It is sometimes said that, at different epochs, particular parts of the New Testament is experienced as relevant for the times. In any case, this has been the fate of the Apocalypse of St John. Thus in the twelfth century Joachim of Fiore made the Book of the Revelation no less than the center of Christian understanding of time. A century later, St. Bridget of Sweden, in her private devotions, is said to have read daily from the Apocalypse. On the other hand, at the time of the Reformation, Luther declared St. Paul’s statement of justification by faith in Romans 1:17 as the doctrinal center of Scripture, while at the same he discarded the Apocalypse from the New Testament canon stating: “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book”.
The Holy War
In these turbulent times of ours, we may ask if not the time has come now to read again the Book of Revelation. Of particular interest in our cultural situation are chapters twelve and thirteen in the section called “The Holy War” (11:19 – 15:4).
Using very dramatic metaphors chapter twelve depicts firstly a war in heaven between the Woman and the Dragon and then the following ramifications on earth.” The Woman” is a symbol of the Church militant representing at the same time Mary in her dual roles as the Mother of Christ and as the Mother of the Christian community (See John. 19:26f). In her troubles the Archangel Michael, champion of the Angelic powers, protects the woman against the Dragon, also named in the text as the Serpent. This is the Devil, cast out of heaven by the power of Christ. The Satanic powers continue their attack on earth persecuting the Woman and her offspring, that is, those “who keep the commandments of God and bear the testimony to Jesus” (12:17). The last expression means that even ordinary Christians are inescapably dragged into the spiritual battle between Christ and his enemies.
The Masquerading Devil
Chapter thirteen then takes us one step further showing how the Devil is using his power also within the world of unbelief. With imagery taken form the Book of Daniel, we are told that the Dragon hides himself behind two “Beasts”, one from the sea and one from the earth.
Acting on mandate from the Dragon and using a strategy of deceitful manipulation, the first Beast successfully perverts people so that all who live on the earth will worship him. This leads to a period of persecution for the Christians who must bear the consequences of their faith.
The second part of the chapter then presents for us the beast from the earth. Looking like a gentle lamb but with the seductive voice of the dragon, this second beast serves the first beast by making a beguiling image of it. Those who do who not worship the deceitful monster may be killed or loose their social position. The control which the second beast exercises over the entire society results in that “all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name”. The key to understand the Beast’s name is probably best deciphered in the light of his oppressive activities (13:16ff).
Evil, Anti-Christ and the Fallen Church
In this way the Apocalypse describes with “animal” metaphors the Enemy of God as a hierarchical order. “The Snake” is symbolising Evil per se and “the Beast from the sea” is the Anti-Christ, a monstrous lamb which is destruction and not the source of life. Thirdly, “the Beast from the earth” animates a blasphemous cult in honour of the first beast. This deceptive force is later in the text called “the false prophet” or “the Harlot” (16:13; 17:1ff).
We find a similar hierarchy of destructive powers in the Second letter to the Thessalonians. Here St. Paul warns of a false Messiah who will be revealed during a coming apostasy. This “Son of perdition”, who is accompanied by “The lawless one” works for Satan with power, signs, lying wonders and every kind of deception (2 Thess 2:9f). As instruments of Satan, the Son of perdition and the Lawless one are traditionally identified as Anti-Christ and the fallen church.
A Cunning Devil
Thus, in the same manner as the Apocalypse, St. Paul and St. Peter both warn that the Devil and his angels explore us individually, looking for our weaknesses (Eph 6:10ff; 1 Pet 5:8ff).
It is disturbing for our spiritual comfort that the Devil is described in the Bible as a power with “intelligence” and “will” fighting Christ and his saints (Math 4: 1ff). “Evil”, stated Pope Paul VI in a sermon on temptation, “is not only deficiency, but something active and efficient, a living, spiritual being, perverted and perverting, mysterious and to be feared”.
Consequently, as Christians we are not allowed to think that we spiritually live in a neutral world. St. Paul gives a very challenging description of our predicament when he named the Devil “The God of this Age”. In every age, The Zeitgeist is blinding “the light of the Gospel of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4). We ignore this strife at our own peril.
Times of Trouble
Despite the mythological language used in the Apocalypse and the references to events at that time, the description which is given in Chapter thirteen of the loss of freedom to think and act, seems strangely relevant to the our experience of living in a society becoming more and more corrupted by the ideology of political correctness. Moreover, the brainwashing power of the modern media deceitfully buries serious moral issues “beneath the avalanche of morbid kitsch and populistic trivia”, to borrow the words of Michael Burleigh’s cultural criticism.
The Triumph in Heaven
A further issue is the question of what message is proclaimed from the pulpits. The litmus test is whether the preaching encourages the faithful to “keep the commandments of God and and the faith of Jesus”. Sooner or later, this rule of faith takes us into the spiritual battle with the Devil while at the same time also calls upon angelic powers to bless and protect us.
The message of Book of Revelation for all times is that Christians should not give in even if the situation around them may seem hopeless. The life of a Christian is never easy. In this world we must exercise patience and faith but our endurance is not in vain, for our deeds will follow us to the triumph in heaven (14:1ff, 12f).
The Collect for St. Michael’s Day
Holy Michael the Archangel,
defend us in the day of battle.
Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him,
we humbly pray, and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan
and all the evil spirits, who
wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.