The aim of the Apocalypse is generally held to have been
the encouragement of the Church to stand fast in a very evil time.
This is partly true, but it seems better to say that its aim was to fill in
the lines of our Lord's own apocalyptic predictions, recorded chiefly though
not exclusively in Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. When the
other Apostles had passed away, there was much misunderstanding about these
predictions, as John himself more than hints in his Gospel (21:23).
Also in his Gospel (16:13) he reports Jesus as saying that the Spirit would
show the disciples "things to come." In the Apocalypse he fulfils the
Lord's words by announcing the visions which came to him while he was "in
the Spirit" (1:10). He is able to tell of "things which must shortly come to
pass" (1:1). But he is commanded to do more than write predictions.
"Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the
things which shall be hereafter" (1:19). Past, present, and future
were to be within his horizon. All this would be an encouragement to
the Church, but it would be a warning as well. In the letters to
the Seven Churches, warning is as prominent as encouragement, except in two
cases, one in the letter to Smyrna (2:8), the other in the letter to
We have already seen that John was a man who could
discern eternal meanings beneath the outward show of things. the
miracles which he records in his Gospel serve also as parables. he was
a profound seer and his unique gift is exercised in his Apocalypse. It
has been well said that prophetic prediction is foresight based on insight.
John is one of the best illustrations of the truth of that saying. His
visions reveal insight into the past and present as well as prediction.
Indeed the meaning of past and present is disclosed to him before the future
opens up before him. His insight was the foundation of his foresight
and the Holy Spirit was the Source of both. He saw earthly
events with the light of the Eternal shed upon them. this was the
characteristic feature of our Lord's whole life on earth. He measured
everything He saw and heard by the measuring rod of heaven, and John, the
beloved and silent disciple, who thought more than he spoke, learned better
than any other how to look on things with his Master's eyes. He
saw what was happening on earth, as far as an inspired servant of Christ
could do it, with the eye of Heaven.
Our view of what to John was past, what was present, and
what was still in the future, is partly determined by the date at which we
suppose the Apocalypse to have been written. Unfortunately, there is
no unanimity on this question. Tradition is on one side and internal
evidence on another. In most cases in New Testament criticism
tradition favours an earlier date than scholars are disposed to allow, but
in this case tradition favours a later date. That date is towards the
end of the reign of Domitian (81-96 A.D.). On the one hand, there is
much in the book itself to suggest that at least the first part of it came
from a much earlier date, say about Easter of the year 70. Jerusalem
was captured and destroyed in August 70 and the most natural interpretation
of the eleventh chapter is that when it was written Jerusalem and its temple
were still standing. It seems impossible to envisage that chapter as coming
from a date twenty-five years after Jerusalem and its temple were laid in
ruins. But is there no way of harmonizing the traditional date with
that which internal evidence seems to suggest?
There is what looks like a break in the book at the
beginning of the twelfth chapter, from which onwards visions are recorded of
events, past, present and future, on a larger canvas than in the first
eleven chapters. That matter will be dealt with in our next Study.
Meanwhile, let us assume that there is a break in time between the writing
of the first and last eleven chapters. It may have been a considerable
interval, enough to bring the latter half of the book down to the time of
Domitian's reign. Domitian, blasphemous, jealous and sadistic, was the
first Roman Emperor to require all his subjects over the world to worship
him as a god. This is the objection which those who hold to the
traditional date of the Apocalypse bring against the idea that it may have
been written earlier, for there are many fulminations in it against the
worship of the beast, the beast being obviously Rome. But it may be
noticed that no reference is made to the worship of the beast in the first
eleven chapters, a fact which leaves room for an earlier date for these
chapters. We do not know how long John was confined as an exile in
Patmos. Probably he was banished there during the persecution of
Christians which took place over the Empire after the burning of Rome during
the reign of Nero. If his exile in Patmos began about the year
66, he would not likely be set at liberty so long as Nero or Vespasian or
Titus reigned. Domitian began to reign in 81 and it may well be that
John gained his freedom and returned to Ephesus at the beginning of
Domitian's reign. For that bloodthirsty tyrant began his reign with
the greatest promise, favouring religion and effecting a moral purge in
Rome, though he himself from the start was a voluptuary. It is a
striking commentary on the dictum that "power corrupts" to find that both
Nero and Domitian began their reigns as well-meaning and popular rulers
while later on they became monsters of cruelty who can only be classed as
John would certainly not be released in the later years
of Domitian and the most probable hypothesis is that he was released about
the year 82. As a strong tradition has it that he died in Ephesus in
great honour throughout the Church in Asia Minor, it is within the bounds of
probability that the second half of the Apocalypse was written by him in
Ephesus after Domitian had turned out to be one of the most wicked of
tyrants. It should be noted that in 1:9 John writes: "I John.. was in
the isle that is called Patmos," the past tense suggesting that the whole
book was brought up to date, with the addition of the second part, some time
subsequent to his return to Ephesus. But the visions he had in Patmos
should be held to belong to the earlier date.
If we are right in supposing that the aim of the book is
to interpret our Lord's apocalyptic utterances, which so many people in the
early Church had misunderstood, we must infer that, to the mind of the
Apostle, our Lord's prediction had a twofold reference: first to nearer
events, and second to events more remote. This would help to solve a
problem which has always been felt acutely by interpreters. In our
Lord's apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13, we read in verse 30: "Verily I say
unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be
done." In verse 32 we read "But of that day and that hour
knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but
the Father." It is hard to reconcile these two verses unless upon the
supposition that they refer to different events, the one definitely near,
the other in the indefinite future. John helps us to discriminate
between the two. On the one hand, there is the destruction of
Jerusalem and the Temple; that was to take place during the lifetime of some
who were listening to our Lord's words; and in some connection with that
historical event something still more momentous was to take place in the
unseen world. On the other hand, there was an event or series of
events to happen afterwards at a time which even our lord professed not to
be able to predict. "That day" and "that hour" are highly apocalyptic
expressions and our Lord may quite well have been referring to the day of
final judgment, as in Matt. 7:22. Let us see how John discriminated
between the two sets of events.
If John wrote his Patmos visions about Easter 70, he was
then writing on the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.
The Jewish rebellion against Rome broke out in the year 66, after a civil
war in which the Zealots obtained the ascendancy and instituted a reign of
terror in Jerusalem and throughout Palestine. Historians tell us that
the six years between 64, the year of the burning of Rome, and 70, the year
of the destruction of Jerusalem, were the blackest years in history.
Wickedness and bloodshed abounded in the Roman world and not least in
Jerusalem. When Nero heard of the Jewish rising, he dispatched his
ablest general, Vespasian, to quell the rebellion. Vespasian began his
campaign in the year 67 and very soon overran the whole of Galilee. In
the year 68, hearing of the suicide of Nero and of frightful confusion in
the Capital, he returned to Rome to restore order there. For almost
two years it seemed as if Rome would perish through internal strife.
There is little doubt that this is what the Apostle means when he speaks of
seeing one of the heads of the beast "as it were wounded to death; and his
deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast" (13:3).
Vespasian, having become Emperor when he had healed "the
deadly wound" of the Empire, sent his son Titus to complete the work which
he had begun against the Jews and which had been interrupted by the troubles
in Rome. Titus arrived in Palestine with 60,000 men of the Roman
legions and was at the gates of Jerusalem in April 70, having chosen that
time of the year because then the population of the city was immensely
increased by the arrival of multitudes for the chief festival of the year.
the city could thus be reduced by starvation if other means failed.
But the other means did not fail, though famine was one of the worst
of the miseries of the unhappy inhabitants. Jerusalem was
stormed in August 70 and the Temple utterly destroyed on the tenth of that
month. It is fairly certain that more than a million Jews perished in
the war. Those who survived, for they were scattered over the world,
were now landless, homeless and friendless. Thus our Lord's prediction
was abundantly fulfilled, and no one with any knowledge of the gruesome
facts will find any exaggeration in His apocalyptic words.
That was the historical event which our Lord foretold as
coming before the generation to which He spoke had passed away.
John, in his Apocalypse, describes the event in apocalyptic figures and
interprets it as the coming of the Son of Man in judgment upon His own
nation which had cast Him out and had then refused to repent. The
Church at that time had two malignant enemies. The unbelieving Jews
were one of these. They did their utmost, by secret intrigue and open
hostility, to weaken and destroy the Church. John saw, in
the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the death-blow of his enemy.
Titus was the unconscious instrument in the hand of God for the fulfilment
of the Divine purpose and of the Lord's prediction. It is worth
considering what would have become of the Christian movement in the last
three decades of the first century if Jerusalem and the Temple had continued
as a powerful bastion of Judaism against faith in Jesus Christ as the Divine
Redeemer of men. So far as we can see, Christianity would have become
a sect of Judaism, having lost all its savor and power. For it must be
remembered that, in the first generation of the Church, Jews formed the most
influential element in it and that, so long as the Temple and its sacrifices
remained with their enormous religious prestige, those Jewish Christians
could be easily tempted to return to their old allegiance or to compromise
between the new faith and the old. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians is
a powerful appeal against the compromise which Jewish Christians, seduced by
"the Judaizers," were disposed to make, while the Epistle to the
Hebrews is a rallying-word to those Jewish Christians who, under the
propaganda of the Judaizers, had begun to wonder whether it was possible to
have a religion without priests and animal sacrifices. The lure of
Judaism was a temptation to Jewish Christians when the first enthusiasm for
the new faith had abated, and John reckoned that the destruction of the
Temple, involving the cessation of the animal sacrifices, deprived the
Judaic lure of most of its force. One of the two enemies was now out
of the way.
The second enemy was the Roman Empire. It had not
always been an enemy. Paul was glad to be a Roman citizen, for Rome
had brought law and order to the Empire and held in check the machinations
of Jews against Christians. For a while the Pax Romana gave the
Christian Church a fair field for its missionary enterprise. But the
scene changed suddenly and tragically when Nero had become the incarnation
of pride and cruelty and wickedness of every kind. In the year 64 he
accused the Christians in Rome of having fired the city and had them
massacred with a sadism which is not exceeded even in these grim days in
which we live. It is nearly certain that it was Nero himself who was
the author of the great conflagration and that he looked around for
the most suitable scapegoat. He might as well have fastened on the
Jews, but there were some influential Jews at Court and this seems to have
led him to fasten on the Christians. The story of the foul massacre of
the Christians in Rome can hardly bear being told. They were
also persecuted in many parts of the Empire and I have suggested that it was
in this persecution that John was exiled to Patmos. But certain it is
that Nero's hideous deed burned itself into John's soul and that the horror
of it is reflected in the Apocalypse.
XII. The Apocalypse: History and
If we are right about the date or dates when the
Apocalypse was written, it was on the eve of the Jewish catastrophe that
John had his visions of those "things which must shortly come to pass."
He repeats from his nearer standpoint what his Lord had predicted from His
more distant standpoint forty years earlier. He further interprets
some aspects of the predictions of Jesus which could not well have been
clear, even to the disciples, when these predictions were first uttered.
The Parousia of Jesus was probably that which had been least understood.
Parousia means Presence, though in our Authorized Version it is
rendered coming. Jesus had foretold that His Parousia would
take place within the lifetime of some to whom He was speaking, and it was
inferred in some Christian circles that those who were alive when it
occurred would not have to pass through the gates of death (John's Gospel,
21:23). In his Apocalypse, the Apostle corrects that misunderstanding.
What did our Lord mean by His Parousia, which He foretold
was to take place some forty years from the time when He spoke of it?
It was not the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. That Jewish
catastrophe was only to be the sign of His Parousia (Matt. 24:3,30).
His Parousia, in its essence, was something which was to happen in the
unseen world. It was to be in the realm of superhistory (Matt. 24:31).
John in the Apocalypse connects the historical event of the destruction of
Jerusalem with the superhistorical event of our Lord's Parousia, as our Lord
Himself did, and brings out the meaning of the connection, thus correcting
current misunderstandings. He does not use the word Parousia, perhaps
because of these misunderstandings. In 11:8 he is speaking of the last
days of old Jerusalem and then goes on to say that when "the seventh angel
sounded" (11:15), thus announcing the destruction of the city, there were
loud shouts of triumph in heaven (11:15-19). In this significant
passage, note two things: (1) there was given "reward" to departed saints
(11:18); (2) when the temple of God was destroyed on earth, the temple of
God was opened in heaven (11:19).
By this event in superhistory, John surely means that the
saints who had died, many of them in "the great tribulation" (7:14), were
now raised to the Presence (Parousia) of Christ, in fulfilment of our Lord's
promise (Matt. 24:31), the same promise that John reports in his Gospel
(14:3) in non-apocalyptic form. The Parousia is thus seen to be the
completion of our Lord's redeeming work for men. He needed to pass to
glory before He could "prepare a place" for His people and open the Kingdom
of Heaven to all believers. According to His own word, the Gospel had
first to be preached to all the nations (Matt. 24:14), "the end" in that
verse meaning "the consummation." It should be noted in
passing that wherever our Authorized Version speaks of "the end of the
world" we should read "the consummation of the age." That consummation
was not only the termination of Israel's spiritual leadership of the world
(Matt. 21:43) but also the inauguration of the new age in which the sting of
death is removed for the people of God and they pass at once when they die
into the nearer Presence (Parousia) of their Lord.
This is a difficult subject as is shown by the immense
variety of views which have been held on it. Among scholars the
prevailing view is that either our Lord or His Apostles were mistaken in
this prediction of "the consummation of the age" before the close of the
generation to which Christ came. this view I cannot for a moment
accept. Some persist in saying that Jesus predicted "the end of the
world" within His own generation. There is absolutely no foundation
for this. Others persist in saying that Jesus foretold His return to
earth in bodily presence within that generation. This is to
misconstrue our Lord's use of apocalyptic forms. It is turning poetry
into prose. But worse still, it reckons either our Lord, or His
Apostles in reporting Him, as having made a serious mistake in predicting
something which never happened. The view which appeals to me has been
accepted by some sound scholars and has the advantage of preserving the
unity of the New Testament and the reliability of the testimony of the
Apostles. Some ask: "Can you really believe that the departed saints
of God were raised up about the year 70 A.D and that since then all His
saints at death pass immediately into the Presence of Christ?" I ask
in return : "Is it more difficult to believe that Christ came to take His
own folk, who had fallen asleep in Him, home to Himself about the year 70
than to believe that He will do the same thing at some time in the
"The dead in Christ shall rise first" (1 Thess. 4:16)
said Paul, writing before, but in expectation of, our Lord's Parousia.
Here in these verses (1 Thess. 4:13-18) he uses apocalyptic language, but
there is good reason to believe that he means exactly the same as John in
his Gospel (14:1-3). Christ will come for His own people as they pass
one by one from the earthly scene, but this He cannot do till the age of His
Parousia begins. the fulness of His Presence will be available for His
people from that time onwards.
Quite clearly John distinguishes between the reward which
has come to the saints at the Lord's Parousia and the Last Judgment.
God's people alone have part in the "first resurrection" (20:6). Not
till the day of the Great White Throne (20:11), which in apocalyptic
language is "that day", will the rest of the people be raised to stand
before God (20:12). Then they will be judged "according to their works
(20:12,13), a prediction often made by our Lord Himself. In this whole
passage we can discern a distinction within that great multitude of people
who have never had the opportunity to know Christ. They will not all
be condemned by the unerring Judge. He knows all those who would have
accepted Christ if He had been offered to them. There are good and bad
heathen. They will all be judged "according to their works."
Those who are "of the truth" but have never heard of Christ will have their
names written in the "book of life" (20:12). This message of John
brings welcome relief to sensitive souls who are concerned about the eternal
destiny of those who have never had a real opportunity to accept the Lord
Jesus Christ. God is more merciful than we are, and more just.
Another thing which confirms our confidence in this
Apostle is that he does not run counter to his Lord's word. Jesus said
that He did not know when "that day" would come. John therefore never
commits himself to a time prediction of the Judgment Day. He does not
pretend to know what his Lord did not know. There have been many
Christian people in the past, and there are many still, who are not so
modest as he. They profess to be able to tell the year, and sometimes
even the day, when the Great Day will arrive. Few things have given so
much sport to the Philistines, or caused so much disillusionment and even
unbelief, as those false predictions which have been made regarding the day
and date of our Lord's return to earth. Surely Christians might take a
lesson from the great Apostle whose book we are studying, for he took his
lesson from his Lord. "It is enough for the disciple that he be as his
Master." The people who undertake to tell when "that day" will come do
as much violence to the New Testament as those who hold that the Apostles
were mistaken about the "last things."
The question of the Millennium, mentioned only in the
Apocalypse (20:2,3), has sorely troubled many good Christian people.
There is hardly any doubt that when John speaks of a thousand years, he
means simply a very long time. He was not a prosaic person.
We moderns of the West are generally so prosaic that we miss the sense.
We need to have a little poetry in us if we are to catch the spirit of those
visions of the Seer in Patmos. In matters of history he predicts two
outstanding events, a nearer even which is the Fall of Jerusalem, and a more
distant event which is the Fall of Rome. Jerusalem and Rome were the
two arch-enemies, under Satan, of the Churchy in John's day, and therefore
they occupy most of his historical horizon. But he regards them as
types of Antichrist and makes it clear that not only they, but also every
other nation or movement which sets itself up against the King of kings and
Lord of lords, will be broken in pieces. He had heard his
Lord say the same thing (Matt. 25:31ff). But he fills in the lines by
declaring that, once the Roman Empire is out of the way, there will be an
indefinitely long period (1000 years) when the Church of God will suffer
much less from Satan and his agents than when it was thwarted by Judaism and
harried by Rome. That came to pass. After that, he goes on to
say, Satan will be let loose "a little season" (20:3). We are entitled
to say that this also has come to pass. But if we follow the Apostle's
example we are not entitled to say that "that day" is coming immediately,
though the world situation certainly suggests it. it is the
Christian's task to watch and pray, and it is his privilege and joy to know
that all is well now, and will be better by and by, for those who are in
Christ. There is a new Jerusalem awaiting all who love the Lord, but
it will come down from God out of heaven. It will be heaven itself.
There are some apocalyptic scenes in this book which
would be understood by the Apostle's contemporaries but of which we have
lost the key. This however does not detract from the greatness of the
book or its value for us of today. The broad outlines stand out
clearly, and from first to last there are doxologies and shouts of triumph
which have never been surpassed in any literature. Indeed, the
Apocalypse has stereotypes the language of adoration and victory. This
alone stamps the book as an example of triumphant faith in God through jesus
Christ in the midst of a time when external conditions looked like making
all faith impossible. Sometimes on a day of thick mist in the Alps,
the tops of the giant peaks stand out above the mist, shining in snowy
splendour, while all below is shrouded in grey gloom. but an onlooker
from a favourable vantage point in the distance knows that though these look
like isolated peaks they are in reality outcroppings of one lofty and
massive ridge of mountain. The ridge is all concealed by the sea of
mist and only the loftiest heights appear. You are entitled to argue
from the towering peaks to a high average level of concealed mountain range.
So is it with the Book of the Apocalypse. The giant heights are there
for all to see, and if there is much else which is still in the mist, it is
safe to conclude that the invisible parts belong to the lofty range.
Many of the visions, however, are luminous to the faith
of any age. It must suffice to glance at the first vision in the isle
of Patmos. We must imagine, if we can, the state of John's feelings
when he found himself an exile on a lone and rocky island, away from his
beloved work and friends. Why had it all come to this? He could
not fail to remember his Lord's promise about His Church that the gates of
Hades would not prevail against it. Now it looked as if those gates
were prevailing. His soul was still riven by the thought of the
unspeakable cruelties meted out to the Christians in Rome by a capricious
tyrant. Many of the victims were friends of his own, and his
banishment to Patmos was part of the aftermath of the cataclysm in Rome.
Was he condemned to inactivity for the rest of his life? He must now
have been sixty years of age. It would be quite untrue to say that,
even for a short time, he lost his faith, but we may be sure he was
bewildered by the events of the time, and in the early days of his exile his
depression would be deepened by the moaning of the sea which filled his ears
and his soul day and night.
The change came soon. It may have been the first
Lord's Day of his imprisonment, for he could still keep track of the days of
the week. It was the most likely day for him to be "in the Spirit"
(1:10). In the midst of his discomfiture he would recall the joy of
that first Lord's Day when the Risen Lord appeared to him and the other
disciples. now the melancholy sound of the sea was transmuted into a
voice speaking to him in trumpet tones. And what was its first
message? "What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven
Churches which are in Asia" (1:11). He was not condemned to
inactivity. He could do something which would be more fruitful for the
whole Church than if he had been permitted to continue his work in Ephesus.
He was in the very situation in which he had leisure to see and hear some
deep things which are hidden from even the best of men amid the bustling
activities of life. Thus God found His opportunity in the Apostle's
Then came the vision which is the beginning of the
Apocalypse. There were seven golden candlesticks and One like unto the
Son of Man walking in their midst. Christ was still watching over His
Church and He was vested with a strength which nothing could overcome.
His voice was "as the sound of many waters." "He had in His right hand
seven stars," one for every candlestick, it must keep close to Him who never
lets the star out of His own right hand. The Church cannot have the
benefits of redemption without the Redeemer Himself. This message was
to be delivered to the Church; and as for the Apostle himself, the message
to him was that Christ was the First and the Last. The Lord of heaven
and earth had the first word with His Church and He would have the last
word. These messages John has passed on in the Apocalypse.