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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 all. 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. Rem. 8:28-39; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; 4:7-15).

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 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. John is realistic: the battles will not be easy, nor will Christians emerge unscathed. It 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 as if its message were primarily intended for a time 2000 years after 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 John foretold were "in the future" to 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 (i.e., everything excluding a few verses which mention the end of the world) is history: it has already happened. This may be a real disappointment to those who were looking forward to experiencing some of the thrilling scenes in the book, so for them I have a small word of comfort: Cheer up - the Killer Bees are still on their way north! Moreover, the Beast has a host of modern imitators, so you still have a chance to get beheaded. Unfortunately, those who had hoped to escape the fireworks in the rapture aren't so lucky. They'll just have to slog through to victory with the rest of us.

The early Church had two great enemies: apostate Israel and pagan Rome. Many Christians died at their hands (indeed, these two enemies of the Church often cooperated with each other in putting Christians to death, as they had with the crucifixion of the Lord Himself). And the messagfe of the Revelation was that these two persecutors, inspired by Satan, would soon be judged and destroyed. Its message was contemporary, not futuristic.

Some will complain that this interpretation makes the Revelation "irrelevant" for our age. A more wrong-headed idea is unimaginable. Are the books of Remans 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, 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 space stations were invented. 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.

Several lines of evidence for the contemporary nature of the Revelation may be pointed out 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.

Second, 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), 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. If I tell you, "I'll be there shortlyand I don't show up for 2000 years, wouldn't you say I was a little tardy? 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 us to have patience with respect to God's promises, assuring us that God's faithfulness to His holy Word will not wear out or diminish.

The Book of Revelation is not about the Second Coming. It is about the destruction of Israel and Christ's victory over Rome. In fact, the word coming as used in the Book of Revelation never refers to the Second Coming. Revelation prophesies the judgment of God on the two ancient enemies of the Church; and while it goes on to describe briefly certain end-time events, that description is merely 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, John identifies certain situations as contemporary: in John clearly encourages his contemporary readers to calculate the "number of the beast" and decipher its meaning; in one of the seven kings is currently on the throne; and John tells us that the great harlot "is [present tense] the great city, which reigns [present tense] over the kings of the earth" Again, the Revelation was meant to be understood in terms of its contemporary significance. A futuristic interpretation is completely opposed to the way John himself interprets his own prophecy.

Fourth, we should notice carefully the words of the angel in "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 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 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). We too are faced with a choice: surrender to Jesus Christ or surrender to Satan. The Revelation speaks powerfully to the issues we face today, and its message to us is the same as it was to the early Church: that there is not an inch of neutral ground 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. There must be no compromise and no quarter given in the great battle of history. We are commanded to win.

For the Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit. As St. Paul says, "Having put off from Himself the principalities and the powers, He triumphed on the cross" [Col. 2:15], so that no one could possibly be any longer deceived, but everywhere might find the very Word of God.

St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation [45]

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