 5:6).
Before we answer when and by whom was this book written, it would makes sense to understand why was it written. Like the book of Daniel and other apocalyptic books, it was composed as resistance literature to meet a crisis. In the early part of 60 A.D., Nero instituted a violent persecution of Christians in Rome, but it was restricted to Rome and had nothing to do with the issue of emperor worship. The first emperor who appears to have tried to compel Christians to participate in Caesar worship was Domitian (81-96), a fierce persecutor of the Christians.
Clearly, the Roman imperial authorities were attempting to revive and enforce the cult of emperor worship. The Church of course resisted, leading to a ruthless persecution of the early church. Rome, the city on seven hills (Rev 17:9) is portrayed as the harlot, Babylon. John pictures the Roman Empire as a seven headed beast rising out of the sea (13:1). The imperial priesthood is represented as a second beast, having two horns like a lamb (simulating the Messiah) but with the voice of a dragon (betraying its Satanic origin). Working great signs and imposing economic sanctions, it endeavours to enforce the universal observance of Caesar worship (13:11-17). The date of the book in its present form is probably near the end of the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81–96).
The author of the book calls himself John (Rev 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8), who because of his Christian faith has been exiled to the rocky island of Patmos, a Roman penal colony. Although he never claims to be John the apostle, whose name is attached to the fourth gospel, he was so identified by several of the early church Fathers as John the apostle. Most probably he was a Palestine-born Jew who had fled into exile, a prophetic figure known to the churches in the Asia Minor region of what is today, western Turkey.
‘John’ wrote this book with two purposes in mind. One is to encourage the faithful to remain faithful, that is, to endure (hypomone). The other is to urge those who were accommodating Rome to repent. Too many Christians went along with the idolatry, injustice, and violence of the Roman empire. Many abandoned their Christian faith and participated in the imperial cult and in other activities related to the Empire. The book was written to encourage these lapsed Christians to come out of the Empire, and to become a part of the movement towards the new Jerusalem.
As a consequence of this decision, they would endure hardships. Difficult days were ahead as the faithful would also have to live through the violent collapse of the Empire. Clearly, John anticipated that persecution would increase in the near future. The book is clearly an exhortation and admonition to Christians of the first century to stand firm in the faith and to avoid compromise with paganism, despite the threat of adversity and martyrdom; they are to await patiently the fulfilment of God’s mighty promises.
In today’s text the author addresses seven churches or communities in seven different cities in the Roman Province of Asia (present day western Turkey). These churches were located about 80 km apart from each other and formed roughly a circle around the city of Ephesus on the coast. The cities which gave their names to these churches are: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. (Rev1:11)
John begins with an address and a greeting which makes use of many Old Testament allusions suggesting the glorious return of theMessiah and his future reign over God’s people in fulfilment of the promise made to David. This is basically what the whole book is about. Only part of this greeting is included in our reading.
The text of today begins by addressing the first of the seven Churches, namely Ephesus. Ephesus was the biggest of the seven cities and capital of the province. The message comes from the one “who holds the seven stars” (the Son of Man) who is surrounded by the “seven golden lamp stands” (the seven churches). John begins by praising the Ephesians. He commends the way they have endured hardships in living their faith and for their exposing false teachers posing as apostles.
However, John also regrets that the Ephesians now show less love than before. This includes both their love for Christ and their love for each other. He concludes by exhorting them to go back to their first fervour. They should remember the earlier sinful state from which they had come, and return to the high standards they had set themselves at the time of the first conversion.
If they do not change their ways, the Elder will come and remove their “lamp stand”, that is, their status as a Christian community. If they continue as they are now, they are no longer shining the light of Christ to the world around them.
This book has great relevance for us even today. Many parts of our own nation face persecution, directly and more subtly, indirectly. Laws are introduced under the guise of prevention of forced conversion and are used as tools against evangelization. Many Christians, laity and leaders, choose to be silent and perhaps some may even be complicit. Persecutors of the Christian faith should remember that many such human tyrants had hoped for the end of the Church but met their end here on earth. Christ and his Church will always remain triumphant.