Towards Understanding Revelation


Welcome!   I need to start today by letting you know that my posts may be sporadic for a few months. Circumstances are dictating that we move over the next 60 days. I will continue to put out as many posts as I can.

In the meantime, we’ll move forward. We’ll start today with more excerpts from the 1979 book VISIONS OF THE END: APOCALYPTIC TRADITIONS IN THE MIDDLE AGES by Bernard McGinn.  Ephraem the Syrian is the first writer we’ll look at starting with a short biography and speculation about the dating of the writings:

“Ephraem was born in Nisibis [Nisibis was a trade center located on the road between Assyria and Syria] about 306 and fled to Edessa [a city on the frontier of the Syrian desert] when his native city was conquered by the Persians in 363. The final ten years of his life at Edessa established the city as the intellectual center of the Syrian Church. Ephraem is the most important and prolific of the Syrian Church Fathers, though there is still a good deal of uncertainty regarding the authenticity of much that has been ascribed to him…According to E. Beck, the Syriac apocalyptic sermon ascribed to Ephraem dates to the second half of the seventh century…There is a Latin ‘Sermon on the End of the World’ found in three eighth-century mss. under the name of Ephraem…W. Bousset thought that portions of the source of this work, though not by Ephraem, could be dated to near the time of his death; but most scholars have sided with the editor, C. Caspari, who though he admits the use of a document from the late fourth century, assigned the original composition to the Byzantine period between 565 and 628. The Sermon…is an important witness to the transmission of Eastern apocalyptic materials to the Frankish West.”

And now an excerpt from the SERMON ON THE END OF THE WORLD:

 “Dearly beloved brothers, believe the Holy Spirit who speaks in us. We have already told you that the End of the world is near, the consummation remains. Has not faith withered away among mankind? How many foolish things are seen among youths, how many crimes among prelates, how many lies among priests, how many perjuries among deacons? There are evil deeds among the ministers, adulteries in the aged, wantonness in the youths — in mature women false faces, in virgins dangerous traces! In the midst of all this there are the wars with the Persians, and we see struggles with diverse nations threatening and ‘kingdom rising against kingdom’ (Matt 24:7). When the Roman empire begins to be consumed by the sword, the coming of the Evil One is at hand. It is necessary that the world come to an end at the completion of the Roman empire.”

If you substituted “the United States” for “the Roman empire” this could be read in a pulpit today and people would be nodding in agreement. Whether this was written by Ephraem or not, I suspect is was indeed written in the 4th century (though perhaps copied and reused/revised at a later date.). By the 6th or 7th century the Roman Empire was history and no longer relevant in the way that is written about here. When I read this piece, I recognize the underlying feelings because it describes what’s happening today as well. If I had read this 30 years ago, I might have thought to myself “yes, we are starting down this same road,” but I don’t think it would have resonated as strongly as it does now. And someone in the 6th or 7th century would be hard pressed to write something so present, yet emotionally restrained, about an earlier time in history. I think someone imagining that time would over-blow the emotional content without realizing that a person living through it cannot afford to do that if they are to survive. Something we should be thinking about…

The sermon goes on to do a very brief synopsis of what’s described in Revelation:

“In those days two brothers will come to the Roman empire who will rule with one mind; but because one will surpass the other, there will be a schism between them. And so the Adversary will be loosed and will stir up hatred between the Persian and Roman empires. In those days many will rise up against Rome; the Jewish people will be her adversaries. there will be stirrings of nations and evil reports, pestilences, famines, and earthquakes in various places. All nations will receive captives; there will be wars and rumors of wars. From the rising to the setting of the sun the sword will devour much. The times will be so dangerous that in fear and trembling they will not permit thought of better things, because many will be the oppressions and desolations of regions that are to come.”

This piece is also very restrained. The writer is anticipating this happening in his lifetime, and he’s not expecting a rapture. I’m especially struck by the phrase: “The times will be so dangerous that in fear and trembling they will not permit thought of better things.”  I have a very dear friend who was a child in Bremerhaven, Germany during World War II. She credits her mother’s constant prayer and meditation on the Bible with getting the family through the war alive, including her father who was in a Russian prison camp. Her story brings home to me very firmly that the more dangerous the time is, the more fear and trembling the times create, the more we need “thoughts of better things”…the more we need God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Looking ahead at the coming times, it can be very difficult to realize how much we will need those “thoughts of better things,” and how much we imagine surviving, or not, on our own resources. I see this in this paragraph, he is imagining himself in the future experiencing these things, and thinking only of his own resources.

Next we will look at Beatus, from another time and another place:

  “Among the most important conveyors of tradition during these centuries was the Spanish monk Beatus of Liebana (~750-798). From Visigothic times the church in Spain had had close ties with North African Christianity, and as in Africa, the Book of Revelation was paid particular reverence. 

We will end with an excerpt from THE COMMENTARY OF BEATUS, which includes a timeline. If you compare, you’ll notice that it mostly follows Eusebius’ timeline, but with some differences.

“For the first age was from Adam to Noah and occupied 2,242 years; the second, from Noah to Abraham, was 942 years. The third, from Abraham to Moses, was 505 years, and the fourth, from the departure of the sons of Israel from Egypt until their entrance into the promised land, was 40 years. From the entrance into the promised land to Saul, the first king, the Israelites had Judges for 355 years. Saul reigned 40 years, and from David to the beginning of the Temple there were 43 years. The fifth age, from the first building of the Temple to the Babylonian captivity, took 446 years. There were 70 years in which the people were captive and the Temple desolate. The Temple was restored by Zorobabel in 4 years, and from the restoration until the Incarnation of Christ there were 540 years.

 “The whole time from Adam to Christ makes 5,227 years, and from the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ to the present Spanish era of 824, there are 786 years. Therefore, compute the time from Adam to the present Spanish era and you will find 5,986. There are then only 14 years left in the sixth millennium, and the sixth age will end in the Spanish era 838.

 “The time remaining to the world is uncertain to human investigation. Our Lord Jesus Christ rejected every kind of question on this matter when he said: ‘It does not belong to you to know the times or the moments which the Father has put in his own power’ (Acts 1:7); or again ‘No one knows the day nor the hour — neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ (Mark 13:32). Because he said ‘day and hour,’ sometimes they are to be taken for general time spans, sometimes to be understood directly. You should know in truth that the world will end in 6,000 years; but whether these years are to be completed or to be shortened is known only to God…One thousand is said as a manner of speaking, just as that passage which reads, ‘That which he commanded for a thousand generations’ (Ps. 104:8) is to be understood not as a thousand but openly signifying the whole. Therefore do not listen to those who say that from the Nativity of the Lord to his Second Coming there are a thousand years — they think the same as the heretic Cerinthus. Nor should we listen to those who say that all the baptized and all those who die without penance will not be judged guilty of sin or offense because they remained in the faith, or if they be buried in Hell, after a thousand years they shall be freed. These do not understand that the Lord will say to sinners, ‘Go into everlasting fire’ (Matt. 25:41), since it has no end…”

Beatus not only says that the end comes in 838 A.D., but also addresses the idea that there would be 1,000 years between the First Coming and the Second Coming. Many people viewed 1000 A.D. with dread as they thought the world was going to end. It was actually much worse than Y2K for mass panic!

We also see in Beatus’ writing the Catholic Church idea that dying “without penance” leads to Hell. This is one of the beliefs that was let go in the Reformation: the idea that salvation is up to us and our actions. The Reformation brought Paul’s writings about ‘faith alone’ to the forefront, providing relief to countless believers.

I must go do some packing! While I pack I will be praying that you are prepared for the future, but even more so that you will are leaning on God for your salvation and survival. k

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