Prophecy and Ethics
The Book of Revelation is often treated as an example of the "apocalyptic" genre of writings which flourished among the Jews between 200 B.C. and A.D. 100. There is no basis for this opinion whatsoever, and it is unfortunate that the word apocalyptic is used at all to describe this literature. (The writers of "apocalyptic" themselves never used the term in this sense; rather, scholars have
stolen the term from John, who called his book "The Apocalypse [Revelation] of Jesus Christ.") There are, in fact, many major differences between the "apocalyptic" writings and the Book of Revelation.
The "apocalyptists" expressed themselves in unexplained and unintelligible symbols, and generally had no intention of making themselves really understood. Their writings abound in pessimism: no real progress is possible, nor will there be any victory for God and His people in history. We cannot even see God acting in history. All we know is that the world is getting worse and worse. The best we can do is hope
for the End—soon. But for now, the forces of evil are in control. (Sound familiar?) The practical result was that the apocalyptists rarely concerned themselves with ethical behavior. They weren't much interested in how to live in the present (and actually taking dominion would be unthinkable); they just wanted to speculate about the coming cataclysms.
John's approach in the Revelation is vastly different. His symbols are not obscure ravings hatched from a fevered imagination; they are rooted firmly in the Old Testament (and the reason for their seeming obscurity is that very fact: we have trouble understanding them only because we don't know our Bibles). In contrast to the apocalyptists, who had given up on history, John presents history as the scene of
redemption: God saves His people in their environment, not out of it; and He saves the environment.
Leon Morris, in his important study of Apocalyptic (Eerdmans, 1972), describes John's worldview: "For him history is the sphere in which God has wrought out redemption. The really critical thing in the history of mankind has already taken place, and it took place here, on this earth, in the affairs of men. The Lamb 'as it had been slain' dominates the entire book. John sees Christ as victorious and as having
won the victory through His death, an event in history. His people share in His triumph, but they have conquered Satan 'by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony' (Rev. 12:11). The pessimism which defers God's saving activity until the End is absent. Though John depicts evil realistically, his book is fundamentally optimistic" (p. 79).
The apocalyptists said, The world is coming to an end: Give up! The Biblical prophets said, The world is coming to a beginning: Get to work!
Thus, the Book of Revelation is not an apocalyptic tract; it is, instead, as John himself reminds us repeatedly, a prophecy (1:3; 10:11; 22:7, 10, 18-19), completely in keeping with the writings of the other Biblical prophets. And—again in stark contrast to the apocalyptists—if there was one major concern among the Biblical prophets, it was ethical conduct. No Biblical writer ever revealed the future merely
for the sake of satisfying curiosity: the goal was always to direct God's people toward right action in the present. The overwhelming majority of Biblical prophecy had nothing to do with the common misconception of "prophecy" as foretelling the future. The prophets told of the future in order to stimulate godly living. The purpose of prophecy is ethical.
The fact that many who study the prophetic writings today are more interested in finding possible references to space travel and nuclear weapons than in discovering God's commandments for living, is a sickening tribute to modern apostasy. "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10); to ignore Jesus in favor of atomic blasts is a perversion of Scripture, a preposterous twisting of
God's holy Word. From beginning to end, John is intensely interested in the ethical conduct of those who read the Book of Revelation:
Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and keep the things which are written in it (1:3).
Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his garments (16:15).
Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book (22:7).
Blessed are those who do His commandments (22:14).
I must emphasize that in arguing for the eschatology of dominion I am not simply handing out an alternate program guide for the future. Biblical eschatology is not just a schedule of special events. The fundamental meaning of the Hope is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The goal of eschatology is to lead men to worship and serve their Creator. Prophecy is never merely an academic exercise. All the prophets
pointed to Jesus Christ, and they all demanded an ethical response. God's Word demands total transformation of our lives, at every point. If that is not the goal, and result, of our study of Scripture, it will profit us nothing.