The Narrative Thread in the Book of Revelation by Giancarlo Biguzzi

To pick out the narrative thread of the book of Revelation is indispensable because it enables us to set in relief the book’s outlook on man, on history and on God’s action in history.


The plot of Rev 1-3 is simple. On Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea at a day’s journey by sea from Asia Minor, John receives a vision of Christ in glory. The Lord bids him write messages to seven churches in Asia on their life ad intra and ad extra. John then reports these seven messages one by one.


The plot of Rev 4-22, the second part of the book, is more complex. It too opens with a vision: John is invited to come up into heaven and there to contemplate the heavenly temple or royal court around God’s throne. In his right hand, the Sovereign who sits on the throne grasps the scroll of his providential designs, but the scroll is sealed with seven seals. Only the risen Christ, presented in the figure of a Lamb, is capable of opening one seal after another. In this way, Christ becomes the revealer of God’s designs written in the heavenly scroll; thus is fulfilled the title of Rev 1:1, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to make known to his servants.”


The scenes which accompany the opening of each seal make up the content of the scroll; the latter is therefore presented visually rather than read, in a sort of movie reel. With the opening of the first seals, there come on the scene positive forces (the white horseman) and negative ones (the red (war), the black (injustice), and the greenish (death)) that clash in human history. When the fifth seal is opened, the Christian martyrs, who are at the foot of the altar in heaven, cry out to God that their blood be avenged. The answer they receive is that there will be still more martyrs but that God will not fail to intervene. In fact, after the 144 000 from the messianic tribes (the people of God’s servants) are marked with a seal to protect them, God’s wrath breaks out in a first blow against the worshippers of idols and demons. The scourges of God’s wrath are dealt out by seven angels who blow trumpets at God’s command. Just as in the Exodus of old, however, the plagues sent by God harden rather than convert those on whom they are inflicted.


As the section on the worshippers of idols and demons comes to a close, John is invested with a new prophetic commission “against numerous peoples and kings”; together with him, two witnesses, who represent the people of God, are sent to prophesy in the “great city” and among the inhabitants of the earth. All of this portends a new divine intervention.


The battle line of the “non-servants” of God broadens at this point in the narrative because on the scene comes the supreme adversary, the Dragon or Satan. Not having been able to harm the Messiah or his mother, the Woman clothed with the sun, he unleashes an all-out war against the rest of her descendants. To the Dragon’s aid come two beasts, one from the sea (the mare nostrum of the Romans) and one from the land (Asia Minor). The former receives from the Dragon his throne and power and then is adored by all the world; the latter promotes the worship of the statue of the former and the region from which it comes (Asia Minor). The two beasts are probably respectively the Roman emperor, who was the object of worship especially in the East, and the provincial assembly of Asia Minor, which promoted this worship by erecting temples and statues and organising feasts, processions and public games. In this way, a new and more insidious idolatry than the traditional one is set in place – blasphemous against God and hostile towards the disciples of Jesus – the idolatry of the Beast-from-the-sea. But on this second idolatry too, the scourges of God’s wrath come down, unleashed this time by seven angels pouring out bowls of his wrath.


Because the adepts of this idolatry also grow hardened rather than convert, after the “medicinal” intervention by which God gave them a chance to repent, there remains only his “judicial” intervention. First to be judged is Babylon, capital city of the kingdom of the Beast-from-the-sea. Its judgement is shown to John of Patmos by a first angelic interpreter: the city is consumed by fire, and then a great funerary lament is raised by the vassal kings and merchants who did lucrative commerce with her. There is cause for great joy on the part of the people of God, however. This people is the Bride preparing herself for the wedding banquet of Christ the Lamb. Next to be judged are the two beasts: their armies are conquered by Christ with the sword issuing from his mouth and they are hurled into the pool of fire and sulphur. The Dragon, still at large but essentially immobilised by the paschal victory of Christ, also wages war but the outcome is inevitable: he too is hurled into the pool of fire and sulphur while fire from heaven burns up God and Magog, his armies. The author adds a surprise here: there is a fourth judgement, that of Death and his kingdom.


With the conquest of this last enemy, the new heavens and new earth come on the scene and a second angelic interpreter shows John the new Jerusalem. The vision of the eschatological city, with the water of life and the tree of life which mark the return to paradise lost, closes the book of John on a note of bright hope and exhortation to fidelity because the Lord is coming, coming soon, with his reward.

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