The Book of Revelation contains vivid imagery, wild analogies, and rhetoric rife with end-times judgment. John’s enigmatic vision has tempted many people to treat Revelation as a code to break, and to look around the world for “signs of the apocalypse.” We wonder whether Black Hawk helicopters are locusts, rare eclipses over China are the infamous “blood moons,” Catholic popes are Babylonian whores, and Barack Obama or Donald Trump is the Antichrist (depending on your political convictions). When we do this, we assume that Revelation was written solely to us and applies directly to our situation. That assumption is problematic, to say the least. But most importantly, any fearful chart-making and number-decoding distorts the point of the Book of Revelation—distorts the fact that it is a hopeful document, not a dire one.
Revelation, like most ancient apocalyptic literature, attempts to describe God’s character and acts in light of a socio-political crisis, combining theodicy with a renewed focus on divine faithfulness, while claiming a particular vision, insight, or knowledge into God’s purposes. It endeavors to renew hope. John’s view of God and God’s future involves the centrality of Jesus Christ, in whom God’s purposes are not only concentrated, but consummated. Note the opening of the letter:
The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.
It is tempting to focus on the assertion that these events will happen “soon” or that “the time is near” (Rev. 1:3). Surely, after two millennia, Jesus is on his way. Here in America, our cultural and governmental standards are noticeably shifting away from some of the Judeo-Christian principles we hold so dear. This must be a sign, right?
Perhaps; perhaps not. Again, that is not the point. John does not focus on the interpretation of “soon”—he immediately highlights “what must take place.” Before readers ever read a word about beasts and Babylon, they read this:
Look, he is coming with the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him.
And all the tribes of the earth will mourn over him.
So it is to be. Amen. (Revelation 1:7)
Is John imparting a sense of urgency? No doubt. Jesus told his followers not to be caught sleeping when he returns, though he also told them not to worry themselves with interpreting signs (Mark 13). The urgency of Jesus and of John is not an exhortation to begin decoding the rest of the vision. It is an exhortation to be faithful between the Incarnation and the Second Coming. Jesus and John want believers to lift their eyes to the heavens and place their hope in the returning Savior. For what is about to take place is twofold: Jesus will enact eschatological war on Satan, sin, and death (Revelation 19–20); and the New Jerusalem will come down from heaven, the tree of life reappear, and death disappear (Revelation 21–22).
The prophecies of Revelation, then, are a counsel of hope and encouragement. Approaching the book in fear, reading it as a prediction of imminent catastrophe, is far from how John intended his audience to understand his vision, and it flies in the face of Jesus’s end-times descriptions—most notably his warning that not even he knows when he will return (Matt. 24:36). Revelation is an apocalypse not merely because it mentions bowls of wrath and lakes of fire, but because it describes the triune God’s mission of redeeming all that was broken in the Garden.
We live in a world of turmoil, suffering, and death. But we also live in a world in which God’s church is exploding in Asia and Africa, and where God’s glory still shouts from the heavens. He has not abandoned us, even on the worst of days. The Father has already sent us his Son, and his Son has already sent us his Spirit. We are the temples of God, standing firm in the face of Satan’s onslaught, placing our hope in that Day when the trumpet sounds and the clouds are rolled back. When our eyes are constantly fixed on the clear hope of the gospel and its implications for our daily lives, we have little time to spend on eschatological mysteries.