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If a book we had never before seen, and of whose contents we were ignorant, were placed in our hands, we should turn at once to the title- page to ascertain its subject. If we found that subject distinctly stated there, we should deem it conclusive as to the import of the book. We should not regard ourselves at liberty to assume that it was designed to refer to something else without clear and positive evidence to that effect. If, for instance, the title-page declared it to be a history of the American Revolution, we should not think it reasonable to expect in it the history of the late Rebellion, or the life of Napoleon III. The language of the title-page we should inevitably regard as the key to the. book.
Now the title-page of the Book of Revelation gives us such a key. We marvel that it should ever have been misapprehended: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants
THINGS WHICH MUST SHORTLY COME TO PASS.”
The word shortly is in the original “in a short” (time understood). It occurs also in Luke xviii. 8; Acts xii. 7; xxii. 18; xxv. 4; Rom. xvi. 20; Rev. xxii. 6. The corresponding adverbs and adjectives occur some thirty-three times more, and always with the same meaning. They signify that the events to which they apply are near in time. They are translated in the various places, quickly, shortly, soon, hastily, suddenly, speedily, swift. In Mark ix. 39, it is lightly. In Acts xvii. 15, with all speed.
This phrase, then, unless we do absolute violence to it, must determine the subject matter of the book so far as time is concerned. The word is not, indeed, precisely limited, and yet its import is clear. It must refer to such things as in ordinary speech would be pronounced near at hand. A few years, or on the scale with which we measure the affairs of nations, two or three centuries, at most, are all that can be reasonably claimed for it. To make it cover several thousand years, or, much more, the far reaching ages of the future, wrests its fair meaning as much as the endeavor to make a decade signify a millennium.
That this is the proper meaning of the phrase, according to grammar and lexicon, is conceded by all commentators. Had they not formed preconceived theories of what the book must refer to, they would never have thought of questioning it. When the angel commanded Peter in the prison, “Arise up quickly” (Acts xii. 7), or when Paul was directed in a trance to ” get quickly out of Jerusalem” (Acts xxii. 18), can there be any doubt as to what time was intended ? We ask the reader to look at all the passages above mentioned, and see if there be anything doubtful as to this point. How is it, then, that various writers stretch its import so as to make it cover all the centuries from the apostle’s clay to the present, nay, to embrace the yet far distant future to the end of time ?
Swedenborg regards it as meaning certainly, a sense derived from it only by some roundabout inference. ” The Apocalypse,” says he, ” was given in the first century, and seventeen centuries have now passed away; from which it is manifest that by ‘ shortly’ is signified that which corresponds, which is certainly.’1”
Lange makes it, ” in swift succession,” implying that the events referred to will follow each other rapidly. It is safe to say that such an interpretation is supported by no other place in the New Testament.
But by far the most common way of evading the simple meaning is to affirm that God uses the words, not in the human, but in a divine sense. Alford calls them ” a prophetic formula common with Him to whom a thousand years are as one day, and used in order to teach us how short our time and the time of this world is.” Bloomfield: ” Measured by the language of Scripture, wherein a thousand years are as one day, they may denote anything of by no means speedy fulfillment.”
In regard to this way of treating such expressions of time, I beg leave to say:
1. There is no warrant for it. The Scriptures nowhere authorize it; they give no example of a resort to it. It is purely a human contrivance, devised apparently under the stress of some theory for the purpose of making the text cover periods of duration which else would be forbidden.
2. The passage relied on for its justification (2 Pet. iii. 8), teaches nothing of the sort. Peter said there were scoffers who derided the promise of Christ’s coming (Parousia) because no sign of it had yet appeared. The apostle’s reply is that delay does not disprove the certainty of that event. An eternal being has time enough to work in, and does not need to be in haste. With him ” one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” On the scale of eternity both are alike points. The reason of God’s delay is not in himself or in his purposes; he waits for man’s sake, because he is long-suffering, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Surely that is not saying that he disregards all distinctions of time, and when he speaks in human words, he does not mean to be understood according to the known sense of those words.
3. On the contrary, we find that prophecy, when given in exact periods of time, is always fulfilled in those exact periods. In Gen. vi. 3,
God told Noah that the days of men before the flood came upon them should be one hundred and twenty years; did he not mean so many human years ? In Gen. vii. 4, he said it should rain forty days and nights; did he mean forty thou
sand years ? In Gen. xv. 13, it was predicted that the posterity of Abraham should be bondmen in Egypt four hundred and thirty years. In Gen. xl. 1, seven years of plenty and seven of famine are foretold. In Numbers xiv. 33, that Israel should wander in the desert forty years. In Jonah iii. 4, that Nineveh should be overthrown in forty days. In Jer. xxv. 11, xxix. 10, that Judah should go into captivity seventy years. In Dan. ix. 24, that Messiah should appear in seventy “sevens,” i.e., four hundred and ninety years. Now apply in these cases the above assertion that one day is equivalent to a thousand years, and what absurdities would be apparent? Apply it to the Saviour’s promise to rise on the third day from the grave, and how would it nullify the most precious hopes of our salvation. What right, then, has any man, — and I ask it with some sense of abuse of God’s word, — to play a similar sophistry upon the “shortly” of Rev. i. 1, and make it mean what it cannot mean ?
But there are other considerations which go to confirm the simple meaning of this phrase. A lock has commonly many wards, and the key that is to open it will have corresponding peculiarities of form in order to fit it. Many such correspondences are found in this book.
4. In Chapter i. 3, a special blessing is pronounced on him that reads and them that hear the words of this prophecy, ””for the time is at hand,” i.e., evidently, the time of its fulfilment. So in Chapter xxii. 10, the writer is forbidden to seal up the scroll, “/or the time is at hand.” Compare this with Dan. viii. 26, where the prophet was commanded to shut up the vision, for it was “for many days,” i.e., the time of fulfillment was distant; hence the roll might be sealed up, and laid aside for the present.
5. The prefatory messages addressed to the seven churches had respect to the existing state of those churches, and what they should experience in the near future. This is too obvious to need proof. Indeed, we are not aware that it is ever denied by any except those who hold to the fantastic conceit that the seven churches, instead of meaning the actual historic churches in the cities named, are typical designations of seven successive stages in the church universal, which are imagined to have characteristics resembling those here described. Yet the same expression is repeatedly used in regard to them (Ch. ii. 5, 16; iii. 11, 20), and the threatening is acknowledged to have been executed in each case within a few score years of the time the prophecy was uttered.
6. There is ample reason to understand Chapters vi.-xi., as parallel in their import to Matt. xxiv. and xxv., and as referring to the destruction of the temple and city and nation of the Jews at Jerusalem. The particular proof of this theory may be adduced hereafter. If it be true, it harmonizes entirely with the meaning we claim for the expression before us. If the Revelation was written by John in the persecution under Nero, about A.D. 68, that part of the fulfillment occurred two years afterward, in A.D. 70.
7. In Chapter xvii. 10 there is a formal explanation by the angel of the meaning of the vision of the Woman upon the scarlet-colored beast. The woman represents (verse 18) the city of Rome. She has had five kings, and one is; that is, she is at present under the reign of the sixth. Now the Roman emperors were, in order, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero. This, to my mind, is conclusive as to the time when the book was written, and to what, in this part of it, it relates to, viz., the overthrow and destruction of the persecuting imperial power of Rome. This, too, wo know, took place “quickly,” i.e., within a few years from the time referred to. Nero himself perished that very year, and in less than two and a half centuries the imperial power itself was wrested from pagan hands, and in the person of Constantino became Christian.
Thus, tested in every way, by the natural force of the language, by the unvarying usage of prophecy, and by the light shed upon it from history, we have the most certain assurance of having found in the opening sentence of this book the true key to its meaning. It is not a book of inexplicable mystery; it is not something reaching over the whole range of the world’s history, but it is, as its own title page declares it to be, a revelation, a making known to the afflicted church of God those things in his gracious and loving purposes which were then about to come to pass.
III. Occasion And Intent.
In order to appreciate fully the contents of a book, it is important to know in what circumstances and for what purpose it was written. How much of the charm of the Pilgrim’s Progress would be lost if we had never heard of Bun- yan in prison. How many of its characters and conversations would be shorn of their peculiar significance if we knew nothing of the state of society and of religion in England in the 17th century. The same thing holds specially true of the books of the Bible. Every one of them, so far as we know, was written with reference to some particular use of the time. History, song, prophecy, genealogy, parable, and epistle, had some immediate end in view. There are no general treatises, professedly composed for the instruction of mankind at large and in every age. All analogy, therefore, teaches us that if we would understand the scope and the language of this Book of the Revelation, we should fix in mind when and why it was given. To assume, as is so often done, that it is a book of general prophetic history, called for by no present need, and adapted to no special present use of the churches, is to suppose that true of this book which is not true of any other in the sacred volume.
We have called attention to the key to the meaning of the Revelation given in its title-page, viz., that it was designed to show what must shortly come to pass. Let us see what, as disclosed by history, did shortly come to pass.
When the book was written, both its author and the churches whom he addressed were suffering severe persecution. This was equally true, whether we regard it as written in the time of Nero, about A.d. 68, or of Domitian, A.d. 96. We shall assume, for reasons that will be apparent hereafter, that it was at the former date. Now it is known to every reader that during the whole period of nearly forty years after the death of Christ to that time, the one great foe to Christianity had been Judaism. It was Jewish malice that instigated the crucifixion of our Lord, the imprisonments and scourgings of the apostles, the stoning of Stephen, the threatenings and slaughter by Saul, the murder of James, and those incessant outbreaks of violence against the believers recorded in the Acts. In Judea, in Asia Minor,
in Macedonia and Greece and Rome, the story was the same. It was Jews that withstood the preaching of the apostles, that entered malicious complaints against them to the authorities, that hired false witnesses, that stirred up mobs, that laid plots to assassinate them. Literally and fearfully had they, as our Lord bade them, filled up the measure of their fathers. They had become ripe for destruction, and the dire denunciations of Christ against them, their city and nation, were just about to be executed. If this book was written in A.d. 68, two years only remained before those denunciations, which were but the summing up of all that had been threatened by all the prophets from Moses down, would be fulfilled. Only two years more would the churches need to bear up under this incessant enmity; two years only of divine forbearance might they enjoy who had been more merciless than the wild beasts towards their countrymen, believers in the Messiah they had rejected.
This retributive chastisement took place as had been predicted. The devastation of Judea by fire and sword, and the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies, have stood for eighteen centuries on the page of history as the most fearful in the annals of human woe. Famine, pestilence, and war, in a few short months, destroyed not less than two millions of lives, and erased from the earth what was perhaps the richest and most splendid city in the world. Jose- phus, who was himself a Jew in the service of Rome, has left us an account of the whole tragedy, as he knew it as an eye-witness, which no one, even at this day, can peruse without a shudder. We ask any of our readers who possess a copy of his works, or can gain access to them, to read the fifth and sixth books of his ” Jewish War,” as the best possible commentary on our Saviour’s predictions in Matt, xxiv., and the most instructive preparation for the study of the similar predictions contained in this Book of Revelation.
But the Jews were not the only persecutors of the primitive church. In that bloody work they were far outdone by the pagan emperors of Rome. John himself was at this time in exile at Patmos, under the decree of the reigning emperor. Chapter i. 9. In general, it had been the policy of Rome, as the mistress of laany nations with different customs and religions, to be tolerant of all, provided obedience was rendered to the imperial government. Whenever a people submitted to the Roman arms, their gods were adopted by the senate into the Pantheon, and their worship declared a religio licita, i.e., a lawful religion. Such had been the case with Judaism, and for a considerable time the Christians, being regarded merely as a Jewish sect, shared in the protection accorded to the mother faith. It was due to the personal malice of that most execrable of the Roman emperors, Nero, that this ancient policy of toleration was abandoned. In the year A.d. 64, that monarch, in one of his insane freaks of tyranny, set fire to his capital, and for three days amused himself in witnessing the progress of the conflagration, a catastrophe in which two-thirds of the city was destroyed. This wanton outrage excited such an odium and raised so many murmurs that Nero was alarmed, and looked around to find some objects on which he might fasten the crime, and transfer the popular indignation from himself. These he found in the Christians, who were becoming quite numerous in Rome, and who, not having received distinct recognition in law, might be assailed with impunity. Charging upon them the commission of the crime, he instigated a merciless persecution against them. He caused them to be put to death by the sword and by crucifixion; to be thrown to wild beasts; to be sewn up in sacks and worried to death by savage dogs; and even to be smeared with pitch and set on fire as torches, to give light in the imperial gardens. This terrible persecution continued with unabated fury four years, until Nero himself perished in a revolt, dying by his own hand with the aid of one of his slaves. This persecution was followed by others, under successive emperors, for about two hundred and forty-two years. In that period there were forty sovereigns in all, some reigning but a few months. As a whole, with a few exceptions, they were despots, selfish, licentious, and cruel. Being by their office heads of the pagan religion,—supreme pontiffs as well as emperors, — they were readily incited by the priesthood, and the numerous classes of artificers, tradesmen, courtesans, and courtiers, who were interested in maintaining the pagan worship, to regard the Christians as enemies of the public institutions, and especially of the gods of Rome, and to punish them accordingly. Historians have commonly reckoned ten of these periods of persecution in that space of two and a half centuries. It is perhaps more exactly true that while there were about that number of special outbreaks of violence, the entire period was one of oppression and suffering for the churches. The laws nearly always were violent against them, and throughout the empire they were at all times subject to the malignity, the greed, and the fanaticism of the rulers. Vast numbers suffered confiscation and banishment, and almost as many perished by fire and sword and wild beasts. The catacombs of Rome, which were both burial places of the dead and hiding places for the living, remain to this day as iinpressive witnesses of what in the inscrutable wisdom of Providence was to be the direful experience of the church in those martyr ages.
Such, then, were the things which, when the apostle was commanded to write the Revelation, were shortly to come to pass. Persecution then raging, and persecution lying before the church along a bloody track of two hundred and forty years — almost as long as from the landing of the Pilgrims to this hour — was what God’s people had to look forward to, and prepare themselves for. Surely it was an occasion worthy to be made the theme of a new book of divine counsels. The churches needed to be warned of what was coming, and strengthened to meet it. First of all, they needed to know that their persecutors should finally be overthrown. Apostate Jerusalem and idolatrous Rome had arrayed themselves against the Lord they loved; they should know that the Lord had arrayed himself against them. Next, they should be assured that those who stood fast in their faith, even unto death, should have a glorious reward in heaven, while those who apostatized from the truth should have an enhanced retribution of woe. With all these should be mingled whatever would encourage and confirm them, glorious visions of the Saviour they served, of the heaven to which they were going, of the martyrs on their thrones of glory,
of the loving sympathy and help of mighty angels, and to crown all, of the church herself in her perfected glory, a radiant city a thousand-fold more resplendent than the Jerusalem of earth, — arrayed in the white bridal robes of holiness, and married in everlasting love to the Lamb. Correspondent with all these should be other visions, — veiled for prudence’ sake within a thin garb of mystery, — of the characters and doom of their persecutors; the crafty old serpent, cruel and bloody beasts, the encrimsoned harlot, symbol of pagan impurity, all after brief periods of triumph baffled, cast down, destroyed by the avenging wrath of heaven. Thus by marvelous visions, by solemn warnings and glorious promises, was the church to be made ready for her career of trial. Thus did the Saviour throw his arms around his people in advance of their sufferings, and draw them by kindly warning and sympathy and promise to the shelter of his loving bosom.
We have said that a state of things like this was an occasion worthy of a new book of inspiration. Among all the books of the sacred volume then existing, there was none that was fully sufficient for so great a want. There were books of history and worship, and now fulfilled prophecies relating to Israel and Judah, and there were the Gospels and Epistles, but there was no Book OF Pebsecution. Jeremiah and Ezekiel had foretold the ruin of the oppressive monarchies of Assyria and Babylon, and Daniel had portrayed with graphic power the destruction of Epiphanes, the persecuting tyrant of Syria. But valuable as these might be, they were not enough for the instruction and comfort of the church under a double persecution a hundred-fold worse than all God’s ancient people ever suffered. A new emergency like this, then, one which would be a very crisis of life or death to the church, demanded a new provision of instruction to meet it. So momentous in its disclosures of what was to be, so impressive in its warnings, so inspiring in its promises, so lofty in its delineations of the glory and safety and eternal blessedness of God’s faithful saints, it was worthy of the name by which it was designated, The Revelation or Jesus Christ, Which God Gave To Him To Show Unto His Servants Things Which Must Shortly Come To Pass.
IV. Peculiarities Of Manner And Style.
If we have found in the declared scope of this book a key to its contents, and the purpose for which it was written, we may find also a clue to its peculiarities of composition, so unlike those of the other books of the New Testament.
The ” things ” of special importance to the infant churches, which at that time were “shortly to come to pass,” were comprehended in that persecution which, having already broken out under Nero, was destined to extend over a period of two and a half centuries, till the time of Constantino the Great. I have stated the reasons for believing that the object of this book was to comfort and strengthen the churches under this persecution, by predicting the destruction of their persecutors, the ultimate triumph of Christianity over all its foes, and the blessed rewards that would be conferred on the martyrs who should remain faithful unto death.
With such a purpose in view, it is obvious, in considering the circumstances of the case, that two things were indispensable in its manner of composition, viz., concealment of its meaning from the enemies of the church, and a disclosure of that meaning to it and its friends.
1. It must be written in such a way that its meaning would be concealed from the persecuting powers. To have written out in clear and express terms a paper of such a purport as we believe this to be, would have been an act of undoubted treason against the imperial government of Rome. To have predicted the overthrow of its emperors, the defeat of their plans, the downfall of the state religion and its splendid array of temples, priests, and rites, and the conquest by the hated sect of Nazarenes of the imperial throne and of the world, would have been taken as an insult to Roman authority aud Roman pride, which could be expiated only by death. To have had in possession such a document, much more, to have read it in the public assemblies, and to be known as making it the ground of their common expectations and hopes, would have made the entire Christian body criminal. The highest offense known to Roman law was the crimen Icesce majestatis — the crime of wounded majesty. None was pursued with such relentless fury; none punished with such pitiless severity.
Nor could there have been any successful concealment of such a book. In those degenerate days of the empire, no trade was pursued more industriously than that of informer (delator^. Emissaries and spies of the tyrants thronged every province and every city, ready to report whatever could be construed into an offense against the emperor, and bring a reward for the informer. False brethren and apostates would have been found, who, for gain or personal safety would have betrayed a secret of such magnitude as this. In a word, the bare statement of the case shows that if such a document as we have supposed was to be written at all, it must be in such a way as to be unintelligible to those whose ruin it predicted. Suppose, during our late rebellion, a well-formed plan had been laid to rescue our suffering soldiers from Libby Prison, and a message was to be sent them announcing that purpose, to strengthen their fortitude and secure their co-operation in its execution, how obvious is it that that communication must have been concealed from the enemy — written in cypher, or by some other device made unintelligible, if it should fall into their hands.
Hence, chiefly, as I regard it, the use of symbols and enigmatic utterances in this Book of Revelation. We shall see presently something of the nature and sources of these, and how remote both were from the knowledge of the pagan Romans of that day. In their pride of metropolitan culture and position, the Romans looked down with contempt on what they regarded the unintelligible superstitions of the thousand sects which rilled the empire. It would, then, be nothing surprising nor improper if that contempt should be taken advantage of to be made a screen for so dangerous a book as this. Let it be shaped in enigmatic forms; let it make use of cabalistic names and numbers; of sealed scrolls, now to be opened and read, now to be eaten; let it be full of visions of impossible beasts and locusts and serpents, of dark shapes from Tartarus, and of bright celestials coming like Homer’s gods from heaven to execute incomprehensible errands ; of dirges over dead cities, and peans of victory over
phantom foes, — and it might well be assured that even treason itself would be safe in such a garb as this. Nay, there might be uses of such a method for the church herself, in withholding from those of her own members, who for want of spiritual perception or discretion were not fit to be trusted, so important secrets as these. There were in all ancient religions mysteries, which were fully known only to the initiated — the innermost truths or rites of their faith — which were pru- dentially withheld from those not qualified to know them. So Christ, because of their lack of spiritual capacity, taught the people only in parables, and Paul fed his spiritual children with milk and not with meat, because they were not able to bear it.
Such, then, as it appears to me, were, substantially, the reasons why this Book of Revelation was written in the manner it was, — one which from its example is frequently denominated the ” Apocalyptic style.” And such, too, I take the occasion to remark, are the only reasons I can conceive of why prophecy in the Scriptures is ever written enigmatically. It is a quite common saying of writers that prophecy is not, as a rule, to be understood until its meaning is disclosed by the fulfillment. If by that remark were intended only that its fulfillment is wont to show us vastly more than we could gather from the terms of the prophecy, we should readily assent. But to say that we cannot know it at all — even the subject matter to which it relates — until it is fulfilled, is to our mind entirely unreasonable. If we cannot understand the prophecy, we can never know whether it is fulfilled or not. If the promise of a coming Saviour had been uttered in an unknown tongue — the tongue of angels and not of men — the world could never have told whether Jesus of Nazareth were he or not. We must be able to read the figures on a baggage check in order to tell whether its corresponding check tallies with it or not.
I appeal for the confirmation of this view to the whole course of ancient prophecy. Often, indeed, — especially in the primitive ages of the world, — predictions were very faintly given, just a few rays of the dawning light, and not the full- orbed sun. Such were the first prophecies of a coming Saviour to Eve, to Abntham, to Jacob, and even to David. Yet in all these instances the prophecy was designed to be understood as far as it went There is no reason to doubt that Jacob understood his prediction of the coming of Shiloh, as truly as Isaiah that of his fifty-third chapter. It did not tell him or the world as much, but what it said was intelligible, and given for the instruction of God’s people. So the prediction of a flood, — could not the old world understand it before the day that Noah entered into the ark? God’s messages to Pharaoh by Moses — was their import purposely concealed from the monarch? Take the wonderful predictions of blessing and cursing given in Deuteronomy to the people, as their future conduct should be, were they all unmeaning? So, through the books of the later prophets, with a single exception in that of Daniel, where is the evidence of a designed concealment of their import? On the contrary, was it not the habitual reproach of God to his wayward people, not that they had not understood his words, but that they had not obeyed them ? ” Since the day that your fathers came forth out of the land of Egypt unto this day, I have even sent unto you all my servants, the prophets, daily rising up early and sending them, yet they hearkened not unto me, nor inclined their ear, but hardened their neck; they did worse than their fathers. Therefore, thou shalt speak all these words unto them, but they will not hearken unto thee; thou shalt also call unto them, but they will not answer thee.” Jer. vii. 25-27. And how severely did our Lord himself denounce the Pharisees for their willful ignorance. ” Had ye Relieved — not, understood — Moses, ye would have believed me, for he wrote of me.” John v. 46. And even to his own disciples, when he sat at table with them in Eminaus, “0 fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!”
I have mentioned a single exception in the Book of Daniel. Here, in two instances, the prophecies given were ordered not to be promulgated till at or near the time of their fulfillment. Chapter viii. 26; xii. 4. But even in these cases, it was not because they were not intelligible. In both, the series of visions were carefully and minutely explained, so that they might be understood, and then both prophecy and explanation were ordered to be sealed up, because the time was “for many days.” It is true that Daniel says of one (Chapter viii. 27) that none understood it; but he clearly means that beyond the angelic interpretations there were unrevealed things which it was given to none then to know.*
We have then, as it seems to us, a rational clew to the design of the peculiar manner of the Revelation. The book was not intended for the use of the enemies of the church, just as the pillar of fire and cloud was not intended to be a guide and defense to the pursuing oppressors of the Hebrews. That pillar was for the protection of God’s people, and in like manner the mysterious symbolism of the Revelation was for the protection of the church. While it was impenetrable to its enemies, it was at the same time a light and a guide to the imperiled saints.
*See Prof. Stuart ou this subject, in his ” Hints on Prophecy,” pp. 47-63.
2. We have seen how the first of these purposes was accomplished; let us now inquire concerning the second. In other words, what means had the early Christians, for whom the Revelation was first written, of penetrating its meaning ?
(1) Its drapery and scenery were to a very large extent derived from the sacred institutions of the Jews, which, while little known to the pagan world, were entirely familiar to the Christians. For a while, all the disciples were converted Jews. Peter first opened the door for the admission of Gentiles when he baptized the centurion Cornelius, and his household. We do not know the exact proportions of Hebrew and Gentile converts in the churches at the time this book was written, but nearly everywhere there were enough of the former to give a coloring to Christian ideas. Besides, it was the custom in all churches, Jewish and Gentile alike, to read the Old Testament in public worship, and listen to its exposition, while its inspired songs and psalms were, as now, made the vehicle of praise. Thus the Mosaic institutions, in every part, became entirely familiar to all Christians, and all allusions to their rites, doctrines, sacred persons, places, and instrumentalities, would be apprehended at once.
Now we find that the apostle availed himself of this source very largely, in selecting the costume and phraseology of his descriptions. He begins by mentioning an angel, as the medium through which he received the revelation — a term which to a Roman or Greek would signify any human, messenger, but which a Jew would recognize as a superhuman spirit sent from heaven. When the vision opens, he beholds a glorious Personage clothed in priestly vestments, standing before a golden, seven-branched candlestick. How instantly, taught by the Epistle to the Hebrews, would be recognized our great High Priest, who had entered within the vail. So throughout. The faithful were promised that they should eat of the hidden manna ; should have a white stone, with a name written in. it, an allusion, to the precious stones on the high priest’s breastplate; should be made a pillar in the temple, like the two which constituted the Beautiful Gate of the temple at Jerusalem. Heaven itself is patterned after the same edifice. The four living creatures are the cherubic shapes that were put upon the cover of the ark, and blazoned in needlework upon the curtains and vail. Jesus is a bleeding Lamb. The grand chorus singing responsive are the sacred musicians answering each other in the high worship of the Sabbath. The redeemed saints are sealed persons of the tribes of Israel. The angels with the sounding trumpets are the priests that gave by trumpet the signal for the movements of the camp in the wilderness. The utter desolation of persecuting Jerusalem is seen in the temple thrown open to public view, and the ark exposed to the profane gaze of the multitude. The song of the martyrs is the song of Moses and the Lamb, in allusion to the pean of triumph sung over Pharaoh on the shore of the Red Sea. The temple filled with smoke was the Shekinah, of cloud and of fire. The church in her glory is the New Jerusalem — the tabernacle of God with men. And this new city is the temple, with its foundations, its gates, its outflowing living waters, its exclusion of all unclean things, etc. Certainly there could be no serious difficulty in Christians understanding these manifold allusions. They must know both that they were not to be taken in strict literalness, and also what were the ideas which they were intended to convey.
(2) The Jewish nation had a peculiar history recorded with great particularity in their sacred books, but comparatively little known to the heathen world. One of the great treatises of Josephus was an account of his nation composed expressly to give the Romans some idea of the antiquities, both religious and secular, of the people whose capital they had just destroyed. That history of the nation was full of remarkable events, some of them commemorated by monuments, the recollection of which was to the nation what the Norman conquest, the Magna Charta, the Reformation, etc., were to the English, or Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence, and Emancipation are to ourselves. Very many of these were connected with the overthrow of oppressors — the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Canaanites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and, in the time of the Maccabees, the Syrians. Here, then, was an abundant and most fitting supply of allusion and imagery under which to describe the downfall of these new persecutors of God’s people. Hence the designation of the ” doctrine of Balaam “; ” that woman Jezebel” ; the sealing of the twelve tribes,” although this subdivision of the Hebrew people had long ceased to be as a fact; the plagues upon -the laud and the waters, and the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars as among the plagues of Egypt; the designation of Jerusalem as Sodom and Egypt, and Rome as Babylon; the drying up of the Euphrates to admit an invading army, the prototype of which was in the crossing of the Jordan into Canaan; the great battle of Armageddon, named after the ancient fight at Megiddo, near the river Kishon (Judges v. 19); the fall of Babylon, and the dirge over it in imitation of Isa. xlvii. and Ezek. xxvii.; the call of the fowls of heaven to the supper of the Lord, after Ezek. xxxix. 17-22. Every such allusion in this book, unintelligible to those who knew nothing of Hebrew history, would at once be recognized by the Christians, and as they recalled the incidents from which they were taken, would speak to them of the divine protection and deliverance from their persecutors, as their fathers were delivered from heathen oppressors in ancient times.
(8) In like manner the Old Testament contained a great body of prophetic imagery and phraseology, the import of which had come to be as well understood as the simplest utterances of prose. Here was first the Theophany, God coming in the clouds of heaven, a figure originating doubtless in the divine manifestation at Sinai. Ex. xix. 16-20. Here were the horses of Zechariah (Zech. i.’ 8), of different colors, and the two olive trees and the two anointed witnesses (iv. 11, 14). Here the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars, the well-known symbol of the destruction of hostile cities and nations. (‘Compare Isa. xiii. 10-16, xxiv. 23, xxxiv. 4, Ezek. xxxii. 7, etc.) Here were David’s man-child, that was to rule the nations (Ps. ii. 7, 9), and Ezekiel’s measuring reed, and new temple, and Daniel’s beasts and vision of judgment and resurrection of the martyrs, Gog and Magog, and Michael and his angels fighting in heaven against the foes of God’s people, and the new heavens and new earth of Isaiah, and the bride of the forty-fifth Psalm, and of the Song of Songs. Can it be doubted that persons instructed as the Jews were in their ancient Scriptures, knew, at least in some good degree, the import of all this prophetic imagery, and had the best facilities for discerning its import when put to a new use in this Judeo-Christian book ?
(4) There may be mentioned in this connection that fanciful method of interpretation in vogue among the Rabbis of Christ’s day, which they called Grematria. It consisted in plays upon letters and numbers, and specially upon names of persons. Our modern anagram resembles it in part. According to this method, the word Nico- laitan is supposed by some to have been invented as a substitute for Balaamite, the word Nicolaus in Greek signifying the same thing as Balaam in Hebrew, viz., ” conqueror of the people.” So the famous ” number of the beast ” was made np after the regular Rabbinic rule, the letters in his name being taken in their numerical value, and then added together, making the sum six hundred and sixty-six. The latter is a remarkable instance, showing how entirely this book was conformed to well-known Jewish customs of that day, and that the true method of interpreting it is to be found in those customs. It is not to be supposed, indeed, that these ” mysteries ” were fa
miliar to the unlearned, but they were known to those skilled in the Scriptures, and as such constituted a fit method of securing the ends sought in this book, of at once concealing the idea from the enemies of the church, and making it known to its teachers and those who could use it wisely.
(5) It should perhaps be added, as among the means enjoyed by the primitive churches for the understanding of this book, that its author lived to a very advanced age. The date of his death is not precisely known. It is conceded that it took place under the emperor Trajan, who reigned from A.d. 99 to 117. Taking it midway of those dates, 108, and it would show that John survived, after writing the book, forty years, if written in the time of Nero, or from twelve to fifteen if written under Domitian. So long time, therefore, the churches, at least in Asia, enjoyed the advantages of his personal instructions. It cannot be doubted that he would explain, as far as necessary, the meaning of this revelation as he understood it, especially to those who were then suffering, or were in constant peril under the persecutions that raged about them. It would be an exposition authoritative and reliable, while given with a discretion that would not endanger those who Avere strengthened and comforted by it.
3. What evidence have we, then, that the primitive churches did, in fact, understand this book, and what their understanding of it was ?
In answering this inquiry, it is to be borne in mind that our materials for ascertaining the opinions of the earliest Christians upon any subject are very scanty. How far the special messages to the seven churches served to instruct and encourage them or their more sorely tried brethren at Rome, in the persecution by Nero, it is impossible to say. It is known that prior to the siege of Jerusalem, warned by the words of Christ in Matt, xxiv. 16, the believers in Jerusalem fled from the city, and found a safe refuge at Pella, beyond the Jordan. They certainly understood the predictions of that discourse as having their primary fulfillment, at least, in the events of that day.
Our knowledge of the Roman persecutions, from Domitian to Diocletian, is derived from the histories of Eusebius (born about A.D. 270), Lac- tantius (about the same age), Augustine (born 354), and others. Some interesting facts are derived from the ancient inscriptions still extant in the catacombs of Rome. From all these sources we gather the following particulars as bearing upon our present inquiry.
(1) In general, they understood that the por- tiona of the book describing the beast from the sea, with seven heads and ten horns, and his scarlet appareled rider (Chapters 13—19) referred to the persecuting emperors of Rome previous to Con~ stantine. It was from this that the early opinion arose that the persecutions of that period were just ten in number, corresponding to the ten heads of the beast, each one of which represented a king. Rev. xvii. 12. A more careful study of the facts shows that that distinct number cannot well be made out, there having been many more periods of violence than that; indeed, the entire space of almost two hundred and fifty years was one of intolerance and severity, intended to suppress the new and unlawful religion. But the popular enumeration was none the less significant, as showing the understanding of this book. Mosheim (Com. Vol. 1, p. 128) represents the following to bo the mode of reasoning prevailing in the early churches: ” Since by the woman whom John saw 18 to be understood Rome, and by the ten horns ten kings, there can be no doubt but that these ten kings must be ten Roman emperors; and since the wars of these ten kings with the Lamb, that is Christ, unquestionably signify their endeavors, by means of laws and punishments, to extirpate the Christians, and entirely abolish their religion, it is evident that ten Roman emperors would oppress and persecute Christ in the persons of his disciples.” Much more evidence of this prevailing opinion might easily be adduced. Ire- nanis, himself a martyr under the emperor Seve- rus, reckoned up the letters in the mystical name of the beast as spelling, in Greek, Lateinos, the Latin, i. e., the Roman emperor. There is no trace in that early day of the opinion which has so much prevailed among modern commentators that the Book of Revelation is designed to give a synopsis of the history of the church through all time. They regarded it as a book for them, describing their own persecutions, and the conflicts in which they were to suffer and to conquer.
(2) They gathered from this book that the churches, under these persecutions, were to come off victorious over their foes. Everywhere, in all the annals of the martyrs and confessors, are utterances of hope, and anticipations of triumph. In the catacombs at Rome, Jesus, as a slain lamb, crowned and sceptered, was depicted upon the walls, the emblem of victory. Very frequently the monogram, comprising the first two letters of his name, is shown, with the Alpha and Omega of Rev. i. 11, which signify his eternity. The binding of Satan, described in Rev. xx. 1-6, was understood to signify Christ’s triumph over the arch enemy of the church. An early Christian seal shows a cross, with Alpha and Omega on either side, its foot resting on a writhing serpent, and the legend SALVS — salvation — underneath. A monumental painting was set up by Constantino, the first Christian emperor, in his new city of Constantinople, for the express purpose of celebrating the triumph of Christianity. It showed a portrait of himself with the cross over his head, and under his feet Satan, in the form of a serpent, falling headlong into the bottomless pit. ” For,” says Eusebius, “the sacred oracles in the books of God’s prophets have described him as a dragon and a crooked serpent, and for this reason the emperor thus publicly displayed a painted resemblance (eera igne resoluta) of the dragon beneath his own and his children’s feet, stricken through with a dart, and cast headlong into the depths of the sea. In this manner he intended to represent that concealed adversary of the human race, and to indicate that he was consigned to the gulf of perdition, by virtue of the trophy of salvation placed above his head.” Here again, let us notice in what a practical manner the early Christians interpreted and applied this book. The binding of Satan was not, to them, a mysterious event that should happen in some far distant age of the world, but one of their own time. As it was Satan, the old dragon, that had stirred up the beast and the false prophet to make war upon the church, so when their power was overcome, and Christianity itself gained the throne, it was the binding of Satan, an event worthy to be celebrated by a public monument in the street of the new city, which was henceforth to bear the name of the Christian emperor.
(3) But it was pre-eminently the rewards of fidelity under persecution, — the blessedness of the martyrs and confessors who suffered for Christ’s sake, which were taught by this book, and which made the bloody amphitheater, the cross, and the flames so radiant with the triumphs of their faith.
They became familiar with the idea of a special resurrection of the martyrs, designated as ” the first resurrection.” This was in terms the teaching of Rev. xx. 4-6, and the phraseology there used was such that they could not help applying it to the sufferers from among themselves. The persons seen in the vision were those who ” were beheaded for the witness of Jesus.” The original word translated “beheaded” is a verb made out of the name of the Roman two-handed sword (joele- kus) which was the instrument usually employed in decapitation. Thus the very word itself pointed to a Roman execution.* Moreover they were persons who had “notworshiped the beast,neither his image, neither received his mark upon their foreheads or in their hands.” But the beast, as we have shown, was to them a concealed name for the Roman emperor, and his worship that idolatrous homage which the laws required to be paid to him and the imperial standard that bore his effigy, which itself was but a part of that great system of Pagan worship of which the emperor was the head — the Pontifex Maximus.
* \Ye may be pardoned a familiar illustration which will more forcibly show this. The Indian war club — a tomahawk — has been made into a verb in the same manner. If, in -the colonial days of New England, a writer should have affirmed that he saw the remains’of those that had been tomaliawked on such or such an occasion, the word itself would have disclosed that they were victims of au Indian massacre.
They could not mistake, then, as to who was meant by the promise of this blessed resurrection of the martyrs. As little could they doubt its general meaning. Every scholar knows that the original word, aviLataaiz, doea not of itself signify the resurrection of the body. It is simply tha living again, or as we commonly call it, the future life. The word “first,” also, very often signifies foremost in rank, dignity, blessedness. In Luke xv. 22, the ” best robe ” is literally the first robe. The ” chief rooms ” at feasts, the ” chief estates,” being “chief” among the disciples, etc., are simply the first rooms, first estates, being first. The “iirst resurrection,” then, interpreted by the customary phraseology of those times was simply a peculiarly glorious and blessed life after death. The stroke of the Roman pelekus, the flames which consumed the mutilated body, were not as their persecutors thought the end of them. ” Now we shall see,” said the latter as the ashes were cast into the Tiber or the Rhone, “if they will rise again.” Uhlhorn’s Conflict, p. 296.
Nay, more, not only was it taught that the martyrs attained at once a peculiarly blessed heavenly reward, but its distinctive honor consisted in being admitted to reign with Christ. ” I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment,” i. e., judicial dignity and functions, “were given them, and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. This is the first resurrection.” The same thing had been said in the Epistles to the seven churches. “He that overcometh — to him will I give power over the nations, and he shall* rule them with a rod of iron — even as I received of my Father.” Chapter ii. 26, 27. ” To him will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also” — the first Martyr — ” overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” Chapter iii. 21. Indeed, even Paul testifies that it had passed into an adage—a common saying (/o;-oc) in the early churches, which he adds emphatically is a true one, that “if we die with Christ, we shall also live with him; if we suffer, we shall also reign with him.” 2 Tim. ii. 12.
Now, that this was the way in which the persecuted infant churches understood and applied this twentieth chapter — that it is not merely our interpretation carried back and fathered upon them—is a matter of the most positive historic certainty. In his famous sixteenth chapter, Gibbon says, ” They inculcated with becoming diligence that the fire of martyrdom supplied every defect and expiated every sin; that while the souls of ordinary Christians were obliged to pass through a slow and painful purification, the triumphant sufferers entered into the immediate fruition of eternal bliss, where, in the society of the patriarchs, the apostles, and the prophets, they reigned with Christ, and acted as his assessors in the universal judgment of mankind.” So Mosheim (Com. I., p. 136): “It was conceived that they were taken up directly into heaven, and admitted to a share in the divine counsels and administration ; that they sat as judges with G,od, enjoying the highest marks of his favor, and possessing influence sufficient to obtain from him whatever they might make the object of their prayers.”
Hence the “crown of martyrdom” became the peculiar designation of this supreme honor; to attain their crown, a common euphemism for death. Cyprian, describing the sufferings of the victims, says, ” Tortures overtook them, tortures wherein the torturer ceases not, without escape of condemnation, without the consolation of death; tortures which do not dismiss them speedily to their crown, but rack them until they overthrow their faith; except perhaps that God in his mercy removed one here and another there in the midst of his torments, and so he attained his crown, not by the full ending of his torture, but by the suddenness of death.”*
Uhlhorn, “Conflict,” p. 306.
In his unique work on the Catacombs of Rome, Withrow says: ” The palm and crown are symbols that frequently occur, often in a very rude form. Although common also to Jewish and pagan art, they have received in Christian symbolism a loftier significance than they ever possessed before. They call to mind that great multitude whom no man can number, with whom faith sees the dear departed walk in white, bearing palms in their hands” (p. 285). It was doubtless in accordance with the same idea that early Christian art surrounded the heads of the martyrs with the aureole * — the crown of light — in token of their attainment of the promised crown and throne above.
As a natural consequence of views like these, we find among the primitive Christians a peculiar homage paid to the martyrs, which in the later centuries degenerated into the veneration, and even ^he adoration, of relics. ” What honor,” exclaims Uhlhorn, “was shown to the martyrs and confessors! The Christians embraced them on their way to the place of execution, and kissed their chains in the prisons. They were given as honorable a burial as was possible, and no heed was paid to the danger incurred in procuring this for them. With diligent care their names and the story of their martyrdom were recorded for a
* Generally represented in modern copies by the aimple oTal line, without rays.
memorial. And if, perchance, the persecution ceased for a while, and some returned from the prisons or from exile, how jubilantly they were greeted! The Christians hastened to meet them, crowded round them, embraced them with heartfelt affection, and hung on their necks with kisses.” p. 372.
Nay, — and here we come to the most remarkable fact of all — these anticipations of the peculiar honors and rewards of the martyrs grew at length into a passionate desire to attain them. Men, women, and even children, eagerly sought condemnation to the stake or to the wild beasts. They boldly confessed themselves to be Christians— nay, they voluntarily offered themselves to the authorities, and solicited the glorious boon. Sulpicius Severus says: ” They rushed, vying with each other, into the glorious struggles, and many sought martyrdoms by glorious deaths more eagerly than now they seek, with low ambitions, even the episcopate.” So, when Ignatius was about to suffer, he wrote to his friends at Rome, urging them not to fear in his behalf: “I beseech you that you show not an unseasonable goodwill towards me. Suffer me to be food for the wild beasts, by whom I shall attain unto God. For I am the wheat of God, and I shall be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
But I have space to pursue the subject no further. What I have said will be sufficient, I trust, to show how thoroughly practical to themselves the Book of Revelation was made by the early churches. To them it was not in its main scope a book for the distant ages. There are things in it — glimpses of matters which, as their terms showed, stretched beyond the general range of the book as stated on its title page, such as the binding of Satan, the thousand years, Gog and Magog, and a few others, about which they fell into as fanciful errors as others since them have done, but, with these exceptions, it was a message from heaven of the most immediate practical value to them. And I believe that if we would ascertain its true meaning, as intended by its inspired Author, we must go back to that day and study it in the light of those times, the existing state of the churches, their actual needs, and the wise and loving purposes of the Lord, who in the martyr fires of those first three centuries was preparing the immovable foundations of that kingdom which should extend over all the earth, and of whose duration there should be no end.
IT is one of the many disadvantages attending the study of the Scriptures in our version, that they are printed in a manner so different from other books. The Revelation is not, so to speak, a chapter or section of a large work called the Bible, as one might infer from the way in which it stands on the pages of the sacred volume. It is strictly an independent book. It has what in modern books would be a title-page, a dedication, a motto condensing into a single paragraph the subject of the work and its author — all preceding the regular body of the work. First:
Chapter i. (1) The Revelation Op Jesus Christ, Which God Gave Him To Show Unto His Servants, Ever
The Things Which Must Shortly Come To Pass I And He Bent And Signified It By His Angel Unto His Servant John; (2) Who Bare Witness Of The Word Of God, And Of The Testimony Of Jestjs Christ, Even Of All Things That He Saw. (3) Blessed Is He That Readeth, And They That Hear The Words Of The Prophecy, And
KEEP THE THINGS WHICH ARE WRITTEN THEREIN: FOB THE TIME IS AT HAND.»
It obviously consists of two parts, an announcement of the nature of the book, and a blessing upon those who use it. It is generally held that the words “he that readeth” and “they that hear ” refer to the official reader and members of a congregation, showing that the book was intended for public use throughout the early churches. This will suggest one of the reasons why those portions that speak of the persecuting authorities under whom Christians were suffering, should be couched in enigmatic terms for concealment from the uninitiated.
occupies the next three verses. This consists also of two parts, a solemn benediction upon those to whom the work was addressed, and a doxolog’y of praise to Him through whom salvation and exaltation to glory are bestowed.
Chapter i. (4) John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from him which is and which was and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; (5) and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the first,born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loveth us and loosed us from our sins by his blood; (6) and he made us to lie a kingdom, to be priests unto his God and his Father; to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
*The text is that of the Revised Version.
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