The Puzzling References to Time
People who read Revelation sometimes feel perplexed by the use of the words “soon” and “near” given in first three verses of Revelation.
Rev 1:1-3 — “1The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, 2who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.”
We see verse 1 saying that these things will “soon” take place (some translations say these things will happen “shortly”). Then verse 3 adds that the “time is near” for these things.
Of course, these verses were written over nineteen centuries ago, and these things have still not yet taken place. It’s only natural to wonder how words like “soon” and “near” could allow for such a long span of time. Indeed, some commentators argue that these words demand that the prophecies of Revelation must have been fulfilled long ago (e.g. the Preterist view).
Things which must “soon take place”
The word in verse 1 that is translated as “soon” or “shortly” is the Greek word “tachei” [Strong’s #5034]. Notice how this word is defined:
- Strong’s — quickness, speed; hastily, immediately
- HELPS — swiftness (speed), i.e. done as quickly (speedily) as is appropriate to the particular situation (HELPS Word-studies, The Discovery Bible New Testament, Gary Hill).
It’s important to notice that the primary meaning of this word refers to the speed by which an event approaches rather than the duration of time before it arrives. In fact, this same word is generally translated in terms of speed elsewhere in the New Testament, as shown in the following examples:
- Luke 8 — 8I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?
- Acts 12 — 7And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands.
- Acts 22 — 18and I saw Him saying to me, ‘Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.
Appropriately, some translations (e.g. Young’s Literal, Holman Christian Standard, Berean Literal, Jubilee 2000) do in fact translate Revelation 1:1 using “quickly” instead of “soon“.
What difference does it make? The difference is that quickly means that the event is approaching rapidly without implying any limitation upon the time frame in which it must occur. Therefore, verse 1 is saying only that God is causing the fulfillment of these prophecies to approach quickly. Regardless of how long it takes, we are not to construe the apparently long delay as idleness on God’s part.
To be fair, there are also some other verses in which this same Greek word tachei is translated using the word “shortly” (or similar meaning), for example:
- Acts 25 — 4Festus then answered that Paul was being kept in custody at Caesarea and that he himself was about to leave shortly.
- 1 Tim 3 –– 14I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long.
- Rom 16 — 20The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.
The first two cases above are similar to each other in that they both refer to actions carried out by a human (Festus in Acts 25, and Paul in 1 Tim 3). When used in this “human” context, it’s generally fine to equate acting quickly with acting within a short time frame. After all, in comparison to God, humans only have a very short time in which to act.
However, the last example above (from Romans 16) is much more similar to Revelation 1:1 because it also refers to an action being carried out solely by God. Here again, it would have been better to translate using the word quickly instead of soon! It says that God will “soon” crush Satan — but does any Christian believe that Satan was crushed some short time (by any human standard) after Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans? Of course not. On the contrary, Satan is still quite active today. The crushing of Satan is a prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled.
The example of Romans 16 actually confirms the view that this Greek word for “quickly”, when applied to God’s actions, should not be used to imply a short time-frame by any human standard. Remember that vast amounts of time are inconsequential to God (2 Pet 3:8).
From this, we see that Revelation may be properly understood as
(1) prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled, and
(2) that God is executing His plans to fulfill that prophecy quickly — no matter long it takes.
For the “time is near”
The word in verse 3 that is translated as “time” is the Greek word “kairos” [Strong’s #2540]. Let’s see how this word is defined:
- Strong’s — fitting season, season, opportunity, occasion, time
- HELPS — time as opportunity … (“opportune time”) is derived from kara (“head”) referring to things “coming to a head” to take full-advantage of … “the suitable time” … “ the right moment” …. “a favorable moment”. (HELPS Word-studies, The Discovery Bible New Testament, Gary Hill).
Notice that the primary notion of “time” conveyed by this word isn’t “elapsed time” (as in relation to a clock or calendar), but rather it is “appropriate time”. There are several examples of this word being used this way elsewhere in scripture (e.g. Matt 8:29; Matt 16:3; Matt 24:45; Mark 1:15; Acts 24:25; Rom 5:6; 1 Tim 6:15). So, where John’s says “for the time is near“, it means that it is now (or it is becoming) the appropriate time for these things to happen.
Some translations (e.g. KJV, JUB, ASV, DRB, ERV) seek to clarify the actual meaning by saying “the time is at hand”. This wording emphasizes the appropriateness of the time rather than the shortness of time. The time for these things to happen was appropriate when John wrote Revelation, and it is just as appropriate today.
Consider this question: In verse 3, did John say “the time is near” because he knew when the fulfillment was going to happen? No. In fact, Jesus had already told John on two occasions (Matt 24:36, Acts 1:7) that the timing was not for anyone to know except the Father. We have no reason to think that God changed his mind about that when the book of Revelation was revealed to John.
But if John didn’t know when these things would happen, what could he possibly have meant when he said “the time is near”? The only thing that it could mean is that the fulfillment of these things is imminent. The admonition John is making in these verses is to be ready for these things, because they could come any time.
So the text, properly understood, does not imply some limited time frame. Instead, we should understand that we are currently in the time when it would be appropriate for these things to happen. The actual meaning of verse 3 might be stated: “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for these things are imminent.”
People who live in (say) California will say that an earthquake is imminent because they know it can come any time, and there’s nothing (that they know about) which must happen before the earthquake strikes. But even so, they can’t say with any certainty how much time will pass before it does strike.
The key thing that makes an event imminent is that, as far as we know, it’s ready to happen but its timing is unknown. This agrees exactly with the way Jesus described His return in the end times:
Mark 13:32-37 — 32“But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. 33“Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come. 34“It is like a man away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert. 35“Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. 37“What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’”
Jesus tells us to be alert and watchful precisely because we don’t know when he will return. Specifically, verse 35 says his return could be “in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning”. This is clearly a figurative way to say that we must allow the widest possible range of time for His return to occur.
Any Christian, from the first century onward, should be ready for the possibility of Christ to return in their lifetime — and yet at the same time accept that He might not return until long after their lifetime is over. That is, Christians are called live expectantly, but not presumptuously.
The Long Wait
There are some passages that hint that our wait could seem to us like a long time:
2 Pet 3:3-4 — 3Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, 4and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.”
Peter is telling us that in the last days, there will be scoffers who mock believers who still look forward to Christ’s return. Their mistake is to think that because the earth has been effectively ruled by man for such a long time (since creation as well as since Christ promised to come), it will continue that way, which rules out Christ returning to reign as king. Peter answers by saying:
8But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. 9The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
Since Peter mentions a thousand years here in the context of Christ’s return, we should at least accept that a time delay of that scale is possible. Also, verse 9 suggests that people will perceive Christ’s promised return as slow in coming, although to God, it’s not slowness at all; it’s patience.
Matt 13:31-33 – 31He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; 32and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR come and NEST IN ITS BRANCHES.” 33He spoke another parable to them, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.”
Here, Jesus gives two quick parables about the growth of the kingdom. This growth refers to the spreading of the gospel throughout the earth, which is something that must take a considerable amount of time. These parables about the growth of the kingdom go hand-in-hand with the last command Jesus gave before his ascension in Acts 1: 6So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; 8but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
The answer given by Jesus implies that the kingdom will not be restored until the growth of the kingdom, even to the remotest part of the earth, has been completed.
Matt 24:48-49 – 48But if that evil slave says in his heart, ‘My master is not coming for a long time,’ 49and begins to beat his fellow slaves and eat and drink with drunkards
Jesus is teaching His followers to remain faithful until the (unknown) time of His return. As an analogy, he describes a master who goes away, leaving his household in the care of his servants, expecting that they will carry out their duties until he returns. But in this verse, he describes a servant who acts wickedly after reasoning that master is not returning for a long time. Again, Jesus is at least raising the idea that people will become dismissive of the possibility that He might return within their own lifetimes.
Matt 25:1-5 – 1“Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2“Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. 3“For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps. 5Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep.
This parable speaks of ten virgins awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom, although they didn’t know when he would arrive. Five of the virgins were prudent because they brought enough oil for a long wait. The other five were foolish because they brought no extra oil. In the end, the prudent ones were admitted into the wedding feast, and the foolish were left out (Matt 25:10, 11-13). The coming of the bridegroom represents the return of Christ, and Jesus is clearly teaching that it is wise to be prepared for a long wait.
Comparison with Daniel
Here is one more reason to believe that the phrase “the time is near” refers to the imminence of Christ’s return: The book of Daniel and the book of Revelation certainly both speak about the same end-times period, and yet there is a sharp difference in the commands given to the writer at the end of each book:
- This is what Daniel was told at the end of his writing (Dan 12:4):
“But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase.”
- This is what John was told at the end of his writing (Rev 22:10):
And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.
I believe the similarity between these “sealing up” verses is intentional, and more importantly, the difference between them illuminates the meaning of “the time is near”.
- In Daniel’s case, he was told to seal up the book until the end of time. The reason for that is given: “many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase.” That is, there are still more things that must be accomplished and revealed before the end times events can occur. The “many” refers to further prophets, as well as Jesus Himself and His Apostles. These people must still come to increase our knowledge. Clearly, the fulfillment was not imminent in Daniel’s time.
- In John’s case, he is told to not seal up the words because the time is near. Unlike Daniel, there is no further revealing that must occur before the events spoken of may begin. That is, there will be no more prophets, and the knowledge we have (as of the conclusion of Revelation) is sufficient for the end times to occur. This means that the fulfillment of the prophecy is imminent, which confirms that this is the correct understanding of the phrase “the time is near” in Rev 22:10, as well as Rev 1:3.