Revelation: The Difficult and Helpful Mysteries

The book of Revelation is exciting and interesting. It is also disturbing. It is written by “the disciple that Jesus loved,” John, who was an eyewitness to the ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

The most difficult image for me in the text involves the marking of 144,000 people from all the tribes of Israel (Rev 7:4). I find this difficult because I do not understand it, and although I know that these persons represent Jews, I have no idea what role John (Christ) is saying of these “144,000” Jews or of the Jews generally. It is difficult to know if this prophecy has already come to pass or is yet to come to pass. While I have my own opinions on many of the mysteries of Revelation, the unknowable dreams of Saint John, presented in the book of Revelation, leave the modern mind frustrated.

The image that is most helpful to me involves the active and glorious role of the Blessed Mother. Mary, queen of all saints and the mother of God, who has been justly glorified, and who, through apparitions, has been involved in the lives of so many billions of Christians throughout the world for two millennia, is rarely mentioned elsewhere in the bible. Indeed, the prayer “Hail Mary” pretty much quotes most of what there is explicitly in the bible about Mary and the Annunciation. In Revelation, however cryptically, Mary is depicted as a central figure in the spiritual realm, a woman attacked by Satan (whom she defeats, as he is then cast out of heaven). In Revelation 12:1, Mary is depicted as being clothed by the sun, with the moon under her feet, “and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”

I find the central role that Mary plays in Revelation helpful to me because I have a strong personal devotion to the Blessed Mother and these passages provide me with biblical justification— from a primary source— for this devotion. Although faith alone should be enough to guide me on these matters, logical support from a source as great as John gives me solace.

John1:1-5,14: God Becomes Man and Fulfills the Old Testament

In John 1:1-5, 14, the apostle John, whose Gospel is written from the perspective of an eyewitness, is proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, that He has always existed, and that He is, indeed, God made man.

John poetically begins with the first three words of the Old Testament: “In the beginning…” Similarly, the first five verses of John attach Christ to the God who created the world in Genesis: “He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:2). Just as Genesis is a description of how God created the heavens and the earth, John, speaking of Jesus Christ, states “all things came to be through Him…” (John 1:3).

In Genesis 1:3-4, God created light and separated the light from the darkness. Similarly, John proclaims Jesus Christ as “the light [that] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). In the first chapter of John, then, we learn that Jesus is God—the very same God who is described in Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament. John uses poetic parallelism to accomplish this task. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops notes in their footnote in John 1:14,“[t]he incarnate Word is the new mode of God’s presence among His people.”

Wright, Ratzinger, and the Resurrection

N.T. Wright points out that the idea of bodily resurrection was debated among the Jews before Christ, and the idea of resurrection is explicitly in the Old Testament (e.g., Ezekial 37:1-14, the vision of the valley of dry bones). The Pharisees, for example, were looking for an earthly, political return of Israel, at which time those who had been loyal to the Torah would be resurrected. Wright argues that Christianity in some ways grew out of the movement called “second-temple Judaism,” which also saw resurrection in the light of prophesy regarding Israel’s fortunes. In any event, resurrection meant one thing: fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament.

Pope Emeritus Joseph Ratzinger writes that to the Christian, belief in the Resurrection is equivalent to believing that “‘Love is strong as death’” (302, citing Song 8:6). Ratzinger argues that self-made attempts at immortality (e.g., by having children or creating fame), is shallow: “more nonbeing than being” (303). The only true immortality can arise through the power of love, and attaching yourself to that power through Christ. “His resurrection is our life” (306), according to Ratzinger. “[O]nly his love, coinciding with God’s own power of life and love, can be the foundation of our immortality” (306). In God, the “power of love had really proved itself stronger than the power of death” (310).

To Christians, Christ’s death on the cross and His Resurrection is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy and the beginning of the Kingdom of God, where death itself has been defeated. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus Christ was bodily resurrected, and by his sacrifice, all who believe in him are saved, and will also be bodily resurrected and join him in paradise after our death.

Balancing Poetic License and Historical Accuracy: “Quid Est Veritas?”

Historical accuracy is something most historians battle with when attempting to portray reality and truth. Reality, in a biblical sense, is something my generation clings to with too much skepticism. Did Jonah live in the belly of a whale for three days and three nights, and did Noah really rally two of each animal onto his ark? No. The point of these stories, which we often miss, is to confer meaning to the readers. Many of us dwell too much on the literal meaning of the bible.

Ben Affleck does a good job in explaining an understanding of the difference between “poet” and “bookkeeper,” or imagination vs. literal. Google defines a poet as “someone who possesses special powers of imagination or expression.” Affleck explains that there is a “push and pull” between the bookkeeper’s reality and the poet’s reality, but all that truly matters is the deeper, essential truth and understanding, regardless of the way it is told.

I don’t believe Affleck to be a poet, nor do I believe him to be a bookkeeper, but instead somewhere in between the two. He didn’t direct the movie through his imagination as a poet, and neither did he create the movie based completely on literal understanding. However, he does settle in the middle of the two by relaying to us the deeper and essential truth, while still adding the touches that Hollywood demands.

In some ways using “poetic license” provides a more accurate way to capture the truth—especially in spiritual matters. If the subject is math, the bookkeeper’s reality is most reliable. If the subject is the human heart and soul, we must look to the poet. Because we are fallen creatures, our skepticism demands the accuracy of the bookkeeper and the power of the poet. The bible strikes the balance Ben Affleck describes.