In 1522, Martin Luther made his final assessment on the book of Revelation by stating, “Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it. But to teach Christ, this is the thing.” It is a striking statement about the only book in the New Testament which claims to be inspired (Rev 1:1-2; 22:6), and comes with both a blessing (Rev 1:3) and a warning (Rev 22:18).
Over the course of the next 22 days, we journey through what is most likely the very first expositional commentary on Revelation. Written at the end of the third century by Victorinus, bishop of Pettau (in modern day Slovenia), Revelation is called an Easter epistle by his translator as it so clearly speaks of the resurrected Christ, Jesus-as-He-truly-is, contrary to Luther’s view.
We do not know much about Victorinus’ life. We know that he lived during a dark period of the Roman Empire when Christians were severely persecuted under Roman emperors. During Diocletian’s reign (284-305AD) for example, places of worship were destroyed, and Christians were murdered. In one instance, the deacon of a church in Antioch had his tongue removed for teaching against sacrifices. The church historian Eusebius describes the era like this:
“It was the nineteenth year of Diocletian’s reign [AD 303] and the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, and the festival of the Saviour’s Passion was approaching, when an imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire, and giving notice that those in places of honour would lose their places, and domestic staff, if they continued to profess Christianity, would be deprived of their liberty. Such was the first edict against us. Soon afterwards other decrees arrived in rapid succession, ordering that the presidents of the churches in every place should all be first committed to prison and then coerced by every possible means into offering sacrifice.” (History of the Church 8.2)
It was during this period that Victorinus also “received the crown of martyrdom” as Jerome would later write in his On Illustrious Men placing Victorinus among the great saints of the early church like Papias, Polycarp, and Ignatius.
Victorinus might have been motivated persecutions to write about Revelation as it speaks directly to the church in times of political, economic, and societal turmoil. Whatever his motivation, his purpose is clear. He wants his readers to remain faithful to Christ who he describes this way when commenting on Rev 1:4:
“He is, because He endures continually; He was, because with the Father He made all things, and has at this time taken a beginning from the Virgin; He is to come, because assuredly He will come to judgment.”
I’m not sure what the 16th century Reformer was thinking. Perhaps he had been influenced by others who did not see value in Revelation. It is certainly a confusing book and often misinterpreted. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, “though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.” However, for Victorinus, there is no doubt that Revelation is about Jesus Christ and we rightly spend time reading and listening to it as we prepare for Easter Sunday.
What do you think? Add your comments below.
Read Revelation 1
Read Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse