Last Updated on : Thursday, November 20, 2014
|Thirteen Lectures On The Apocalypse|
See also Eureka
The general neglect of the Apocalypse -- a good reason why it is not understood -- the recent exposition by Dr. Thomas -- Origin of the Apocalypse -- to whom sent -- its symbolic style -- the use of sign and symbol in previous divine communications -- the advantage of symbolism -- the futurist theory of the Apocalypse -- its baselessness -- John in the Isle of Patmos -- "in Spirit on the Lord's Day" -- not Sunday or Saturday -- the first object seen -- the Son of Man in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks -- the order to send the Apocalypse to the seven Asian ecclesias -- the message to each -- the structural beauty of each -- brief and hurried analysis -- the angels of the ecclesia.
THERE is no more conclusive evidence of the truly unchristian state of the professedly Christian society around us, than the ignorance and aversion that prevail with regard to the Apocalypse--the last book of the New Testament. The opening sentences of the book show us how it is regarded by Christ--(and this is the true standard of judgment in the case). Christ does not directly speak in these opening sentences; but he has said with regard to the apostles, of whom John, the writer of this book, was one, "He that heareth you heareth me". Consequently we hear Christ speaking when we hear John describe this book as a revelation sent from Christ (who first received it from God), in order that his servants might know the things that would shortly come to pass. We hear Christ speak when we read in verse 3: "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy". We hear him speak directly at the end of the book thus: "I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches". If this book of the Apocalypse is a message from Christ, sent for the enlightenment of his servants, to be testified in the Churches, among whom those are blessed who read and understand it, how are we to estimate a state of society in which it is not only generally unknown and not understood where known, but in which it is an increasingly popular sentiment that it is "unknowable", and that any profession of ability to understand it is evidential of latent if not active insanity on the part of the professor?
There are very good reasons why the Apocalypse is not understood. Those reasons are known to all who know the truth. In brief they may be said to lie in this, that people come to the Apocalypse with ideas that cannot be harmonized with it. The Apocalypse deals with scenes
and events belonging to the earth and to the nations upon it--scenes and events which, in their general outlines, are the subject of Old Testament prophecy from the beginning, and which constitute the subject matter of the gospel of the kingdom. No marvel, therefore, if people whose theology fixes their attention upon heaven and hell, and an imagined disembodied state of existence after death, cannot get into the groove of a correct understanding.
We must not stay to discuss the problem how it comes to pass that professing Christendom should have come to discard the first principles of primitive Christianity. This has been discussed before. It is sufficient to note the fact as the explanation of the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon, that the last book of the New Testament should be deemed unintelligible, useless, and even dangerous by multitudes professing subjection to the book as a whole. If we are in a different position in the matter to those around us, we owe it to the kindness of God in having brought us into contact with the labours of a man who has been instrumental in our age in removing from the Scriptures the veil of misapprehension which hides them from the general understanding. Having received the benefit of these labours, it is our duty to do the best we can to extend it to others.
The object of the present course of lectures is to exhibit in a simple way the meaning of this (at first sight) apparently inscrutable book of Revelation. It is customary and more appropriate to speak of it as the Apocalypse. To speak of it as "Revelation" is to clash with the fact that there is much other revelation besides, and that the Apocalypse is only a part of revelation. To speak of it as the Apocalypse is to identify a particular part of revelation.
The first thing to be noted is its own description of itself in the opening verse as "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him." The conviction following from this description is that before God gave it to Jesus, Jesus did not know it. This conclusion may not be in harmony with the common idea of Jesus which attributes to him co-equal knowledge with the Father; but it is in harmony with Christ's own declaration while on earth. He said of a certain time: "Of that day knoweth no man, no not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father" (Mark 13:32). Jesus knows as much as the Father pleases.
The next point to be noticed is, that Jesus sent it for the information of a certain class: "To show unto HIS SERVANTS things which must shortly come to pass". It was not sent to all the world. It was sent to his friends. This accounts for
the difficult form in which it was communicated. It was intended for a class who in their knowledge of the purpose of God, as revealed in the prophets, possessed the key for the opening of this enigmatical and more elaborate exhibition of it in detail. None others could understand or make use of it. This was one reason why it has been so little understood by the world at large. If it has been sent by Christ to the friends of Christ, obviously everyone desiring to be numbered with the friends of Christ will feel desirous of understanding it.
Next we have to consider the form adopted in the conveyance of this revelation. We are not left to speculate on this point. It is not an open question whether the things seen by John were literal or symbolic. The nature of the revelation is defined in the same verse that tells us whom it was sent to. "He sent and SIGNIFIED IT by his angel to his servant John." It was not sent in a plain form but in an enigmatical or sign form. To SIGNIFY is to represent by sign or symbol. That that is what is meant by the use of the verb "signify" in this case, is shown conclusively by what John saw and heard. He saw certain things which he describes, and concerning these he is repeatedly informed that the mystery or meaning of what he saw was this and that. Thus, the very first object he saw was a luminous personage standing in the midst of seven golden candlesticks, and having in his hand seven stars. That this was an exhibition of something in symbol would be suggested by the thing itself, but is put beyond a doubt by what was addressed to John thus (chap. 1:20): "The mystery of the seven stars: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches (the churches enumerated in verse 11) and the seven candlesticks are the seven churches". Explanations such as these are scattered through the book, and furnish the clues by which the whole may be worked out and understood. To have given the signs without any explanation of their meaning, would have been to give that which would not be a revelation but a concealment and a bewilderment.
The use of sign or symbol is very characteristic of the divine mode of communication. The literal is the basis, but there is much garniture of figure from the very beginning. The Mosaic system was one elaborate system of symbol, as we learn from the New Testament. The messages of the prophets are largely figurative in their dress, though literal in their structure and in their bearing. The Apocalypse is not the first time pure symbol was employed to represent events. The book of Daniel is almost entirely of this character. The vision of the image and the stone, the vision of the four beasts, the vision of the
ram and the goat, will occur to everyone acquainted with that book as pointed examples. Even in the plainer prophets, there are examples of pure symbol. Jehovah alludes to the fact in Hosea thus: "I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes by the ministry of the prophets" (chap. 12:10). If the similitudes were employed without any clue to their significance, their use would not be enlightening, but the clues, in almost all cases, are supplied--if not in the immediate context, in some corresponding part of the word. Diligent search and comparison will find them.
In some cases it requires no such search; they lie on the surface. Thus Jeremiah, at the commencement of his ministry, was caused to see an almond rod. He was asked what he saw; he said, "I see a rod of an almond tree". "Then said the Lord unto him, thou hast well seen, for I will hasten my word to perform it" (1:12). Here an almond rod is constituted the symbol of speed in the execution of the Lord's purpose, so that every time it was seen, it would carry that meaning with it, in the same way that the scales in modern allegory represent justice. The same prophet was shown a seething pot with its face towards the north, the explanation of which was added in these words: "Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land"--namely, a military invasion, as the next verse shows. Consequently a seething pot would become a symbol of the affliction arising from the war. Amos was shown a basket of garnered fruit (chap. 8:1), and informed that it signified the ripeness of Israel's iniquity, because of which Jehovah would bear no longer with them.
At first sight, it might seem a matter of regret that symbol should be employed at all. It might seem so much better that all matters should be set forth plainly. This thought will give way before experience. Purely literal talk lacks the colour and zest of communication spiced with figure and concealed meaning. This is apparent in even ordinary conversation. The man who signifies more than he actually says, and who by a slight obscurity of style imposes upon the mind an effort to penetrate his meaning, is a more interesting talker than the man who lets all out in a plain way. The effect of symbols after understanding is attained, is to make the matter set forth much more vivid and striking than it would be in a merely literal presentation.
The symbols of the Apocalypse are very graphic of the things symbolized; but it is necessary to realize that they are only symbols. Thus John, when he saw seven candlesticks, saw something that had no
actual existence. The actual things signified were seven communities of men and women in Asia Minor. He saw a drying river, he saw three frogs, he saw a seven-headed dragon. But there was no literal river or frogs or dragon. These were the signs of something else. Unless this discrimination be carefully exercised, the effect of the contemplation of the objects exhibited in the Apocalypse will be to bewilder and daze, whereas when it is the meanings that are kept before the mind as the important thing to be looked after, the effect is enlightening and calming as intended.
You may think these are needless observations. They will not appear so when you remember there are people who say the Apocalypse is to be understood literally, that Babylon is Babylon; a dragon, a real dragon; the prophets, two men, the locusts, locusts, the fire, real fire, and so on. Such people teach that the Apocalypse is a revelation of something that is to happen after Christ has come. The baselessness of such an idea will be manifest at once when it is recollected that the Apocalypse was sent to seven ecclesias existing in Asia Minor in the time of John for the information of all who should afterwards listen. All were pronounced "Blessed" who should keep the things written in it (verse 3, and frequently throughout the book). Now, of what value could the pointing out of this blessedness be to the seven ecclesias in Asia and all the brethren of Christ who should live after them till his second coming, if the things set forth in it were things to be developed after Christ shall come? The force of this becomes very strong when you consider the character of the class to be accepted when Christ comes as described in the Apocalypse. They are described as "those who have gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark and over the number of his name" (15:2). How could this be descriptive of the saints if there were no beast and his image and his mark and his name to overcome before Christ had come? I will not enlarge this argument, though it might be enlarged This indication of it is sufficient to show the groundlessness and mischievousness of the futurist idea.
We will now proceed to the consideration of the subject in chief--the Apocalypse itself. In the lectures to follow, we will take the book seriatim, chapter by chapter, seeking to exhibit, not only the meaning but the evidence of the meaning, for it would be of no profit to assert that the meaning was thus and so, unless the proof that it is so were produced at the same time.
The book opens with the picture of John in the island of Patmos, a small desolate isle on the west coast of Asia Minor. To the solitude of this place he was banished on account of the faith of Christ, by the Roman Emperor Domitian, who it is said first tried unsuccessfully to destroy him by immersing him in boiling oil. He tells us that before the vision began, he was "in spirit on the Lord's Day." Some people take this to mean that the vision came to him on Sunday. There are various objections to this. First, Sunday is never called the Lord's Day in the Scriptures. Even under Moses, the sabbath was the "seventh day"--not the Lord's Day--the sabbath of the Lord, but never the Lord's Day. Still less was such a description employed under Christ who was the end of the law for righteousness to everyone believing (Rom. 10:4), and who liberated believers from the law of the sabbath, as well as the other parts of the law (Col. 2:14-16; Rom. 14:5). The only use to which we ever find "the Lord's Day" put, or "day of the Lord" (for the latter is the more correct form of the phrase), is to express an appointed day of the Lord's manifestation in some form or other, particularly the day appointed for the judging of the world in righteousness by Christ. This last is the day most commonly expressed by the phrase "day of the Lord" (Acts 17:31; 1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; 1 Thess. 5:2; Phil. 1:6).
Then the intimation: "I was in Spirit", is conclusive against the common way of regarding this passage. The meaning of this phrase is illustrated unmistakably a little farther on. At the close of the first series of things shewn to him, John heard a voice addressing him thus: "Come up hither, and I will shew thee things that must be hereafter" (4:1), "and," says he, "immediately I was in Spirit, and, behold, a throne," etc. What this means exactly is shown in the case of another prophet, Ezekiel, who being also addressed on the occasion of being about to receive visions, says (Ezek. 2:2): "And the Spirit entered into me when he spake to me;" and again, "So the Spirit lifted me up, and took me away, and I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit, but the hand of the Lord was strong upon me" (3:14). To be "in Spirit" is to be seized, covered or held by the Spirit of God for the particular purpose in hand -- generally a purpose of vision and revelation. Now, for John to be "in the Spirit on the day of the Lord," was to be present on that day in vision by the Spirit. The Spirit was John's constant companion, as Jesus had promised (John 15:26; 16:13) -- a Comforter, an Instructor, a revealer of things to come. When was the comfort of this illumination more
needed than in the solitude of Patmos, when John was compelled to pine away for the truth's sake? What more suited to the needs of the spiritual man than that he should receive this comfort in the shape of a preternaturally-engendered contemplation of the day of the Lord, when all tribulation should cease? and what more natural than that such a moment should be chosen for the communication of a further and larger revelation for the benefit of the whole household of God?
John, then, in Patmos, being, through the power of the Spirit, en rapport on a particular occasion with the day of the Lord, hears behind him a loud trumpet-toned voice, saying, "I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and what thou seest, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia, unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea". Turning to see whence the voice proceeded, he saw "one like unto the Son of Man", whom he describes in detail. On this it has to be remarked that the figure seen was not Jesus himself. The nature of the figure -- (with sword proceeding out of his mouth, etc.) --itself shows this; but it is more evident from the statement of the first verse concerning the whole Apocalypse, that Jesus "sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John". This statement is repeated at the end of the book (22:6) that "the Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to shew unto His servants the things which must shortly be done". It was an angel and not Jesus that visited John in Patmos. John refers to this angel visitant thus (22:8): "When I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things. Then saith he unto me, see thou do it not, for I am the fellow-servant of thee and of thy brethren the prophets" etc. The angel visiting John in Patmos, so operated upon him by the power of the Spirit of God as to cause him to see and hear things that had no real existence, but which to John seemed real, just as things seen and heard in dreams seem real to the dreamer, with this great difference, however, that dreams are the interfusion and confusion of ideas already impressed upon the brain by natural means in waking hours--the vision caused to appear to John was the exhibition, in signs and symbols, of things that were really to come, the knowledge of which had been received by the angel from Christ, to whom the Father had communicated it in the first instance.
The Son of Man then, seen by John when he turned to see the
source of the voice, was not the actual Jesus, but a symbolic representation of him in certain relations which become apparent in the messages sent to the churches or ecclesias of Asia.
Here it is well to realize that though sent to seven congregations contemporary with John, the messages were really intended to be of world-wide application so far as saints are concerned. It was not only for them: it was for all the friends of Christ. We learn this from the addition of this clause to every message: "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear". We also learn from this that Jesus, in sending the messages, contemplated the possibility of some not having ears to hear. This apparently unimportant deduction may often be of great practical value. We are liable to be depressed and even diverted from right conclusions by the general apathy and want of interest shown towards the great matters involved in the Apocalypse. We are liable sometimes to feel as if this mass of public inertia were in some way or other in the right, and that the holding of definite and interested views on the subject is a sign of narrowness and a mistake. It will help us to resist this (at bottom) unreasonable feeling, to see that Jesus appeals to the discerning only. He always speaks disparagingly of the spiritual attainments of the mass of mankind. In his prayer, for example (John 17), he plainly says "The world hath not known Thee," and again, "I pray not for the world," and again, "That which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15). In this very Apocalypse, the spectacle is prominently and strikingly exhibited of all nations being in the wrong. All nations are said to be figuratively drunk with the (symbolic) wine of abomination ministered to them by the Roman ecclesiastical adulteress of Europe (Rev. 18:3; 17:18). All the world were to wonder after the beast (13:3). Consequently, enlightenment, instead of finding it a difficulty, will rather recognize it as one of the characteristic features of the present situation of things, that Apocalyptic matters enlist no sympathy and rather excite the contempt than the attention or even the opposition of mankind.
Why was the Apocalypse sent to only seven ecclesias? There were many more than seven in the world at that time. There were the ecclesias at Jerusalem, at Rome, at Antioch, at Corinth, at Colosse, at Philippi, and many other places. The seven golden candlesticks take no note of these: Why not? Because seven represents all. The seven golden candlesticks in the midst of which the figure of the Son of Man was seen, represent the
entire community of the saints as a light-bearing community. They did this in representing the seven ecclesias in Asia which stood for all the ecclesias everywhere, as shown by the intimation appended to each message, that what was said was intended for everyone having ears. Seven were chosen whose states differed, and who therefore called for seven different messages, applicable to all the states in which professedly Christian communities could be found.
Here we have to notice that the Apocalypse was not only sent to the friends of Christ, instead of being published to the world, but that its prophetic delineations, as relating to the course of events in the world, are prefaced by a message peculiar and private to themselves. The second and third chapters are wholly occupied with the messages to the seven representative churches, with respect to their condition and Christ's views and intentions with regard to them. This shows the position the friends and servants of Christ occupy in his estimation. It shows the force of Paul's statement on the same head: "All things are for your sakes." The drama that has been enacted in Europe during a long and dark series of centuries, in harmony with the programme sketched in the Apocalypse, has the body of Christ as its ultima ratio. At the beginning of that programme, and during its evolution, the body of Christ is developed, and at its close, it is seen in glorious and triumphant occupation of the earth and all its honours and glories. The messages to the churches have the first place because the body of Christ is first in the regards of Christ, and because of the important work they are intended to effect in that body during the ascendancy of evil appointed to prevail during his absence.
We will take a glance at the messages before going into the political forecast involved in the seals, trumpets, etc. Very great beauty reveals itself as we study the structure of these messages. They appear at first sight to be haphazard and without plan: they are the reverse of these. They are complete, symmetrical, unique. The description of the Son of Man seen by John (contained in the first chapter), is the basis of the messages. Each message is prefaced by an allusion to some separate feature of the Son of Man so described: and in each message, the feature selected is not only different, but has a direct bearing on the nature of the message to be communicated. Thus,
The message to Ephesus is said to be from him "who walketh in THE MIDST of the seven golden candlesticks." This allusion to his omnipresence among the churches was an appropri-
ate prelude to the declaration "I know thy works and thy labour and thy patience and how thou canst not bear them that are evil, etc." It was also appropriate to the promise that the victor should be permitted to eat of the tree of life in THE MIDST of the paradise of God.
The message to Smyrna is said to be from him "who was dead, and is alive:" and who therefore naturally promises a crown of life to the faithful, and that the victors shall not be hurt of the second death.
The message to Pergamos is said to be from "him who hath the sharp sword with two edges," in harmony with which the threat is uttered, "Repent, or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth."
The message to Thyatira is said to be from "the Son of God who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire (penetrating sight) and his feet like fine brass" (to tread down and destroy), in harmony with which, the object of the things threatened in the message is said to be that all the churches may know that Christ is "he who searches the reins and hearts," and the promise made that power will be given over the shivered nations.
The message to Sardis is said to be from him "that hath the seven Spirits of God"--(the unmeasured control of the Spirit of God). The promise is the clothing with white raiment -- (investiture with spirit-nature) and acknowledgment in the presence of the Father and the angels.
The message to Philadelphia is said to be from him "that hath the key of David; he that openeth, and no man shutteth: and shutteth, and no man openeth," in accordance with which, there is a promise of the exercise of this kingly prerogative in the incorporation of the victor as a permanent constituent of the glorified house of David in the age to come, described under the figure of a temple and new Jerusalem.
The message to Laodicea is said to be from "the faithful and true witness," and the message is a testimony of the true state of the Laodiceans in contrast to their own complacent views of their attainments.
This brief and hurried analysis will illustrate the meaning of the remark that the seven messages are not haphazard and formless, but are carefully constructed upon a principle of symmetry and appropriateness, which while giving play to various general aspects of truth in a brief compass, at the same time admits of their applicability to the actual facts existing in the midst of the ecclesias to whom the messages primarily applied. This is an element of
beauty to admire. It is a mark of divinity which will be appreciated the better the longer it is contemplated.
THE ANGELS OF THE ECCLESIAS.
You will observe that each message is addressed to "the angel" of the ecclesia to which it is sent. The common way of understanding this is to suppose that by "the angel" was meant the presiding bishop of each particular ecclesia. But there can be no doubt that, as in most scriptural things, popular exegesis is wrong here. Dr. Thomas's exposition is demonstrably the right thing--that "the angel" is the Apocalyptic figure for the eldership in each ecclesia, appointed and endowed for their office by the Spirit, ministered by the laying on of the hands of the apostles. This is proved by the recognition of the angel as a plurality, in the messages themselves. Thus, the seven messages, though addressed to the angel of each particular ecclesia, are said to be "what the Spirit saith to the ecclesias" (chap. 2:7, 11, 17, and so on). If each message was addressed to each ecclesia, then the "thou" and the "thy" addressed to "the angel" were plural in their scope. This is finally and conclusively established by the express mention of "some" being included in the ecclesial "thou." Thus, to Smyrna, it is said, "The devil shall cast some of you into prison that ye may be tried, and ye shall have tribulation ten days; be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life" (chap. 2:10). Here "thou" and "you" are used interchangeably. To Pergamos, it was said that "Antipas" was "slain among you" (13); and to Thyatira, "I will give to every one of you according to your works" (23).
Illustrations might be multiplied, but these are conclusive. If it be asked how the eldership should be figured as an angel, we have the answer in the fact that, as men miraculously endowed with the powers and gifts of the Spirit of God for the perfecting of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11,12), they were collectively an angelism from Christ in the midst of each ecclesia--a messengership --men sent for a particular purpose, and officially representing the body in each case.
It would be interesting and profitable to look at the messages with regard to the practical lessons they contain, and the meaning of the promises enigmatically conveyed. This would be a long process to be done thoroughly. We must be content with a summary. And this summary we must defer to the next lecture. If you desire to see the matter thoroughly and vigorously done, I cannot do better than refer
you to Eureka, Dr. Thomas's exposition of the Apocalypse, in three volumes. To this I for one am indebted for my understanding of this most difficult part of the testimony of God. Before reading that exposition nearly twenty years ago (so far as the first volume is concerned), I understood only snatches of it. Now I am thankful to be able to follow it in its entirety. Do not be tempted to think that we lean upon a man's judgment in the matter. Dr. Thomas not only gives you his conclusions but the reasons which have led him to those conclusions. We are thus able to make his conclusions our own by a process which makes us independent of all men as to the ground on which we hold them. The best proof of the soundness of the views advanced by Dr. Thomas lies in this, that once a reader is directed by him to the Bible and becomes a Bible student, he can dispense with Dr. Thomas's books altogether so far as steadfastness of conviction is concerned. The Bible nourishes that conviction from day to day. It is not like Swedenborgianism and some other systems in which you have to keep reading the books to keep "posted" in the system. The Bible keeps you "posted" in the truth, if you never read another line of the man who may have directed you to it in the first instance. My own experience is an illustration of this. I read Elpis Israel twenty-seven years ago; I read it only once: I have never read it since: but I have read the Bible daily all the time since, and have remained of one judgment with Elpis Israel in consequence. So with the Herald published by the Dr., I read it only once. Eureka I have read only once. The Bible to which these books direct their readers I have read always, and consequently realize a strength of conviction totally independent of the man now in his grave, by whom the conviction was generated in the first instance. Nevertheless, it is a great advantage to read the books at least once. If you have never read Eureka, I advise you to do it, at least once. I know it is a large book. It is inaccessible to most of you as regards price, and its bulk is beyond the leisure allowed you from your various occupations. Still, friends will be found willing to lend, and a judicious use of the time possessed will enable a resolute reader to accomplish wonders. In some cases, even this may not be practicable. Such cases I hope in some measure to benefit by an attempt at simple exposition in the course of thirteen lectures now commenced.
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