The title in our Bibles, “The Revelation to John,” and its variations in the manuscripts, is not from John but was added by church editors during the process of canonization. John’s “title,” which is really a titular summary of the document, is found in verses 1–3. John’s title is similar to the titles of Old Testament prophetic books and thus identifies John’s letter in the minds of the hearer-readers with the prophetic books of the Scripture they were accustomed to hearing read in worship (cf. Isa. 1:1; Jer. 1:1; Ezek. 1:2–3; Hos. 1:1; Joel 1:1; Amos 1:1; Obad. 1:1; Micah 1:1; Nahum 1:1; Hab. 1:1; Zeph. 1:1; Hag. 1:1; Zech. 1:1; Mal. 1:1). John’s letter is by no means yet “Bible” for his hearer-readers; their Scripture was the “Old Testament.” Yet John places his writing in continuity with the biblical revelation. The God who speaks here is not a different God from the one heard in the words of the biblical prophets.
In his first words John indicates that the revelation is signified (1:1; RSV “made known”). The word John uses as the main verb for the revelatory act is esemanen, the verb form of the noun semeion, usually translated “sign” elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., John 20:30) and meaning “symbol” in the sense discussed above (“Interpreting Symbolic, Mythological Language”). The revelation from heaven is not simply a straightforward report, for heavenly things cannot be so simply spoken about, but neither does it conceal the transcendent realities; it points to them in a series of evocative images which involve the hearer-reader in the interpretative process.
The title added later by the church identifies the book as the “Revelation of John.” John himself identified it as the revelation of Jesus Christ (1:1). As is also the case in English, the “of here is ambiguous in John’s Greek text. It could be taken in the objective genitive sense (a revelation about Jesus Christ) or the subjective genitive sense (a revelation from Jesus Christ), or a combination of the two. The grammar (the connection with the relative clause) as well as the theology (the setting of Jesus Christ within the revelatory chain) and the nature of Christian prophecy (which comes directly to the prophet from the risen Christ but is not necessarily about him) all indicate that John intends the expression in the subjective genitive sense. What the hearer-reader is about to receive is a revelation from Jesus, the exalted Lord of the church who is present with his congregations in worship and addresses them in the prophetic word.
The revelation does not originate with Jesus, however. It is the revelation he receives from God. Thus the content of Revelation can be called, as a whole, “word of God” (1:2; 19:9). Nor does it come directly from Jesus to the churches; it proceeds through the angel and especially through the prophet John, so that the book as a whole can also be called “all that he [John] saw” (1:2). Designating the book in its totality as word of God, revelation from Christ and Christ’s own testimony, and at the same time word of the human being John is important for us theologically. John conceived this simultaneity of the divine word and the human word as one inseparable revelatory event.
God is the ultimate source of the revelation. The word that is heard in Revelation is ultimately the Word of God (v. 2; cf. 19:9,13). John’s theology is thoroughly theocentric. As in Genesis 1:1, so also in Revelation 1:1, the first active verb in the first sentence has God for its subject, the God who is the hidden actor throughout. For John, Christ is not a competitor or alternative to the one God. But who is God for John? How should we think of this One with whom we ultimately have to do?
Christ is the definitive member of the revelatory “chain.” John does not call his document “God’s revelation through Jesus,” which would make Jesus only another member of the chain. Jesus is not merely one member among several; he is mentioned first as the constituting member of the revelatory chain. For John, God is not someone we already know on some other basis than his self-revelation in Jesus, about whom Jesus then gives further increments of information. What God has to say to the churches and through them to the world is mediated through Christ. For John, as for Christian faith generally, “God” is “the one definitively revealed through Jesus Christ.” The christological affirmations of Revelation are not a response to the question “Who is Jesus?” but “Who is God?” (cf. Ogden). As “God” is defined by “Christ,” so “Christ” is defined by “Jesus.” “Jesus” for John is not the teacher or miracle worker; primarily he is the one who died at the hands of the Romans, not as a tragic victim but as the act of God for our salvation. As “Christ” is defined by “Jesus,” so “Jesus” is defined by “dying-for-us” (1:5b; 5:9). In Jesus, God has defined himself as the one who suffers for others, whose suffering love is the instrument of the creation’s redemption.
The angel is a typical figure in apocalypses (cf. e.g., Dan. 9:20–23; II Esdr. 4:1), appearing frequently in the revelatory and visionary scenes of early Christianity (cf. e.g., Luke 1:11–23, 26–38; Acts 10:3; 27:23). Such revelatory angels play a prominent role in the visions of John’s apocalypse as well (chaps. 14–17; 20–22), but John is concerned that not too much be made of them. Like Paul, John’s worldview includes the reality of angelic beings (cf. Gal. 1:8–9; Rom. 8:38–39), but he wants the hearer-readers to understand that angels are only creatures of God like the Christians themselves and are not to be accorded transcendent honors (19:9–10; 22:8–9; and contrast Col. 2:18). The angel thus plays only a stereotypical role in the revelatory event, in accord with the first-century worldview.
John is himself an indispensable link in the revelatory chain which mediates God’s word to the world. Every word of the prophecy is the prophet’s own word, bearing the impress of his own personal history, written in his language and thought patterns for his situation. This is not an alternative to seeing the whole book as the “word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” (v. 2). The way the revelatory event is thought of here is analogous to (but not identical with) what happens in the act of preaching, in which word of the preacher repeatedly becomes word of God without ceasing to be the human word of the preacher; this is analogous to the incarnation itself, in which once for all Jesus became the presence and definitive revelation of God without ceasing to be the truly human Jesus.
His (God’s/Jesus’) servants are the recipients of the revelation, and not John alone. John’s revelatory experiences were not intended as private religious experiences to be treasured for his own personal benefit. Christian prophecy generally had its setting and function in the worship life of the community, not in the private life of the individual prophet. John is a link in a chain, an agent of a mission.
The world is not explicitly mentioned in this chain. This corresponds to the view that the prophetic message is directed to the community of faith, that community with a tradition of prophetic speech that is equipped to accept, understand, and critique the revelatory word (I Cor. 14:29). But the prophetic message is not restricted to insiders; it is also intended for outsiders (I Cor. 14:23–25). “The world” is always implicitly included in the prophetic message. This corresponds to the “testimony” nature of prophecy twice mentioned here (John “bore witness” to the “testimony” of Jesus Christ) and is important throughout the book (1:9; 6:9; 12:17; 19:10; 22:16, 20). The revelatory message is directed to the church, but not for its private enjoyment. On the basis of the prophetic message, the church is to bear witness to the world, the ultimate object of the love and care of the God who speaks in this book. The revelatory chain is also a chain of command: God, Christ, angel, prophet, church.
The titular summary closes with a beatitude (1:3), a pronouncement of blessing on the lector who reads forth John’s letter in the worship services of the Asian churches and on those who hear and obey the prophetic message it contains. That John has exactly seven beatitudes (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14) is an indication that he considers the form itself important. The beatitude was one of the powerful linguistic forms used by the prophets of Israel (Isa. 19:25; 30:18; 56:2; Jer. 17:7), adopted by Jesus (Matt. 5:3–12; Luke 6:20–23), and continued in the apocalyptic tradition by Christian prophets. As used by Jesus and the prophets, it was not an expression of commonsense conventional wisdom (cf. e.g., Prov. 3:13; Sir. 25:8) but a declaration of the way things really are in the face of empirical evidence. A beatitude is performative language, in the indicative mood. As indicative language, it declares something to be a fact, rather than exhorting. As performative language (like “I do” in a wedding ceremony, or “I forgive you” in personal relations), it does not merely describe something that happens—it makes it happen. The saying of it makes it happen; the pronouncement of blessing conveys the blessing. In preaching and teaching such language should not be perverted too quickly into the language of exhortation. In this text the blessing pronounced on the lector and the hearers of this book should not become a homily along the lines of “we really should read the Bible.” Rather, this text assumes that there will be Christian congregations that assemble to worship and that within their worship services this book will be read forth as a message from the risen Christ, and it therefore pronounces such congregations blessed.
The blessing embraces those who hear in the full biblical sense, those who respond in obedience to the prophetic word mediated by the book. Again, this is not to be understood individualistically. In its context it means those who live as part of the faithful community, participating in its confession of Christ as Lord despite the cultural and political pressures to the contrary, in solidarity with other Christian communities, with its life oriented by the word of God spoken definitively in Christ. However it may appear empirically, John pronounces this community to be blessed. When the pronouncement is accepted in faith, the indicative is heard to contain an imperative; the gift becomes an assignment.
Interpreting the “Near End” in Revelation
Twice in these opening words, before John gives us a glimpse of the content of his message, he tells us that the book reveals what must “soon” take place (v. 1) and that “the time is near” (v. 3). These comments are more than incidental; they are integral to his message: the first one is a word he has intentionally added to the scriptural expression borrowed from Daniel 2:28; the second instance comes as the emphatic conclusion of this unit, giving the basis for the obedient response to which it calls the hearer-readers.
Like John, we must face this issue of the expectation of the nearness of the End squarely and early on, for it is fundamental to interpreting not only the Apocalypse but much of the New Testament. The interpreter who learns how to deal faithfully with this issue here learns something that will be helpful in understanding the New Testament as a whole.
We may first note that this motif of the nearness of the End is woven throughout into the fabric of the Apocalypse. In addition to 1:1 and 1:3 just noted, the following references in Revelation affirm the nearness of the End:
2:16. The risen Jesus warns those in Pergamum to repent, because he is coming soon.
2:25. The risen Jesus encourages the faithful at Thyatira to hold fast what they have “until I come.” While no interval is specified before this “coming” is to occur, the word loses its function of encouragement to steadfast endurance if a long period is intended; and it becomes utterly meaningless if a span of centuries is what is meant.
3:11. Similarly to the church at Philadelphia, “I am coming soon” functions as encouragement to faithfulness.
3:20. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” is not only a spatial image for the church at Laodicea but a temporal image often found in apocalyptic which reflects the shortness of time before the coming of Christ: He is already at the door (cf. Mark 13:29; Luke 12:36; James 5:9).
6:11. The souls of the martyrs already in heaven who cry out for God’s eschatological judgment of the world and ask “How long?” receive the response that they must wait only “a little longer.”
10:6. The “mighty angel” in the vision swears by the Creator that there is to be “no more delay,” but that the “mystery of God, as he announced to his servants the prophets,” the divine plan for the establishment of God’s just rule at the end of history, is about to be fulfilled.
11:2–3; 12:6. The longest period mentioned in Revelation is this span of time described variously as forty-two months, or 1260 days, derived from the period of three and a half years prophesied in Daniel 7:25; 8:14; 9:27; 12:7; 11, 12. This period became a traditional apocalyptic time frame (cf. Luke 4:25 and James 5:17 vs. I Kings 17:1; 18:1). While there is no reason to think John took the period as a literally exact definition of how much time remained before the End, there is also no reason to interpret it in terms of generations or centuries, as the context in each instance makes clear.
12:12. The evil that John’s churches are suffering will intensify, in John’s view, because the devil “knows that his time is short.”
17:10. There are to be seven “kings” altogether, and John and his hearer-readers live in the time of the sixth. While this passage is difficult to interpret precisely (see commentary below), it is clear that in John’s view only one more “king” (emperor) is to reign before the eschatological events begin.
22:6. The angel declares that the preceding visions reveal “what must soon take place.”
22:7. The risen Christ declares “I am coming soon.”
22:10. In contrast to Daniel, which was composed in the literary form of a document written centuries before the events with which it deals were to take place and then “sealed” until the appropriate time, Revelation is not to be sealed, “for the time is near”; it deals with events of the time in which it is written.
22:12. The risen Christ declares (again!) he is coming soon.
22:20. “Surely I am coming soon” are the last words from heaven John hears, as “soon” was his own first word in 1:1.
This emphasis on the nearness of the End is not a peculiarity of Revelation. That the end of history is near in the writer’s own time is a constituent part of apocalyptic thought (see the Introduction); thus it appears not only in Revelation but in other apocalypses, in and out of the Bible.
Major elements of earliest Christianity understood and expressed their new faith in apocalyptic terms, thus supposing that they were the last generation. The resurrection of Jesus was interpreted as the beginning of the eschatological event of the resurrection of all. Jesus was the “first fruits” (I Cor. 15:20); the remainder of the eschatological harvest was soon to follow. This apocalyptic stream of thought was incorporated into the message of many New Testament documents. (See, e.g., Matt. 4:17; 10:23; 16:28; 24:34, 44; Mark 1:15; 9:1; 13:28–30; Luke 9:27; 12:40; 18:8; 21:25–32; Rom. 13:11–12; 16:20; I Cor. 7:25–31; 15:52; Phil. 3:20–21; 4:5; I Thess. 1:9–10; 4:13–18; James 5:7–9; I Peter 4:7; I John 2:18.)
During the first Christian generation, there were several crises that convinced some early Christians that they were indeed experiencing the final events of history and the End was now upon them. There was widespread apocalyptic excitement among both Jews and Christians when Caligula attempted to place a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple in 39, as there was during the terrible Neronian persecution of Christians in Rome in 64, during the catastrophic war in Palestine 66–70, and in the wake of the famines, earthquakes, and eruption of Vesuvius in the following decades. Yet these crises came and went, and the End did not come. How could Christians respond to this apparent disappointment of their eschatological hopes?
1. Rejection. Some decided that apocalyptic expectation as such was an error and simply rejected it. Gnostic streams of Christianity abandoned the hope that God would redeem the horizontal line of history in a mighty eschatological act and retreated to a verticalism in which individual souls are saved into the transcendent world and/or already enjoy the eschatological realities in their present religious experience. Such views were apparently advocated by the opponents of Second Peter (cf. chap. 3), and may have been shared by John’s opponents among the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6, 15) and the followers of “Jezebel” (2:20), who advocated the teaching of “Balaam” (2:14).
Some contemporary interpreters have responded to Revelation’s apocalyptic expectation of the near end of history by simply rejecting apocalyptic as a viable mode of Christian theology. This is often done without having an awareness of how deeply rooted apocalyptic ideas are in the New Testament as a whole and in Christian faith as such.
2. Reinterpretation. Other Christians held on to the apocalyptic language of the first generation but reinterpreted it in the light of the failure of the End to appear. There were basically two varieties of such interpretation:
On the one hand, “soon”did not mean “soon.” Some early Christian theologians held on to the hope for the apocalyptic victory of God at the end of history, but postponed it to an indefinite future time. They reaffirmed the early Christian faith that “the End is coming soon,” but reinterpreted the meaning of “soon” in a non-literal manner. The author of Second Peter was glad to find a text in his Bible, Psalm 90:4, declaring that a thousand years in God’s sight is only a day, which helped him to understand “soon” in a different way than had the first generation of Christians (II Peter 3:3–13). Luke rewrites the story of Jesus and the church to allow for a period of generations of church history, the time of the Christian mission. The Christ comes not at the end but in the midst of history; the time of Christ is followed by the time of the church, a time of mission, which will last indefinitely before the End finally comes.
There have always been interpreters of Revelation who have sought to explain its expectation of the near End as only an apparent expectation. In this view, since the End did not in fact come soon, John must have known it, so that Revelation in fact envisions a long future. The “church-historical” and “end-historical” (dispensationalist) interpretations (see Introduction) regularly assert this view, regarding John as consciously intending to predict events centuries beyond his own future. Other conservative contemporary interpreters, who understand the doctrine of the “reliability of Scripture” in such a way that John could not have been mistaken in his expectation of the nearness of the End, interpret “soon” to mean that “the imminence of the End is moral rather than chronological” (Bruce, p. 665).
On the other hand, “End” did not mean the “End.” There were Christian theologians of the second and following generations who reaffirmed the earlier faith that “the End is coming soon” by redefining the meaning of “End”: the promised “End” did in fact come “soon,” with the outpouring of the Spirit and the beginning of the church. The eschatological realities were no longer understood in a literal manner; they were spiritualized and understood to be a part of the present experience of the Christian life. This kind of “realized eschatology,” elements of which had also been a dimension of the faith of the first generation (Paul!), was developed especially by the authors of the Gospel and Letters of John. These authors reinterpret all the realities expected to come at the eschaton as already present: The Antichrist is reinterpreted as the presence of false teachers in the church (I John 2:18; 4:3); the second coming of Christ is reinterpreted as Christ’s coming again as the Spirit, the Paraclete (John 14–16); the defeat of Satan happened in Jesus’ ministry (John 12:31). Furthermore the resurrection happens in the new life of the Christian (John 11:21–26; cf. 8:51); the judgment happens in the present encounter with Christ the judge (John 3:18–19; 12:31, 48), and eternal life is already the present possession of the believer (John 3:36; 6:47; 17:3). Some contemporary interpreters of Revelation deal with the near expectation in this way (e.g., Caird, pp. 12, 32, 49, 90, 209, 236; Minear, New Testament Apocalyptic, pp. 48–63).
3. Reaffirmation. In times of threat and persecution, Christians of the second and third generations revived the older apocalyptic expectations with the conviction that even though earlier predictions were wrong, now the End has indeed come near. In their situation apocalyptic language once again made sense and supplied an urgently needed means of holding on to the faith, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary (see the Introduction). Thus in First Peter, written in a similar situation to John’s, the author revives the expectation of the nearness of the End as a motive for Christian steadfastness in the face of persecution and trial (4:7; cf. 4:16–17; 5:9–10).
Revelation is best understood as fitting into this category. When John said “the time is near” (1:3), he meant the time for the happening of all the events his letter envisions, including the return of Christ, the destruction of evil, and the everlasting glory of the new world. He meant both “soon” and “End.”
Does this mean he was wrong? Yes. Christians who reverence the Bible as Scripture, the vehicle of God’s word, ought not to hesitate to acknowledge that its authors made errors. It is an aspect of the humanity of the Bible, a part of the meaning of the incarnation, that God uses human thought (with its errors) and human beings (with their errors) to communicate his message. Apocalyptic thought was one of the human ways of thinking about God and the world prevalent in the first century. One of the ingredients of apocalyptic thought was that the End was near. When John adopted apocalyptic as the vehicle of his message, he adopted its errors as well, just as would have been the case with any other form of thought available to him (or us). Just as John’s view of the earth’s extent in space was a first-century worldview, so John’s view of the earth’s extent in time was one of those available in the first century, namely a world soon to pass away or to be transformed in the apocalyptic climax of history. Just as John accepted a flat earth with corners as the spatial framework within which he expressed his message (cf. 7:1), so he accepted a world shortly to come to an end as its temporal framework. As he was wrong in the one case, so was he wrong in the other case. But in neither case does the error of his worldview nullify the validity of the message expressed. One must distinguish between gift and wrapper, baby and bathwater.
The error should not continue. Just as Christians need not promote flat earth societies on the basis of Revelation 7:1, so they need not feel bound to believe in the nearness of the End on the basis of 1:3. A reverent agnosticism concerning “times and seasons” is the more abiding biblical view (Mark 13:32; Acts 1:6–11). There is nonetheless something for the modern reader to receive from the early church’s expectation of the near end of history: Without sharing their chronology, we can share their sense of urgency, the sense that our generation is the only generation we have in which to fulfill our calling. It was not necessarily naiveté, egotism, or presumption for the early apocalyptists to believe that God had led all history to its time of fulfillment in their generation. Erroneous as their chronology was, their apocalyptic expectation was, in its own way, an expression of that faith taught by Jesus that not only every generation but every individual life within it is of unique value in the eyes of the Creator, without whose infinite care not a sparrow falls (Matt. 10:29).