“I make all things new”: The Book of Revelation, Part 4
In surveying the last eight chapters of St. John’s Book of Revelation, I am concluding a long series of commentaries on all the books of the Bible by taking a look at God’s final victory. To understand this victory, we need to remember once again that the apocalyptic style of the book portrays a series of snapshots of the battle between good and evil. While in some ways generally chronological, in other ways this is simply a way of looking at the drama as a whole from multiple angles.
To alter Dante’s inscription over the gateway to Hell: “Abandon strict chronology, all ye who enter here.” Or to alter Psalm 146: “Put not your trust in dates.” Both of these warnings should give pause to those who seek to apply the text definitively to particular times, places and worldly events, whether past or future.
The overthrow of evil
What we do know is that chapter 15 begins with the hymn of the saved, who rejoice that God will now finally act to defeat evil and usher in an era of unending joy for those who have been faithful to Him. In this chapter we find announced the seven “bowls” of God’s wrath, which are then enumerated in chapter 16. This is one kind of “snapshot”:
- Painful sores on those who worshipped the beast;
- The sea made like blood and the death of the creatures in it;
- The rivers made like blood indicating the judgment of God;
- The sun scorches men, who curse God but do not repent;
- The throne of the beast is cast into darkness, but no repentance;
- The Euphrates is dried up, and three foul spirits emerge from the beast and the false prophet to enlist the kings of the earth in war against God at Armageddon;
- Finally, a voice from the air: “It is done!” And cities, nations, islands and mountains fall.
Chapter 17 offers another “snapshot”: The “great harlot” appears on “many waters” and on the beast. Many early commentators saw the harlot as representing Rome (“the woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth” (17:18)), with the beast, as I mentioned in an earlier installment, representing anti-Christian worldly power. Obviously, for the early Church, pagan Rome with its persecutions and emperor-worship represented the epitome of worldly evil—of greed, impurity and direct rebellion against God. Throughout Scripture harlotry also refers to idolatry, of betraying the true God through intercourse with false gods. But while the ascription of all this to Rome (called “Babylon the Great”) is certainly valid, it is hardly exhaustive. Rome may be taken here as a symbol of all the worldly infidelity and power arrayed against God down through history, including that of our own time.
Verse 8 of chapter 17 merits particular attention: “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to perdition”. This is certainly a deliberate inversion of an earlier passage in which St. John begins the letters from God to the seven churches with these words: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:4).
Chapter 18 continues this portrayal of the destruction of all opposition to God by recounting the fall of Babylon the Great (again, Rome and all worldly power). An angel announces “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt for every foul spirit” (18:2). And so God, through another voice from heaven, calls out: “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues, for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (18:4).
Then, in chapter 19, the songs of victory begin in heaven. Hear the “hallelujahs” for victory and the marriage of the Lamb:
“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just…. Amen. Hallelujah!... Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. [19:1-9]
And so an angel said to John: “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (19:9). The marriage of the Lamb is of course the marriage of Christ with the Church (see St. Paul in Eph 5:32), which encompasses all of the elect. That is why, for a justly forgotten book I wrote in my late twenties on the topic of salvation history, I chose as the title “The Divine Courtship”, and I wrote, for my closing sentence, “The history of salvation is the making of our wedding gown.”
But remember what I said about the Book of Revelation being a book of not-always-chronological pictures or “snapshots”. Actually, this should teach us something about the certitude of Faith. For it is after this song of victory that a white horse appears (“the Word of God”) ridden by a great rider (“Faithful and True”). His mouth is a sharp sword “to smite the nations”. The name inscribed on his robe is “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16). And by Him the Beast—that representation of all the evil of Satan—is destroyed. Moreover, this is described as only the first battle.
Then we learn in chapter 20 that there will be a thousand year reign of Christ and His people, a period in which Satan is bound, though “after that he must be loosed for a little while” (vv. 2-3). We are told that all those beheaded for Christ will reign with Him for that thousand years.
Unfortunately, this text has given rise to a large variety of errors known generally as “millenarianism”, by sects which take it literally, and even believe they are going to reign with Christ in the sky for this period of time. The Church has never allowed this interpretation. Again we must remember that numbers in this book are symbolic, and by far the best interpretation of this “thousand years” is that it stands for the time between the first coming of Christ (by which Satan was indeed effectively bound so that we may participate in the very life of Christ without any fear of evil) and the second coming (at which time Satan will be overthrown for all eternity, and the final judgment will take place).
Accordingly, there follows the “second battle”, beginning in verse 7. Satan gathers all the nations he has deceived in order to make war on God, but fire comes down from heaven and consumes them, and “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (20:10).
Only after this does John describe his vision of the Last Judgment of the living and the dead (vv. 11-15):
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. [20:11-15]
Clearly this “lake of fire”, this second death, is eternal damnation in what we call “the fires of hell”.
The end of all things
Two final chapters complete this remarkable book. In chapter 21, John sees “a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (21:1). He sees “the holy city, new Jerusalem [the Church], coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2). And a great voice from the throne says,
Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away. [21:3-4]
Much more could be quoted to illustrate the beauty of the closing of the Book of Revelation, but it is easily read and understood. God announces that “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (21:6) and explains the separate destinies of the faithful and the unfaithful. The Bride of the Lamb (the Church encompassing all the elect) is revealed to John in his famous vision of a city of crystalline radiance, which has no need for a temple and no need of sun or moon, “for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (21:23).
Jesus Himself concludes these revelations to St. John: “I Jesus have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and offspring of David, the bright morning star” (22:16). Therefore, John warns his readers to heed “the words of the prophecy of this book”, to add nothing, and to take nothing away (22:18-19).
Among the last words of God to John are “Behold, I make all things new” (21:5) and “behold , I am coming soon” (22:7). Indeed, God repeats Himself: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (22:12-13). And John ends both the book and all of Scripture with his own affirmation, which we must make our own:
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. [22:20-21]
New Testament Series:
Previous: Dramatis personae: The Book of Revelation, Part 3
End of series
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!