The Revelation: A Reading of the Vision and Letter
of John to the Churches
Mark A. McDonald
Part One: The First Half of the Revelation 1
I. Author, Introduction and Blessing: That it is John the Apostle
Who Wrote the Revelation 1
II. Tachus: “Soon” or “With Haste” (Revelation 1:1) 20
a) Were the Apostles Wrong About How Soon the End Would Come?
b) The First Precondition
c) The Second Reason that the Time Seems to be Quite Soon
d) Parables of Delay
e) The Calendar and the Six Day Theory
f) The Seven Weeks of Years
g) The Spread of Technology
h) The Rapture and the Son of Lawlessness
i) What it is that Will Occur Soon
j) Three or Four Different Readings of the Millennium
k) Carl Jung: Antichrist and Symbol
l) What then Should We Do?
III. Title, Greeting and the Introductory Vision
(Revelation Chapter 1) 49
a) Title and greeting 1:1-4
IV. The Seven Letters (Revelation Chapters 2-3) 57
V. The Vision of the Throne and the Scroll
(Revelation Chapters 4-5) 64
a) The Throne (Revelation Chapter 4)
b) Does the Rapture Occur at 4:1?
c) The Scroll (Revelation Chapter 5)
VI. The Opening of the First Six Seals (Revelation Chapters 6-7) 80
a) The First Four Seals (Revelation 6:1-8)
b) Fifth and Sixth seals (Revelation 6:9-7:17)
VII. The Seventh Seal and the Seven Trumpets 94
a) First Four Trumpets (Revelation Chapter 8)
b) Fifth and Sixth Trumpets (Revelation Chapter 9)
c) The Little Scroll (Revelation Chapter 10)
d) The Two Witnesses (Revelation Chapter 11)
Part Two: The Second Half of the Revelation: The Seventh Trumpet
And the City of God
I. The Woman and the Dragon
(Revelation Chapter 12) 112
II. The Sea and Land Beast
(Revelation Chapter 13) 127
III. The 144,000 and Six or Seven Angels
(Revelation Chapter 14) 139
IV. The Seven Bowls of Wrath
(Revelation Chapters 15-16) 147
V. The Judgment of Babylon
(Revelation 17-19) 154
a) Chapter 17:1-15
b) Digression on the Meanings of Babylon
c) Digression on The Book of Daniel
d) Chapter 17:15-18
e) Chapter 18
VI. Armageddon and the Revelation (Revelation Chapter 19) 191
VII. The Millennium (Revelation Chapter 20) 206
VIII. The City of God (Revelation Chapter 21-22) 221
Appendix A: The Apocalyptic Texts 240
Appendix B The Vision of Fatima 241
Even more than other books, the reading of scripture unfolds with the reader, so that each time one takes up the work, it might appear anew. Commentary on ancient books is taken up in the cultivation of this unfolding. As a gardener works the yard where he finds himself to have been placed, we till the earth, bring water here and there, and work to keep up understanding. In what follows, the aim is to present a reading, and, by conversation, to enrich the reading of this book, for those who happen by. The commentary is intended for both the scholar and the layman. It is perhaps especially for the layman lured by the attraction of the mysteries to dabble in scholarship and study, or from one of this sort to another. Unlike the preachers, we will not aim to address the widest audience, but rather, the most curious or perplexed among these. Rather than attempt a divine or theological reading, our work here is intended to be human and philosophical, and to converse with both, Christians and Jews, Romans and Greeks, Catholics and Protestants, and indeed anyone interested in what might be thought and said about these astonishing matters. Yet unlike the scholars, I will also draw on the reading of the preachers, who with faith and inspired study make up for what may on occasion be lacking in the polish of scholarly objectivity. These do present a reading, where the scholars often seem too moderate to make an attempt. The perspective from which the work is written could be called “Half-Catholic,” “Independent Christian,” or perhaps just Christian. And most are neither pleased, nor too put out, by such a name. Roger Williams was this sort of churchless Christian when he founded Rhode Island, and began the first Baptist Church in America. His thought may have led to American religious liberty, as later Baptists persuaded Madison and Jefferson in what became the separation of Church and State. However, as few agree on many points in the interpretation of the Revelation, what follows is, hopefully, written so that, even where one should think or find the author mistaken, the work itself, of commentary, might help the reader to consider the text and the truth anew, growing in the faith.
It is very difficult to attain a consistent reading of the whole book. This may be part of the reason that this book had been neglected, at least until the past century or so. There are many contradictory readings, so that most must logically be in error, at least as complete understandings of the whole text. Often these are based on a hypothesis that one thing in the text is another thing in our world, taken as a principle, what would be a vision which provides a comprehensive context into which other things are then fit. But, if one is to believe Aristotle, conclusions are no more certain than the premises on which they depend (Ethics, 1139b 33-34). It is possible to make these explicit, and to turn these hypotheses into “steppingstones and springboards” in attempting to ascend, as Socrates explains in Plato’s Republic (511b, 510b). The premises are attained not by induction alone, nor by hearing them spoken, but by a seeing, a gnosis or intellection (Aristotle, Ethics, 1143a 35; 1139b 25-35). The word gnosis has been obscured by its relation to the title of certain heresies. But it is possible to restore the word to its pre-Christian and Biblical meaning. As shown in the person of Socrates, this emphasis on gnosis is somehow consistent with human ignorance, the a-gnosis of the agnostic. It is not in certainty, but rather in ignorance and humility, that genuine inquiry, especially into these things, proceeds. One suspects that in speaking of scripture, as in speaking of the Most High, the things said are somehow always wrong in some way, for what ever truth we manage to glean. I have sometimes been in error, and corrected, even as we may be corrected in reading things early in the text by things later in the text. And we may still wish to change some things in this commentary, or as is hoped, to see some new part or view of this, St. John’s astonishing Revelation.
For some, the book placed last is the beginning of their life as a thoughtful Christian, a gateway for the entry into the study of the Bible, beginning with the end. And this is how it was for us, when Mr. Bustamante at the old Arcade in Northville introduced a few of us, including an old friend, Keith Assenmacher, to The Way. Later Hal Lindsey, through his book The Late Great Planet Earth, impressed us with the question of the immanence of the end times or the end of the age. Again as a freshman in college, a few of us were astonished together when John Paul II became Pope, and then was nearly assassinated. We have grown up now, all of us, with a mixture of shock and numbness at the events that have occurred, and this is in a sense our entry into the reading of the Bible, and our leaning toward this Way. As an undergraduate, studying psychology and philosophy, we were able to do the Bible in independent summer studies, with Stephen Rowe of Grand Valley State College here in Michigan, focusing on Proverbs and then Paul’s Letter to the Romans. While my course of graduate study was political philosophy, questions of the Revelation continued to arise, especially in reading Shakespeare, and we have heard the teachings of Jack Van Impe and of Henry Schaeffer, pastor of the Baptist Church on the edge of Novi, Michigan. In this sense, we begin at the end, though this might turn out to be a proper beginning.
There are, of course, many errors in the attempt to understand our world in light of what is written in this book. One of the more famous in American history is called the Great Disappointment, when in 1843 and then again in 1844, many gathered, expecting to be taken away at the return of the Lord. A recent calculation set the date for the return of Jesus at May 21, 2011. While the prediction received media attention, none ever asked about the reading on which the prediction was based, a calculation that this date was 7000 years from Noah, and an assumption that something ought to then happen. Calculations and other predictions, always based on an assumption, are demonstrated false when the events thought to be foreseen fail to occur. Isaac Newton considered calculations based on an assumption and a reading of Daniel, and arrived at a conclusion of not before 2060. Such calculations assume a beginning date and certain conversions of calendars and correlations of histories. And yet, when anything occurs according to any written time, or even remotely resembling some feature, such as the roaring of wind and waves, or a bit of perplexity of nations, it then appears to some as the foretold universal calamity. “Rumors of war” may be the best example, for here the text clearly intends to say that there will be wars and rumors of wars from the time that Jesus is speaking until the time called the end of the age, although “the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:6). These are explicitly not especially signs of the end, except in the sense that the apocalyptic motion, or the latter days, began with the incarnation. So these things are called “but the birth pangs” (Matthew 24:8). The plague in Fourteenth Century Europe, when one third of all people then there died, appeared this way to those living through it. So did the American Civil War, as is evident in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Things vast and terrible have occurred, and can occur, and yet, as it appears, the end was “not yet.” On hindsight, we wonder how those living through the Second World War could stand, in awe of the events. These birth pangs, then, have now lasted over two millennia. Another common error appears to be when names, as “Nero Caesar,” are plugged into a gematria-like formula, without pausing to consider whether we even know the meaning of a “human number,” or the “number of a man,” but proceed, again, on an unexamined assumption. It is possible to make these assumptions explicit, and to consider how sure the assumption is. Even if we are given divine premises, we must still understand them, or the wrong conclusions will be drawn. Another error appears to occur when some course appears with all the power of persuasion of the Spirit itself, without even raising the question of the import of these things for human and political action, on occasion with disastrous consequences. It may be that we then forget that our work is, at best, like Adam, to till and keep the little plot of the garden of the Lord that has fallen to our lot to tend– a garden we do not own and did not plant. For the interpretation of this text is so uncertain, at least in any public way, that no orthodoxy is set on many matters. And here, we need not attain full knowledge of the text, but mere familiarity, in order to see that there is no necessity to many readings presented as clear, prophetic or certain. The excellence of Christians is belief. A kind of belief, however, fails us, or does not serve in matters of faith that have no clear or public interpretation. Here faith and belief are seen in their distinction. It is here especially that we see that it is a fine thing to have the word of God, if only we could understand it! Often the mere thinking of other possibilities that cannot yet be eliminated is enough to restore human ignorance, from which a genuine inquiry might proceed. And so, it is here if anywhere in Christendom that a reading might truly attempt to begin in ignorance, and in a sense, aim to return there. Yet there is a true reading of the text, and we can make progress in this through the work of interpretation, and commentary.
Meanwhile, when significant things do occur, such, as we think, are the beginnings of communism, the Holocaust, or the capture of Jerusalem, the contemporary prophets or students of prophecy seem not to notice– except on a rare occasion, and in hindsight. We too believe the book to have much to say about contemporary matters, if in a surprising way. And this is a good half the reason for taking up this commentary. After all, these things, if they are to occur, must occur during someone’s time, even if it were not quite yet ours. Even when the time is ripe, some may be correct by accident, for the same appearances as occurred to them when they were wrong, and the time not yet. An important teaching of Pastor Schaeffer is that it is an angel, and not a man, who is to announce that the hour of his Judgment has come (Revelation 14:7). But for Christians, our work is to spread the gospel, live the life, and tell that He is coming.
After the introductory chapter on John, we will attempt to comment particularly on each thing from the beginning to the end. I have attempted to draw on the best commentaries to which I have access, the foremost appearing to be St. Victorinus (d. 304), St. Hippolytus (170?-235?), St. Augustine (354-430) among the ancients, Richard Bauckham, David Aune and Hal Lindsey, Jack Van Impe, C. I. Scofield, and others, among contemporaries. With these as instructors, companions, interlocutors and conversants, I simply attempt to read the text, relating all the best thoughts that appear on each occasion, and trying to see the whole, or how the parts might fit together. I have begun with the Revised Standard Version of the Oxford Annotated Bible of 1977. With this as a base, I have made some attempt to notice significant variants from the King James and occasionally the New American versions, and to follow along in the Greek text, using the Pocket Interlinear New Testament edited by Jay P. Green. My regrettable lack of Hebrew may soon be remedied by my friends. Shalom and Charis!