When we open the Book of Revelation we discover, at once, a marked difference between it and any other portion of the New Testament. It is not history like the gospels and Acts, nor practical discussions and instructions like the epistles, but we at once seem to breathe the atmosphere of prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel. As Ezekiel and Daniel were permitted to behold visions which revealed certain great events of the future, in a series of symbolic images, so there passes before the eyes of John a series of wonderful visions of which he makes record, and has left that record to the church for interpretation. The book is a book of prophecy. "God gave to him to show unto his servants the things which should shortly come to pass." In order to any clear understanding of the book we must never lose sight of its object, as stated in the opening sentence. Its object is to reveal the future. Nor is its aim to reveal some limited events of the future, but to show the things which must come to pass. In other words, its aim is to unfold the outlines of coming history as far as that history affects the fortunes of the church.
It must always be kept in mind, however, that this book is a book of prophecy, intended to "shew the things which must shortly come to pass." John was a Seer. He recorded what he saw. The future was portrayed to him in a series of visions. The pictures which passed before his eyes represented future events. Hence, each is a symbolical representation of what was then future, and may now be past history. Thus, when the first seal is opened in Revelation 6:1 Revelation 6:2 , and a warrior is seen with a bow in his hand riding on a white horse in conquest, this must be interpreted as a sense-image which appropriately represents an event or epoch of history which was future when John was an exile on Patmos. Symbolical pictures follow each other in rapid succession as the seals are opened and the trumpets blown, a correct interpretation of which is to be sought not in literal fulfillment, but in events of which the sense-visions might be appropriate symbols. It will be a help in understanding the text to have an explanation of the meaning of the various symbols employed as they are ordinarily used in prophetic writings; hence I give a
In this table I aim to give only the leading Symbols used by John, with their apparent meaning. The definitions have been obtained from Mede, Elliott, Lange, Campbell, Archdeacon Lea, and other sources.
Adultery.--Idolatry or apostasy; especially the latter. As Christ is represented as a bridegroom and the church as a bride, apostasy, or unfaithfulness to him, would be spiritual adultery, and a false church properly represented as a harlot.
Angel.--Any agent or messenger of the divine will. The term may be a symbol of any movement of nations, or in history which carries out the divine purposes.
Ascension to Heaven.--Exaltation in power and glory. Prosperity.
Babylon.--The city which carried Israel into captivity. Hence, a symbol of any power that renders them captive, whether it be Pagan or Papal Rome.
Balances.--A symbol of justice, but when used to denote the weighing out of food, a symbol of scarcity.
Black.--The color of mourning; hence a symbol of calamity and sorrow.
Black Horse.--The horse was not used as a beast of burden by the ancients, but for purposes of war. Hence it is a symbol of war, and a black horse is a symbol of calamitous war.
Blood.--A symbol of the carnage of war.
Beast.--The term rendered beast in the Revision means a savage wild beast. Hence it is a symbol of a cruel, tyrannical persecuting power. The term used in chap. 4 , rendered beasts in the Common Version, is not the same. Instead of "Four Beasts" that should be rendered "Four Living Creatures."
Binding.--This symbol means to restrain, to hold; also to deprive of power and render helpless.
Book.--The record of the divine will. To seal a book is to conceal its meaning, since ancient books were rolls and could not be read when sealed. To open seals is to disclose the meaning. To devour a book is to become master of its contents. The book with seven seals is the book of human destiny, an outline of the great events which connect themselves with the church until its final triumph. The opening of its seals is the revelation of future history.
Bow.--The bow, a warlike weapon, when held in the hand is a symbol of war.
Bride.--The spouse of Christ, the Church, the New Jerusalem.
Candlestick.--A symbol of a church, which should be a light in the world. The seven golden candlesticks are the seven churches. A symbol of any light-giving agency.
Chain.--A symbol of bondage or affliction. To chain is to render powerless. To bind Satan with a chain is to destroy his power.
Cloud.--An emblem of power and majesty. To ride upon the clouds is to appear in glory and exaltation.
Crown.--The symbol of royal majesty. To enjoy exaltation and honor. To receive the crown of life is to receive the honors of eternal life.
Darkness.--The well known symbol of calamity and affliction.
Day.--"I have given you a day for a year." One revolution of the earth on its axis is a symbol of its annual revolution in its orbit. "Twelve hundred and sixty days" means as many years.
Death.--A symbol of destruction.
Dragon.--The old pagan Roman Empire. The dragon was originally a symbol of a monarch. In Revelation it means the persecuting monarchy of Rome.
Earth.--The ancient civilized world, which corresponded in John's time with the Roman Empire. Political powers.
Earthquake.--Political and moral revolutions and convulsions of society. The shaking of the established order of things. The subversion of states and fortunes.
Eclipse.--Or the darkening of heavenly bodies, means the obscuration of the glory of kings and potentates of which sun, moon and stars are symbols.
Egypt.--The place of spiritual bondage. A condition of sinfulness. Opposition to Christ.
Euphrates.--The symbol of the Turkish power. To be "bound by the Euphrates" is to be restrained at that river.
Elders.--Probably princes of righteousness.
False Prophets.--A false spiritual power which falsely claims divine authority for its teaching.
Fire.--Fierce destruction. Never the symbol of a blessing, but of a curse.
Fire from Heaven.--Divine destruction; but fire brought down from heaven by the two-horned dragon means excommunication and anathemas of a false spiritual power.
Flood.--Symbol of overpowering. Distress from persecution or any cause.
Forehead.--A mark in the forehead means a public profession.
Fornication.--Idolatry. See Adultery.
Grave.--To put in the grave, signifies to consign to oblivion. "Not to suffer dead bodies to be put into the grave," means that they shall be remembered.
Hail.--Ravages and destruction.
Hand.--A mark in the hand means the manner of life, or practice.
Harlot.--An idolatrous community. The great Harlot is the apostate church. See Adultery.
Heavens and the Earth.--The world. The political and religious universe. A new heavens and new earth imply a passing away of the old order of things and the establishment of a new order.
Horse.--Used only for warlike purposes by the ancients and hence a symbol of war. The color of the horse indicates the condition of his rider and the state of the war.
Horns.--"The great horn of the first king;" Daniel . A symbol of kings, kingdoms, or power. Seven horns indicate enormous power.
Incense.--The prayers of the saints.
Islands.--European states. In the prophets the "isles of the sea" meant the countries in and beyond the Mediterranean; hence, Europe.
Jerusalem.--The capital of Judea and the seat of the temple becomes a symbol of the church of Christ. The "holy city" is contrasted with the "great city," Jerusalem with Babylon, or the true with the false church.
Jezebel.--An unholy woman is a symbol of an unholy influence in the church.
Key.--A symbol of power to deliver or imprison, to open heaven or hell, or to shut them; of power to save or destroy.
King.--Supreme power of any kind. A government; a kingdom.
Lamb.--The symbol of a sinless, sacrificial offering. The Lamb of God is Christ slain as a lamb from the foundation of the world.
Lion.--A symbol of kingly power.
Locusts.--The locusts, a devouring pest bred in the deserts of Arabia, are a symbol of devouring Arabian armies. The Arabians under Mohammed.
Manna.--The bread of life. The truth of Christ.
Measuring Rod.--The standard by which the church is measured. The Word.
Mountain.--Some person or power conspicuous among men. Highly elevated. A great prince or government. A burning mountain is a baleful, destructive power.
Moon.--A symbol of powers, rulers and great men which are not supreme. A light which shines by reflecting another light.
Merchants.--A symbol of those who make a gain of godliness and traffic in religious privileges.
Palm.--A symbol of joy or victory.
Pale Horse.--An image of desolating war, and a reign of death.
Red Horse.--An image of cruel, bloody war, distinguished by awful carnage.
River of Life.--Christ is the fountain of life. The abundant, ever flowing life that Christ bestows, is fitly symbolized by a river. The river, and tree, of life mean essentially the same.
Rod.--The symbol of rule. The rod of iron is a symbol of resistless sway.
Scarlet.--This color, the color of blood, symbolizes bloody cruelty. A scarlet woman is a persecuting church.
Seven.--The perfect number. Completeness.
Stars.--Shining lights in the world. Conspicuous men, whether in the church or the state.
Sun.--As the great light giver, in one sense a symbol of Christ. Also a supreme ruler. The moon and stars indicate great lights of society, but inferior to the sun.
Sword.--A symbol of slaughter. Also of conquest. A sword in the hand indicates by carnal weapons. A sword proceeding from the mouth indicates conquests by the word of God.
Temple of God.--The church of which the tabernacle and temple were types. The temple of God in heaven, open, is the abode of God, heaven itself, the church above.
Throne.--A symbol of authority.
Trumpet.--The blast of a trumpet signifies the forward march of armies, carnal or spiritual. Also the proclamation of war or peace.
Time.--Time, times and half a time is an annual revolution of the earth, a year, two years, a half year, or three and a half years. "Seven times" passed over Nebuchadnezzar, or seven years.
Wine Press.--A symbol of an effusion of blood and of distress.
White.--To be clothed in white is to be innocent, pure, and to be triumphant.
White Horse.--Triumphant and glorious war.
Whore.--Apostate church. See Adultery.
Winds.--Symbol of commotion; of mighty movements. The "Four Winds" are four invasions of the Roman Empire.
Witness.--The two witnesses are the two Testaments, for such is the meaning of the latter word.
Woman.--The "woman clothed with the sun" is the pure and faithful church. The Great Harlot is the false, faithless, apostate church. The church is often symbolized by a bride, or a woman bearing children. A pure woman represents a faithful church; an adulterous woman, "a harlot," a false, apostate church.
John states that the book is a record of things "which should shortly come to pass." He saw outlined in his vision events which were at that time in the future, but high were "shortly" to become history. No one would suppose that it was the divine purpose to reveal all the changing history of nations, races and kingdoms for the last eighteen hundred years, and hence, a question necessary to interpretation is: To what countries and series of events do the predictions apply? If we turn to the Old Testament prophets we will be guided to a correct answer. The central thought in all their predictions is the future history of the people of God. All that they utter is related, either directly or indirectly, to the fortunes of Israel, temporal and spiritual, the typical nation, and the spiritual nation, or in other words, to the fortunes of the Jews and of the Church. With this great object before them they predict the fate of the great Gentile nations with whom the Jews came in contact, who influenced their fortunes, or became their oppressors. Hence we have Assyria, Babylon, Tyre, Egypt, etc., made burdens of prophecy.
Exactly the same is true of New Testament prophecy. The prophets speak of the future of Israel and of the Church, and necessarily reveal much concerning the opposing and persecuting nations. It was not in the mind of Christ to give in Revelation the outline of all history, but to outline the fortunes, tribulations and triumphs of the Church. The Church was, in the earlier centuries, almost wholly within the bounds of the vast, persecuting empire of Pagan Rome. Hence this opposing power would come before the prophetic vision, and we will find that the symbolism often refers to the Roman power. Let it be ever present to the mind of the reader that John was the victim of Roman persecution, and an exile on Patmos when he wrote; that he had never been beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, and that there is no historical authority for supposing that any apostle ever stepped upon soil that a Roman citizen would call foreign. Since this mighty empire affects so closely the interests of the Church, it is in harmony with all we know of prophecy to expect it to be the subject of prophetic vision. That Pagan Rome is, to a greater or less extent, the subject of the predictions is agreed by almost all interpreters, but the agreement is by no means so marked that Papal Rome, the great spiritual despot upon which the mantle of the pagan empire fell, is also an important element in the explanation of the visions. I believe that a close and unbiased study of the text compels the conclusion that a great apostasy, a false church, a persecuting spiritual power, is revealed which mightily influences the fortunes of the Church, and that its characteristics are found strikingly exhibited in certain periods of the history of the Papacy. There arises a great apostasy, a false church that produces for the time a mighty influence upon the saints of Jesus Christ. This is also a subject of prophecy. I am then prepared to affirm that the general scope of the Book of Revelation is similar to that of the Old Testament prophets; that its primary object is to outline the history of the church; that, in subordination to this primary object, it portrays the fortunes of the two great persecuting powers, Pagan and Papal Rome. The changing fortunes of the Church are portrayed, running like a golden thread through the dark panorama of history, until at last, in God's good time, the battle is fought to the end, the victory won, and the triumphant Church enjoys the fruition of all its sufferings and labors and the glories of the New Jerusalem.
In order to an understanding the reader must keep in mind that there is more than one series of visions, and that these overlap each other, revealing different features of the same period. The whole book might be divided as follows:
PART I. Chapters I-IV.--This part embraces the Introduction, the Vision of the Son of Man, the Letters to the Seven Churches, and Vision of the Opened Heaven and the Throne of God.
PART II. Chapters V-XI.--This part opens with a Vision of a Book sealed with Seven Seals in the Hands of Him who sits upon the Throne--the Book of Destiny; the Contents hidden by the seals. The Lamb of God prevails to open the seals; that is, to Reveal the Future. As each is opened a vision appears which presents a Symbol representing a Period of Human history. Six seals are opened in succession, followed by a pause before the opening of the seventh seal. When the seventh seal is opened it is found to embrace Seven Thunders and Seven Trumpets. The trumpets are blown in succession, each followed by Great Events, and when the last is blown the End comes when Christ triumphs over all. The Seven Seals, with the Seven Trumpets, contained under the last seal, reach to the end of time.
PART III. Chapters XII-XVIII.--This part opens with a Vision of a Woman, a symbol of the Church; an Enemy of the Woman which appears with as a Seven-headed and Ten-horned Beast, understood to be a symbol of Pagan Rome; a Two-horned Beast, which I understand to be Papal Rome; there also appears sitting on the Seven-headed Beast a False Woman, a symbol of a False Church. The figures change and these opposing powers under the name of Babylon are overthrown.
PART IV. Chapters XIX-XX.--These chapters describe the Great Victory over the opposing powers, the Millennial Period, and the Final Uprising and Defeat of Satan.
PART V. Chapters XXI-XXII.--These chapters describe the Glorious Home of the Redeemed Saints, and embrace Closing Exhortations.