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The contents, plan, and symbolism of the Apocalypse

The Apocalypse always drew the attention of Christians to itself, especially at a time in which various calamities and temptations of singular strength began to disrupt the community and Church life. In addition, the imagery and the mysteries of this book make it extremely difficult to understand and, therefore, always pose a risk for imprudent interpreters in deviating outside the parameters of truth toward impossible hopes and beliefs. For example, the literal understanding of the images in this book provided the motive for, and even now continues to give rise to, the false teaching of so-called "chiliasm," the thousand-year reign of the Kingdom of Christ on earth. Already in the first century, some Christians, interpreting the lucidity of the Apocalypse while experiencing the horrors of persecution, held to the belief that the "Last Days" were at hand and that the Second Coming of Christ was close.

During the past twenty centuries, there has been a multitude of the most varied types of interpretations of the Apocalypse. All these interpretations can be categorized into four classes. The first ascribes the visions and symbols of the Apocalypse to the "Last Days," the end of the world, the emanation of the antichrist and the Second Coming of Christ. The second attributes to the Apocalypse a purely historical meaning and confines its visions to historical events of the first century: persecution of the Christians by the pagan emperors. The third tries to find the realization of Apocalyptic predictions in the historical events of the time. In one such interpretation, for instance, the pope of Rome is the antichrist and all the Apocalyptic calamities in reality emanate against the Church of Rome, and so on. Finally, the fourth sees the Apocalypse only as allegory, holding that the described visions therein do not have so much a prophetic as a moral sense. As we shall see, these points of view on the Apocalypse do not exclude but rather supplement each other.

The Apocalypse can be properly understood only in the context of all of Holy Scripture. The principle of uniting several historical events in one vision shows itself as a special characteristic of many prophetic visions, both of the Old and New Testaments. In other words, spiritually related events, separated one from the other by many centuries and even by millennia, merge into one prophetic picture, uniting within itself the elements of various historical epochs.

As an example of such a synthesis of events, one can refer to the prophetic discussion of the Savior about the end of the world. In it, the Lord talks simultaneously about the destruction of Jerusalem, which would occur some thirty-five years later, and about the time preceding His Second Coming (Matt. ch. 24, Mark ch. 13, Luke ch. 21). The reason for such a unification of events consists in that the first illustrates and explains the second. In not a few instances, Old Testament prophecies speak simultaneously about the beneficial changes in human societies during the time of the New Testament and about the new life in the Heavenly Kingdom. In this case the first acts as the source for the second (Is. 4:2-6, 11:1-10, chs. 26, 60 and 65; Jer. 23:5-6, 33:6-11; Hab. 2:14; Zeph. 3:9-20). The Old Testament prophecies regarding the destruction of Chaldean Babylon speak simultaneously also of the annihilation during the reign of the antichrist (Is. ch. 13-14, and ch. 21; Jer. chs. 50-51). There are many similar examples of the merging of events into one prophecy. Such a method of merging events by signs of their inner unity is used in order to help the believer understand the essence of the events on the basis of what is already well known to him, leaving aside secondary details and historical details that explain nothing.

As we shall see, the Apocalypse consists of a number of compositionally multi-layered visions. The Seer presents the future in a perspective of the past and of the present. Thus, for instance, the many-headed beast in chapters 13-19 is the antichrist himself and his predecessors, Antiochus Epiphanes (vividly described by the prophet Daniel and in the books of the Maccabees) and the Roman emperors Nero and Domitian (who persecuted Christ's Apostles), and subsequent enemies of the Church.

The two witnesses for Christ in chapter 11, possibly Enoch and Elijah, are the accusers of the antichrist, as are their prototypes, the Apostles Peter and Paul, and all other preachers of the Gospel fulfilling their mission in a world hostile to Christianity. The false prophet in chapter 13 is the personification of all the propagators of false religions (Gnosticism, heresy, Islam, materialism, Hinduism, etc.) among which the most vivid representative will be the false prophet in the time of the antichrist. In order to understand why the Apocalypse united different events and various people in one image, one must take into account the fact that it was written not only for contemporaries but also for Christians of all times, who were to endure similar persecutions and sorrows. St. John discloses the common methods of seduction and shows the true way to avoid them in order to be true to Christ until death.

In a similar manner, the judgment by God, which the Apocalypse mentions repeatedly, is the Last Judgment of God, as well as all separate judgments of God over different nations and individuals. Included in this is the judgment of all mankind during the time of Noah and the judgment of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah during the time of Abraham and the judgment of Egypt during the time of Moses and the twice-repeated judgment of Judea (600 B.C. and again during the seventh decade A.D.) and the judgment of Nineveh, Babylon, the Roman Empire, Byzantium, and, somewhat recently, of Russia. The reasons that evoked God's righteous punishment were always the same: people's lawlessness and lack of faith.

In the Apocalypse there is a noticeable specific non-synchronization of events: being above time or beyond time. This is due to the fact that St. John contemplated the fate of mankind not from the earthly but from a Heavenly perspective, to which God's Spirit had elevated him. In the ideal world, the flow of time stops at the throne of the Almighty and the Spiritual Gaze encompasses simultaneously the present, past, and future. Evidently, this is the reason that the author of the Apocalypse describes some future events as those of the past and those past as in the present. For instance, the war of the angels in the Heavens and the expulsion of the devil from there, events which had occurred prior to the creation of the world, are described by St. John as though they had happened at the dawn of Christianity (Rev. ch. 12). However, the resurrection of the martyrs and their reign in Heaven, which encompasses the whole of the New Testament epoch, is placed by him after the judgment of the antichrist and the false prophet (Rev. ch. 20). Thus, the participator in the mysterious disclosures does not narrate according to the chronological sequence of events, but rather reveals the essence of that great war of good versus evil, which is ongoing simultaneously on several fronts and touches upon the material as well as the angelic world.

Undoubtedly some of the Apocalyptic prophecies have already come to pass (for example, the fate of the seven Churches of Asia Minor). Fulfilled prophecies should help us understand the remaining ones that must yet be fulfilled. However, in applying the Apocalyptic visions to those or other specific events, one must take into account that such visions contain within themselves elements of various epochs. It is only with the conclusion of all of the fates of the world and with the punishment of the last of God's foes that all the details of the Apocalyptic visions will be realized.

The Apocalypse was written through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Mankind's departure from faith and true Christian life leads it toward dulling of the mind and a total loss of spiritual outlook, thereby making very difficult any correct understanding of the Apocalypse. Contemporary man's total devotion to sinful passions serves as the reason why some contemporary interpreters of the Apocalypse want to see in it only allegory and even begin to teach a metaphoric (rather than actual) understanding of the Second Coming of Christ. Historical events and individuals convince us that to see allegory alone in the Apocalypse is to be spiritually blind, for so much of what is happening today reminds us of the terrifying images and visions of the Apocalypse.

The method of interpretation of the Apocalypse is shown in the accompanying diagram. As one can see in it, the Apostle simultaneously opens several spheres of existence. To the highest sphere belongs the angelic world, the triumphant Church in Heaven, and the persecuted Church on earth. Heading and directing this sphere of goodness is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of men. Below is found the sphere of wickedness, the unbelieving world, sinners, false prophets, those who consciously fight against God (Theomachists), and devils. Directing all of these is the dragon, the fallen angel. Throughout all of the existence of mankind, these spheres have been at war with each other. St. John, through his visions, gradually discloses to the reader the various facets of the battle between good and evil and discloses the process of the spiritual self-realization of mankind, as a result of which some stand on the side of good, while others go on the side of evil. During the development of world conflict, the judgment by God constantly takes place over individuals and nations. By the end of the world, evil will increase tremendously, and the Church on earth will be extremely weakened and diminished. Then the Lord Jesus Christ will come to earth, all people will be resurrected, and the world will experience God's Last Judgment. The devil and his cohorts will be condemned to eternal torture, but the righteous will begin eternal blessed life in Paradise.

The reading of the Apocalypse in sequence can be divided into the following parts:

  1. The introductory picture of the Lord Jesus Christ made manifest, instructing John to write the Revelation for the seven churches of Asia Minor (ch. 1).
  2. The letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor (chs. 2 and 3), in which, simultaneously with instructions to these churches, there are outlines of the fate of Christ's Church from the time of the Apostles up until the end of the world.
  3. The vision of God enthroned, the Lamb of God and the Heavenly Divine Liturgy (chs. 4 and 5). This Heavenly Divine Liturgy is supplemented by visions in the succeeding chapters.
  4. From the sixth chapter on, there begins the revelation of the fate awaiting mankind. The breaking of the seven seals of the mysterious scroll by Christ, the Lamb of God, serves as the beginning of the description of the various phases of war between good and evil, between the Church and satan. This war, which begins in the soul of man and spreads to all aspects of man's life, becomes greater and increasingly frightening (up to ch. 20).
  5. The blast of the angels' seven trumpets (chs. 7-10) heralds the beginning of the calamities which must befall mankind for its unbelief and sins. The damage to nature and the manifestation of evil forces in the world are described. Before the onset of these misfortunes, the faithful will receive upon their brows (the forehead) a blessed mark, saving them from moral evil and from the fate of the impious.
  6. The vision of the seven signs (chs. 11-14) depicts mankind divided into two opposing and irreconcilable camps of good and evil. The good forces are concentrated within the Church of Christ, represented here in the form of a Woman clothed with the sun (ch. 12), and the evil forces - in the kingdom of the beast, the antichrist. The beast rising from the sea is a symbol of evil secular rule, and the beast rising from the earth is a symbol of the deteriorating religious power. In this part of the Apocalypse, a global evil being, i.e., the dragon-devil who organizes and directs the war against the Church, is clearly shown for the first time. The two witnesses of Christ symbolize here the preachers of the Gospel who battle with the beast.
  7. The visions of the seven chalices (chs. 15-17) paint a dire picture of global moral decay. The war against the Church becomes extremely tense (Rev. 16:16), with unbearably difficult trials. This war is referred to as Armageddon. The image of Babylon the harlot represents mankind, which has forsaken God and which is concentrated on residing in the capital of the kingdom of the beast, the antichrist. The evil force spreads its influence into all areas of life of sinful mankind, after which begins God's judgment against the forces of evil (here God's judgment against Babylon is described in generalities, as a form of introduction).
  8. In the following chapters (18 and 19), the judgment of Babylon is described in detail. Here is shown the perdition of those guilty of causing evil among men - the antichrist and the false prophet, representatives of civil and heretical anti-Christian authorities.
  9. The twentieth chapter is a summation of the whole spiritual war and world history. It tells of the devil's being defeated twice and of the reign of the martyrs. Having suffered physically, they were victorious spiritually and are already blissful in Heaven. Here, beginning with Apostolic times, the whole period of existence of the Church is encompassed. Gog and Magog personify the union of all forces fighting against God, both earthly and those of the nether regions, who throughout Christian history fought against the Church (Jerusalem). They are exterminated by the Second Coming of Christ. Finally, it speaks of the eternal punishment of the devil, this ancient serpent, who began all the lawlessness, lies, and sufferings in the Universe. The end of the twentieth chapter is a description of the universal resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, and the punishment of the unfaithful. This short description summarizes the Last Judgment of mankind and of the fallen angels and sums up the whole drama of the universal war between good and evil.
  10. The final two chapters (21and 22) describe the New Heaven, the New Earth, and the blessed life of the saved. These are the most joyous and glorious chapters of the Bible.

Every new part of the Apocalypse usually begins with the words "And I saw," and ends with a description of God's Judgment. This description depicts the end of the previous topic and the beginning of a new one. Between the main parts of the Apocalypse, the Seer sometimes interjects some intermediate observations that act as a binding link between them. The diagram used here vividly shows the plan and divisions of the Apocalypse. For the sake of brevity we combined the intermediate observations together with the main ones. Moving horizontally through the diagram, we see that gradually and more fully the following segments are revealed: the Heavenly World, the Church (persecuted on earth), the sinful and God-fighting world, the nether regions, the war between them, and God's Judgment.

The significance of the symbols and numbers. Symbols and allegories enable the Seer to speak of the essence of earthly events on a very high level of generalization; therefore, they are extensively used. Thus, as an example, the eyes symbolize knowledge, and many eyes symbolize perfect knowledge. A horn is the symbol of power or might. Long attire denotes the clergy; a crown, imperial worthiness; and whiteness, cleanliness or purity. The city of Jerusalem, the temple, and Israel are symbols of the Church. The numbers also have a symbolic meaning: three symbolizes the Trinity; four is the symbol for the world and order in the world; seven denotes completion and perfection; twelve denotes God's people and fruition of the Church (the numbers derived from 12, such as 24 and 144,000 have the same meaning). One-third denotes some relatively small part; three and a half years, the time of persecutions. The number 666 will be specifically dealt with below.

Events during the New Testament are often portrayed in the framework of comparable Old Testament events. Thus, for instance, the persecution of the Church is described in the framework of the sufferings of the Israelites in Egypt, the temptations at the time of the prophet Balaam, persecution on the part of Queen Jezebel, and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans. The saving of believers from the devil is depicted in the framework of the saving of the Israelites from the pharaoh during the time of the prophet Moses. The rule of the godless is presented in the imagery of Babylon and Egypt. The punishment of the forces fighting against God is presented in the language of ten Egyptian executions, and the devil is identified as the serpent who had tempted Adam and Eve. The future Paradisacal blessing is depicted as the Garden of Eden and the tree of life.

The main task of the Apocalypse consists of showing the way the forces of evil work and who organizes them and directs them in the fight against the Church and of teaching and strengthening the faithful in their loyalty to Christ, portraying the complete defeat of the devil and his servants and the beginning of Paradisacal Bliss.

For all the symbolism and mystery of the Apocalypse, the religious truths contained therein are revealed in an extremely clear way. Thus, for example, the Apocalypse points to the devil as being the culprit for all the temptations and tribulations of mankind. The tools with which he tries to lay waste to mankind are always the same: unbelief, disobedience to God, pride, sinful desires, lies, fear, doubt, etc. In spite of all his cunning and experience, the devil is not able to lay waste to those people who are devoted to God with all their heart because God protects them by His blessings. The devil enslaves to himself more and more sinners and those who have withdrawn from God and thrusts them into various abominable acts and crimes. He directs them against the Church and through them causes all violence and wars in the world. The Apocalypse clearly shows that in the end the devil and his servants will be vanquished and punished and that Christ's truth will triumph and that in the renewed world there will begin a blessed life, which will be endless.

Having thus made a cursory review of the contents and symbolism of the Apocalypse, we shall now consider some of its most important parts.

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