There was always a certain excitement about sermons that promised to unlock the secrets of the final book of the Bible. The keys to knowing the future had been divinely given to us but kept from a world that nevertheless served to fulfill God’s purposes of judgment. We would be saved from tribulation, snatched away just in time, and headlines of current events were linked to specific verses to prove that Christ’s return was imminent.
As I grew older it all became increasingly unsettling. The vision of what we were destined for—and it would last forever—was a glimpse of life I could not imagine enjoying: metallic cities, semi-embodied existence, and worst of all, unending worship services. As world events unfolded and headlines changed, verses took on new interpretations, the old understanding apparently superseded and forgotten, the new perspective stated with great assurance to be “the word of God.” Since remembering what the verses meant became impossible for me, and the whole teaching was shrouded in warnings (be ready) and fear (God’s wrath is terrible), I soon turned away from St John’s Revelation in doubt and distaste.
Later, after I had moved from fundamentalism though doubt to an orthodox Christian faith, it seemed a special grace to discover that St John’s Revelation could be, instead, a life-affirming and comforting message of hope in a savagely torn and darkly fallen world. And for what it is worth, I offer a few reflections on the book.
St John’s Revelation is not a puzzle to be solved but a revelation to be received. The apostle says he is recording the “revelation of Jesus Christ” and that is exactly what we should expect to find (1:1). Read it in natural chunks—the book tends to divide itself into parts—and allow each vision to fire your imagination to picture Christ and his kingdom in all his majesty and righteousness.
St John’s Revelation is primarily about Christ and is written for all God’s people in all cultures in all time periods. There have been, by and large, four approaches to understanding Revelation. The preterist view assumes St John is describing something that had recently occurred in his lifetime. The historicist view assumes St John is describing something that would occur at a certain point in church history. The futurist view is that St John is describing a specific great rebellion that will occur at the end of time. And the idealist view assumes that St John is describing what Christians can expect to transpire in different ways throughout history between Christ’s resurrection and his return to consummate his kingdom. I assume idealism for several reasons. St John says that all who keep the revelation will be blessed and can know “the time is near” (1:3). The apostle reiterates that the book’s fulfillment was near even as he wrote (22:10). The Spirit’s voice is in the present tense—for all time and generations (2:7). Most important, the book is primarily about Christ not the future (19:10).
It is wrong to speculate about the date of Christ’s return. (See Matthew 24:36-51 and Mark 13:32-37.) I realize lots of people try to get around this by claiming they aren’t “setting a date,” they are merely showing that Christ’s return is close. So they link texts to headlines and assure us this is what St John meant, something that could only be fulfilled today. Not necessary—Christ already told us his return is imminent, and that should be more than sufficient (Revelation 22:7). The King’s return will be expected, but not predicted, by those who love him. The “signs of the times” are signs characteristic of the entire period between Christ’s first and second coming, the period known in Scripture as “the last days.”
Christ’s second coming is revealed in Scripture as a comfort, not a warning. Read through the New Testament and note the various mentions of Christ’s return. The promise is given that just as he appeared once in human history so he would appear a second time. This is not thrown out as a warning to invoke fear, but as a comfort that evil will not have the final word. As I write this crude oil is pouring out of the destroyed BP oil rig, spreading pollution and death in the waters of the Gulf. Christ’s second coming assures me that this earth, which is the Lord’s, will someday be restored to a proper reflection of his glory. To brandish this promise as a stick to induce fear in non-Christians is both a misuse of Scripture and a practical denial of the hope of the gospel.
So, read St John’s Revelation with an open-hearted eagerness to see the victory of Christ over evil. Let your sanctified imagination wonder at the apostle’s horrific descriptions of the forces of evil that ever since the fall have arrayed themselves against the word of God. Let the breath-taking images and metaphors that he paints in words sink deep into your heart and soul. And as the revelation unfolds, be amazed at the Lamb who is also King and Judge, who doesn’t just end evil but who sends righteousness into history until glory is fulfilled, world without end.
[Painting: "Adoration of the Lamb" by Jan van Eyck (1432), Ghent Altarpiece.]