The Book of Revelation in Biblical Context

To begin our journey of understanding the Book of Revelation, we need to place this last book of the Bible in the larger context of the other books of the Bible. John’s message in Revelation does not contradict the larger revelation from God. Rather, it complements it, although in some unique ways. In particular, we need to know what it means to live between God’s redemptive actions rooted in the first and final comings of Christ.

Does John’s Revelation sound a discordant note when compared with the other biblical works? Is he out of tune with the other books of the Bible and their teachings about God and His people? Is he marching to the beat of a different drummer?

Some would argue that John’s voice ought to be heard above all others. The songs he sings and the instruments he plays ought to dominate those sung and played by others. His solo, so to speak, is the most important one in the symphony of Scripture; his work provides the key to understanding the entire Bible.

Even though this point of view is a dominant one in certain parts of the church, there are other viewpoints. It is well known that Martin Luther dismissed the book’s importance because he did not find Christ in it. Neither he nor John Calvin wrote commentaries on Revelation. Another perspective is that Revelation is certainly not as important as other books found in Scripture; not much is missed if it is not preached or taught.

The goal of this study is to show how the Book of Revelation enriches the message of the other books of the Bible without looking down at them or elevating “Revelation” above all other books.

Revelation complements the other biblical authors who write about Christ’s final coming. John occupies a key chair in the orchestra that plays the symphony of God’s Word. Indeed, the decision made by early Christians to place it as the last book of Scripture is fitting. The whole Bible with its emphasis on creation, covenant, Christ, church, and other themes reaches its crescendo in the final book’s message about the consummation (i.e., Christ’s final coming and the end of the world). Scripture closes with what it means to live as God’s people in a hostile and seductive world, between Christ’s first and final comings, while anticipating a new heaven and a new earth free from the presence of evil and the curse of sin.

When we study a book of the Bible, or even a specific passage, it is necessary to see how the book or passage fits with the rest of Scripture. This task is called canonical exegesis. “Exegesis” is to draw out the meaning of a biblical text and explaining it. “Canon” refers to the list of books viewed as Scripture. Therefore, canonical exegesis seeks to determine the contribution a passage or book makes to the whole of Scripture. In other words, we seek to see the connectedness between Bible books or between a passage and the rest of Scripture.

We usually make connections between the individual books of the Bible without giving much thought. For example, we readily connect 1 and 2 Samuel or 1 and 2 Thessalonians. We link the books of the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) or the prophetic books associated with particular periods in Israel’s history, such as the eighth–century B.C. prophets Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Isaiah. We do this with Matthew, Mark, and Luke when we identify them as the “synoptic gospels” (“synoptic” means “to have a common view” with regard to their telling the story of Jesus) or with the writings of Paul that are called the prison epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon). These examples emphasize canonical exegesis on what may be called a micro level. What we need to do, of course, is see how all of the writings fit in with God’s revelation as a whole, that is, the macro level. For example, how do the books of the New Testament fit in with those associated with the Old?

How do we apply the notion of canonical exegesis to Revelation? Does it stand apart from the rest of the Bible, either to be ignored or to be used as the lens through which we read all other Scripture? I believe that neither position is ultimately valid. Instead, we should focus on how the five documents associated with John are connected and then ask how Revelation, in particular, is linked with the rest of Scripture. John’s works can be viewed from the following perspective. The Gospel of John is a book about faith, the letters (or epistles) of John are about love, and the book of Revelation is about hope—the confident certainty that God will judge and reward or punish.

But what about Revelation’s connection with the other documents found in Scripture, especially the New Testament? How does it fit in with the other biblical writings? I believe that John’s message fits in with the larger biblical message—that God desires and acts to bring people back into proper relationship with him through Christ—even though its literary style may jar some of us. John’s book has a unique style that affects the way he communicates God’s message, but that makes it no less authoritative.

How, then, does Revelation fit in with the rest of Scripture? For sake of space, I want to focus in particular on John’s connection with three themes in the New Testament: “the last days” (and synonyms such as “last times”), “eschatology,” and the relationship between “the already and the not yet.” When properly defined, these ideas can help us see how John’s message fits in with other biblical authors. But there is danger in using these expressions. For example, there is risk in using the phrase “the last days” because it is frequently used in a narrow way, at least on a popular level. Also there is peril in using the word “eschatology” because its meaning is often vague, and even when it is defined, it is usually used in a restricted way, on both popular and scholarly levels.

The Last Days

Many refer to “the last days” as a period immediately before the final coming of Christ. However, through the centuries, countless Christians have felt they were living in the last days: They expected Christ to return in their lifetime. This can be healthy if Christians do not get caught up in “date–setting” but live with a sense of expectancy that Christ can come anytime. Truly, His final coming is possible any day.

Unfortunately, however, we often hear today that we are the generation living right before Christ comes to establish His kingdom. Many times we hear preachers say we are the end–time generation or we are living in the last days. No doubt, other believers in previous generations felt the same way. But is this the language we should be using? I think not.

When we look at the use of the phrase in the New Testament, we must conclude that we have been living in “the last days” since the first coming of Christ. By using a concordance of the Bible, we can see that there are several places where the notion of “the last days” or “the last times” is used only in this sense (Acts 2:17; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; James 5:3; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:3; 1 John 2:18; Jude 18). Except for 1 Pet. 1:5 where the phrase “the last time” (note the singular “time”) refers to the final scene of this age, the phrase “the last days” is never used to speak of the time immediately preceding an appearance of Christ. The “last days” or “the last times” are leading up to the time of the Final Judgment. That event is described in a number of ways: the end of the age (Matt. 13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20), the end (Matt. 10:22; 1 Cor. 1:8; 10:11; 15:24; Heb. 3:14; 6:11; 1 Pet. 4:7; Rev. 2:26), the day (Matt. 25:13), the day of the Lord (1 Cor. 1:8; 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; Phil. 2:16; 1 Thess. 5:2), the day of God (2 Pet. 3:12), the great day (Acts 2:20; Jude 6; Rev. 6:17), the day of wrath (Rom. 2:5; Rev. 6:16–17), the day of judgment (Matt. 10:15; 11:22, 24; 2 Pet. 2:9; 3:7; 1 John 4:17), the day of redemption (Eph. 4:30), and the last day (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:24).

Let me highlight three individuals who stress that Christians in the first century lived in “the last days.” First, consider Peter’s sermon following the ascension of Christ. On the day of Pentecost, upon the giving of the Holy Spirit, Peter announced to the crowds that the display of the work of the Spirit was to be fulfilled in “the last days” (Acts 2:17), a reference to Joel 2:28ff. Nearly thirty years later he describes the same period as “the last times” (1 Pet. 1:20; see also 1:5; 2 Pet. 3:3). In other words, be it 30 years or 2,000 years later, we are still living in the last days.

Second, in Paul’s thinking, humanity is heading toward “the end” (1 Cor. 1:8). But the time between Christ’s first coming and the end is a period designated “the latter times” or “the last days” (1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1).

Third, St. Paul in Hebrews places himself in the last days. In Hebrews 9:27–28 he refers to Christ’s first coming, summed up in the reference to his sacrificial death (Hebrews 9:27), along with Christ’s appearing “a second time.” This is the only place in the Bible where the adjective “second” is used with Christ’s final coming. At Christ’s final coming, he will “bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). This fits in with the opening verses of the document where the author refers to God’s past spokespersons, the prophets (Hebrews 1:1). He then writes that God has spoken decisively in Jesus: “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:2).

I am regularly asked if I believe that we are living in the last days. I answer with a decisive “Yes! We have been living in the last days for nearly two thousand years.” There is usually an acknowledgement (“Well, yes!”) followed by another inquiry: “But do you believe that we are living in the very last days?” My response? The Bible does not provide an answer to that question because it does not use such language, and it would be presumptuous of me to answer a question the Bible does not pretend to answer. Besides, I do not want to outdo Christ (Matt. 24:36)!

So, even though many refer to “the last days” as a period immediately before the final coming of Christ, the witness of New Testament Scripture is that we are living in it now, have been for two thousand years, and will be until Christ returns. Events associated with “the last days” cannot, therefore, be narrowly ascribed to the period just before the return of Christ. We must view Revelation’s contribution in light of this, namely that the book was written to challenge and comfort Christians no matter how long “the last days” last.

Eschatology

The use of the term “eschatology” frequently creates confusion because of a failure to define it clearly. Moreover, this term never appears in Scripture, it is frequently used by scholars to describe the events associated with Christ’s final coming, ironically like the phrase “the last days.”

The term comes from two Greek words, “eschatos” which means “last” and “logos” which means “word,” “teaching,” or “study.” Eschatology, then, is the teaching concerning “the last things” or “the study of the last things.” Defining what constitutes “the last things,” however, can be quite slippery. Sometimes the word is used in a narrow sense to refer to death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

Others use it in a broader sense, saying that it also includes the nature of the Kingdom of God, especially as it relates to the history of the world, the coming of Christ, the end of time, and the surrounding events like the Final Judgment. The Greek word “parousia”, meaning “coming,” “arrival,” or “presence,” often refers to the final coming of Jesus (1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:3; James 5:7; 2 Pet. 1:16; 3:4; and 1 John 2:28).

In theology books, the topic of eschatology is usually covered at the very end; after all other major doctrines have been discussed. This is done apparently because the narrow definition of the term has been adopted.

Similarly, many who focus their study on the book of Revelation evaluate its eschatology from a narrow perspective. For example, some demonstrate a misconception when they argue that most of the book deals with the events immediately preceding a coming of Christ to reign on the earth for one thousand years.

But I believe the topic of eschatology should not be defined so narrowly. The last days and eschatology can be used to help us place Revelation in the larger context of Scripture. I suggest that together these terms deal with God’s acts of redemption, especially those associated with the first and final comings of Christ and everything that happens between these two momentous events. In other words, the concepts should not be used in a narrow way to refer either to events immediately preceding an earthly reign of Christ or to the Final Judgment. Ultimately, “eschatology” has to do not with “the last things” but with the person of Jesus Christ, who is the First and the Last (Rev. 1:17). Later, I will discuss how the book of Revelation fulfills one of its greatest purposes: to help the first–century Christians, and all Christians through the subsequent centuries, live responsible lives between Christ’s first and final comings.

The Already and the Not Yet

I must develop the concept in the title of this section gradually. This will permit us to see how John’s writing fits in with the rest of the New Testament. An analogy first offered by a theologian decades ago is helpful. God has revealed himself in history through a series of redemptive acts. For the Old Testament believer, the midpoint of history lay in the future, but for the New–Testament–era disciples and succeeding ones, this midpoint now lies in the past. The first coming of Jesus is the great midpoint of history; it lies behind us.

Scripture clearly teaches that Christ has already won the victory (1 Cor. 15:1ff.; Eph. 1:15ff.; Col. 2:15; and Heb. 2:14ff.). The crucial battle has been fought and won in the incarnation and the resurrection. The cease–fire is yet future. Jesus’ followers continue to fight against the principalities and powers (Eph. 6:10ff.) until he comes again to bring about the final end of the war. We do not know how long the warfare will continue. As we battle the forces of evil, we also witness in the shadow of Christ’s victory on the cross and his ultimate victory to be achieved at the final coming. We fight with the conviction that someday all weapons will be placed at the feet of Jesus. This concept should encourage all believers. It can also exhort all to be faithful to Jesus and his cause.

We live in the overlap of two ages, this present age and the age to come. We already live in the new age, and yet we do not fully live in the new age since Christ’s final coming has not yet occurred.

We who follow Christ live “between the times.” We know that Christ is Victor and Deliverer now, but we also know that there is more to come. This fits in with the definition of “eschatology” and a proper understanding of “the last days.” The biblical notion of eschatology embraces both an “inaugurated” emphasis (we are already in the Kingdom and enjoy blessings as disciples of Jesus) and a “future” accent (we await future events like the final coming, the resurrection, the Final Judgment, the new heaven and new earth, and so forth).

I am reminded of the cartoon depicting a person walking around the city, carrying a sign that reads “The End is Near!” According to Scripture, there should be three characters carrying signs. Their messages would communicate Scripture’s testimony: The End has come! The End is near! The End has not come! We live confidently with this tension between what we already enjoy and what we do not yet possess, all with the sense of expectancy that the end is always near.

The hope of the final victory is so much the more vivid because of the unshakably firm conviction that the battle that decides the victory has already taken place.” Despite such conviction or hope, the New Testament authors did not commit themselves to any time-scale. They stressed the urgency of the time in which they lived, suggesting that we must be ready for Christ’s final coming at any time (1 Thess. 5:1ff.; Heb. 10:23ff.; 1 John 2:18ff.).

This notion of living between the times is developed in the writings of the nine authors associated with the New Testament. Actually there is not a New Testament writer, John aside for the moment, who does not speak about what it means to live between Christ’s first and final comings (e.g., Matt. 28:16–20; Mark 13:32–36; Acts 17:30–31; Titus 2:11–15; Heb. 10:19–25; James 2:1; 5:8; 1 Pet. 1:13–25; Jude 3, 14–16, 18, 21).

Consider some specific themes in which this already and not yet tension is found. Christians are already in the Kingdom, and yet they await the coming of the Kingdom in its totality (Col. 1:13–14; Rev. 11:15). Already we experience God’s presence through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but we await the complete presence of God (Eph. 1:13–14; Rev. 21:3). Already we worship, but we know that someday there will be perfect worship (Rom. 12:1; Rev. 22:3–5). Already we have fellowship with God and one another, but the perfect fellowship is yet to come (1 John 1:5–7; Rev. 21:1–22:6). Already we experience peace, joy, and love, but these will be perfect some day (Gal. 5:22–23; Rev. 22:3). Already we have experienced a resurrection, but we await a future one (Rom. 6:1–10; Rev. 20:4–6, 11–15). Already we participate in a special meal with Christ, but we await the wedding supper of the Lamb (1 Cor. 11:23–26; Rev. 19:9).

We find this theme in the writings of John as well. The tension between the now and the not yet is found in such passages as John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:48 and in 1 John 1:2; 2:18, 22, 28; 3:2–3. We already have eternal life, but we await the total fulfillment of eternal life (John 6:26ff.; 11:25; 12:23ff.; 14:1ff.). We already receive blessings because we belong to Christ, but we anticipate even richer blessings at his coming.

In Revelation, John writes about the victory that Christ has won in the past (Revelation 1:5, 18; 5:5–7, 9–10; 12:1–4, 7–12), as well as the final victory at the final coming (Revelation 1:7; 6:12–17; 7:1–17; 11:15–19; 16:15–21; 19:1–21; 20:7–15; 22:7, 12, 20). Reflect on the following examples in the next few paragraphs:

  • In (Revelation 1:5–8) there is a clear reference to Christ’s first coming (v. 5 announces that he is the one who is “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” and the one who “has freed us from our sins”). There is also mention of Christ’s final coming in Rev. 1:7 (“Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him”). Wedged between the references to the past and the future is a call to Christians to realize that now they are part of the Kingdom and now they are priests who belong to God (Rev. 1:6).
  • The theme of the kingdom and Christians reigning is an important one (1:9; 5:10; 11:15; 12:10; 16:10; 20:4, 6; 22:5, and so forth), as well as the imagery of Christians being priests who serve God (1:6; 5:10; 20:6; see also 3:12; 7:14; 22:3).
  • Further, consider the structure of the messages to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3. The descriptions of Christ found at the beginning of each communication draw from the vision in Rev. 1:12ff., one that is rooted in the first coming of Christ and all that He accomplished when He lived on earth, along with the ongoing consequences of his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Each message ends with a promise concerning the future where final victory and blessing will be experienced. Between the two comings, the followers of Jesus are called upon to overcome such temptations as doctrinal error, immorality, idolatry, and complacency and such pressures as rejection and persecution. The term translated “to the one who overcomes” has a military background.
Finally, we can ponder this scheme from another vantage point. The following passages focus on the tension of living a life in the middle, that is, a life between the two comings of Christ as depicted in Revelation:

  • Because of Christ’s first coming, how much richer are we than the Old Testament people of God (1 Pet. 1:10–12)! Even though we enjoy blessings now because of Christ (Rev. 1:5ff.; 2:9; 3:7ff.; 5:9ff.; 12:10), there is still the “not yet.” We still are not free from sin (2:4ff., 14ff., 20ff.; 3:1ff., 15ff.; 18:4), and many Christians still suffer even to the point of dying for Christ (1:9ff.; 6:9ff.; 11:1ff.; 12:11; 13:9–10; 14:13; 17:6; 20:4–6). And yet we anticipate even richer blessings (7:9ff.; 21:1ff.), looking forward to a new heaven and earth where there will be no evil or sin (20:11ff.; 21:1–22:6).
  • Any signs John provides with regard to the final coming of Christ are sufficiently ambiguous to keep us living as if Christ’s coming is possible any day, even if we do not know the timing (Rev. 3:3; Rev. 16:15). As one reads through Revelation, it appears as if the world will grow increasingly worse (e.g., Rev. 16:16ff.; Rev. 20:7ff.), that there will be a succession of evil kingdoms in the image of Rome leading up to the end. In the meantime, the church is reminded of its responsibility to worship and witness and make war against the forces of evil as it waits for Christ to come. I believe there are hints that the conflict will intensify before Jesus’ final coming (Rev. 20:7ff.), but it is difficult to speculate when it will occur (or even if it is occurring in our time).
  • In Revelation, the disciple’s life is one of imitating the life of Christ, a life that bears faithful witness to God (Rev. 1:2, 9; Rev. 6:9; Rev. 11:7; Rev. 12:11, 17; Rev. 19:10; see also 14:4ff.) while also acknowledging that the disciple will not achieve perfection in this life. Nevertheless, there is a persistent pressing on in the pilgrimage (Rev. 2:10; Rev. 17:14; Rev. 22:11). John summarizes the Christian life in terms of salvation as a past fact, a present duty, and a future hope. Because Christ has saved us (1:5b) and because someday that salvation will be complete (Rev. 19:1ff.), Christians must be faithful in living out the implications of their salvation.
There will be conflict between Christ’s first and final comings. The conflict involves God and his servants and the Dragon and his servants. Accordingly, Revelation was written to help Christians remain loyal to Christ, a notion that we will explore more fully in the chapters dealing with genre and the historical setting.

This reminds us that the numerous references to Christ’s final coming in Scripture are not there to satisfy our curiosity about the future or enable us to work out a detailed schedule leading up to the end of the world. After all, hasn’t there been consistent failure on the part of those who have made such attempts? Then what is the main purpose of those references? The New Testament writings teach that the present and future are secure in the hands of God because of his faithfulness in the past. What more did the original recipients need to know, be it those who read Romans or those who heard Revelation? For that matter, what more do we today need to know? What matters is the certainty of God’s triumph when Christ is confessed as Lord and the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord, rooted in the first coming of Christ. His return is certain regardless of our knowing the time of the event.

There is a common theme found in passages that speak about Christ’s coming a second time. It is especially applicable to the book of Revelation: Whenever and wherever Scripture speaks about Christ’s final coming, its purpose is always to challenge Christians with regard to belief and behavior or to provide comfort. As disciples, we are called to worship God as creator and redeemer and to offer faithful witness to him. When we face trials, we should be comforted by the conviction that God still reigns and that he will have the final word concerning evil. We are to live lives that reflect that God has come and that he is coming again. So whenever we come across a passage addressing the final coming of Christ, we should look for a word of comfort or a word of challenge, or perhaps a bit of both.

The Bible is, both biblically and literarily speaking, significantly more rich with Revelation. The trumpets that are sounded and the harps that are plucked are in tune. The whole book is in accord with the whole of Scripture.

Revelation provides a grand, symphonic finale to the Bible taken as a book or as one great narrative. And it corresponds nicely to Genesis. You have “protology” (the first things) and “eschatology” (the last things). Even though God’s purposes in the beginning were defiled by sin, God will have his way. In the beginning there was the garden (Gen. 2:8), the tree of life (Gen. 2:9), and a bride and a groom (Gen. 2:21–25), and so there will be when Christ comes a final time (Rev. 22:1–5). In the beginning there was the serpent (Gen. 3:1–4, 14); in the end, the serpent will be crushed (Rev. 12:9; 20:10).

If we are truly followers of Jesus the Lamb, we must listen to the lyrics he has provided John. We have heard enough when God ceases to speak; we have learned enough when we have learned to do his will.

[Quoted and edited from: Lowery, R. (2006). Revelation's rhapsody : Listening to the lyrics of the lamb : How to read the book of Revelation. Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co.]