When did prophet and vision cease from Israel? Was it not when Christ came, the Holy One of holies? It is, in fact, a sign and notable proof of the coming of the Word that Jerusalem no longer stands, neither is prophet raised up nor vision revealed among them. And it is natural that it should be so, for when He that was signified had come, what need was there any longer of any to signify Him? And when the truth had come, what further need was there of the shadow? On His account only they prophesied continually, until such time as Essential Righteousness had come, Who was made the ransom for the sins of all. For the same reason Jerusalem stood until the same time, in order that there men might premediate the types before the Truth was known. So, of course, once the Holy One of holies had come, both vision and prophecy were sealed. And the kingdom of Jerusalem ceased at the same time, because kings were to be anointed among them only until the Holy of holies had been anointed. Moses also prophesies that the kingdom of the Jews shall stand until His time, saying, “A ruler shall not fail from Judah nor a prince from his loins, until the things laid up for him shall come and the Expectation of the nations Himself” [Gen. 49:10]. And that is why the Saviour Himself was always proclaiming “The law and the prophets prophesied until John” [Matt. 11:13]. So if there is still king or prophet or vision among the Jews, they do well to deny that Christ is come; but if there is neither king nor vision, and since that time all prophecy has been sealed and city and temple taken, how can they be so irreligious, how can they so flaunt the facts, as to deny Christ Who has brought it all about?
–St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 
THE TIME IS AT HAND
The question of the date of the Book of Revelation is significant for its proper interpretation. Scholars often have accepted the statement of Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202) that the prophecy appeared “toward the end of Domitian’s reign” (i.e., around A.D. 96). There is, however, considerable doubt about what Irenaeus meant by this (he may have meant that the Apostle John himself “was seen” by others). The language of Irenaeus is ambiguous; and, regardless of what he was talking about, he could have been wrong. (Irenaeus, incidentally, is the only source for this late dating of Revelation; all other “sources” are based on Irenaeus). Certainly, there are other early writers whose statements indicate that John wrote the Revelation much earlier, under Nero’s persecution. Our safest course, therefore, is to study the Revelation itself to see what internal evidence it presents regarding its date – evidence which indicates that it was written sometime before or around A.D. 68. Briefly, this proof hangs on two points: (1) Jerusalem is spoken of as still standing, and much of the book prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70; (2) the Emperor Nero is mentioned as still being alive – and Nero died in June 68. (These points and others will be demonstrated in the following chapters.)
Much more than this, however, we have a priori teaching from Scripture itself that all special revelation ended by A.D. 70. The angel Gabriel told Daniel that the “seventy weeks” were to end with the destruction of Jerusalem (Dan. 9:24-27); and that period would also serve to “seal up the vision and prophecy” (Dan. 9:24). In other words, special revelation would stop – be “sealed up” – by the time Jerusalem was destroyed. The Canon of Holy Scripture was entirely completed before Jerusalem fell.
The death, resurrection and ascension of Christ marked the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New; the apostles were commissioned to deliver Christ’s message in the form of the New Testament; and when they were finished, God sent the Edomites and the Roman armies to destroy utterly the last remaining symbols of the Old Covenant: the Temple and the Holy City. This fact alone is sufficient to establish the writing of the Revelation as taking place before A.D. 70. The book itself – as we shall see – gives abundant testimony regarding its date; but, even more, the nature of the New Testament as God’s Final Word tells us this. Christ’s death at the hands of apostate Israel sealed their fate: the Kingdom would be taken from them (Matt. 21:33-43). While wrath built up “to the utmost” (1 Thess. 2:16), God stayed His hand of judgment until the writing of the New Covenant document was accomplished. With that done, He dramatically terminated the kingdom of Israel, wiping out the persecuting generation (Matt. 23:34-36; 24:34; Luke 11:49-51). Jerusalem’s destruction (Rev. 11) was the last blast of the trumpet, signaling that the “mystery of God” was finished (Rev. 10:7). There would be no further special revelation once Israel was gone. To return to the point: the Book of Revelation definitely was written before A.D. 70, and probably before A.D. 68.
John addressed the Revelation to the seven important churches in Asia Minor, and from these it received a wide distribution. Asia Minor was significant because the cult of Caesar-worship is dealt with at length in the prophecy – and Asia Minor was a major center of Caesar-worship. “Inscription after inscription testifies to the loyalty of the cities towards the Empire. At Ephesus, at Smyrna, at Pergamum, and indeed throughout the province the Church was confronted by an imperialism which was popular and patriotic, and bore the character of a religion. Nowhere was the Caesar-cult more popular than in Asia” (H.B. Swete, Commentary on Revelation [Kregel, 1977], p. lxxxix).
After Julius Caesar died (29 B.C.), a temple honoring him as divus (god) was built in Ephesus. The Caesars who followed him didn’t wait for death to provide such honors, and, beginning with Octavian, they asserted their own divinity, displaying their titles of deity in temples and on coins, particularly in the cities of Asia. Octavian changed his name to Augustus, a title of supreme majesty, dignity and reverence. He was called the Son of God, and as the divine-human mediator between heaven and earth he offered sacrifices to the gods. He was widely proclaimed as the Savior of the world, and the inscriptions on his coins were quite frankly messianic – their message declaring, as Ethelbert Stauffer has written, that “salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved” (Christ and the Caesars [Westminster, 1955], p. 88).
This pose was common to all the Caesars. Caesar was God; Caesar was Savior; Caesar was the only Lord. And they claimed not only the titles but the rights of deity as well. They taxed and confiscated property at will, took citizens’ wives (and husbands) for their own pleasure, caused food shortages, exercised the power of life and death over their subjects, and generally attempted to rule every aspect of reality throughout the Empire. The philosophy of the Caesars can be summed up in one phrase which was used increasingly as the age progressed: Caesar is Lord!
This was the main issue between Rome and the Christians: Who is Lord? Francis Schaeffer pointed out: “Let us not forget why the Christians were killed. They were not killed because they worshiped Jesus…. nobody cared who worshiped whom so long as the worshiper did not disrupt the unity of the state, centered in the formal worship of Caesar. The reason the Christians were killed was because they were rebels…. they worshiped Jesus as God and they worshiped the infinite-personal God only. The Caesars would not tolerate this worshiping of the one God only. It was counted as treason” (How Shall We Then Live? [Revell, 1976], p. 24).
For Rome, the goal of any true morality and piety was the subordination of all things to the State; the religious, pious man was the one who recognized, at every point in life, the centrality of Rome. R. J. Rushdoony observes that “the framework for the religious and familial acts of piety was Rome itself, the central and most sacred community. Rome strictly controlled all rights of corporation, assembly, religious meetings, clubs, and street gatherings, and it brooked no possible rivalry to its centrality…. The state alone could organize; short of conspiracy, the citizens could not. On this ground alone, the highly organized Christian Church was an offense and an affront to the state, and an illegal organization readily suspected of conspiracy” (The One and the Many [Thoburn Press, 1978], pp. 92f.).
The witness of the apostles and the early Church was nothing less than a declaration of war against the pretensions of the Roman State. John asserted that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God (John 3:16); that He is, in fact, “the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20-21). The Apostle Peter declared, shortly after Pentecost: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “The conflict of Christianity with Rome was thus political from the Roman perspective, although religious from the Christian perspective. The Christians were never asked to worship Rome’s pagan gods; they were merely asked to recognize the religious primacy of the state…. The issue, then, was this: should the emperor’s law, state law, govern both the state and the church, or were both state and church, emperor and bishop alike, under God’s law? Who represented true and ultimate order, God or Rome, eternity or time? The Roman answer was Rome and time, and hence Christianity constituted a treasonable faith and a menace to political order” (Rushdoony, The One and the Many, p. 93).
The charge brought by the prosecution in one first-century trial of Christians was that “they are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7). This was the fundamental accusation against all the Christians of the Empire. The captain of police pleaded with the aged Bishop Polycarp to renounce this extreme position: “What harm is there in saying Caesar is Lord?” Polycarp refused, and was burned at the stake. Thousands suffered martyrdom on just this issue. For them, Jesus was not “God” in some upper-story, irrelevant sense; He was the only God, complete Sovereign in every area. No aspect of reality could be exempt from His demands. Nothing was neutral. The Church confronted Rome with the inflexible claim of Christ’s imperial authority: Jesus is the only-begotten Son; Jesus is God; Jesus is King; Jesus is Savior; Jesus is Lord. Here were two Empires, both attempting absolute world domination; and they were implacably at war.
It was necessary for the churches of Asia to recognize this fully, with all its implications. Faith in Jesus Christ requires absolute submission to His Lordship, at every point, with no compromise. The confession of Christ meant conflict with statism, particularly in the provinces where official worship of Caesar was required for the transaction of everyday affairs. Failure to acknowledge the claims of the State would result in economic hardship and ruin, and often imprisonment, torture and death.
Some Christians compromised: “Sure, Jesus is God. I worship Him at church and in private devotions. But I can still keep my job and my union status, even though they require me to give technical homage to pagan deities. It’s a mere detail: after all, I still believe in Jesus in my heart….” But Christ’s Lordship is universal, and the Bible makes no distinction between heart and conduct. Jesus is Lord of all. To acknowledge Him truly as Lord, we must serve Him everywhere. This is the primary message of the Revelation, and that which the Christians in Asia desperately needed to hear. They lived in the very heart of Satan’s throne, the seat of Emperor-worship; John wrote to remind them of their true King, of their position with Him as kings and priests, and of the necessity to persevere in terms of His sovereign Word.
The purpose of the Revelation was to reveal Christ as Lord to a suffering Church. Because they were being persecuted, the early Christians could be tempted to fear that the world was getting out of hand – that Jesus, who had claimed “all authority … in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18), was not really in control at all. The apostles often warned against this man-centered error, reminding the people that God’s sovereignty is over all of history (including our particular tribulations). This was the basis for some of the most beautiful passages of comfort in the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 8:28-39; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; 4:7-15).
John’s primary concern in writing the Book of Revelation was just this very thing: to strengthen the Christian community in the faith of Jesus Christ’s Lordship, to make them aware that the persecutions they suffered were integrally involved in the great war of history. The Lord of glory had ascended His throne, and the ungodly rulers were now resisting His authority by persecuting His brethren. The suffering of Christians was not a sign that Jesus had abandoned this world to the devil; rather, it revealed that He was King. If Jesus’ Lordship were historically meaningless, the ungodly would have had no reason whatsoever to trouble the Christians. But instead, they persecuted Jesus’ followers, showing their unwilling recognition of His supremacy over their rule. The Book of Revelation presents Jesus seated on a white horse as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16), doing battle with the nations, judging and making war in righteousness. The persecuted Christians were not at all forsaken by God. In reality they were on the front lines of the conflict of the ages, a conflict in which Jesus Christ had already won the decisive battle. Since His resurrection, all of history has been a “mopping up” operation, wherein the implications of His work are gradually being implemented throughout the world. John is realistic: the battles will not be easy, nor will Christians emerge unscathed. It will often be bloody, and much of the blood will be our own. But Jesus is King, Jesus is Lord, and (as Luther says) “He must win the battle.” The Son of God goes forth to war, conquering and to conquer, until He has put all enemies under His feet.
The subject of the Revelation thus was contemporary; that is, it was written to and for Christians who were living at the time it was first delivered. We are wrong to interpret it futuristically, as if its message were primarily intended for a time 2000 years after John wrote it. (It is interesting – but not surprising – that those who interpret the book “futuristically” always seem to focus on their own era as the subject of the prophecies. Convinced of their own importance, they are unable to think of themselves as living at any other time than the climax of history.) Of course, the events John foretold were “in the future” to John and his readers; but they occurred soon after he wrote of them. To interpret the book otherwise is to contradict both the scope of the work as a whole, and the particular passages which indicate its subject. For us, the great majority of the Revelation (i.e., everything excluding a few verses which mention the end of the world) is history: it has already happened. This may be a real disappointment to those who were looking forward to experiencing some of the thrilling scenes in the book, so for them I have a small word of comfort: Cheer up – the Killer Bees are still on their way north! Moreover, the Beast has a host of modern imitators, so you still have a chance to get beheaded. Unfortunately, those who had hoped to escape the fireworks in the rapture aren’t so lucky. They’ll just have to slog through to victory with the rest of us.
The early Church had two great enemies: apostate Israel and pagan Rome. Many Christians died at their hands (indeed, these two enemies of the Church often cooperated with each other in putting Christians to death, as they had with the crucifixion of the Lord Himself). And the message of the Revelation was that these two persecutors, inspired by Satan, would soon be judged and destroyed. Its message was contemporary, not futuristic.
Some will complain that this interpretation makes the Revelation “irrelevant” for our age. A more wrong-headed idea is unimaginable. Are the books of Romans and Ephesians “irrelevant” just because they were written to believers in the first century? Should 1 Corinthians and Galatians be dismissed because they dealt with first-century problems? Is not all Scripture profitable for believers in every age (2 Tim. 3:16-17)? Actually, it is the futurists who have made the Revelation irrelevant – for on the futurist hypothesis the book has been inapplicable from the time it was written until the twentieth century! Only if we see the Revelation in terms of its contemporary relevance is it anything but a dead letter. From the outset, John stated that his book was intended for “the seven churches which are in Asia” (1:4), and we must assume that he meant what he said. He clearly expected that even the most difficult symbols in the prophecy could be understood by his first-century readers (13:18). Not once did he imply that his book was written with the twentieth century in mind, and that Christians would be wasting their time attempting to decipher it until space stations were invented. The primary relevance of the Book of Revelation was for its first-century readers. It still has relevance for us today as we understand its message and apply its principles to our lives and our culture. Jesus Christ still demands of us what He demanded of the early Church: absolute faithfulness to Him.
Several lines of evidence for the contemporary nature of the Revelation may be pointed out here. First, there is the general tone of the book, which is taken up with the martyrs (see, e.g., 6:9; 7:14; 12:11). The subject is clearly the present situation of the churches: the Revelation was written to a suffering Church in order to comfort believers during their time of testing.
Second, John writes that the book concerns “the things which must shortly take place” (1:1), and warns that “the time is near” (1:3). In case we might miss it, he says again, at the close of the book, that “the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must shortly take place” (22:6). Given the fact that one important proof of a true prophet lay in the fact that his predictions came true (Deut. 18:21-22), John’s first-century readers had every reason to expect his book to have immediate significance. The words shortly and near simply cannot be made to mean anything but what they say. If I tell you, “I’ll be there shortly,” and I don’t show up for 2000 years, wouldn’t you say I was a little tardy? Some will object to this on the basis of 2 Peter 3:8, that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” But the context there is entirely different: Peter is exhorting us to have patience with respect to God’s promises, assuring us that God’s faithfulness to His holy Word will not wear out or diminish.
The Book of Revelation is not about the Second Coming. It is about the destruction of Israel and Christ’s victory over Rome. In fact, the word coming as used in the Book of Revelation never refers to the Second Coming. Revelation prophesies the judgment of God on the two ancient enemies of the Church; and while it goes on to describe briefly certain end-time events, that description is merely a “wrap-up,” to show that the ungodly will never prevail against Christ’s Kingdom. But the main focus of Revelation is upon events which were soon to take place.
Third, John identifies certain situations as contemporary: in 13:18, John clearly encourages his contemporary readers to calculate the “number of the beast” and decipher its meaning; in 17:10, one of the seven kings is currently on the throne; and John tells us that the great harlot “is [present tense] the great city, which reigns [present tense] over the kings of the earth” (17:18). Again, the Revelation was meant to be understood in terms of its contemporary significance. A futuristic interpretation is completely opposed to the way John himself interprets his own prophecy.
Fourth, we should notice carefully the words of the angel in 22:10: “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” Again, of course, we are told explicitly that the prophecy is contemporary in nature; but there is more. The angel’s statement is in contrast to the command Daniel received at the end of his book: “Conceal the words and seal up the book until the time of the end” (Dan. 12:4). Daniel was specifically ordered to seal up his prophecy, because it referred to “the end,” in the distant future. But John is told not to seal up his prophecy, because the time of which it speaks is near!
Thus, the focus of the Book of Revelation is upon the contemporary situation of John and his first-century readers. It was written to show those early Christians that Jesus is Lord, “ruler over the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). It shows that Jesus is the key to world history – that nothing can occur apart from His sovereign will, that He will be glorified in all things, and that His enemies will lick the dust. The Christians of that day were tempted to compromise with the statism and false religions of their day, and they needed this message of Christ’s absolute dominion over all, that they might be strengthened in the warfare to which they were called.
And we need this message also. We too are subjected daily to the threats and seductions of Christ’s enemies. We too are asked – even by fellow Christians – to compromise with modern Beasts and Harlots in order to save ourselves (or our jobs or property or tax exemptions). We too are faced with a choice: surrender to Jesus Christ or surrender to Satan. The Revelation speaks powerfully to the issues we face today, and its message to us is the same as it was to the early Church: that there is not an inch of neutral ground between Christ and Satan, that our Lord demands universal submission to His rule, and that He has predestined His people to victorious conquest and dominion over all things in His Name. There must be no compromise and no quarter given in the great battle of history. We are commanded to win.