1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 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.
Liberals seize on statements like this to prove that John entertained a false expectation regarding the imminent return of Christ.
However, that’s simplistic. One problem is that it artificially isolates statements like this from other kinds of statements. Take this verse:
19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.
Scholars different on how to render this verse, and how to distribute the temporal referents, but the larger point is how the narrative in Revelation ought not be confined to future events.
Here’s a specific instance:
13"'I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
Clearly John didn’t think that was going to happen anytime soon, for he’s describing a past event. And 2:13 ties in with this verse:
9I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
This describes a present event. John is suffering for the faith, and Christians like Antipas have already suffered for the faith.
To take this passage:
1And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
7Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world— he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, "Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!"
13And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. 16But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.
Clearly John doesn’t mean the time is near for all these events, since some of these events lie in the past. Take his little allegory about the life of Christ, from the Incarnation to the Ascension.
Indeed, this passage ranges along a temporal continuum, from past events, through present persecution, into the indefinite future.
Examples like this should forewarn us against applying time-markers like “soon” or “near” to the totality of events narrated in Revelation. For Revelation is backward-looking as well as forward-looking. And it also has an eye on contemporary developments.
One other point I’d make is that Revelation has a cyclical as well as linear view of history. To some extent, history repeats itself. And that is underscored by the recapitulatory parallelism we find in the narrative. Cf. Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, chap. 1.
On that account it would be simplistic to reduce John’s futuristic vision to a monolithic event. For there’s a certain periodicity in his view of history. History has a destination, but it doesn’t take the shortest route.