As most who know me are already aware, I have a great interest in the book of Revelation and biblical eschatology. In fact, I will be writing my dissertation on the eschatology contained within Revelation using the methods of biblical theology. I believe that a proper understanding of biblical eschatology is vital for the Church in the day that we live. Biblical eschatology is important for the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement because the eschatological Church is Spirit-filled. It is also important because the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement has been so inundated by bad theology, which has created a view that destroys the reality of the Church. Therefore, the following article seeks to promote a healthy and biblical view of the eschatology contained within the book of Revelation.
The Role of Jesus in Eschatology
The most noticeable theme of eschatology within Revelation is the role of Jesus. In fact, some theologians have argued that from the very beginning of Revelation Jesus is not only the subject but the author who reveals the truth to John through mediating angels. The message of Revelation is therefore seen as the testimony of Jesus Christ. The repeated theme within the letter is the witness of Jesus’ person, work, and fulfillment of God’s mission. For John, Jesus is the beginning and the end of eschatological understanding. Therefore, in the prologue he can say that this is the revelation from Jesus Christ, which the Father gave to him in order that he might show his servants what would soon happen.
From the beginning of the Revelation, John starts with a doxology which centers on Christ and begins with a threefold celebration of his redemptive work. Jesus is the one who is the faithful witness, first born from the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth (1:5). Through his work he has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us to be a kingdom of priests unto God the Father (1:5b-6). The eschatology of Revelation thus begins with the cross as the foundation of everything that is to be revealed.
John’s message concerning the faithful witness seems to correlate with his use of witnesses in his gospel which confirm the truth of the message. However, in Revelation the main witness to testify of the truthfulness of John’s message is Jesus himself. It is through Jesus’ witness that John expounds upon the central message of Revelation that Jesus is the prototype for those who would be raised with Christ in victory. Jesus is presented as the one who is sovereign over both life and death. The case is thus made in Revelation that Jesus is the eschatological fulfillment of the messianic expectation. However, the majority of the emphasis of John focuses on the sovereignty of theGodhead because at this point Jesus’ messianic fulfillment is accepted fact within the Church.
John focuses his letter to seven churches within Asia which have been enduring persecution. Therefore, his emphasis must necessarily be on the sovereignty of God over all powers which would come against the Church and the witness of Jesus. However, John uses the occasion to give several key insights of deep Christology. For instance, John portrays a threefold reality of the work of Christ in that his present love is exemplified in his past sacrifice and released us from our sin while also making us a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. John draws directly from Exodus 19:6 to pull out the image of a realized eschatological occurrence. To John, Jesus has already brought the eschatological fulfillment of the messiah which in turn has commissioned the Church to be a faithful witness.
Christ is presently at the “door” of each person’s heart, announcing himself and knocking. This picture of Jesus knocking at the door may reflect Song 5:2, where the beloved is knocking at the door and requesting entrance. However, there is a condition to this invitation in that Christ requires a personal response. Jesus is the visitor at the doorknocking; the person must respond by opening the door and allowing him admittance. Only then can the fellowship begin with the sharing of a meal. Through this beautiful illustration John eloquently lays out the missional purpose of the message in Revelation. Jesus is the Messiah who calls all to repentance and fellowship, but who will also judge righteously.
John further exhibits a realized eschatology of the Messiah in that he points to Jesus’ victory occurring at the cross. Only God and the Lamb are worthy because God is “creator” (4:11) and the Lamb “has triumphed” (5:2-5), and this victory was achieved by his sacrificial death as the “slain Lamb” (5:6, 9, 12). It is vital to notice that the victory of the Lamb and his elevation to a place of authority occurs not at the end of Revelation but has already been achieved at the cross. In the picture of the throne room, Jesus’ victory is celebrated and not merely proclaimed. Furthermore, the door to Heaven is pictured as being open. In John 1:51 Jesus said that Heaven remained open to him, and now in Rev. 4:1 the final stages of the consummation are announced. The message is that in Christ’s ministry the eschaton began, the kingdom had arrived, and will now be completed. In other words, John shows an eschatological understanding that is both already and not yet.
Throughout much of Revelation Jesus is explained by John as the complete Messiah. In other words, John portrays Jesus as the one who pre-existed creation, the one who has already ushered in the eschaton through the cross, and the one who will bring and end to the created order. For instance, John describes Jesus as the Lion who is the conquering Lamb, who is the slain Lamb, who is at the center of the throne and is God himself (5). Some of the most powerful New Testament Christological imagery is found in Rev. 5. In essence, chapters five and six give a picture of the message of Revelation. Jesus is given authority by God the Father through his sacrifice on the cross (5:9). He has purchased the people of God by his blood sacrifice and therefore rendered himself “worthy” to lead also in judgment (6:1-2). The cross is thereby the basis of both divine love in redemption and justice in judgment.
The nature of John’s Christological “already/not yet” is found in his message concerning the cross. The paradox is that Jesus will destroy the nations but at the same time his victory will not primarily be by this future might but by his already completed work of the cross. The reality is that Revelation is not a battle for victory because the victory has already been achieved through the cross. The work of Satan in Revelation is thus a feeble attempt to get as many shots in at God as he can before his allotted time is over. Jesus is thus seen as the Messiah who has already claimed victory and simply completes the fulfillment thereof. In fact, at Jesus’ baptism the heavens were “split apart” (Mark 1:10), which is also an apocalyptic symbol for the end of the age, and in Rev. 6 the heavens will be “rolled up.” Jesus’ first coming thus began the end times; this act of God will culminate the end times.
Jesus is the culmination of the eschatological event in Revelation. Throughout their persecution, the saints are reminded that they are to remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus and his sacrifice (2:17). He is seen as the judge in the wrath of God which is poured out through a concentric theme of punishments for those who have rejected him(6:1-2). Jesus is the conqueror who rules with “a rod of iron” (19:15). He is the fulfillment of all the Davidic messianic hope (22:11a, 15).
At the end of Revelation, Jesus is recognized as the “root and offspring of David.” He is also referred to as “the bright morning star,” alluding to Num. 24:17. In 2:28 this messianic glory was shared with the faithful followers and also referred to as the victory of the Warrior Messiah over his enemies. Thus the nature of Jesus’ messianic glory is not only revealed, but also his great power over evil. Christ has already won the victory and therefore the future is securely in his hands. Therefore, John’s eschatological outlook in Revelation on the role of Jesus is best expressed as the complete fulfillment of the biblical expectation of the Messiah for the past, present, and future. It is thus through the reality of Christ’s present victory that the Church must remain a faithful community that does not lose hope through earthly circumstances and proclaims the Gospel to the end.
The Role of the Church in Eschatology
The role of the Church in John’s Revelation of Christ can be seen mainly in the first section in which he writes to the seven churches of Asia and in the passages concerning Jesus’ interaction with the saints. For John, the role of the Church in Revelation is emphatically linked with perseverance and the mission of the Gospel in proclaiming the realization of Jesus’ victory and judgment. In his letter, John is mainlyconcerned over the Church’s ability to overcome the persecutions from those who follow Satan. Therefore, he is prompted to call on the representative churches to live decisively and completely for God because “the time is near.”
Revelation was not to be considered by the churches to be simply apocalyptic but as prophetic-apocalyptic. Its purpose is not merely to outline the future intervention of God or to portray the people of God symbolically in light of that divine reality, but to call the saints to accountability on that basis. This was to be a prophetic book of warning as well as a comfort to the Church. The Church is to understand that Jesus will greatly reward all who endure for the sake of the Gospel and will punish justly those who do not. Therefore, the Church’s role in the eschatological theme of Revelation is not only to be a witness of the Gospel through word but deed also.
John’s first order of business regarding the role of the Church is to emphasize the saints current place in the heavenly order. In spite of the persecution and suffering that the saints are enduring, John wants them to know that they already inhabit a high position with Christ before God. The world is now in seeming control, but Christ has already entered the world and as a result of his love has freed them from the burdens of their sins and made them part of his kingdom, in which they are both royalty and priests. Their reign with him has already begun, even though it is yet to be consummated.
As aforementioned, John tells the Church that those who are willing to hear and overcome even through persecution would be given “a crown of life” (2:10). In addition to the “crown of life,” believers can expect to be given spiritual manna from Heaven and a new name which symbolizes their unity with Christ. Furthermore, the ones who endure apostasy will be given a white robe which signifies purity before God. Time and time again John portrays the message of blessing from God to all who will endure for the sake of the Gospel. Eventually, the saints of the Church will be given thrones with Christ in which to reign for eternity. Through all of these blessings John conveys the message that persecution only lasts for a moment but the victory of the believer over Satan is through taking up their cross and following in the suffering of Christ.
The most pressing problem of the Church during the time of John’s letter was the persecution that they were suffering at the hands of the Roman Empire. The Jews were apparently forcing many Christians to either face persecution or apostasy by banishing them from their synagogues. Unfortunately, many Christians had begun to despair in the misconception that God had no control over the events that were taking place, and many others were simply giving in to the imperial cult. It was to this situation that John wrote each representative church of Asia with a letter of admonition and condemnation. The message of John to the churches is that they must repent of any wickedness and continue to carry the faithful message of Christ even unto death.
However, the message to the Church is redeeming. Those that have been slain for their witness of the Gospel are later seen in Heaven singing praises to God and the Lamb. Therefore, John casts a victorious image over the saints who endure suffering for Jesus’ sake. In fact, it is the prayers of the saints that are answered in part by God’s wrath of the seals, trumpets, and bowls. The Church is seen in the vision of the throne room as fulfilling its intended purpose to an extent in that it is proclaiming praises to God and the Lamb for their worthiness and sovereignty. As priests of God we are to proclaim his glory and majesty with every fiber of our being.
Furthermore, John affirms that Christ “has made” us to be a kingship and priests. The verb is aorist or past tense, relating to Christ’s redemptive action. There is a point to be made in conjunction with this verb in the past tense of Christ’s redemptive action and its relationship to the promises of Exodus 19:6 and Isaiah 61:6. The verbs of both of these Old Testament texts are future tenses; they contain God’s promises to his people for the future. By affirming that Jesus has made us kingship and priests, John clearly sees Christ’s redemptive actions as a fulfillment of those promises of God. God is therefore faithful and sovereign in all that he does. John’s attempt is to reveal to the churches that God is aware and in control of their situation.
Jesus himself warned his followers in his eschatological discourse to expect terrible persecution from councils, synagogues, secular authorities, and even betrayal from family members resulting in death (Mark 13:9-13). However, throughout the persecution and suffering in the book, the Church is presented as a witnessing church. The true Church does not flee for their lives or compromise the Gospel in order to avoid persecution, but boldly maintains their witness in the desperate situation.
Through this idea, John goes on to say that only the saints will have the ability to stand when the judgment of God is poured out because they bear the “seal” of God. There is a continuous stream of data regarding God’s protection of his faithful followers. The programmatic promise is given to the church of Philadelphia in 3:10, “Because you have kept the teaching about my endurance, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is about to come upon the whole earth to try those who dwell on the earth.” Although the emphasis here is protection from the judgment of God and not the vindictive wrath of Satan, the saints are reassured by the message from God that they are not to fear for their future is secure (7:1-8). This idea from Revelation correlates to Jesus’ message in Matt. 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Truly the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
The fear of the Lord and not of the temporal persecutions suffered at the hands of evil is what drives the Church to continue in its mission to be a light to all nations. The reward for the perseverance is seen when the great multitude of the saints in eternity stands before the throne of God and the Lamb (7:9). At the outset, the emphasis is on the successful mission of the Church as the theme of the conversion of the nations takes shape. This idea is amplified by the two witnesses who represent the Church. The two witnesses are struck down, but they are able to rise to be with God in Heaven and affect the conversion of many to God (11). This provides a description of true discipleship: victory through sacrifice.
To John, the message of perseverance in purity and witness of Christ was of utmost importance for the role of the Church in eschatology. The reason for this emphasis is that time is short and the harvest is ripe. The Church must maintain their witness to the lost of a Christ that loves and judges. Jesus will soon be revealed as not only the Lamb but the Warrior who will come to conquer and judge all of those who reject the testimony about him. However, John also emphasizes the blessedness and the reward for all of those who choose to follow Christ. In fact, Rev. 21-22 points to this divine fulfillment of the Church’s mission. Since Adam and Eve lost their position in Paradise and sin reigned on the earth, the divine plan has prepared for the moment when sin would finally be eradicated and the original purpose of God when he created humanity could come to fruition. Every stage of the Apocalypse has pointed toward the goal that is the “new heaven and new earth.” This is the realization of the hopes and dreams of the people of God from time immemorial. This is one of the reasons the final destiny of the saints is a city; we are meant to be a community which lives in interdependence. We are one with one another and with God. Therefore, the role of the Church is considered as an agent of Christ in proclamation of his message through word and deed. The reality of the Church is one that involves living a “realized” eschatological existence while awaiting the fulfillment of the messianic kingdom. In other words, the Church is in a state of “already” and “not yet.”
Future and Present Eschatological Time Frame within John’s Revelation from Jesus
The time frame of the eschatological reality can be viewed throughout John’s Revelation letter. The majority of John’s focus is on the future due to his concern for documenting the apocalyptical vision that he receives and his emphasis on the hope of the believer. However, John does reveal his belief in a realized eschatology at several points within his writing. In any case, John clearly portrays an eschatological understanding which involves both the present reality and the future hope of all who believe in Jesus.
The most important thing to understand concerning the eschatology in Revelation is that John devotes the vast majority of his time to a future hope of fulfillment. One of the obvious examples of John’s focus can be seen in his image of the “new heavens and the new earth” (21-22). The “new heaven and new earth” appeared because the “old heaven and earth” had been destroyed. Obviously, the imagery is futuristic in that the Church does not find itself living in the fulfilled eschatological heaven and earth just yet. The present experience is but a glimpse and a taste of what the Church hopes for in the future. Though we are now living in the eschatological age or the end times, we have not yet been brought to the realm of completion. Upon the final fulfillment, the saints can look forward to reigning with Christ forever in a place where there is found no evil and the presence of the Lord is eternally with humanity.
John also points to a currently realized eschatological existence for believers. As aforementioned, he emphasizes the victory of Christ as already taken place in the work of the crucifixion(1:5a). Furthermore, the Church has already been made into kings and priests who serve God (1:5b-6). In fact, the throne room depiction is one of saints who are awaiting the number of completion of the totality of martyrs before God will punish the wickedness on the earth. However, the martyrs are given white robes which signifies their current victory over the forces of evil who killed their earthly bodies but could not harm the soul. This is the theme which John follows throughout his entire Revelation. In order to show the sovereignty of God and the truth of the witness of Jesus, he places emphasis on the fact that the cross was the victory which is now being acted upon and brought to fulfillment by God. Thus the kingdom of God is seen as both already and not yet.
In conclusion, I would say that John’s Revelation concerning Christ has much to say regarding the full spectrum of eschatological reality. The most important factor within John’s message is the realization of the person of Jesus Christ and his fulfillment. In fact, John builds the entire work around the theme of revealing the totality of Christ. John also shows how the Church is to be involved in the mission of God through the proclamation of Jesus in word and deed until the end. It is through this approach that the Church can realize the importance of reaching out to a world who is destined for judgment. The Church can also come to a better and more proper understanding of its place within the realm of God’s plan.