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The Book of Revelation: A Discussion About Interpretation

The Book of Revelation is not given to easy interpretation. It cannot be deciphered in a literal or fundamentalist manner that seeks to make quick and easy contemporary correlation. We have to appreciate it as a particular form of literature that utilizes symbolic and allegorical phraseology. Similar such writings of this genre appear in Daniel, Zechariah, and Ezekiel. While many will interpret it strictly in terms of future events, it actually has a great deal to say about the crisis in the early Church and her future hope.

11:7 – “And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that ascends from the bottomless pit will make war upon them and conquer them and kill them, . . . ”

This beast was understood to be the antichrist, the one who symbolizes evil in his own person, the Roman emperor, Nero. Christians witnessed to their faith by shedding their blood. (See Rev. 13:1-8; 17:8).

11:8 – “ . . . and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which is allegorically called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.”

While it is geographically true that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, this is not the thrust of the apocalyptic text here. Rather, the emphasis is upon the figurative Jerusalem that repudiates God and his witnesses. This is clearly the new “Babylon”, another code word for pagan Rome. See chapters 16 through 18. (Anti-Catholics go so far as to make the leap in logic that the beast and his city are not the pagan emperor and Rome but rather the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Such a view violates the meaning of the text and defames the sacrifice of early Catholic Christians.) “Sodom” and “Egypt” are symbols for immorality (cf. Isaiah 1:10) and for the oppression of the people of God (cf. Exodus 1:11-14). The authority of pagan Rome crucified Christ through its emissaries. Christ is being crucified anew in his members. It is an early holocaust of the Christian believers at the hands of a bloodthirsty pagan Rome.

The Book of Revelation is composed to deal with a specific crisis. Believers of Christ are dying in droves and the inspired author is urging the Christian community not to abandon hope or to betray the Lord. Jesus’ promise comes to mind: “ . . . and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Catholic Christians are reminded that God has not abandoned them.

Hope this breakdown helps, although it hardly exhausts the layers of meaning here.

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GIO: I don’t know. When Cardinal Ratzinger wrote about the explanation of Fatima in 2000 upon the revelation of the third secret, he compared the Angel with the fiery sword in Revelation to the Angel that the children saw at Fatima, saying something like “the risk of judgment looms over us.”

ARMANDO: Shalom! Fr. Joe, I am a devout Catholic and I’m very curious about the Catholic interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Father, can you tell me, who is the second beast? Who is this beast with a name equivalent to 666? I believe in the messages of Our Lady of Fatima. Actually, I’m praying the Rosary four times a day since I started working here in Saudi Arabia. I hope for your kind reply to these questions because I categorically don’t believe other interpretations of the Bible. I believe in the Catholic view alone, because it is the only true Church founded by Christ with its visible Head as St. Peter and His successors. May the God Abraham, Isaac and Jacob richly bless us all always! Thank you very much Father. I will include you in my prayers.

FATHER JOE: I would recommend a faithful Catholic commentary and a Catholic Bible with good footnotes. Throughout history there have been many antichrists. It refers to any and all who reject and oppose Christ and his Church. The term also signifies a false Christ or counterfeit messiah. This is not to deny the possibility of a singular apocalyptic antichrist; however, many authorities suggest that this pointed to the Emperor Nero or possibly another tyrant of pagan Rome who persecuted the early Church.

ARMANDO: May the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob richly bless all always! Father Joe, thank you very much! I learned just yesterday night, from Brother Michael of EWTN about the intimate relation of the Book of Revelation to the Holy Catholic Mass. It enlightened my heart and mind so much and it strengthened my Catholic faith even more. You know Father, I’m actually a Catholic Charismatic and I’ve been serving the Lord since I was 10 years old through our humble St. Joseph Chapel in Ibabao, Cuenca, Batangas, Philippines. I’ve been a choir guitarist up to the present here in the Muslim country of Saudi Arabia. We are without a Church and must worship in secret. Despite this situation, my friends and I, Filipinos and an Indian, started a small Prayer Group. We pray the Holy Rosary, singing praise and worship songs. I lead a Catholic Bible Study. You know, Father, we are very happy because there are many Catholics who turned away from our Church but now turning back again because of Catholic Life in the Spirit Seminar or CLSS. Two more questions Father: when will the 1000 years of peace happen and is Satan already loosed? Mama Mary, pray for us.

FATHER JOE: You are from the Philippines! My brother married a Filipina a few years ago and traveled to Manila to see her family. I have many Filipinos in my parish here in Maryland, USA. Many are far better educated. You can ask questions of faith and I will do my best to answer. But, please understand, I am quite fallible. The Catholic Church does not teach a millennium rule. Rather, we believe that when Jesus comes he will consummate all things to himself. As for when the second coming will happen, we cannot know for sure, despite various signs. Look at Matthew 24:36. Our Lord tells us that “no one but the Father knows the day and the hour.” As for Satan, look around the world today. He is still very much around and prowling about for souls to devour. Trust Jesus and Mary. Invoke the special aid of St. Michael the Archangel. May God bless you!

ARMANDO: Shalom again, Fr. Joe. Why is it that the Catholic Church does not teach a millennium rule since it is written in Revelation? Am I right that maybe it’s not a literal 1000 years of peace? And what are those seven plaques w/c the 7 angels brought?

FATHER JOE:

The notion of an earthly kingdom ruled directly by the Messiah finds its roots in the Jewish aspirations of a military and political leader. This imagery is picked up by the Scriptures but the time of Christ’s rule is spiritual and found in the Catholic Church and her sacraments. The new Zion or Jerusalem is, similarly, not the political state of modern Israel but the Church. Some authorities claim that a false Messiah or Christ will seek to establish an early kingdom. Here we are talking, not about Christ but about the anti-Christ. It is said that he would persecute the Church.

There are seven plagues preceding the destruction of Babylon. The imagery is borrowed from the plagues of Egypt.

[1] Men and beasts are smitten with ulcers (Exodus 9:9-10).

[2] & [3] The seas and rivers become blood (Exodus 7:17-21).

[4] The sun burns men to death.

[5] The throne of the beast causes great darkness (Exodus 10:11-29).

[6] The waters of the Euphrates are dried up and form a passage for the kings of the East (Exodus 14).

[7] Storm and earthquake destroy Babylon.

The Catholic Church gives no literal or fundamentalist interpretation to these plagues. It is enough that there will be both man-made and natural calamities.

Pope John Paul II (February 2003) identified seven deadly plagues that threaten the future of humanity:

[1] an insidious terrorism capable of striking at anytime and anywhere;
[2] the unresolved problem of the Middle East with the Holy Land and Iraq;
[3] the turmoil disrupting South America, particularly Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela;
[4] the conflicts preventing numerous African countries from focusing on their development;
[5] the diseases spreading contagion and death;
[6] the grave problem of famine, especially in Africa;
[7] the irresponsible behavior contributing to the depletion of the planet’s resources.

ARMANDO: Thanks again, little by little, the Book of Revelation is getting clearer to me. Is the “holy city Jerusalem” in Rev. 21: 10-21, the same as the New Jerusalem which symbolizes the Church? Why does it have walls, gates, foundation stones, etc?

FATHER JOE: The heavenly Jerusalem is paradise. The New Jerusalem is the kingdom breaking into the world through the Church. The Church is an extension of the Church in glory.

CATHOLIC GIRL:

Gio, during the Fatima apparitions, Our Lady gave the children a horrific vision of hell. They said that so many souls were going there so fast it was like snowflakes falling. She also told them that one of their school mates – a child – would be “in purgatory until the end of the time.” Without the Mercy of God, no one would be saved but his sword is a mighty sword of justice.

As far as Revelations, I feel that the Protestant “Tim Lehaye” books (and movies) have spread heresy into Catholic beliefs. Here in the south, it is the most argued point in adult Bible study. It is another aspect of too little knowledge of the faith. In a class I was in, where a Nun from the Seminary literally went through chapter by chapter, people walked out – and many called the Chancery swearing that SHE was the heretic. Most Catholics simply do not understand that we are not literalists as far as the Bible goes.

I often wonder why Catholics do not have more organized Bible Study (with nuns or priests as a guide). I think a lot of eyes would be opened.

ARMANDO: Father, does our Church teaches about rapture? I do not hear any priest teaching about this matter. And what is Armageddon?

FATHER JOE: The Church believes that Christ will consummate the world to himself. Rapture as understood by certain Protestants and in the LEFT BEHIND books is not part of Catholic teaching. As for the conflict against the anti-Christ, we are already in the thick of it. The Church does not insist upon a literal final battle in the Middle East. Apocalyptic literature cannot be read like a history book.

CHARLIE: It is true that the book of Revelation is complicated. I can’t stop thinking though how Revelation 17 and how the Woman fits the description of the Catholic church.

FATHER JOE: Mary and the Church is associated with this woman (with child). However, the Church is NOT the harlot or “whore of Babylon.” Be careful not to associate the Church with the anti-Christ. There have always been grave sinners in the Church; but the Church is holy because Christ is holy.

CHARLIE: It seems to me that the church is trying very hard NOT to tell us the REAL meaning of Revelation.

FATHER JOE: Give me an instance. Why is it that you, as a Catholic, would put your personal interpretation of Scripture over that of the Magisterium? If you believe that the Church is evil, why are you still a Catholic. Sorry, this does not wash! You are buying into all the conspiracy theory nonsense.

CHARLIE: With the church being around for so long and with all the scholars in the church, they could be more specific like all the other churches when it comes to interpreting Revelation.

FATHER JOE: How is the Church not specific? Apocalyptic language is inherently difficult, given our proximity in time and place from the source. Other churches, and I can just imagine what fundamentalist authorities to which you refer, make up or fictionalize their commentary. The Catholic Church is grounded on truth.

CHARLIE: I almost feel like they are hiding something.

FATHER JOE: Almost? Please, stop playing games. What have you read from Catholic sources about the Book of Revelation that makes you say this? What commentaries? What Church documents? You have cited nothing. You are imagining things. Be careful that you do not deliberately slam the Church.

CHARLIE: We need to understand more and get more input from the church on Revelation because we don’t want to fall into a trap in the end times.

FATHER JOE: [At this point it became clear that Charlie was a ringer or poser. He may have been Catholic but now he was something else. Some anti-Catholics use such deception to get under the Catholic defenses. They may cite catholic sources, but they are not really interested in the truth or discussion. They come to slam the Church and to steal believers.] Then get it already. What are you waiting for? The problem is you, not the Church. Here are a few books you might find useful. Also, look at the footnotes in a Catholic Bible.

The Book of Revelation: A Catholic Interpretation of the Apocalypse by John Tickle.

Apocalypse: A Catholic Perspective on the Book of Revelation by Stephen C. Doyle.

New Jerome Biblical Commentary (3rd Edition) by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy.

CHARLIE: Satan is a deceiver and the father of lies and we need to have a CLEAR picture of things when it comes to prophecy. Now more than ever….with the Prophecy of Saint Malachy and his clear prophecies of the popes…..which by the way are true and we see that even with his prediction of Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II. We see clearly that we need more information on the Book of Revelation.

FATHER JOE: The prophesies of St. Malachy belong to private revelation only and are not doctrinal or required for belief. It also appears that they do not belong to St. Malachy but to some anonymous source.

CHARLIE: It says in Revelation 17 that John was amazed by what he saw and this would clearly state to me that he was AMAZED by this vision because perhaps he saw that the church which Saint Peter started was in the end corrupted and polluted by an evil power.

FATHER JOE: Jesus promised that his Church would endure until his consummation of the world.

CHARLIE: I see this clearly as the last Pope predicted by Saint Malachy which he said would lead the church to destruction. Why are none talking about this?

FATHER JOE: It is because the prophesies are not reliable. They are interesting but I place no confidence in them.

CHARLIE: You can’t wait until it happens and have people led astray to the tricks of Satan. I know in my heart the church MUST know things, but chooses to keep people in the dark….because the latter days the church would be led by forces of darkness. It clearly states this in Revelation. “Woman” in prophecy means CHURCH.

FATHER JOE: All you need is to be faithful. Worrying about such things is not from God.

JOHN: I came to this partial understanding around 1980. The two horned goat is USA and Russia. The image of the beast is the Islamic republic of Iran.

FATHER JOE: Such connections are only conjecture. I tend to give the apocalypse a historical understanding. The beast is Nero and the old pagan Roman Empire. Apostate Christians might be the other beast. Anyone who opposes Christ and his Church is an antichrist.

JOHN:

Yes, such connections are only conjecture. Some conjectures are more compelling than others. Consider, the two horned ram and angry beast allegory is first found in Daniel (well before the first century). What is this fire from heaven, but the bombs of two nuclear super powers. The foreign policy slogan of current Iran is “Neither east nor west.” Thank you for your courage, which I know can only come from our lord, Jesus Christ.

I sent the above comments (in fuller form) to Pope John Paul II in the Spring of 1980. The response received was a letter from the secretary of state of the Vatican (July 1980). Here is the text: “The Holy Father has seen the kind letter sent to him, and has asked that I express his thanks, and convey his blessing.”

CHRIS: I think an inspired interpretation of Apocalypse is Steven Paul’s Apocalypse: Letter by Letter. Very sick with cancer during the penning of his book, this staunch Catholic had an intimate understanding of Revelation and just about managed to get all his knowledge on paper before his death. I can’t recommend it enough for any Catholic who wants a clear understanding of Revelation.

FATHER JOE: I asked around about Steven Paul’s book and found that not everyone is excited about it. One critic even remarked that there are a number of factual mistakes and interpretations which are contrary to Catholic tradition. A book that I would recommend is Apocalypse: A Catholic Perspective on the Book of Revelation by Fr. Stephen Doyle.

CHRIS: Unfortunately, Steven isn’t around to answer any of his critics. Given that he was a committed Catholic I’m surprised to hear there are elements of his book which are contrary to Catholic Tradition. Do you have an example from his book that I can check out?

JOHN:

It’s my understanding that those who hold anti-Catholic interpretations use the “seven hill” phrase to justify their view.

Must the singular anti-Christ be present for the present age to end? I had thought that Khomeini was such. When popes die their personnel letters are to be burned. When Khomeini died I burned my written interpretations of Revelations. Later, I remembered it was written (by me): “the image to the beast is the beast itself, that is, the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

FATHER JOE: Deciphering possible prophecies of the eschaton and the beast is no easy business. Is there ever a singular anti-Christ? During WWII and afterwards there were many contenders. What I can tell you is that there is ONE Christ. Put your emphasis there and on your relationship with him.

JOHN: Jesus was beaten, scared, and killed. His justice is not, and will not be blind. May he grant us the mercy, grace, and courage to help the needy when we see him. I believe you, Father Joe, have the best job this world has to offer. Thank you for your courage!

NEIL: Very interesting dialogue. I’m a 2010 convert to Catholicism from practically every Protestant denomination out there. I’m quite interested in Revelation and appreciate some of the questions here. Pertaining to Revelation 17, I’ve heard the reference to the Vatican before which never made much sense. An interpretation of the new Babylon being America and the new city being New York, actually registered with me. Are you saying Father Joe that this is referring to the fallen Roman Empire instead? Glory to God!

FATHER JOE: The reference was to pagan Rome. Further connections to present-day earthly cities and nations are merely speculation.

DOLORES:

Dear Father Joe, I am currently involved in a Bible study entitled “Journey through Revelation: Apocalyptic Hope for Today,” written for Presbyterian USA women. I came across your web site while googling for a Catholic interpretation of Rev.12.

I was pleased to read all the queries and responses on the subject of Revelation. The information pretty much jibes with this study and other sources I have read. I was particularly interested in how the Catholic Church interpreted “the Woman” in Chapt.12. I had always thought she was the Virgin Mary, and you did state that in one of your responses. Most of my sources say the woman represents the Church or people of God or Israel. You also mentioned this in the same response.

We are studying Revelation, taking into consideration the time in which it was written, the type of literature that would have been familiar to the people John was writing to, the terrible persecution the early Christians were undergoing— a book of hope rather than a book of prophecy. I’m learning a lot and looking forward to the rest of the study.

I’m glad I found your website. If you have anything more to say about Mary as the woman in Chapter 12, I would be very interested to have the Church’s view. Thank you.

JOHN: I’m so glad Jesus has promised his earthly return and kingdom. The prophetic message ends with this realization. I don’t really care who lines up as the bad guys of prophesy, but that his will is fulfilled. The epistle of Barnabas and Paul’s writings seem to indicate there will be a singular anti-Christ at the end times. The hope of this Christian is to understand and live with his/her God. I am a sinner.

CHRIS: Excerpt from Steven Paul’s interpretation of Apocalypse, p.171, may be relevant to what is currently going on in North Africa/Middle East: “It has already been shown, however, that the Beast will rise from that formerly Roman territory designated as ‘the sea’; therefore, the Beast will initially seize about 60% of the ‘sea,’ not just 30% by violence, because the ‘sea’ comprises North Africa and the Middle East, i.e., about half of all that was once the Roman Empire. Of the ‘sea’s’ two main regions, the Asian is the larger and richer in oil: it includes Turkey and the small countries immediately south of the Caucasus Mountains—Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine. In order to seize that initial 60% of the ‘sea,’ the Beast or ‘little horn’ must take possession of some part of the Asian region along with all of the African, or he will simply take all of the Asian, or he will take much of the Asian and part of the African, such as Egypt and Libya.”

FATHER JOE: I suspect that like many before him, Steven Paul’s interpretation will be proven false. Such preoccupations detract from the true antichrists that surround us and who may even share our homes. All who are spiritually dead in mortal sin are opposed to our Lord.

DEBRA: Father, I am a revert. I am reading John’s Revelation. I have read these threads. Yours is a voice of reason and common sense. Thanks be to God for that. Please pray for me.

NEIL: Father Joe, what do you make of the locusts in Chapter 9? I’ve heard opinions that they are attack helicopters. Also, what are the Four Living Creatures mentioned in Ezekiel and Revelation? God Bless!

FATHER JOE: They might only be a blight of locusts.

JOHN: It puzzles me that Catholics, and Christians as a whole, argue over facts. For example, what does it matter weather Mary was taken up alive, bodily, or died and rose the usual way. Some things don’t affect the heart, one way or another. While it doesn’t hurt to put out a heartfelt opinion, to state it as fact, though it’s objectively non-provable, does no one good. Jesus’ resurrection is provable by its result.

FATHER JOE: Catholic Christianity treasures both faith and reason. That is why the facts about things are important and worth the appropriate discussion. Looking at your example, you seem to miss the whole point of Mary’s Assumption. Catholic doctrine is very clear: at the end of Mary’s earthly life, she remained incorrupt and was taken body and soul into heaven. The issue as to whether she “fell asleep” or “died” is not a contentious one for the Magisterium as both perspectives are acknowledged. What actually is death if one is not consumed by the grave, anyway? Her corporeal assumption is a critical point because it resonates with Christ’s resurrection and ascension. She is seen as the first fruits, or evidence that our Lord would share his life and victory with others. Mary is a figure for the Church. (It is this connection we find in the Book of Revelation.) We are also promised a share in eternal life and the restoration of our bodies and souls. This honor is granted her because of her unique role in the history of salvation. Her assumption flows from her cooperation with Christ’s redemptive work as the Mother of God and the Immaculate Conception. Our sentiments about Mary are not merely matters of the heart, but declared dogmas of the Catholic Christian faith.