The Orthodox Pages



Part 1 

15th NOVEMBER 2012
































































































































Last week I spoke to you of the Signs of the times spoken of by Christ in the Gospel of St. Matthew. The signs point to a time when the Antichrist will come, but more importantly the end of the world as we know it and the Second coming of Christ. The book par excellence dealing with these things is the Book of Revelation found at the end of the New Testament. Interpreting the Book of Revelation is a very difficult task because it deals with a vision of symbols and images of things seen in heaven and earth which cannot be confined only to what is to happen in the future. The vision and prophecies have to do with the past, the present and the future and unlike most interpretations available to the English speaking world; the events are not confined to geographical areas like Greece, Rome or America, and neither do they point to specific people in contemporary history.
Much has been written on the Book of Revelation. There is no other book in the history of humanity that has as many commentaries, writings, and references as this book and a great deal more will be written in the future. The majority of these writings are misleading and dangerous, giving interpretations that come from sick imaginations. To give a few examples, in the 70's there was a popular book titled “The Late Great Planet Earth” which allegedly “interpreted” the Book of Revelation. Among the things found in this book was the idea that Revelation was speaking about such things as the Soviet Union, nuclear attacks between the USSR and the US, etc. When Mikhail Gorbachov became president of Russia, those individuals who were influenced by this book believed that Gorbachov was the antichrist, citing the references in Revelation to the “mark of the beast”—666—as proof of this. Gorbachov, if you recall, had a rather large birthmark on his forehead. But even though the birthmark in no way resembled the numbers 666, people still associated it with the mark of the beast. So, many people were saying that the end of the world was near because Gorbachov, complete with the “mark of the beast” on his forehead, had emerged as a world leader but in reality was the antichrist and that the Soviet Union was going to devour the nations of the world. All sorts of “proofs” from Revelation were given for this idea. Of course, the Soviet Union collapsed, as did the communist system, and Gorbachov was in fact rejected by his own people and retired into a quiet life.
The Book of Revelation speaks of a Harlot that sits on seven mountains, thus because Rome is built on seven hills, Rome must be the Harlot mentioned in Revelation that drinks the blood of the martyrs. Again because she is clothed in red and purple this must mean that the Roman Catholic Church is the harlot because the official colours for Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops is red and purple.
There is mention of a woman who brought forth a man child who was persecuted by the dragon but escapes with the help of eagle's wings. In Orthodox understanding this is a reference to the Mother of God who gave birth to Christ. But to others it refers to some event in the future which will be rescued by the United States because the USA has the greatest airlift capabilities in the world and the official sign for the USA is the Eagle. This is of cause just Americans believing that they are the saviours of the world. There is a saying in Greek that if you don't praise your own house it will fall down and crush you. So justifiably, as the Muslim world see the USA as the hand of Satan, the Americans see themselves as the hand of God.
Revelation also mentions a lion which many associate with England and a bear which they associate with Russia. A leopard is also mentioned which they associate with Germany because Germany's biggest tank is the tank Leopard.
There are all sorts of weird and misleading interpretations which cause a great deal of confusion especially among people who do not have the Orthodox Church to guide them. But Weird interpretations of Revelation are not new. Already in the second and third centuries there were so many twisted and sensational misinterpretations that the false teachings that arose caused great confusion to the Christians of the time. Even from the times of the Apostles Christians were convinced that Christ’s Second Coming was near. Certainly with the persecution of Christians that followed, they believed that the prophecies concerning the persecutions of Christians in the last times was at hand and so they willingly went to their martyrdoms praising God that soon they would reign with him in the New kingdom of heaven.
Possibly the misleading interpretations and the confusion they brought played a major role in the fact that the Book of Revelations was not accepted by the Eastern Church for several centuries. Even when it was finally included in the Canon of Scripture it was not permitted to be read publicly in the services of the Church, something that is observed even to this day.
But this does not mean that the Orthodox Church discourages the private reading of Revelation. The Church does not discourage but she does caution people to read it carefully with a solid background knowledge of the rest of Scripture, especially the New Testament, and with a basic understanding of the times which produced Revelation. At the same time, the Orthodox Church does not accept the notion that everyone can properly interpret the Bible as he or she wants as do many protestant churches. There is a great difference between reading scripture for yourself and interpreting it by yourself. The only authority that can properly and reliably interpret Scripture and teach it is the Church that Christ founded 2000 years ago. Holy Scripture is the inspired word of God, revealed to the Church, revealed to mankind and not to single individuals. No individual has the right to interpret Scripture without consulting what the Church has to say lest one comes to the ridiculous conclusions we saw earlier like Gorbachov’s birthmark being the “mark of the beast.”
Within the church we see that many Church Fathers did not over occupy themselves with the book of the Revelation. Of recent years Panayiotis Trembelas, a great Greek Biblical scholar of the 20th century, regarded as an authority and whose works are read and used by most orthodox priests, interpreted and published commentaries on all of the books of Holy Scriptures with the exception of the book of the Revelation.
In the past I had been ask to speak of the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation, but I always felt, as I still do now, that I am not adequately qualified or spiritually enlightened enough for such an undertaking. Saying this I also feel that I have a responsibility to help you understand how the Church understands and interprets this book which has been described as a true masterpiece of the Holy Spirit.
So from today and in the next few weeks, because the subject cannot be covered in just one talk, we will have a study of the Book of Revelation, but not according to my weak and humble understanding. The talks will be based on lectures given by Archimandrite Athanasios Mitilinaios who died in 2006. Archimandrite Athanasios Mitilinaios, has been christened in Greek spiritual circles as the New Chrysostom. He was born in the area of Athens, Greece but his family roots are from the beautiful Aegean island of Mitilini, as his last name suggests. Ordained at a young age, he preached incessantly from village to village where he was appointed a chancellor to the Metropolitan of Larisa. While teaching and illuminating many souls, he was called by Divine Providence to restore and revive the abandoned Monastery of Komnineiou and St. John the Theologian on the mountainside of Stomion overlooking the Aegean Sea. He has left us with 8,000 recorded lectures, imbued with the aroma of patristic traditional Orthodoxy: many of which can be downloaded from the internet. His lectures on Revelation follow the path of the Church and are based on older commentaries of three God-inspired Holy Fathers: St. Andrew of Caesarea of the sixth century, St. Arethas, Archbishop of Caesarea, of the ninth century and St. Ecumenios, Archbishop of Tryki of the sixth century.
Before we begin our analysis of Revelation, there is much we need to understand concerning prophecies and the time span of the Book. Thus today's talk will be like an introduction which will prepare us in how to read and understand what the Book of Revelation is.
As you all know Revelation is the last book of both the New Testament and of the entire Holy Scriptures. This book forms the conclusion of the Holy Scriptures and it corresponds considerably to the first book, the book of Genesis. These two books form the axis of the fall and salvation. Now, if the book of Genesis refers to the history of man’s fall, the book of the Revelation refers to the history of man’s restoration and salvation. In the book of Genesis, we have the description of the creation of the world and of man. Man was created to be with God, but unfortunately, he fell into sin at the instigation of the devil, and since then, in addition to sin, both death and corruption were introduced into the world. To all appearances, God’s beautiful plan for man to draw near to him, for man to unite with him and be deified and sanctified was negated. However, that which God creates cannot be nullified or negated. In order to renew the visible created world, God’s economy brought forth the incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ.
The world did not accept Jesus Christ and it crucified Him. Still, the plan of salvation was not negated. By His death on the cross, Christ crushed the devil; and by His Resurrection, death and corruption were defeated. So, the Church, the Body of Christ, continues to travel through history facing much tribulation, turmoil and martyrdom from the God-opposed, God-fighting powers that continuously crucify the flesh of Christ. In the end, the Church will be victorious, triumphant, because Christ defeated the devil, the world and death! The Church sanctifies nature and leads it to the Kingdom of God. So if the book of Genesis gives us an account of the creation of man and his fall, the book of the Revelation describes apocalyptically the journey of the Church, of the faithful through the history of creation, and more specifically, the rebirth, re-creation, and the eternal glory of man and the visible creation. The book of Revelation, contains the entire mystery of the Divine dispensation, of Divine economia, in the form of a summary - from the Incarnation of the Word of God up to the Second Coming of Christ, the Judgment Day and the appearance of the Kingdom of God.
To give you an idea of what I mean, in one scene alone in the book of the Revelation, the Mystery of Incarnation is made manifest. In chapter twelve we read about the woman who holds a male child that I mentioned before. Before she gave birth, the beast was waiting for the pregnant woman to give birth so he could grab the newly born child and devour it! However, when the child was born, the woman was led into the desert, and the beast ran behind the woman spewing water from his mouth like a river to sweep her away with the flood. However he does not reach the child because the child ascends into heaven. This is a reference to the entire history of the Incarnation. The devil, according to one of our Church Fathers, was searching out the virgins even from the Old Testament to see which one would give birth to the Messiah. However, according to St. Ignatius of Antioch, the male child escaped the attention of the prince of this world. The devil was not informed about the Son of God’s birth from the Virgin. The devil had no clue. The devil is not omnipresent. Nor does he know everything. However, he kept a close watch. We see this very clearly in the book of the Revelation, "And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth!" (Rev.12: 4)
Now the woman swept away in the torrent signifies the Mother of God, or the Church. The person of the woman here has two aspects, two applications—the Mother of God, or the Church. Certainly the Church, because the Church is the body of Christ, which body Christ received from the Mother of God, the Panagia. Consequently, the Mother of God and the Church are the same thing, with two views or aspects. So here, we have two sides of the same coin. The Church is persecuted, the disciples and the Mother of God are persecuted, but the child was snatched up to heaven. In other words, we have the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ. The devil can no longer do anything to the child. He cannot go to Heaven; so then, he pursues the woman in the desert. He turns against the Church, day in and day out, and we can see in this scene alone the cross section of the mystery of God’s holy economy. Scenes like this permeate the book of the Revelation. So the book of the Revelation refers to the establishment and the expansion of the Church of Christ; the Kingdom of God on earth, which is the Church; the unfolding of the battle between the Church and the beast, or the God-opposing powers. In the end, the plagues take place against the beast, against the unbelieving world. The Church is triumphant. Christ comes, judges the world, the devil is bound, and the Kingdom of God glows! This is the general diagram of the book of the Revelation. The central theme of the book is the Second Coming of Christ as Judge and King! The book begins and ends with this same theme. The Church—the bride—and the Spirit who remains in the Church will say, Come Lord Jesus! And the response is, Yes, I am coming soon!
This describes the state of expectation, characteristic of both the book and the Church. The Church is expecting Christ; it awaits Him as Judge and as King to put away all evil—to expel the devil so sin will cease to exist, so corruption and decay will cease to exist, so death will cease to exist. The central idea of the book is Jesus Christ, the Second Coming of Christ, Christ coming back as Judge and King. Another central theme is the battle between the Kingdom of God and the God-opposing power, with the resulting triumph of the Church of Christ. The purpose of the book of the Revelation is both the preparation of the faithful to face the tribulation that awaits them, and the consolation and strengthening of the faithful that they might fight the good fight up to the end. All these things are recorded in the book of the Revelation with visions, images, and descriptions that make up its symbolic language. To be sure, the book of the Revelation is primarily a prophetic book. However, prophecy does not only reveal future events, but the present as well! Thus, we have here prophecy in its broad sense. Our Lord Himself instructs John, Now write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter. (1:19)
According to our Tradition, St. John was exiled to the island of Patmos, the cave of the Revelation. The cave is still there today. John used to pray there incessantly. On a certain Sunday—as he will tell us in the beginning of the book—he was in the spirit and he saw these revelations and visions which he recorded following the command of Christ, Now write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter. (1:11) From this we see that the book of the Revelation is prophetic. We mentioned that prophecy in its broad sense is not limited to the future, but may contain or include the future, the present, and even the past, which I will explain.
When a prophecy pertains to the future, it comes to reveal something that will take place in the future and which is unknown to every created being. The future is not known to any man or angel, or even to the devil! In reality, the future is known to God and to no one else! Therefore, prophecy is a privilege of the true God only, and as the Church is the Body of Christ, prophecy is also a privilege of our true Orthodox Faith. The prophecy can also pertain to the present—to whatever thing or event that escapes the attention of the people at that time. For example, St. John the Baptist is called a prophet, but he did not prophesy the future. John prophesied the present! His prophecy was, "Here is the Messiah! Here is the lamb of God!” The leaders of the people asked him, “Who are you? Are you the Messiah?” No, I am not the Messiah! I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness! I am here to witness for the Messiah. The One who was before me, is now in front of me! The One who is more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie! (John 1:23) John is prophesying about Christ, but Christ is already present! John the Baptist is a great prophet, but he is only prophesying the present.
Finally, a prophecy also pertains to the past if it prophesies those things that human eye has not seen. When Moses, for instance, records in the book of Genesis the creation of man and the world, how does he know these things? He is writing prophetically! Therefore, he is a prophet referring to the past. To add another dimension to the meaning of prophecy, it has the element of teaching. It comes to advise—to move people towards straight paths and repentance, to bring consolation and encouragement to those who are fighting the hard fight of the spiritual life, and so on. Many times the prophets come to strengthen and help people and move them towards repentance, and to elevate those who listen to them. So prophecy does not limit itself to what happened and what will happen, but also comes to teach God’s people how they must walk. For this reason we must not look at the book of the Revelation in the narrow sense of prophecy, as a book that will reveal the future to us! The book of the Revelation will take us back into the past and the present as well. Our Lord said, What is now—those things that exist now. When John writes about Babylon the great harlot, meaning Rome, Rome is not limited to that period of two thousand years ago. “What is now” is also valid for today, so we must not limit our interpretation to the historical facts only. Thus, “what is now” is for today and for tomorrow—it refers to the present.
We need to understand that the book of the Revelation transcends the past, present, and future. It comes to comfort, to uplift, to restore, to warn, to call out, to point out the Antichrist, and this is at all times, at all seasons, but especially at times when spiritual awareness is very low. The book of the Revelation is a very graphic book, with much inexpressible grace and freshness despite some of horrific images.
The book of the Revelation amazes people with its wonderful imagery and scenery. The main scene is Heaven and Earth. Its place of reference is the entire Universe. Its time frame is not limited to the Earth’s history, but moves beyond to the universal history and eternity. This is why we would be making an interpretive mistake if we would wish to interpret the book of the Revelation based on a certain topography, a certain geography such as the United States, or Greece, or Constantinople. There is a tendency to want to interpret events of this book in the narrow space of New York or Iraq or Constantinople or some other country. The book of the Revelation is not just for the Greeks, or the Americans. It is a universal book, its stage is Heaven and Earth. Its period is the history of the universe and eternity.
Neither should we make the mistake of identifying a certain religion or movement with the spirit of the Antichrist. At the beginning of the 20th Century a certain Greek biblical scholar identified Islam as the dark power or the spirit of the Antichrist! There is no question that the expansion of Islam is included in the entire spectrum of this book, but we cannot say that the book of the Revelation deals with this exclusively. This is a mistake! Neither Islam, nor Communism, nor atheism, nor materialism can take a central theme on the stage of this book. They are simply links of the chain. They are great factors, and they are included in this book because these systems take on universal dimensions. However, the book of the Revelation does not confine itself to these systems alone. So let us never say that the Beast is communism, or Islam! This is not so! These are forerunners of the Beast, there is no doubt about it, but they are not the actual apocalyptic Beast.
St. Irenaeus said something excellent, “It is safer and less dangerous to await the fulfilment of a prophecy than to keep trying to guess and estimate and foretell what is about to take place.” St. Andrew of Caesarea also tells us something very important, “Time and experience will reveal to the vigilant.” Time will reveal these events. But if time will reveal these things why should we bother with things that will happen in the future? It is important for us to know in advance what this book says so we will know how to stand.
Let's for example take the presence of the Antichrist. When he comes, he will mesmerize the masses. He will be wise, thoughtful, a philanthropist, extremely civilized. He will be an amazing personality! He will enchant the entire world! This is what the Fathers say. People will boast about his governing abilities, about his wisdom. He will be a universal king. The unions that are taking place geographically one day will solidify to a great union, and then the Antichrist will come forth. It may sound strange, but it is true! This is the warning that we have from the word of God. In those days, the Prophets Elias and Enoch will appear. These two prophets did not taste death. They will serve as prophets of the present, not the future! They will call out that this is the Antichrist, and people will be amazed. “What? He is the greatest governor this world has ever known!” “No, they will say, he is the Antichrist!” They prophesy the present. Those who are vigilant, with a pure heart, who live a spiritual life, will recognize him instantly! The rest of the masses will seize the prophets and hang them in the centre of Jerusalem from the tallest tree! Now, when will all these things happen? When will we know? We will know only when they are happening!
We will recognize each event at the time of its outcome. Therefore, how we approach and how we study the book of the Revelation is very important. When we open the book of the Revelation, we feel that we are in front of some disorder, or in front of an abyss, with no beginning and no end—an abyss of visions, depictions and images. However, in reality, there is no abyss, nothing of this sort! The book of the Revelation is not chaotic. We can easily find the beginning, the middle, and the end. However, the main problem is that we do not know how to interpret it.
We need to say something about the title of the Book. In Greek it is known as the Apocalypsis. The word is a combination of από and καλύπτω meaning the "uncovering" - that which has been disclosed or revelation and refers to the revelation of Jesus Christ to St. John the Theologian, but when we translate this word to English we have the Apocalypse which today is commonly used in reference to a disaster of great magnitude or the end of the world in general.
The Book takes it name from the very first words: It says: The Revelation of Jesus Christ! However, what is the proper meaning of the word Apocalypse or revelation? Initially it means that this book is prophetic. It is the only prophetic book of the New Testament even though the other books of the New Testament have prophetic elements as well. Whether they have a historical character, like the Gospels, or a letter character like the Epistles of Sts. Paul, Peter, John, James and so on, and even though they are full of prophetic references, these are not especially prophetic. They are historical, advisory, and so on. The book of the Revelation is especially prophetic, the only one of its kind in the New Testament, even though it is full of spiritual counsels as well.
Revelation is the declaration of hidden mysteries which take place by the illumination of the nous, whether by divine dreams or visions, or in a state wakefulness like St. John.” St. John was not asleep. He was quite awake! He was not dreaming. Daniel, in the Old Testament however, saw these things in his dreams, while he was asleep. He saw those great images, great visions, but he was asleep. St. John here is quite awake, he will say, I was on the island of Patmos.... I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day, (Kyriaki, on Sunday) I heard behind a loud voice… Then I turned around and I saw what I saw, someone like the Son of Man, the glorified Jesus! And He told me, I am the one walking among the lampstands… to the seven churches write these things that I am about to tell you. (Rev.1: 10-13) So, St. John is fully awake.
However, the word revelation also has a deeper meaning. Many times, we use this term, “revelation,” without managing to understand it fully! Generally speaking, revelation means that God is revealing Himself to man and this revelation is either direct or indirect, with its purpose being always to lead people to the knowledge of God. God is not unknown. He is known and unknown at the same time! He is known because God wants to be in communion with His creation. At the same time, He is unknown because He is the Unsearchable, the Untouchable, the Unfathomable, the Everlasting, the Timeless, the One above the sensual and created nature because the essence of God will always escape the knowledge of all created beings. This is why He is the Unknowable Known!
These are all expressions of what is called “apophatic theology;” or to put it simply negative theology. Let us for example take the statement: “I don’t know what God is, and the more I learn about Him, I become more certain that I don’t know God!” This is an apophatic stand towards the knowledge of God, however God loves to reveal Himself! He never keeps to Himself; He reveals Himself either directly or indirectly, He reveals Himself through creation; through man himself; and through the human history and the history of the creation.
Before we finish for today I want us to look at the first few lines of the Book because they are a wonderful introduction to the Book which reveal to us a number of essential elements.
It begins:
"The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand." (1-3)
First, it is distinguished by its official tone that reminds one of the inscriptions of the books of the Old Testament. Second, the character of the book is made known by the name Revelation and the holy writer calls to our attention that what we have in front of us is a prophetic book! Third, the validity and authenticity of this book is declared because the source of this book is God Himself, Jesus Christ, whether He speaks personally or through an angel. Fourth, the purpose of the writing of this book is pointed out where he says to show unto His servants what must soon take place. So, we have a record of the purpose of the writing of the book of the Revelation. A fifth observation is the identification of the writer, who is none other than His servant, St. John the Evangelist. This is the disciple that Jesus loved, the writer of the Gospel according to John and of the three catholic epistles. A sixth point, is that the content of the book is revealed, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Therefore, St. John bears record of the Word of God; so the book of the Revelation is the word of God, the testimony of Jesus Christ and all the things that St. John saw. He will not add or subtract. At the end of the book John himself will note, anyone who adds anything to the words of this book, God will add to him the plagues described in this book! And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy God will take away from him his share in the Tree of Life, meaning he will not enter the Kingdom of God. St. John is very careful to record only what he saw and heard and nothing more!
The central theme of this book as we have already said is the Second Coming of Christ, which includes the war of the godless powers against the Church, their great defeat, handed to them by Christ, and the glorious reign of Christ unto the ages of ages. A seventh point, is that the purpose of this book is made clear by the blessing which it bestows on those that read, those that hear, and those that keep the word of God. Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein; Finally, what is also recorded here is that the time of the fulfilment of the content of this book is short, …for the time is near. The time is at hand! So All these things that we see in the introductory outline of this book, comprise a great deal of information in just a few lines!
Here then I will end the introduction to the Book of Revelation and from next week we will open the Book and proceed with the church's interpretation word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase!