ΑΠΟΚΑΛΥΨΙΣ ΙΥ ΧΥ | ΗΝ ΑΔΩΚΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ | Ο ΘΣ ΔΕΙΖΑΙ ΤΟΙΣ ÃΓΙ|ΟΙΣ ΑΥΤΟΥ Α ΔΕ ΙΓΕ|ΝΕΣΘΑΙ ΕΝ ΤΑΧΕΙ | ... | ΜΑΚΑΡΙΟΣ Ο ΑΝΑΓΙ|ΝΩΣΚΩΝ ΚΑΙ ΟΙ Α|ΚΟΥΟΝΤΕΣ ΤΟΝ ΛΟ|ΓΟΝ ΤΗΣ ΠΡΦΗΤΙ|ΑΣ ΚΑΙ ΤΗΡΟΥΝΤΕΣ | ΤΑ ΕΝ ΑΥΤΗ ΓΕΓΡΑΜ|ΜΕΝΑ Ο ΓΑΡ ΚΑΙΡΟΣ | ΕΓΓΥΣ
THE-REVELATION OF-JESUS CHRIST | WHICH GAVE TO-HIM | - GOD TO-SHOW TO-THE SA|INTS OF-HIM THE-THINGS-WHICH HAVE TO-HAP|PEN WITH SPEED | ... |BLESSED IS-THE-ONE READ|ING AND THE-ONES H|EARING THE W|ORDS OF-THIS PROPH|ECY AND KEEPING THE-THINGS IN IT HAVING-BEEN- |-WRITTEN, FOR-THE TIME | IS-NEAR.
|Codex Sinaiticus, (4rd century), at the British Library. Illustrated is part of quire 90, f1v, column 1, showing the Revelation of John Chapter 1. verses 1-3. Read more about Codex Sinaiticus HERE.|
THE REVELATION (1). So far as we know, this had never before been the title of a book. The idea behind the title is of course as old as religion itself: there have always been certain men and women who have claimed that in the course of some supernatural experience divine mysteries were "revealed" to them; and the religions of Greece and Rome, as of Palestine and Egypt, produced numerous books in which the writer (whether under his own or an assumed name) claimed to have fallen into a trance, to have seen inexpressible visions, and to have been instructed by heavenly voices, apparitions or angels in the meaning of the mysteries he had seen and heard. To this extent, no one who read Greek would have found anything surprising in the appearance of such a book in a collection of early Christian literature. Nevertheless, this book, though it was written in Greek, owed more to Jewish religion and culture than it did to the Greco-Roman world. To a Jewish thinker, the ultimate mystery to be revealed was not (as it might have been to a Greek philosopher or mystic) the reality lying behind the appearance of the physical world, or the destiny of the individual soul, or even (as was widely believed in an age much afflicted with astrology) the pattern inexorably fixed on history by the movements of the stars. The ultimate mystery, for the Jews, was the future—the state of affairs for which creation had been destined by God, and which alone gave meaning to the present. Partial glimpses of that future had been vouchsafed to the prophets of the Old Testament, who had used them as precious clues by which to interpret the significance of the times in which they lived. More recently (that is to say, since the second century B.C.), Jewish books had been written which worked up these partial glimpses into more elaborate pictures: the visionary authors believed themselves to have inherited an insight into the future which had originally been possessed by great figures of the past such as Enoch or Moses, but which could only now be divulged, since only now had history reached the moment at which they were destined to be fulfilled. This type of writing (usually called " apocalyptic", from apokalypsis, "revelation") began in earnest with the Book of Daniel, a collection of stories and visions, which, though associated with a national hero of the remote past, was written in such a way as to seem to throw light on the sensational vicissitudes and rebellions of the Jewish people under their Hellenistic rulers at the time of writing (second century B.C.). But it gained immediate popularity, and a number of books were soon written under the names of famous figures of Old Testament history which claimed to divulge the emerging pattern of a new age, and so to illuminate the times through which the writers were living.
Nevertheless, even among the Jews these books attracted only a limited public. Their language seemed too naive, and their outlook too rigidly nationalistic, to appeal to the more sophisticated and cosmopolitan Jews of the Dispersion. For Christians, on the other hand, this kind of writing assumed great importance. The conditions which had made the visions of Jewish seers so partial and tantalizing were now dramatically altered. The new age, which for them had lain in an imprecise future, was now inaugurated by Jesus Christ; and the difficult and subjective process of elucidating old and mysterious oracles had given place to direct and authoritative teaching. Jesus himself had shown the way; Paul and other New Testament writers no longer felt any doubt about the basic shape of things to come; and here, at the end of the New Testament, is offered nothing less than the definitive revelation given by God to Jesus Christ. Christians were in a position to complete and to supplement the fragmentary insights of their predecessors. There existed now, not just dreams and oracles and visions, but an authoritative and final revelation. The claim contained in the first words of the book was as new as the religion which made such a book possible.
To the modern reader, this book may well appear as the most obscure in the New Testament. Ultimately, the reason for this is that the task which it attempts is one which stretches language to its limits, and the writer's prose has for the most part the freedom and scope of visionary poetry. But a more immediate reason for this strangeness is that the author used the forms of speech and imagery which came naturally to him for the purpose, but which to us seem exotic and desperately allusive. His idiom starts from the language of the prophets: indeed he calls his book a prophecy (3) (and himself God's servant (1), a traditional title of a prophet), and the great visions of his predecessors—particularly Ezekiel—were constantly present to his mind. His imagery is drawn from the accumulated stock of visionary pictures which Jewish seers had been elaborating ever since the composition of the Book of Daniel. Whatever the nature of his visionary experience may have been, his description of it was conditioned by the literary resources which he had inherited. The work is one of extreme originality and power; but its shape is determined by the logic of the traditional elements out of which it is composed.
Who was the person who describes himself by no other name or title than John? (1) We know nothing about him beyond the very little which he reveals of himself in the book. A tradition that goes right back to the second century A.D. identifies him with the author of the gospel and letters of John. Certainly he writes to the churches of Asia with considerable personal authority, and in view of certain echoes of the language of the fourth gospel it is probable that both works arose in the same part of the world. One might not have expected there to be more than one "John" who exercised such influence; but since both the style and the content of the Revelation are totally different from that of John's gospel (and indeed from anything else in the New Testament), it is hard to believe that the same man wrote both. The most which the evidence allows us to say is that the work was written (probably in about the last decade of the first century A.D.) by a Jewish Christian who was familiar with some of the ideas contained in John's gospel, who was held in respect by certain churches in Asia Minor, and whose name was John.
Yet even though we know so little about the author, we can catch something of the mood in which the book was written. John had borne witness (2), a phrase which was beginning to take on a heavy meaning: Christians "witnessed" to their faith at the risk of their lives, and their final "witness" might be sealed with their death. John, as we shall see, was now in exile: he had already, at some cost, borne witness. And in writing his book he had a serious purpose. He had no intention of merely satisfying the idle curiosity of his readers. His book was meant to be read aloud, presumably during the worship of the church (3). It carried no less authority than the word of God itself, of which Jesus had said, 'Happy are those who hear the word of God and keep it' (Luke 11.28). Like so much of the exhortation found in the New Testament, it received its urgency from the fact that the final stages of history, expected for so long, had now been precipitated by the coming of Christ: the hour of fulfilment is near.
The form of what John had to impart was still further conditioned by the circumstances in which he wrote. Whatever the eventual circulation of his book might be, he intended it in the first instance for certain churches which were known to him personally. Consequently, he began with exactly the address and salutation which would have been normal in any letter: John to the seven churches in the provinces of Asia. Grace be to you and peace (4). But in Christian letters, these conventional greetings were often transformed into something more significant by being made to express the great truths of the faith. So here: John first works in (with, in the Greek, an apparently deliberate disregard of grammar) a solemn formula, based perhaps on Exodus 3.14 ("I am what I am") but extended into the present and the future to take account of the Creator's necessary involvement in all stages of history: him who is and who was and who is to come. Next (his mind already forming a visual image of the court of heaven) he speaks of seven spirits before his throne—archangels, he might have called them, since it was angels who (in the Jewish picture of heaven) stood closest to God; but angels were spirits, and "spirits" were an intelligible symbol for the Spirit of God. Finally, he invokes Jesus Christ (5), and robes him with titles that had their literary origin in Psalm 89.27, but which were now full of Christian meaning (faithful witness, John 18.37; 1 Timothy 6.13; first-born from the dead, Colossians 1.18; ruler of the kings of the earth, Romans 14.9). This indeed is characteristic of the style of Revelation. The Old Testament is never explicitly quoted, but phrases from it occur in every paragraph. Thus, (6,7) a royal house, to serve as the priests is from Exodus 19.6, coming with the clouds from Daniel 7.13, and the rest of verse 7 from Zechariah 12.10. But these allusions are not mere padding from a literary source: along with specifically Christian phrases (him who loves us (5)—a characteristic expression of John's gospel—freed us from our sins, his God and Father (6)), they are combined in a texture that is fresh and distinctive.
Says the Lord God (8). This is how an Old Testament prophet spoke; and the book calls itself a prophecy (3). But Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek, not the Hebrew, alphabet. God is first and last: the idea is Hebrew as much as Greek (Isaiah 44.6), but it appears here in Greek dress. This writer (it appears from his grammar) thinks in Hebrew, but he writes for readers who know only Greek.
I was on the island called Patmos (9). This was evidently exile. We know that the Roman Emperor banished political enemies to lonely islands, and a provincial governor could do the same. Patmos lies off the coast of Asia Minor, a small and thinly populated island. How much special suffering and endurance (10) were involved in John's exile we do not know. It was on the Lord's day. This is the first time the expression occurs in literature: it soon became the standard one for Sunday, the day which Christians celebrated as the weekly festival of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as opposed to Saturday, the Sabbath of the Jews. I was caught up by the Spirit: John, even if he was now separated from all his fellow-Christians, would be most susceptible to such an experience when that day came round.
This is all that the author says about himself and the circumstances in which he saw his vision. From now on he is completely controlled by what he saw and heard. 'Write down what you see on a scroll' (11). This was a command to set to work in earnest: John was not merely to take notes (which he would have done on wax tablets or possibly a parchment notebook), but was to compose a document that would fill a scroll of papyrus. This was then to be sent to the seven churches. These cities all lay in an approximate circle, between 25 and 50 miles from each other. Why John was to write to just these seven (when there were certainly others in the area which were at least as important) we do not know. His mind certainly worked in sevens, and seven messages to seven churches fit well into the plan of the work. It is also true that a messenger, charged with delivering a message to each of these churches, would most conveniently have started from Ephesus, and the main roads would have brought him to each of them in the order in which they are mentioned. But beyond this, the selection of these seven seems arbitrary: it may just have happened that these were the particular churches for which John had a message.
|The Arch of Titus, Rome. It depicts the procession of the victory that was awarded to the Roman General, Titus, at the end of the Jewish War. The 7 branched lampstand that had stood in the temple is prominent above the procession.|
I saw seven standing lamps of gold (12). In the outer room of the temple in Jerusalem stood a great golden candlestick with seven branches. In any Jewish prophet's vision of heaven, the same "standing lamp" naturally tended to appear (as it does in Zechariah 4). But John saw, not one, but seven separate lamps—a symbol with a secret meaning (20) which is explained at the end of the chapter: each stood for one of the churches which, for these Christians, now replaced the Jerusalem temple. And of course, not only these seven: seven was a perfect number, representing the totality of all the churches in the world. With this symbol is combined another. In his right hand he held seven stars (16). These were perhaps the planets: they signified dominion ovti all the iwlions of ihe world. But they too had a secret meaning. Stars, in ancient religion, were not inanimate. They were governed by angels or spirits. And the angels of these stars, being seven, also signified the angels of the seven churches—for, just as nations, or their rulers, were held to be under the control of some supernatural power (an angel or a demon as the case might be), so each church must also have its angel in heaven.
Among the lamps one like a son of man (13). The vision is a Christian vision, and the reader already guesses that the central figure must be Christ himself. How was John to put Christ's appearance into words? The clue was perhaps the title Jesus bore on earth, Son of Man: this title implied a glorious destiny in heaven, and a classic description of such a Son of Man lay to hand in Daniel 7. This description, enriched with details from other passages (especially Daniel 10.5-6; Ezekiel 9.2; 43.2), provided the frame in which John set his vision of Christ. For the most part, the description is visual and concrete: this was what he looked like. But towards the end the words perhaps become symbolic rather than descriptive. The seven stars (16) mean dominion, the sharp two-edged sword means the power of his word.
'I was dead and now I am alive for evermore' (18). This does more than merely identify the speaker with Christ: it describes the characteristic pattern of Christian experience. The prototype was Christ's own death and resurrection, and here it is symbolically re-enacted by John falling down as though dead (17) and being revived. Though it meant a great deal more than this, it meant at least that Christ had 'conquered death' (1 Corinthians 15.26, 57), or (to use a slightly different image) that Christ now held the keys of Death and Death's domain (18). This was a datum of the Christian faith: its implications for the churches were now to be spelled out.
'To the angel of the church at Ephesus write' (1). John has been told to write down what he sees and 'send it to the seven churches' (1.11). Accordingly, the book begins and ends in the form of a letter addressed to a group of churches. But just as a letter to a particular church might single out one class of people within that church for a special message (1 John 2.12-14), so this letter has a special message for each of the churches within the group. Each of these messages contains a warning appropriate to the condition of the church addressed: the actual circumstances of Christians in, say, Ephesus or Smyrna seem to have been vividly in the author's mind while each message was being composed.
Yet in each case the message is addressed, not to the church itself, but to the angel of the church. "Angel" originally meant "messenger", and it is conceivable that here it is simply an enigmatic way of referring to the leader of each church, who would have the task of imparting John's message to the congregation. But elsewhere in the Revelation angels are always angels, and so they should be here. In that case, why warn an angel about the dangers of heresy or inertia? The clue probably lies in a way of thinking much influenced by astrology. Stars controlled the destiny of men. But the stars in their turn were controlled by spirits or angels. We have been told that the seven stars in John's vision were 'the angels of the seven churches' (1.20). Therefore what happened in these churches would ultimately depend on the angels who controlled the seven stars. It made no practical difference whether the Spirit spoke to the church on earth or its angel in heaven; and it was more in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book that the messages should be written as if addressed to heavenly beings.
Ephesus properly stands first in the list. It was the first port of Asia, its largest and most prosperous city, and the place where the courier would have begun his journey. The church there had much to its credit; but the standard applied to it was not just a general one of moral and religious excellence. The question was, How had it withstood the particular trials which were destined to appear in the " last days"? One of these was the visitation of false prophets or (as they are called here) false apostles (2), men who tried to claim authority for their teaching, not just because it was inspired, but because of their supposed position in the historic church. This proved to be a menace to the church in many places, and is mentioned in many early Christian writings; but it was always understood as one of the necessary tribulations which had been foretold by Christ himself (Mark 13.22). Against this danger, the Christians in Ephesus had shown a firm front; they had also resisted heresy, which took the form in some of these churches of the practices of the Nicolaitans (6) (on which see below, p. 795). But against another danger that had also been foretold (Matthew 24.12) they had been less vigilant: losing their early love. A church which failed in this important respect would cease to be a church, its members would be no better prepared for judgement than those outside. For these times must be seen as a deadly struggle against the forces of evil: heresy and disaffection within, persecution outside, were all manifestations of a single demonic enemy. The destiny of Christians was to be victorious (7) (1 John 5.4-5). The reward for victory was the whole range of blessings traditionally associated with the after-life. Here, an image is used that was common to many religions: the right to eat from the tree of life.
Travelling due north from Ephesus, the messenger would have reached another of the great ports of Asia Minor, Smyrna. It was a prosperous and beautiful city, and it is possible that the famous sky-line of its public buildings, encircling a table mountain that rises sheer out of the plain, put into the writer's mind the phrase, the crown of life (10). We get the impression of a struggling Christian community, rich only in the possession of its faith, and persecuted by the Jewish population. Those who claim to be Jews but are not (9). It would be in keeping with John's style if this were a play upon words. True Jews (as Paul would have said) were those who recognized Jesus Christ: those who did not were no longer "the Lord's synagogue" (Numbers 16.3) but a monstrous perversion of it—Satan's synagogue.
Alternatively, those behind the persecution may have been renegade Christians who had become Jewish proselytes, and so only "claimed" to be Jews. (This was apparently the situation in Galatia: see above on Galatians 6.13.) We can glimpse the kind of persecution involved: the Jews, by informing on Christians, could have had them brought before a Roman court as apparently disloyal citizens. To test their loyalty, the court could have ordered them to go through the motions of sacrificing to the image of the Emperor. As Christians they would of course have refused; and since they did not enjoy the privilege of the Jews to practise their own religion and to abstain from pagan worship, they would have been liable to punishment. A famous case of this took place a few decades later in Smyrna, when the aged bishop Polycarp was burnt to death on refusing to participate in the worship of the Emperor, and the Jewish community turned out in force to watch. Something less than martyrdom seems to have been the experience here. For ten days you will suffer cruelly (10). Ten days was a way of saying a short period (Daniel 1.12,14): the author did not envisage a long persecution, or one pushed to extremes. But there was always the danger of a Christian yielding to the pressure of his persecutors and compromising his faith by performing the required act of pagan ritual. The Christians of Smyrna are warned, only be faithful till death. The alternatives for them are not just death or survival. Through faithfulness they can have life in the full sense which that word has in John's gospel. Even if this involves the ultimate penalty on earth, the martyr is safe from that second death (11) which (as in 20.14) means the verdict passed at the Last Judgement on those who, because of their misdeeds, have lost their claim to share in the life of the age to come.
Pergamum (12) was the most impressive city of Asia Minor. It had been the capital of the most wealthy of the successors of Alexander the Great, and the centre of a substantial empire. With its temples, its immense altar to Zeus (one of the wonders of the ancient world: its foundations are still visible, and cover an area about 40 yards square; its famous sculptures are in a museum in Berlin), its library, its theatre and civic buildings, all built on the terraced summit of a rocky hill that dominates the country for many miles around, it was a monument of Hellenistic culture and wealth. All this passed to the Romans in 133 B.C.; but the city, though shorn of its power, kept something of its ceremonial splendour. The Roman governor made it his principal residence, and the cult of the Roman Emperor received its first sanctuary in Asia when a temple in Pergamum was dedicated to Augustus. In most matters of ceremony and law, Pergamum was the visible centre of Roman power in Asia.
John calls it the place where Satan has his throne (13). Many things may have contributed to this image: the mountain on which the city was built, the great altar in its midst, the palace where the Roman governor lived in state. But it was more than an image. The pagan rulers who surrounded the small Jewish nation were not thought of (at least in Jewish religious writing) as merely human powers. They were ultimately controlled by demonic forces; in the last analysis, they could be overthrown, not by armies of men, but only by God himself: the real contest was between God and the devil. Behind the Roman power (according to this way of thinking) stood Satan himself. Where this power was focused in the person of the Roman governor and in the cult of the official Roman religion, it was not just a metaphor to say that "Satan had his throne".
The Roman governor had the power of life and death over all his subjects who were not Roman citizens. Technically, this was known as jus gladii, the right of the sword. John was delivering a message from One who has the sharp two-edged sword (12) proceeding from his mouth (1.16). That is to say, the word of Christ stood over against the authority of Rome. To what extent did the two come into conflict? Part of the difficulty of interpreting the Revelation is that we have very little evidence on the matter. There seems to have been no systematic persecution; but it was doubtless possible to get Christians brought before the Roman courts, and once there they might be challenged to participate in the official ritual of offering sacrifice before the statue of the Emperor. Under some such pressure one Christian in Pergamum, Antipas (13), had lost his life rather than compromise with his faith. The rest are complimented on holding fast.
But the real danger came, not from the state, but from those same Nicolaitans (15) who have already appeared at Ephesus (2.6). They were 15 evidently a heretical group within the church. We know nothing more about them. Irenaeus, writing about a hundred years later, states that they were followers of the Nicolas of Antioch who is mentioned in Acts 6.5. This may be correct, but it tells us nothing about the nature of the heresy. The readers of the letter must have known all about it; but presumably they were not sufficiently aware of its dangers, and John uses a parallel from the Old Testament as a caution. The well-known story of Balaam and his ass is immediately followed in Numbers 25 by an account of how the people of Israel were seduced by Moabite women into performing acts of heathen worship. A single verse later in Numbers (31.16) alludes to the fact that it was Balaam who instigated these women; and the story of how he did so was much elaborated in later traditions. When John referred to the teaching of Balaam (14), this story will have come to the minds of his readers. The result of Balaam's teaching had been that the Israelites were led to compromise with heathen religions. The result of the Nicolaitans' teaching (John must be saying) might be that Christians would be led to compromise with the demands of ihe official religion of Rome.
Manna (17) had been the supernatural food of the people of Israel in the wilderness (Exudus 16), and it was natural to assume that it would also be the food of the elect in heaven Some traditions existed which went further: the manna of the future would be literally the same as that eaten by the desert generation. A piece of it (so such stories ran) had been hidden in some place on earth, and would be brought out at the beginning of the new age.
John's second image for the prize of constancy is more obscure. Small stones were used for many purposes: as voting papers in a ballot, as tickets for admission to a large entertainment, as counters for calculating, as tokens, as charms. A white stone could mean acquittal or election (the opposite of our "blackball"), it could be a sign of good fortune or a badge of success. Any stone with writing on it could have various religious or magical uses. Thus acquittal after trial, victory over persecution, admission to heaven, the power of a "name" over evil—any or all of these ideas may have been evoked by the idea of a white stone.
Thyatira (18). The courier carrying the letter must now be imagined as taking the important road which led south-east from Pergamum through the remaining four cities to which the letter is addressed. Thyatira, though it had had an important political history in the Hellenistic period, was an undistinguished place in Roman times, and seems to have been mainly a centre of industry and commerce. There is a reference to its purple dyes in Acts 16.14, and there is evidence that it had a remarkable number of trade guilds: burnished brass is a translation of a word which occurs nowhere else in Greek literature—possibly the bronze-smiths of Thyatira were familiar with it.
Like the church in Pergamum, this church had a good record, but was threatened from within. You tolerate that Jezebel. The heresy once again is painted in Old Testament colours. Jezebel's worst crime had been that of introducing foreign cults; "fornication" was a standard biblical metaphor for deserting the worship of the one true God. In true prophetic style, John carries the metaphor through: the heresy is a harlot, she has lovers and children who will all be involved together in her punishment. This is again deliberately strong language: the Christians in Thyatira are being warned of the seriousness of the danger they are in. As in Pergamum, so here: it is hard to know what actual doctrines or practices lie behind the biblical language. Fornication (20) almost certainly stands for a permissive attitude towards associating with pagan cults. On the other hand, eating food sacrificed to idols could mean exactly what it says. We know that this was an issue in the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 8), and it may be significant that the phrase, on you I will impose no further burden (24), is one which was used in an instruction to Christians about the extent to which they must separate themselves from pagan society (Acts 15.28): John may be saying that they must keep away from all pagan sacrifices, but that they need not adopt the social exclusiveness of a strict Jewish community. There is one further cluc to the nature of the heresy: what they like to call the deep secrets of Satan. It is possible that they prided themselves on their thorough acquaintance with pagan religion, and that they called this the deep secrets of Satan. But it is more likely, and more in keeping with John's style, that the phrase is a deliberate parody of one of their doctrines. The 'depths of God's own nature' (1 Corinthians 2.10) were something into which Christians claimed to have insight through the Spirit. The heretics may have claimed a still better insight, which John ridiculed by calling it an experience of the deep secrets of Satan.
Amid all this metaphor and word-play, what are we to make of the woman who claims to be a prophetess? (20) Is this yet another symbol for the heretic group? Possibly. Yet the problem of people claiming to be prophets was a familiar one in the church. It is likely that the heresy was in fact led by a woman of this kind, and that the phrase, that Jezebel, was intended as an opprobrious nickname.
To him who is victorious (26). This, like all the messages, ends with a promise. The words come from Psalm 2.8-9. They were originally addressed to a king of Israel, by way of promising him victory in his battles. But for a long time the psalm had been regarded as a prophetic description of the destiny of the Messiah who would one day come to inaugurate an age of glory for his people. The church then seized on the passage as a statement of the ultimate sovereignty of Jesus Christ, a sovereignty in which (as Jesus had promised) Christians were destined to share.
I will give him also the star of dawn (28). What this stands for in John's symbolism is revealed only at the very end of the book (22.16): it is Christ himself.
Sardis had the most illustrious history of any city of Asia Minor. It was the capital of the Lydian kingdom, and in the sixth century B.C., under Croesus its king, it was the centre of luxury and power in the entire Mediterranean world. By Roman times the power had departed; and an earthquake in A.D. 17 destroyed most of its buildings, which were only restored through the generosity of the Roman Emperor. Compared with Pergamum or the great ports on the coast, it must have seemed something of a backwater.
To this setting of past glory and present decline, the church in Sardis presented a parallel. Though you have a name for being alive, you are dead ... I have not found any work of yours completed (1, 2). A phenomenon that was to be common enough in the later history of the church appears already in the pages of the New Testament: the original zeal has departed, and only an apparently flourishing exterior remains. The reprimand takes the form (as so often in the New Testament) of a reference to the imminent reckoning, the "coming" of Christ. I shall come upon you like a thief (3) are words attributed to Jesus himself in the gospels (Matthew 24.43) and are used by Paul for just the same purpose (1 Thessalonians 5.2). In view of this constantly impending "coming" (however it is interpreted), the tone of Christian morality must always he, wake up, "keep awake" (Matthew 24.42).
Both priests in sanctuaries and Roman citizens in ceremonial processions wore robes of white: similarly this colour of innocence and purity is for those who will be admitted to heaven. The roll of the living (5), too, had its counterpart on earth. To be on the roll of citizens in a city meant to enjoy its privileges; so, to the people of Israel, to be on " God's roll" meant to be sure of inheriting the people's promised destiny. Heaven, now, was the destiny of Christians, but not by right or predestination: they could still be struck off. But the reward they awaited was to be on the roll of the living. They would achieve it, so long as they lived faithfully on earth; Jesus would then acknowledge them before his Father—a clear allusion to another saying of Jesus (Matthew 10.32).
Philadelphia (7) was the next substantial city on the route. It had been founded in the second century B.C. by Attalus II Philadelphus, one of the kings of Pergamum, as a vantage-point for the further spread of Greek culture into the interior of Asia Minor; but it had been one of the worst victims of the earthquake of A.D. 17, from which it never fully recovered.
We learn something of the church there through the way the message is composed. The beginning of each of these messages takes an element from the description of Christ in 1.12-20. For Philadelphia, the phrase selected is 'I hold the keys of Death and Death's domain'; but the metaphor of a key immediately goes its own way and governs the imagery of most of the message. First, it recalls a passage of Isaiah (22.22): " I will lay the key of the house of David on his shoulder; what he opens no one shall shut and what he shuts no one shall open". When this was first written, it was a prophecy that a certain Eliakim would become the king's chief minister in the government of Jerusalem. But it came naturally to a Christian writer to see more in it than this: it was a prophecy which became true and meaningful only when fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Moreover the word key (7) suggested a door; and a "door", in Christian language, was almost a technical expression for an opportunity for spreading the gospel (it is used in the Greek of 1 Corinthians 16.9; 2 Corinthians 2.12; Colossians 4.3). The church, though small, had a great missionary task to perform: look, I have set before you an open door (8).
The danger to this church, as in Smyrna, came from those of Satan's synagogue (9)—again, either Jews, or gentile Christians who had joined the synagogue. The Jews had always believed that ultimately the tables would be turned in their favour: their enemies and oppressors would one day recognize that the Jews were after all God's beloved people and would come and fall down at their feet (such language is characteristic of Isaiah, 60.14; 49.23; 45-14 and elsewhere). But Christians now believed themselves to be the "true Israel". They could invoke the same prophecies in their own favour, even against those who were, or claimed to be, Jews themselves.
I will also keep you from the ordeal (10). This ordeal, or "test", is what Christians must constantly pray to be spared ('Do not bring us to the test', in the Lord's prayer (Matthew 6.13), uses the same Greek word). Doubtless it can take many forms in the experience of each individual; but in the early church, the decisive "test" was thought of as an element in the final stage of history, the ordeal that was to fall upon the whole world and test its inhabitants. The main part of the book is in fact a description of this ordeal as something coming simultaneously, in a moment of time, to all the inhabitants of the earth. But this did not take away from the seriousness of local and particular ordeals that might fall upon individuals and churches—only, they must always be seen as part of, or at least as signs of, that ultimate ordeal from which God had promised that his elect would be saved.
A pillar in the temple of my God (12). One of the ways in which Christians conceived of the church, whether they were thinking of its empirical existence and structure on earth or of its ultimate destiny in heaven, was as a building composed of living stones, a spiritual temple replacing the old one of masonry in Jerusalem. To be firmly knit into the fabric of this building, like a pillar, was to be sure of salvation. On such a pillar might be written the name of the city's founder, or the name of the city itself—the imagery leads the mind to the new Jerusalem that is described in chapter 21. But the name, including the new name of Christ, was something that might be written on a Christian here and now, like a charm against the forces of evil.
Laodicea (14), Hierapolis and Colossae formed a cluster of cities in a valley about a hundred miles inland from Ephesus. When Paul wrote his letter to the new church at Colossae, he asked that it should be read also to 'the congregation at Laodicea' (Colossians 4.16). It can hardly be an accident that John's phrase, the prime source of all God's creation, echoes Paul's words in Colossians 1.15: either Paul's letter was still being read in Laodicea, or else the kind of language it used had become part of the usual Christian vocabulary in those cities.
Laodicea was renowned for its wealth, its wool industry, and its medical school. The church, it seems, had identified itself with the city's fame and prosperity, and so had lost hold of its own distinctive values. Instead of its material wealth it should have gold refined in the fire (18)—which, in the church, was usually a metaphor for suffering and martyrdom. Instead of the glossy woollen garments which were the pride of Laodicean industry, it should have the white clothes of innocence and purity. And instead of that eye ointment which was a well-known product of the Laodicean medical school, it should find something which would improve its spiritual vision.
All these symptoms of accommodation to the secular world are summed up in a single vivid image: you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold (16). The figure of speech may already have been (as it is now) proverbial. But the metaphor was perhaps quite precise. The hot water of the neighbouring hot springs of Hierapolis was good; and cold spring water was good. But Iukewarm water was only of use (so ancient doctors said) to make one vomit. So here: I will spit you out of my mouth.
All whom I love I reprove and discipline (19). This was a piece of proverbial wisdom (Proverbs 3.12—see above on Hebrews 12.5-11), one of the stock answers to the problem of evil: suffering is imposed by God on those whom he loves in order to test and strengthen their character. The converse must then also be true: if those whom God loves are not suffering, there must be something wrong with them. The comfortable existence of the church in Laodicea was a sign of a dangerous inertia. The message is stern and urgent: Be on your mettle therefore and repent.
The message comes from the Amen. This was a Hebrew word with which the Christian congregation was accustomed to express its participation in worship. There was a sense in which Christ could be thought of as an "Amen" to the promises of God (the idea is worked out by Paul in 2 Corinthians 1.19-20). But the word "Amen" itself (whatever it originally meant in a phrase like "the God of Amen" in Isaiah 65.16) was usually understood to mean "in truth": this is the force of it when it occurs in a characteristic phrase of Jesus, 'In very truth (Amen) I say to you'. Christ, then, was truth, the faithful and true witness, who would vindicate his followers at the final judgement by making a true confession on their behalf.
The joys of the age to come (20-2) were often pictured both as a heavenly banquet and as a period of world dominion for the elect. Both these images are used here, but with a mass of Christian meanings. Christians must be ready for the return of their master at any time, 'ready to let him in the moment he arrives and knocks' (Luke 12.36). But the heavenly feast is anticipated by that supper which Christians already celebrate in the eucharist; Jesus "comes", here and now, to anyone who hears his voice and opens the door.
After this I looked (1). So far John's vision has been of a single being, 'one like a son of man', and the setting, in so far as it has been sketched in at all, has been suggested by the great seven-branched candlestick which stood in the temple at Jerusalem. Now the scene shifts: the central figure, though he is not named or described, is evidently God himself. John was writing freely of what he had seen; yet his imagery was still controlled by things seen or heard of on earth. At the beginning of his vision he was in the outer room of the temple, the Holy Place, where a priest entered every day to offer incense and tend the sacred lights. Facing him in that Holy Place there was a curtain over the door leading to the Most Holy Place, the mysterious inner sanctuary where God himself was believed especially to dwell, and where only once a year the high priest was privileged to enter. John was now about to penetrate further: before my eyes was a door opened in heaven. What lay beyond the door in the innermost sanctuary of the temple? In recent centuries, probably nothing at all. The sacred objects which once were kept there had disappeared with the destruction of Solomon's temple in 586 B.C., and the Most Holy Place was simply a room of darkness and mystery. But John's imagination was nourished, not by the actual temple as he may have known it in Jerusalem, but by the traditions preserved in the Old Testament (in this respect he stands close to the writer of the letter to Hebrews). According to these, the Most Holy Place contained the Ark, a wooden chest in which were placed the stone tablets of the Law (Exodus 25.10-22). This was the symbol of God's presence, his "throne" (Isaiah 6.1; Ezekiel 43.7). Over it stood statues of winged sphinx-like creatures, the "cherubim" of the original sanctuary (Exodus 25.18-20) and of Solomon's temple (1 Kings 6.23-8).
But these were only the raw materials. Out of them John forged something new. As in Ezekiel's vision (Ezekiel 1), the cherubim become four living creatures (6); but here each one has its own personality.
Then I saw ... a scroll (1). Scrolls of papyrus were used for a variety of purposes—books, letters, legal documents. But there can be little doubt what sort of scroll is meant here. A contract or a will was sometimes written out in full on one side of a sheet of papyrus; the sheet was then rolled up to form a scroll and tied round with narrow papyrus strips. Each witness added his seal to secure the knots, and a brief summary of the contents was written on the outside of the roll so that it could be identified without being unrolled. Examples of this have actually been recovered from the sands of Egypt. The first thing suggested to John's readers by a scroll with several seals and with writing inside and out would certainly have been a legal document of this kind. If such a scroll were produced in a law-court, only a respected and qualified person could break the seal and use it as evidence. Christians thought of Christ as their "advocate" in the heavenly court, ready to produce decisive evidence on their behalf. It was in this sense that they would have recognized Christ as the one who was worthy to open the scroll (2).
But since, in real life, a scroll could be other things besides, so in the vision there were many possible meanings of the symbol. Those of John's readers who were familiar with Ezekiel's vision would have been expecting a scroll containing "dirges and laments and words of woe" (Ezekiel 2.10): and here, sure enough, the seer was about to witness events that were all written beforehand in the book of God's purposes, and the opening of the book was a symbol that this inexorable sequence of events was about to begin. In a synagogue, again, the president would take one of the leather scrolls of the Old Testament from its case, and present it to some qualified person who would "come up" and read and expound it. In exactly this way, Jesus had once accepted a scroll of the scriptures in synagogue at Nazareth, and had declared that the words he read from it were now fulfilled in his own person (Luke 4.16-21); and it was part of the Christian faith that only in the light of Christ could the Old Testament be understood, only through him could the secrets of the scrolls of Scripture be known. None of these analogies must be pressed too hard. This scroll was no ordinary one. It had no less than seven seals, and the breaking of each seal, not the reading of the contents, was the signal for a spate of catastrophes on earth. Nevertheless, all these ideas may have been present in the background.
The being who had won the right to open the scroll (5) is described first in two Old Testament phrases which were often taken to be prophetic descriptions of the Messiah: the Lion from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49.9) and the Scion of David (Isaiah 11.1). But John's own vision of him takes a new and startling form: a Lamb with the marks of slaughter upon him. Jesus, according to John's gospel, was called by John the Baptist 'the Lamb of God', and was crucified while the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in front of the temple. Moreover, some New Testament writers saw in Jesus the fulfilment of the mysterious oracle in Isaiah 53 about one who was "led like a lamb to the slaughter". To this extent, the idea of Jesus as a Lamb was not wholly new; but it was at most a metaphor that helped to throw light on the purpose of his death. Here, the metaphor has turned into a vivid picture. The Messiah whom Jewish writers thought of as a Lion now appears as a Lamb. To us, the animal suggests weakness, the helplessness of Jesus' unresisting progress to the cross. But, just as the cross was also a symbol of victory, so John's image of the slaughtered lamb bears the conventional marks of power and knowledge. Throughout the Old Testament, a horn is a symbol of power: in the visions of Zechariah (1.18) and Daniel (7.7-8; 8.3), horns appear on the heads of the beasts which have a temporary dominion over the world. Writing in the same tradition, John portrays the Lamb as a ram with seven horns, the number seven representing (as usual) totality, total dominion; and the seven eyes, perhaps suggested by another vision of Zechariah in which the seven lamps on the golden lampstand represent "the eyes of the Lord, which range through the whole earth" (4.10), stand, he tells us, for the seven spirits of God—for Jesus and the Spirit are ultimately one.
Even if features of the synagogue and the law-court crowd in for a moment with the appearance of the scroll, the scene is still the heavenly temple. The elders, like psalmists, each had a harp (8), and like temple priests they held golden bowls full of incense, which were a readily understood symbol (as in Psalm 141.2) for the prayers of God's people. But the essence of their worship was a new song (9). The traditional language of praise was not enough: the Lamb was a new object of worship in heaven who had effected something quite new on earth, and a new set of concepts was needed. Each phrase of the song could be elaborated from other pages of the New Testament: the idea of purchase by blood combines that of sacrifice with that of a ransom (Mark 10.45); men of every tribe and language represent the universality of Christ's work, far transcending the traditional nationalist emphasis of Jewish religion; and the royal house, serving as priests (10), is a picture of the church that is elaborated in 1 Peter 2.9-10. But John is not concerned here with the working out of these concepts. He uses them only as headings under which to arrange the praise of Christ. When the circle of worshippers widens to include, first the myriads of angels who throng the courts of heaven (12), and then the whole order of created things, the words of the song become more general (13). The object of worship is still God with the Lamb. But the language is such as might have been heard at the procession of a Roman Emperor or in the temple of a pagan God: it is the universal language of praise.
Then I watched as the Lamb broke the first of the seven seals (1). Heaven, for this writer (and indeed for the whole tradition of Jewish writers in which he stands) is not a place remote from the world, whose occupants live a life of undisturbed felicity and praise. It is in heaven that the future of the world is prepared; a revelation of heaven is a revelation of the secret destinies which are working themselves out in the affairs of men. What the writer sees are symbolic actions—the breaking of seals, the blowing of trumpets, the pouring of bowls which are the heavenly counterparts of predestined events on earth. These symbols come in groups of seven; and the seventh of each group prepares for the next sevenfold catastrophe. The visions, that is to say, proceed according to their own logic, and fill out a pattern imposed upon them from the beginning. Yet they never lose contact with the course of events on earth.
And so here: the breaking of the seals is the signal for the first cycle of calamities. These John could have inferred, both from his own prophetic understanding of contemporary events, and from his inherited presup- positions about the destined course of world history. Sword, famine, pestilence and wild beasts (8) were traditional scourges by which God was believed to punish a disobedient world (Ezekiel 14.21). To symbolize these in heaven, a vision of Zechariah suggested itself (1.8; 6.1-8), in which sometimes four horses, sometimes four chariot teams of different-coloured horses, were sent to patrol the earth. But instead of simply fitting these to the four traditional scourges, John appears to have worked in some allusions to contemporary history. A horse whose rider held a bow (2) represented the cavalry of the Parthians. This nation constituted a recurring threat to the eastern frontier of the Roman empire, and won an important battle against Rome in A.D. 62. Mounted bowmen formed the most distinctive and dreaded part of the Parthian army. The white horse and the crown (or victor's garland) symbolized the victory of these forces. To this extent, John made the traditional scourge of the sword come alive in the possibility of successful barbarian incursions into the territory of the Roman empire.
But the sword could also mean civil war: that fellow-citizens would slaughter one another was one of the grisly predictions which belonged to the traditional Jewish picture of the last days. There had been a bitter experience of this in the last stages of the Jewish rebellion which ended with the sack of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. For this, another horse, all red (4), was a fitting symbol.
Food shortages afflicted the Middle East several times during the first 6 century, and made for very high prices. A quart (6) of wheat flour was an average ration per man per day. A whole day's wage (literally a denarius, as in Matthew 20.2) would have been a prohibitive price for all but the rich; working men would have had to make do with barley-meal—but they would have survived, if it did not go on too long; and since serious damage would not be done to the olive and the vine (which take years to replace), this was the kind of famine which people could bear, the kind of famine which was known to happen—and in which Christian prophets discerned the signs of the critical times that lay ahead (see above on Acts 11.27-8).
Another horse, sickly pale; and its rider's name was Death (8). John has made a rough equation between each of the first three horses and the afflictions already experienced by his contemporaries. The fourth horse is a more general symbol; it stands both for the other three and for all the traditional scourges that were to come. And whereas perhaps any of the other three might have been avoided by most people, cumulatively they would inevitably take their toll, to the extent of a quarter of the earth.
All these were calamities which might be encountered in the ordinary run of history. John and his readers were not the first to experience such things: their significance lay only in a certain intensification which made it possible to see them as movements in the final drama of the world. But there was also a more particular calamity which had begun to oppress the minds of Christians. Persecution of the church had already resulted in martyrdoms: men had been slaughtered for God's word and for the testimony they bore (9). This raised two questions. First, what was the point of their death? Jewish writers, reflecting on the persecution of the saints of their own faith (particularly the heroic martyrdoms of the Maccabean period), had for some time been describing them as a "sacrifice", that is to say, a means by which the suffering of a few could ward off the suffering of the many. Christians soon seized on the same idea (see Paul's use of it in Philippians 2.17); and John represents it here by filling out his description of heaven with one more feature of the Jerusalem temple, the great altar which stood before it and on which animals were sacrificed, their blood (in which the life was thought to dwell) running underneath the altar. The sacrifice of these martyrs was the reality symbolized by the old Jewish ritual.
Secondly, when and how would they be vindicated and avenged? This question appears to be distinctly at variance with Christian principles; but it arose out of what may be described as a distinctively Jewish approach to the problem of evil. It is a fact that the righteous suffer, and often suffer for their beliefs. If a righteous man meets misfortune and death, the world may judge him to have been a hypocrite or a victim of self-delusion; but if the God in whom he believes is just, surely he is bound to save a man who has faithfully served him. If he does not, either the man is not what he claims to be, or God is not just. This dilemma afflicted many pious men as they prepared to meet their deaths amid the taunts of their enemies. If they must die, they prayed for vindication, either now or in the future. If God were just, he must turn the tables, so to speak, on their persecutors. He must force them to acknowledge that their victims were right and that they were wrong. This would doubtless involve something not unlike revenge: it would only be by suffering some of the pain which they had inflicted themselves that the unrighteous would be brought to see their error. But (at least at its best) this longing for vindication was not simply the very human desire to be avenged. It was a postulate of faith: the God whom the sufferer believed to be just must surely, at some stage, be seen to be just. In the end he must surely come down on the side of those who had served him faithfully, whatever the consequence for their enemies.
This way of thinking must be borne in mind through much of the bloody imagery of the Revelation. It throws some light, for example, on the phrase which occurs later in this chapter, the vengeance of the Lamb (16). The Lamb, we know, is Christ; and Christ, surely, is not to be thought of as taking vengeance on his enemies. But this word vengeance is not quite so personal in the New Testament as it is in ordinary speech. In Romans 1.18, for example, the same Greek word is translated 'retribution', and probably means, not the personal wrath or revenge of God, but the inevitable consequences of men's evil deeds in any world which is ultimately subject to divine justice. If God was in Christ, and men nevertheless crucified him, their total opposition to God must surely one day be made clear to them. This terrifying reversal might be called (according to these presuppositions) the vengeance of the Lamb.
And so here: it is promised that the martyrs would indeed be vindicated— but not yet; the period of waiting would be a little while longer (11) (an almost technical expression in this kind of writing: see above on John 16.16). There was positive value in these sacrifices, and there were more of them to come (the idea of a tally, or quota of sufferings, that must be completed before the end could come, occurs also in Colossians 1.24). Meanwhile, the martyrs could already enjoy their rightful place in heaven: they were given their white robe of purity, victory and service.
There was a violent earthquake (12), and at the same time a cataclysm in the heavens. The sky was thought of (by poets, if not by astronomers) as a kind of tent stretched over the earth, from which the heavenly bodies were suspended. These heavenly bodies controlled the seasons, and much else, on earth. If they fell, there would be chaos. In this vision, the sky itself vanished. A man reading a scroll of papyrus would hold one end in each hand; when he had finished reading, he would roll it up and put it away. It would be like this with the sky: instead of being stretched out overhead, it would be rolled up, leaving nothing in its place.
At this point, the reaction of all classes of mankind (which here include such suggestive titles as the magnates of eastern kingdoms and the marshals of the Roman army) is painted in colours freely drawn from the Old Testament: compare Isaiah 2.10; Hosea 10.8; Joel 2.11. They recognize, at last, that such things are not just an inexplicable catastrophe of nature, but constitute God's judgement upon themselves. It is the vengeance of God, the great day for which Christians have been praying, when men can no longer deceive themselves about the iniquity of their own deeds.
The church in Asia Minor may have experienced something of these things during the last decades of the first century A.D. But it also experienced periods of peace and comparative security. The secular mind would think of these periods as a return to normal; but to a prophet, who saw in contemporary events the signs of that final stage in history when the tribulations of mankind would necessarily be intensified, they might have seemed abnormal, an exceptional holding back (1) of an inexorable process of destruction. Why were there such pauses? The breaking of the seventh seal is delayed for a moment in order to glance at this question. The end, Jesus had warned, would come suddenly, 'like a thief in the night'; and yet certain things were destined to happen first—the gospel had to be preached throughout the world, the number of the elect had to be filled up. That is to say, an interlude of peace must be understood, not as a time for relaxation, but as a merciful extension of the time in which men might avoid the retribution to come by declaring themselves unambiguously to be on the side of the church, to be God's servants (3). An image lay to hand in Ezekiel's vision (9.3-4) of a man, armed with pen and ink, being instructed by God, "Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of those who groan and lament over the abominations practised there". Those who were so marked would be spared from the imminent catastrophe. John uses the same image, but replaces the ink-mark by a seal: being'' sealed'' seems already to have been an accepted Christian metaphor for becoming a Christian (Ephesians 1.13).
From all the tribes of Israel there were a hundred and forty-four thousand (4). To speak of the actual Jewish people as "the twelve tribes of Israel" would have been sheer antiquarianism: the tribal organization had disappeared at a very early stage in Old Testament history, and in the New Testament period only three of the tribes retained any distinct identity. But the Christian church was encouraged by at least one saying of Jesus (Matthew 19.28) to think of itself as the "new Israel", the true embodiment of the People of God to whom the Old Testament promises had been made. It was natural, therefore, to describe it in terms, not of contemporary Judaism, but of an ideal Israel such as could be discerned in the earlier books of the Old Testament. The order, and even the names, of the twelve tribes vary in the Old Testament lists. John's order is different from any of them, and he omits Dan (perhaps because there was by now a legend that Antichrist would arise from the—extinct—tribe of Dan). But his meaning is expressed in easy symbolism. The church is the new Israel, its members are a perfect multiple of the twelve tribes of remote history.
Yet even while a pause is being made to fill up the predetermined complement of the people of God, there is the hard fact to be reckoned with that Christians from every nation, of all tribes, peoples, and languages (9) have lost their lives. Why have they not been spared? Part of the answer has already been given: their deaths are effective as a sacrifice (6.9). But a further answer is provided by a vision of the existence upon which they have entered in heaven. This magnificent scene (9-17) is built out of Old Testament materials: the motif of the dialogue with one of the elders (13) from Zechariah 4.1-5, the description of the martyrs' felicity (16) from Isaiah 49.10; 25.8 (to mention only a few). But at the centre of it stands a Christian affirmation clothed in start-lingly paradoxical symbolism: they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (14). The martyrs' death was stained with blood. They now have white robes, obtained, not by their own heroism or their own righteousness, but because of their faith in Christ crucified: the blood of the Lamb.
The sequence of breaking the seven seals has been interrupted by a moment of insight into two facets of the history of the church: the time graciously allowed for completing the roll of the new people of God on earth, and the glorious destiny of those who meet suffering and death in the meantime.The sequence is now resumed: one more seal is still to be broken, the last. And that, one would have thought, would be the end of the drama: after the earth had received such punishment, what more could still be in store? And so, with the seventh seal (1), one expects the final cataclysm. It does not come. Instead there was silence in heaven for what seemed half an hour. The climax of this series of seven turns out to be the overture to a further series. For this is John's method. The Revelation contains three of these cycles of seven signals in heaven answered by seven catastrophes on earth. It is hardly possible to set them end to end, as if John were writing a consecutive history of the future of the world. Rather he is composing sets of variations on a single sevenfold theme. And so here: the seventh seal is the cue for a new development altogether, this time announced by the archangels —the seven angels that stand in the presence of God—by means of seven trumpets.
That there were periodic spells of silence in heaven was assumed by Jewish theologians: how otherwise could the prayers of men ever be heard amidst the continual worship which surrounds the throne of God? How, in any case, do human prayers ever reach the ears of God? A time-honoured metaphor gave the answer: they rise to heaven like incense—and this took the mind, once again, to the temple in Jerusalem, where every day, morning and evening, a priest entered the Holy Place and offered incense on the golden altar (3); at the same time, one of the seven Levites appointed for the task blew a blast on his trumpet that could be heard (men said) as far away as Jericho. These are the elements (or some of them) out of which John built his description of this dramatic moment in heaven. And he adds one thing more: the prayers were the prayers of all God's people. As such, they were answered. How did they know? Because God gave the usual sign: peals of thunder, lightning, and an earthquake (5). A similar sign is given in Acts 4-31.
Seven trumpets (6). In Jerusalem, a trumpet was blown at regular times to announce a religious service or festival, but also at exceptional times (like church bells before the age of sirens and radio) to announce any natural calamity. The first four angels' trumpets are the signals for natural, but not yet supernatural, catastrophes: a third of the world suffers, the disasters are as severe as anyone can conceive. They certainly merit their place among the portents of the end; but they do not yet exceed the bounds of human experience.
As before, John mingles the language of the Bible with recollections of recent events (7-12). Three of the plagues which Moses brought upon Egypt—hail, blood and darkness (Exodus 7-10)—form the framework; fire is added, perhaps from Joel 2.30, the blazing mountain from Jeremiah 51.25. The poisoning of rivers and streams in a time of great heat was a calamity prophesied already by Jeremiah (9.15; 23.15) and taken up in more recent Jewish writing. Wormwood (11) is a bitter plant, and was thought to be poisonous: this n would be the immediate cause; but the remote cause (in an age given to astrology) would be assumed to be the influence of an evil star.
Did such things happen? If, as is likely, Revelation was written after A.D. 79, when the sudden eruption of Vesuvius completely engulfed the city of Pompeii with molten lava, filled the air with sulphurous dust, and destroyed the ships in the gulf of Naples, then John's readers, from the reports they had heard of the catastrophe, would have had no difficulty in picturing what looked like a great blazing mountain being hurled into the sea (8). John was not the only Jewish writer whose imagination was kindled by that event.
The cry of an eagle—Woe (13), a syllable which in the Greek (ouai) sounds not unlike the call of a bird—accompanied each of the last three trumpet blasts. This extra note of terror goes with an extra dimension of evil which attends these final plagues: demonic forces are joined to the effects of natural disasters. Here the images melt into one another.
First, a star that had fallen (1)—but the stars were believed to be controlled by angels or spirits, one of whom, descending with the star, could unlock the shaft of the abyss (2). This is the geology of myth: in the primordial conflict between God and chaos, the unwanted waters of the ocean, along with destructive elemental forces, were finally imprisoned far beneath the earth; their only escape was through a single shaft to which God held the key. To open this shaft was to threaten the earth with a new onslaught from the forces of destruction which had been so long suppressed. What rises first is smoke; but the cloud of smoke turns into a cloud of locusts—a swarm of these creatures can look like a cloud against the sun. Locusts—as the prophet Joel noticed in his terrifying description of a plague of them (2.4-5)—have something in their appearance that makes one think of horses; so, in John's vision, they turn into almost human cavalry, the metallic sound of their wings being like the noise of horses and chariots rushing to battle (9). Indeed, they become centaurs; and since, in the east, the Centaur (Sagittarius) of the zodiac was sometimes depicted, not only with the traditional bow (equipped for battle (7)) and long hair (like women's hair), but with the tail of its neighbouring sign Scorpio (they had tails like scorpions (9)), it is possible that what started in John's mind as one of Moses' plagues on Egypt—the locusts —became fused (through Joel's description of them as horses) with a more sinister influence suggested by a sign of the zodiac, able to afflict men instead of green things, and lasting the full five months (5) which lie between the beginning of the period of Scorpio and the end of the year. That is to say, these are not locusts at all, but demons in insect form, marching under one of the signs in the heavens. They have a king, the angel of the abyss (11), the power who commands all the suppressed evil of the universe, Satan, the devil. Shunning his name, John gives an equivalent, the Destroyer. (In Hebrew, this equivalent, Abaddon, occurs in Job 26.6 and other places in the later books of the Old Testament.)
The sixth angel (13). The ceremony in heaven consists of a trumpet blast, a voice coming from between the horns of the golden altar (it was a characteristic of altars in Israel that they had a "horn", or vertical projection, at each of the corners), and the release of the four angels held bound at the great river Euphrates (14). These last angels form the immediate link, so to speak, with events on earth. The kingdoms of the world were believed to be ultimately controlled by supernatural powers—angels, spirits or demons. The river Euphrates was now the eastern frontier of the Roman empire; it had also been for centuries the north-east frontier which separated Syria and Palestine from the Assyrian, and subsequently the Parthian, empires. The most dreaded enemies of Israel had always come "from the north", and awesome descriptions of these northern warriors occur frequently in the Old Testament prophets. The menace had reasserted itself in recent times: the Parthians had inflicted humiliating defeats on the Romans in 53 B.C. and again in A.D. 62. Their immense forces of cavalry—mounted bowmen who
19 shot with deadly accuracy both when charging and when retiring (the power of the horses lay in their mouths, and in their tails also (19))—had become a symbol of the incalculable military power of the barbarian hordes of the east that were constantly threatening the frontiers of the Roman empire. To the Romans, the Parthians constituted a military problem. To a visionary of the Jewish tradition, who was convinced of the imminent fall of Rome as a punishment by God for the iniquities of Roman rule, they represented one of the most obvious means by which this fall would be brought about. It was not that the Parthians were not yet strong enough to attack: the delay was rather to be understood as another instance of God deliberately holding back the forces of destruction until the predestined moment. That moment, in John's vision, had now come. The image of the Parthian cavalry is elaborated into a free description of mythological beasts, representing the innumerable horsemen and deadly weapons of the nations of the east.
The rest of mankind (20). The attack from the east might destroy the Roman
empire, but would it affect the fundamental paganism of Greco-Roman culture? To the Jew (and also to the Christian) the most offensive thing about this civilization was its polytheism, its multitudinous statues and temples, and the unashamed materialism which went with so much of pagan religion. To cover all this, Jewish writers used the one word "idolatry", and applied to it all the polemics they found in the Old Testament against religions which (unlike the pure worship of the Jews) seemed to be directed towards gods their hands had fashioned. (Psalm 135.15-17 seems to be particularly in mind here, but there are many similar passages in the Old Testament.) They also saw in their pagan neighbours a permissiveness towards certain vices which were particularly abhorrent to Hebrew culture, especially sorcery and fornication (21). Any real change of heart in the world at large must surely involve a change of heart over these basic things. The purpose of this revealing of 'divine retribution' (Romans 1.18) was to encourage such a change of heart. But John, having seen no such change resulting from the calamities of his own lifetime, realized that even the intensified tribulations of the future would not alter the basic propensities of human nature.
All this time John has enjoyed the supreme privilege of the seer. From his vantage-point in heaven, he has witnessed both the preparation of the scenario by God and its acting out on earth. He has had full insight, not only into the pre-ordained course of history, but into its meaning within the grand purposes of God. But now, in the heavy and ominous pause which precedes the final trumpet blast, John finds himself once more on earth, his powers of vision provisionally limited like those of other prophets. Before, when he saw a mighty angel and a scroll, he was in heaven, and he was allowed to witness both the unsealing of the scroll and the corresponding events on earth. But now he is on earth—as it might be on Patmos—and he sees a second mighty angel coming down from heaven. The building up of thunderclouds as seen across the sea could well have suggested his description of this angel, and when at last the thunder comes, it is the voice of God himself, roaring like a lion (the metaphors were traditional: Psalm 29.3-9; 3 Hosea 11.10; Amos 1.2). But not all that a man hears of God is communicable. Paul, in an experience of paradise, heard ' words so secret that human lips may not repeat them' (4) (2 Corinthians 12.4). John, likewise, is forbidden to write down the thunderous words of God. Instead, he has to be content with partial understanding, a little scroll (2). He is after all one of God's servants the prophets (7). He stands alongside other Christian prophets in the succession of the great prophets of the Old Testament. The question mark which had always hung over the prophecies of these men was not so much, Was their vision true? But, how much longer would it be before it came to pass? To John, along with all the prophets, is now given the confirmation their work cried out for: 'There shall be no more delay'. (The angel's manner of swearing the great oath (6) is modelled on Daniel 12.7.)
'Take it, and eat it' (9). As a metaphor, the word of God that tastes sweet in the mouth is common enough in the Old Testament. The more elaborate picture of a prophet actually eating the words of a book before prophesying occurs in Ezekiel 3.1-3, and is closely reproduced here. The book of destiny can never be read straight off. It has to be digested and meditated before it can be communicated. The experience, for the prophet, is precious. As Ezekiel,put it, "It was in my mouth as sweet as honey". But the message
to be imparted was a heavy one; and John adds, my stomach turned sour (10).
I was given a long cane, a kind of measuring-rod (1). After the destruction of Solomon's temple in 586 B.C., two prophets, Ezekiel (40.3) and Zechariah (2.1-2), received visions of measurements being taken for a new temple: for each, it was a symbolic assurance that the religious life of Israel would soon be re-established. Not long before John was writing, the temple had been once again totally destroyed by the Romans. In the tradition of the great prophets, John received a vision of its imminent replacement.
But John was a Christian prophet, and the new temple which Christians looked forward to was not a localized masonry structure, but a body of people, the church. For them, " temple" and "altar " had become metaphors: the new temple created by Christ consisted only of the worshippers. Yet one feature of the old temple could not be absorbed, even as a metaphor, into the new. In Jerusalem, the central area containing the temple building itself and the immediately surrounding courtyards was accessible only to Jews: it was thought too holy to be profaned by gentile visitors. But the immense terrace around this area, though still part of the temple and under the authority of the priests, was open to all: Gentiles could enter freely, and mingle with Jewish worshippers. This arrangement was symbolic of the relationship between Judaism and the world. In the Roman empire, the Jewish religion was officially sanctioned, and Jewish worship continued peacefully in gentile cities, sometimes actually attended by gentile sympathizers. Quite different was the situation of the new temple—the church—in the pagan world. In this period of intensified tribulation, the Gentiles (2) (a word by which Jewish Christians often meant "non-Christians") would continue to be implacably opposed to the new Israel with its new temple (the Christians and their church). Persecution was mounting. There was no outer court where Christians and non-Christians could mingle peacefully together.
For any observer, whether Jewish or Christian, the sack of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was the end, not only of a nation, but of a religious ideal. That God had given the heathen permission to trample the Holy City underfoot (as the writer of Isaiah 63.18 had described a previous sack of Jerusalem, and as Jesus himself had prophesied, according to Luke 21.24) could only constitute a divine judgement upon his own people. This debacle had taken place in recent memory when John wrote. The shrine of the worship of the true God had been extinguished. What was to take its place? The answer was the Christian church. But no city, or building, or institution, now enjoyed the respect from the pagan world which Jerusalem and its temple had once received. The church had gone, so to speak, underground: the heathen were trampling the whole world with no respect for any place set apart to the God of Israel, who was also the God of Christians. Christians now, like the Jews in the war of A.D. 66-70, saw their very identity threatened. It was the time that had been foretold of great tribulation. How long would it last? John was writing to his suffering fellow-Christians. His purpose was the same as that of many Jewish writers before him: to give his readers hope and courage; and he used the same idiom. What they had to express was their conviction that the period of distress was finite; it had an end set to it, therefore it could last only a certain time, a given number of years, months and days. But not, obviously, a random number: God had imposed a pattern on time when he created the week of seven days. Any significant period of history must be reckoned in sevens, or in a fraction of seven. Daniel, predicting the length of oppression under Antiochus Epiphanes, had opted for a half-week—"a time, two times and half a time" (12.7). What were these 3½ "times"? Days, months, years? Probably Daniel deliberately left the symbol open. The point was that it was certainly finite, and would certainly be the kind of period which would betray, even in the arithmetic of its units, the providence of God. John here uses the same idiom. Forty-two months ... twelve hundred and sixty days (3) sounds more precise than Daniel's formula. But it represents the same symbolic half-week of years; it is any period that is moving swiftly to its end in God's predetermined time-scale.
If everything holy is to be trampled underfoot, how will the church survive? With no prospect of establishing itself visibly against the onslaughts of its persecutors, what will be the manner of its existence? Here John's images melt into each other. The first function of the church will be to bear witness—witness to the facts of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and witness to the continuing presence of Christ in his church. Witness, in a Jewish court, had normally to be borne by not less than two persons; the church is therefore pictured in the form of two witnesses. Its heavenly counterpart, we know, is a set of lamps (1.12), like the seven-branched candlestick that stood by the door of the inner sanctuary of the temple. Think of the church as two witnesses, and you may think of two lamps; but better still, think of the two olive-trees which Zechariah in his vision (4.3-14) saw on either side of the lampstand, representing the two "anointed ones" who, as king and priest, were to lead (lie people of God (Christians, John said at the beginning (1.6), are both kings and priests). This is how they might appear in heaven: on earth, they appear as two typical prophets, calling unceasingly for repentance, and dressed in sackcloth (3). Yet they are more than ordinary prophets. They have the attributes of Moses and Elijah—Moses, who had the power to turn water to blood and to strike the earth at will with every kind of plague (6) (Exodus 7-12), Elijah, who was a man of fire (5) (2 Kings 1; Ecclesiasticus 48.1-3), and had the power to shut up the sky (6) (1 Kings 17). They stand, that is, for the Law and the prophets, for the rule of life the church proclaims and the inspiration by which it is led. Yet even this witness of the church will not prevail. The beast that comes up from the abyss (7)—the superhuman force of evil which has been held in check until this moment— will defeat and kill them (8). Indeed they will suffer the last indignity of being refused burial, and will lie exposed to the gaze of their enemies throughout the three days when, people said, the soul might still return to the body (see above on John 11.39). The city which allowed such a thing could well be given a name of proverbial notoriety, like Sodom (or Egypt, the place of Israel's bondage before the time of Moses). Jerusalem itself had crucified Jesus, and so branded itself as Sodom; similar things could happen in any city. The conscience of the world, it would seem, had been finally eliminated. The voice of God was silenced for ever. Or so people would think.
But Christians knew that this was all part of the destiny of the Son of Man —the destiny of Jesus himself, the destiny of those who followed him, the destiny even of Elijah when he returned to earth before the End (according at least to one version of the Elijah saga).
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet (15). This is evidently the climax, the end towards which the whole series of trumpets (and the briefer series of woes which double the last three trumpets) have been tending. Yet this end is not accomplished in a moment. It is not a shapeless cataclysm effacing all that has gone before, but a reasoned judgement upon the whole of history. To be understood, its several aspects have to be explained. This is the function of the second half of the Revelation.
It is in John's manner to describe first what takes place in heaven, before revealing the corresponding events on earth. This time, it is a hymn of praise (17-18). God is king and has always been so; but his kingship has not been fully recognized on earth. Christians, like Jews, pray 'Thy kingdom come', not doubting for a moment that God is already on his throne, but expressing their faith that his kingship will one day be manifest, not just to those who worship him, but to all mankind. The seventh trumpet is the signal that this has at last come about; and its immediate consequence is a burst of praise from the worshippers: what they have been praying for has at last come to pass.
Some of the words for such a hymn were suggested by Psalm 2, which was originally the triumphal enthronement-song of a king of Israel, the "anointed king" of the Lord, hut which seemed to the early church to contain numerous prophecies of Christ; others by other psalms (see especially Psalm 115.13). The essential elements of this final establishment of God's kingship are all there: the Last Judgement takes place, the righteous are recompensed for what they have suffered at the hands of the wicked, and the destructive forces of evil that have long seemed to hold the field are themselves finally destroyed.
Another way of putting this was simply to imagine the splendour of God fully revealed to all men on earth. Suppose you were in the temple in Jerusalem, and had before you the curtain which hid from view the dark inmost sanctuary where God was thought to dwell, the Most Holy Place. The curtain, the darkness, the mystery symbolized the effort of faith required to believe in the lordship of God. But imagine now the curtain removed, the darkness turned to light, so that the divine presence was visible to all; and then transfer this vision from the Jerusalem temple of history to the eternal realities of heaven. God's temple in heaven was laid open (19). In the old days, that innermost sanctuary had contained the original ark of his covenant, the symbol of God's faithfulness towards those who perform his will. It is this aspect of God, at the moment of judgement, which is placed before the eyes of men.
Next appeared a great portent in heaven (1). No one in antiquity who looked at the night sky saw a mere mass of undifferentiated stars. Each constellation had its name, and the regularity of the movements of the heavenly bodies was known and understood. Indeed it was essential to understand them. It had long been realized that the rising or setting of certain stars was a sign of the beginning of certain seasons, a signal for ploughing or harvesting; and in the last; two centuries before Christ the notion that events on earth arc controlled by the movements of the heavenly bodies grew into a complex astrological sciencc which exercised a powerful hold on people's minds. John's vision of portents in heaven corresponding to portents on earth was no more than an extension of this widespread way of thinking.
But each constellation also had its own character. Named after some god or hero in Greek mythology, each presented a still shot, so to speak, from an old story: Orion for ever bore his sword, Andromeda her chains. The timeless myths of classical antiquity were all caught in action as eternal pictures in the heavens.
A classical writer, therefore, when describing the night sky, involuntarily borrowed images from pagan mythology. These were the familiar terms in which the sky was known, and the regularity of the stars was a sign and guarantee of the orderly succession of events on earth. Conversely, any prophet who foresaw a major interruption of the normal course of history must necessarily envisage a significant dislocation of the heavenly bodies. Moreover, if the prophet were a Christian, he would also be disposed to find in the constellations, not a reminder of pagan myths, but images suggesting the actual course of Christian history. In his hands the current language of astrology would be subtly transformed. But his readers would know their map of the heavens as well as we know the map of Europe. A woman in heaven would have suggested the Virgin of the zodiac as naturally as the "heel" suggests to us the south of Italy.
It is likely, therefore, that John's description of a woman robed with the sun was suggested at least in the first instance by the Virgin of the zodiac in the season when the sun rises in that constellation. In a complete chart of the zodiac, sun, moon and stars would belong equally to all the signs; but in the period of Virgo, it would have been natural to think of the moon beneath her feet (for the moon rises in the same quarter as the sun) and a crown of twelve stars indicating her sovereignty in the heavens. Who, then, was this woman in the sky? Pagan writers connected Virgo with various myths; but John, a Jewish Christian, drew upon the Old Testament. One figure suggested itself, the Daughter of Zion. This of course was not a real person at all: it was the personification of an idea, a poetic code-name, both for the inhabitants of Jerusalem itself and for that ideal of society cherished by the great prophets. One day (they believed) the people of Israel, or a part of it, would become fully obedient to the will of God and fully responsive to the demands of its high destiny. A nucleus of pious men would at last be established in Jerusalem worthy of the great promises which God had made to the Jewish people. This nucleus they often called the Daughter of Zion.
"Writhe and groan, O Daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail", the prophet Micah had cried (4.10), seeing the citizens of Jerusalem carried off into exile in Babylon, and with them the hope of a perfect nation of the future. And the same metaphor could be elaborated: if her suffering was like birt h-pangs, it would bring forth a child (Isaiah 66.7-9), the suffering would be the very process which brought forth the perfect community. So far the Old Testament: but for Christians the image took on new life. The church was the true Israel, the community in which God's ancient promises were destined to be fulfilled. In the Daughter of Zion they saw themselves, in her birth-pangs their own tribulations. In the anguish of her labour she cried out to be delivered (2). John sees in the Sign of the Virgin a still shot, as it were, from the continuing drama of the sufferings of the church on earth.
But this was only the beginning of John's interpretation. The Daughter of Zion now symbolized the new community which was founded by the death and resurrection of Christ; but she still represented also the historic people of God out of which Christ himself had been born: she had already given birth to one momentous child—so momentous, that there must surely have been a major change among the heavenly bodies to signal so great a revolution in human affairs. Matthew's gospel expresses this astrological necessity in the story of the new star recognized by astrologers from the east (2.1-2). John puts it more dramatically in terms of a mythical conflict in heaven between Virgo on the one hand, and on the other a great red dragon (3) (perhaps Hydra, or Serpens) with a tail sweeping through the sky, as in a vision of Daniel (8.10). The myth itself was almost universal. Again and again, in classical and oriental literature, we read of an infant god or infant hero whom some power of evil tries to eliminate at the moment of birth, but who is snatched away and kept safe until he is of an age to fulfil his glorious destiny. The myth was true of Jesus: in a literal way, it was acted out in the story of Mary and Joseph's flight to Egypt in Matthew 2.13-15; in a more fundamental sense, it was fulfilled when Jesus, through the crucifixion and the resurrection, was snatched from the power of the devil, and was established as the one (to quote Psalm 2 again) who was destined to rule all nations with an iron rod (5). But the woman herself (6)—even if, to our minds, Virgo seems to be turning into the Virgin Mary, the actual mother of Jesus—-still represented the people of God. That people (now the church) was to live in the wilds during a spell of persecution which would last (as we have been told earlier) for a symbolic period of 3½ years, twelve hundred and sixty days. All this mythology—now rendered true and actual in the facts of Christian history—John reads off from the symbolic constellations in the sky.
Then war broke out in heaven (7). John now looks beyond the visible sky to the real heaven where the ultimate destiny of the world was to be decided. The archangel Michael was believed to be the heavenly patron of Israel, and so, by extension, of the new people of God. The final contest between the church and the pagan world was to reach such a pitch of intensity (this is the very kernel of John's vision of the future) that no Christian would think of it merely as an issue between men and men. Behind each side stood super-natural forces, and llie real war would be fought out in heaven. The idea of a final battle between Michael and Satan was an old one (Daniel 12.1); John had only to combine it with the myth of the dragon. The dragon was a serpent, the serpent of old (9), who tempted Eve and so led the whole world astray, that is, Satan, or the Devil. In a sense, of course, Satan was always active on earth; some believed that he had been thrown down from his original place in heaven at the beginning of the world's history. But even so, this was nothing to the ravages he would cause on earth in the last days. His original fall (if it took place) had been no more than a rehearsal for his decisive overthrow at the end.
In a strict chronological scheme, this would make difficulties. The devil is defeated, yet he is still at work; the victory should be final, yet there still seems to be more fighting to come. One must ask, why this repeated prolongation of the battle? The answer lies in the whole conception of the Revelation. The book was based on the proposition (which was taken for granted in a great deal of early Christian thinking) that sin, persecution and error were not just permanent elements of the human condition which men could be helped to overcome by faith in Christ, but were caused by supernatural forces, and that what Christ had done for men could be described in terms of his victory over those forces: if Christ had defeated the devil, the devil could no longer cause men to sin. Now this was precisely what Christ had done on the cross; and his followers, through their solidarity with him, were now immune from the fatal consequences of sin. Nevertheless, error, sin and death were still rife in the world. That is to say, the devil had been defeated, but he could still do a great deal of damage in defeat. Consequently, John's vision of The powers of darkness conquered had to allow for various stages in his final elimination. The first stage was his expulsion from the heavenly court, where, in his role of accuser (10), he had been trying to bring evidence against Christians. His expulsion was caused not only by the sacrifice of the Lamb (11) (the crucifixion) but by the testimony of all those against whom Satan found he had no charge to bring, since they had been willing to die rather than compromise their Christian profession—they did not hold their lives too dear to lay them down. (This is the cue for another triumph-song in heaven.) But there was still another stage to come of the devil's defeat, his death-throes, so to speak, in his place of punishment. 'Woe to you, earth and sea, for the Devil has come down to you in great fury' (12).
To describe this stage, John returns to his star-myth of the woman and the dragon. When we last heard of the woman (who is now the church), she had fled into the wilds (6). The story is picked up again at the same point, John adding only that she reached her refuge by means of two great eagle's wings (14). (Virgo was often depicted with wings in art; or perhaps the idea is that another constellation, Aquila, came to her aid.)
He took his stand on the sea-shore (1). All that the church suffered was ultimately traceable to the devil; but the dragon himself was in a sense too general a figure to stand for the particular kinds of suffering which the church had to undergo. These could be represented more vividly as the work of the devil's agents: in the drama of the devil's final overthrow there were lesser forms of evil on his side. Accordingly, John imagines the dragon on the sea-shore, calling up an assistant from the sea.
Then out of the sea I saw a beast rising. It was a general belief that behind the rulers of heathen powers stood demonic forces. The churches in Asia Minor (like John himself, exiled to Patmos) were under Roman rule, and if they suffered, it was in Roman courts, in Roman prisons, and (if it came to that) by Roman executioners. Rome, therefore, was the devil's agent, and John had next to show how Rome itself would be involved in the devil's ultimate fall. There were doubtless many good things—such as peace, stability, and ease of travel—which were due to Roman rule. But there were also certain aspects of it which seemed to Christians so monstrous that they were bound in the end to bring fearful punishment on Rome. These are the aspects which are portrayed in John's imagery.
John's vision starts, once again, from the Book of Daniel (7.1-7). Daniel in his "visions of the night ... saw four huge beasts coming up out of the sea", the last with ten horns; and later he was told that the four beasts signified four successive empires, and the ten horns ten kings who reigned over the last of these empires. John here combines the characteristics of the four beasts into one, for only one empire, that of Rome, was now of significance in world history. He keeps the ten horns: he tells us in 17.12-13 that these are ten of the vassal kings whom the Romans allowed to rule in their name over parts of the east; and he adds seven heads, representing (we learn again in 17.9-10) both the seven hills of Rome and seven Roman Emperors. One of its heads appeared to have received a death-blow; but the mortal wound was healed (3). It seems that the career of Nero, advancing through the murder of his own relatives, and apparently ending with suicide in A.D. 68, had struck particular horror into many minds, and a superstition persisted that he had not died at all, but had fled to the Parthians east of the Euphrates and would one day return at the head of an immense army. In any event, his death had been followed by a period of civil war, when the future of the empire itself had seemed in doubt. These events were enough to have caused a memorable break in the normal succession of "heads ", a scar which might well show on the mythical monster which represented the empire.
We are still in the period of 3½ years, forty-two months (5), the symbol of the time during which the church's suffering was to last. Throughout that time, Rome would have the right to reign. Throughout that time, therefore, there would be a continuance of that particular feature of Roman imperial policy which caused the greatest offence to Jewish and Christian sensibilities. The beast opened its mouth in blasphemy against God, reviling his name and his heavenly dwelling (6). We know what this means. Beginning with Julius Caesar, Roman Emperors had been "deified", that is, given the status and worship due to a god, usually after their death, but more recently even during their lifetime. Their official titles began to include the word "divine": Augustus itself, when rendered into Greek, meant "worshipful". In most of the cities to which John was writing, temples had been built to these "deities"—a mockery of the heavenly dwelling of the one true god. All this, to the passionately monotheistic Jews, caused the greatest scandal. But the Jews were permitted to practise their own religion in peace. They were not forced to assent to the worship of an emperor. Not so the Christians. Any of them who found themselves in a court of law might be put to the test and bidden to offer sacrifice to a statue of the Roman Emperor. Refusing to do so, many of them lost their lives. Indeed, this ordeal could be regarded as decisive for a man's salvation. Only those in the roll of the living (8) would pass the test. The rest would consent to worship the beast. For them, the prophetic judgement (10) was appropriate that was once made by Jeremiah upon his own contemporaries (15.2): there would be no escape from the violent end their conduct merited. The only way to salvation lay in the fortitude and faithfulness of God's people.
The policy of fostering an emperor-cult came ultimately from the Emperor himself, that is, from the distant source of authority which (to John) lay far across the sea (out of the sea I saw a beast rising (1)). But its execution lay in the hands of local officials, whether the Roman provincial governor himself or the regional councils responsible for the organization of the cult. These administrators were doubtless a still more vivid source of horror and fear to the churches than the policy itself, and could be aptly represented by another beast, which came up out of the earth (11). John packs into this symbol some of the actual dangers to which the church was exposed. It worked great miracles, even making fire come down from heaven to earth before men's eyes (13). This is a clear reference to Elijah (1 Kings 18.38), the first of the prophets; and false prophets (who might even perform miracles as part of their deception) were one of the hazards which the church had to expect. They would add their delusive influences to complicate the agonizing decision which Christians had to make in the face of demands to conform to the cult of the Emperor. The pressures of contemporary society, as well as the decrees of the Roman administrators, are all gathered into the symbol of the second beast.
One of the ways in which a ruler impressed his sovereignty most vividly on the minds of his subjects was by the issue of a coinage bearing his image and his title. Throughout the Roman empire, every transaction of buying and selling, if it involved the use of money, meant handling imperial coins. The ordinary citizen constantly held in his hand a head of the Emperor surrounded by an inscription giving his titles, including what seemed to many the blasphemous one AUGUSTUS, which in Greek read ΣΕΒΑΣΤΙΟΣ, "worshipful". This was grist to the mill of John's imagination: holding a coin was like being branded with a mark, not only on the right hand (16), but in a more sinister sense on the forehead, a diabolical counterpart to the 'seal' on the forehead received by God's own people (7.3).
The letters of both the Greek and the Hebrew alphabets served as numerals, and it was a well-known technique to add up the letters composing a proper name. The result could be used as a code-number; or else (according to the popular number-symbolism of the time) a new meaning could be found in a name by working out its numerical value (18). John is clearly doing the second here: the letters in the inscription on a Roman coin could be made to add up to 666. Unfortunately we neither know how he got this answer, nor what he believed it meant. None of the names of the Roman Emperors of the first century a.d. gives the right figure in Greek, though if Hebrew letters are in mind "Nero Caesar" can be made to add up to the right figure. An abbreviated form of Domitian and his titles would also do so in Greek—but this is a long shot, and it is better to confess that we do not know how John arrived at the figure. As for the figure itself, the cluster of sixes doubtless has some significance; but again, we no longer have the clue to the principles of John's symbolical arithmetic.
In one sense, the whole of the Revelation consists of Visions of the end. John was shown 'what must happen hereafter' (4.1). But the end had turned out to have many phases: it was the key to so much of human history, and to so many of the mysteries of God, that it had to be described in its separate aspects if its meaning was to be understood. But there was one end-moment, so to speak, of which men had a particularly vivid picture in their imaginations, so vivid, indeed, that it perhaps seemed to them to express all that really needed to be said about the end. The proposition expressed by this picture was a simple one: at the Last Judgement the righteous would be rewarded, the unrighteous would be punished Any visual picture which represented both parts of this proposition necessarily brought on to a single canvas both
the reward and the punishment; and Jewish writers of a certain mentality drew the naive (and as it seems to us immoral) conclusion from this juxtaposition that one of the joys of the blest in heaven would be the spectacle of the torments now inflicted on those who were once their enemies and persecutors, and that an additional torment of the wicked would be the sight of the righteous, whom they had once despised, now enjoying their heavenly reward.
After the completion of all those events which, in the traditional scheme, were due to come to pass before the Last Judgement could take place, John was now ready to present his own picture of the end. He was too sophisticated a writer to include the motif of the righteous gloating over the condemned. But, if there was to be a Last Judgement at all, some condemned there must be. No representation could do justice to the seriousness of God's sentence upon the wicked unless it depicted a dreadful punishment for them. To this extent, John was bound by the conventions within which he wrote. The resultant scene has an element of horror from which the Christian reader may recoil. Words like wrath and vengeance (10), when applied to God, seem incompatible with the revelation of God's love and mercy in Jesus Christ. Yet, just as the idea of God "choosing" certain men logically implied that others were not "chosen" and were therefore apparently victimized for the sake of those who were, so the idea of God rewarding the righteous logically implied a very much less happy future in store for those who persevered in wickedness. Biblical language tends to paint in black and white. The opposite of reward is punishment. Using such language, and inheriting such a tradition, John was perhaps less free than a modern writer would be to temper the necessary terror of God's ultimate judgement with faith in his ultimate mercy.
On Mount Zion stood the Lamb (1). The right-hand side of the picture (so to speak)—the place of those acquitted by God's judgement—was often represented as a new Jerusalem. Mount Zion, originally the hill on which the oldest city of Jerusalem had been built, became, even in the Old Testament, a symbol for an ideal city of the future. The new feature in John's vision was the Lamb standing there—new, that is to say, because this was a new role for the Lamb: he was now to be king among his own people in heaven. In the words of Psalm 2 (which was doubtless still running in John's mind), "I have enthroned my king on Zion my holy mountain". With him were a hundred and forty-four thousand: this symbolic number has already appeared in chapter 7; it represents the ideal complement of the new Israel, who bore the names of Christ and God on their foreheads instead of the name of the beast. They alone could join in the worship of heaven. They had been ransomed (3)—this metaphor for obtaining salvation through Christ has occurred already in 5.9 ("purchase" and "ransom" translate the same Greek word). But there is also a hint that their own lives and deaths were to benefit others: if they were the firstfruits of humanity (4) it should follow that
a still greater harvest was to come; if they were faultless (5), this meant that (like an animal at the altar) they were fit to be a sacrifice for others. What was it in their conduct which produced these great consequences? We should say, their faith in Christ. But John has very much in mind the ordeal he has just been describing, so he says, no lie was found in their lips—they did not compromise their allegiance to Christ with so much as a word of homage to pagan gods. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes (4)—this is a straightforward description of Christian discipleship. More puzzling is the sentence, These are men who did not defile themselves with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. This has almost always been taken literally, as if John, in the middle of his sweeping description of universal judgement, suddenly chose to concentrate on that very small section of the church which practised celibacy. But, apart from other difficulties, this is hardly in keeping with John's elaborately symbolic style. He had just described the great company of the faithful as the new Israel. In its formative days the Israel of history, when organized for war, believed it should maintain its army in ritual and sexual purity (Deuteronomy 23.9-10; 1 Samuel 21.5). Here was another symbol. In the Bible, any contact with pagan worship was called "fornication". It was doubtless from this, even under compulsion to worship the Roman Emperor, that the righteous had kept themselves chaste.
An angel flying in mid-heaven (6). One side of the judgement-picture is complete, the other—more gruesome—side is still to be painted. But John has something to place in between. All that has gone before is preparation for this judgement, and logically the verdict on each human being must now be given. But, in defiance of such logic, John seems to introduce a last chance. The final catastrophes of history may be significant of God's judgement on the world. But an eternal gospel is still proclaimed up to the very last minute. A constructive reaction is still possible: 'Fear God and pay him homage' (7). By calling the angel's warning a gospel, John can only mean that it is always open to mankind to be saved until the moment when judgement is passed. Between his two panels of reward and punishment, he sets a last opportunity of choice.
Indeed, the choice is made easier. 'Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great' (8). Babylon, the greatest enemy of Israel in the past, was a Jewish and Christian code-name for the greatest city in the contemporary world: Rome. It was Rome which seemed ultimately responsible for the oppressive paganism of civilization. It was she who had made all nations drink of the fierce wine of her fornication—a tumbled combination of Old Testament metaphors which compresses into a few words both the allurement of paganism and its terrible consequenccs. The ultimate fall of Rome seemed inevitable to anyone who stood in the tradition of Jewish seers (John elaborates the theme later). Meanwhile, here was a new factor in the circumstances leading up to God's judgement. When Rome fell, mankind would see the hollowness of all she stood for. Then perhaps they would find it easier to acknowledge God and escape condemnation.
Finally, the other side of the picture: the punishment of those who, despite everything, continue to worship the beast and its image. The wine of God's wrath, poured undiluted into the cup of his vengeance (10) may be good Old Testament language (Isaiah 51.17; Psalm 75.8; Jeremiah 25.15), but it sounds strange in a Christian book. Yet, as was said above, retribution for evil deeds is a concept which is still valid for Christians. Since his justice demands it, God allows it; the writer startles us only by personifying it as the wrath or vengeance of God.
This whole vision might be understood as a commentary on a text which John is now explicitly told to communicate to his churches: "Happy are the dead who die in the faith of Christ" (13). In the face of losses from among their number, this was what they most needed to hear. Paul, after giving to the Corinthians his own vision of the end, summed up in these words: 'Therefore, my beloved brothers ... work for the Lord always, work without limit, since you know that in the Lord your labour cannot be lost' (1 Cor. 15.58). John has now seen for himself the promised rest which follows the labour; and he can offer what is virtually the same reassurance. Christians' labour cannot be lost; "they take with them the record of their deeds".
But this simple picture far from exhausted the repertory of images which John had inherited for describing the Last Judgement. Another vital element was Daniel's vision of the vindication of the righteous: "I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven". This one like a son of man (14) was now, to any Christian writer, Jesus himself; and Jesus had connected his "coming in the clouds" with a final harvesting: 'Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory, and he will send out the angels and gather his chosen from the four winds, from the farthest bounds of earth to the farthest bounds of heaven' (Mark 13.26-7). This suggested a new piece of imagery for the (so to speak) right-hand side of the picture, the gathering of the righteous into the harvest of their reward. What of the other side?
"Let all the nations hear the call to arms
and come to the Valley of the Lord's Judgement ...
Ply the sickle, for the harvest is ripe;
come, tread the grapes,
for the press is full and the vats overflow;
great is the wickedness of the nations".
It is possible that, in John's mind, the two harvesting images both stood for the same horrifying reality on the left-hand side of the picture: the ultimate judgement on the obdurately wicked. But it seems, nevertheless, as if John was deliberately keeping them separate by allotting the grain-harvest to one like a son of man (17) (whom we must guess to be Christ), the grape-harvest to another angel (even though Christ himself is said to tread the winepress later on, 19.15); that is to say, he was still elaborating the traditional picture of the Last Judgement, with the gathering-in of the elect on one side and the destruction of the wicked on the other. At any rate, he leaves us in no doubt about the meaning of the second image. The order is given by the angel who has authority over fire (18) (where perhaps the more literal rendering, "over the fire", would be correct, since the fire involved is certainly the traditional fire of punishment). The winepress of God's wrath (19) is still clearer: the metaphor is worked out in Isaiah 63.1-6. We might say, more squeamishly, that God "allowed" the wicked to be punished. But the imagination of a Hebrew was both more vivid and more logical. If God "allowed" it, then he took full responsibility for it, and could just as well be pictured as carrying it out himself. If the punishment was like a winepress, this was not a concession made by God to inexorable principles of justice, it was a working out of God's own justice, it was the winepress of God's wrath.
John adds a further grisly detail that was already probably traditional in this context. The winepress was trodden outside the city (20): the "Valley of the Lord's Judgement" in Joel's vision (quoted above) was often imagined as the Kedron valley which separates Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. This valley is in fact at the head of a long wady which winds down through the mountains for many miles until it reaches the Dead Sea. In the summer it is dry; but after a spell of heavy rain in the winter it can be a raging torrent. The immense winepress outside Jerusalem is imagined as discharging its gory liquid down the valley in such quantities that horsemen could only just ford the stream—an image that was used by Jewish rabbis to describe the horror of the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. John unexpectedly adds, for two hundred miles. (Around is a word gratuitously added by the NEB. It is hardly right: Jerusalem would never have been imagined as set in a plain that could be filled with blood. Jerusalem is high in the mountains, and the blood would flow down valleys.) In one of Ezekiel's visions (47.1-12), great springs of fresh water rose from under the temple in Jerusalem, filling the valleys, sweetening the stagnant Dead Sea, and flowing on south through the desert towards the Red Sea, some two hundred miles away. John may have been consciously suggesting a gruesome parody of this theme; but in any case his interest was probably, once again, in numbers. Two hundred miles is a correct but prosaic translation. John actually says, "sixteen hundred slades". We can guess that this number (which contains the square of 4) seemed significant to him, even though we no longer possess the clue to his arithmetical symbolism.
Then I saw ... seven angels. with seven plagues (1). In what manner
John saw them is about to be told. But to the reader of the Old Testament the word "plagues" suggested, not just natural calamities, but a scourge visited on a particular people for the ultimate benefit of others. Through Moses, plagues had afflicted the Egyptians to the benefit of the people of Israel. These last plagues of all, which symbolized the final phase of God's judgement upon the earth, were to follow a similar programme. Immune from
a them now were those who had won the victory over the beast (2): they stood beside the sea of glass, which was described earlier as part of the landscape of heaven (4.6), but which was now shot with fire, perhaps suggesting that it was also a sea of ordeal, like the Red Sea through which the original Exodus had taken place. Their reaction to the plagues was like the song of Moses after the deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 15): Moses saw in that deliverance something which redounded to the glory of God and filled whole nations with awe. It was also the song of the Lamb (3), since the deliverance had been entirely through Christ; and the greater the deliverance, the more effect could be expected on the nations who witnessed it: when those who served God (and not the beast) were delivered, it was a revelation of
God's just dealings (4). Plagues were necessarily visited on someone; some people must suffer from them. But in biblical thinking (even if there is logically little room for the thought at this stage in the Revelation, since one wonders who is left to be an onlooker), the justification for such afflictions was the effect they had on others. To put it in thoroughly scriptural language (and the whole song is a tissue of Old Testament phrases), 'All nations shall come and worship in thy presence, for thy just dealings stand revealed'.
The plagues, then, were to be no orgy of indiscriminate destruction, but an expression of God's justice: and this determines the symbolism which follows. John repeats from chapter 4 the dramatic image of the opening of the door or curtain that concealed the innermost sanctuary of the temple (or, if one thought of the ideal description in Exodus rather than of its actual realization in Jerusalem, of the Tent of Testimony) ( 5). But this time the feature of that sanctuary which is most in his mind is the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tables of Law which Moses wrote at the dictation of God. This Law was the definitive expression of God's justice; and the final vindication of God's justice involved the punishment of those who disobeyed. Hence the mission of the seven angels, symbolically described as the pouring of seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God (7).
A further series of seven may cause surprise at this point, when everything seems to be tending towards its final end. But for John (as for any biblical writer) the end meant judgement; and the ultimate judgement on mankind must be seen to be appropriate to the various atrocities which mankind had committed. The point is made explicit after the third bowl: 'they shed the blood of thy people ... and thou hast given them blood to drink (6). Even the angel of the waters (5) admits the justice of this, who is the representative in heaven of that element on earth; and of course the altar agrees (7), which is soaked with the blood in question (6.9). The point becomes still more obvious as the plagues proceed from the physical elements of the earth to specific political entities: doom, if it is to be seen as a function of God's justice, must be analysed into its component parts. But there is also an artistic reason for a further series of seven. It allows the writer scope to take as his model the plagues visited on Egypt (sores (2), waters turned to blood (3-4), darkness (10), frogs (13) and hailstones (21), all occur in Exodus 7-10), and it also enables him to match the effects of the seven trumpets (8.6-11.15) with another intensified series: previously, repentance was still possible; but this time men only cursed the God of heaven for their sores and pains (11), for now the moment had come for executing justice, not for launching yet another appeal for repentance.
After the first four general plagues, which affect the natural environment indiscriminately (though with a certain rough justice, the mark of the beast turning to sores, the shedding of blood leading to drinking it, and possibly the burning of Christians by Nero being rewarded with a burning sun), the punishments become focused on political entities. The darkness (10) of the Egyptian story is here visited on the throne of the beast, which we know from chapter 13 to mean the cult of the Roman Emperor: possibly the darkness is an allusion to the period of anarchy and disputed succession which followed the death of Nero in A.D. 68. The great river Euphrates (12), as in the trumpet series, is the eastern frontier where Parthian troops were constantly thought to be massing for a final assault upon Rome. Part of the necessary preparation for the end was the removal of this natural barrier, so that the way might be open for the kings from the east. For perhaps it was not easy to conceive of the final visitation of God's justice taking place simultaneously in widely distant places. One needed to be able to imagine the kingdoms of the world gathered together for the purpose. What would produce this extraordinary and comprehensive gathering? Why, a great battle involving everyone, the great day of battle of God the sovereign Lord (14). But of course the kings and emperors would not naturally commit themselves to this all-or-nothing confrontation on a gigantic battlefield. To get them there demonic powers of persuasion would be needed. True to the character of the contending powers (13.14), out of their mouths came devils, with power to work miracles, and so to muster all the kings of the world. Where would this great battle take place? What site more natural than one of the great and tragic battlefields of Jewish history, Megiddo (Judges 5.19; 2 Kings 9.27; 23.29): Zechariah, in his own prophecy (which was much meditated on by John), used this evocative name (12.11); but John, perhaps to make his geography more solemn and mysterious, calls it Armageddon (16), and tells us this is Hebrew. We can construe the word: harmegiddo means "Mount Megiddo". We protest: Megiddo is (as battlefields must be) in a plain, the great plain between Samaria and Galilee. Only Mount Carmel is in the neighbourhood. Perhaps John simply wished to work in Carmel as well, with its association of the punishment of idolatrous worship (1 Kings 18).
('That is the day when I come like a thief!' (15) This saying of Christ has already been referred to in 3.3. Christ's "coming" can mean many things, even—apparently—Armageddon. But whatever it means, the message is the same: be prepared, stay awake.)
'It is over!' (17) Three syllables of a Greek word (which suggest by their sound—ge-go-nen—a clap of thunder) bring the drama to a close. Everything was now on a cosmic scale. People in Asia Minor had experienced catastrophic earthquakes, but this one was like none before it in human history, so violent it was (18). They had suffered from terrible hail, but not from hailstones, weighing perhaps a hundredweight (21). Mountainous islands had been known to disappear in the Aegean through volcanic eruptions, but this was to be a complete redrawing of the map of the world.
Yet even the series of seven plagues did not give John scope to show exactly how God's justice was visited upon the greatest offenders. In particular, he needed to emphasize that God did not forget Babylon the great (19)—always the symbol for the city of Rome—but made her drink the cup which was filled with the fierce wine of his vengeance. After the general description of the end of the kingdoms of the world, the next two chapters provide as it were a close-up of this particular scene of the drama.
'Come, and I will show you the judgement on the great whore' (1). The Old Testament prophets, contemplating the capitals of the east at their moment of greatest influence and wealth, were the first to establish this metaphor in literature. Nineveh (Nahum 3.4), Tyre (Isaiah 23.16-17), even Jerusalem itself in its moments of religious infidelity (Isaiah 1.21), were each described as a whore: the word suggested both a spiritual permissiveness and promiscuity, contrasting with Israel's uncompromising worship of the one true God, and a state of material luxury, contrasting with the simplicity and austerity of living that went with obedience to the Jewish faith. It epitomized the paganism, the idolatry, and the affluence based on social injustice, which so forcibly struck the Jewish people when they contemplated their powerful neighbours. To some, these features of a great city might have seemed a symbol of lasting power. But the prophets knew better: these things were essentially sinful, and attracted inexorably the judgement of God. Their writings contain elaborate prophecies of the inevitable downfall of such cities—prophecies which were fulfilled as the splendour of each one passed away and gave place to another.
Contemplating the Rome of his own day, John stood in the tradition of these prophets. From Isaiah (21.1, 9), he took the pattern of a vision seen in the wilds (3), at the end of which the cry is heard, 'Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great.' ((2)From the great oracle in Jeremiah about the fall of the historical Babylon (51.6-14), he took the image of a woman holding a gold cup (17.4), making drunk men all over the world (2) and having her seat by the "many waters" of the Euphrates (enthroned above the ocean (1) is a free translation, which obscures the reference to Jeremiah's image; though John draws more than Jeremiah does out of the image by making the waters stand for an ocean of peoples and populations, nations and languages (15)). But John was not merely working, like a prophet, with powerful metaphors. He did not just describe Rome as a whore, he had a vision of an actual whore which he then interpreted as Rome. He saw her mounted on the beast (3) that he had seen in a previous vision (chapter 13): he saw her clothes, of which the colours and the magnificence recalled those of the Roman Emperor; and he saw a name written on her forehead (5), just as (we are told) it was the impudent custom of harlots in Rome to advertise themselves by wearing their name on a band across their foreheads. The name was 'Babylon the great'—Babylon, which long after the fall of its empire remained the prototype of any great imperial city. In John's day, the role of Babylon was manifestly played by Rome, and Rome had all the classical attributes of such a city. She also had a new one, of particular horror to Christian readers: she was drunk with the blood of God's people and with the blood of those who had borne their testimony to Jesus (6, 7). In the manner of the author of Daniel 7, John tells us his own astonishment at the vision and records the interpretation given to him by an angel. 'I will tell you the secret of the woman'. To a certain extent, there was of course no secret. The woman was Rome, and the beast she was riding (as we know from 13.1-8) was the dynastic succession of Caesars who had blasphemously assumed the title, "god". The details of the symbolism were easy to read. But this did not exhaust their meaning. There was still a secret hidden among the familiar attributes of Rome which it was important for John's readers to know.
For example, they may have known what the beast was; what they did not know was that it could be described as one who was once alive, and is alive no longer, but has yet to ascend out of the abyss (8). That is to say, the empire was the embodiment of an old myth, the myth that the monster of evil and chaos, which had been subdued when the earth was created, and would remain imprisoned in the abyss for most of the world's history, would have a brief period of terrible freedom before the end. The beast symbolized a fearful pattern in llie destiny of Rome: her present power was as nothing to the absolute power and absolute terror she would wield in the last phase of her history, to the astonishment of all mankind except those who (being Christians) understood these things and were invulnerable in Christ.
Or again: the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits (9). One hardly needed to be told this. Everyone knew that Rome was built on seven hills. But—they represent also seven kings (10) (or emperors: the Greek word would be the same for both). That is to say: the succession of the emperors conformed to John's pattern of symbolic numbers; it was finite, and was moving rapidly towards the end of the series. It was not in the style of this kind of writing to make exact historical predictions, and it is unlikely that John was committing himself by saying, for example, that Domitian or Trajan was to be the last or the last but one.What he was almost certainly doing was saying that the series, like the periods of world history, would inevitably fall into a pattern of seven—a symbolic "week"—and that (however it worked out exactly) the end would not be slow in coming. Moreover, the pattern was to show a significant variation. John has already given a hint (13.3) that he shared the prevalent, almost superstitious, awe at the memory of the reign of Nero. Nero would return; he was, so to speak, a microcosm of the mythical beast that once was alive and is alive no longer (11), but is still to have its period of destructive freedom before the end. John turns this popular dread of a re-incarnation of Nero to the advantage of his scheme: the series of Roman Emperors will be brought to an end by an anarchic power such as this, an eighth—and yet he is one of the seven, and he is going to perdition.
The ten horns you saw are ten kings (12). The beast in Daniel's vision had ten horns, each signifying a king (7.24). The same detail fits John's vision, since the Romans allowed vassal kings to hold territories in the eastern part of the empire, and these kings also, like the Emperor, tended to adopt blasphemous-sounding titles like "saviour" or even "god". They were therefore a fitting element in the total character of the beast; and so long as the empire lasted, they would necessarily share Rome's policy towards Christians.
How would the whore meet her end? In pictorial terms, she would receive the traditional punishment of the adulteress (16): stripping and humiliation (Hosea 2.3)—but she was also a city, so she would be pillaged and burnt to ashes. In political terms, she would succumb to an eventual revolt of all the eastern kingdoms against the western tyranny. Their subjection to Rome, after all, had been unnatural, and would last only so long as was necessary for God's overriding purpose to be fulfilled.
It remained only to return from symbols to reality, and to describe the ruin of the city itself. John may never have seen Rome; but he will have known of its size and splendour, and will have been aware what a fantastic picture of destruction was involved in his prophecy that in one hour so much wealth should be laid waste (16). Once more, he drew heavily on
passages of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, describing the doom of earlier cities. The picture of ruins infested by beasts and demons (2) is from Isaiah 13.20-1; the warning to come out before it is too late (4) from Jeremiah 51.6; the notion of divine justice paying the city back in her own coin (6) occurs often in the prophets, and the double payment (7) is suggested by Isaiah 40.2; the boasting words (7-8) followed by retribution are a theme of Isaiah 47.7-9; the idea of the lament of kings, merchants and sea-captains (9-19) is worked out in Ezekiel 27; and the casting of a stone into the water as a symbol of the city's final end (21) is modelled on Jeremiah 51.63. None of these passages is quoted verbatim. They are merely the materials out of which John created his own tremendous picture of the sudden doom of the greatest city the world had ever known. It made no difference that these materials did not fit the stage reached in John's drama: logically, there should no longer have been any kings or merchants surviving to raise a lament about the fall of Rome. But a lament was what John needed in his picture, and the mourners were an artistic necessity. The total effect of his description was quite properly more important to him than a rigid adherence to the formal progression of the drama.
A vast throng in heaven (1). The worship in heaven, which John becomes aware of at intervals throughout the book, is partly timeless, partly an appropriate response to the events taking place. In this chapter there are both elements. Alleluia (2), a Hebrew phrase that occurs in some of the psalms and means "praised be God", became a formula of Jewish and then of Christian worship. The same goes for Amen (4) (the two occur together in the Hebrew at the end of Psalm 106); and another of the responses of the heavenly worship takes the form of a psalm-verse, 'you that fear him, both great and small' (5) (Psalm 115.13). It was natural to think of the heavenly liturgy as using the language in which God had for centuries been praised on earth. But there is also a note in the singing which belongs to the moment reached in the drama. 'He has condemned the great whore' (2)—it is the manifestation of God's justice which has called forth the hymn of praise. To us, justice and vengeance seem two different and incompatible things, and we are shocked when the hymn goes on, 'and has avenged upon her the blood of his servants'. But the notion may have seemed less crude to John. The suffering of the righteous was for Hebrew thought the nub of the problem of evil. If those who inflicted it seemed to escape any penalty, it became agonizingly difficult to continue to believe in the absolute justice of God: somehow, some time, God must surely come down on the side of his righteous servants, either by bringing their persecutors to recognize their error, or else (if that failed) by inflicting on them an answering punishment. This ultimate punishment (lie decisive execution of God's justice when all appeals for repentance had failed was seen as a kind of necessary "vengeance", an inescapable corollary of the justice of God.
The last stanza of the hymn introduces a fresh group of images which dominate much of the rest of the book. The wedding-day of the Lamb (7) is strong Old Testament imagery. Ideally, God's relationship with his people was always intended to be like that of bride and bridegroom—perfect mutual trust and fidelity. That relationship was at last to be realized in the union of Christians with Christ. For the wedding, the bride must have white clothes, signifying innocence. But, in the sight of God, no human beings can be innocent: if they have white clothes it is because they have been given them (8). We have been told earlier how Christians have obtained them—through the sacrifice of Christ. (Hence it is tempting to think that the explanatory note, that they signify the righteous deeds of God's people, betrays the hand of a later editor who had a less firm grasp on Christian essentials than John.) The wedding-supper (9) itself would be how Christians might conceive of that spiritual banquet prepared for them in heaven—the image runs through much of the teaching of Jesus. "Happy are those who are invited to the wedding-supper of the Lamb!" might sound, in another context, simply like a Christian version of a religious truism: it is good to be one of those who are saved. But here it belongs to a series of statements which John is explicitly told to write for the reassurance of the churches, and an additional note of authority is given, 'These are the very words of God'. Evidently the statement struck a solemn chord in the Christian mind. Perhaps we can guess why. When Christians celebrated the Lord's supper on earth, they thought of it as a kind of foretaste of the heavenly banquet they would ultimately share with Christ. The words of the angel to John may have sounded like an authoritative confirmation of their faith that those who took part in this supper on earth would certainly be invited to the wedding-supper of the Lamb in heaven.
At this I fell at his feet to worship him (10). Of course it was wrong to worship angels. 'It is God you must worship'. But here, as in a repetition of the same little scene in 22.8-9, John appears to draw a further point from it. It was possible to make too many distinctions in the church, to regard bearing testimony to Jesus (even at the risk of one's life) as something quite different from moments of prophetic inspiration, and to give greater honour to the prophets. John seems to be saying that there is no distinction. It is all one. Even the prophecy of an angel is on a level with the testimony of those who witness by their lives. The church must not become a competitive society, awarding honours to one gift rather than another: Christians must turn their eyes, not upon one another, but always upon God.
There before me was a white horse (11). The reader is well aware by now that at the centre of John's heaven is the ineffable presence of God himself, and associated with him is the ascended Christ, who also shares the ultimate mystery of God (written upon him was a name known to none but himself(12)). In much of the Revelation this figure of Christ is in the background, and we are kept in mind of him only by the worship with which he is surrounded. But from time to time he comes to the front of the stage, clothed in a form which gives expression to some aspect of his status and influence. Most often he is the Lamb: the image serves to keep Christ's sacrifice continually before the reader's mind. In this chapter there is a new symbol, that of a white horse and its rider. The name, Faithful and True, referring back to a previous description of Christ (3.7), is enough to tell us whom the symbol represents.
A white horse signifies a conqueror: the aspect of Christ which is now to be revealed is his sovereignty over all nations. Christians believed that Christ was the fulfilment of the prophecy of Psalm 2:
"I have enthroned my king on Zion my holy mountain ...
I will give you nations as your inheritance,
the ends of the earth as your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron ..."
Yet he fulfilled it in a totally unforeseen way. Temporal power he firmly rejected (it is described as a temptation of the devil in Matthew 4, Luke 4), and he won his victory only through his own death (of which his garment drenched in blood (12) is probably meant as a reminder: it also made white the fine linen, clean and shining (15), of his followers, 7.14). So, when his sovereignty finally becomes manifest at the end, the crudely military language of the psalm has to be reinterpreted. The rider bears on his head many diadems (12). The diadem—a jewelled band across the brow—was the mark of an oriental king (as distinct from the wreath worn by the Roman Emperor); two diadems were occasionally worn to signify the possession of two kingdoms. The rider's many diadems show him to be a universal ruler. But the sword of his conquest is (as in 1.16) a sword proceeding from his mouth (15): it is (as one of his names testifies) the Word of God (14), an instrument, that is to say, not of military power, but of righteous judgement—the metaphor is used in Hebrews 4.12, and is doubtless present also when John's gospel introduces Jesus under the single concept of 'the Word'. For another prophecy has to be kept in mind along with Psalm 2:
"He shall judge the poor with justice
and defend the humble in the land with equity;
his mouth shall be a rod to strike down the ruthless
and with a breath he shall slay the wicked."
It is true that his kingship inevitably involves the condemnation of those inexorably opposed to him—he has to tread the winepress of the wrath and retribution of God (15) (see above on 14.19). Bui the weapons of his rule are always and only those by which he has won his victory on the cross, It is only these which have won for him the title that, in the Old Testament, was reserved for God: 'King of kings and Lord of lords' (16). (John is perhaps thinking of a statue inscribed with the subject's name when he says, a little obscurely, on his robe and on his thigh there was written the name.)
The figure of the conquering rider is now added to the picture that was begun in chapter 16 of all the nations of the earth mustered for battle at Armageddon. The battle turns into a final encounter with Christ; and John lets his imagination work on the scene of the battlefield when it is all over (he was inspired by a similar vision in Ezekiel 39.17-20). The feast of the vultures was God's great supper (17), a terrible parody of the wedding-supper of the Lamb. Such was the inevitable end of the human combatants. But their ranks had been led by demonic agencies, the beast and the false prophet (20), for whom a special place of destruction was reserved, the lake of fire with its sulphurous flames.
Yet even now, there were still aspects of God's justice which had been left out of John's scheme. Divine justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. If the obdurate enemies of God, who continued until the end to inflict suffering on the righteous, were to be punished simply by being consigned to death and oblivion, this still left a certain unfairness in the reckoning: were those who had been unjustly deprived of recognition, and even of their basic human rights, to be given no recompense, no vindication, before the end of the world? To put it another way: even in the present age, Christ was proclaimed to be Lord; he had a rule, or kingship, which, though denied by the world, was nevertheless real, and was to be shared with his followers. To a cynic who questioned the reality of this lordship, it was natural to reply: "You may not see it now, but one day you will". Christians were destined to be kings and priests (1.5). To give substance to these titles, it was necessary to look forward to a future period of history, when the physical rule of kings and armies would give place to a different kind of authority, vested in the persons of Christians and acknowledged by those who had previously despised it. But John's drama seemed not to have allowed for this stage: the forces of evil had been steadily gathering momentum until their final overthrow; and now (we would have thought) the world had come to an end. It was too late for a Christian epoch.
It was perhaps to meet this objection that John, just before describing the end of the world, slipped in a Christian millennium. The theme was not a new one. In the Old Testament, hopes of a new age in which God's people would enjoy a just, peaceful and prosperous existence under the rule of an "Anointed One" (Messiah, Christ) were concentrated upon some future period of history; and, if it were once established, there seemed no reason why this glorious kingdom should ever end. But with the disappearance of the physical possibility of such a destiny for Israel (after about the second century B.C.), and with the growth of a belief in resurrection and a glorious after-life, this ideal kingdom of the Messiah was increasingly thought of as a transcendent reality, to be brought into existence only after the end of the world. Yet a hankering for the old ideal of a restored and purified political kingdom remained; and some thinkers tried to combine the two beliefs by postulating a limited period of Messianic kingship on the old model, followed by the Last Judgement and the definitive reward of the blest. We can also see some further reasons which may have led John to find a place for such a period in his scheme. First, he was able to draw out of it a new application of the old myth of the chained monster (see above on 9.1): the reign of Christ would be untroubled even by the seductive power of the devil, for that serpent of old (2), which men thought had been imprisoned in the abyss since the creation, had in fact been at work throughout recorded history, and his real "chaining" must lie in the future. Secondly, he seems to have shared the view of certain Jewish thinkers that when God created the world in six days each day corresponded to a thousand years, and therefore the last thousand would be the world's Sabbath, the glorious period to which all history was tending. Thirdly, and most important, it allowed him to include a detail of Ezekiel's vision (38-9) which perhaps seemed to fill a serious gap in his own presentation. Again and again, in Israel's history, conquering armies had approached Palestine from the north, and had been recognized by the prophets as instruments in the hand of God, punishing the Hebrew people for their sins. But in the Messianic era, the function of a great invading army would be different: no longer to punish Israel, but to demonstrate, by its own unlooked-for defeat, the inviolability of the people of God. Ezekiel had called these invaders by the already almost legendary name of "Gog, from the land of Magog". John made them sound even more legendary by calling them the hosts of Gog and Magog (8): they represented the final spasm of the Devil's power, and their defeat was his final elimination.
To this extent John was guided by precedent. Yet it is still difficult not to feel that, by including this episode, he seriously interrupted the logical progression of the drama. Moreover, he had to make some adjustments to the Jewish scheme to make it fit its Christian context. Jewish writers, thinking of the Messianic kingdom as a future period of history, longed to be alive when that period should begin, but recognized that the enjoyment of it might be reserved for others. For Christians this conclusion would have been impossible: it was a firm article of belief that it would make no difference having died; all Christians were to share in Christ's reign (see above on 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). Therefore John had to introduce the complication of two deaths and two resurrections. The first death would be the natural death of all men in their own generation, from which Christians alone would be resurrected in order to enjoy the millennium. The second resurrection would be at the moment of the Iast Judgement, when all the dead of the past would rise to hear their sentence, and those who were condemned would be consigned to a second death, this time without reprieve.
After this interlude, John was at last ready to round off the history of the world with its traditional climax, the Last Judgement. The reality of this final verdict cast by God upon the life of every human being was not doubted by any Christian (even though it received considerable re-interpretation in the fourth gospel), and the imagery in which it was pictured remained fairly constant: John had little new to add, and he made his account quite brief. All the dead had been placed by Death in the shadowy underworld of Hades —-this was the almost universal belief of the ancient world. The only exceptions were those who had died at sea (13) (there was some speculation about exactly what happened to the bodies of the shipwrecked). But all alike were brought for a judgement that was based upon the carefully kept record of their deeds. It only remained to dispose of those personifications of physical death, Death and Hades (14). They too were cast into the fiery oblivion reserved for all the wicked. As Paul put it (1 Corinthians 15.26), 'the last enemy to be abolished is death'.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth (1). The Hebrew prophets never imagined that one day things might take a turn for the better, and that mankind would slowly progress towards a new age. The events around them were significant, not of man's progress towards better things, but of God's judgement on men's sins. The world was not as God intended it to be; but nor would it become so merely by human efforts. What was needed was a new act of creation. The age to come was something which could only be brought about by God.
John had now reached this point in his vision. Justice having been done on all those elements of the world order which constituted an offence against the will of God, the decks could be cleared, so to speak, for a new created order. The first heaven and the first earth had vanished—we might have thought it would be sufficient to do away with the earth; but the ancient picture of the universe was integrated by astrology. Events on earth were governed by movements in heaven. Doing away with one meant doing away with the other, and a newly created earth would require a new heaven to regulate its destiny. Moreover, the earth was thought of as hemmed in on all sides by the sea, and as resting on waters imprisoned underneath it. This element, in the old order, was the place of the chaotic forces of evil. In the new order it had no function. So: there was no longer any sea.
So much was easy to state negatively: it was easy to see what would not belong to the new order. But John's task was now the positive one, of describing what would belong to it. In this he was influenced, as always, by those who had written before him. The new age, however different it might be from the present, was never thought of as a completely fresh start. There were elements in the present which pointed forward to it, and which would in fact be incorporated in it. The ideal of human life—God dwelling among his people, and his people living with the purity and justice demanded by God—had for centuries been symbolized by the city of Jerusalem. In Jerusalem there was a great precinct around the central sanctuary which only those could enter who were members of the chosen people and who had been cleansed from ritual impurity; and around that was a still larger precinct, which people from any nation could enter, in order to catch at least a glimpse of the holiness of God. Around this precinct again stretched the city, the capital of a people whose lives were orientated towards the God who was worshipped in the temple in their midst. In theory, the city was a microcosm of God having his dwelling among men. In practice (as the prophets were quick to notice) it was nothing of the kind: the worship might be hypocritical, the people disobedient. More than once both city and temple had been destroyed (and both stood in ruins when John was writing). But the old ideal remained; whether one were a Jew or a Christian, one's vision of man's ultimate destiny was likely to be clothed in the forms of the holy city, new Jerusalem (2). Some even said that the historical city of Jerusalem was a copy of the true Jerusalem existing in heaven. Therefore it was not even necessary to envisage a new work of creation. All that was necessary was for the archetype to come down out of heaven from God.
Given this almost inevitable frame for his final tableau, John proceeded characteristically by allowing his imagination to work on the material he found in the prophets. The first source of his inspiration was Isaiah 65.17-19:
"For behold I create new heavens and a new earth
Former things shall no more be remembered
Nor shall they be called to mind ...
For I create Jerusalem to be a delight
And her people a joy ...
Weeping and lamentation
Shall never again be heard in her."
These verses dominate John's first paragraph; what he adds to them is the principle which governs the whole vision: 'Now at last God has his dwelling among men!' (3)—the fulfilment of a hope expressed again and again in the Old Testament (e.g. Ezekiel 37.27; Zechariah 8.8: dwelling is a suggestive word, see above on John 1.14), but stated in its most generous form: not among men of one particular race or allegiance, but quite generally among men.
Before proceeding with his description, John has one more very important thing to say to his readers. 'Write this down' (5): this phrase always announces some message that is to reassure the churches; and so it does here. The joys of the new Jerusalem are not a theoretical reality of the distant future: in one thunderous word it is declared that "they have happened" (ge-go-nen,
as in 16.17: the NEB rather spoils the effect with a wordy paraphrase, 'Indeed they are already fulfilled'). That is to say: just as in certain respects the new Jerusalem was anticipated by the old, so the vision of 'God-with-us', which can be fully realized only in the future age, is nevertheless anticipated in present Christian experience. All that was said at the beginning of the Revelation about the nature of God (the Alpha and the Omega (7), 1.8) and the reward of the victor ('I will acknowledge him as mine', 2.7), is already true; what remains to be told is only its perfect fulfilment in the new Jerusalem. To use an image hinted at earlier (7.16), and worked out in detail in John's gospel (4.7-15), 'A draught from the water-springs of life will be my free gift to the thirsty'. How much of humanity was ultimately destined to share these blessings is a question which is never directly answered (though there are suggestive hints scattered through the book). But there would always be an irreducible remainder of s those for whom the second death was reserved (8). Partly, they were those whose courage failed them, the apostates from the church, the cowardly, the faithless; partly they were those who were irremediably committed to the (from the Jewish and Christian points of view) characteristic vices of the pagan world.
'Come, and I will show you the bride' (9). The poetry of John's final vision must be allowed to speak for itself: what determined his choice of words was what he actually saw, and his recollections of the visions of previous writers served only to impose a certain pattern on his writing. It is not difficult to trace the sources of his imagery; but in every case he has used his sources so freely that the result is entirely his own.
(i) The city was to accommodate the true Israel, a re-embodiment of the is legendary twelve tribes (12). This gave it a twelvefold arrangement such as had been worked out by Ezekiel (48.30-5); it was only necessary to add the fact that there was a further very important "twelve" in Christian history, the twelve apostles of the Lamb (14).
(ii) The city would be of immense size—necessarily, to accommodate the number of its citizens. This necessity struck many Jewish writers, who were prepared to extend the boundaries of the new Jerusalem as far, if need be, as Damascus. John's dimensions, if taken literally, would make the city the size
of a continent (twelve thousand furlongs (16) = 1,500 miles), and perhaps that would not be too big. But John's numbers are usually symbolical, and his choice of twelve thousand was doubtless determined mainly by the twelves of the previous paragraph. The city was built as a square: this gave it a kind of mathematical perfection; to be "foursquare" was to have an ideal shape, or (metaphorically) a sound character. John takes the idea a stage further when he adds a third dimension, its length and breadth and height being equal. A cubic city strains our imagination. The essential thing was doubtless the mathematical symmetry; but we probably need not think of anything quite so improbable as a cube of masonry: Jerusalem was always imagined as a "city set on a hill", and John may well have had in mind the picture of a city spreading up the slopes of a mountain so high that in the end the height of it equalled the breadth. This also eases the problem of the walls, a mere one hundred and forty-four cubits high (17) (about 200 feet), sufficient for an ordinary city, but not for a cubic continent. All this is established with a gold measuring-rod (15). The convention of an angel revealing dimensions by measuring them out before the eyes of the seer is in Zechariah 2.1 and Ezekiel 40 (see above on 11.1). Some kings of the east had their own special measures, slightly larger than the norm. But the angel, John tells us, was using ordinary human measurements (17).
(iii) An exiled prophet in the sixth century B.C., prophesying the restoration of the ruined city of Jerusalem to a state of ideal peace, justice and prosperity, had written:
"Now is the time when I set your stones in finest mortar
And your foundations in lapis lazuli:
I will make your battlements of jasper
Your gates of garnet,
All your boundary stones shall be jewels".
The theme lent itself readily to elaboration. Another essay in it—written some 300 years before the Revelation—can be found in Tobit 13.16-17. John's description stands in the same tradition, though here it is combined with the symbolic twelvefold structure of the city. A further recollection which may have run through John's mind is that of the "breast-piece" (a kind of shallow box) which was attached to the high priest's garments, and which was studded with twelve precious stones, each different stone symbolizing one of the twelve tribes of Israel (Exodus 28.15-21). As for the gates made each from a single pearl, the comparatively recent pearl-trade from the Red Sea had prepared the oriental mind to imagine the possibility of ever larger pearls: the brilliantly white masonry of some of Herod's buildings in Jerusalem could have suggested, if one half closed one's eyes, the shimmering brightness of immense pearls.
(iv) I saw no temple in the city (22). A large part of Ezekiel's vision, which was so much in John's mind, had been taken up with the details of a new temple replacing the one which had recently been destroyed in Jerusalem. It was this which would set the standard, so to speak, for the purity and holiness of the nation. In John's time, the temple was once again in ruins; but in his vision of the new Jerusalem, John dared to extend the holy precinct over the whole city. All that the temple stood for would be diffused throughout every part of it ; there would be no need for a central shrine, any more than a lamp is needed when the sun is shining. The barrier excluding anything unclean (27) would no longer be set up around a small temple courtyard,
but would be at the city boundaries: for all the citizens would be in a constant state of holiness. In the old Jerusalem, access to the sanctuary of God was reserved for those who specially cleansed themselves from the ways of the world. In the new, there would be no need of any such preparation: the inhabitants would live perpetually in the presence of God.
(v) Ezekiel dreamed of a restored Jerusalem making the desert fertile by a river of water that flowed from under the temple: on either side would grow trees bearing fruit every month of the year, and leaves "for healing" (2) (47.1-12). The picture was already an ideal one; but John has (as we would say) spiritualized it still further. The river is of the water of life (1), such as Jesus promised to his followers (John 4.14), the trees are each a tree of life, such as grew in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2.9), and are reserved for the faithful followers of Christ (Revelation 2.7).
However much the reader may have been carried along by the sequence of John's visions, he will find himself at some stage pausing to ask, But is all this true? The promise of a new Jerusalem for those who are enduring persecution from a contemporary Babylon is encouraging only if it can be confidently believed. Moreover, since the vision is not just of some ultimate reality outside space and time, but of a process already taking shape in history, it will cease to excite and console if its fulfilment seems to belong only to a remote future. John needs to leave his readers with a strong impression of both the authenticity and the immediacy of what he has been imparting.
In strict logic, there could be no greater authority than that carried by the vision itself. John had heard the voice of Christ and of angels. If he wrote these things down, he ought to be believed. But would he be? Moses, after his first vision of God, had the same doubt: "But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, 'The Lord did not appear to you'" (Exodus 4.1). On that occasion, God promised to support Moses with certain miracles. In part, John was aware of similarly supernatural support. No one doubted that the prophesying which could be heard in Christian communities was divinely inspired; and what John had heard from an angel was simply a development of that stream of prophecy to which
his readers already gave credence. 'The Lord God who inspires the prophets has sent his angel' (6).
But there is a further way in which it is only human (even if not entirely logical) to emphasize the truth of what one says, and that is by swearing that it is true. John had received the revelation from Christ himself, and it was natural to end by once more invoking the name of Christ as a guarantee of its truth. He does so by means of titles which, at the beginning of the book, belonged to God himself (1.8), but which, by the end of the drama, are shared also by Christ: 'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end' (13).
As for the immediacy of the vision's fulfilment, this was the really new thing about it. The pattern for it had been the visions in the Book of Daniel ; but Daniel was a legendary figure of the sixth century B.C.: the oracles ascribed to him were intended to illuminate contemporary history for the readers of the book some four hundred years later; and so Daniel was told, "You must keep the vision secret, for it points to days far ahead" (8.26). In the same way, later Jewish writers, when ascribing their visions to figures of the distant past, explained that the writings had been "sealed up" until the time that they would become relevant and actual. John's situation was the opposite. The times of which he saw the fulfilment had already begun. So the conventional injunction is reversed: 'Do not seal up the words of prophecy in this book, for the hour of fulfilment is near' (10).
Another constant feature of Christian (as of Old Testament) prophecy was its serious moral tone. It was never intended either to satisfy idle curiosity about the future or to breed complacency by dwelling on the joys in store for the elect. What it read in the future was always, in some form or another, a judgement on the present: its immediate message, therefore, was the necessity of vigilance and faithfulness here and now. Hence the strong moral note sounded here: Happy is the man who heeds the words of prophecy contained in this book! (7) The Last Judgement would draw the line finally between the good and the bad; but the line was already being sketched in. The ultimate division could be described in terms of John's vision of the new Jerusalem: inside would be those who wash their robes clean; outside are dogs (14)—this was Jewish language for pagans, taken over into Christian parlance to describe all who persevered in the notorious sins of heathendom. Before the end, there would doubtless be many opportunities for repentance. But if Christians looked around them now, they could see the materials for judgement already being assembled, the attitude of the evil-doer (11) already beginning to harden. The message of the prophecy must be taken to heart as a solemn warning to the good man to persevere in his goodness. The coming of Christ, however confidently it might be yearned for by Christians, contained always a threat as well as a promise. He would come to requite everyone according to his deeds (12).
'It is God you must worship' (9). The little episode of John's misdirected worship of an angel (19.10) is repeated, perhaps to help the transition from the writing and reading of a message addressed to particular churches to the act of worship in which those churches must share. There are signs at the end of some of Paul's letters that they were read out when the church was assembled, and that the ending was intended to be the signal for the congregation to begin the service. In the same way, when one reaches the end of Revelation, it is as if the music of praise has already started. The worship is antiphonal; that is to say, to each of the sentences spoken by the leader, the congregation makes its response The leader may be speaking in his own person, bidding the people to prayer and praise, or he may be using scriptural language and hallowed phrases of worship, in which case the real speaker is understood to be God or Christ. Either way, there is no need to distinguish: it is all part of a single act of worship. If there seems to be an almost bewildering change of speakers in these last few verses, this atmosphere of worship must be kept in mind.
This is more than speculation. The end of 1 Corinthians contains, first, an injunction to separate from the congregation anyone who is there for dishonest reasons ('if anyone does not love the Lord, let him be outcast'); secondly a formula of prayer, given in the original Aramaic (Marana tha, 'Come, O Lord!'); and thirdly, the grace. Exactly the same three elements occur here. First, a warning (18): prophecies of this kind were the easiest material for an unscrupulous impostor to tamper with; therefore, on any occasion when this book was read, it was particularly false prophets who must be threatened with exclusion from the congregation and thereby with the loss of their right to the Christian inheritance hereafter; secondly, the same formula of prayer (though given only in Greek, Come, Lord Jesus (20)); and thirdly, the grace (21). The form of worship is evidently the same in each case; and here the language of worship pervades the whole section. Jesus bears titles such as befit the object of worship, the scion and offspring of David (16) (a variation on the expression in 5.5), the bright star of dawn (as in 2.28). He offers, in the very moment of being worshipped, the water of life (17). Above all, in this book devoted to assuring Christians of the destiny which awaits them, Jesus is heard voicing the greatest assurance of all: 'Yes, I am coming soon!' (20) And the response of all who are moved by the Spirit to lead the congregation, the response of the whole church on earth (the bride (17)), the response of each hearer, is that of a people prepared and expectant: 'Come!'