By Neil Earle
As we’ve been seeing on our study of Revelation, these words must have been an immense encouragement to the first readers of Revelation. We’ve been stressing that the Apocalypse isn’t a parlor game or a happy hunting ground for amateur sleuths or even well-intentioned ministers who miss a big starting point. It is this: Christians in Asia were facing the death sentence pronounced by the mad Emperor Domitian (81-96).
This is why the call to martyrdom and faithfulness to death sounds throughout the Letter as in the Church in Smyrna – “Be faithful to death and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). The indications begin with John describing himself as “your companion in tribulation” and to Jesus in vision stating “I am he who lives and was dead and behold I am alive forever, Amen; and I have the keys of the Unseen Realm and of Death (1:19).”
Death imagery recurs – the souls under the altar “slain for the Word of God,” those who came through tribulation and “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14) to the end where John sees the “souls of the beheaded” who had not worshipped the beast” (20:4).
Okay. But what about Jesus’ promise to come quickly? Six times John alludes to this phrase – in 2:16, 3:11, (16:15), 22:7, 12, 20.
Commentators in almost every generation of the Church have felt those words were addressed directly to them – from Tertullian (160-225) to Augustine at the sack of Rome (410) to scared folk in the year 1000 AD and again in 1260 AD, to the Black Death (1381) to the Fifth Monarchists in 1640s England to the Millerites in 1843 down to pastors emoting at the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945 and the “Left Behind” furor in our day. Result? So far everyone has batted a perfect .000.
What could Jesus have meant?
The most straight-forward answer lies in the immediate context of the Letter. It is time to ask the more humble but obvious question – What did this letter mean to its first readers?
The first time quickly (en taxei) is used is in 2:5 where Jesus says he will come quickly to remove the Ephesus candlestick. He repeats this same phrase to Pergamos in 2:16. These are “comings” to judgment for specific groups of Christians in a specific place and time. The three references in Rev. 22 use the word “Parousia” which refer to a royal visit or the appearance of a great personage as in Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2.
It’s tempting to look at an atomic bomb blast or the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 and say, “Jesus must be coming soon.” But in fact Jesus was speaking to people who knew Christians who were – or expected themselves about to be – beheaded (Rev. 20:1-4). The persecution under Domitian was fierce and brutal but it stopped QUICKLY. Domitian was assassinated in 96 AD, the Beast was slain, and the Church was delivered – QUICKLY! One reason Revelation was accepted as canonical was because John’s message was validated: Jesus keeps His promises. He delivered his Church…and quickly, very soon after this Letter arrived in the Seven Churches.
That’s why this is an encouraging book in spite of some purple passages. It depicts God’s final victory over those who attack His church.