While attending Point Loma College in 1983, I remember my New Testament Professor, Dr. Reuben Welch, asking the class consisting of mostly Freshmen students, “How many of you believe Jesus will be returning in your lifetime?” At least ¾ of those in attendance raised their hands. He then said, “I don’t.” I remember thinking, “That’s because you are a lot older than us. We have a better chance of being raptured out.” At that time, my only interpretation was seeing the Book of Revelation through the lens of a Pre-Tribulation conviction, awaiting and proclaiming the return of Christ as imminent, holding to a belief that the prophecy of Revelation is yet to come. The Left Behind Series helped solidify my conviction.
However, I am now enrolled in a Revelation class for Seminary. We were assigned to read a novel called “The Lost Letters of Pergamum” by Bruce Longenecker. The novel is based on a fictional relationship between a nobleman named Antipas who is a Roman unbeliever and Luke (the writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts). Through letter writing, Luke is patient and respectful to answer Antipas’ questions about Jesus and His anti-Roman message. I didn’t understand the severity of Jesus’ message to the Romans until seen through the eyes of an unbelieving Roman (Antipas).
Roman Emperors expected those under their rule to revere them in worship and honor as equal to their gods. In the Roman Empire, an atheist was defined as a person who did not believe the emperor was god. As Christians today, we understand that the Jewish religious leaders could not embrace Jesus proclaiming His equality with their God. However, do we realize that the Roman Emperors held the position of “god” as well? Jesus’ presence and message threatened both the Roman and the Jewish rule. To believe in Jesus Christ was to completely go against the pattern of all establishment at that time. Many Christians died as atheists. We have clearly come a long way in definitions.
The Book of Revelation gives the people hope to continue to believe despite what they see and hear. That is applicable! The Book of Revelation was for its present time as much as it is for us today. From chapter 1, John (the author of Revelation) writes that he is a “companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.” (v. 9) John has been exiled to Patmos because of his belief in Jesus Christ and understood the horrid suffering and persecution of those who shared in his belief. When understanding the extent of torture by the Romans, it is understandable why the New Testament writers continually preach, “the time is near.” (1:3) Why near? To provide hope that God sees the cruelty of man, God will judge the wicked who are blinded to the truth and Jesus will return to set things right. I believe that is why each of the seven churches is told that God sees their areas of strengths, weakness, loyalties and compromises. He wants them to live fully and completely committed to His will regardless of the culture, the persecution or the presence of Satan. That message is the same today.
By Revelation 6:9-11, John describes “the altar [of] the souls of those who had been slain because” of their testimony and they were calling out to God “how long” until this is over? This period of time definitely represents the prayers of the first century Christians of John’s day. They wanted God to intervene and put an end to the blame game (i.e. crazy Nero’s fires) and the horrific murders but the answer was “to wait a little longer” until more were killed. Because of the hardness of the unbelieving hearts, the penalty of disagreeing with the Roman rule was ruthless and tortuous. Innocent blood was shed with an audience approval as an arena filled with observers enjoyed the entertainment of it. No wonder the Book of Revelation is written graphically with a sense of intensity and urgency.
I didn’t realize how much the Book of Revelation has a message of comfort and counsel for the reader; some day, the Beasts will be destroyed, Babylon will fall and God will have the final authority and rule. Some day, heaven will descend to earth and there will be streets of gold and trees of life in its midst. Some day, God’s light and peace will reign and there will be no more tears. Regardless of the timing of its fulfillment, this message brings comfort to the suffering, counsel to the persecuted, hope to the hopeless and strength for us all to endure until the end.
The book of Revelation was written for every generation, starting with the first century church. Through the gift of interpretation to understand and comprehend the Scriptures with the wisdom and knowledge of the Holy Spirit, we are able to apply the prophecy throughout the years.
In addition, I hate to admit it but I am now at the age of Dr. Reuben Welch when he asked the class if Jesus was returning in our lifetime. Maybe the change of my convictions has something to do with being a lot older now too!