Revelation & Readiness: The last book of the Bible was the last book to be added to the Bible. It’s not because the book is not of first-century apostolic provenance and doctrine, but because in the early church, as in every age, the visionary prophecy of “the Revelation of Saint John the Divine” about the end of the world has stirred unsettling and sometimes irrational “end time” excitements. Likewise, in the 16th century reformation, when the whole of Scripture was appointed to be read in public worship over the course of a year, the book of Revelation was pointedly excluded; and in the most popular translation of the 16th century, the Geneva Bible, it was encased in an annotational carapace that sometimes took up more space on the page than the text it was commenting on!
In succession to medieval commentators, early modern Protestants read Revelation as a symbolic prophecy of the entire history of the church down to the second coming of Christ—but with the
Roman papacy identified as the Antichrist. In response to this “historicist” readings, the Jesuits developed two other readings of Revelation, the “preterist” (it deals with events primarily of the 1st century) and “futurist” (it deals with the events leading up to Christ’s second coming). The best known approach today is a 19th century mutation of this “historicist” reading welded together with a “futurist” reading, in the “dispensation-al” theology popularized by the best-selling Scofield Reference Bible; and more recently by the “Left Behind” novels and movies. (It’s called “dispensational” because it teaches that history is divided into different phases or “dispensations” in which God acts with humanity in different ways) In this view, Revelation is a kind of divinely inspired predictive cryptogram, which when correctly decoded, supplies a linear timeline of historical events leading up the second coming. It is notorious that no one seems to agree on just how to decode that cryptogram, or what specific events are the fulfilment of specific prophecies, and its preachers are often given to a kind of “newspaper exegesis” focused on contemporary events in the Middle East.
Though dispensationalism of this kind is common in popular preaching and teaching, in the world of orthodox scholarship it has little traction. Unlike dispensationalism, which switches between symbolism and literalism, they read Revelation entirely as visionary symbolism, whose meaning is established primarily by scripture itself, and not by historicist speculation. With differences of emphasis and detail, their approach is a mix of three approaches. It is “preterist” (from the Latin word “before”), reading Revelation in the context of the first century church’s circumstances, and especially the threat of persecution by the pagan empire; it is “futurist”, reading it as a prediction of Christ’s second coming; and it is “spiritual” or “idealist”, reading its prophecies as applicable to the church in every age, with no specific fulfilment in one time or event. So it does not read Revelation as a prediction of a linear timeline of specific historic events. Rather, as in other prophecies in Scripture, the imminent historic crisis of the first-century Church is seen by the prophet as a type (template or pattern) and prelude to the final judgment, the two being telescoped together without regard for chronology. We find a similar “telescoping” in the Lord’s Olivet discourse (Luke 21, Matthew 24, Mark 13): Christ addresses both the imminent destruction of Jerusalem by the legions of Rome, and his second coming.
Something similar happens in Revelation: it is in light of Christ’s second coming (the “futurist” aspect), that the crisis of the prophet’s own first-century historical moment is understood (the “preterist” aspect) but in terms that illuminate the trials and hopes of the Church in every intervening age (the “spiritual” or “idealist” aspect). In the first century, as in every age, and at the end of history, demonic power rises up against the frail and sometimes faithless Church, but the Lord puts forth his strength, and his kingdom prevails. Revelation thus serves as a challenge and encouragement to embattled Christians facing a hostile world.
What then of historicist readings like dispensationalism? Perhaps we can say this: that in every age, the signs are always propitious for the end of the age, and of the coming of Christ. “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father” (Mark 13:32). “Therefore be ye ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh” (Matthew 24:44). Which means, I think, that we do not need, nor has God given us, an encrypted prediction of the endtime. The readiness is all we need.
This essay was published in St. John’s Parish Paper on May 7, 2023. Image: WikiArt.org.