…the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.”
The first three chapters of Revelation are pretty straightforward. I don’t know anyone who has trouble understanding those chapters.
We turn to Revelation 4:1, read the opening line of end times prophecy, and it all goes downhill from there. There are several camps on its interpretation. There are the literalists, who, as the name implies, take the words at face value. They believe that the menageries of exceptionally odd creatures will appear.
Many, perhaps most, read it as being allegorical with the apocalyptic language. I’ve heard and read that, while incomprehensible to us, early Christians would have been more able to understand this sort of verbiage. Heads and crowns refer to kingdoms and kings, etc.
I’ve also heard an interpretation that it symbolically describes every Christians journey through life to death. This is one I don’t agree with, but there it is.
I’ve been reading Eusebius, The Church History, translation and commentary by Paul L. Maier. Eusebius “…was a Roman historian…of Greek descent. He became the bishop of Caesarea Maritima about 314. Together with Pamphilus, he was a scholar of the Biblical canon and is regarded as an extremely well learned Christian of his time.” Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eusebius
I’ve come to a section in which he records the debates and even divisions over interpretation of Revelation, concluding in a meeting of leading Christian leaders. This included Coracion, who originated the teaching of a literal interpretation in his time. He had researched and written extensively and convinced many that this was the way to read Revelation.
The debate began when Nepos, who followed Coracion, authored a treatise on it that came to the attention of Dionysius of Alexandria. At this point, let’s introduce the players in this portion of church history.
Saint Dionysius of Alexandria, named “the Great,” 14th Pope of Alexandria & Patriarch of the See of St. Mark from December 28, 248 until his death on March 22, 264 after seventeen years as a bishop…
Dionysius was born to a wealthy pagan family sometime in the late 2nd, early 3rd century. He spent most of his life reading books and carefully studying the traditions of heretics. He converted to Christianity at a mature age
Dionysius converted to Christianity when he received a vision sent from God; in it he was commanded to vigorously study the heresies facing the Christian Church so that he could refute them through doctrinal study. After his conversion, he joined the Catechetical School of Alexandria and was a student of Origen and Pope Heraclas. He eventually became leader of the school and presbyter of the Christian church, succeeding Pope Heraclas in 231.
The Book of Nepos is one of the texts of the New Testament apocrypha, written by an Egyptian bishop, Nepos. He was a strict literalist (believing the entire Bible is true in a literal sense), and his text, also known as the Refutation of the Allegorisers was aimed at refuting the arguments of those who held that certain sections of the Bible were mere allegory. In particular, the text is aimed at discrediting the position, held by a minority of Christians at the time, that the book of Revelation should be interpreted allegorically rather than literally.
Once Dionysius had read and discussed Nepos’ work with several of his followers who had brought the volume to Dionysius, Dionysius took to a refutation of Nepos’ position. Unfortunately, by that time Nepos had died, so there could be no debate. Dionysius wrote:
Now in general I endorse and love Nepos for his faith and industry, his study of scripture…but truth is paramount.
In the wake of Dionysius’ writings, he convened the meeting of church leaders to hash out how the language of Revelation should be viewed and interpreted. Coracion was in attendance to favor the literalism he and his student Nepos advocated.
In relating this meeting and having studied Revelation himself, I found this intriguing piece of commentary from Dionysius himself:
Some of our predecessors rejected the book altogether, criticizing it chapter by chapter as unintelligible, illogical, and its title false. They say it is neither John’s nor a revelation in any sense, since it is veiled by its thick curtain of incomprehensibility, and its author was neither an apostle or saint nor even church member, but Cerinthus.” (founder of the Cerinthian sect)
This was, of course before Dionysius’ death in A.D. 264. That, to me, indicates even the early Christians didn’t understand the apocalyptic language of the book. If they had, it would have been passed along with the rest of doctrine handed down from the apostles. This, however, is no reason to disregard it, according to Dionysius:
I, however, would not dare reject the book, since many brethren hold mit in esteem, but since my intellect cannot jusdge it properly, I hold that its interpretation is a wondrous mystery. I do not understand it, but I suspect that the words have deeper meaning…I do not reject what I have failed to understand but am rather puzzled that I failed to understand.
I find the conclusion a letdown in that we’re really no farther along than they were almost 2000 years ago. “It’s allegorical/apocalyptic, and we don’t get it” seems to be the conclusion.
That inspires us to close those dusty pages and find a more reader-friendly portion of Scripture. That’s been my position for years. But that is not what Jesus intended. How does Revelation end?
From Revelation 22
7 “Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”
18 For[i] I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add[j] to him the plagues that are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away[k] his part from the Book[l] of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
NOW what? Part 2 is coming up…