Revealing What?

A technical and authoritative exegesis of the book of Revelation this is not. Our purpose is more to amble through it as a book to be read and enjoyed rather than treating it as a corpse to be dissected or a cipher to be broken.

Revelation is here called "revealing" not because it displays attractive figures for calculating the time of the end, but because it highlights some of the most engaging contours of the gospel.

And right at this point lies the nub of our entire book. What the book of Revelation is intended to reveal, we will contend, is the gospel, the good news of who Jesus Christ is and what he accomplishes--this rather than secret information regarding the when and how of events from the hidden future.

The first consideration impelling us this way is the title of the book itself. You will not learn what that title is, however, by looking in your Bible at the table of contents, a title page, the heading of the book, or whatever--whether you find it reading THE REVELATION OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE or any variation thereof. It is clear that John himself would not have approved such a title: the person it names is not the one he has any interest in drawing attention to.

I can testify from firsthand experience that publishers like to change a book title from the way the author had it; it gives them a sense of power. But John was clever enough to beat this game by incorporating his title into the text itself. The title of Revelation is its opening phrase: "APOCALYPSIS JESU CHRISTUS--which God gives to him." John does not get around to naming himself until somewhere on down the line--and then only as the last in a series of transmitters of the revelation, certainly not as its author, instigator, or possessor. Apocalypsis is the Greek word translated "the revelation," denoting an unveiling, a disclosure, a making known; and the book is presented as an apocalypsis of Jesus Christ. The phrase apparently is meant to carry two senses. The phrase "which God gives to him" makes it plain that Jesus is to be understood as the Revealer, the prime possessor and bearer of the revelation. But the likelihood is that John also wants to designate him as the content of the revelation. Jesus Christ is both the Revealer and that which is being revealed. The remainder of John's book would support this interpretation; he understands that he has been given a message from the Lord Jesus, which message, in turn, tells us who this Lord Jesus is, what he represents in the totality of his being and work, his history past, present, and future.

This being so, in his title John also has given us the primary principle for interpreting his book. Even though he works at it from a perspective somewhat different from that of the rest of the New Testament, John is essentially at one with those other authors, namely in his desire to proclaim and expound the person of Jesus Christ, the same Jesus to whom they witness in their ways. It follows, then, in our effort to understand John, the first question always to ask is, "What is he trying to tell us about Jesus?" Consequently, we should test our interpretation by attempting to correlate it with what we otherwise know of Jesus. We shall insist, then, that at every point the attempt be made to read John as giving us a revelation of Jesus Christ which is to be harmonized with the larger revelation of Christ which is the New Testament itself--this, rather than as a revelation of future history to be correlated, now, with "signs," i.e., whatever can be observed in today's world and in the political events of the twentieth century.

Although it will take the remainder of our book to find out how successful this principle of interpretation can be, it is obvious here at the outset that it will point us to something quite different from the currently popular mode of reading Revelation. That mode we shall call "calendarizing," an effort to fit the events of John's visions into the world-historical calendar of the recent and coming events that constitute our own socio-political experience.

It is most apparent, of course, that an interpreter is calendarizing when he makes an outright prediction of a date for the return of Christ, the end of the world, or whatever; but it still would come under our definition of calendarizing if he chose not to cut it that fine but made his prediction only for an approximate period. Indeed, it is quite possible to calendarize without mentioning time at all. For instance, if one were to identify, say, the Antichrist as a particular historical person, or the kings mentioned by John as representing modern nations, this still would have the effect of locating his visions on our time scale and on the calendar of our history. We do not mean to deny that John's events could or will happen in our history; we do mean to deny that either John or God has any intention of enabling us to locate them in or detail them as a part of our historical future.

To this point we have averred only that, in his title, John has pointed us in a direction other than calendarizing and that we intend to follow that lead. Of course, we have yet to demonstrate that the book itself tends more this way than to calendarizing. But before we proceed to that, it will be appropriate to show that the New Testament as a whole very much discourages calendarizing and that, in fact, calendarizing has the effect of undermining the very eschatological stance (attitude toward last things) which the New Testament is intent to teach.

There is one very obvious but often-ignored fact out of church history that should drive us back to the New Testament to check out this matter of calendarizing. That is, the contemporary scholars who now are so sure they have the Revelator's picture nailed down to an historical when, where, and how--these are by no means the first calendarizers to have made such a claim. We currently are riding a surge, but this same sort of interest has waxed and waned over the long centuries. And every single calendarizer up to this generation has been proved wrong--dead wrong. The cumulative batting average for no one knows how many thousand self-proclaimed pros is .000. Of course, those presently at the plate say, "But now the evidence is so much clearer; now the signs are unmistakable; this time we've got it, I guarantee you." Yes, but know for a fact that all of the former calendarizers were just as certain, said the very same thing in their own day. They were reading the same book of Revelation, were just as capable observers of history, were just as open to the Holy Spirit, had just as convincing arguments.

There is, of course, the fact that some Bible prophecies have been fulfilled. We do not propose to go into the matter here except to observe that the nature of those prophecies was such that, when the event itself took place, they could be cited as confirmation that it had been prophesied ahead of time. However, there is no evidence of what would be a quite different phenomenon, namely that the prophecies ever made it possible for anyone to make an accurate prediction as to just when, where, and how the event would occur. The accomplished fulfillment of some Bible prophecies provides no excuse or justification for contemporary calendarizing.

If all those previous attempts to make Revelation produce an accurate calendarized reading unanimously have come to naught, perhaps the question should occur as to whether calendarizing is the means by which God intends us to read that book. At least, white rats try some other way of getting through a maze after they have gone down the same blind alley so many times. In any case, it won't hurt to go back to the New Testament manual to see whether calendarizing actually was what the instructions called for.

As we turn to the New Testament, we will look first at those sayings attributed to Jesus in which he specifically counsels against trying to get at the secrets of God by doping out "signs"--which is precisely what calendarizing does. We don't propose to do anything like detailed analysis at this point, debating whether it can be proven that Jesus actually did make each of these statements, whether one or another of them might not be interpreted so as to be irrelevant to our issue, etc. We are going to cite quite a number of scriptures but have no desire to hang a great deal of weight on any one of them. We will go through them rapidly and then talk about their cumulative thrust; and even this will constitute only a rather minor step in our overall argument. So please save your rebuttals until we have had time to draw the full picture. We will treat the texts in their New Testament sequence, even while recognizing that many are simply parallel reports of the same saying.

In Mt. 12:36ff, Jesus is talking about the coming day of judgment, and some doctors of the law and Pharisees ask him for a sign. Jesus responds, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign; but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah." Mt. 16:1-4 reports a very similar incident in almost the same words, adding only, "Then he [Jesus] left them and went away."

Mk. 8:11-13 gives us the same kind of situation with only a slightly different response:

"Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation." (Mk. 8:11-13)

Mk. 13:5-6 reads,

"Then Jesus began to say to them, 'Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!" and they will lead many astray.' (Mk. 13:5-6)

And then, in Mk. 13:21-23:

And if anyone says to you at that time, "Look! Here is the Messiah!" or "Look! There he is!"ódo not believe it. False Messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything. (Mk. 13:21-23)

(What we have quoted here from Mark 13 is paralleled almost word for word in Mt. 24:4-5.)

Lk. 11 29ff is almost an exact restatement of the first incident we reported from Matthew. Lk. 17:20-24, then, reads:

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. "
Then he said to the disciples, "The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, 'Look there!' or 'Look here!' Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day." (Lk. 17:20-24)

Again, in Lk. 21:7-8:

They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name and say, 'I am he,' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them." (Lk. 21:7-8)

Jn. 21:20-23 is an example of a somewhat different type but of similar effect. The conversation is dealing with matters of eschatological destiny, and Peter asks Jesus about what is to happen to one of the other disciples. Jesus answers, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is it to you? Follow me!" At that point the Gospel writer breaks in to tell us that some of the early Christians understood this to mean that the disciple would not die. He then comments, "Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, 'If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is it to you?'--a rather clear instance of Jesus squelching curiosity about details of the end.

Finally, in Acts 1:6-8, following the resurrection, in Jesus' last conversation with his disciples, they put to him the question, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus answers, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority."

Putting them all together, they spell something less than enthusiastic support from Jesus or the church that produced the Gospels for any effort at getting one up on things and trying to write history before it happens. Would our present day calendarizers claim that they are free to ignore this counsel? Would they claim that the author of Revelation, under God's leading, ignored it?

Granted, at other points in the Gospels (and sometimes right alongside our passages) Jesus does talk about and even identify some signs of the end. How are we to reconcile the presence of these two types of text?

Some scholars would do it at a stroke by denying that Jesus ever spoke of signs and by attributing all such references to later interpolators. That solution strikes me as being too neat and easy, and unjustified. My best help, then, is to suggest that most if not all of the signs Jesus acknowledges are of a sort different from those that could be used as a basis for calendarizing the future. Rather, they are of the sort involved when we say, for example, "The demonstrations taking place on campus are a sign of student unrest." In such case the "sign" is simply the outward, visible side of an event which also includes deeper, less visible, but more significant aspects.

The "sign" is an indicator that enables us to understand the full implications of what is happening--but certainly not a means of calculating what is yet to happen. And if such is the case here, then Jesus' acknowledgement of these signs in no way contradicts his warning regarding those.

But there is another way of corning at the whole matter; we need not draw our final conclusion at this point. We can ask the question: does the New Testament suggest any reason why Jesus should be opposed to calendarizing? We shall see that the answer comes back: yes, to calendarize is to undercut the very eschatological stance Jesus was intent to teach.

This new consideration turns our discussion in the way it ought to go--away from the merely negative of what Jesus opposed and toward the positive of what he encouraged. These positive teachings, again, we find scattered throughout the Gospels; but we do not propose to ferret out them all. Matthew includes pretty much everything in this regard that the other Gospels do; and his work has the advantage of drawing Jesus' eschatological teachings together into one passage rather than leaving them scattered. Mt. 24-25 will tell us what we want to know.

The key presupposition (supported both by texts we have examined and by those we are yet to examine) is given its definitive statement in Mt. 24:36, "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; but only the Father" (italics mine). Calendarizers argue that Jesus is saying, in effect, "Go ahead with your predictions, but don't try to cut it as fine as the day or the hour!" But particularly when we see the total context of Jesus' thought, such an interpretation is shown to be sheer sophistry.

Because no one (not even Jesus himself) knows "when," the consequence for the Christian believer follows as stated in verses Mt. 24 (as crucial a text as any used in this book)

Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Mt. 42-44)

Rather plainly, the reason Jesus is opposed to calendarizing is that it leads people into thinking they know something they have no chance of knowing. The reason they have no chance of knowing it is that God never intended they should. And the reason he does not want them to know is that, if they did, there no longer would be any cause for them to be constantly awake and perpetually ready. If I "know" when the end is to happen, then, of course, until the time actually comes, there is not the slightest reason to "hold myself ready." And to plead, "But I don't know the exact day and hour," doesn't affect the situation in the slightest. No, calendarizing comes through as an attempt to pull an end run on God and find out what he expressly indicated is not to be found out.

The matter does not hang exclusively on the passage quoted; it is followed by a collection of three parables, each bearing directly upon the point.

  1. The first, in Mt. 24:45-51, is the story of a servant whom his master left in charge of the household staff. He (on the basis of his calendarizing calculations) "knew" that the master would be a long time coming and so used the interim to really live it up and misuse his fellow servants. But the master came back early, and the servant was caught in sad shape.
  2. Conversely, the second parable, found in Mt. 25:1-13, is the familiar story of the wise and foolish maidens. The wise maidens equipped themselves for perpetual readiness; but the foolish maidens (on the basis of their calculations) "knew" that the bridegroom would come soon and so neglected to carry any reserves of oil. It turned out, however, that the bridegroom returned late, and the maidens were unprepared.

That these adjacent parables should be the precise converse of each other is significant; it forces one to the conclusion that the only possible stance is that of perpetual (both early and late) readiness.

The third parable, Mt. 25:14-30, is that of the talents. The useless servant was so sure (on the basis of his calculations) that the master would come right back that he felt it sufficient simply to protect the coin that had been entrusted to his care. But as you might guess, he was caught just the way every calendarizer has been; the master's delay made it clear that he should have invested (made use of) the money.

This teaching of a perpetual readiness based precisely upon the fact that we have absolutely no information about the "when" of the end does not come through as the stance only of Jesus; we find the same thought reiterated consistently throughout the New Testament. It shows up typically as a two-part affirmation. The first thought is that "the time is short"; the second that the time of the end will be a surprise, with Jesus coming as a thief in the night.

Both affirmations, of course, are prominent in the Gospels. But then, in Paul, strong assertions about the shortness of the time are found in Rom. 13:11-13 and 1 Cor. 7:29-31--these coupled, in turn, with 1 Thess. 5:1-2, "Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." Later writers also emphasize the shortness of time in Heb. 10:25, 36-37 and Jas. 5:8. The First Epistle of Peter comes through very strong on the shortness of the time, "The end of all things is near" (1 Pet. 4:7 and 1 Pet. 4:17), and perhaps implies the surprise aspect, "Discipline yourselves, keep alert." (5:8-11). Second Peter reverses the emphasis, being very strong on surprise: "But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief" (2 Pet. 3:8-10), but only implying the shortness of the time: "Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.... " (2 Pet. 3:11-14).

Finally, the book of our particular interest, Revelation, says in its very first verse that these things "must soon take place" and, in its next-to-last verse, "I am coming soon"; and it repeats the thought any number of times between those two statements. But also, regarding the surprise aspect, Rev. 16:15 (a crucially placed statement) reads: "See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame." and Rev. 3:3b says much the same thing. (By the way, is it plausible that an author who includes such a statement at two points in his book could be writing the very same book for the purpose of telling us when the day was to come: "Jesus wants to come like a thief, but here are the data you need to calculate the time of his coming"?)

Here, then, is a double theme, rooted in the teaching of Jesus but permeating the New Testament as a whole. The "surprise" element, of course, accords very well with the basic counsel of perpetual readiness. However, the "time is short" element is another matter. It could be interpreted--and perhaps on first reading normally would be interpreted--as a calendar claim: "I know, have specific information as to when the end is coming; and it is right away now." If that is what these statements intend, we have two problems.

  1. In the first place, the "time is short" element then stands in direct conflict with its counterpart "surprise" element. How are we to handle that?
  2. In the second place, if these truly are calendar claims, then they are all false claims and all these writers were just plain wrong; they said something was going to happen "very soon, and it still hasn't happened almost two thousand years later. That being so, it would seem risky business for modern calendarizers to base their calculations upon the very works of those calendarizers who have been so thoroughly discredited by history. Or do our modern calendarizers claim the competency to use the evidences of Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles and writers but succeed where they failed?

Obviously, the preferable alternative is to see whether it is not possible to understand this "time is short" element as something other than a calendar claim. There is one good line of evidence indicating that it never was meant as calendarizing. If we peg the idea as originating in the teaching of Jesus and then trace it through Paul, the writing of the Gospels themselves, and on down into the later epistles and writings, then we have documentary evidence that the expectation was current in the church during almost every decade from AD 30 on to the end of the century. Yet, through this period, writers could continue to state the expectation (and readers continue to accept it) without apparent difficulty over the fact that their predecessors had been stating the same expectation for some time--a time that was stretching out to something like seventy years. Clearly, the statement about the shortness of the time was not being understood as a calendarizing claim--that would have forced the unavoidable conclusion that too many leaders had been too wrong too often.

But if they are not calendar claims, what do these statements intend? Let me suggest some possibilities. It may be that these different writers were meaning to say, "For all we know, the time is short," or "Although we have absolutely no 'knowledge,' we ought always to assume that the time is short (and be ready to go on assuming that as long as necessary)." This would be a proper way of describing and fostering perpetual readiness: "Precisely because I don't know, I had better operate under the continual assumption that the time is short."

Similarly, some events are such that in their very nature they display the character of "soonness," no matter when they may be scheduled to occur; they are so big that their own moment cannot contain them; they bulge over even into the present. A little child could lead us into understanding how "Grandma is coming" is a "soon" event whatever the calendar indication might be.

The suggestions above would indicate that the "time is short" expectation is to be understood as a subjective description rather than an objective claim; the statement refers to the stance of the subject (the believer) rather than to the factuality of the object (the historical time scale). But at the same time I am firmly convinced that, in the minds of the early Christians, this idea of "soonness" also carried another significance that involves much more of objectivity.

It is not the case that the writer is looking ahead, peering into the dim future and seeing the end making its approach, thus to proclaim, "The time is short; the end is at hand." Rather, he is looking back, there to see all that God already has done in the way of bringing his promise to fulfillment; he sees the arrival and work of God's Messiah, his atoning death and victorious resurrection, he sees the coming of the Holy Spirit, the creation of the new faith community and its missionary outreach, and he says, "The day is far gone, and the time is short. No matter what the dates or times which the Father has set within his own control, it is evident that the 'distance' (i.e., what needs yet to take place) between what God has done and what yet must happen is short; the end could come at any time; the time indeed is short."

And note well, this is a statement Jesus could make in his day and it is entirely true and proper. Paul can make the same statement some years later; it is still just as true and proper. Seventy years after Jesus it can be made again--still true and proper. We can make it today, as the centuries stretch into millennia--still just as true and proper as it was in the mouth of Jesus. Indeed, the obligation of the church is to keep on making that statement until the end itself closes off the words. It is when the church fails to announce that the time is short that she has fallen away from the truth of the matter.

And this brings us to the point of the entire argument. Our study has demonstrated that a sense of eschatological expectancy permeated the entire New Testament church and its literature. Further, although we have not done so, it would be easy to show that every aspect of that church's life and thought was driven by the motor of such expectancy. This eschatological expectancy was both the motivation and the content of Jesus' preaching, service ministry, and atoning work. It is the basis of New Testament ethical teaching. It was the source of the early church's life and the explanation of her distinctive character. It was the dynamic and definition of her mission in the world. The New Testament itself is both the fallout from and the exploration of the implications of this early Christian eschatological expectancy. And one of the central values of our study of Revelation should be an increased understanding of what these assertions mean and how true they are.

A critical consideration follows; contemporary Christianity is truly Christian only insofar as it shares this eschatological expectancy; outside of it there hardly are grounds for claiming the name "Christian"--any more than a candy that does not taste of lemon can claim to be "lemon-flavored." Christianity is "Christness"; and the essence of the New Testament understanding of Jesus Christ lies in his being as eschatological promisor, agent, first fruit, and guarantee of the oncoming kingdom of God.

To restore to the church, then, a vital sense of this expectancy is all-important. Insofar as the calendarizers are concerned to do this, they deserve approbation and support--if only they were willing to give some attention to the ethical, political, theological, and ecclesiological implications of the same. But because they have chosen an unbiblical, unchristian means of establishing that expectancy, they have skewed their whole effort.

Consider that an expectancy based upon a calendarizing claim is completely vulnerable to disappointment, disillusionment, and despair--as assuredly it has happened to every calendarizer up to the present time. "I was sure I knew when the end would be. I became highly expectant about that coming. But now, that date has come and gone; my information was false and my expectancy a delusion. Wrong--all wrong! I have no basis left for faith or expectancy." Disappointed expectations can have no effect other than to blight and kill the Christian life.

Then consider, on the other hand, that the biblical expectancy of perpetual readiness is entirely immune to such disappointment. "Yes, I expect the Lord soon. I know he is coming, but he never even intimated that I should know when. So if he comes today, great! --Thatís what I'm expecting. If he doesn't come today--I'll expect him tomorrow. He can't break an appointment with me, because he never made one. The day God chooses will be 'soon' (and soon enough for me) as long as it is Jesus who comes."

Both the calendarizers and those who are perpetually expectant want to say, "Jesus comes-yes, he comes soon!" But there is all the difference in the world between saying it because one thinks he has broken a code and extracted inside information on the matter and saying it because he doesn't know and so, on faith, assumes always that the next moment might be it. And it seems clear which is the stance the Bible itself affects and recommends.

There is, also, another respect in which calendarizing tends to skew things. The interest of most calendarizers seems to begin and end in speculation about what is going to happen then. Biblical eschatology puts more of its emphasis upon what the expectancy of those future events has to say about the quality of my life and action now: What should I do to be ready? We will find the book of Revelation coming through very strong in this respect.

We need, finally, to give consideration to what the calendarizing approach implies about the nature of the Bible. The calendarizer must assume that the book of Revelation, for example, is written in code: the biblical author uses esoteric, symbolic language, but he actually is talking about present-day entities, alignments, and events. There are here references to the present situation in the Mideast--Jews, Arabs, Russia, China, the European Common Market, et alia.

If this is so, it follows that no one had any chance of truly understanding Revelation prior to the present day when the actual referents came into existence. Only we have had any chance of understanding Revelation, so, obviously, God must have intended the message of the book only for us--to tell us that the end will happen in our day. Yet certainly, if God intended the message for our ears alone, he could have found a way of delivering it directly to us. But that he chose to put it into circulation almost two thousand years before there was the remotest chance of anyone's understanding it implies some very wicked things about God.

We know beyond question to whom the Revelator's writings originally were addressed and delivered. Rev. 1:4 reads: "John to the seven churches in Asia." Elsewhere the seven churches are named, and there is nothing mystic or ethereal about them. They were actual, concrete, everyday little congregations in first-century Asia Minor; the cities (or ruins of the cities) in which they existed can still be located today. However, it is not true that the book was John's word to them if they had no way of knowing what he was talking about. If the suggestion is that John thought he was writing to the seven churches and only God knew that the message actually was reserved for late twentieth-century Christians, then God was playing with both John and the churches. If the suggestion is, rather, that John knew he was writing only for the twentieth century, then he was not being truthful when he said that he was writing "to the seven churches in the province of Asia." What kind of God is it who would lead generations upon generations of Christians to read a book, believing that they had the word of God and were being addressed by it, while, the whole time, God knew that it was a locked secret which they didn't even have the wherewithal to understand? If calendarizing is the method by which Revelation is meant to be read, then God and no one else is responsible for the crushed expectations of all past calendarizers; he gave them a puzzle for which there was no way they could get anything but a false solution.

Flatly rejecting all such implications, we propose another basic principle for our study of Revelation. We take with all seriousness John's assertion that he is writing to the seven churches in Asia. Therefore, any interpretation of his words that patently would not have been a possibility for the original readers cannot be accurate. Or, to put it the other way around, we can accept as accurate an interpretation of John's words only if his original readers could have understood it so, too. Indeed, if anyone is eavesdropping or looking over anyone else's shoulder in this matter, it is we moderns and not our first-century brethren. Revelation is not, in the first place, God's word to us--with them used merely as a vehicle for getting it to us. In the first place, it was God's word to them; and they, knowing John personally and being part of his historical and cultural milieu, had a better chance of understanding the book than we do. It is God's word to us by indirection (although not, by that token, any less the word of God) as we find ourselves able to identify with those Christians and discover that what was written for their benefit can be of great benefit to us, too.

Copyright (c) 1974