Summary: The last book of the Bible presents a prophetic vision difficult to fathom--what do we do with it?
During the early days of Desert Storm, and as we approached the year 2000, people grew concerned with whether these events might be signaling the “last days” talked about in Scripture. Now doom-sayers are claiming the world will end in 2012. I recently read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a bleak post-apocalyptic novel of a father and son struggling for survival after the large-scale devastation of the planet.
The last book of the Bible presents a prophetic vision difficult to fathom--filled with terrifying images, dramatic battles and mystifying pronouncements. People have used it to stir fear in the hearts of others and it has been hotly debated over the centuries. Many tend to avoid it because it seems beyond comprehension. It’s there, but what do we do with it?
I see two common (and opposite) responses to the Book of Revelation: over-zealous interest, and resigned apathy. Some Christians read every end-times book they can get their hands on, while others throw their hands up in surrender and cry, “what’s the use? It’s too difficult to grasp.”
I hope this doesn’t sound presumptuous, but I think I can summarize the Book of Revelation in one sentence: God is in control of history. Exactly how it will all play out is a matter of interpretation. I doubt if any of the views have got it nailed. Perhaps the world is not capable of knowing it all, or not ready for such knowledge. God has revealed all we need to know; for the rest, we trust.
The intent of the Revelation is to put us on our knees before God. Prayer is a realization of powerlessness, and at the same time, a participation in God’s power. Knowing all the myriad details of future events is not as relevant as knowing Christ. He is, after all, the Focus of this final book. The complete title is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1). The word “revelation” means “unveiling.” Jesus is the One promised in the Hebrew Scriptures; presented in the Gospels; preached in the Epistles, and proclaimed in the Revelation. When we open our Bibles, we learn of Christ, we submit to what we read, and let it slowly develop in our lives.
My first exposure to this book came before I was a Christian. I thought I was fairly familiar with the Bible; after all, I’d been to Sunday School. But when I came face-to-face with the Book of Revelation, I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know about the Bible. This caused me to be open to learn something else I didn’t know: why Jesus died, to take my punishment and pay the price on the Cross for my sin.
Does God intend for us to have this book all figured-out? Many people claim to know what all the poetic images mean. They compile charts and write books and some even set dates (even though Jesus said “No one knows the day or hour,” Mk 13:32). Chesterton noted that while the Apostle John saw lots of strange creatures in his vision, he saw “none so wild as his own commentators.” In my own study I’ve discovered that good Christians sharply differ as to the details. There are several interpretations of the Second Coming that stimulate much debate among theologians. One thing the debaters have in common is their love for Scripture. But their views nonetheless remain in conflict. What they do agree on is that Jesus will (somehow) return.
Prophecy is best understood in hindsight. We read messianic prophecy in the Old Testament and clearly see how it is fulfilled in the Person and Work of Christ. But before Jesus came, these passages weren’t so clear, which may be why Israel was mistakenly expecting a political messiah to come and overthrow Rome (despite what Isaiah wrote). They weren’t expecting a humble, Suffering Servant. My analogy is this: in the same way, we see through a glass darkly when it comes to the return of Christ. The Book of Revelation will appear clear as day after it is fulfilled.
This prophetic message is intended to change how we see life. History is going somewhere, headed toward a purposeful conclusion, one in which Jesus will return to right every wrong and dry every tear--a new world of justice, healing, and hope. But it has an impact here and now, not just when the end of days occur. The future impacts the present. This prophecy should affect our goals and priorities, how seriously we resist sin; how we pray, our love for unbelievers, and our determination to obey God. “We live in the present as people who will be made complete in the future” (N.T. Wright). Because of this prophetic book we see how God is the author of history.
Eugene Peterson writes: “The biblical story began, quite logically, with a beginning. Now it draws to an end, also with a beginning. The sin-ruined creation of Genesis is restored in the sacrifice-renewed creation of Revelation…the story that has creation for its first word, has creation for its last word.” God will come to make all things new; he will bring forth a new Heaven and new Earth. Then (finally) we will see God’s will fully done “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”