Revelation: Why, How, and When?
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw...Revelation 1:1, 2
Here we have the title of the last book of the Biblical canon. What does this title tell us about the revelation which came to John on the island of Patmos? This is a reflection on the why, how and when of a Bible book, which uncovers as much as it conceals.
A chain of revelation?
A popular approach to understanding the title of the book of Revelation, one which is followed in many commentaries (for instance, that of Van de Kamp), is that of a chain of revelation.1This approach takes the view that the knowledge of divine revelation has been passed on successively as follows: God – Jesus Christ – his angel – his servant John – his servants.
In the Greek, however, the two main verbs in the first sentence are grammatically in apposition: both of them have God as their subject (edooken ... ho Theos ... kai esemanen). This is consistent with the theocentric perspective of the whole book. The commonly accepted interpretation requires that halfway through the sentence, the subject changes; the angel, then, is understood to be a servant of Jesus Christ.2 In the parallel text at the end of Revelation, however, we read that God has "sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place" (ch 22:6).3
The phrases 'his servant John' and 'his servants', also, must be understood with reference to God, for throughout Revelation we read about the 'servants of God' (ch 7:3;19:2, 5; 22:3, 6; compare sundoloi, ch 6:11). It is clear enough that 'his servants' are not servants of John. God is the One who is served in faith and obedience by John as well as his readers. 'He' (ch 1:1b) must refer to God Himself. God, through his angel, has made this revelation known to John.
Lietaart Peerbolte, correctly beginning with God as the subject, identifies 'the angel' in this presumed chain with Jesus Christ. It is God who, by way of his divine messenger Jesus Christ, allows John to see something of the secret of how things really are.4 The chain of revelation is understood, then, to have one chain less.
In this construction, however, the word 'angel' is simply understood as 'messenger', while in no other book of Scripture there are so many angels as in Revelation. It seems most likely simply to think of a real angel of God, distinct from Jesus Christ. After all, elsewhere in this book, angels are only fellow-servants of John (ch 19:10; 22:9), while the exalted Christ, the Lamb of God, is in every way superior. Here, the angel is probably a so-called interpreting angel (angelus interpres) such as those who play a mediating role in the visions of Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah, an angel whose task is to lead the seer by the hand, as it were, through the whole succession of visions.
The great Initiator
The notion of a 'chain of revelation', therefore, does not seem to be especially helpful as a means to understanding the title of the book of Revelation. Instead, it might be better to envisage God as the great Initiator, and that in two ways: first with regard to the source and the destination of this revelation; then also in regard to its mediation and proclamation. The first aspect is that of 'why', the second that of 'how'.
The schematic summary below may help to illustrate this. The overarching thought is that God takes the initiative to unfold the near future. The left-hand column shows that God gave his revelation to Jesus Christ, with the intention of showing God's servants what must soon take place. The right-hand column shows that this was realised by sending an interpreting angel to John, one of God's servants, to show him what must soon take place.
The Revelation, which God gave by sending
Him (Jesus Christ)
To his servant John
What must soon take place
'Soon': four possibilities
The word 'soon' (en tachei) carries in it the urgency of the book of Revelation. A decisive moment has arrived. Everyone must give ear, without delay, to what this book says, for the time is near (ho gar kairos engus: Ch1:3; 22:10)! This word 'soon' raises the question how the book of Revelation ought to be interpreted. In broad terms, there have been four different approaches:5
- The preterist (belonging to the past) view: Revelation relates exclusively to John's own time; the book describes, in a prophetic manner, the situation of the Christian Church in the first century AD.
- The historical view: Revelation relates to the entire Christian era; the book describes the situation of the Christian Church between Christ's ascension and his return.
- The futurist view: From chapter 4 onwards, at least, Revelation relates exclusively to the end-time; the book describes events which are still to take place.
- The idealist view: Revelation describes in symbolic terms the struggle between good and evil; the book has no direct relationship with historical events, neither in the past nor in the future.
While in our time the first view is the one most commonly taken, the promises of the book of Revelation extend well beyond the first century AD: beyond the horizon of time we see a whole new world order appear, in which the New Jerusalem heaven on earth – will realise the old ideal of an eschatological 'city of God'.
The problem of the second view, which builds on Augustine's conception of the 'millennium' in Rev 20 as period between Christ's ascension and His return, is that it is often difficult to make a direct connection with historical events. Augustine lived in the first millennium, but every historical period has its own characteristic features.
The third view, popular among all kinds of dispensationalists,6 fails to do justice to the prophetic significance of Revelation for every age; moreover, it is strongly oriented to Western culture and history.
The fourth view does not account for the moment of recognition the first readers would have had: the seven churches of Asia Minor. In a more general sense, it deprives the book of Revelation of its concrete relevance for all time.
In short, none of these four perspectives does full justice to the significance of this extraordinary book.
A redemptive-historical approach
The command to 'write' found in Revelation 1 might serve as the key to unlock the whole book: "Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later" (ch 1:19, with a repetition of the command already given in vs 2).
The expression 'what you have seen' encompasses the entire content of the book of Revelation; it is followed by a two-fold elaboration: 'what is now' and 'what will take place later'. There are two aspects to the whole: John is shown something that throws light on both the present and the future. 'What is now' cannot be separated from 'what will take place later'. Both aspects of the one reality are described.7
If we in this way do justice to the prophetic-apocalyptic character of Revelation, throwing light on both present and future, is becomes possible to bring together elements of truth which are present in all four of the views outlined above. In this way, we arrive at an interpretation that could be called redemptive-historical.
Proceeding from the first-century historical situation in which the Christians in Asia Minor lived, John was given an overview, in one glance, of how the church of Jesus Christ will grow and develop; how it is involved in the global conflict between good and evil, a conflict which escalates as the end-time approaches.
John's book has become a guide which, in a manner similar to the interpreting angel of the visions, guides Christian readers of all ages through all the facts and events of this world into the Kingdom of God.
The courage-inspiring perspective held before them on their way is the victory of the Lamb. Christians, especially in times of trial and oppression, must focus all their hope on him. From the beginning to the end, Revelation tells us, Jesus Christ is the one who testifies to these things (ch 1:2; 22:20). Near the end of the book, Christ himself speaks: "I am coming soon", and John responds with a believing Amen. It speaks to every reader and listener, whose response in turn encapsulates their Christian expectation for the future: "Come, Lord Jesus!" (ch 22:20).