The book of Revelation opens by telling us that its contents must take place “soon.” The time is near. But how does that work? After all, Revelation was written over 1,900 years ago!
Imagine if I wrote you a letter tomorrow and said, “Here’s a prediction of stuff that’s going to happen very soon,” and then I proceed to write about things that don’t end up happening for another 2,000 years. That wouldn’t make much sense, now, would it?
If, on the other hand, I wrote about things that were going to start happening next week but would also take a while before they all finish coming to pass, that would make more sense — so long as it all impacts how you’re going to live your life after reading this letter tomorrow!
That’s how Revelation works. It’s a letter containing an apocalyptic prophecy about the end times — which began with Jesus and last all the way until his return.
Yes, you read that right. Did you know we’ve been in the last days since 33 A.D.?
We see this point emphasized all throughout the New Testament:
- Paul tells us that the end of the ages has come upon us believers (1 Cor 10:11).
- The author of Hebrews and the apostle Peter both present the life and ministry of Christ as the inauguration of the last days (Heb 1:2; 9:26; 1 Pet 1:20). Peter goes on to explain Christian suffering & persecution as part of the end-times trials already begun (1 Pet 4:7, 17).
- James critiques the wealthy in his day for storing up riches “in the last days” (Jas 5:1-3), and views Christ’s return as imminent (5:8-9).
- In addition to Christ’s ministry and the indwelling of the Spirit, the New Testament presents the arrival of false teachers and false messiahs as another indicator that the last days are already here (2 Tim 3:1-9; 1 John 2:18; compare 2 Pet 3:3 with Jude 4, 17-19).
And when we start reading Revelation, John says he’s already our “partner in the tribulation” (Rev 1:9). So, Revelation is always applicable to right now for the church because, according to the New Testament, we’re already in the last days. The end times have already begun, and they continue to unfurl.
Consider what scholars have said about Revelation’s language of taking place “soon”:
Verse 1 “connotes neither the speedy manner in which the Daniel prophecy is to be fulfilled nor the mere possibility that it could be fulfilled at any time, but the definite, imminent time of fulfillment, which likely has already begun in the present. …The focus of ‘quickness’ and ‘nearness’ in vv 1-3 is primarily on inauguration of prophetic fulfillment and its ongoing aspect, not on nearness of consummated fulfillment, though the latter is secondarily in mind as leading from the former.” — G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) 181-82, emphasis added.
“The expected signs have already been set in motion by the Lamb’s victory (ch. 6), and the climax in the ‘desolating sacrilege’ . . . and the coming of the Son of Man (19:11ff.) is at hand.” — J. P. M. Sweet, Revelation (Westminster, 1979), 58.
“The language of imminence intends to draw the reader into a sense of expectation and responsibility, a sense meant to characterize every age of the church. . . . In salvation history the events indicated in the book have already begun to ‘come to pass’ and await the final consummation.” — Grant Osborne, Revelation (Baker, 2002) 55.
In other words, just as there’s an “already and not-yet” aspect to God’s Kingdom, I believe there’s an “already and not-yet” to Revelation. It has already begun, it is happening now, and it is yet to be finished.
John’s vision of the end is inaugurated in the church (in our present tribulations, in Christ’s judgments throughout history, in the fall of Rome), but it is not yet consummated with the final fulfillment (final tribulation, final Antichrist, and the final, ultimate return of Christ and day of judgment).
The book of Revelation, therefore, is not just about the final end of history, but about the entire church age leading up to the end. We’re going to get a glimpse — a revelation — of the spiritual conflicts we are a part of, and of how they’re eventually going to be resolved.
Now, for those who struggle with the idea that the “last days” and the visions of Revelation could last for two thousand years after Christ’s ministry, the apostle Peter presents an important perspective: God’s reckoning of time is different from ours, and the delay is due to his patience and desire that more people would repent (see 2 Pet 3:8-9). The long delay has a missional purpose.
From another angle, the “nearness” of Christ’s return and of the consummation of Revelation’s final predictions can also be understood as a “‘nearness’ with respect to the next major event to occur in the redemptive-historical program of God” (Beale, Revelation, 1135; see also Buist Fanning, Revelation [Zondervan, 2020], 75). Bringing about the final fulfillment of Revelation’s visions is the next item on God’s calendar, and what feels like ages to us is barely a blip for him. We must always be ready to meet him.
Lastly, keep in mind also what Jesus said to his earliest disciples when they asked about the timing of the End: only the Father knows (Mark 13:32). And so even John’s Apocalypse does not nail down a date for Christ’s return within John’s generation or within the Roman Empire’s history.