“What is the meaning of the expression ‘shortly come to pass,’ found in Revelation 1:1?”
The final book of the New Testament begins in this fashion. “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show unto his servants, even the things which must shortly come to pass?” (1:1a).
The phrase, “must shortly come to pass,” translates the Greek dei genesthai en tachei. Of special interest is the term tachei. This word, together with several cognate forms, expresses various shades of meaning.
This word can carry the idea of “swift, quick.” Jesus once admonished his disciples to “agree with your adversary quickly” (Mt. 5:25). At the site of the Lord’s empty tomb, an angel instructed the women who had arrived on that Sunday morning to “go quickly, and tell his disciples” (Mt. 28:8).
Tacheion reflects the comparative degree of the previous term. The word is rendered “outran” (Jn. 20:4), to depict the fact that John arrived at the empty tomb “more quickly” than did the slower Peter.
The kindred form tacheos is manifest in several translation forms.
(1) When a certain ruler
prepared a great feast, he invited many to attend, but they rejected
his gracious invitation. He then dispatched a servant to go
“quickly” and invite the less well-to-do (Lk. 14:21; cf. 16:6).
(2) When Paul wrote the letter commonly called First Corinthians, he promised those saints that if it was the Lord’s will, he would come and visit them “shortly” (4:19).
(3) With reference to guiding men into the work of serving as elders, Paul cautioned Timothy to “lay hands suddenly [KJV; ‘hastily’ – ASV] upon no man” (1 Tim. 5:22). Investigation and deliberation were to be preliminary stages.
The combined terms, en tachei,
carried the idea of “in [or with] speed.”
(1) When an angel appeared to Peter in a Jerusalem jail cell, he urged the apostle to “rise up quickly” in preparation for deliverance (Acts 12:7).
(2) Jesus promised his persecuted disciples that their enemies would be dealt with “speedily” (Lk. 18:8).
(3) Paul prophesied that God would crush Satan under the saints’ feet “shortly” (Rom. 16:20). This is the very expression employed in Revelation 1:1.
Aside from the etymological sense of a term, however, every serious Bible student knows that words can take on special meanings, depending upon the nature of the immediate context, or depending upon the type of literature in which they are found.
For example, in contexts dealing with prophecy, the time factor becomes quite elastic. This is a most elementary principle of Bible interpretation. Some prophecies are framed in language which makes it appear as if the events were accomplished already. This is done in order to emphasize the certainty of God’s plan (cf. Isa. 9:6).
What, then, is the significance of the term “shortly” in Revelation 1:1. To a considerable extent, this depends upon the view that one entertains relative to the thrust of the book as a whole.
A few misguided souls subscribe to the dogma of radical preterism. This is the notion that all Bible prophecy – including the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the end of the world, etc. – was fulfilled by the time Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70). Accordingly, these folks assign a rigid meaning to “shortly.” They insist that “shortly” must be taken quite literally, thus, the prophetic events would be completed within a very few years. Elsewhere we have shown the fallacy of this system of interpretation. See: “The Menace of Radical Preterism”, in our “Feature” section.
A few scholars have subscribed to a moderately preterist view of the book of Revelation. These writers are not to be confused with the radicals described above. The moderates argue that the Apocalypse was written prior to A.D. 70, and that the bulk of the book has to do with Jewish and Roman persecution against the church. Even some of these men, however, do not contend that every event within the book of Revelation was fulfilled in the immediate future.
For example, Moses Stuart (1780-1852) a distinguished scholar affiliated with Andover Seminary, and a moderate preterist, wrote the following:
“. . . the closing part of the Revelation relates beyond all doubt to a distant period, and some of it to a future eternity” (A Commentary on the Apocalypse, Andover: Allen, Morrill & Wardwell, 1845, II, p. 5).
Thus, even some preterists
allow for the flexibility of the expression “shortly.”
Scholars who are not of the preterist persuasion view the expression “shortly come to pass” in various other ways.
(1) The phrase may mean that
the events which were to be revealed in this divine document were to
commence shortly, while there would then be a historical progression
spanning many centuries, being consummated by the Lord’s Second
Coming (cf. Albert Barnes, Barnes’ Notes — Revelation, Grand Rapids:
Baker, 1954, p. 35; R.C.H. Lenski, St. John’s Revelation,
Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1963, p. 660).
(2) Leon Morris has noted that “we must bear in mind that in the prophetic perspective the future is sometimes foreshortened. In other words the word may refer primarily to the certainty of the events in question. The Lord God has determined them and He will speedily bring them to pass. But speedily has a reference to His time not ours” (The Revelation of St. John — Tyndale Series, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 45; emp. added). Morris also suggests that the meaning may be “suddenly,” i.e., when the appointed time arrives, the events will occur “without delay.”
(2) Robert Mounce contended that the phrase likely means that, from the prophetic vantage point, “the end is always eminent. Time as a chronological sequence is of secondary concern in prophecy. This perspective is common to the entire NT. Jesus taught that God would vindicate his elect without delay (Luke 18:8), and Paul wrote to the Romans that God would ‘soon’ crush Satan under their feet (Rom. 16:20)” (The Book of Revelation — New International Commentary Series, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, p. 41).
It is quite clear, therefore, that there are responsible ways of explaining the term “shortly,” that do not resort to the bizarre theories characteristic of radical preterism.
Note: For a further consideration of the matter of “time” in connection with Bible prophecy, see the author’s chapter, “The Time Is ‘At Hand’,” in Revelation — Christ’s Final Message of Hope (Courier Publications, 2004, pp. 135ff).