Preliminaries (Continued)

The Gospel According to John the Revealer

We still are in process of setting up guidelines and clearing the ground preparatory to plowing through Revelation. But now we turn a corner of sorts. We have been working at the somewhat negative matter of explaining why we will not take the popular approach to the book-although, at the same time, we were developing the positive orientation for the sort of perpetual expectancy that is basic to our study. Now, however, we will become entirely positive in looking directly to Revelation itself.

It may be helpful to be told what we are going to find in Revelation even before we look. So here follows a list of what I consider the most basic insights the book has to offer. None of these is different from what is to be found elsewhere in the New Testament; but the nature of Revelation gives it an advantage, perhaps, in pointing up and emphasizing them.

  1. Revelation helps get the Christian gospel into its proper context. We discover that the good news does not center upon--and is not limited to--discrete, scattered, isolated transactions between God and various individuals. "Salvation" includes much more than just getting myself taken care of; the Christian interest involves much more than enjoying merely "what Jesus has done for me." No, God's action must be seen in a much broader, all-inclusive frame of reference.
  2. Because of God's role within it and his authority over it, the entire sweep of human life and history must be viewed as a meaningful sequence. The riddle of human existence never will be broken--simply cannot be broken--as long as one's sense of history amounts to "the history of me" and his sense of time to an awareness of "now." And the attempt to identify "now" as "the end" does not change the situation. Indeed, the current Jesus Movement penchant for calendarizing is probably just one more manifestation of our societal philosophy that there is no real meaning or significance outside of "the now generation." Only the now is real; so, unless the end is now, it isn't real and relevant; ours must be the last days.

    But no, Christianity--and particularly the book of Revelation--avers that "the real" is a totality encompassing human existence from Creation to New Creation and that the meaning of any particular "now" is to be found not in itself, but in its relationship to the totality. Thus, because it is part of the one historical process that is reality, "the end" can be of great significance for "now" without its actually having to occur now. The reality to which Revelation points is the reality of the historical whole, not simply of a particular historical moment within (or beyond) it.

  3. Yet the calendarizers are correct in stressing that "the end" is of primary importance. However, that importance is not to be found simply in the moment of the end itself but in the fact that its presence gives an "end-state orientation" to the sequence as a whole. The meaning of history lies essentially in that it is a process pointed toward a goal; and that goal determines the meaning of history's first moment (the creation) and its present moment (the "now") just as much as it does its last moment (the end itself). The Bible--as a whole, as well as in its various parts--is very much an end-state oriented book. And the great contribution of Revelation is in helping us read it that way. Jesus, by centering his entire message and ministry upon the coming of the kingdom of God, pointed us in this direction. Revelation, by picturing history from its end, simply drives the lesson home.

The key is in learning to think eschatologically--and this calls for a word of explanation. Eschaton is the everyday New Testament Greek word which means simply "the end." However, in biblical parlance the term is used in a more technical sense as a reference to the consummation and end of history itself. Eschatology, then, is thought and doctrine concerning the end, last things. Customarily "eschatology" has shown up as a final chapter of books on systematic theology and as the final lecture in seminary courses in the same. The content of such eschatology usually amounts to speculation concerning the end-time events.

But this understanding marks a distortion of biblical eschatology. Far from being a minor chapter within Christian theology, eschatology there is the basic stance that governs the theology as a whole. It deals not simply with the events of the end-time but is much more concerned with how the presence of that end affects the very constitution of the gospel and every aspect of Christian thought. And it is right here, in stressing eschatology as a total end-state orientation, that Revelation can be most contributive. The book obviously is "eschatological"; yet, if a person can get out of the calendarizing blinders and look at it with open eyes, he will discover that it consists of very much more than just speculation regarding last things. It is a revelation of Jesus Christ--

  • the totality of Jesus Christ in the totality of his mission and ministry, his death and resurrection, his living lordship, and his coming again--from an eschatological perspective.
  • It is an explication and proclamation of the gospel--from an eschatological perspective.
  • It is instruction in Christian discipleship--from an eschatological perspective.
  • It is a portrayal of the church--from an eschatological perspective.

Revelation is written within the same eschatological perspective, the same end-state orientation, as the rest of the New Testament; but it is done in such a way as to make that orientation much more clear, explicit, and self-conscious than is the case elsewhere.


The demand that one look at life and history (and even oneself) from an end-state orientation may strike you as esoteric and unnatural. But consider that you are quite willing to think in these terms in other connections. Any "game"--a chess game, for example--is very much an end-state oriented operation. The rules of play in chess decree that the sole goal of the procedure is to bring the opponent's king into checkmate. Only moves that contribute to that end are "good" moves; and they are "good" only to the degree they do so contribute. How many other men I capture, how many of my own men I manage to protect, how soon I get one of my men into his king row, how quickly or slowly I make my moves, how many different pieces I use, how much my play impresses the spectators-these and all other factors have significance only insofar as they contribute to my checkmating his king. That end is the measure for everything that happens within the game itself, from first move to last.

And just so, John affirms that the one end that gives significance to human history, and the one norm by which can be measured the extent to which any event within it is "good," is the coming of the kingdom of God. With the Revelator's help, we still will need to say a great deal about what that kingdom is and how it comes; so wait until you see how Revelation handles an end-state oriented presentation of world history before you decide whether or not you "like" eschatology.

  1. When the Revelator affirms that history is end-state oriented, for him this is identical with the affirmation that God is Lord. The particular end-state for which he sees history destined is "the kingdom of God," i.e., the situation of God's ruling as king, the time when all things are ordered according to his desire and plan, when his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. And it is because the wherewithal for that rule already is present in God and, through his mighty acts, already is making itself felt in the world, that it confidently can be proclaimed as the end-state that will be. It is because God always has been Lord and even now is Lord that the end of history can with certainty be described as his lordship consummated.

    Yes, the Revelator does also affirm that man, created in the image of God, likewise has a freedom, ability, and power to make his mark in history. We will see how significantly he recognizes and honors this fact. Nevertheless, John must say that, in the final analysis, the will of the Lord God rather than the activities of men determine the outcome of history.
  2. Because the Lord of history is this God, and because its end-state is the accomplishment of his will, it follows that the action of the drama is universal in its scope. A major motif of the Revelator's account is its "universalism." Do not, at this point, go reading a lot of implications into the term. It is by a very careful exegesis of many texts from throughout the book that we will let John himself draw the implications. At present, by the term "universalism" we mean to affirm only the very fundamental concept that the Revelator intends his as being the one story of history, the one end-state that is to encompass all things. His is not presented as the story of just one particular people, one faith, one race, one planet (?). He does not leave room for alternative universes to have other stories going other ways to other ends. Because the Lord of history is one, history itself is one, and John's is the one story of mankind.

    Of course, any person is free either to accept or reject the truth of the story presented in Revelation. But the thing he cannot do is accept it as one among a number of the true understandings to which men have come regarding history. Essential to Christian eschatology, with its affirmation of God's lordship, is a claim of universality; so it must be either the New Testament view of history (represented, in our case, by Revelation) or a view derived from secular historiography or a view from one of the mystical, non-eschatological religions or something else. The universality of the Revelator's claim prohibits mixture.
  3. If God is the Lord of history and the one whose kingdom constitutes its end, it follows that man, on his own, has not the ghost of a chance of discovering history's purpose or of bringing it to pass. His call, rather, is to come to God, learn of him, be directed by him, and become molded and enabled through him--this rather than striking out on his own, no matter how nobly inspired and well intentioned the effort. Thus John's book is presented as being a revelation from God rather than merely creative insights of the author himself. And if the book's witness is to be authentic, the reader must accept it on the same terms. This is not to deny that there may be present earthbound, human, Johannine elements as the book stands in its written form. But unless God was involved in revealing the truth of its overall message, the book is without authority, for its subject matter clearly lies beyond human competency.
  4. Absolutely basic to John's understanding is the conviction that the Lord God has willed JESUS CHRIST to be the one through whom history's end-state be revealed--and not only revealed but also put in motion--and not only put in motion but also brought to consummation. The story of history is to be the story of Jesus Christ; God's lordship is to be his lordship. This relationship is portrayed most explicitly, of course, in that the achievement of history's end-state is signalized as the return of Christ. However, it is very important to realize that this yet-to-come Jesus Christ is not some sort of mythic construction put forward as a representation of a golden-age ideal. He is identified as the entirely concrete, down-to-earth personage who became flesh among us, whom we have heard, felt, seen, and known in all his historical actuality. Likewise, because of his resurrection from the dead, the Jesus Christ known to contemporary Christians here and now as a vital presence of action and power also is to be identified as this same person.

    That Christian eschatology is the story of this Jesus Christ gives it an utterly unique character. Jesus Christ--the entire New Testament knows--is preeminently an eschatological figure. But it is not that he suddenly becomes eschatological with his appearance at the end of the age. No, his every appearance and his continual presence always have been and ever will be eschatologically oriented toward and significant in relation to the end-state of all things.

    Because Jesus Christ has been, is, and will be present in these ways, history suddenly has been given a unity and continuity. The future (that end) is not something detached and different from the present (this "now"). The end does not have to come in this generation for the book of Revelation to have meaning for us. The presence of the already-come, always-come, yet-to-come (in every tense "coming") Jesus Christ ties us into that future--whenever God decides it should happen. Jesus Christ--and not any human efforts eventuating in the perfection of man--spells the continuity of history. Jesus, in his career within history, was the proclaimer and teacher of the coming kingdom of God; this was the core of his message. More, his works were those of the kingdom--wiping tears, putting an end to death, to mourning and crying and pain. More still, if the kingdom is the situation of God's will being perfectly done, then where Jesus was, the kingdom was. "My food is to do the will of him who sent and to complete his work" (Jn. 4:34). Also, in his resurrected presence as the Lord who even now is with us, Jesus still signifies the kingdom of God. "When anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Cor. 5:17).

    It is the presence of this one who is our Eschaton that makes our own moment of history eschatological, no matter where it happens to fall upon the calendar of God. For John, eschatology is precisely and nothing other than the apocalypsis (revelation) of Jesus Christ--this much more essentially than any prediction of socio-political events, whether of this--worldly or other--worldly origin.
  5. That it is the return of Jesus Christ that marks the eschaton says something very important about the character of the end-state. Who Jesus Christ is determines what that situation shall be; what we already have come to know as his character and style will be the character and style of the end events. How he acted in first century Palestine will be how he acts in last century Everywhere.

    This point is particularly crucial for our reading of Revelation. Some aspects of the Revelator's description of the Christ of the Return sound, upon first reading, like a radically different Jesus from that of the Gospels. But Jesus Christ is a constant in John's calculus--is the constant in John's calculus. And for him, the character of the historical man Jesus defines the content of the theological entity "Christ." So it is inconceivable that this author could understand Jesus Christ as changing character with the change of the times. If, then, it is possible to find an exegesis that maintains this constancy, it always is to be preferred over any other. Yes, there is room in Jesus of Nazareth for judgment and redemptive sorts of punishment; and there is room for them in Revelation. What there is not room for in either is cruelty, vindictiveness, gloating, or vengeful punishment.
  6. When the Lord God and his will are made as all-in-all as the Revelator chooses to make them, there is sometimes the temptation to play down the reality and power of that which is the opposite of God and resistant to him. We think to glorify God by giving the impression that everything is going his way. How beautiful is the world on its road to the kingdom; how beautiful, mankind attaining the likeness of its Master!

    The Revelator doesn't fall for this one (nor do the other New Testament writers). He is acutely aware of the presence (and threat) of sin and evil and treats them with appropriate seriousness. The fullness of God's salvation is not, for him, explained in terms of a lack of opposition; quite the contrary. God's glory is enhanced by its having been polished in hard-fought encounter with very powerful and entrenched enemies.

    Revelation is the more helpful to us for taking such a view. Not only is it more biblical, it also is more in accord with our own experience in the world. The book is for real, talking about the world we know and with which we must contend.
  7. Yes, the coming of the kingdom must entail an all-out struggle against the opponents of God. Nevertheless, John displays total confidence that the victory will be God's. However, that claim does not represent mere optimistic projection on John's part. Not at all; God's final victory is guaranteed, because the completely decisive battle already has been fought and won. Jesus did the fighting on Good Friday; God confirmed the victory on Easter. There lies the turning point of world history; all that went before was prologue, all that follows (including the coming of the end itself) is epilogue. Jesus' death-and-resurrection was "it"; thereafter, God's war for the world can go to its appointed end. Thus it is in reference to this event (and none other) that John reports a voice from heaven:
    "Now have come the salvation and the power
    and the kingdom of our God,
    and the authority of his messiah!" (Rev. 12:10)
    A very important implication follows. The Revelator cannot portray any new and subsequent face-off between God and Evil and still be true to his revelation--not even a final showdown at the end. Any such would detract from what Jesus did at Calvary, and would imply that that victory had been something less than sufficient. Contrary to the way Revelation usually is read, we will find John being entirely consistent in this regard; it is a point we will want to watch.
  8. Finally, because the important victory already has been won and because the Victor is himself present and active, it follows that the end-state right now is proceeding out of the Christ event, the kingdom at this moment is in process of becoming actual. This is not to discount the importance of or expectancy for "that day," the time when the heretofore "coming" kingdom shall in all truth "be" as it is in heaven. However, it is to affirm--as Revelation most certainly does--that eschatological reality is to be tasted as well as waited for. And this, in the final analysis, is why the Christian can afford to be perpetually expectant, can be happy in his eschatology whether God has named this as the last generation or not. Right now we are in the Eschaton which he is, no matter when the eschaton of "that great gettin'-up morning" arrives. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

The eleven points above are so completely assumed and so pervasively implied in Revelation that they are too big to fit into a commentary regarding a particular verse; so we have presented them here. Now you can (and ought to) read them out of the book as a whole.

I am convinced that most of our popular calendarizers would themselves accept most of the points presented here. They probably would admit that they are true to the book of Revelation and might even agree that they are more fundamental than matters of date and detail. Yet I maintain that calendarizing curiosity carries the focus of interest away from these essentials and over to controversial side-issues. Calendarizing commentaries tend to distract from the most basic ideas of Revelation; the hope is that this one can come down on them with both feet.

We now are ready to read our way through Revelation--except that we ought to make a few observations regarding the book's overall structure and method.

Two charts to which we will make repeated reference are included in this book: a Time-Line of the Revelator's Construct of History, and an Outline of the Book of Revelation. There is no need to study the charts now; we will use them as we go along.

We are going to make one important assumption regarding the formal structure of Revelation. It is a matter that cannot be conclusively proven either way; but our alternative seems to make better sense of things. We assume that not all the events John describes are meant to constitute a single, straight-line sequence, each scene following directly upon the heels of the one before. Rather, at points, John takes the liberty of doubling back, going another time through a period already covered, giving us a new angle on it, using a somewhat different imagery. His might be called a "spiral approach," circling back (as a good teacher does) to fill in and fill out a concept by coming at it in different ways. The second chart makes evident where the doubling back occurs.

This observation leads to one of a more general sort. Throughout his book our author displays a certain freedom, flexibility, and imagination. After all, his material is presented as visions"--and visions are the stuff from which poetry (and not a travel guide) is made. The book is a masterpiece in its use of imagery and word pictures. And we ought to have the courtesy to read the book after the manner in which the author presents it. Yet most exegesis forces him to plod precisely when he is trying to soar. It is the old problem of not being able to see the forest for the trees. We tend to read scripture with a close, analytic mind-set that focuses not just on trees, even, but on the makeup of the bark and leaves. No wonder we fail to appreciate the vista of the forest and the joy of a walk through it!

The need to read and think in terms of "scenic views" rather than "factual analysis" is particularly crucial regarding a "vision book" like Revelation. We should be ready to turn our imaginations and spirits loose to run with the author rather than continually forcing him to halt with: "What does that mean?" "How is that phrase to be interpreted?" "Why did you color that horse red?" "Is that a reference to the ten nations of the European Common Market?" Revelation calls for readers who are dreamers, not nit-pickers. So let John draw his pictures, and then you scale your meditation to their large lineaments. Indeed, the form customary to commentaries may not be the best for handling Revelation--so we will try to keep ours from becoming a customary commentary.

In this regard, neither I nor any other commentator should claim to be able to explain every verse of the book and satisfy every problem concerning it. I, for one, am more than willing to say, "I don't know," to any number of questions that may be asked. Even so, our understanding of the book as a whole certainly should be controlled by the big ideas that are clear, emphatic, and repeated rather than by the obscure allusions that give us trouble. So again, let us not force John to plod by demanding an explanation of every jot and tittle before we are willing to enjoy his big scene.

A great deal of the Revelator's imagery and even phraseology comes from the Old Testament; evidently he knew that volume virtually by memory. But the manner in which he uses these references is more noteworthy than simply the fact that he uses them. Although filled with such borrowings, his book is by no means a mere pastiche or patchwork. He has digested the material and made it his own; when he uses it, he uses it in his own way, for his own purposes, enhancing the uniqueness of his own vision. In some cases we can be helped to understand the Revelator by examining the Old Testament source of the reference; and we shall do this where it seems helpful. But more frequently it is the case that his creativity is such that one can learn much more by studying the context within which he places the reference than the one from which he took it.

There is, however, another consideration that sometimes makes the identification of Old Testament allusions important. When the Revelator uses a quotation, he, of course, is not himself responsible for the exact wording involved. Assuredly, he selected the quote because he wanted its main idea; but the wording may carry some implications he would have avoided had the phrasing been strictly his own. The reader should be willing to grant John a little more latitude when he is working with the earlier tradition than when he is speaking entirely for himself.

One basic aspect of John's "poetic," imaginative approach is found time and again throughout his book. It is the "symmetrical" relationship he develops between the kingdom of Good and the kingdom of Evil. On point after point after point, even down to rather small details, a feature regarding the Good will have its counterpart regarding Evil. The main structure of this symmetry we will outline now; details we will note as we come to them.

God the Father 1 Satan, the dragon
Jesus Christ, the Lamb 2 Antichrist, the beast
The Holy Spirit 3 The False Prophet, the second beast
The Woman Clothed with the Sun 4 The Great Whore
Jerusalem (Old and New) 5 Babylon

The symmetrical approach seems, indeed, to be a very effective and accurate way to portray Evil. Evil comes through as a perverted, mirror image of the Good. And this is the explanation of its power and attractiveness. Evil is not sheer ugliness but rather counterfeit beauty; that is why it is so dangerous. And John's symmetry is designed to emphasize the counterfeit aspect. Evil is the negative of the positive print which is the Good, the dark image of that which is light, the demonic inversion which spells perversion.

This basic principle within Revelation could be called "dualism," except that that term usually implies some sort of equality between the powers involved. John's symmetry won't allow such. Counter to the organization, advancement, and edification of the Good stands the chaos, regression, and deterioration of Evil. In Jesus Christ, the Good appears as power hidden in apparent weakness; the counterfeit is Evil's apparent power that hides its true weakness. Besides, John wants to tell us that the Evil we encounter already has been defeated in Jesus' death and resurrection. Revelation doesn't come anywhere close to portraying a dualistic, fifty-fifty chance between Good and Evil. For John, the only power left to Evil is that of seduction—that and nothing more. Seduction is a power to contend with, of course-particularly for us who are so vulnerable to it--but it isn't something that puts the outcome of history into doubt.

There is one other feature of the Revelator's work which is just as significant as his symmetry. It is his symbolic use of numbers. In this instance, too, his Old Testament constitutes a rich tradition behind him; but, again, he uses it with particular power and effect. His primary number is SEVEN. Tracing clear back to the seven-day creation account of Genesis 1, it represents wholeness, unity, harmony, order and is thus the number of Good and of God. Over and beyond the sheer number of times "seven" appears in John's text, a glance at the Outline will reveal to what extent Revelation itself is structured over the number seven. It could well be called The Book of Sevens. John has done this deliberately; it is a potent way of proclaiming: "History is built on sevens and is going to come up sevens. God is Lord, and the world is his!"

Much less prominently, THREE also occurs as a good, God number. There is some evidence that John, this early, is beginning to read Trinitarian implications into it.

But John thinks symmetrically; so, if Good has its number, Evil must have its, too. The number is THREE-AND-A-HALF. It may be that the Revelator derived this from Daniel's "a time and times and half a time" (Dan. 7:25 and elsewhere). But it may also be that both authors understood it the same way: 3 1/2 is a "broken" 7. The pattern is right; Evil appears in a perverted image of the Good, and its number is the broken version of the Good number; it is counter in every respect.

There is one other prominent number in the Revelation glossary. TWELVE is the number of the church, Zion, the people of God. John explicitly derives it from the twelve tribes of the old Israel and the twelve apostles of the new Israel, which is the Christian community. That the number twelve has this double referent is John's way of making a most important theological affirmation. Although, at the time he was writing, Jews and Christians were very much at each other's throats, John insisted that this situation did not mark God's ultimate will and plan. Through Jesus Christ, he intends to bring them together into the one people of God; and the one number, twelve, with its bilateral reference, is the sign of the essential unity.

A further general observation about the structure of Revelation should be made. The Time Line chart suggests that John's account covers two basic periods.

  1. The End-Time, leading up to the end itself, begins with the close of Jesus' earthly ministry and continues until his return (the point of demarcation).
  2. The End itself includes the events consequent upon his return.

Now according to both John's chronological indicators and the number of key events involved, the second period is longer and carries more weight than the first. Yet, in terms of the writing space he devotes to each, the first period gets eighteen chapters to three for the second-or approximately fifteen pages to less than three for the second.

The rationale for this apparent disproportion seems clear. Both John's original readers and we ourselves are living in this first, end-time period which lies between Jesus' historical incarnation and his eschatological coming again. This is the period that concerns us specifically; in a very real sense, the rest is out of our hands. And John's primary purpose in writing is to give practical instruction for the situation in which his readers actually find themselves. Thus the very proportioning of his book is evidence that John did not share with contemporary calendarizers their primary concern of doping out events that are of no real relevance to present obligations and opportunities.

Not only in specific preparation for writing this book, but as part of my ongoing education, I have read a good many books about Revelation. Many were worthless; but from many others I undoubtedly have derived insights that have become so assimilated as my own that their point of origin no longer can be identified. I am not volunteering now to undertake the research that would be necessary simply to give credit to whom credit is due. Anyone who recognizes something he thinks belongs to him can consider himself thanked.

However, the one book I found most helpful and upon which I am most dependent is that by the Swiss-American scholar, Mathias Rissi, Time and History (John Knox Press, 1966). Even so, the form and style of his book was such as to make it hard to use and of virtually no help to lay readers. Besides, it is now out of print and generally unavailable. My presentation is enough different in kind that it is as much as impossible for me to spot and credit each specific dependency; but I do want to acknowledge the debt and tender my gratitude.

Copyright (c) 1974