The Acts of the Apostles contains the history of the Christian church from the time of the ascension of our Lord to the end of the second year of Paul's first imprisonment at Rome. The period covered by the history is therefore only about thirty years. The principal events recorded in it are the great Pentecostal Revival, the Martyrdom of Stephen, the first persecution of the church and the dispersion of the disciples, the conversion and the missionary work of Paul, with the circumstances of his arrest at Jerusalem, his journey as a prisoner to Rome, and a brief account of his residence in that city. In the first part of the book Peter, the leader of the apostolic band, is the central figure; the last part is occupied with the life and work of Paul.
Who is the writer? Irenaeus, about 182, names Luke as the author of the book, and speaks as though the fact were undisputed. He calls him |a follower and disciple of apostles,| and declares that |he was inseparable from Paul and was his fellow-helper in the gospel.| This is the earliest distinct reference to the book in any ancient Christian writing. After this, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius bear the same testimony. But these are late witnesses. The earliest of them testified a hundred years after the death of Luke. The direct testimony to the existence of this book in the first two cenuries is not, therefore, altogether satisfactory. The indirect testimony is, however, clear and strong.
That the Acts was written by the author of the Third Gospel is scarcely doubted by any critical scholar. The fact of the identity of authorship is stated with the utmost explicitness in the introduction of the Acts. |The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, concerning all that Jesus began both to do and to teach| (Luke i. I, 2). The author of the Acts of the Apostles certainly intends to say that he is the writer of the Third Gospel. If he is not the author of the Third Gospel he is an artful and shameless deceiver. But the whole atmosphere of the book forbids the theory that it is a cunning imposition. And the internal evidence that the two books were written by the same author is ample and convincing. The style and the method of the treatment of the two books are unmistakably identical. Every page bears witness to the fact that the author of the Third Gospel and the author of the Acts are one and the same person. Now we know, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the Gospel of Luke was written certainly as early as the year 80 A. D. And there is as good reason, as we have seen already, for accepting the ancient and universal tradition of the church that Luke was its author. If Luke wrote the two books, the date of both of them is carried back to the last part of the first century. But the concluding portion of the Acts of the Apostles seems to fix the date of that book much more precisely. The author, after narrating Paul's journey to Rome, his arrival there, and his first unsatisfactory interview with the Jewish leaders, closes his book with this compendious statement: --
|And he abode two whole years in his own hired dwelling, and received all that went in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching all things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, none forbidding him.|
This is the last word in the New Testament history respecting the Apostle Paul. Now it is evident that this writer was Paul's friend and traveling companion. It is true that he keeps himself out of sight in the history. We only know when he joined Paul by the fact that the narrative changes from the third person singular to the first person plural; he ceases to say |he,| and begins to say |we.| Thus we are made aware that he joined Paul at Troas on his second missionary journey, and went with him as far as Philippi; rejoined him at the same place on his third missionary tour, and accompanied him to Jerusalem; was his fellow- voyager on that memorable journey to Rome, and there abode with him for two years. The Epistle to the Colossians and the Epistle to Philemon were written during this imprisonment at Rome, and in both of these Epistles Paul speaks of the fact that Luke is near him. In the second letter to Timothy, which is supposed to have been written during the second imprisonment at Rome, and near the close of his life, he says again, |Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him unto me, for he is useful to me for ministering.| If the common opinion concerning the date of this letter is correct, then Luke must have remained with Paul at Rome until the close of his life. But the narrative in Luke does not give any account of the closing years of Paul's life. It breaks off abruptly at the end of his two years' residence in Rome. Why is this? Evidently because there is no more to tell at this time. The writer continues the history up to the date of his writing and stops there. If he had been writing after the death of Paul, he would certainly have told us of the circumstances of his death. There is no rational explanation of this abrupt ending, except that the book was written at about the time when the story closes. This was certainly about 63 A. D. And if the Book of Acts was written as early as this, the Gospel of Luke, the |former treatise| by the same author, must have been written earlier than this. Thus the Book of Acts not only furnishes strong evidence of its own early date, but helps to establish the early date of the third Gospel.
These conclusions, to my own mind, are irresistible. No theory which consists with the common honesty of the writer can bring these books down to a later date. And I cannot doubt the honesty of the writer. His writings prove him to be a careful, painstaking, veracious historian. In many slight matters this accuracy appears. The political structure of the Roman Empire at this time was somewhat complicated. The provinces were divided between the Emperor and the Senate; those heads of provinces who were directly responsible to the Emperor and the military authorities were called propraetors; those who were under the jurisdiction of the Senate were called proconsuls. In mentioning these officers Luke never makes a mistake; he gets the precise title every time. Once, indeed, the critics thought they had caught him in an error. Sergius Paulus, the Roman ruler of Cyprus, he calls proconsul. |Wrong!| said the critics, |Cyprus was an imperial province; the title of this officer must have been propraetor.| But when the critics studied a little more, they found out that Augustus put this province back under the Senate, so that Luke's title is exactly right. And to clinch the matter, old coins of this very date have been found in Cyprus, giving to the chief magistrate of the island the title of proconsul. Such evidences of the accuracy of the writer are not wanting. It is needless to insist that he never makes a mistake; doubtless he does, in some small matters, and we have learned to take such a view of the inspiration of the Scriptures that the discovery of some small error does not trouble us in the least; but the admission that he is not infallible is perfectly consistent with the belief that he is an honest, competent, faithful witness. This is all that he claims for himself, this is all that we claim for him, but this we do claim. We do not believe that he was a conscienceless impostor. We do not believe that the man who told the story of Ananias and Sapphira was himself a monumental liar. We believe that he meant to tell the truth, and the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Therefore, we believe that he lived in the times of the apostles, and received from them, as he says that he did, the facts that he recorded in his Gospel; that he was the traveling companion and missionary helper of Paul, as he intimates that he was, and that he has given us a true account of the life and work of that great apostle.
The constant and undesigned coincidences between the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of Paul -- the many ways in which the personal and historical references of the latter support the statements of the former -- are also strong evidence of the genuineness of the Acts. Putting all these indirect and incidental proofs together the historical verity of the Acts seems to me very firmly established. That there are critical difficulties may be admitted; some passages of this ancient writing are not easily explained; there are discrepancies, for example, between the story of the resurrection and ascension of Christ as told in Luke and the same story as related in the Acts; possibly the writer obtained fuller information in the interval between the publication of these two books by which he corrected the earlier narrative. In the different accounts of the conversion of Paul there are also disagreements which we cannot reconcile; nevertheless, in the words of Dr. Donaldson, |Even these very accounts contain evidence in them that they were written by the same writer, and they do not destroy the force of the rest of the evidence.| [Footnote: Encyc. Brit., i.124. ]
The theory of Baur that this book was written in the last part of the second century by a disciple of St. Paul, and that it is mainly a work of fiction, intended to bring about a reconciliation between two bitterly hostile parties in the church, the Pauline and the Petrine sects, need not detain us long. Baur contends that the church in the first two centuries was split in twain, the followers of Peter insisting that no man could become a Christian without first becoming a Jew, the followers of Paul maintaining that the Jewish ritual was abolished, and that the Gentiles ought to have immediate access to the Christian fellowship. Their antagonism was so radical and far-reaching that at the end of the apostolic age the two parties had no dealings with each other. |Then,| in the words of Professor Fisher, who is here summarizing the theory of Baur, |followed attempts to reconcile the difference, and to bridge the gulf that separated Gentile from Jewish, Pauline from Petrine Christianity. To this end various irenical and compromising books were written in the name of the apostles and their helpers. The most important monument of this pacifying effort is the Book of Acts, written in the earlier part of the second century by a Pauline Christian who, by making Paul something of a Judaizer, and then representing Peter as agreeing with him in the recognition of the rights of the Gentiles, hoped, not in vain, to produce a mutual friendliness between the respective partisans of the rival apostles. The Acts is a fiction founded on facts, and written for a specific doctrinal purpose. The narrative of the council or conference of the Apostles, for example (Acts xx.), is pronounced a pure invention of the writer, and such a representation of the condition of things as is inconsistent with Paul's own statements, and for this and other reasons plainly false. The same ground is taken in respect to the conversion of Cornelius, and the vision of Peter concerning it.| [Footnote: The Supernatural Origin of Christianity, pp.211,212.]
For this theory there is, of course, some slight historical basis. It is true, as we have seen, that Peter and Paul did have a sharp disagreement on this very question at Antioch. It is also true that both these great apostles behaved quite inconsistently, Peter at Antioch, and Paul afterwards at Jerusalem, when he consented to the propositions of the Judaizers, and burdened himself with certain Jewish observances in a vain attempt to conciliate some of the weaker brethren. That the story of the Acts unflinchingly shows us the weaknesses and errors of the great apostles is good evidence of its veracity. But the notion that it is a work of fiction fabricated for such purposes as are outlined above is utterly incredible. Those Epistles of Paul which Baur admits to be genuine contain abundant disproof of his theory. There never was any such schism as he fancies. Paul spends a good part of his time in his last missionary journey in collecting funds for the relief of those poor |saints,| for so he calls them, at Jerusalem; and every reference that he makes to them is of the most affectionate character. Paul recognizes in the most emphatic way the authority of the other apostles, and the fellowship of labor and suffering by which he is united to them. All this and much more of the same import we find in those epistles which Baur admits to be the genuine writings of Paul. In short, it may be said that after the thorough discussion to which his theory has been subjected for the last twenty-five years, it has scarcely a sound leg left to stand on. It may be admitted to be one of the most brilliant works of the historical imagination which the century has produced. It is supported by vast learning, and it has thrown much light on certain movements of the early church; but, taken as a whole it is unscientific and contradictory; it raises two difficulties, where it disposes of one, and it ignores more facts than it includes.
We return from this excursion through the fields of destructive criticism with a strong conviction that this narrative of the Acts of the Apostles was written by Luke the Evangelist, the companion and fellow-worker of Paul, and that it gives us a veracious history of the earliest years of the Christian church.
The last of the New Testament books does not belong chronologically at the end of the collection. There was a tradition, to which Irenaeus gives currency, that it was written during the reign of Domitian, about 97 or 98 A. D. But this tradition is now almost universally discredited. Critics of all classes date the book as early as 75-79 A. D., while the best authorities put it nearly ten years earlier, in the autumn of 68 or the spring of 69. As Archdeacon Farrar suggests, it would be vastly better if these books of the New Testament were arranged in true chronological order; they could be more easily understood. The fact that this weird production stands at the end of the collection has made upon many minds a wrong impression as to its meaning, and has given it a kind of significance to which it is not entitled.
The authorship of the book is quite generally ascribed to John the son of Zebedee, brother of James, and one of the apostles of our Lord. Even the destructive critics agree to this; some among them say that there is less doubt about the date and the authorship of this book than about almost any other New Testament writing. In making this concession they intend, however, to discredit the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel. The more certain we are that John wrote the Revelation, they argue, the more certain are we that he did not write the Gospel which bears his name; for the style of the two writings is so glaringly contrasted that it is simply impossible that both could have come from the same writer. This does not seem nearly so clear to me as it does to some of these learned and perspicacious critics. A great contrast there is, indeed, between the style of the Revelation and that of the Gospel; but this contrast may be explained. It is said, in the first place, that the Greek of the Apocalypse is very bad Greek, full of ungrammatical sentences, abounding in Hebraisms, while that of the Gospel is good Greek, accurate and rhetorical in its structure. But this is by no means an unaccountable phenomenon. The first book was written by the apostle very soon, probably, after his removal to Ephesus. He had never, I suppose, been accustomed to use the Greek familiarly in his own country; had never written in it at all, and it is not strange that he should express himself awkwardly when he first began to write Greek; that the Aramaic idioms should constantly reproduce themselves in his Greek sentences. After he had been living for twenty-five years in the cultivated Greek city of Ephesus, using the Greek language continually, it is probable that he would write it more elegantly.
But it is said that the rhetorical style of the one book differs radically from that of the other. Doubtless. The one book is an apocalypse, the other is a biography. John may not have been a practiced litterateur, but he certainly had literary sense and feeling enough to know how to put a very different color and atmosphere into an apocalyptical writing from that which he would employ in a report of the life and words of Jesus. Without any reflection, indeed, he would instinctively use the apocalyptic imagery; his pages would flare and resound with the lurid symbolism peculiar to the apocalypses. How definite a type of literature this was we shall presently see; no writer, while using it, would clearly manifest his own personality. And if through all this disguise we do discern symptoms of a temper more fervid and a spirit more Judaic than that which finds expression in the Fourth Gospel, let us remember that the ripened wisdom of the old man speaks in the latter, and the intense enthusiasm of conscious strength in the former. This John, let us not forget, was not in his youth a paragon of mildness; it was he and his brother James who earned the sobriquet of Boanerges, |Sons of thunder;| it was they who wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume an inhospitable Samaritan village. Moreover, we shall see as we go on that the times in which this apocalypse was written were times in which the mildest, mannered men would be apt to forget their decorum, and speak with unwonted intensity. A man with any blood in him, who undertook to write in the year 68 of the themes with which the soul of this apostle was then on fire, would be likely to show, no matter in what vehicle of speech his thought might be conveyed, some sign of the tumult then raging within him.
All these circumstances, taken together, enable me to explain the difference between the literary form of the Revelation and that of the Gospel. But when we come to look a little more deeply into the meaning of the two books, we shall find that beneath all this dissimilarity there are some remarkable points of agreement. Quite a number of the leading ideas and conceptions of the one book reappear in the other; the idea of Christ as the Word or Logos of God, the representation of Christ as the Lamb, as the Good Shepherd, as the Light, are peculiar to John; we find them emphasized in the Gospel and in the Revelation. The unity of the two books in fundamental conceptions has been admirably brought out by Dr. Sears, in his volume entitled |The Heart of Christ.| And after weighing the evidence, I find neither historical nor psychological reasons sufficient to overthrow my belief that the Fourth Gospel, as well as the Revelation, was written by John the Apostle.
The Greek name of the book means an uncovering or unveiling, and is fairly interpreted, therefore, by our word Revelation. It belongs to a class of books which were produced in great numbers during the two centuries preceding the birth of Christ and the two centuries following; and no one can understand it or interpret it who does not know something of this species of literature, of the forms of expression peculiar to it, and of the purposes which it was intended to serve.
We have in the Old Testament one Apocalyptic book, that of Daniel, and there are apocalyptical elements in two or three of the prophecies. The fact that the Book of Daniel bears this character is a strong argument for the lateness of its origin; for it was in the last years of the Jewish nationality that this kind of writing became popular. We have six or seven books of this kind, which are written mainly from the standpoint of the old dispensation, part of which appeared just before and part shortly after the beginning of our era; and there are nearly a dozen volumes of Christian apocalypses, all of which employ similar forms of expression, and are directed towards similar ends. Doubtless these are only a few of the great number of apocalyptical books which those ages produced. Their characteristics are well set forth by Dr. Davidson: --
|This branch of later Jewish literature took its rise after the older prophecy had ceased, when Israel suffered sorely from Syrian and Roman oppression. Its object was to encourage and comfort the people by holding forth the speedy restoration of the Davidic Kingdom of Messiah. Attaching itself to the national hope, it proclaimed the impending of a glorious future, in which Israel freed from her enemies should enjoy a peaceful and prosperous life under her long-wished-for deliverer. The old prophets became the vehicle of these utterances. Revelations, sketching the history of Israel and of heathenism, are put into their mouths. The prophecies take the form of symbolical images and marvelous visions.... Working in this fashion upon the basis of well-known writings, imitating their style, and artificially reproducing their substance, the authors naturally adopted the anonymous. The difficulty was increased by their having to paint as future, events actually near, and to fit the manifestation of a personal Messiah into the history of the times. Many apocalyptists employed obscure symbols and mysterious pictures, veiling the meaning that it might not be readily seen. [Footnote: Encyc. Brit., i.174. ]
|Every time,| says Dr. Harnack, |the political situation culminated in a crisis for the people of God, the apocalypses appeared stirring up the believers; in spirit, form, plan, and execution they closely resembled each other.... They all spoke in riddles; that is, by means of images, symbols, mystic numbers, forms of animals, etc., they half concealed what they meant to reveal. The reasons for this procedure are not far to seek: (1.) Clearness and distinctness would have been too profane; only the mysterious appears divine. (2.) It was often dangerous to be too distinct.| [Footnote: Encyc. Brit., xx.496. ]
That these writings appeared in troublous times, and that they dealt with affairs of the present and of the immediate future, must always be borne in mind. Certain symbolical conceptions are common to them; earthquakes denote revolutions; stars falling from heaven typify the downfall of kings and dynasties; a beast is often the emblem of a tyrant; the turning of the sun into darkness and the moon into blood signify carnage and destruction upon the earth. We have these symbolisms in several of the Old Testament writings as well as in many of the apocalyptical books which are not in our canon; and the interpretation of such passages is not at all difficult when we understand the usage of the writers.
Of these apocalyptic books one of the most remarkable is the Book of Enoch, which appears to have been written a century or two before Christ. It purports to be a revelation made to and through the patriarch Enoch; it contains an account of the fall of the angels, and of a progeny of giants that sprung from the union of these exiled celestials with the daughters of men; it takes Enoch on a tour of observation through heaven and earth under the guidance of angels, who explain to him many things supernal and mundane; it deals in astronomical and meteorological mysteries of various sorts, and in a series of symbolical visions seeks to disclose the events of the future. It is a grotesque production; one does not find much spiritual nutriment in it, but Jude makes a quotation from it, in his epistle, as if he considered it Holy Scripture.
|The Fourth Book of Esdras| is another Jewish book of the same kind, which may have been written about the hundredth year of our era. It purports to be the work of Ezra, whom it misplaces, chronologically, putting him in the thirtieth year of the Captivity. The problem of the writer is the restoration of the nation, destroyed and scattered by the Roman power. He makes the ancient scribe and law-giver of Israel his mouthpiece, but he is dealing with the events of his own time. Nevertheless, his allusions are veiled and obscure; he speaks in riddles, yet he speaks to a people who understand his riddles, and know how to take his symbolic visions. This book is in our English Apocrypha, under the title 2 Esdras.
|The Book of Jubilees,| which assumes to be a revelation made to Moses on Mount Sinai, |The Ascension of Moses,| |The Apocalypse of Moses,| and the |Apocalypse of Baruch,| are other similar books of the Jewish literature.
Of apocalyptical Christian writings, I may mention |The Sibylline Books,| |The Apocalypse of Paul,| |The Apocalypse of Peter,| |The Revelation of Bartholomew,| and |The Ascension of Isaiah,| and there is also another |Apocalypse of John,| a feeble imitation of the one with which our canon closes. These books appeared in the second, third, and fourth centuries of our era; they generally look forward to the second coming of Christ, and set forth in various figures and symbols the conflicts and persecutions which his saints must encounter, the destruction of his foes, and the establishment of his kingdom.
It will be seen, therefore, that the Revelation of St. John is not unique; and the inference will not be rash that much light may be thrown upon its dark sayings by a careful study of kindred books.
It may be answered that the writer of this book is inspired, and that nothing can be learned of the meaning of an inspired book by studying uninspired books. I reply that no inspired book can be understood at all without a careful study of uninspired books. The Greek grammar and the Greek lexicon are uninspired books, and no man can understand a single one of the books of the New Testament without carefully studying both of them, or else availing himself of the labor of some one else who has diligently studied them. An inspired writer uses language, -- the same language that uninspired writers use; the meaning of language is fixed not by inspiration, but by usage; you must study the grammar and the lexicon to learn about the usage. And the case is precisely similar when an inspired writer uses a peculiar form of literature like the apocalyptical writings. He knows when he uses symbolisms of this class that they will be interpreted according to the common usage; he expects and desires that they shall be so understood; and, therefore, in order to understand them, we must know what the usage is.
When our Lord, speaking of the calamities which were about to fall upon the Jewish people, said, |Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken,| he was speaking to people who were perfectly familiar with language of this sort, because the same expressions occur over and over again in their prophets, and are there distinctly declared to mean great political overturnings. He used the apocalyptic phraseology, and he expected them to give it the apocalyptic signification. If we wish to understand the Scripture, we must understand the language of Scripture, and this means not only the grammatical forms, but also the symbolic usages of the language.
We have seen that the apocalypses are apt to appear in times of great calamity, and we have accepted the verdict of later scholarship, that this Apocalypse of St. John appeared about 68 or 69 A.D. Was this a time of trouble in that Eastern world? Verily it was; the most appalling hour perhaps in the world's history. The unspeakable Nero was either still upon the throne of the Roman Empire, or had just reeled from that eminence to the doom of a craven suicide. The last years of his life were gorged with horror. The murder of his brother, the burning of Rome, probably by his connivance, if not by his command, in order that he might sate his appetite for sensations upon this horrid spectacle; following this the fiendish scheme to charge this incendiarism upon the Christians, and slaughter them by tens of thousands in all the cities of the Empire, -- these are only instances of a career which words are too feeble to portray. Those who succeeded him in this supreme power were not much less ferocious; the very name of pity seemed to have been blotted from the Roman speech; the whole Empire reeked with cruelty and perfidy. While such men ruled at Rome it could not be supposed that the imperial representatives in the provinces would be temperate and just. Some of them, at any rate, had learned the lesson of the hour, and were as perfidious, as truculent, as base as their master could have wished. Such a one was that Gessius Floras who was the procurator of Judea, and who seemed to have exhausted the ingenuity of a malignant nature in stirring up the Jews to insurrection. By every species of indignity and cruelty he finally stung the long-suffering people into a perfect fury, and the rebellion which broke out in Palestine in the year 66 was one of the most fearful eruptions of human nature that the world has ever seen. Florus had raised the demon; now the legions of Rome must be called in to exorcise it. It was a terrible struggle. All the energies of Jewish fanaticisms were enlisted; the Zealots, the fiercest party among them, not content with slaughtering their Roman enemies, turned their hands against every man of their own nation who ventured to question the wisdom of their desperate resistance. In Jerusalem itself a reign of terror raged which makes the French Revolution seem in comparison a calm and orderly procedure.
At the beginning of the outbreak Nero had sent one of his trusted generals, Vespasian, and Vespasian's son Titus, to put down the insurrection. Neither of these soldiers was a sentimentalist; both believed as heartily as did Wentworth in later years that the word of the hour was Thorough. They started with their armies from Antioch in March, 67, resolved on sweeping Palestine with the besom of destruction. Cities and villages, one by one, were besieged, captured, destroyed; men, women, and children were indiscriminately massacred. The Jewish army fought every inch of the ground like tigers; but they were overpowered and beaten in detail, and steadily forced southward. Blackened walls, pools of blood, and putrefying corpses were all that the Romans left in their rear; ruthlessly they drove the doomed people before them toward their stronghold of Jerusalem. In the autumn of that year Vespasian withdrew his army into winter-quarters, and left the Zealots in Jerusalem to their orgy of brigandage and butchery. He could well afford to rest and let them do his deadly work.
In the spring of the following year, the siege of Jerusalem began. The Christians of the city had fled to Pella, east of the Jordan; the remnant of the Jews held their sacred heights with the courage of despair.
It is at this very juncture that this book of the Revelation was written. John testifies that it was written on Patmos, a desolate islet of the Aegean Sea, west of Asia Minor, to which he had either been banished by some tool of Nero, or else had betaken himself for solitude and reflection. To him, in this retreat, the awful tidings had come of the scourge that had fallen on the land of his fathers; added to this, the conflagration at Rome, the Neronian persecution, all the horrors of the past decade were fresh in his memory. May we not say that the time was ripe for an apocalyptic message?
It is in these events, then, that we must find the explanation of much of this symbolical language. Such is the law of the apocalypse, and this apocalypse may be expected to conform to the law. St. John is instructed by the angel to write |the things which thou sawest, and the things which are, and the things which shall come to pass hereafter,| -- |the things which must shortly come to pass,| the first verse more explicitly states. It is the past which he has seen, the present, and the immediate future with which his visions are concerned. It is not any attempt to outline the whole course of human history; it is the picture, in mystic symbols, of the present crisis and of the deliverance which is to follow it. There is no room here for a commentary on the Apocalypse; I will only indicate, in a rapid glance, the outline of the book.
The first three chapters are occupied with the epistles to the seven churches which are in Asia, administering reproof, exhortation, comfort, and counsel to the Christians in these churches, -- faithful, stirring, persuasive appeals, whose meaning can be easily understood, and whose truth is often sorely needed by the churches of our own time.
Then begins the proper Apocalypse, with the first vision of the throne in heaven, and sitting thereon the Lamb that was slain, who is also the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The book sealed with seven seals is given to him to open, and the opening of each seal discloses a new vision. The first seal opened shows a white horse bearing a rider who carries a bow and wears a crown, and who goes forth conquering and to conquer. This is the emblem of the Messiah whose conquest of the world is represented as beginning. But the Messiah once said, |I came not to bring peace, but a sword,| and the consequences of his coming must often be strife and sorrow because of the malignity of men. And therefore the three seals which are opened next disclose a fiery horse, the symbol of War, a black horse, whose rider is Famine, a pale horse in whose saddle is Death. The opening of the fifth seal shows the martyred multitude before the throne of God. The sixth discloses the desolation and the ruin taking place upon the earth. Thus the mighty panorama passes constantly before our eyes; the confusion, the devastation, the woes, the scourges of mankind through which Messiah's Kingdom is advancing to its triumph. The seals, the trumpets, the vials bring before us representations of the retributions and calamities which are falling upon mankind. Sometimes we seem to be able to fix upon a historical event which the vision clearly symbolizes; sometimes the meaning to us is vague; perhaps if we had lived in that day the allusion would have been more intelligible.
There is, however, one great central group of these visions round about which the others seem to be arrayed as scenic accessories, whose interpretation the writer has taken great pains to indicate. These are the visions found in chapters xii., xiii., xvi., and xvii. The woman, sun-clad, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars upon her head (chap, xii.), is beyond all question the ancient Jewish church; the child which is born to the woman is the Christian church; the great red dragon that seeks to devour the child is the Satanic power, the Prince of this world. The Dragon is here on the earth because he has been expelled from heaven. The war of the Dragon against the woman indicates the persecutions of the church; the flight of the woman to the wilderness may symbolize the recent escape of the mother church from Jerusalem to Pella.
The next vision shows a Beast, coming up out of the sea, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten diadems, and on his heads names of blasphemy. Here we have an instance of that confounding of symbols, the merging of one in another, which is very common in the apocalyptic writings. The beast is, primarily, Nero, or the Roman Empire, as represented by -- Nero. The ten horns are the ten chief provinces; the seven heads are seven emperors. |It is a symbol,| says Dr. Farrar, |interchangeably of the Roman Empire and of the Emperor. In fact, to a greater degree than at any period of history, the two were one. Roman history had dwindled down into a personal drama. The Roman Emperor could say with literal truth, 'L'Etat c'est moi'. And a wild beast was a Jew's natural symbol either for a Pagan Kingdom or for its autocrat.| [Footnote: The Early Days of Christianity, p.463.] I can do no better than to repeat to you a small part of Dr. Farrar's further comment upon this vision.
|This wild beast of Heathen Rome has ten horns, which represent the ten main provinces of Imperial Rome. It has the power of the Dragon, that is, it possesses the Satanic dominion of the 'Prince of the power of the air.'
|On each of its heads is the name of blasphemy. Every one of the seven Kings, however counted, had borne the (to Jewish ears) blasphemous surname of Augustus (Sebastos, one to be adored); had received apotheosis, and been spoken of as Divine after his death; had been crowned with statues, adorned with divine attributes, had been saluted with divine titles, and, in some instances, had been absolutely worshiped, and that in his lifetime....
|The diadems are on the horns, because the Roman Proconsuls, as delegates of the Emperor, enjoy no little share of the Caesarean autocracy and splendor, but the name of blasphemy is only on the heads, because the Emperor alone receives divine honors and alone bears the daring title of Augustus.| [Footnote: Ibid., p.464.]
One of the heads of this Beast was wounded to death, but the deadly wound was healed. It was the universal belief among Pagans and Christians that the world had not yet seen the last of Nero. Either his suicide was feigned and ineffectual, and he was in hiding, or else he would come to life and resume his savage splendors and his gilded villainies. To make it certain that the writer here refers to this expectation, we find, in chapter xvii., another reference to the Beast, which seems at first a riddle, but which is easily interpreted. |The five are fallen, the one is, the other is not yet come|; |The Beast that thou sawest was and is not, and is about to come out of the abyss.| |The Beast that was and is not, even he is an eighth, and is of the seven.| The head and the Beast are here identified. The meaning is that five Roman Emperors are dead, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero; |one is,| -- Galba is now reigning; |the other| (Otho) |is not yet come;| but he must come soon for Galba is an old man and cannot long survive, and |the Beast that was and is not,| -- Nero, -- who is |about to come out of the abyss,| -- to return to life, -- |even he is an eighth, and is of the seven.| He is one of the seven, for he was the fifth, and he will be the eighth. It was the universal Christian belief that Nero, raised from the dead, would be the future Antichrist, and it is this belief which the vision reflects. To make the case still clearer the writer gives us, by the current Hebrew Kabbalistic method, the number of the Beast, that is to say, the numerical value of his name. Each letter of the old alphabets has a numerical value. Thus the writer of the Sibyllines points out the Greek name of Jesus -- [Greek: Iota-eta-sigma-omicron- upsilon-sigma], -- by saying that its whole number is equivalent to eight units, eight tens, and eight hundreds. This is the exact numerical value of the six Greek letters composing the Saviour's name, 10+8+200+70+400+200=888. Precisely so John here tells us what is the numerical value of the letters in the name of the Beast. If we tried the Latin or the Greek names of Nero the clue would not be found; but John was writing mainly for Hebrews, and the Hebrew letters of Kesar Neron, the name by which every Jew knew this Emperor, amount to exactly 666.
Many other of the features of this veiled description tally perfectly with the character of this infamous ruler; and when the evidence is all brought together it seems as though the apostle could scarcely have made his meaning more obvious if he had written Nero's name in capital letters.
This is the central vision of the Apocalypse, as I have said; round about this the whole cyclorama revolves; and it has been the standing enigma of the interpreters in all the ages. The early church generally divined its meaning; but in later years the high-soaring exegesis which has spread this Apocalypse all over the centuries and found in it prophetic symbols of almost all the events that have happened in mediaeval and modern history, has identified the Beast with countless characters, among them Genseric, King of the Vandals, Benedict, Trajan, Paul V., Calvin, Luther, Mohammed, Napoleon. All this wild guessing arises from ignorance of the essential character and purpose of the apocalyptical writings.
I can follow this enticing theme no further. Let it suffice to call the attention of all who desire to reach some sober conclusions upon the meaning of the book to Archdeacon Farrar's |Early Days of Christianity,| in which the whole subject is treated with the amplest learning and the soundest literary judgment.
The Book of Revelation has been, as I have intimated, the favorite tramping ground of all the hosts of theological visionaries; men who possessed not the slightest knowledge of the history or the nature of apocalyptic literature, and whose appetite for the mysterious and the monstrous was insatiable, have expatiated here with boundless license. To find in these visions descriptions of events now passing and characters now upon the stage is a sore temptation. To use these hard words, the Beast, the Dragon, the False Prophet, as missiles wherewith to assail those who belong to a school or a party with which you are at variance, is a chance that no properly constituted partisan could willingly fore-go. Thus we have seen this book dragged into the controversies and applied to the events of all the centuries, and the history of its interpretation is, as one of its interpreters confesses, the opprobrium of exegesis. But if one ceases to look among these symbols for a predictive outline of modern history, |a sort of anticipated Gibbon,| and begins to read it in the light of the apocalyptic method, it may have rich and large meanings for him. He will not be able, indeed, to explain it all; to some of these riddles the clue has been lost; but, in the words of Dr. Farrar, |he will find that the Apocalypse is what it professes to be, -- an inspired outline of contemporary history, and of the events to which the sixth decade of the first century gave immediate rise. He will read in it the tremendous manifesto of a Christian seer against the blood-stained triumph of imperial heathenism; a paean and a prophecy over the ashes of the martyrs; the thundering reverberations of a mighty spirit struck by the fierce plectrum of the Neronian persecution, and answering in impassioned music which, like many of David's Psalms, dies away into the language of rapturous hope.| [Footnote: Early Days of Christianity, p.429. ]
For we must not forget that this is a song of triumph. This seer is no pessimist. The strife is hot, the carnage is fearful, they that rise up against our Lord and his Messiah are many and mighty, but there is no misgiving as to the event. For all these woes there is solace, after all these conflicts peace. Even in the midst of the raging wars and persecutions, the door is opened now and again into the upper realm of endless joy and unfading light. And he |whose name is called The Word of God,| upon whose garment and whose thigh the name is written, |King of Kings and Lord of Lords,| will prevail at last over all his foes. The Beast and the Dragon, and the False Prophet and the Scarlet Woman (the harlot city upon her seven hills whose mystic name is Babylon) will all be cast into the lake of fire; then to the purified earth the New Jerusalem shall come down out of heaven from God. This is the emblem and the prophecy, not of the city beyond the stars, but of the purified society which shall yet exist upon the earth, -- the fruition of his work who came, not to judge the world, but to save the world. It is on these plains, along these rivers, by these fair shores that the New Jerusalem is to stand; it is not heaven; it is a city that comes down out of heaven from God. No statement could be more explicit. The glorious visions which fill the last chapters of this wonderful book are the promise of that |All hail Hereafter,| for which every Christian patriot, every lover of mankind, is always looking and longing and fighting and waiting. And he who, by the mouth of this seer, testifieth the words of the prophecy of this book saith, |Yea, I come quickly. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.|