As real as the allure of evil and the appetite for destruction is the human fascination with predicting the time and nature of the end. Christians have played the “guess when the end of time is” game for centuries with very poor results. The Revelation has repeatedly been pulled into this ongoing fiasco, often being combined with other texts (such as Daniel, Jeremiah, and Mark 13) to construct a timeline of the final days. In my view, this wrongheaded approach to the Revelation arises from a misunderstanding of the prophetic nature of the book. To be sure, the Revelation is prophecy (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). Yet, biblical prophecy is not, as is so often assumed, mere “prediction.” In fact, the predictive component is a small (and usually contingent) part of prophecy. Prophets spoke into their present situation, diagnosing the spiritual pulse of their people and calling for a response in the present (either repentance if God’s people had moved off the tracks or endurance if they were being faithful but taking it on the chin). Predictions were a subordinate part of this process. If the proper response was not forthcoming given the call of the prophet, then fateful predictions loomed on the horizon. A shorthand way of making this point is to say the prophets were more forthtellers than foretellers. Misunderstanding prophecy as primarily prediction sets us up to read the Revelation incorrectly. We bring the wrong expectations to the text. We expect the Revelation to be primarily about predicting future events.
If the Revelation as a prophetic text is not primarily about predicting the future, what is it doing? It’s doing what all prophetic literature did – calling for a response of faithfulness to God, a confession of faith in him and him alone as Lord, and a rejection of all other false worship. The primary question that the text raises is not “When will he come back?” but “Whom shall you worship?” It is not a question of dates and signs as much as it is a question of faithfulness to the right Lord. The original readers (the seven churches addressed in Rev 2-3) were tempted to treat the mighty Roman Empire (and the emperor at its head) as the source of blessing and salvation. They were tempted to worship the emperor, the empire, and all the trappings that went with it. The temptation was real because the emperor and the empire saw themselves as lord, savior, provider, and protector. This is what made the emperor or the empire an “anti-Christ” figure (the word “anti” in Greek can mean “in place of”).
What was a present tense challenge in the first century AD is still a present tense challenge for Christians in the 21st century. Even if there is a final “anti-Christ” character looming at the end of time, every generation has its candidates for anti-Christ, pretenders to the throne of God. We too are tempted to trust in (i.e., worship) things and people that aren’t God. We’re still tempted to treat our government, our nation, our military, our economy, and a host of other things or people as God. Understood in this way, the ongoing relevance of the Revelation to our present situation becomes clear. We must ask, “What in our lives calls for the obedience and worship that only rightly belongs to God?” Whom or what do we “confess” as Lord and Savior? Preoccupation with dates and playing the prediction game takes our focus away from the relevant and present question of faithfulness today. Once again the three senses of focal can be seen: the church has spent a lot of time preoccupied with dates and predicting the future, making texts thought to contain these clandestine data focal points, resulting in a reading strategy that reads the whole book in an attempt to decode the hidden temporal predictions. But the book is primarily about worshiping rightly. It is about maintaining the right confession.
In terms of practical advice for changing our focus with regard to our response, preachers and teachers do well to remind the faithful of the sorry track record of end time predictions. I often joke with my students that end-time predictions are like making wrong turns with your GPS turned on – you often hear the word “recalculating”! When asked about the time of the end, Jesus himself offered a twofold response: “I don’t know” (Mark 13:32) and “be ready” (Mark 13:33-37), words it behooves us to heed. Just as grasping the nature of apocalyptic literature helps with the Revelation’s symbolic language, so too a better grasp of the nature of prophecy can help the church understand the relevance of the Revelation for the here and now.
In driving home the point that prophecy does not equate to predication, I’ve found it useful to point out a small detail in Rev 1:3. The verse reads: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (ESV, emphasis mine; NLT has “obey” instead of “keep”). But how does one “keep” (or “obey”) a prediction? We speak, rather, of “keeping the faith” (2 Tim 4:7) and “keeping/obeying God’s commandments” (Matt 19:17). We keep the prophetic call of the Revelation by confessing and worshipping Christ alone. However we do it, preachers and teachers must find ways to help the faithful see the present relevance of the book and to hear its present call for faithful confession.
One final note: I have contrasted the “D”s with the “C”s here, but I also see a logical connection on the vertical axes. The devil is in the business of destruction and I think would be quite delighted by the fact that the Revelation has often been confined to a determination of dates, an interpretive move that effectively moves the book into the future and diverts attention from the real focus of calling Christians to faithful confession to the one true Lord. Christ is the one who has conquered by means of his sacrificial death and invites us to conquer in a similar fashion; this emphasis involves confessing the only one true Lord and keeping all other pretenders off the thrones of our hearts. To exchange one “D” for a “C” thus prepares us to take the next step of exchange. By starting with the right focal character, we then turn toward the right focal activity, which leads us to engage with the right focal response. So let’s dump the “D”s for the “C”s and let’s get that grade up a letter!