The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE BOOK OF REVELATION
24th January 2013
Last week we finished looking at the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in which the condition of the churches was conveyed as it was in the time of St John the Evangelist. This was the revelation of the present condition - the things which are - and this includes the internal life of the church in its different stages and folds throughout her journey in history. However the more the journey of the church continues through the centuries and reaches the end, the more the difficulties and temptations will increase culminating in the appearance of the antichrist. In the following chapters, that is, from chapter 4 through to chapter 19, we will read of the things that will take place after this.
The purpose of presenting the future struggles of the church is to prepare the faithful for their own personal struggle, to console them, to strengthen and help them against being scandalized and secularized. Because we notice that people in general are scandalized very easily when they see that things don't always work out according to their liking and expectations in the church. This happens because our lives have lost their true Christian foundations and our lifestyle is anything but Christian and we do not love and believe in Jesus Christ to the point of death. It therefore stands to reason that in our lives of loose thinking and marginal Christianity, if something adverse comes along we will trip and fall, which in the language of the Gospel means to become scandalized. Our secularized lives provide the best method for us to be scandalized especially in our days and whether we realize it or not, we are all infected by secularization; we carry inside us a great deal of worldly thinking which is influencing our lives. This way of life is leading us to a provisional acceptance of the antichrist; this secularization by which we live prepares us to become citizens of the regime that will bring forth the antichrist.
That is why the church has given us the book of revelation; to prepare and strengthen us for those days. The first three chapters dealt with the condition of the church on earth, with warnings to the bishops to take charge of their flocks and lead them back again to the true Christian way of life before it is too late. Chapter four now takes us to a different setting; it brings us to an open door in heaven. Chapter four begins:
"After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter."
The voice told John to come up here and I will show you the things which must take place hereafter. What is meant by hereafter? It means after the first vision St. John saw of the glorified Jesus dictating to him the letters to the seven churches. We must understand however that with this " hereafter" we do not have an intermission and that we enter something totally new, but we have a continuity of the first events and those which take place hereafter even though the setting changes and moves from earth to heaven. This is a very common characteristic found throughout the book of Revelation - to have the setting or the scenery changed. The setting changes constantly. The book presents a certain scene, explains a few aspects of this scene, it then closes this scene and opens another one. But at all times we do not have a recess or an interruption between these events, but a continuous unity just like the stage changes many times in a theatrical presentation, but all the stages are part of the same theatrical play.
So the new scene begins: "I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven" What a spectacular image – an opening in heaven. What is the meaning of this open door? When did it open and did it just happen to open for St. John? This open door means the disclosure of the hidden mysteries of the Holy Spirit. And now John will be able to see the things he could not see before because they were not revealed. So this door is nothing more than the revelation of God's hidden mysteries. Heaven happens to be the conventional place for the throne of God, we say conventional place because God is everywhere, but we find ourselves saying that God is in heaven. In the same way we say that Hades is under the earth and this was a common belief in the Old Testament and for this reason we have the expression that Christ descended in the heart of the earth. All this is conventional or symbolic language; God is everywhere.
Now the conventional or symbolic place for the throne of God was closed for the first created couple Adam and Eve because they sinned against God; before the fall they had direct communion with God. Now however heaven is closed. The book of Genesis gives us a great picture about this. Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise and the door of the garden was closed, while the Cherubim were ordered to guard the door with a revolving flaming sword. All this means is that man lost his contact with heaven. Now the door that was shut for Adam and Eve is opened again. But all this time the door which closed with the fall of Adam and Eve remained mysterious, God was forgotten and people being able to see only the sky and what is underneath the sky began to worship whatever was visible, they began to worship the created beings. The human existence and its true purpose was overlooked and became a true mystery.
What is man? The Greek philosophers excelled in these matters of trying to explain what man is. One would say one thing and another something completely different precisely because heaven was not opened to reveal to us what is God, what is man and what is the relationship between God and man. Heaven needed to be opened by God again to be able to reveal his mysteries to man and for men to have direct knowledge of these things. The Gospel of St John reveals this with the words: "And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven." This verse verifies that the door of heaven was shut tight and that only he who came down from heaven and ascended to heaven opened the door once more. The door that opened is the incarnate Christ himself. The Lord said "I am the door". This very door that John now sees wide open in heaven is Christ. Without this door it is impossible to know who or what God is, what man is and what is the relationship between God and man. Without Christ we are left with a deep darkness. Christ then is the door and it is most significant that during the Baptism, John the Baptist according to St. Mark, saw the heavens ripped apart. The English text simply says that he saw the heavens opened, but the Greek says that he saw the heavens ripped apart signifying a forceful action in heaven.
The significance of the opened heaven is that now I can see the mysteries of heaven, but also the mysteries of earth as well. But the heavens were opened for Jesus and through Jesus because God the Word became man. The Holy Spirit would not come if God the Word did not become flesh. This is how the Lord's mouth states this: I descended on earth, but I must now open the way so you can ascend with me to heaven, if I do not go the Comforter will not come, therefore I must ascend, I must go with a deified human nature which I took on, which for you is the corrupt nature, but I deified it and this deified nature must ascend to heaven and in this way I will open the path through which the Holy Spirit will descend and as you all know this took place during Pentecost. This is the reason why the Lord said: it is to your best interest that I leave you; it means that the heavens are now open and the important matter here is that from the moment of the Lord's incarnation the heavens remained opened for anyone willing to reach it.
And here in the book of Revelation we are impressed with this open door: "After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven". He does not say that he saw a door opening and closing, but a door opened in heaven, a door permanently opened. It did not open for St John, it was already opened and no one can enter heaven except through the gates called Christ.
"And the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me". This voice is the voice of Jesus Christ; it is the same voice that dictated to him, in the first round, the seven epistles to the seven churches of Asia Minor. It sounded like a voice of a trumpet in both the first and second time. The sound of a trumpet signifies a strong and powerful voice. And this voice says to John come up here and I will show you the things which must take place hereafter. Now it's Sunday and John happens to be on earth in Patmos in the cave of the Revelation; how is he supposed to go up? He has to leave the earth totally behind and to transfer his mind to the heavens. The method of this ascend is described in the following line as we will see.
"And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne."
The ascent was spiritual; it was the elevation of the mind. John is in a state of constant ecstasy and sees thing he couldn't imagine. Behold a throne was set in heaven. And here we need to ask "does God really sit on a throne in heaven?" The throne is a symbol; it is a symbol of glory and also a symbol of rest. In 1 Kings of the Old Testament we read: "I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left." (1 Kings 22:19) All the angel were around the throne of the Lord of Israel. Isaiah also says: "I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple." (Isaiah 6: 1) And this because he sees the vision inside the temple of Solomon. And after this when the Cherubim were chanting Holy. holy, holy is the LORD of hosts, their voice is so powerful that the posts of the door were shaken, imagine the roof of the temple shaking up and down from the voice of the angels, and the entire temple was filled with the smoke from the incense. All these represent the glory of the Lord. Therefore the throne is a symbol of the Lord's glory.
But as mentioned it is also the symbol of rest because in the final analysis the throne is a chair, a luxurious, extravagant and highly ornamented chair. For example take the bishop's throne we have in the churches. In reality it is a chair: a chair with a seat so that a man can sit on it. However does this chair resemble an ordinary chair that we sit on? Obviously not, but again it is a chair a seat, and to sit means to rest. Likewise where God sits he rests. But where does he rest? Isaiah says: "The Most High Lord... resting on his holy ones, on his saints." (Isaiah 57:15 Septuagint) God of course does not have feet or a body to go and sit on a chair, nor does he become tired. These are all anthropomorphic expressions, so by the word throne what is shown is that God rests on his saints.
In the Gospel of St. John we read that Christ said: "If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him." (John 14:23) Therefore the throne of God are the faithful people. If I am faithful I become the throne of God, if you are faithful you become the throne of God. An example is the Mother of God, the Theotokos. Didn't she bear inside her the very Son of God? So she is a throne. but we are also a throne, we are also theotokos. The Virgin Mary was not the only Theotokos, we're also theotokos, and how is this? We also give birth to Christ the Word and he incarnates in our heart. When I receive the Body and Blood of Christ what do I do? Don't I enthrone Christ inside of me? By eating the Body and Blood of Christ my entire being becomes the throne of Christ. This is the meaning of being a Christian. This is the meaning of living the mystical and sacramental life of the church. Did you ever suspect all these awesome things? I a mere pauper, a mere speck becomes the throne of God.
John continues: "And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald." So who was sitting on the throne? God the Father, however John does not name him, but merely says he that sat thereon. Previously John was able to describe the vision of the Son who spoke to him, "I heard a voice and turned round and saw one like unto the Son of Man clothed with a garment down to his feet, etc." John gave us a full description of Christ in the first chapter, but here there is no description whatsoever. What can he describe about the Father? The Son became man so he can be described by St. John, but what can he describe about the Father; he is indescribable. So instead of a description he uses precious stones. He says he was like jasper and sardius and emerald attempting to show some of the attributes of the one sitting on the throne by using the colours of these precious stones. St. John does very well by avoiding describing God since the prophets of the Old Testament avoid this description being that he is the invisible and ineffable God. It is also significant that he avoids naming him, he does not say God, he does not say the Lord, but the one sitting. And in attempting to symbolically describe him he uses the brightest objects existing at that time and those were the precious stones.
The names of the precious stones in those days do not necessarily correspond to the same stones today. Jasper today is an opaque stone that comes in many colours but the ancient Jasper or Jaspis was a stone of considerable translucency and is thought to be today's diamond. Thus the Jasper or diamond symbolizes the purity and holiness of God. The sardius stone or sard is reddish in colour and again it could be today's ruby. Red is symbolic of God's righteous punishment because God is holy but he is also righteous. The rainbow is a sign of God's goodwill towards men regardless of the magnitude of their sins for after the flood God said I will place my sign in the sky as a reminder and promise that I will never again destroy the world by a flood. This rainbow that we often see in the sky after rainfall and which we take for granted is a sign of God's promise and benevolence.
"And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw the four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold."
Around the central throne John saw another twenty four thrones, but naturally these were not as bright. And on these twenty four thrones he saw the twenty four elders sitting clothed in white garments and golden crowns on their heads. God therefore does not isolate himself from his creation. In earthly language, he sits on his throne surrounded by the elders who are human beings. This indicates that God is in constant communion with his creation. Now who are these twenty four elders? They are the triumphant church of the righteous and the saints on whom God rests. Their number is expressed with the article "the" John says I saw the twenty four elders. He does not say I saw twenty four elders although that is how the KJ bible has translated the passage, but he saw "The elders). The article "the" shows that they were known to John. How were they known to John? The saints are known to one another. John was on earth, but this did not matter in the least: the saints know each other. A good example is the Lord's transfiguration. When Peter, James and John saw with the transfigured Lord, the prophets Moses and Elias. Peter said Lord it is good for us to be here, let's prepare three tents one for you, one for Moses and one for Elias. How did he know that they were Moses and Elias? When did he see Moses and Elias to be able to recognize them. Moses lives 1500 years before Peter and Elias 900 years. Where then did he see them? The saints know each other. This is the reason John did not say I saw some elders, but I saw the elders. I saw the saints of the church triumphant from Abel up to the moment of that vision the martyrs and all the choir of the saints who are represented by the twenty four elders.
Numbers as we have said before are symbolic and twenty four is twelve times two and could represent the Old and New Testament. The twelve of the Old Testament could represent the twelve tribes of Israel or more probably the twelve prophets, as representing the faithful of the Old Testament. The twelve of the New Testament being the twelve disciples as representing the faithful from the New Testament. In following chapters we will see 12 x 12000 which gives the number 144,000 all symbolic numbers showing the great crowd of the saints.
The white robes are the symbol of purity and holiness and the gold crowns symbolize their victory over evil, but also because they belong to the royal priesthood. Now crowns are worn by royalty, by the king and queen, consequently this shows that the saints consist of the royal priesthood. If you remember from the first chapter, John tells us that Christ has made us kings and priests unto God and his Father. In both the Old and New Testament it says we are the royal priesthood. These are the faithful. This goes along with the promise of Christ to his disciples that they will sit on twelve thrones of glory, but this holds true for every faithful, every true believer. Everyone who is found worthy will sit on a throne with Christ in his kingdom. At this moment I do not want to say more on the royal priesthood but when we finish with these talks on the Book of Revelation we will have a talk especially on this subject and how it differs from the ordained priesthood.
"And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices".
This is an image of the powerful and dynamic activity surrounding the throne which is one and the same with the tremblings on top of Mt. Sinai while giving the Ten Commandments to Moses. The overall description serves as a declaration to the inaccessible magnificence of the Pantocrator, the almighty God.
"And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God."
We have already seen twice before the meaning of the seven Spirits of God. In the beginning of the Book John writes: "John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne." The seven Spirits means the Holy Spirit: the number seven reveals the fullness and the perfection of the Holy Spirit. The seven Spirits are now depicted by the seven burning lamps. The Holy Spirit is one, but the energies or gifts are many and it is these that are now depicted by the image of the seven lamps.
"And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal."
It was not a sea, but something like a sea which resembled a crystal. John the Evangelist does this quite often in his presentation, he will tell us that something was like this or like that and this is an attempt to give a picture of some reality behind these simulations. The sea of glass which appears like crystal would seem to be the floor of this entire scene since it is in front of the throne. But if this sea of glass happens to be the floor of this heavenly scene, at the same time it could be considered as the roof or the ceiling of the earth, because if all these things take place in heaven then they must obviously have a separation from the earthly realm. And this is what John sees: the ceiling for someone standing on earth and the floor for someone standing in heaven. But we must be extremely careful not to take this and other images that we will see literally. These are images, pictures, and images are necessary because it is not possible to describe these mysteries with the language of our earthly reality. St. Paul, when he was transported to the third heavens said it is not possible for men to utter such things. These things are inexpressible. We know nothing and we can think nothing of what these things are in the real sense. The closest we can say is that this separation is transparent like glass, and this means that the one sitting on the throne can see everything that exists beneath this floor. This is very expressive as an image and shows that God oversees and know all the events taking place on the face of the earth. There is nothing that escapes God's knowledge.
"And in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within."
A very strange and mysterious image; around the throne there are four living creatures full of eyes in front and back and the first creature looked like a lion according to John's description. Again John does not say it was a lion, but was like a lion, the second looked like a calf or ox, the third had a face of a man and the fourth was like a flying eagle. And all the four creatures had six wings. The prophet Isaiah also presents us with a similar image as does the prophet Ezekiel. Now what are the four mysterious creatures? Obviously they are not irrational animals since we will see in the following lines that they will be singing a hymn for the one sitting on the throne. They are angelic creatures and if we combine the vision of John with the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel, these angelic beings happen to be the Seraphim and Cherubim. But these creatures further symbolize the four Gospels. If you look carefully in churches that are painted with Byzantine frescoes you will see that in the four triangular corners immediately below the dome are painted the images of the four evangelists or in their place the images of these four creatures. On portable icons of the Evangelists these images are again incorporated into the icon with each creature corresponding to each evangelist that it represents. The symbol for Luke is the calf, for Mark the lion, for Matthew the man, and for John the eagle. The calf relates to the Gospel of Luke because Luke refers to sacrifices and the calf is a sacrificial animal so this becomes characteristic of the priesthood of Christ. The lion show the royal majesty of Christ. The face of a man shows the ingenuity, the humanity of Christ. The fourth like an eagle, the one that flies very high and employs great eyesight, is symbolic of the Gospel of St. John to show the high flying quality of John's theology who flies all the way to heaven and speaks of God the Word: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."
"And they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever, The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created."
These four living creatures do not rest but repeatedly hymn the one sitting on the throne. Of course in heaven there is no day and night, but it is used here to show the continuous, the incessant doxology of the angels to God. The hymn of the angels is a standard stereotype hymn, Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. They sing this hymn and when it finishes they start from the beginning again. Since this hymn goes on and on and on with no change you would think that it would become tedious after a while, but this is not at all the case. When the hymn comes to an end, the twenty four elders who have crowns on their heads get off their thrones and fall down in prostration before God and place their crowns before his feet saying You are worthy, O Lord to receive glory and honour and power, because you created all things and for your pleasure they are and were created. When the hymn starts again it would seem that they take back their crowns and return to their seats. And this goes on and on and on. Someone would say what a terrible reality, heaven must be something very boring because when we have the constant repetition of the same things over and over again wouldn't this bore someone to tears? Yet there is no boredom here because each time the four angels glorify God for a new revelation: each time a new revelation appears before the eyes of the Cherubim.
The angels do not know everything and each time God reveals something new about his glory. God always possesses this glory around him and nothing changes but the eyes of the angels are opened and this glory is revealed progressively, that is little by little. In the hymn of the Transfiguration we sing: Thou wast transfigured upon the mountain O Christ our God showing to thy disciples thy glory as far as they were able to sustain. The disciples saw the glory of Christ as much as they could bear. Christ, even before this, was transfigured, he was always transfigured, he always had this glory, but people couldn't see this because their eyes were shut. There on the mountain the glory of God was not automatically turned on; the eyes of the three disciples were opened to behold his glory that was ever present. This holds true with the angels; when the hymn finishes their eyes are opened and they see more and additional divine glory compared with what they were revealed before. This applies also to the twenty four elders and all the saints. They are continually being revealed the glory of God which is inexhaustible, because God is inexhaustible.
The elders also hymn God, but when they fall down and worship God they place their golden crowns before the throne of God. What does this mean? It is a movement filled with humility, showing that there is a deep understanding of a great distance between God the creator and the creature. This movement of placing the crown before the throne is a sign of submission and a sign of recognition, recognising that these crowns are due to God. In ancient Greece, when an Olympic champion returned to his village or town, he would go and place his olive wreath before the feet of the statue of the god worshipped in that place. With this they wanted to show that the glory and honour belongs to god. So this placing of the crowns by the twenty four elders expresses that the glory and honour does not belong to us but to God. We are the poorest of creations and if we happen to have gold crowns this is because your goodness has made it possible.
"And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals."
The book is probably in the form of a scroll, a long piece of paper rolled up on two cylinders, and this piece of paper was written on the inside and on the outside. What does this writing on both sides mean? We understand this book to be the all-wise memory of God, which records the lives of all people and the abyss of God's divine judgements. What is written on the inside declare the spirit of things which are harder to grasp while the outside is the letter which is more easy to understand. So this book is the symbol of the all-wise wisdom of God, the memory of God which writes and records everything. People often say "what is written is written" meaning that our destinies are already written and we cannot avoid what happens to us. This is an abuse of freewill. Yes, everything is written, but not with this understanding. Nothing is written, but everything exists in the memory of God, in the knowledge of God. Those things that we will freely choose to do, we choose our own destiny, all these things we freely choose to do are symbolized by this book and the letters in it. The things inside denote the spirit of things which is mysterious and hidden, that is why it is inside and hard to understand, while the letter of things which is on the outside we can see it and understand it, similarly to the scriptures. The book of Revelations is a good example. We read this book and it is easy to read, there is no difficulty reading the letters or the words, but the spirit is inside, it is mystical, hidden and it is hard to understand. Now this book in the hand of him that sat on the throne is tightly sealed with seven seals which means that the contents of this book is incomprehensible and inaccessible. All its contents are unknown to all. No one knows the depths of God's economy and no human being can open the seals of this book.
"And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice." A strong angel simply means an angel with a very strong voice. Proclaiming: "Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?"
The strong voice shows that it was necessary for this important message to be heard to the ends of the earth and not only to the ends of the earth but to all the visible and invisible creation.
"And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon."
No created being was able to open the book or even to look upon it. No angel, no man on earth, none of the saints who had departed this life and no one under the earth. On one can open the seals except the slain lamb as we shall see further down. Here we see the three subdivisions of the created beings. The celestial, the earthy and the sub-earthy, the underworld. These are three subdivisions that we meet very often in Scripture, but of course these subdivisions are symbolic. This becomes more obvious from the underworld, the things of the underworld found in the depths of the earth. We say the depths of Hades or the depths of the world, however the souls are not underneath the earth or in the depths of the underworld. These are symbolic expressions and they serve to show the three levels of creation: people, angels and the souls of people who fell asleep. In the verse we had read it simply serves to show that not a single created being can open the book, only the slain lamb can open the book. And here it becomes overt that since there is no one in the triple subdivision then it is more than obvious that the slain lamb is not a creation but that the slain lamb is God.
And John continues: "And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon."
John wept much because no logical being was able to open the book and give a possible optimistic outcome of the journey of the church from all the persecutions and sufferings and since John was very sympathetic towards the church and seeing that there was no one able to reveal the future outcome he begins to weep. Let us not forget that during the time John had this vision there was a great persecution of the church and he himself was in exile in Patmos.
"And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof."
When at times we try to comfort someone who is crying we tell him "don't cry" but to comfort him we also have to give them a reason why he should stop crying, we must give him the words that will put an end to his tears. So the elder who as a human being shares in the distress of John tells him to stop crying, and this because as a citizen of the heavenly realm this elder sees Christ as the victor and able to open the book. This is the consolation of the saints; God allows the saints to give consolation to the faithful in a number of ways. This elder speaks to John, but he does not mention the name Jesus Christ, but he uses two other names. He uses two names from the Christological verses of the Old Testament. The first one is the Lion of the tribe of Juda. This refers to the book of Genesis when Jacob gives the prophecies to his twelve children and he tells Juda that the Messiah will come forth into the world from him and as a lion he bows down, he lies down and as a lion's cub who shall dare to wake him up? (Gen. 49:9) The lion of the tribe of Juda is the Messiah. The other name is from the book of Isaiah: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots." (Isaiah 11:1) Jesse is King David's father and David could be the rod out of the stem of Jesse, but Isaiah continues to give the person he is referring to messianic characteristics which cannot be David, but someone who will come forth from the line of David, thus the root of David again refers to the Messiah.
This is where we will stop for today. Next week we will see the slain lamb and the opening of the seven seals.