As FORESHOWN IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION
(Chap. i. 1 - 5)
The book of Revelation is the one only book of New Testament prophecy. As the completion of the whole prophetic Scriptures, it gathers up the threads of all the former books, and weaves them into one chain of many links which binds all history to the throne of God. As New-Testament prophecy, it adds the heavenly to the earthly sphere, passes the bounds of time, and explores with familiar feet eternity itself. Who would not, through these doors set open to us, press in to learn the things yet unseen, so soon to be for us the only realities? Who would not imagine that such a book, written with the pen of the living God Himself, would attract irresistibly the hearts of Christians, and that no exhortation would be needed for a moment to win them to its patient and earnest study?
It should be so, assuredly. How little it is so, the book in its first words is witness to us: for no book is so full of just such exhortation. And especially the first part, with which we are to be for the present occupied, abounds with solemn warnings to attention, regularly appended to its several sections: "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." Why is it that just here, where at first sight we have only addresses to the churches of far-distant times, these calls should be multiplied? Why but because there was just this danger to be guarded against? why but because the Spirit of God foresaw that a generation of men, most blind to their own interests when most wedded to them, would slight the very words of Christ Himself unless thus directly made over to them? What shall we say of those who with all this warning slight them still?
Scripture is thus ever prophetic, not in its plain predictions merely, but in its manner also. Why should Peter be the one to tell us that all Christians are "a holy priesthood," but in view of those who should misuse his name in after-times? or why should he be the one to announce to us that we are born again by the word of God, which is preached in the gospel, thus with two blows destroying ritualism to its foundations? or why should Mary never prefer a request to her Son and Lord but to be checked for it, save as an after-rebuke to those who should think to avail themselves of the Virgin’s intercession?
So too is not the very title of this book, with its subject announced, and encouragement both to reader and hearer? How could words be better suited to rebuke the neglect, into which so many have fallen, in which so many still are found, of what is Christ’s own "revelation," given to Him by God, "to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass"? Does a "revelation" hide, or reveal? Is that which is revealed to servants, to be kept (v. 3) by them in their service to their Lord, given in so doubtful a manner as to be more perplexity than guidance? Is not this an accusation of Him who has forbidden to His people doubtful paths, because "whatsoever is not of faith is Sin"?
Strange is the mistake that "the Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto Him," means His "appearing, because His appearing is the central theme of the book’ No doubt it is so, and that His appearing is spoken of elsewhere as His revelation, but here, that "which God gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass,’ is plainly the book itself, and defines its character It is not simply an inspiration, as all Scripture is, but something revealed for the r instruction of the saints Many are too little clear yet as to the difference between the two But revelation is that in which is a direct communication from God to man - a fresh discovery of truth other wise unknown, while inspiration is that which preserves from error, and assures that all that is written is for true profit and blessing to man.
"Jesus Christ’s revelation" emphasizes the book before us, as what is from the Lord Himself in a peculiar way, of special importance and value where all is of value; and it is received by Him from God, as One who all through takes the place of Man, and as such is exalted of God, never exalts Himself. True pattern for His servants! He asks them to walk in no other path than He has trodden, and where they may have fellowship with Him.
This book is the servant’s book. So it is plainly stated: "To show unto His servants." We may not expect, therefore, to be shown, except we come under this title; and indeed every child of God has the responsibility and privilege of service, - has something, no doubt, of the reality of it, as the Lord says, "He that hath My commandments and keepeth them, he it is who loveth Me" (Jno. xiv. 21). And so the apostle: "This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments" (i Jno. v. 3). Both passages maintain that the only right measure of love is that of practical obedience. Emotional glow, warm feelings, are indeed to be desired, - nay, to be expected, from those conscious of redemption by the blood of Christ; but these vary with different natures, vary in the same person at different times, may even deceive very much the subject of them, while obedience is the test of the judgment-seat itself. Words and deeds we read of then as alone in question.
Yet there is need of a counter-check here too; for how much frequently goes under the name of service which is in truth even disobedience and self-will! How much there is also of legal drudgery and pretentious claim, which the light of God’s holy presence will shrivel into nothing! "Lo, these many years do I serve thee" is the language of one to whom the music of the father’s house was a strange and unaccustomed sound; and "I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess" was said by one less acceptable to God by far than the despised publican, who could only groan out in His presence, "God be merciful to me the sinner!" The service of love and the service of claim are opposites. "He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him who died for them and rose again." Thisis the moral power of Christianity - the fruit of grace, and only that. For if still there is a possibility of condemnation in the day of judgment, fear stirs me to self-interest, I work for myself to escape the condemnation. "Faith worketh by love " - an entirely opposite principle. Such service is necessarily freedom, the more so the more it rules me, and entire happiness. In exact proportion to love will be the desire to serve the object of our love: as we read of the "work of faith," so we do of the "labour of love." But earnest and self-sacrificing as this labour may be, it can never be drudgery, never aught but joy. If such is our service, the thankful offering of those knowing themselves washed from their sins in the blood of Christ, then Revelation, with its survey of the whole field of labour, and its communication of the mind of Christ as to all, - Revelation, with its windows open toward Jerusalem, and its eternal sunshine for our souls, - Revelation, with its throne of God and the Lamb, and the stimulation of its encouraging words to the overcomer, - is the very book for us, surely. We shall enter with rapt hearts into the truth of this:
"Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of the book of this prophecy, and keep the things that are written therein."
It is the book for all servants. We have many and different fields of service, it is true; and happy as well as important it is to recognize this fact. There are high positions and lowly ones; positions before the eyes of multitudes, and positions hidden from almost all eyes, save His who are in every place. But every where it is a joy to know that we are accepted, not according to the place we are put in, but the way we fill it - the way we do the Master’s work there. Lowliness and obscurity will be no discouragement to those in the communion of the Father and the Son: they cease to have meaning there. And publicity and prominence are how unspeakably dangerous, if the soul is not correspondingly before God; like the tree which spreads its branches and lifts its top toward heaven, if its roots are not proportionately deep in the unseen depths below.
Whatever the field of service, the book of Revelation is for all. All need alike the warnings, all need alike the encouragement. From the most hidden retirement, He whom we serve in love would have our hearts with Himself, busy with all that is of interest to Him. In the place of intercession Himself above, He would have us in fellowship with Him below; our prayers rising up for all parts of the earth His Word is visiting, and where the true "irrepressible conflict" is going on between the evil and the good; our praises, too, returning to Him for all He is daily accomplishing. In Revelation is given us the one "mind of Christ" about all, that our prayers may be the intelligent guiding of the Holy Spirit, and our hearts giving their sympathies aright, our energies going forth in channels of His own making. Little indeed, in many of the systems of interpretation of this book, may be found, it is true, such help as this; and quite unable we may be to extract the spiritual blessing to be found in seals or trumpets which speak only of Alaric the Goth, or Attila the Hun: but for the simple ones who believe God, the mere direct label of this book for Christ’s servants may certify that there is something deeper while simpler than all this for souls that seek it.
There the words stand for faith to receive and rejoice in, - "Jesus Christ’s revelation, which God gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass." Join us in prayer, beloved reader, ere we pass on, that we may give His people from these pages real help and blessing drawn from this precious book! "Things which must shortly come to pass." This would now no doubt impress us, as we look back from the end of eighteen centuries fulfilled since it was written, with the belief that already some, if not much, of what is here spoken of must already have come to pass. And this we shall find confirmed fully in the sequel. But two things we should guard here carefully, - the possibility on the one hand, and the profit on the other, of tracing with certainty, in the light of the prophetic Word, things which have not come to pass, and even will not while we are upon the earth. These two things, it is plain, hang very much together; for if there be not profit in it, it would seem clear that God would not enable us to do it; while of course there can, on the other hand, be no profit to us in a thing we cannot do.
But this impossibility of knowing can only be meant seriously as applying to details, and to a certain extent every Christian would allow this. Events are not so mapped out and put together for us as to make us able to see otherwise than "through a glass darkly " - the apostle’s own emphatic word. We can see only as one behind a window, and in twilight, and are apt to fall into mistakes. Many have been thus made, which have thrown the study of future prophecy, for some, into utter disrepute. Yet who would say, or think the apostle meant to say, that "through a glass darkly" nothing, or nothing to the purpose, could be seen? The uncertainty applies mainly to the smaller features; there is much certain, much that grows always clearer as we look upon it. Who that would use the mistakes that have been made for discouragement from prophetic study has ever been a student of it P I dare to say, none. Granted, the mistakes: let us use them for humility, use them as arguments to more prayer, more careful searching, then, after all, they will be helpful in the end. We can see already why and how many of them came about; we can see how better to avoid them also in the future, and that the Word was not to blame, is not the less trustworthy, because we made them. We see that we trusted it too little, trusted ourselves too much.
Then as to the profit. All our blessings lie in the field of unfulfilled prophecy. What are all our promises but this? And then as to the earth, and what is to take place upon it, it is true that such interpretations as are common in many popular books leave one with the profound sense that they minister rather to spiritual dissipation than to profit. What can be supposed more unprofitable than the question if the antichrist is to come of the Napoleon family ? - a great and grave point with many for years past; or whether the stars falling from heaven might be fulfilled in a shower of meteors? Such things seem to be utterly barren, and unworthy of a book so solemnly announced, so commended to us as is this.
Surely, "he that prophesieth speaketh to the church to edification and exhortation and comfort" might not be an inapt word to condemn such profitless speculation; and there is abundance of it in popular commentaries. But here the question is really not of fulfilled or unfulfilled prophecy. Such supposed fulfillment may be brought forward to vindicate Scripture - which has no need of it - or a certain system of interpretation, which it more justly would set aside. But unfulfilled prophecy, as we find it in the Word of God, even when it speaks of earthly events, and such as cannot be while we are upon the earth, always gives them morally; as what can be more practical for us than to trace out in the future, as men are constantly seeking to do, the results of the present? In this way we may find the scriptural fall of stars to have the deepest significance.
That all here is in the fullest way practical is very clear, from the blessing pronounced on those who "keep the things which are written" in the book. This "keeping" is observing them in such a way that our practical conduct shall be governed by them. Indeed we shall find that the wisdom of them we must be content to " buy," with what men would call many a sacrifice. There are costs to be counted if we would possess it really. And this is the demand that all truth makes upon us. It requires subjection to it as the first thing. We must not trifle with the words of our Lord and Saviour, nor set Him limits as to how far we shall obey Him. It is this, however little avowed, that darkns the minds of saints, diminishing all spiritual perception. It is this that is at the bottom of all doctrinal heresy. We will not have the truth, and seek out inventions to cover our nakedness; or at least we have not the soldier’s "virtue," which is courage, and so cannot "add to" our "virtue knowledge."
I would warn my readers that the book of Revelation makes great demands upon those who keep its words. But I may assure them, on the other hand, that the more the demand the greater the blessing. Can it be otherwise when Christ it is who is speaking to us of that easy yoke and that light burden, in which, as we take them, we find rest to our souls? Will any that know their Lord charge Him with being a "hard man," or a taskmaster? Our givings up are here in reality only gains. We have that in Him which we are never called to give up, and which the more we prove the more its sufficiency is found for all conditions; the more we give up for it the deeper the endless joy.
But submission there must be. Absolute submission is what He rightly calls for; and it is well to search our hearts, to see if our desire and purpose are, to give Him that without reserve. How blessed to be among those who in uprightness of heart can say, "I esteem all Thy precepts concerning all things to be right, and I hate every false way" (Ps. cxix. 128)!
The Style and Character of the Book.
(Chap. 1. 4 - 5.)
We now come to the opening words of the book itself. It is in form a letter from the beloved apostle to "the seven assemblies which are in Asia." This Asia was the Roman province called by this name, being the west coast of what is now, for the sins of christendom, Turkey in Asia. The churches in it were even then, though traditionally the scene of John’s as in the Acts of Paul’s labours, already departing from the faith and spiritual power of Christianity; and this, as we may see more hereafter, gives at once a certain character to the book. Whoever they were of whom Paul in his very last epistle says, "This thou knowest, that all they which be in Asia are turned away from me, of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes," it is clear that Asia was thus the scene of a revolt from that "apostles’ doctrine and fellowship" which it was a marked feature of the bright Pentecostal times to maintain.
The salutation shows at once the style of the book. It is not "grace and peace from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ," but "from Him who is, and who was, and who is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before His throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful Witness, and the Firstborn of the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth." Here, it is evident, we are not in the intimacy of children, but in the character of servants, according to what the previous verses have announced. The book is the book of the throne - of divine government; and that, not merely of the world, but of Christians no less. Indeed, where should divine government be more exemplified and maintained than among the people of God. "You only have I known of all the families of the earth," says God to His people of old; "therefore will I punish you for your iniquities." It is true that toward us now grace is fully revealed, and the throne is a "throne of grace," but its holiness is none the less inflexible. Would it be grace if it were not so? or do we desire to be delivered from the conditions of holiness, or from the sovereignty of God? No; grace enables for the conditions, - does not set them aside; and it sets God fully on the throne for us, makes the "shout of a King" to be in our midst. Children with the Father, where should there be whole-hearted, unreserved obedience if not among these?
The throne here is Jehovah’s throne, for "who is, and was, and is to come" is just the translation of the covenant-name of Israel’s God. "Grace and peace" salute us from this unchangeable One - this eternal God. The new revelation has not displaced, nor mended, (as rationalism would have it,) the God of Israel for us! It has declared Him: displaced shadows, filled in gaps, perfected the partial and fragmentary into the glorious God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! taught us to see in the older Scriptures themselves a fullness of meaning of which those who wrote them could have no possible perception. Do David’s psalms yield us less than they yielded to faith of old? And if the New Testament has no corresponding book, is it not because, now that the Spirit of God is come, our psalmody is to be found in every book, which for us He has combined into one harmony of praise and triumphant joy?
Yes, the One who is was, and is to come. Our present God is He who from first to last abides, in every generation, amid all changes changeless; sitting on high above all water-floods; whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. What a resting-place for faith! "Oh Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations!"
But not only are grace and peace breathed from this ever-living One, but also "from the seven Spirits which are before His throne." We all recognize at once that these seven Spirits stand for the plenitude of the Holy Spirit; and in the fourth chapter they are represented as seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, while in the fifth they are the "seven eyes" of the Lamb, "sent forth into all the earth." This, again, evidently connects with Isaiah xi, where these seven Spirits are seen to be energies of the Spirit which are found in the Man, Christ Jesus, as reigning over the earth.
"Grace and peace," then, from these - how blessed! All the ministries of divine government upon the earth working in blessing toward us; all the course of things as guided and controlled by God, spite of all hindrances, all puzzles and perplexities, still working in one harmony of grace and peace toward His own. How easy to be bold and patient both, if we believe this!
• Then also "from Jesus Christ, the faithful Witness, and the First-born of the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth." "Faithful" is emphasized here, for our encouragement surely, if grace and peace are from such an One, but yet in contrast with other witness too, as that of the Church, so little faithful. Is it not a needed word for those oppressed with the sense of failure, - almost ready to give up what are His principles, because of the break-down of those who have undertaken to carry them out? In such a case, how good to remember that on the one hand we are servants and not masters, with no liberty to dispense with one even of His commandments, and on the other, that we serve One who Himself is faithful, however we have failed. Shall we go to Him and say, "Master, Thy principles are impracticable for a world and a time like this"? or shall we lack in courage when results are in His hand who has never failed, and never will, while He oftentimes submits to apparent defeat. Such was the cross, the victory of victories, and we must submit, here as elsewhere, to the rule of the woman’s Seed. To this are we not in fact brought in the next words? "The Firstborn of the dead" unites us with Him as the later-born, and resurrection is the mode of His triumph over apparent defeat. But it is divine triumph, in which not alone evil is vanquished, but God is manifested in His resources and in His grace.
Grace and peace are ours from One who is conqueror over death, and who brings us into the place into which as Forerunner He has entered, while already He is, as risen, and on the Father’s throne, Ruler of the kings of the earth, - the scene through which in the meantime we are passing. In a little while, when He takes His own throne, we shall share also in this. Thus are we furnished at the outset for present service. Placed before the living and eternal God, the energies of His Spirit ministering to us, the Captain of our salvation cheering us on with the joy of already accomplished victory, the pledge of certainty as to our own. Now for the response of our hearts to this before we start: without our hearts are in tune, and we can go cheerily into the battlefield - for it is a battlefield into which we go, and not as spectators merely, - we should only expose ourselves there to our shame. The singers must be in the forefront of the Lord’s army, as in Jehoshaphat’s of old, and then there will be good success. So the saints’ answer to their Captain’s voice here is with a song: -
"Unto Him who loveth us,
And hath washed us from our sins
In His own blood,
And hath made us a kingdom,
Priests to His God and Father,
Unto Him be glory and might
Unto the ages of ages.
This is a sweet response of loyal hearts on the edge of the battlefield. It is the good confession of His name, and of the debt we owe Him, which has made us His own forever. Good it is, the open joyful maintenance of this, which at once separates us from the world that rejects Him, and puts us in the ranks of His witnesses and followers. "By Him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, confessing His name." No such wholesome, invigorating, gladdening work as is confession.
"Unto Him who loveth us," not "loved us," as the common version reads. It is a present reality, measured only aright by a past work - " and hath washed us from our sins in His own blood." Let us take care we measure it ever so! Not by our own changeful feelings or experiences, as we are so prone to do, but by the glorious manifestation of itself thus: an infinite measure of an infinite fullness; for who knows aright the value of the blood of Christ?
"And hath washed us from our sins:" what an encouragement for those who have to go into a world full of temptation and defilement! We have known sin as sin - known it as needing the precious blood of Christ to cleanse us from its guilt, and known ourselves too as thus cleansed. If we are "idle and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ," it can only be because we have "forgotten that" we were "purged from" our "old sins."
But more: He has "made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father." Israel was promised, conditionally upon obedience, "Ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." (Ex. xix. 6.) They failed in obedience, and Levi’s special priesthood was the consequence of their failure, while, as part of this failed people, not even the priesthood could pass within the vail. Grace has now given us as Christians that access to God to them denied, and to God fully revealed as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who has thus revealed God has given us our place in His presence - a happy, holy place of praise and intercession. "To Him be the glory and might unto the ages of ages!"
An "Amen" is added here, that we may as individuals join our voices to the voice of the Church at large. It is a blessed thing to be part of the innumerable company who have a common theme sand a common joy; but it is also blessed to have our own distinct utterance and our own peculiar joy, The more distinct the better. Would the apostle have felt it the same thing to say, "Who loved us, and gave Himself for us," true as it might be, as to say, "Who loved me, and gave Himself for me"? Assuredly he would not. The "chief of sinners," realizing himself that, had something which was individual to himself, and which would not be lost or overlooked in the general song. And we have, each one of us surely, special experiences to call forth peculiar praise. Note, too, that the power of the life lived to God is associated by him with this individualization: "The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me."
Thus, then, the heart gives out its response to its beloved Lord. Now, then, it is qualified for testimony to Him. "If we be beside ourselves, it is to God; if we be sober, it is for your cause." The soul in company with Christ turns necessarily to the world with its testimony of Him: the Enochlife is joined with the Enoch-witness. For it was he of whom it is written, "he walked with God, and he was not,for God took him," who "prophesied, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment upon all.’" The Church it is who is called, like another Enoch, to walk here with Him whom she is soon to be called away to meet and be ever with; and the next verse in Revelation puts into her mouth her similar testimony : - "Behold, He cometh with clouds, and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth shall wail because of Him." This is evidently not the Church’s hope, but the Church’s testimony. It takes up the theme of the Old-Testament prophets, with direct appeal even to their prophecies; for Daniel saw of old the Son of Man come with the clouds of heaven, and Zechariah declares how Israel look upon Him whom they have pierced, and how the tribes of the land mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son, and are in heaviness as he that is in heaviness for his first-born." (Dan. vii. ii Zech.xii.io, 72.)
I do not doubt that, while the words in Revelation repeat the very language of the older prophets, - for " kindreds" in the common version is literally "tribes," and "earth" and "land" are, both in Hebrew and Greek, but the same word, - yet that in the passage before us a wider application is to be made than this. Not only shall they see who have pierced Him, but "every eye." Naturally, therefore, not the tribes of the land only, but of the earth at large, shall wail on account of Him. The testimony is neither to nor of Israel only, though including these. And while the mourning in Zechariah is unto repentance, the word here is large enough to admit of the wail of despair as well as of repentance.
The Church’s testimony is addressed to all. Christ is coming; the day of grace running out; judgment nearing with every stroke of the hour. A testimony which we know from Scripture, as we may realize every day around us, wakes only the scorn of "scoffers, walking in their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of His coming? for since the fathers fell asleep all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation." Whose, then, is this Voice which here solemnly confirms the testimony of approaching judgment? It is surely none other than the voice of God Himself: -
"Yea, amen: I am Alpha and Omega, saith the Lord God, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty."
The "Yea, amen," are not, as our books give them, part of the seventh verse, but commence the verse following; and the words "I am Alpha and Omega, the Eternal, the Almighty," exhibit fully the One with whom men’s unbelief brings them into controversy. He challenges all unbelief. Is He not doing so today, when on every side signs political, ecclesiastical, moral, and spiritual warn men, if they will but attend, that the Lord is at hand? Why, the cry itself is a sign - " Behold the Bridegroom!" Can they deny it has gone forth? Call it a mistake, call it enthusiasm, call it high treason to the world’s magnificent and immense progress, still it stands written, - "And at mid night there was a cry, ‘Behold the bridegroom! go ye forth to meet him!’ . . . And as they went to buy, the bridegroom came He who speaks is Alpha and Omega, whose word as the beginning and end of all speech: all that can be said is said when He has spoken, at the beginning, who spoke all things into being, and whose word, "It is done," will fix their eternal state He who speaks is Jehovah, the covenant-keeping God, unchangeable amid all changes, true to His threats and to His promises alike. And He who speaks is the Almighty, lacking no power to fulfill His counsel. This is He who says, "Yea, amen, to the testimony that He who was crucified in weakness shall come again in power, and every knee shall bow to Him, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.