1. The word Apocalypse
) signifies Revelation
, the title given to the book in our English version as well from its opening word as from its contents. Of all the writings of the New Testament that are classed by Eusebius among the disputed books (Antilegomena
, chap.5.6), the apostolic authorship of this is sustained by the greatest amount of external
evidence; so much so that Eusebius acknowledges it as doubtful whether it should be classed among the acknowledged
or the disputed
It was known to Papias, to Melito bishop of Sardis, and to Theophilus of Antioch; is quoted as a part of Scripture by the churches of Vienne and Lyons in the last quarter of the second century; and is expressly ascribed to the apostle John by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, the Muratorian canon, Hippolytus, Origen, Jerome, etc. The testimonies may be seen in Davidson's Introduction to the New Test., in Alford, and in the other works already frequently referred to. Eusebius, after giving a list of the acknowledged books, adds: |After these should be placed, if it be thought proper, the Revelation of John, concerning which we shall give the opinions at the proper time.| Then, at the end of a list of the disputed and rejected books he adds: |And moreover, as I said, the Revelation of John, if it be thought proper, which some, as I said, reject, but others reckon among the acknowledged books| (Hist. Eccl., 3.25); and again, after mentioning with approbation the account of those who said that there were at Ephesus two who bore the name of John (John the apostle, and the so-called presbyter John), he adds: |For it is probable that the second, if any one be not willing to allow that it was the first, saw the Revelation current under the name of John| (Hist. Eccl., 3.39). Those who denied the apostolic authorship of the book generally referred it to this latter, John the presbyter. So Dionysius of Alexandria and others. But for this they adduced no historic proof. Their arguments were drawn wholly from considerations relating to its internal character, especially in the case of some, its supposed millenarian views. Upon any fair principle of judging, we must concede that the apostolic authorship of this book is sustained by a mass of ancient testimony not rebutted by any contrary testimony which rests on a historic basis.
2. In modern, as in ancient times, the main arguments against the apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse have been drawn from its internal character, especially as contrasted with that of the fourth gospel and the first epistle of John. On this ground the assaults upon the book have been many and strong, and they have been met with vigorous resistance. To review the arguments on both sides would exceed our limits. Many of them, moreover, presuppose a knowledge of the original languages of both the Old and the New Testament. We can only indicate some considerations of a general nature.
(1.) No valid argument against the apostolic authorship of this book can be drawn from the fact that the writer specifies his name in the introduction and elsewhere. Chaps.1:1, 4, 9; 21:2; 22:8. It may surprise us that the man who studiously avoids mentioning his name in the fourth gospel, and who describes himself in his second and third epistles as |the elder,| should here directly introduce his name at the beginning and in the progress of the book. But for this difference he may have had a good reason, whether we can discover it or not. The direct command, addressed to him personally, that he should write down his visions and send them to the seven churches of Asia would seem to imply the propriety, if not the necessity, of his connecting his own name with the record of them. He addressed the churches immediately and authoritatively in the name of the risen and glorified Saviour. What more natural and proper than that he should inform them directly who he was that had received this heavenly message.
(2.) The doctrinal views of the Apocalypse afford no argument against its apostolic authorship. The writer, it is true, moves to a great extent in a new and peculiar sphere of truth; but there is nothing in it contradictory to the teachings of John's gospel and epistles. On the contrary, the great central truths that relate to Christ's person and office are in perfect harmony with those teachings.
(3.) The spirit of the Apocalypse is not contradictory to that of the gospel and epistles. A writer in Alexander's Kitto says: |Quiet contemplation has full scope in the evangelist; mildness and love find utterance in affectionate discourse. But the spirit of the apocalyptist is stern and revengeful, with cutting reproofs, calls to repentance, commands and threatenings.| The answer to all this is that, just as the human body has bones and muscles as well as fluids and soft tissues, so the mediatorial government of Christ has a stern as well as a mild side; and that the very nature of the visions contained in the apocalypse gives prominence to this side.
(4.) The main objections are based on diversity of style and diction. Notwithstanding all the true points of resemblance in this respect that have been adduced by various writers, the difference between the Apocalypse, on the one hand, and the gospel and epistles of John, on the other, is very striking. But here we must take into account, first of all, the great difference in the subject-matter, which naturally brings a corresponding difference of language. Next, the difference in the mode of divine communication. The gospel and epistles were written under that constant tranquil illumination of the Holy Spirit which all the apostles enjoyed. The subject-matter of the Apocalypse was given in direct vision -- much of it, moreover, through the medium of oral address. To one who believes in the reality of the revelations here recorded it is vain that an opponent urge the difference in style between the first epistle of John and the epistles to the seven churches of Asia; since these latter are expressed in the very words of Christ. Inseparably connected with the peculiar mode of revelation in the Apocalypse are the peculiar mental state and circumstances in which the apostle wrote. He composed the gospel and epistles in the calmness of tranquil contemplation and reminiscences of the past. The visions of the Apocalypse he received |in the Spirit| (chap.1:10; 4:2); that is, in a state of ecstacy; and, according to the plain language of the book, he wrote them down at the time, beginning, as we must suppose, with the second chapter, the introductory chapter and some closing remarks having been added afterwards. The direction: |What thou seest write in a book| (chap.1:11, 19), does not indeed imply that he should write upon the spot; but that he did so is plainly indicated elsewhere: |When the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not| (chap.10:4). In entire harmony with this is another passage: |And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth,| etc. (chap.14:13); that is, |Write down now these words of comfort.| The apostle, therefore, wrote down his visions one after another immediately after they were received. When he wrote he was not in a state of
unconsciousness, but of mental and spiritual exaltation above his ordinary condition. To affirm that he could not have received this series of visions without being deprived of the capacity to record them at the time, would be to limit the modes of divine revelation by our ignorance. If we cannot understand how the apostle could hear |in the Spirit| the voices of the seven thunders, and immediately prepare to write down their utterances, we ought, at least, reverently to receive the fact as stated by him. To expect from one writing in such circumstances careful attention to the rules of Greek syntax and the idioms of the Greek language would be absurd. Undoubtedly Plato in a like situation would have written pure Attic Greek, because that would have been to him the most natural mode of writing. But the Galilean fisherman, a Jew by birth and education, fell back upon the Hebrew idioms with which he was so familiar. Finally we must remember that, after the analogy of the Old Testament prophecies, this prophetic book is expressed in poetic diction. It is full of images borrowed from the old Hebrew prophets, often spiritualized and applied in a higher sense. Looking to the imagery alone, one may well call this book a grand anthology of the old Hebrew poets. But the poetic diction of one and the same writer may differ widely from his prose style, as we see in the case of Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
If the above considerations do not wholly remove the difficulty under consideration they greatly relieve it. The apostolic authorship of the fourth gospel and the first epistle of John is sustained by a mass of evidence that cannot be set aside. That the same John also wrote the visions of the Apocalypse is attested, as we have seen, by the almost unanimous voice of antiquity. Far greater difficulties are involved in the denial of the ancient tradition of the church than in the admission of it.
3. The date of the Apocalypse has been a matter of much discussion, the great question being whether it was written before or after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The external testimony strongly preponderates on the side of a late date; for the great body of this tradition represents the banishment of the apostle to the isle of Patmos as having taken place under Domitian who succeeded Titus, and reigned from A.D.81 to 96. This supposition also agrees with the fact that the recipients of our Lord's seven messages (chaps.2, 3) are the seven churches of Proconsular Asia, among whom, according to the unanimous testimony of the primitive church, the apostle spent the latter years of his life. The hypothesis of an earlier date is but feebly supported by external testimony. It rests mainly on the alleged reference of the writer to the overthrow of Jerusalem as an event yet future, and as being the main subject of the prophesies contained in the book. But this reference has never been clearly established, and is contradicted by the general analogy of prophecy, by the contents of the book, and by its manifest relation to the prophecies of Daniel. A few only of the briefer prophetic books, as those of Jonah and Nahum, confine themselves to one particular event lying in the near future. All the more extended among them, and many of the shorter, look forward undeniably to the distant future. The book of Daniel can be interpreted only as containing a great scheme of prophecy stretching forward into the distant future, and with this the revelation of John has the closest connection. The place where the revelation was received was the isle of Patmos, one of the group called Sporades in the AEgean sea off the southwestern corner of Asia Minor, where the apostle represents himself to have been |for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ| (chap.1:9): that is, in accordance with ancient tradition, banished to that isle on account of the gospel.
4. For the interpretation of this book many and very discordant plans have been proposed. Setting aside at the outset all those schemes which do not find in the Apocalypse a view of the conflicts of Christ's people to the end of time and their final victory over their enemies, there remain two general principles of interpretation. The first may be called the generic principle. Those who adopt it inquire only after the general import of the symbols employed, without attempting any particular application of them to the history of the church in connection with that of the world. Thus, the white horse of the first seal (chap.6:2) denotes in general the conquests of Christ through his gospel; the red horse of the second seal (chap 6:4), war and carnage, as accompanying the progress of the truth; and so on throughout the other symbols of the book. But when we come to the most important part of the prophecies, those concerning the two beasts (chap.13), and that concerning the woman riding on the scarlet-colored beast (chap.17), this principle utterly fails. It cannot be that so many specific and very peculiar marks mean only persecuting powers in general. They point with wonderful clearness and precision to that grand combination of the civil with the ecclesiastical power of which papal Rome has ever been the chief representative.
We come, then, for the true key to the Apocalypse, to the other principle, which may be called the historic. This seeks in the history of the church and of the world for the great events foretold in this book. It is no valid objection to this principle, that in the attempt to apply it interpreters find great, and in many cases insuperable difficulties. The mystery of God is not yet finished. It may be that the mighty events of the future can alone throw a clear light on the entire plan of the book. Meanwhile we must wait in reverential expectation, having in the plain fulfilment of that part of its prophecies which describes the rise and character of the combined ecclesiastical and political power which, under the name of Christianity, persecutes the true servants of Christ, a certain pledge that all the rest will be accomplished in due season. Expositors are agreed that the predictions of the book do not run on in chronological order from beginning to end. Most find in chaps.6:1-11:18 (with an episode, chaps.10:1-11:13) one series relating more to the outward history of the world in its relations to God's people; while in chap.12 the writer returns to the primitive days of Christianity, and gives a more interior and spiritual view of the conflicts of God's people along the track of ages and their final triumph, adding at the close various supplementary views of the same mighty struggle and victory.
5. On the symbolic import of the numbers in the Apocalypse a few words may be added.
Seven is the well known symbol of completeness, and this is the most prominent number in the book. Thus we have the seven churches of Asia represented by the seven golden candlesticks, and their seven angels represented by seven stars (chap.1:4, 12, 16, 20); the seven lamps of fire burning before the throne which are the seven spirits of God (chap.4:5); the seven seals (chap.5:1); the seven trumpets (chap.8:2); the seven thunders (chap.10:4); the seven last plagues (chap.15:1); to which may be added the seven ascriptions of praise -- power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, blessing (chap.5:12), blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, might (chap.7:12). Lastly, we have the seven heads of the persecuting beast in all its various forms. Chaps.12:3; 13:1; 17:3. So far as the number seven has its fulfilment in the history of the world, we are at liberty to suppose that this is accomplished, in part at least, by the manner in which the wisdom of God has been pleased to group together the events of prophecy -- a grouping which is always appropriate, but might have been different had the plan of representation so required. The final judgments which precede the millennium, for example, which in chaps.15 and 16 are set forth under the figure of seven vials full of the wrath of God, might have been, by another mode of distribution, represented under the number two. Many think they are thus represented in chap.14:14-20. Another prophetic number, occurring in Daniel and the Apocalypse, always as a designation of time, is the half of seven. Thus we have |a time, and times, and half a time,| that is, three years and a half (chap.12:14); or in months, |forty and two months| (chaps.11:2; 13:5); or in days, |a thousand two hundred and threescore days| (chaps.11:3; 12:6). Compare Daniel 7:25. Again, answering to these three years and a half, we have the three days and a half during which the two witnesses lie dead. Chap.11:9, 11. The number six, moreover, from its peculiar relation to seven, represents the preparation for the consummation of God's plans. Hence the sixth seal (chap.6:12-17), the sixth trumpet (chap.9:14-21), and the sixth vial (chap.16:12-16) are each preeminent in the series to which they belong. They usher in the awful judgments of Heaven which destroy the wicked. Here, perhaps, we have the key to the symbolic import of the number of the beast, 666. While it represents, according to the principles of Greek numeration, the number of a man, it seems to indicate that upon him fall all the judgments of the sixth seal, the sixth trumpet, and the sixth vial.
Four is the natural symbol for universality. Thus we have the four living creatures round about the throne (chap.4:6), perhaps as symbols of the agencies by which God administers his universal providential government (chaps.6:1, 3, 5, 7; 15:7); the four angels standing on the four corners of the earth and holding the four winds (chap.7:1); and the four angels bound in the river Euphrates (chap.9:14). So also in the fourfold enumeration, |kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation,| or its equivalent. Chaps.5:9; 10:11; 11:9; 14:6; 17:15. A third and a fourth part, on the contrary, represent what is partial. Chaps.6:8; 8:12; 9:18.
Twelve is the well-known signature of God's people. Compare the twelve tribes of the Old Testament and the twelve apostles of the New; the woman with a crown of twelve stars (chap.12:1); the twelve gates, twelve angels, twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem, the twelve times twelve cubits of its wall, and its tree of life that yields twelve harvests a year (chaps.21:12, 14; 22:2). We have also the same number combined with a thousand, the general symbol for a great number. From each of the twelve tribes of Israel are sealed twelve thousand (chap.7:4-8), making for the symbolical number of the redeemed twelve times twelve thousand (chap.14:1, 3); and the walls of the New Jerusalem are in every direction twelve thousand furlongs (chap.21:16).
Ten is possibly only a symbol of diversity, as in the case of the ten horns of the beast (chaps.12:3; 13:1; 17:3); though some take a literal view of it.
6. Dark as are many parts of the Apocalypse and difficult of interpretation, the book as a whole is radiant with the promise to God's people of a final and complete victory in their conflict with the kingdom of Satan. Though long delayed, as we mortals reckon time, it shall come at last with a splendor above the brightness of the sun, and the earth be lighted from pole to pole with its glory. |Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus|!