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The Apocalypse

By Father Steven Tsichlisfrom our Ambassador publication for January 2000

In recent years David Koresh and the Branch Davidian group in Waco, TX drew heavily from the Book of Revelation to construct a terminally twisted cult. Christian bookstores across the country are today full of novels and pulp theology that use the Book of Revelation like a deck of tarot cards to forecast the future. A recent Associated Press story (November 14, 1997) announced that one in four adults in America expects Christ to return very soon, or certainly in their lifetime.The Tribulation Force is coming soon to a theatre near you! The Omega Code opened this past October 15th and stars Michael York as the Antichrist. Not to be outdone, Universal Studios recently unleashed End of Days, an expensive, effects-laden thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The popularity of these movies, which mix elements of horror and action-adventure, have led many both outside and inside the Church to a poor understanding of the Book of Revelation. These movies both trivialize and sensationalize the Bible. And, as we move inexorably towards Y2K, the hype will continue until the requisite profits are made.But what does the Book of Revelation actually say? What did John, the apostle, evangelist, theologian and seer mean by the many images, symbols and metaphors used in Revelation to convey the Gospel: the Lamb, the Beast, the Dragon, 666, Babylon, Armageddon and the New Jerusalem? John was a gifted artist and storyteller, but his aim was not entertainment. John gives us theology in word-pictures and he has an absolutely serious message to convey.

John, a prisoner on the island of Patmos for his Christian beliefs, receives a revelation on the Lords Day (Sunday) and is commanded to write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (Revelation 1:10-11). John wrote to seven real congregations in seven real cities of the ancient Roman empires province of Asia Minor, in what is today Turkey. He names those cities in the order a real messenger would encounter them on a circuit ride around the region. He expected those in first-century churches to understand what he was writing to them.

Wake up! John called to the first-century Christians of Asia Minor. You are compromising faithfulness to Jesus in order to fit into a pagan world. Wake up! Rome is a Beast that takes its power from Satan and receives worship that belongs to God alone. Wake up! This city and its empire are full of violence and idolatry. God is about to call Rome and its allies to judgement. Johns most immediate concern is that some Christians had compromised their faith and were too cozy with the pagan world in which they lived

How are we to understand the many symbols and images John uses to convey his concern? One way, hopefully without sounding too blasphemous, is to think of the imagery of Revelation as a kind of holy political cartoon  not that John is trying to be funny. Political cartoonists routinely represent entire nations or historical entities with colorful characters. The Republican party is an elephant and the Democratic party is a donkey and the Y2K presidential election is a horse race. Russia is a bear and the US is an eagle. We are sophisticated enough not to take the symbolism of political cartoons literally. We know what the symbols mean and therefore understand the message they seek to convey. Unfortunately, some 1900 years after John committed his visions to writing, many Christians no longer understand the Biblical symbols he used  drawn from such books as Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel – to convey his message.

For example, a ferocious beast in the apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament usually represents a major political power (as in Daniel 7). The Beast of Revelation had seven heads – which are seven mountains on which a whore called Babylon is seated (Revelation 17:9). Ancient pagan writers like Virgil called Rome the City of the Seven Hills. The Jews, after their failed revolt of 66-70AD, called Rome Babylon because it had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem just as the real Babylon had done in 587 BC.

If you’re clever, John tells his contemporaries, you’ll figure out who the Beast is: This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the Beast, for it is a mans number (Revelation 13:18). Both Greek and Hebrew used letters of the alphabet as numbers, so every word had a numerical value. Modern scholars have noted that the name Nero Caesar, in Hebrew, adds up to 666. Nero (reigning 54-68AD) was the first emperor to slaughter Christians, after blaming them for the great fire in Rome in 64 AD. The apostles Peter and Paul died in his short, vicious persecution. Nero kicked his pregnant wife to death, married a boy named Sporus, delighted in being worshipped as a god, murdered his own mother and committed suicide after the Senate pronounced him insane. Nero was the epitome of everything that was wrong with a corrupt empire.

In fact, it was Romes insistence on actual worship of the emperor as a god that would prove to be the flash point of conflict between empire and church. Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, began his rule in 29 BC and succeeded in uniting all the world (Luke 2:1). Some of Romes subjects in the east decided that Caesar Augustus was divine, a god to be worshiped. The provincial council in the area of the seven churches established a religious center at Pergamum in 29 BC to honor Roma and Augustus. John called this regional seat of idolatry the place where Satans throne is (Revelation 2:13). Roma was the goddess personifying Rome and John casts her as a whore in Revelation 17. Augustus was even deemed the son of a god because his adopted father, Julius Caesar, was thought to have become divine at his death. By the time John was writing Revelation, at least 35 cities in the province had climbed on the emperor-worship bandwagon. At Ephesus, the emperor cult had expanded to the point that in 89-90 AD, the city erected a magnificent new temple to the reigning emperor, Domitian, complete with a 25 foot tall statue for worship.

The following inscription served as the ultimate pledge of allegiance that members of the empire were called upon to make: I swear by Jupiter, the earth, the Sun, by all the gods and goddesses, and by Caesar Augustus himself that I will be loyal to Caesar Augustus and to his children and descendants all my life in word, deed and thought

On the emperors birthday and other empire-wide celebrations, people in all the provinces worshipped their ruler with processions, decorated houses, choral performances, prayers, incense and sacrifices. Pressure for Christians to participate would come not only from Roman officials but from friends and neighbors, as well Christians would clearly have to choose. Was their loyalty to Christ or to the Beast? This is the choice which John puts before his readers, whether ancient or modern.

The 20th century has seen empires act in ways that brought down catastrophe on the peoples of the earth. Hitlers blasphemous ideology brought ruin to Europe and the near extinction of the Jewish people. In communist Russia, Stalin is responsible for murdering millions of his own countrymen and producing hundreds of thousands of martyrs for the Church. Maos Great Leap Forward and collectivization of the Chinese economy brought starvation and death to millions of innocent people. Even the US armed Saddam Hussein until he turned against the West. And how would John view the huge profits made on Wall Street while so much of the world lives in poverty? What does the Book of Revelation say to a society that slaughters a quarter of its babies in the womb? We are not left untouched by the message of this Book and, like the first century Christians of Asia Minor, Christians of this century have many of the same choices to make.

Writing nearly three centuries after Johns Revelation, John Chrysostom, the 4th century patriarch of Constantinople, like many Americans today, firmly believed that Jesus return was soon to take place. In his preaching, Chrysostom asked two fundamental questions of his congregation: Were they prepared to greet their Lord? Had the quality and content of their words and lives faithfully reflected the life of the Lord they so eagerly awaited? To understand the Book of Revelation, we must not merely know history nor attempt to predict the future. We must know how to live.

How Christians Live

from the Apology of St. Aristedes of Athens to the Roman emperor, Antoninus Pius, circa 150 AD from our Ambassador publication for February 2000

Christians know and believe in God as the Creator of heaven and earth in whom and from whom all things exist. They have learned Gods commandments and they live by them in hope of the world to come! For this reason, they do not commit adultery or engage in sexual immorality; they do not give false testimony in court or withhold someones deposit or envy another persons possessions. They honor their father and mother, they are helpful to their neighbors and as judges, they make decisions with justice and mercy.

Christians do not worship idols. Anything they do not want others to do to them, they do not do to others. Christian men do not enter into illegal marriages or engage in sexual promiscuity. Out of love for their slaves and children, if they have any, they encourage them to become Christians, and if they do so, they are called brothers and sisters without distinction.

Christians do not lie. They love one another and take care of the their widows; orphans are protected from those who would harm them. They willingly share what they have with those in need. They bring strangers into their homes and welcome them as true brothers and sisters. Christians, as they are able, provide for the burial of their poor when they die. They provide help to those among them who are imprisoned or oppressed because of their faith in Christ.

When there is a person in poverty or need among them and they do not have the resources at hand to help, they will fast for two or three days in order to provide the food needed. The good works they do are not made public to impress others, but, rather, are done unnoticed so that they may hide their deeds as one who finds a treasure and hides it (Matthew 13:44)

Every morning and at all hours they give praise and thanks to God for the gifts they have received; for food and drink also they give thanks to God. This is the content of the Christians law and the way they live their lives.