The Contemporary Focus of Revelation
(excerpt from David Chilton's The Days of Vengeance )
The purpose of the Revelation was to reveal Christ as Lord to a suffering Church. Because they were being persecuted, the early Christians could be tempted to fear that the world was getting out of hand - that Jesus, who had claimed "all authority... in heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18), was not really in control at ail. The apostles often warned against this man-centered error, reminding the people that God's sovereignty is over all of history (including our particular tribulations). This was the basis for some of the most beautiful passages of comfort in the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 8:28-39; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; 4:7-15).
St. John's primary concern in writing the Book of Revelation was just this very thing: to strengthen the Christian community in the faith of Jesus Christ's Lordship, to make them aware that the persecutions they suffered were integrally involved in the great war of history. The Lord of glory had ascended to His throne, and the ungodly rulers were now resisting His authority by persecuting His brethren. The suffering of Christians was not a sign that Jesus had abandoned this world to the devil; rather, it revealed that He was King. If Jesus' Lordship were historically meaningless, the ungodly would have had no reason whatsoever to trouble the Christians. But instead, they persecuted Jesus' followers, showing their unwilling recognition of His supremacy over their rule. The Book of Revelation presents Jesus seated on a white horse as "King of kings and Lord of lords" (19:16), doing battle with the nations, judging and making war in righteousness. The persecuted Christians were not at all forsaken by God. In reality they were on the front lines of the conflict of the ages, a conflict in which Jesus Christ had already won the decisive battle. Since His resurrection, all of history has been a "mopping up" operation, wherein the implications of His work are gradually being implemented throughout the world. St. John is realistic: The battles will not be easy, nor will Christians emerge unscathed. The war will often be bloody, and much of the blood will be our own. But Jesus is King, Jesus is Lord, and (as Luther says) "He must win the battle." The Son of God goes forth to war, conquering and to conquer, until He has put all enemies under His feet.
The subject of the Revelation thus was contemporary; that is, it was written to and for Christians who were living at the time it was first delivered. We are wrong to interpret it futuristically, as if its message were primarily intended for a time 2000 years after St. John wrote it. (It is interesting - but not surprising - that those who interpret the book "futuristically" always seem to focus on their own era as the subject of the prophecies. Convinced of their own importance, they are unable to think of themselves as living at any other time than the climax of history.) Of course, the events St. John foretold were "in the future" to St. John and his readers; but they occurred soon after he wrote of them. To interpret the book otherwise is to contradict both the scope of the work as a whole, and the particular passages which indicate its subject. For us, the great majority of the Revelation is history: It has already happened. The greatest enemy of the early Church was apostate Israel , which used the power of the pagan Roman Empire to try to stamp out Christianity, just as it had used Rome in the crucifixion of the Lord Himself. St. John's message in Revelation was that this great obstacle to the Church's victory over the world would soon be judged and destroyed. His message was contemporary, not futuristic.
Some will complain that this interpretation makes the Revelation "irrelevant" for our age. A more wrong-headed idea is scarcely imaginable. Are the books of Romans and Ephesians "irrelevant" just because they were written to believers in the first century? Should 1 Corinthians and Galatians be dismissed because they dealt with first-century problems? Is not all Scripture profitable for believers in every age (2 Tim. 3:16-17)? Actually, it is the futurists who have made the Revelation irrelevant - for on the futurist hypothesis the book has been inapplicable from the time it was written until the twentieth century! Only if we see the Revelation in terms of its contemporary relevance is it anything but a dead letter. From the outset, St. John stated that his book was intended for "the seven churches which are in Asia" (1:4), and we must assume that he meant what he said. He clearly expected that even the most difficult symbols in the prophecy could be understood by his first-century readers (13:18). Not once did he imply that his book was written with the twentieth century in mind, and that Christians would be wasting their time attempting to decipher it until the Scofield Reference Bible would become a best-selling novel. The primary relevance of the Book of Revelation was for its first-century readers. It still has relevance for us today as we understand its message and apply its principles to our lives and our culture. Jesus Christ still demands of us what He demanded of the early Church: absolute faithfulness to Him.
The contemporary nature of the Revelation will be defended throughout the commentary ( The Days of Vengeance ), but we may consider several lines of evidence here. First, there is the general tone of the book, which is taken up with the martyrs (see, e.g., 6:9; 7:14; 12:11). The subject is clearly the present situation of the churches: The Revelation was written to a suffering Church in order to comfort believers during their time of testing (which took place, as we have seen, under Nero, not Domitian). J. Stuart Russell's remarks on this point are particularly apt: "Was a book sent by an apostle to the churches of Asia Minor , with a benediction on its readers, a mere unintelligible jargon, an inexplicable enigma, to them? That can hardly be. Yet if the book were meant to unveil the secrets of distant times, must it not of necessity have been unintelligible to its first readers - and not only unintelligible, but even irrelevant and useless? If it spake, as some would have us believe, of Huns and Goths and Saracens, of medieval emperors and popes, of the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, what possible interest or meaning could it have for the Christian churches of Ephesus , and Smyrna , and Philadelphia , and Laodicea? Especially when we consider the actual circumstances of those early Christians - many of them enduring cruel sufferings and grievous persecutions, and all of them eagerly looking for an approaching hour of deliverance which was now close at hand - what purpose could it have answered to send them a document which they were urged to read and ponder, which was yet mainly occupied with historical events so distant as to be beyond the range of their sympathies, and so obscure that even at this day the shrewdest critics are hardly agreed on any one point?
"Is it conceivable that an apostle would mock the suffering and persecuted Christians of his time with dark parables about distant ages? If this book were really intended to minister faith and comfort to the very persons to whom it was sent, it must unquestionably deal with matters in which they were practically and personally interested. And does not this very obvious consideration suggest the true key to the Apocalypse? Must it not of necessity refer to matters of contemporary history? The only tenable, the only reasonable, hypothesis is that it was intended to be understood by its original readers; but this is as much as to say that it must be occupied with the events and transactions of their own day, and these comprised within a comparatively brief space of time."
Second, St. John writes that the book concerns "the things which must shortly take place" (1:1), and warns that "the time is near" (1:3). In case we might miss it, he says again, at the close of the book, that "the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must shortly take place" (22:6). Given the fact that one important proof of a true prophet lay in the fact that his predictions came true (Deut. 18:21-22), St. John's first-century readers had every reason to expect his book to have immediate significance.
The words shortly and near simply cannot be made to mean anything but what they say. Some will object to this on the basis of 2 Peter 3:8, that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." But the context there is entirely different: Peter is exhorting his first-century readers to have patience with respect to God's promises, assuring them that God's faithfulness to His holy Word will not wear out or diminish.
The Book of Revelation is not about the Second Coming of Christ. It is about the destruction of Israel and Christ's victory over His enemies in the establishment of the New Covenant Temple. In fact, as we shall see, the word "coming" as used in the Book of Revelation never refers to the Second Coming. Revelation prophesies the judgment of God on apostate Israel; and while it does briefly point to events beyond its immediate concerns, that is done merely as a "wrap-up," to show that the ungodly will never prevail against Christ's Kingdom. But the main focus of Revelation is upon events which were soon to take place.
Third, St. John identifies certain situations as contemporary: In 13:18, he clearly encourages his contemporary readers to calculate the "number of the Beast" and decipher its meaning; in 17:10, one of the seven kings is currently on the throne; and St. John tells us that the great Harlot "is [present tense] the Great City, which reigns [present tense] over the kings of the earth" (17:18). Again, the Revelation was meant to be understood in terms of its contemporary significance. A futuristic interpretation is completely opposed to the way St. John himself interprets his own prophecy.
Fourth, we should notice carefully the words of the angel in 22:10: "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near." Again, of course, we are told explicitly that the prophecy is contemporary in nature; but there is more. The angel's statement is in contrast to the command Daniel received at the end of his book: "Conceal the words and seal up the book until the time of the end" (Dan. 12:4). Daniel was specifically ordered to seal up his prophecy, because it referred to "the end," in the distant future. But St. John is told not to seal up his prophecy, because the time of which it speaks is near. Thus, the focus of the Book of Revelation is upon the contemporary situation of St. John and his first-century readers. It was written to show those early Christians that Jesus is Lord, "ruler over the kings of the earth" (Rev. 1:5). It shows that Jesus is the key to world history - that nothing can occur apart from His sovereign will, that He will be glorified in all things, and that His enemies will lick the dust. The Christians of that day were tempted to compromise with the statism and false religions of their day, and they needed this message of Christ's absolute dominion over all, that they might be strengthened in the warfare to which they were called.
And we need this message also. We too are subjected daily to the threats and seductions of Christ's enemies. We too are asked - even by fellow Christians - to compromise with modern Beasts and Harlots in order to save ourselves (or our jobs or property or tax exemptions). And we too are faced with a choice: surrender to Jesus Christ or surrender to Satan. The Revelation speaks powerfully today, and its message to us is the same as it was to the early Church: that there is not a square inch of ground in heaven or on earth or under the earth in which there is peace between Christ and Satan; that our Lord demands universal submission to His rule; and that He has predestined His people to victorious conquest and dominion over all things in His name. We must make no compromise and give no quarter in the great battle of history. We are commanded to win.