The Book of Revelation Is Not Just about the Future

This post is adapted from the chapter entitled "Revelation" by Charles E. Hill in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized , edited by Michael J. Kruger.

The Denouement of Scripture

The “Revelation of Jesus Christ” portrays in dramatic fashion the paradoxical present rule of Jesus Christ as King of all the kings of the world, his ultimate triumph, and the salvation of his people through tribulation. As monumental as this is, it is not all. In the course of reexperiencing the visions John saw on Patmos, John’s audience witnesses not only the salvation of man, God’s image, but also the reclamation of the heavens, the earth, and the subterranean regions (i.e., the sea, the abyss, hades, fountains of water), the domains of man’s dominion as originally given in Genesis 1–3. Revelation presents to us a great Serpent, a woman who brings forth a male child who is to rule the earth, and a final restoration of the tree of life. The symbolism of the book ranges through the entire Old Testament canonical Scriptures and drives us back to the very beginning for some of its most elemental imagery.

Thus Revelation presents to God’s people the grand denouement, the conclusion, the tying-up of the great drama of salvation begun in the first three chapters of the Bible. It reveals how the seed of the woman crushes the head of the Serpent and completes the new creation. Its canonical order as the last book in our Bible, then, is entirely appropriate. Genesis and Revelation are not only literally but also thematically the bookends of the Bible.

Revelation is not just about the future. It is also about the past and very much about the present—perhaps primarily about the present. For it was written to be read and heard in the present age (Rev. 1:3; 21:7); it provides an essential component for the church’s understanding of life in this world between the two comings of Christ.

Three Views on Interpretation

One’s understanding of the purpose of the book of Revelation is interrelated with the assessment of its overall meaning. Those who believe the book is mainly about the final seven or so years of history see its purpose as focusing on the needs and experiences of the church in those terminal years. In this view, Revelation primarily serves to inform Christians of what will happen once the future events it depicts are set into motion.

Others see the relevance of the book of Revelation as virtually limited to the immediate first-century and second-century Roman situation. These interpreters tend to view Revelation as primarily a political document, a fiery protest against the violent imperialism of first-century Rome, written to fortify Christians of that day for the possibility of greater oppression.

A variation of this highly contextualized approach, however, recognizes an ongoing relevance to the protest. The purpose of Revelation in this view is “to counter the Roman imperial view of the world . . . by opening the world to divine transcendence” [1] and by showing “God’s ultimate triumph over all evil and his establishment of his eternal kingdom." [2]

While this modification is certainly helpful, the purpose of Revelation must be both broader and more specific. It is broader in that the symbols, while occasioned by the first-century Roman context, seem to transcend that context and remain relevant to later manifestations of the dragon and his campaign against the church. The purpose is more specific in that Revelation is not simply interested in asserting divine transcendence in a general way, nor even in advancing the sovereign claims of Israel’s God in the way that several contemporary Jewish apocalypses do. It is interested in asserting the lordship of Jesus Christ, the Lord’s Christ, the Lamb of God, and his ultimate victory. God’s long-awaited Messiah has come. He died and, behold, he is alive forevermore, and he holds the keys of death and hades (Rev. 1:18).

Oriented to the Present Life of the Church

For these reasons it seems best to view Revelation as oriented not primarily to the past (the preterist approach) or to the future (the futurist approach), though it is linked vitally to both, but to the present life of the church—to the entire span of the time between the first and second comings of Jesus. The initial statement of the book, that it is to show “his servants the things that must soon take place” (1:1), is looking not to the imminent arrival of the end of the world, but to events and forces that will immediately affect the first readers and will continue to be relevant to God's people until the end. The book’s purpose is not only to assure us that Christ is certainly “coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him,” but also to assure us that in the meantime, Jesus Christ is “ruler of kings on earth” (1:5) in whatever time or place we live.

Revelation delivers to the distressed churches of Asia Minor and to the church in all ages, the triumphant assurance that behind the scenes of history and despite the vicissitudes of history, the kingdom of God is in power, and Jesus Christ the King of all kings is on his Father’s throne executing his sovereign judgment over the world. Though to the fleshly eye the events of history may often seem to say the opposite, though the church of Jesus Christ might seem despised and defeated, it is Jesus Christ who rules the kings of the earth, and his purposes are patiently being worked out here below.

[1] Richard J. Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 8.
[2] Ibid., 9.

Charles E. Hill (PhD, University of Cambridge) serves as John R. Richardson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is a contributor to A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized, edited by Michael J. Kruger.

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 13:15 -- john_hendryx

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