Revelation: Living from the Future


“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and keep the things which are written in it; for the time is near,” (Rev 1:3).[1] This is how John’s Apocalypse begins.  Yet, since so much of the book of Revelation is about what lies ahead, how does that require action of the church in the present moment?  Isn’t it just information to ‘keep in mind’ until the future it predicts manifests? To answer that, consider how predictive prophecy functions in the Bible.

Prophecy in the Old Testament

First, Revelation is a prophecy (1:3) like the writings of Isaiah, Daniel and Zechariah are prophecies.  At times, Old Testament prophets wrote about future events, and other times they wrote about past or current events.  Certainly, the past reminded them of God’s faithfulness, and the present forced them to confront the issues at hand. Words about the future might offer hope, judgment, or both.  Regardless of which type of event was being proclaimed, however, there were always two things to know: The message was from God, and it was for the present moment.  Those to whom the prophets wrote, were expected to change what they were doing now based on what they were being told about the past, present or future.

For example, the theme of both the stories as well as the prophecies in Daniel is the absolute sovereignty of the God of Israel. The ‘take home’ message is that God, not the current world ruler or any leader to come, controls history.  God is sending His champion, and, however difficult life gets, in the end, it is the people of God who are given a kingdom. Therefore, the people of God, oppressed and subjugated though they were when Daniel wrote, are to remain faithful to God. The prophecies offered hope because they reminded readers that God is truly sovereign and His is the winning side. Their response should be to remain faithful to God and not compromise.

Likewise, in the 8th century B.C.E., the kings of Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel had formed an anti-Assyrian alliance.  They threatened to depose king Ahaz, of the southern kingdom of Judah, if he didn’t join them against Assyria. Ahaz was panic-stricken that Syria would invade Judah if he stood up to them. He was even more afraid, however, of Assyria, so he decided to become their vassal in hopes that they would protect Judah from Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel.  At this point, God sent the prophet Isaiah with a radical message: trust the LORD entirely and don’t make an alliance with either group.  To encourage Ahaz to make the right choice in the present moment, God gave him a word about the future.  “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel…. before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken” (Isa 7:14b, 16a).  Basically, in the time it takes for a child to be conceived, born, and be weaned, Syria and the northern kingdom will no longer be a threat. Do not do anything rash. Wait on God.  It was a future prophecy encouraging Ahaz to trust God in his present moment.  This particular prophecy, happens to have two fulfillments: one in Isaiah’s day about a young woman giving birth, and one about the coming Messiah. Both call for a response.

Prophecy for today in Revelation

Today we do much the same thing in our everyday lives.  If you tell a child that dinner is in one hour, you do not want that child to eat cookies now.  The child’s knowledge of the future is supposed to impact his or her present moment.  The child then either conforms to the implied message of “don’t ruin your supper by eating dessert now,” or decides that the benefits of the moment outweigh any negative effects in the future. Likewise, in Revelation when a voice from heaven declares, “Come out of her, my people” (18:4), readers are expected to stop participating in the materialism and immorality of their culture, or they will “receive of her plagues.”  It is not only the exhortations to repent in the messages of Rev 2 and 3 (cf. 2:16, 22; 3:3) that are to be heeded. The visionary world of chapter 18 is written to the churches as well.  Foretelling what happens in the future, it is to change the beliefs and behavior of current readers.

True in all that it reveals, Revelation—including the obvious exhortations to repent, the antiphonal worship before the throne, the dramatic scenes of judgment, and the victory of the Lamb—is intended to alter our now.  There are no sections that only pertain to people in the future with no application for us today. Instead, Revelation clarifies to which future today’s choices will lead—eternal destruction or life.  Choose life.

In the 1st century, the real danger faced by Christians wasn’t martyrdom but attraction to a pagan culture.  John is not worried about believers dying for their faith—in fact, he expects and encourages them to do that.  His concern is that they are being assimilated into a culture that opposes God. Perhaps the threat of being denounced or of suffering is causing the churches to compromise. Certainly, some have become complacent in their prosperity, their very ease testifying that they pose no threat to the surrounding anti-God culture and political system. In contrast, Revelation defines victorious Christians as those whose allegiance to Christ is so absolute that they refuse to participate in the everyday business compromises around them, willing even to die in their proclamation of Jesus.

In the 21st century, Christians are still being seduced by religious beliefs, political institutions and cultural norms that are opposed to the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  The prophetic word of Revelation is therefore still applicable today.  Frank Matera, author of New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity, writes that Revelation’s purpose “is not so much to predict the future as it is to remind listeners that God has already won the decisive victory over evil.  Consequently, those who compromise with evil and worship its representatives find themselves in opposition to God.  The future that God has prepared—the only future that really matters—belongs to those who witness to Jesus and worship God, no matter how powerful the forces of evil may be,” (Matera 2007:401). Fundamentally then, Revelation in its entirety is a prophetic word to the church today and it must not be ignored.

Action: Good questions to ask as you read Revelation are “What is the message of Jesus Christ presented in the New Testament?” and “Do my choices and words reflect allegiance to God and Christ or compromise with political institutions and surrounding culture?”

Next: The Time is Near

[1] Μακάριος ὁ ἀναγινώσκων καὶ οἱ ἀκούοντες τοὺς λόγους τῆς προφητείας καὶ τηροῦντες τὰ ἐν αὐτῇ γεγραμμένα, ὁ γὰρ καιρὸς ἐγγύς


mountain path

Expectations.  We all have them.  In fact, your initial response to this post is significantly shaped by what you bring to your reading, even before you see the first word. In order to make sense of our world, we automatically fit what we see and hear into our current understanding of the world, the universe and even God. Most of the time, this works for us.  Occasionally, however, it is important to recognize that our perspective influences our interpretation. For example, take the Book of Revelation.  If Revelation is approached as a book primarily about future events which we will never experience, then we will not take its message as seriously. It seems to have no direct bearing on today’s choices. But what if Revelation is a word from God for you now? How does this change your expectations when you read?

To begin with, Revelation is written to people who already profess Christ as Lord: 1st century Christians living in Asia Minor. This was a current word for them, not simply a message to unbelievers thousands of years later.  In fact, it is still a message for today—just as the letters of Paul both address issues in the early church and continue to speak to Christians today.

Next, Revelation, like the rest of the New Testament, assumes that suffering tribulation is part of being a Christian.  From John’s introduction of himself as a “fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance in Jesus” (1:9) until Christ comes again at the end of Revelation, believers are kept through suffering, but not necessarily from suffering.  Just as in the Old Testament, Noah is kept through the judgment of a worldwide flood, Elijah is kept through the regional drought which preceded the showdown between the Lord and the prophets of Baal, and Jerusalem is kept through the devastating Assyrian campaign through Palestine—a conflict which was triggered by Hezekiah’s faithfulness to God and resistance to Assyrian hegemony.  Then, as now, taking a stand for what is right often results in opposition.  Thus, the entire book of Revelation urges the saints to testify to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, even if it means dying.  Christians are urged to remain faithful to Jesus no matter what happens, to repent if they’ve compromised, and to remember that Christ is coming back to reward the faithful and to judge those opposed to God.  As we await Christ’s return, the message of Revelation continues to be applicable. It is still a word for the church, and it is still a word for today.  The question is, are we listening?

Action: The entire book of Revelation can be read in about two hours.  Set aside time this week to read the entire prophetic vision from beginning to end.  What does it seem to be saying as a whole?

Next: Living from the future.