Throughout my life time I’ve been able to guarantee that particular events such as natural disasters, public immorality, secular hostility and particularly strife in the middle east will be picked up by people as evidence that we are in the last days and that the prophecies in Daniel, Revelation and Matthew 24 are now being fulfilled. It is argued that these are the events, signs and wonders that announce the rapture and Christ’s return.
However, our experience is not unique. As Ian Paul observes here and here, there has been a tendency in every age to identify events with the prophecies in Revelation. In fact, if there has been a bit of a tendency over the past twenty years to assume that we are nowhere near the end rather than expecting an imminent return of Christ or rapture then we are perhaps the odd ones out. Christians have tended to align themselves with the heroes, the martyrs under the altar the 144000 etc and their religious and political opponents from popes to presidents with the anti-Christ and the beast.
I want to suggest here that actually it is no bad thing to see Revelation as applicable to today and to seek to apply what it says to our present situation. “All Scripture is God breathed and useful for teaching” (2 Timothy 3:16). We are meant to read and learn from Revelation. However, we need to be careful about what we mean here. What I’m not saying is that we can pinpoint specific disasters or battles as predicted and certainly it would be unwise to go down the road of attempting to identify people, places and organisations with beasts and Babylon.
We can apply Revelation appropriately to our time when we realise what the book is trying to do in terms of genre and purpose. If we look to it for a chronological scheme of end time events and expect to be able to work out dates and timings from it then we will come unstuck.
However, if we see it for what it is, then we will recognise its application today, just as the early church did. When John shared his revelation with the seven churches, he didn’t expect them to say “wow that’s a fascinating insight into what will happen in 2000 years time. Let’s keep hold of that for when the time comes.” Rather, the expectation was that they would hear what the Spirit was saying to the church at that time.
Revelation uses beautiful picture language rooted in the imagery of its time in order to paint the big story of what God has been doing and continues to do through history. It tells the story from creation to new creation with redemption running through it and Christ and the Cross at its heart. The way I prefer to put it is as follows.
Revelation offers us God’s view on the whole of history from the perspective of the end so that we can know how to live in our part of that story now.
Now, I think it likely that there will be substantial events right at the end, a literal personal anti-Christ and some form of end conflict with Satan that will be visible. I expect persecution to intensify but I also expect a greater harvest of believers. However, I don’t think it is helpful for us to second guess whether those things are happening now. If and when, we will know and in fact the thing that will confirm it will be Christ’s return.
However, in the meantime, I expect us to see a world around us that is beastly in its anti-Christ agenda. I expect rulers who are godless and cruel. I expect the church to be challenged both by overt persecution and by the temptation to compromise in return for material comfort. In other words, Revelation paints a picture of things that may well happen as specific fulfilment one day but also are very clearly typical of what it means to live in this world between the Cross and the consummation of time.
Revelation helps us to know how to live in this world with its typical dangers by pointing us to Christ as the lamb on the throne who is worthy and sovereign over history. It helps us to keep going with the promise of that final day when Christ returns. It reassures us during times of trial that we are seen by God and safe in his care.