The title concludes with the first of seven beatitudes to be found in the book (the other six occurring in 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14). The fact that there are precisely seven of these pronouncements is probably coincidental, not stemming from John's fascination with the number seven. John's use of the beatitude form shows familiarity with the written or oral traditions behind the Gospels, if not with the Gospels themselves (see, for example, Mt 5:3-12; Lk 6:20-23). The beatitude found here corresponds to one attributed to the risen Jesus in Revelation 22:7: "Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book." Both recall the saying of Jesus found in Lk 11:28: "`Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.'" The difference is that in Revelation the beatitude refers to a written document. The blessing, therefore, is first on the one who reads the words of this prophecy (that is, aloud to a Christian congregation), and second on those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it (that is, the congregation to whom the letter is read).
It is easy to forget that among the early Christians almost no one owned any portion of what is now considered Scripture. Even whole congregations were fortunate if they owned more than one of the Gospels. The only access that ordinary Christians had to the Gospels and letters that now make up the New Testament was public reading in worship services. The public reader therefore performed a ministry to the congregation far beyond what is normally the case today (compare 1 Thess 5:27; Col 4:16). The beatitude here is the author's way of saying, "Make sure you have this prophecy read in your worship assemblies! Make sure you listen and pay attention to your reader! And above all, make sure you act on what you have heard!"
The urgency of the implied command is accented by the decisive statement that the time is near. Almost at the end of the book, the same phrase points up the contrast between this prophecy and the book of Daniel: the words given to Daniel were "closed up and sealed until the time of the end" (Dan 12:9), while the words given to John are not to be sealed "because the time is near" (Rev 22:10). For John and his readers the lateness of the hour demanded that his letter not be a closed book but a disclosure, an actual revelation open for all to read, understand and obey. With the passage of nineteen hundred years, it is tempting to assume that the time came and went long ago and nothing happened, or that the time is far off and the book is sealed up again, like Daniel, until some distant "last day." In either case, the book of Revelation becomes irrelevant and, like most irrelevant things, is left to "experts," whether we define them as professional biblical scholars preoccupied with a distant past or as confident television preachers preoccupied with an imminent, yet somehow theoretical, future. It is time to reclaim the book of Revelation for those who read it and for those who hear it read in church, and above all for those prepared to take its message to heart. Only in the conviction that somehow "the time" is as near as ever can John's letter still be read as larger than life and vivid in its sights and sounds.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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