What an Orthodox bishop thinks you should know about the Book of Revelation

Yesterday I posted a Q&A with Fr. Mark Arey about his stunning new graphic novel of Revelation. It features a fresh translation of John’s Apocalypse, all 404 of its enigmatic verses, along with some 570 images to illumine the text.

Though today Christians seem somewhat obsessed with Revelation, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, the early church seems to have been rather ambivalent about it. While it’s regarded as Holy Scripture, as Fr. Mark pointed out in the interview, even now Revelation is the only New Testament book without a home in the Orthodox lectionary. You won’t hear it formally read in church.

Metropolitan Savas (Zembillas) of Pittsburgh

Metropolitan Savas (Zembillas) of Pittsburgh

I decided to ask Metropolitan Savas Zembillas about the book’s controversial past and its place in the life of the church, and he was gracious enough to answer.

Some background is in order. His Eminence served for ten years as Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America before his December 2012 enthronement as Metropolitan of Pittsburgh. Last year, he participated as one of twelve members of the Holy Patriarchal Synod in Constantinople (that’s Istanbul for the less optimistic readers out there).

As mentioned in yesterday’s interview with Fr. Mark Arey, the Orthodox church does not include Revelation in its regular cycle of readings. That might strike some Christians as strange. What’s the church’s view of the book’s purpose in the life of the church?

First, let me say that Fr. Mark’s treatment of the Book of Revelation is visually arresting, and the translation both beautiful and alive.

But to the question, Revelation — also known as the Apocalypse, literally, “The Unveiling” — has had a very interesting history. And here, I should point out, we are talking about the Church before all the various schisms and divisions. It’s not only the last book of the New Testament canon, but it was also the last book to be accepted as canonical by the Church.

From its first appearance, bishops and theologians have had serious concerns about the book’s apostolic credentials. One third-century bishop, for instance, argued from a very careful comparison of the book’s vocabulary and syntax with that of the Gospel and three epistles attributed to the Apostle John that the Apocalypse had to have been written by a different person!

Others, including St. Gregory the Theologian in the fourth century, characterized it as difficult to interpret and easily misunderstood and misused.

In the Christian West, St. Jerome had his reservations, and St. Augustine, who discouraged eschatological speculation, favored an ahistorical, allegorical reading. Even Martin Luther initially included it among the works he considered “questionable,” and it was the only book of the New Testament for which John Calvin did not write a commentary!

As you mention, to this day, it remains the only New Testament book from which the Orthodox Church does not read aloud. This is not to say that the Church does not consider it a God-inspired text! On the contrary, the Church draws heavily from its rich and mysterious symbolism and imagery, and in fact can be said to act it out liturgically.

Why is the book not included in the lectionary?

Apocalyptic writings, of which this is the most famous but by no means the only text, have a tendency to excite the imagination in ways that have almost always proved unfruitful.

Time and again, people have been led astray, especially in times of political instability, by preachers who have claimed to know the meaning of its many symbols and the timing of the prophetic events described. In my own lifetime, I can remember televangelists asserting with certainty that the ten horns of the beast were the ten nations of the European Union — now there are of course more member nations in the EU — and that the birthmark on President Mikhail Gorbachev’s head was proof that he was the beast!

But while we may not read from the text in the lectionary, we do make plentiful use of it.

Some examples would include the symbols of the Evangelists in the pendentives, the thrones, the incense, the relics of martyred saints in the altar, the prostrations, the constant use of the Trisagion: “Holy, Holy, Holy. . . .” These are all echoes from the Book of Revelation, but echoes we put into practice every day in the divine services of the Church.

Does the Orthodox church have an official interpretation of the book?

No, and I’m not aware of any church that does. Several Orthodox saints and theologians have offered commentaries on the Book of Revelation, but the Church has not singled any out as the “official” reading.

Andrew of Caesarea, for instance, offered a commentary, which has been newly translated by Presvytera Jeannie Constantinou, Ph.D. You can find out more about that here, and InterVarsity Press has also published a translation of Andrew’s commentary, which you can find here. More recently, Archbishop Averky wrote a widely read commentary under the title Apocalypse.

If all of that seems daunting, Fr. Thomas Hopko has a helpful three-part introductory lecture on the book, which you can listen to here, here, and here.

Whatever commentary you consult, it’s important to remember the Church has always endorsed the idea that there are multiple layers of interpretation. The first-century readers to whom the book was addressed understood certain things in Revelation that later readers do not. But there are truths that transcend that original audience, which is why it’s relevant today.

What are the most startling images in the book for you? And how about the most comforting as well?

There are many shocking and even monstrous images in the book, but what I am most startled by are the absences. In the New Jerusalem, for instance, there is no temple! Instead the lamb that was slain lives. And there is no sun. The radiance of God illumines the saints.

As for the most comforting images, I’d have to point to Revelation 2.17:

To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

The idea there that God takes care to provide for our spiritual sustenance is deeply moving, so especially is the idea that God alone knows our true selves. Not even we know it fully, but someday God will reveal it to us.

And then of course there’s Revelation 7.15-17:

He who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

What more needs to be said? That is the sum of our hope.

One last question: Does the book say anything to Christians today enduring persecution?

Fear not, little flock. God is in control. The victory has been won. Christ has conquered the world.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    Great post. I enjoyed the comments from his Grace. Especially “Time and again, people have been led astray, especially in times of political instability, by preachers who have claimed to know the meaning of its many symbols and the timing of the prophetic events described. ” How very true. Without the broader context of the tradition of the Church, and bishops to hold preachers accountable, this happens so naturally.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Amen.

  • Carson Lauffer

    The book of Revelation is portrayed in iconography and in the liturgy. I don’t know why that wasn’t covered.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Mainly because of my inabilities as an interviewer :) It’s a great angle and one I’ll have to take another time.

      • Carson Lauffer

        Not to worry. It was good to learn from His Grace. Good interview but I do hope you will go into depth on the relationship next time.


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