The Apocalypse and Irenaeus

06 Jan
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We are told in Revelation 1:3 not only that John is a prophet in the vein of the Old Testament prophets, but that the time for the events recorded in this prophecy was “at hand.” However, how should we understand the words: at hand? (cf. Revelation 22:12, 20)? Many believers today think nearly all the Apocalypse is yet to be fulfilled in the future. However, the internal evidence tells a different story. John says the fulfillment of what he was given was at hand (G1451 – Revelation 1:3), or according to Thayer’s Greek Definitions: near, imminent or soon to come to pass.

When Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans, he told them that their salvation (i.e. the coming of Jesus) was nearer than when they had at first believed (Romans 13:11), and, when he wrote to the Philippians, he was able to declare unto them that the Lord’s coming was at hand (Philippians 4:5). James also instructed his readers that the Lord’s coming was near, even at the door (James 5:8-9). Either present day believers are correct about the coming of Jesus or the writers of the New Testament were correct about the coming of Jesus. Either ‘sola scriptura’ (2Peter 1:19) is something we believe in, or it is the traditions of men that we would rather embrace, because the writers of the New Testament believed the end of the age was in their expected lifetimes (1Peter 4:7; cf. Revelation 22:12, 20).

Some may object to this understanding by pointing to what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians in his second epistle. However, Paul makes no contradiction there. The KJV translators make it look as though Paul didn’t believe the coming of the Lord was at hand (2Thessalonians 2:2-3), but this is not so. The word Paul uses there is enisteme (G1764), but in Revelation 1:3 it is eggus (G1451). In Thessalonica some believers were teaching the Lord had already come, that the Day of the Lord was already present. This is what Paul denied, not that the coming of Jesus was near, but that his coming had already occurred at the time of his letter.

One might ask, then, from where do we derive our opinion that the Book of Revelation was written late in the 1st century AD. Believers today who think the coming of the Lord is yet future usually point to the testimony of the early church fathers, especially Irenaeus, who lived in the 2nd century AD. Irenaeus wrote:

“We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.”[1] (emphasis mine)

Some scholars argue that it could be translated “he was seen…” In other words, John lived to the time of Domitian’s reign, but his vision could have been seen years, even decades, before that time. Is Irenaeus translated correctly, as we read it, or have the translators incorporated their own eschatological understanding in their translations? Am I reaching at this point or being overly critical? I don’t think so, because the scholars even admit to the difficulty of translating Irenaeus themselves:

“The great work of Irenaeus, now for the first time translated into English, is unfortunately no longer extant in the original. It has come down to us only in an ancient Latin version… Irenaeus, even in the original Greek, is often a very obscure writer. At times he expresses himself with remarkable clearness and terseness; but, upon the whole, his style is very involved and prolix. And the Latin version adds to these difficulties of the original, by being itself of the most barbarous character. In fact, it is often necessary to make a conjectural re-translation of it into Greek, in order to obtain some inkling of what the author wrote. Dodwell supposes this Latin version to have been made about the end of the fourth century; but as Tertullian seems to have used it, we must rather place it in the beginning of the third. Its author is unknown, but he was certainly little qualified for his task. We have endeavored to give as close and accurate a translation of the work as possible, but there are not a few passages in which a guess can only be made as to the probable meaning.” [Translator’s Introduction to Irenaeus: “Against Heresies” – emphasis mine]

Therefore, it seems to me that what many believe about the Apocalypse, as it pertains to being a book for our future, is based upon uncertain testimony. One should at least consider trying to see its interpretation from a different perspective. I have, and it has changed my life. For one thing, I don’t even listen to the testimonies of the false prophets who seem to keep coming in our generation to tell us when Jesus will come. I don’t fear them, because God hasn’t sent them (cf. Deuteronomy 18:20-22).


[1] Irenaeus: Against Heresies; Book 5; chapter 30; end of paragraph 3

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Posted by on January 6, 2019 in Apocalypse, Book of Revelation


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