The Way It Happened

Revelation 22:10, The Time is Near

Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.”

//The command to seal not the words of Revelation stands in stark contrast to the instructions Daniel received at the end of his book. The prophecies of Daniel would not have an immediate fulfillment in his own time. John must treat his book differently than did Daniel, because, in the case of Revelation, the “time is near.” But how soon is soon?

John of Patmos imagined an immediate return of Christ, but the book of Revelation initially had a rough time making inroads into Christian circles. It was written in the aftermath of the disastrous Jerusalem war of 66-70 CE, encouraging displaced Jewish Christians in Asia Minor to remain true until Christ returned to set things right and provide a new Jerusalem. But the book was not recognized as inspired by most Christians.

Two more uprisings again pitted the hated Romans against the Jews. Jewish religious militants rebelled a second time in 115-117, and a third time in 131-135. But by this time, Jews and Christians were estranged, and Christians in Asia Minor held little sympathy for the struggling Jerusalem. Revelation’s dreams of a New Jerusalem still commanded little attention.

Part of the problem is that the books of Revelation and John’s Gospel were popular among competitive versions of Christianity, such as the Montanists. Montanus claimed to be the embodiment of John’s Paraclete (Holy Spirit), and loved to refer to the book of Revelation. A majority of bishops in Asia Minor voted to censor both books, protesting that they contained only blasphemous lies. A Roman priest named Gaius argued that both had been written not by an apostle but by a heretic named Cerinthius.

Later in the second century, however, Revelation’s promise of tribulation began to hit home with Christians. Justin and Irenaeus, two early apologists, strongly championed Revelation, recognizing its themes as occurring in their own lifetime. Justin referred to the killing of a Christian philosopher named Ptolemy, and claimed he knew of similar executions. It was clear to Justin that demonic powers were inciting Rome’s rulers to hunt and kill Christians, just as John of Patmos described.

Shortly after Justin’s death, Irenaeus threw in his lot with Revelation. He witnessed a dozen Christians killed in Smyrna, including Irenaeus’s beloved mentor, Bishop Polycarp. In 177, riots broke out in Gaul as Christians were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. More than forty died in the arenas as a public spectacle, killed by wild animals.

If the era John of Patmos originally wrote about—the late first century—provided the best fit to Revelation’s prophecies, the late second century provided a close second. Throughout the centuries for 2,000 years, Christians would continue to point to the signs of the times, yet Jesus continued to delay his return. Today we still read Revelation as a prophecy of our own times, wondering why Jesus still waits.

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