When I lived in Southern California, I sometimes found myself listening to the local Christian radio station, which largely consisted of broadcast sermons from a dispensationalist perspective. It felt as if the preaching cycle in these churches spent much of its time in the apocalyptic portions of Scripture, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation. The Reformed churches I attended on Sundays, on the other hand, seemed to spend far less time in these books: they were much more likely to be going verse-by-verse through Romans than through Revelation. I don’t think those differences are coincidental. In general, dispensational premillennialism tends to read apocalyptic with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, looking to identify the signs of the times in order to be ready for the return of the Lord, while Reformed amillennialism or postmillennialism is usually more interested in how we faithfully engage the culture around us in the present. In that pursuit, Daniel and Revelation don’t always seem quite as relevant.
In this article, I’d like to suggest that neither side is reading the Bible as well as they might. Our dispensational brothers and sisters are missing a significant part of the message of apocalyptic—namely that it is actually written primarily for those for whom the end is not yet nigh—while Reformed people who avoid Daniel and Revelation may miss its incredibly relevant message for believers living in an increasingly hostile culture.
The End Is Not Yet Nigh!
As I said, the tendency of many readers of apocalyptic literature is to assume that its message is “The End isNigh!”, leaving us to try to discern exactly where we are in its countdown to Armageddon. Yet if this perspective is true, these books have had very little to say to most of their readers down through the centuries since they were written, for whom, self-evidently, the end was not yet nigh. In fact, we may go further than that. The context into which apocalyptic is written is one in which God’s people are experiencing great persecution, whether in the 6th century B.C. or the 1st century A.D. The saints of those times would have loved nothing more than to know that the end was nigh: watching your friends and family massacred for their faithfulness to the gospel, while you are imprisoned or exiled, makes the prospect of the imminent end a very attractive one. On the contrary, apocalyptic books were written to encourage their readers to hold onto their faith in a world which was not yet quite at an end, in which they would have to remain faithful a little longer, even if that meant suffering a little more.
The cry of the apocalyptic saint is “How long, O Lord, before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). How long must we continue to suffer, weep, mourn, and die before you return, Lord Jesus? And the answer is, “It is not quite time yet.” One of the features of apocalyptic is complex and mysterious descriptions of time, but a common feature is the need to wait a little longer. The head of gold in Daniel 2 and the first beast in Daniel 7 are Babylon—but there are several more kingdoms for Daniel and his companions to endure before the end. The seventy years of Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer. 25:11–12), on which Daniel had been pondering in Daniel 9:2, turns into seventy times seven in Daniel 9:24: the imminent end of the Babylonian empire is not the sound of the last trumpet for which Daniel had been waiting. The 1290 days of waiting in Daniel 12:11 mysteriously have become 1335 days in Daniel 12:12—but blessed is the one who waits faithfully until the end.
The same is true in the book of Revelation. The biblical number of completeness is seven, so you might think that as you reach the climax of the opening of the seventh seal, the end is nigh. That opening turns loose seven angels with seven trumpets: surely this is the end! But then in Revelation 15, there are seven last plagues to be poured out from seven bowls. Are we there yet? Not quite, it seems: there are still several chapters to go!
The reason given in apocalyptic books for this delayed ending isn’t quite what you might have expected. You might have thought that the Lord would tell the martyrs in Revelation 6 that his return to earth was being delayed so that more people might hear the gospel and believe in Christ, and thus be saved. That’s not a wrong answer: it is the one that Peter gives in 2 Peter 3:9. But it is not the answer the Lord gives to the martyrs. Instead, they are told to be patient until the full number of their fellow martyrs is complete (Rev. 6:11). The end is not yet nigh; patient waiting (and suffering) is still necessary. After all, if the chief end of man is to glorify God, in what more profound way could anyone ever glorify him than by laying down their life for the sake of his name?
This World Is Not Our Home
The theme of exile pervades much of the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments. The destruction of Jerusalem and the aftermath that saw the majority of its population (especially the more educated classes) hauled off to Babylon left a deep mark on the pages of the Old Testament, while the apostle Peter also urges his readers to live as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11). Yet of course, not everyone’s experience of exile was the same, and Scripture has varied advice for what it means to live as an exile. Jeremiah famously advised the exiles in Babylon to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). Daniel himself is a good example of what obedience to that advice looked like, rising through the ranks of the Babylonian civil service and contributing to the good governance of the empire.
But apocalyptic reminds us not to get too cozy with that picture of engaging our culture from within. It is a short step from Daniel’s promotion at the end of chapter 2 to his three friends finding themselves tossed into the fiery furnace in chapter 3 for failing to accommodate themselves to the inclusive demands of the empire. Apocalyptic reminds us that the city whose shalom we are serving is still, at the end of the day, the headquarters of the evil empire, mighty Babylon, the great prostitute (Rev. 19:2). This world is not our home; we are sojourning on enemy territory, and we need to be prepared to pay the necessary cost to be faithful to our God at any moment.
The Apocalyptic Tightrope
Apocalyptic thus reminds us to live our lives in a healthy and expectant tension—the same tension that we see in many of Jesus’s parables about the kingdom. The Lord is coming soon—but you may have to wait the rest of your life, so be ready for a marathon, not a sprint (Matt.25:1–13). We are called to love our neighbors and pursue their shalom, but we should also expect them to vilify and persecute us, hounding us out of our homes. In the meantime, apocalyptic pulls back the curtain on our heavenly home, and shows us the eternal worship service that is already in progress and invites us to lift up our eyes from the sufferings and joys of this world and fix them on the Lamb who was slain, the Lion of Judah on the throne. The Lord has a calendar of events worked out, timed down to the day. It will be worth the wait in the end. But in the meantime, hold fast to your faith, and whatever the cost in suffering, remain faithful.