Father Richard Donnelly, once pastor of St. Mark Church, Garden City, described the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse, as “a spiritual pep talk in code.” No doubt one of his professors at St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore made this observation. The Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, ascribed to St. John, with its abundance of signs and symbols, prophecies and predictions, is perplexing to any reader. A commentary on St. John’s thoughts by Dennis E. Johnson, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, entitled Triumph of the Lamb happily makes much sense of the Apostle’s visions and images.
The Book of Revelation, relying heavily on the Old Testament for figures and imagery, must have been intended for Christians of a Jewish background who were looking for an explanation for the state of the Church in their times. And an explanation was definitely needed. The early Christian community certainly believed firmly in the Resurrection of Christ and his sending of the Spirit on the Church at Pentecost. Yet, if the Lamb of God did indeed triumph, then why was daily life for believers so challenging? The synagogue obviously ejected these early converts to Christianity. The Roman authorities had no esteem for this new Way that respected Christ more than the Emperor. Early Christians were persecuted and martyred in great number. St. John’s Apocalypse was inspired by God to give hope to the first Christian communities that their faith was not misplaced, that their suffering was not in vain, and that the victory over sin and evil that they witnessed in Christ would eventually be shared by all believers.
Professor Johnson notes that down through the ages various generations have applied the instructions in the Apocalypse to their own situations. Persecution by Romans gave way to persecution by barbarian hordes from the North and persecution by Mohammedan throngs from the East. To these the Book of Revelation offered hope. Early Protestants understood the Book of Revelation’s Scarlet Lady as the Church of Rome oppressing Biblical truth. Eventually she would be vanquished, so they thought. Early emigres to the Americas expected to find a replica of the bejeweled New Jerusalem in the new world. Indeed some few did. Of the dozens of images St. John employs to make his point — seals, trumpets, bowls, plagues, the Lamb, the bride, the New Jerusalem — author Johnson urges the modern reader to ponder three major depictions from the Book of Revelation: The Beast, the False Prophet, and the Harlot.
The Beast could certainly be the power of government gone astray. A believer’s hopes may easily be dashed by the fashionable but ill-founded trends of an ungodly secular government. Laws that disregard the sanctity of life and laws that disregard the sanctity of marriage are just two examples from the present day of the “ugly underbelly” of human institutions. The False Prophet symbolizes all forms of religious deception. The writer mentions “religious trendsetters who peddle a palatable message that never assaults our pride.” He writes of “pleasing and plausible lies” that are sometimes the stuff of clever preaching. The Harlot surely symbolizes “the idolatrous allure of material affluence and social acceptance.” The pleasure, wealth and power available to modern society are compelling idols. But, the attractive and efficient goods of this world make a “fine servant” but a “false savior.”
The Beast, the False Prophet, and the Harlot represent the many formidable foes to the Christian message in every era. But the message of the Book of Revelation is that victory over evil in all its forms has been achieved and assured by the triumphant victory of Christ over death. Satan has already been defeated.
The evils that mankind endures now are simply the death throes of a devil already crushed. St. John wisely gives a harsh picture of Church life through the ages: suffering and martyrdom are the certain lot of every generation of Christians. St. John’s fearful imagery insists that it would be an illusion to think otherwise. But this is the sacred author’s way of letting his readers know that pain, rejection and opposition are to be expected as Satan makes a last but unsuccessful grasp for souls. During such distressful encounters the words heard from the heavenly throne as the Apocalypse’s final bowl is poured out must be recalled “It is finished!” The victory is won! The thought of the Lamb slain but still standing, the resplendent New Jerusalem, and the bride adorned for her husband, St. John’s most promising images, must give strength and solace to every believer. “A spiritual pep-talk in code?” Indeed! And a pep-talk never more needed than today when the beast, the false prophet, and the harlot, in the form of persecution, deception and sensuality, rage against God’s people.