The Book of Revelation


The last book of the New Testament has been wisely assigned its place at the close of our Bible. It is a large and comprehensive view of the conditions of the church and the course of history. It brings to our minds by anticipation the completion of God's work in humanity at large, the expansion of that germ which was once for all planted in the earth when, in the person of Jesus Christ, salvation was embodied and a new humanity created over which sin and death had no more dominion forever. In the study of this book our thoughts can rise from the beginning of the process to the end of the process, can pass from the beginning of the conflict to the end of the conflict, in the glory of the children of God and the gathering together of all the sons of God into one holy and blissful community in the presence of Christ, their Lord. These are only preliminary remarks, but they intimate to some extent the purpose and value of this book which we are considering.

The book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse, as it is so often called, is the revelation made to John the apostle; for all attempts to show that any other person than John was the author are futile in the extreme. Many of those who deny John's authorship of the Fourth Gospel, and even of the Epistles, are perfectly ready to concede that the Apocalypse is the work of John, and to hold that it has all the marks of a Johannine authorship. It must, however, have been written at a different time from the Gospel and the Epistles, because there are very marked differences between it and those other works of the apostle. The Apocalypse was by far the earliest writing of the apostle John, and although it now constitutes the last book of the New Testament, it was by no means the last book that was written. A very considerable interval came between the writing of the Apocalypse and the writing of the Gospel and of the Epistles. The Apocalypse was probably written before the destruction of Jerusalem, perhaps in the year 68; it was written by the apostle John, in Patmos, where he had been exiled during the reign of Nero and in the very last portion of Nero's reign; it was written under a persecution which had its greatest violence at Rome, but the farthest circles of whose waves had reached out as far as Asia Minor to Ephesus, where John was then in charge of the churches which Paul had left to his supervision at his martyrdom.

John had remained in Jerusalem until the death of the apostles Peter and Paul had rendered it necessary that some one of apostolic authority should take charge of the great and influential churches that were located in the western part of Asia. You remember that our Lord, at his death, left his mother in the charge of John. Tradition relates that he not only took her to his own home, but that he remained in Jerusalem, caring for her as the representative of our Lord, until Mary's death; and this death did not occur until some thirty years after the death of our Lord. Then, in prospect of the destruction of Jerusalem, and knowing that the city of the Old Testament was soon to be obliterated from the face of the earth, John made his way to Asia Minor, took up his residence in Ephesus, and began to take charge of the churches in that region.

Soon after this there sprang up the persecution under Nero. John was banished to Patmos, and there, on a certain Sabbath day, the Spirit of the Lord opened to him the future, and prepared him to communicate great truths with regard to God's dispensation to the churches of Asia, of which he was the superintendent.

The early origin of the Apocalypse accounts for some of the main difficulties with regard to the genuineness of either the Apocalypse or the Gospel. We find that the Apocalypse is written in a style that, in some respects, is different from the style of the Gospel and of the Epistles. The main differences might be characterized in this way: The Gospel and the Epistles are in simple and flowing Greek. They are not broken, or rugged in style. There is a spirit of sympathy and of love in them, which you do not find so evidently present in the Apocalypse. In addition to this, you find some striking peculiarities of Greek construction in the Apocalypse, which are totally absent in the Gospel and in the Epistles. There are lapses of grammar. The Greek preposition which should govern the genitive is used occasionally with the nominative instead. Any student of Greek will recognize the strangeness of this peculiarity, and there are certain other things of a similar sort which I need not mention. I am inclined to explain this by saying that, during his early life, the apostle John had his dwelling-place in Jerusalem, and was accustomed mainly to the use of the Aramaic language. In other words, Greek was not in constant use and, therefore, when he goes to the churches of Asia Minor and begins to use Greek continually, it is with a less perfect familiarity than that which he attains afterward; and these lapses of grammar, and these peculiarities of style, are due to the fact that he had not worked into the Greek language as he afterward did. Thirty years afterward, when he had become an old man and Greek had become to him, as it were, his mother tongue, he uses it with perfect fluency, and not only with fluency, but with very remarkable beauty and smoothness and eloquence.

This is probably one of the reasons why the style of the Apocalypse differs from the style of the Gospel. But there is another reason: When John wrote the Apocalypse he was by no means so old as he was when he wrote the Gospel and the Epistles. It is true he was not young. You cannot call a man of fifty a young man. Yet a man of fifty still retains the freshness and fervor of his youthful style; and as you read the Apocalypse, I am very sure you will recognize some of that fire and vivacity, some of that intensity and energy which is indicated in the epithet " Boanerges," or " Son of Thunder," which our Lord conferred upon him. I suppose there are more thunderings and lightnings in the Apocalypse than in any other book of the Bible; and it seems very fitting that Boanerges, the Son of Thunder, John the apostle, should have been the author of it.

As time went on and the outward difficulties of the church were less, as the season of conflict gave place to a season of calm, as youth was succeeded by age, it seems only natural that John the apostle should have become softened. In the Gospel and the Epistles you seem to hear again and again repeated the words which tradition ascribes to John in his old age, "Little children, love one another." Love became more and more the dominant key of his life; the Gospel and the Epistles represent this softened nature, this effect of the Spirit of God upon him, this maturity of Christian character. I do not say that the fiery element, the intense hatred of wrong is absent from the Gospel and from the Epistles. You find it there still, and yet it is toned down, as you do not find it toned down in the Apocalypse.

That the Apocalypse was written before the destruction of Jerusalem I think is very plain from some things in the Apocalypse itself, namely, the fact that the Jews are spoken of there as an existing hostile power, as they are not in the Gospel and in the Epistles. You remember that, toward the close of Paul's life, but during Paul's active ministry, Judaizing teachers were his most active, persistent, and malignant enemies; and the tendency to turn the church of Christ into an old-fashioned Jewish synagogue was the evil tendency of the day. The Jews were the persistent and malignant opposers of Christianity. In the Apocalypse you find the recognition of that present enmity and hatred, as you do not find it in the Gospel and in the Epistles. In the Gospel and in the Epistles John refers to the Jews as enemies of Christ, it is true, but it is perfectly evident that their power for evil has long since passed away.

In the Apocalypse, when the apostle is describing those two witnesses that were slain and that lay dead

for a time, he represents them as lying in the streets of the city in which our Lord was crucified. If Jerusalem at that time had been destroyed and blotted out from the face of the earth, it is hardly possible that John would have spoken of it as if it were still existing, as if the streets were there, and as if this scene which rises before him could yet be conceived of as taking place just as he describes it. That mystical number, the number 666, which is given by the author of the book of Revelation as a sort of key to the present application of his prophecy, can be interpreted most easily and simply, I think, as an allusion to the reigning emperor; namely, the Emperor Nero. If you will take each letter of the words Neron Ka1sar, according to its numerical value in Hebrew, you will find that these letters make up the precise number 666 that is recorded; and when John says that five kings have already passed away and have had their day, it is most natural that these five kings should refer to the five who had reigned at Rome: namely, Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. Then he names the sixth as the one that now is, and that sixth one is Nero. Then, to confirm these conclusions, he speaks of another that follows who is to continue but for a little space; and Galba, who followed Nero, had his place upon the throne, as we know historically, for only seven months; so that the prophecy seems to have more light thrown upon it than if we regard it as written in the time of Domitian, as some have thought, some thirty years afterward.

It has been argued, in reply, that we do not give time for the development, in the churches of Asia, of the peculiar tendencies which the apostle John is reprobating in the Apocalypse. Well, I say, evil sometimes grows very rapidly; the apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders, even in his day, against these evil tendencies; declaring that, "of themselves even, some would rise and would lead away disciples after them "; and it is not improbable that, in a very few years after, these tendencies may have become so developed as to call for John's warnings and reprobations. You remember, in the case of the Galatians, how soon they turned from the faith. Evil, I repeat, sometimes grows very rapidly; and, as we find these very tendencies recognized by the apostle Paul, it is nothing at all improbable that, after Paul had been taken away and Peter had suffered martyrdom, these tendencies should have very speedily required reprehension and rebuke such as we find given to them in the book of Revelation. The times in which the book of Revelation was written need to be taken into account, in order that we may get a proper apprehension of the object of it. Remember that the Jewish nation had reached its climax of hostility to God and his truth, its climax of inward moral corruption and rottenness. At the time when this Apocalypse was written the Jewish nation was simply ripe for destruction. It had turned against Christ, and it had turned against God. The highpriesthood was openly sold in the market for money; high priest after high priest obtained his office by bribery; and, having obtained his office, signalized his holding of it by the most shameful wickedness of every kind. The persecution of Christians was a common thing. Christians came at last to be excluded from the courts of the temple, and the Jews became enemies of all that was good. All idea that they were holy people, made for the service of God, seemed to pass from their mind; they became an apostate church, that remained only to call down upon it the judgments of God.

On the other hand, the Roman Empire was just now in a condition equally corrupt, and equally fit for divine retribution. The Romans for centuries had, by war and conquest, enslaved the world and carried tens of thousands of captives to Italy, there to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water "; so that the whole fabric of the Roman commonwealth rested upon a vast basis of human slavery, the atrociousness and monstrosity of which passes belief. The emperors became so inflated with pride of power that they set themselves up in the place of God himself; they were objects of worship to their subjects; altars were set up, upon which sacrifices were offered to them as gods, in every great city of the Roman Empire.

And Nero was upon the throne at this time. Nero was a sort of concentrated essence of everything that is depraved and base in human history. He murdered his mother; he murdered his brothers; he murdered his wives. His history was stained by every lust and every crime in the catalogue; and now he began the persecution of Christians. He set fire to Rome, and, finding that public reprobation followed the act, he laid the blame of it upon the Christians, wound multitudes of them with linen bandages, loaded them with wax, and set them up in his garden at night as torches to burn, in order that his great public gatherings might be graced by the spectacle. That was Nero—one of the most cold-blooded and horrible examples of crime that has ever defaced the history of the world—and in Nero we have the beginning of a long line of persecutions of the Christian church.

John writes at the beginning of this tremendous conflict between heathen power on the one hand and Christian faith on the other, and just upon the verge of that tremendous visitation of God by which Jerusalem was swept away from the face of the earth. In view of these calamities that were to sweep away the Jewish temple and the old order of worship, and in view of the various persecutions and troubles that might come upon them as individuals and as churches. Christians needed to be strengthened with the thought that God was in the heavens, that the Lord reigned, that he saw the end from the beginning, that the same hands that were nailed to the cross held now the reins of power, and that all things would work together for good to them that love God. To confirm the faith of the people of God in view of a visitation of Providence, such probably as has never been seen in the history of the world, and to make them sure that God would give victory to his saints at last, this was the great end for which the Apocalypse was written.

With regard to the interpretation of the Apocalypse, there is great diversity of opinion. There have been hundreds of interpreters, and not many of them agree. There are, first of all, the Praeterists, or those who believe that everything in the Apocalypse had taken place, or was to take place in a very few years after the death of the apostles; there are, secondly, the Futurists, or those who hold that none has yet taken place, but that all are to take place far-off in the future; and then, thirdly, there are the Continuists, or those who hold that the Apocalypse is a continuous historical narrative, an unfolding of the history of the church of God from the beginning to the end.

Let me give you what I think to be the key to it all. The key to it all is found in the eschatological, apocalyptic discourse of our Lord Jesus Christ himself just before his death, the discourse in which he refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, but in which his account of the destruction of Jerusalem passes into an account of the end of the world. Prophecy is destitute of perspective. It does not take account of now and then, but presents before us a series of events of which the one passes into the other, with no clear dividing line between this and that. You have seen the views of a stereopticon, and you know how, as you are looking upon one view, another seems to be appearing; the first merges into the second; the first has gone, and the second is here; but you can never tell the precise point where the one ceases and the other begins. Just so, as our Lord is seated upon the Mount of Olives opposite Jerusalem, there passes before him, like a moving panorama, the terrible scenes that were to be witnessed only a few years after his death, in the destruction of Jerusalem. He sees mothers that are massacring and devouring their own children. He sees hundreds of thousands put to the sword. All these terrible scenes are passing before him, and he depicts them; but, behold, as he depicts this divine judgment so soon to be witnessed, the panorama becomes transparent, the present merges into the future, and, before you know it, he is describing the judgment of the great day; the Lord is bringing all the nations of the earth before him and separating them, as sheep from the goats. No one can tell where the description of the destruction of Jerusalem ends, and where the description of the end of the world begins.

This eschatological, apocalyptic discourse of Jesus Christ furnishes the key by which we are to interpret the book of Revelation. As all the Epistles of Paul may be called only an inspired commentary upon Christ's last discourse to his disciples in the Gospel according to John, just so the whole book of Revelation may be called nothing but an inspired commentary upon Christ's apocalyptic discourse before he suffered. Notice two or three things with regard to Christ's discourse. The first is this, that it is vain to say that our Lord Jesus was describing there simply things that were taking place in his generation. It is perfectly plain that, although he begins with describing things that are taking place in his generation, he does not end there. He does not end with anything short of the end of the world; and so I think that our Lord's discourse furnishes a reason why we should completely give up the Praeterist interpretation of the book of Revelation, which regards it as only a description of things that took place in the day of the apostles. It doubtless refers to some such things, but that is not the end of it. There is much more than that.

Again, if we take our Lord's discourse for a guide, we must equally throw out the view that the book of Revelation all belongs to the future. Our Lord's discourse certainly spoke of things that were then present or were going to be within a few years after his death. We cannot accept the interpretation of the book which makes it all refer to things that have none of them yet happened; but then, on the other hand, it is equally true that the continuous or historical method has very much against it, when we look at what Christ has said in his discourse about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world.

Our Lord does not attempt to fill up all the intervals between the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world. I infer that those who think we have, in the book of Revelation, a complete map of all the events that were to take place from the destruction of Jerusalem to the end of the world must be mistaken. Prophecy passes over vast intervals, and sometimes gives no account of the incidents that are in them. It may be, therefore, that large intervals are passed over in the book of Revelation, and that no account is taken of them.

I think I hear you say: "If you throw out all the interpretations, pray, what interpretations have you left?" Well, I say I have them all left; I mean that I have all the good in them left; and the interpretation which I would propose is substantially this: We have in the book of Revelation, as we have in the discourse of Christ, an exhibition of principles rather than of events, of principles illustrated here and there by events, but without intention to give us a continuous map of the whole. My general idea of the interpretation of the book of Revelation, then, regards it as an exhibition of principles.

As our Lord speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem

and the visitation of punishment upon his opposers, he elucidates principles of God's retributory judgment, which apply to the end of the world as well; the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world are both mentioned, simply as illustrating those principles. So we have great principles laid down in the book of Revelation, together with isolated illustrations of them.

Let us now take up the book of Revelation a little more in detail. We have, first of all, the prologue, in which the greatness and glory of Christ are set before us. The foundation of our hope is the fact that our Lord reigns, that he is a risen Saviour, that he has the keys of hell and of death, that he supervises his churches, that he walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks. This truth serves as the foundation of all that comes after, whether of doctrine or of duty.

There follows a description of the church which Christ is to supervise, with all its infirmities, with all its weaknesses, with all its dangers, yet with the life of God in it. It is, notwithstanding, a sevenfold lamp that is set up to burn here in the world.

After this we have a sort of summary, in which heaven is opened; there is a book before the throne; and that book or roll is sealed; no one can open the seal, until at last the Lion of the tribe of Judah prevails to open the seal, and all heaven rejoices.

I call this the summary of everything that is to come. The meaning of it is just this: The book is the book of God's decrees. That book no one can open; that is, no one can understand, except the Saviour himself, the Lamb of God, who executes these decrees in human history. He can understand and explain, because he has himself formed the decree and he himself will execute it. So, one after another, he opens the seals; that is, he unrolls the book, breaking one seal after another as he unrolls it; and as he unrolls it he reads or explains it by the revelation that he gives to the apostle.

You remember how the revelations that follow succeed one another. First, the seven seals, then the seven trumpets, and finally the seven vials, or bowls. Do these represent successive periods of human history, or are they simply different representations of the same events?

I am inclined to this latter view, and for the reason which I intimated only a few moments ago. We have no sufficient reason for believing that, in the book of Revelation we have a continuous account of all the main events between the time of the apostles and the end of the world.

I am rather inclined to believe that we have here representations of the great future which are parallel to one another. In other words, the seven trumpets are parallel, are the same things represented in a different way, with the seven seals; and the seven vials are the same things, represented in a still different way, as the seven trumpets and seven seals.

The twentieth chapter, which intervenes, is a wonder in the book. In this chapter the first resurrection is distinguished from the second resurrection, as spiritual resurrection is distinguished from literal resurrection. In other words, in the first resurrection we have described a mighty movement of the Spirit of God in his people all over the world, a movement so mighty that it would seem as if the prophets of old had risen again to testify for their Lord, while, at the same time the opposing spirit of enmity and unbelief has itself a day of rest. In other words, the millennium that is spoken of is a millennium that precedes, not follows, the second coming of Christ. My view is the postmillennial view, rather than the premillennial view. Christ comes at the end of the millennium. He comes literally at the end of the millennium instead of at its beginning, because the second coming of Christ is coincident with, and cannot be separated from, the resurrection and the general judgment. He is to come the second time to judge the earth. He is to come the second time unto salvation. No interval of a thousand years is intimated between the coming of Christ on the one hand and the resurrection of the wicked and the general judgment on the other. The first resurrection is spiritual, and now is. The saints who have been raised from the death of trespasses and sin shall have their last conflict with the powers of darkness, but the conflict shall end in victory. The second and literal resurrection will follow, when Christ comes in the clouds of heaven to judge the earth. The book of Revelation ends with those wonderful chapters which depict the final rest and glory of the people of God.

Let us be thankful for such a book as this. Our hearts need it. Human beings in the midst of persecution and trial and trouble, which are at times unspeakable, need some assurance that there is to be an end of these things. Otherwise human nature would be forever longing, but never blest. Our nature would never reach the end for which it aspires. God has not left us to live in this world forever dissatisfied; he therefore reveals to us, in the midst of the conflicts of the world, that these conflicts are to have an end, and that the Lord is to come, for the rewarding of his saints and for the punishment of the ungodly.

In the twenty-first and twenty-second chapters of the book of Revelation we have heaven coming down to earth. We have the complete manifestation of God. We have the final perfection of man, not only individually but collectively. God does not save men simply for themselves. He does not take me and make me a member of his kingdom, as the last end he has in view. No, the last end that he has in view is to gather together a great company of redeemed and holy souls, in which, in manifold ways, he shall show forth his glory. He will show the power of his grace in multitudes of individuals, bound together in an intimacy of communion, in a closeness of intercourse, in a rapture of worship and fellowship, of which all we see in this world is only the foretaste and symbol. We need such a revelation as this to lift us up in our times of darkness and trial. Thank God, the need is wonderfully supplied; it is supplied by the revelation of Jesus Christ; for it is Christ alone around whom all these glories circle and center.

John's Apocalypse and John's Gospel agree together in their representations of the " Word of God." The phrase "Word of God," as applied to Christ, is peculiar to the Apocalypse and to the Gospel and the First Epistle of John. You find it nowhere else in the New Testament, but you do find it here. Christ is God revealed. Christ is God brought down to our human comprehension, and engaged in the work of our salvation. In John's vision of the holy city, New Jerusalem, "the lamp thereof is the Lamb." Not "the light," as it was in our old version, but "the lamp." What is the difference between a light and a lamp? Why, light is something universally diffused, something indefinite. You see by it, but you cannot see it. A lamp is a light-bearer. A lamp is the narrowing down, the focusing of light, so that in the lamp the light becomes definite and visible. Have you ever thought you were going to see God, the Father, in the New Jerusalem, as separate from Christ, the Son? I do not think you will. "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father," says Christ. In Christ we have narrowed down and concentrated and made definite and visible the Godhead itself. This representation of John's Apocalypse is just the same as the representation of John's Gospel. "No man hath seen God at any time," and no man ever will; but "the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him "; and he will declare him to his saints forever; so that the Lamb shall be the Lamp of the heavenly city; and in Christ we shall see the perfected glory of God. May all who read these lectures " enter in by the gates into the city" from which there is no more going out forever; and in the presence of God and of the Lamb, may we see directly and perfectly what we have seen here only in an indirect and imperfect way. Then we shall see as we are seen, and know as we are known; and, seeing Christ our Saviour as he is, we shall at last be like him.