Often, the last book in our Bibles will carry a title like The Revelation of Saint John the Divine. Saint John would not have ap proved. He was not interested in drawing attention to himself. Neither was he interested in revealing clues for calculating dates for the end of time. Instead, John wrote the Revelation to reveal one thing: the gospel, the good news of who Jesus Christ is and what he accomplishes.

I know firsthand that publishers like to change the title a book's author has put on his manuscript. John was clever enough to win that game. He incorporated his chosen title into the opening phrase of the text itself: "Apocalypsis jesu christus, which God gives to him." Apocalypsis is the Greek word translated "the revelation," denoting an unveiling, a disclosure, a making known. The Book of Revelation is presented by John as an apocalypse of Jesus Christ.

The phrase following apocalypsis jesu christus—"which God gives to him"—makes plain that Jesus is to be understood as the Revealer, as the prime possessor and bearer of the revelation. But John also wants to designate Jesus Christ as the content of the revelation. Jesus is both the Revealer and that which is being revealed. The remainder of John's book shows that John understands clearly that he has been given a message from the Lord Jesus that tells us who this Lord Jesus is and was and is to come.

Thus, the title Apocalypsis, or the Revelation, provides us with the primary principle for interpreting the book. Even though he works at it from a perspective somewhat different from that of the rest of the New Testament, John is essentially at one with those other authors in his desire to proclaim and expound the person of this same Jesus Christ. So if the first question always to be asked when reading Revelation is "What is it trying to tell us about Jesus?" every interpretation must be tested against and harmonized with the larger revelation of Christ in the New Testament as a whole. This principle of interpretation stands in stark contrast to attempts to seek in Revelation "signs" that can be observed in today's world and political events.

Why end-time speculations are wrong
One of the teachings of Jesus that is often ignored by today's "calendar prophets" is against trying to get at the secrets of God by doping out "signs." In Matthew 12:39 where Jesus talks about the coming day of judgment, some doctors of the law and Pharisees ask him for a sign. Jesus responds, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" (all quotations from the NRSV). Mat thew 16:1–4 reports a very similar incident in almost the same words, adding only, "Then he [Jesus] left them and went away."

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Mark 8:11–13 gives us the same kind of situation with only a slightly different response: "Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation." Mark 13:5–6 reads, "Then Jesus began to say to them, 'Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!" and they will lead many astray.' " Mark 13:21–23 continues: "And if anyone says to you at that time, 'Look! Here is the Messiah!' or 'Look! There he is!'—do not believe it. False Messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything."

Another passage, Luke 17:20–24, reads: "Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, 'The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, "Look, here it is!" or "There it is!" For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.'

"Then he said to the disciples, 'The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, "Look there!" or "Look here!" Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.' "

These sayings can be found in parallel passages in the other Gospels, but Jesus' saying in John 21:20–23 bears special attention because of its somewhat different emphasis. Here the conversation is dealing with matters of eschatological destiny, and Peter asks Jesus about what is to happen to one of the other disciples. Jesus answers, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is it to you? Follow me!" At that point the gospel writer breaks in to tell us that some of the early Christians understood this to mean that the disciple would not die. He then comments, "Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, 'If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is it to you?' "—a rather clear in stance of Jesus squelching curiosity about details of the end.

Finally, in Acts 1:6–8, we have Jesus' last conversation with his disciples in the period following his resurrection. The disciples ask him point blank: "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus answers, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority."

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Putting them all together, these passages spell out something less than enthusiastic support from Jesus or the early church for any effort at trying to write geopolitical history before it happens. Would our present-day calendarizers claim that they are free to ignore this counsel? Would they claim that the author of Revelation, under God's leading, ignored it?

So why did Jesus point to signs?
Having said that, I must answer the point that at other places in the Gospels (and sometimes right alongside our passages), Jesus does talk about and even identifies some signs of the end. How are we to reconcile the presence of these two types of texts in the New Testament?

Some scholars do it with a stroke of the pen—by denying that Jesus ever spoke of signs. They attribute such references to later interpolators—those who added to the words of Jesus at a later date to fit their theological bias. That solution strikes me as being too neat and easy, and unjustified.

I suggest that most, if not all, of the signs that Jesus points to are of a different sort than those commonly used today as a basis for calendarizing the future. Rather, they are of the sort indicated when we say, "The demonstrations taking place on campus are a sign of student unrest." Here, "sign" is simply the outward, visible side of an event that points to deeper, less visible, but more significant aspects. The "sign" is an indicator that enables us to understand the full implications of what is happening—not a means of calculating what is yet to happen. And if such is the case here, then Jesus' acknowledgment of these signs in no way contradicts his warning regarding them.

Does the New Testament suggest any reason why Jesus should be opposed to calendarizing? Yes, for to calendarize is to undercut the very eschatological stance Jesus was intent to teach.

This new consideration turns our discussion away from the merely negative of what Jesus opposed and toward the positive of what he encouraged. These positive teachings, again, we find scattered throughout the Gospels, but Matthew includes most everything in this regard that the other Gospels do, and it has the advantage of drawing Jesus' eschatological teachings together into one passage rather than leaving them scattered.

The key presupposition is given in this definitive statement in Matthew 24:36: "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Calendarizers argue that Jesus is saying, in effect, "Go ahead with your predictions, but don't try to cut it as fine as the day or the hour." But when we consider the total context of Jesus' thought, such an interpretation is shown to be sophistry.

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No one—not even Jesus himself—knows the "when." "Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour" (Matt. 24:42–44).

Jesus is opposed to calendarizing because it leads people into thinking they know something they have no chance of knowing. The reason they have no chance of knowing is that God never intended they should. And the reason he does not want them to know is that, if they did, there would no longer be any cause for them to be constantly awake and perpetually ready. Pleading ignorance of the exact day and hour does not excuse calendarizing. Rather, it becomes an attempt to pull an end run on God and find out what he expressly indicated is not to be found out.

Three parables bear directly upon the point. The first, in Matthew 24:45–51, is the story of a servant whom his master left in charge of the household staff. He (on the basis of his calendarizing calculations) "knew" that the master would be a long time coming and so used the interim to live it up and misuse his fellow servants. But the master came back early, and the servant was caught in sad shape.

We expect the Lord soon. We know he is coming. But he never intimated that we should know when.

Conversely, the second parable, found in Matthew 25:1–13, is the familiar story of the wise and foolish maidens. The wise maidens equipped themselves for perpetual readiness; but the foolish maidens (on the basis of their calculations) "knew" that the bridegroom would come soon and so neglected to carry any reserves of oil. It turned out, however, that the bridegroom returned late, and the maidens were unprepared.

The third parable, Matthew 25:14–30, is that of the talents. The useless servant was so sure (on the basis of his calculations) that the master would come right back that he felt it sufficient simply to protect the coin that had been entrusted to his care. But as you might guess, he was caught just the way every calendarizer has been; the master's delay made it clear that he should have invested (made use of) the money.

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These parables force one to the conclusion that the only possible wise stance is that of perpetual—both early and late—readiness. Why? Because we have absolutely no information about the "when" of the end.

How long is the "time is short"?
Jesus' teaching of perpetual readiness is reiterated consistently throughout the New Testament. It shows up typically as a two-part affirmation. The first thought is that "the time is short"; the second is that the time of the end will be a surprise, with Jesus coming as a thief in the night.

In Paul, strong assertions about the shortness of the time are found in Ro mans 13:11–13 and 1 Corinthians 7:29–31. In 1 Thessalonians 5:1–2, Paul writes: "Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night."

First Peter emphasizes the shortness of the time—"The end of all things is near" (4:7)—while implying the surprise aspect: "Discipline yourselves, keep alert" (5:8). In 2 Peter, the emphasis is reversed, emphasizing surprise—"But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief" (3:10)—while implying shortness of the time: "Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish" (3:14). (See also Heb. 10:25, 36–37; and James 5:8.)

Finally, the book of our particular interest, Revelation, says in its very first verse that these things "must soon take place" and in its next-to-last verse, "I am coming soon." It repeats this thought numerous times in between. The book also reiterates the surprise aspect: "See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame" (Rev. 16:15; see also 3:3). Is it plausible that an author who includes such a statement at two points in his book could be writing the very same book for the purpose of telling us when the day was to come? Somehow the idea that "Jesus wants to come like a thief, but here are the data you need to calculate the time of his coming" doesn't work.

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The day God chooses will be "soon". [and soon enough for me] as long as it is Jesus who comes.

This double theme of the surprise and the imminence of Christ's return is rooted in the teaching of Jesus, and it permeates the whole New Testament. But couldn't the "time is short" element be interpreted as a calendar claim—"I have specific information as to when the end is coming; and it is right away—now"?

If that is what these statements intend, we have two problems. In the first place, the "time is short" then stands in direct conflict with its counterpart of surprise. In the second place, if these truly are calendar claims, then they are all false claims, and all these writers were just plain wrong: they said something was going to happen "very soon," but it still hasn't happened almost 2,000 years later.

Seen historically, it seems more risky for modern calendarizers to base their calculations upon the very works of those calendarizers in the history of the church who have been so thoroughly discredited by their failed predictions. Perhaps modern calendarizers feel they have a competency to use the words of Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles to succeed in predicting the end times even if Christ and the apostles themselves had failed to do so.

The preferable alternative is to consider whether this "time is short" element was something other than a calendar claim. There is one good line of evidence indicating that it never was meant as a computable time. If we peg the idea as originating in the teaching of Jesus and then trace it through Paul, the writing of the Gospels themselves, and on down into the later Epistles, we have documentary evidence that the expectation was present in the church during almost every decade from A.D. 30 on to the end of the century. Yet, through this period, writers continued to state the expectation of Christ's soon return (and readers continued to accept it) without ever seeing an apparent difficulty in the fact that their predecessors had been stating the same thing. With no calendar dates to measure the promise against, the first Christians had no need to revise the sayings of Christ's imminent return.

What does "soon" mean?
But if they are not calendar claims, what are these statements? It may be that these different writers were meaning to say, "For all we know, the time is short," or "Although we have absolutely no 'knowledge,' we ought al ways to assume that the time is short (and be ready to go on assuming that as long as necessary)." This would be a proper way of describing and fostering perpetual readiness: "Precisely because I don't know, I had better operate under the continual assumption that the time is short."

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Similarly, some events are such that in their very nature they display the character of "soonness," no matter when they may be scheduled to occur. They are so "big" that their own moment cannot contain them; they bulge over even into the present. A little child could lead us into understanding how "Grandma is coming" is a "soon" event whatever the calendar indication might be.

The suggestions above would indicate that the "time is short" expectation is to be understood as a subjective description rather than an objective claim; the statement refers to the stance of the subject (the believer) rather than to the factuality of the object (the historical time scale). But at the same time, I am firmly convinced that, in the minds of the early Christians, this idea of "soonness" also carried another significance that involves much more objectivity.

It is not the case that the writer is looking ahead, peering into the dim future and seeing the end making its approach, thus to proclaim, "The time is short; the end is at hand." Rather, he is looking back to see all that God already has done in the way of bringing his promise to fulfillment: the coming of God's Messiah, his atoning death and victorious resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the creation of the new faith community and its missionary outreach. Seeing this, he says, "The day is far gone, and the time is short. No matter what the dates or times that the Father has set within his own control, it is evident that the 'distance' (what needs yet to take place) between what God has done and what yet must happen is short. The end could come at any time. The time is short."

And note well, this is a statement Jesus could make in his day and it was entirely true and proper. Paul can make the same statement some years later; it was still just as true and proper. Seventy years after Jesus it can be made again—still true and proper. We can make it today, as the centuries stretch into millennia—still just as true and proper as it was in the mouth of Jesus. Indeed, the obligation of the church is to keep on making that statement until the end itself closes off the words. It is when the church fails to announce that the time is short that she has fallen away from the truth of the matter.

How to live expectantly
This brings us to the point of the entire argument. Our study has demonstrated that a sense of eschatological expectancy permeated the entire New Testament church and its literature. Further, although I have not done so, it would be easy to show that every aspect of that church's life and thought was driven by the motor of such expectancy. This eschatological expectancy was both the motivation and the content of Jesus' preaching, service ministry, and atoning work. It is the basis of New Testament ethical teaching. It was the source of the early church's life, the explanation of her distinctive character, and the definition of her mission in the world.

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A critical consideration follows; contemporary Christianity is truly Christian only insofar as it shares this eschatological expectancy. Without it, there are hardly grounds for claiming the name Christian—any more than a candy that does not taste of lemon can claim to be lemon-flavored. Christianity is "Christ ness," and the essence of the New Testament understanding of Jesus Christ lies in his being as eschatological promiser, agent, first fruit, and guarantee of the oncoming kingdom of God.

Restoring to the church, then, a vital sense of this expectancy is all important. Insofar as the calendarizers are concerned to do this, they deserve applause—if only they would give more attention to the ethical, political, theological, and ecclesiological implications of their concern. But because they have chosen an unbiblical means of establishing that expectancy, their efforts are left lacking.

Calendar-based hopes are vulnerable to disappointment, disillusionment, and despair—as assuredly it has happened to every calendarizer up to the present time. Dates come and go. Expectancy proves a delusion, leaving no basis for faith or further expectancy. Disappointment blights and kills the Christian life.

By contrast, the sense of perpetual readiness fostered by biblical expectancy stands immune to such disappointment. We expect the Lord soon. We know he is coming. But he never intimated that we should know when. If today, great! That's what I'm expecting. If not, I will expect him tomorrow. The day God chooses will be "soon" (and soon enough for me) as long as it is Jesus who comes.

Both the calendarizers and those who are perpetually expectant want to say, "Jesus comes—yes, he comes soon!" But there is all the difference in the world between saying it because one thinks he has broken a code and extracted inside information on the matter, and saying it be cause he doesn't know when, and so on faith assumes that the next moment might be it.

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Not coincidentally, the interest of most calendarizers seems to begin and end in speculation about what is going to happen "then." Biblical eschatology puts more of its emphasis upon what the expectancy of those future events has to say about the quality of my life and action now. It asks, What should I do to be ready?

Hidden codes or revelation?
We need, finally, to give consideration to what the calendarizing approach implies about the nature of the Bible. The calendarizer must assume that the Book of Revelation is written in code: the biblical author uses esoteric, symbolic language, but he actually is talking about twentieth (or twenty-first) century entities, alignments, and events (usually naming Jews, Arabs, Russia, China, and the European Common Market).

The implication is usually left unspoken and unnoticed: No one in the history of the church had any chance of truly understanding Revelation prior to today when the actual referents came into existence. Revelation was written for us—to tell us that the end will happen in our day.

Here again the Book of Revelation provides its own reality check. The revelator's writings were originally addressed by "John to the seven churches in Asia" (1:4). They were actual, concrete, everyday little congregations in first-century Asia Minor (modern Turkey). But in what sense was the book John's (or God's) word to them if they had no way of knowing what he was talking about?

Some suggest in answer to this question that John thought he was writing to the seven churches and only God knew that the fullness of the message actually was reserved for late-twentieth-century Christians. If so, we can only deduce that God was playing with both John and the churches. What kind of God is it who would lead generations upon generations of Christians to read a book, believing that they had the word of God and were being addressed by it, while, the whole time, God knew that it was a locked secret that they didn't even have the wherewithal to understand? If calendarizing is the method by which Revelation is meant to be read, then God stands responsible for the crushed hope of all past calendarizers. He gave them a puzzle for which there was no way they could get anything but a false solution.

I suggest another basic principle for our study of Revelation. We take with all seriousness John's assertion that he is writing to the seven churches in Asia. Therefore, any interpretation of his words that patently would not have been a possibility for the original readers cannot be accurate. Or, to put it the other way around, we can accept as accurate an interpretation of John's words only if his original readers could have understood it so too.

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Put another way, if anyone is eavesdropping in this matter, it is we moderns and not our first-century brothers and sisters. Revelation is not, in the first place, God's word to us—with the seven churches used merely as a vehicle for getting it to us. It was, in the first, God's word to them, and they, knowing John personally and being part of his historical and cultural milieu, had a better chance of understanding the book than we do.

Like the other Epistles in the New Testament, Revelation is God's word to us as we find ourselves able to identify with those Christians to whom the writings were first addressed and discover that what was written for their benefit can be of great benefit to us as well.

Vernard Eller is retired professor of religion at LaVerne (California) College.

See Also:
The Millennial Book Awards
A review of end-times books with only a wee, little bit of Y2K hype thrown in.
Read more about these related topics:
End Times
Christian Fiction

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