I realize that, from the outset, I promised that this series would be about how you can read Revelation rather than how you should read it. I have done my best to hold true to that promise, trying to offer a way for the troubled Christian to engage Revelation without being overcome by the hairsplitting nuance of Christian eschatology. This final thought will try to tread the fine line between describing a facet of the book and prescribing a hermeneutic for it. A problem arises, however, in that the final section of Revelation has something critical to say of the way that most people today read Revelation. The conclusion of the text, which traditionally ties any literary work together, specifically lends itself to something other than a strictly eschatological interpretation. In other words, John spends a great deal of time talking about the end but that vision of the future is not an end in itself. John tells us "what must soon take place" with another purpose in mind.
He is not shy about revealing that purpose to his readers either. In fact, from the beginning, John announces how he intends his readers to receive his work: "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." The sentiment is paralleled in the final passage: "And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book." What precisely does it mean to "keep" the words of a prophecy? Certainly John is not talking about merely possessing them. The NIV renders the term as "take to heart" and the NASB as "heeds." John himself gives no shortage of clues about what he means. Consider these verses which follow after the call to "keep" the words of Revelation:
-- When John falls down to praise the angel, the messenger repeats one of the central commands of the book: "Worship God."
-- "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let...the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy."
-- "Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done."
-- "Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood."
It is almost as if, realizing that he is running out of papyrus, John feels the need to hammer his point home with a quick repetition of essentially the same command: obey. In a way that ought to be telling to modern readers, John does not spend his final moments in an exposition of the cryptic future that he predicts. Instead of stressing the when and the how of Jesus' coming, he merely assumes that coming and proceeds to tell us how we should respond. "The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come." And let the one who hears say, "Come." And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price." With these words, we discover that Revelation is not a history book written cleverly in advance of the events it records. It is an invitation to the lost and an exhortation to the found. Jesus is coming soon. How will you react to that good news?
The beauty of realizing this overarching message and purpose for Revelation is that it transcends all our petty disputes. The wonderful, terrible God of judgment offers salvation to His church and solicits a response of obedience and praise from it. That message--more clearly and surely stated than any eschatological supposition--applies to the pre-millennialist and the post-millennialist alike. This preterist and the idealist are both compelled to read His glorious works and fall down at the feet of the Son of Man. The outpouring of God's wrath convicts us all, regardless of where (if anywhere) you want to locate the rapture relative to the tribulation. That is not to say that some of these issues are not mentioned in Revelation or that there discussion may not be relevant, to an extent. It is merely an effort to demonstrate that John has an intention for his text that our modern descent into polemical madness has caused us to forget--or at the very least to subordinate to petty squabbling. That Jesus is coming seems to be enough for the author and when he is coming seems to be precisely the kind of irrelevant thinking Jesus warned us against. John tells us what our first response to his text should be, and it isn't to construct an eschatological timeline. The Spirit invites us to come, to wash our robes, to persist in holiness, to worship God, and to relish the blessings we have as those who have heard and kept the words of the prophecy. "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!"
For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.