Friday of Week 34 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Revelation 20:1-4,11-21:2

Judgement and the New Jerusalem

Today we have a powerful vision of the end time described in highly symbolic language, which is not to be taken literally. Here we need to be very careful to go to the central meaning of what is being said and not get carried away – either positively or negatively – by the vivid images.

We can divide the passage into five sections. In the first section, John sees an angel come down from heaven, that is, God’s dwelling place (which, of course, is not a place as God is everywhere). In his hand, the angel carries the key of the Abyss and a huge chain. The Abyss was conceived as an underground place where the armies of demons lived. The Greek word abussos means “very deep” or “bottomless” and is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) to translate the Hebrew word for the primeval deep (mentioned in Genesis as the beginning of the Creation story).

The dragon, the “primeval serpent”, the one who tempted our first parents, Satan himself, is overpowered by the angel and chained in the Abyss for a thousand years. Normally in the Old Testament, dragons symbolise the enemies of God and his people. They feature regularly in the mythology of many ancient peoples (yet not always in the negative…in the case of Chinese culture, they tend to have a positive image of power.)

Satan is shut up by the angel in the Abyss for a millennium, one thousand years. The 1,000 years is not to be taken literally; it simply means a long and indefinite period of time.* At the end of that time, Satan will be released again for a short while. Such is the tenacity of Satan that he can become active again. It is a message of warning that no one can feel complacent about being ever totally free from his wiles.

In the second section, the scene now shifts to the elect. There are thrones on which sit those who have the power to judge. Are they the 24 elders mentioned earlier or the 12 Apostles, whom Jesus foretold would be judges? In the teaching following the failure of the rich man to become a disciple, Jesus had said to his disciples: “Truly, I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28).

Also present are those who had been beheaded, that is, those who had died the death of a martyr for their witness to the faith and for proclaiming the Gospel message. It is said that those of a higher social status were executed by beheading while more brutal forms of execution were reserved for those lower in the social hierarchy (e.g. crucifixion). 

Among the elect are also those who refused to worship the beast (that is, the emperor) or his image. They did not have the emperor’s brand-mark on their foreheads. In other words, they were no slaves of his, they did not belong to him. It is possible that Christians who had agreed to pay obeisance to the emperor’s image were marked with a brand to free them from further persecution. If so, such a brand would have been a mark of shame in the eyes of faithful Christians.

Instead, because of their martyr’s death, they entered a new life and reigned with Christ their Lord for 1,000 years. In the following verse (not part of our reading) the rest of the dead did not rise until the 1,000 years was ended.

The Jerusalem Bible makes the following comment here:

“One interpretation makes this ‘resurrection’ of the martyrs symbolise the recovery of the Church after the Roman persecution; the ‘reign of a thousand years’ is then the period of the kingdom of Christ on earth from the end of persecution (the fall of Rome) to the Last Judgement. According to Augustine and others who follow him, the ‘reign of a thousand years’ is to be reckoned from Christ’s resurrection and the ‘first resurrection’ is baptism.   A literal interpretation of this verse was widespread in the early Church: after the first resurrection of the martyrs, Christ was to return to reign on earth with his faithful for a thousand years. This literal millenarianism was censured.”

(For further comment on the ‘millennium’ see the footnote at the end of this reflection.)

In the third section, we now move to the judgement of all the dead (v.11 ff.). God is seen sitting on his great white throne, the seat of judgement. Earth and sky have vanished – in the presence of God’s awesome majesty they become as nothing. The dead from every stratum of society are gathered there in front of the throne. The records of their lives, by which they are judged, are opened. There is more than one book, suggesting one for the righteous and another for the wicked.

As well, there is the book of life. Such a record is first mentioned in Exodus. It was a list of all citizens in the kingdom community. To have one’s name removed from the book indicated loss of citizenship. So the book of life here lists the elect, those who really belong to the Kingdom. And they will be judged on how they have responded to the call of the Gospel (cf. Rom 2:6; 1 Pet 1:17).

In the fourth section, all of the dead are present. They come from the two traditional abodes of the dead: one is the sea and the other is Death and Hades, which were understood to be under the earth (remember, at the time, the earth is conceived as flat, not curved as we know it). Hades is the Greek name for the place of the dead and more or less corresponds to the Hebrew sheol.

These places of the dead are now emptied as all appear before their God to be judged according to the way they lived. We need to qualify this statement to avoid misunderstandings. It does not mean that our activities have a value all their own so that we, so to speak, earn our salvation or our entry into God’s kingdom and that God is obliged to “reward” us.
Scripture makes it very clear that all the good we do does not originate from us, but is God working in and through us. If our lives are full of good works, it is because we have opened our hearts to God and taken him into our hearts so that we become transformed through his love working in and through us. In the Eucharistic liturgy, Weekday Preface IV reads: “You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in your grace through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Paul emphasises this very strongly, especially in his letter to the Romans.

It would also be wrong to imagine God keeping a credit and debit ledger of our lives and that, provided we end up with a plus rather than a minus, we will “go to heaven”. God is not an accountant; there is not a ledger with some entries in black and others in red. It is clear from the Gospel that God does not work like that. A life lived for many years away from God can be turned round at any time, even at the very end. God sees us as we are at the moment he calls us to him. A bad life can end very well; similarly, a good life can end very badly (cf. the parable of the Lost Son, Luke 15 or the “good thief” on the cross beside Jesus).

Death and Hades are then thrown into the lake of fire. Punishment by fire is common in ancient Jewish writings. Although the designation gehenna is not used here, it seems it is what John is referring to (see Matt 5:22). ‘Gehenna’ originally was the site of a cultic shrine where human sacrifices were offered. It was a deep ravine south of Jerusalem (the ‘Valley of [the Sons of] Hinnom’). During the reign of the wicked kings Ahaz and Manasseh, human sacrifices to the Ammonite god Molech were offered there. Josiah desecrated the valley because of the pagan worship. It subsequently became a sort of perpetually burning city dump and later became to be equated with the “hell” of final judgement in apocalyptic literature.

The meaning of the phrase then is that, after the judgement, death loses all its power. Also into this lake of fire go all those whose names are not found in the book of life. By their own choice, they do not belong to the Kingdom.

Finally, in the fifth section (21:1ff), John sees “a new heaven and a new earth”. This is a way of describing the new way of life we will experience face to face with God and Jesus Christ. It is an existence, as Paul tells us, where we are totally free from decay and corruption and are renewed and transformed in the presence of God’s glory. The whole of creation will one day be freed from the dominance of corruption, renewed and transformed by the glory of God (Rom 8:19ff). It is also an existence which is totally beyond our powers to conceive. The less we say about it the better!

And “the sea was no more”, because the sea is the home of the dragon, Satan. As in the time of the Exodus, the sea will now draw back, not for a while, but forever before the triumphant advance of the New Israel.

What now exists is the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem. This is the title for the gathering of all those who have faithfully followed Christ and are now united to him. She is described as a bride, beautifully adorned for her husband, God. This is an image found among the prophets Isaiah and Hosea. It speaks of the marvellously intimate relationship between God and his people, those who really belong to him. See, too, Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet (Matt 22:2-14).

The reading is speaking of what is in store for those who have been faithful, in spite of suffering and even losing their lives, to Christ and his Gospel. On the other hand, the powers of evil are overcome forever and those who, by their own choice, became their servants are lost for ever.
It is not for us to speculate just how all this takes place, still less to think that the images in Revelation correspond in any literal way to the reality. It is for us to concentrate on the lives we are living now and to seek, find and respond to Jesus as we come in contact with him at every moment of our day.  Then we can leave the future safely in his hands. He will take care of us. “Do not be afraid,” is the message always on his lips and “I am with you always”.
*The millennium (from the Latin mille, “thousand”, and annus, “year”) is taken literally by some as 1,000 actual years, while others interpret it metaphorically as a long but undetermined period of time.  

From the NIV Study Bible, there are three basic approaches to the subject of the millennium, mainly from non-Catholic positions:  

  1. Amillennialism: millennium describes the present reign of the souls of deceased believers with Christ in heaven.  The present form of God’s kingdom will be followed by Christ’s return, the general resurrection, the final judgement and Christ’s continuing reign over the perfect kingdom on the new earth in the eternal state.
  2. Premillennialism: the present form of God’s kingdom is moving towards a grand climax when Christ will return, the “first resurrection” (cf. Rev 20:5) will occur and his kingdom will find expression in a literal, visible reign of peace and righteousness on the earth in space-time history.  After the final resurrection, the last judgement and the renewal of the heavens and the earth, this future, temporal kingdom will merge into the eternal kingdom, and the Lord will reign forever on the new earth.
  3. Postmillennialism: the world will eventually be Christianised, resulting in a long period of peace and prosperity called the millennium.  This future period will close with Christ’s second coming, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgement and the eternal state.

Many, however, will take the “millennium” as something purely symbolical.  When people die, they go straight to God to be with him forever or, if they have so chosen, to be separated from him.  In a situation where there is no time and only a Now, all will “arrive” simultaneously no matter when in temporal time they leave this earth, so the Final Judgement is not a matter of past, present or future. Again, these are matters which are best left outside the field of speculation.

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