The revelation given to Saint John opens with seven messages to seven particular churches in Asia Minor. The evangelist is instructed by the Son of Man to “write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter” (Rev 1:19 RSV2CE).1 These messages, recorded in chapters two and three, have several features in common. Each is addressed to “the angel of the church” of that place (2:1).2 Each begins with a different phrase identifying the divine person who addresses them, such as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (2:8) or “the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (2:18). Presumably these seven unique identifying marks given to the churches differ according to the particular church to which the Son is speaking, since He to whom David sang, “O Lord, you search me and you know me” (Ps 139:1-2) surely knows how best to disclose His identity to each individual church and each member thereof.
That there are seven titles given, however, would also seem to express something of the inexhaustible plenitude of the divine being which is at once revealed and hidden by each of them, since “Revelation uses numbers symbolically—that is, qualitatively rather than quantitatively” and “seven and ten normally represent completeness.”3 The mystery of “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4) is infinite, utterly beyond our comprehension; He is glimpsed only “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) in the symbolic words and images of the titles He Himself has revealed to his servant John. The seven titles, even taken together, cannot begin to exhaust the mystery of God’s being, but they point to the perfection of that being which is beyond words.
Each of the seven messages to the churches also ends with a particular promise to “him who conquers” (ὁ νικῶν). This victorious one shall ”eat of the tree of life” (Rev 2:7); he will be given “the crown of life” (2:10), “hidden manna and a white stone” (2:17), and “the morning star” (2:26-28); he shall be “clothed in white garments” (Rv 3:5), made “a pillar in the temple of my God” upon whom is written “the name of my God” (3:12), and finally “sit with me on my throne, as I also have conquered and sat with my Father on his throne” (3:21). Each of these promises may be uniquely suited to the hearers of the message in that particular place; Ephesus, for example, was the site of the Temple of Artemis, who was frequently depicted in art as a fruitful tree, and it is to Ephesus that the promise to eat of the tree of life is given.4 Each of the promises, however, according to our limited human powers of comprehension, must also express aspects of the one infinite and ineffable mystery which is promised to all. Like the divine names, they do not exhaust the mystery; they point to its “unspeakable majesty and grandeur.”5
What is the essence of this gift which stands behind the seven promises? St. John of the Cross takes up this question in his commentary on the Spiritual Canticle, a love song he composed in mystical ecstasy expressing the romance between the soul, conceived as Bride, and God the Bridegroom. Near the end of the Canticle, the bride sings:
There you will show me
what my soul has been seeking,
and then you will give me,
you, my life, will give me there
what you gave me on that other day.6
These words are spoken as she looks forward to her entry into eternal beatitude, “the consummation of the love of God, which she had always been seeking.”7 This consummation is twofold. God will show her that which she has long sought, “that is, to love God as purely and perfectly as he loves her.”8 He furthermore will give her a gift which, St. John says, is nothing less than “essential glory, consisting in the vision of God’s being.”9 Interestingly, the soul avows that God has given her this gift already “on that other day,” which is taken to mean “the day of God’s eternity … in [which] God predestined the soul to glory, decreed the glory he would bestow on her, and gave it to her freely from all eternity before he created her.”10
As to the nature of this gift, this essential and eternal glory which God bestows and has bestowed and will bestow on his chosen and beloved bride, the “one who conquers,” St. John says it “is in point of fact the vision of God, but that which the vision of God is to the soul has no other name than ‘what.’”11 It is sheer, indescribable beatitude. He proceeds to quote “what Christ said of it to St. John seven times in the Apocalypse with many expressions and words and comparisons, for this ‘what’ cannot be understood by one word, nor at one time, for even with all these terms it still remains to be expressed.”12 As St. John of the Cross enumerates them, each of the seven promises seeks to express more perfectly what was inadequate in the last; “everything he said falls short of the mark,”13 and so another and another is added, like a lover’s stammering to express the unspeakable praises of her beloved. These promises, in the end, “cast the ‘what’ in very perfect terms, but they still do not explain it. This is a peculiarity of a thing that is immense: All the expressions of excellence, grandeur, and goodness are fitting, but do not explain it, not even when taken together.”14
One thing more remains to be revealed. Who is the one who conquers, to whom the indescribable gift is given? In the Spiritual Canticle of John of the Cross, it is the lover, the bride. This insight accords perfectly with the theology of John the Evangelist, who elsewhere writes, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments … for whatever is born of God overcomes (νικᾷ) the world; and this is the victory (ἡ νίκη) that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes (ὁ νικῶν) the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:3-5). Faith in Jesus, shown forth in a life of love and obedience to His commandments, conquers the world and wins the indescribable prize of love’s consummation: everlasting life in union with Him.
- The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament: Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).
- Cf. also Revelation 2:8, 12, 18 and 3:1, 7, 14.
- Peter S. Williamson, Revelation, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 28.
- Cf. Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 495, fn. on Rev. 2:7.
- John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 38:8,in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991), 621.
- John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 38:1, in Collected Works, 618.
- SC, 38:2, in CW, 618.
- SC, 38:5, in CW, 620.
- SC, 38:6, in CW, 620.
- SC, 38:7, in CW, 620.
- SC, 38:8, in CW, 621.