BOOKS: BIBLICAL STUDIES (1500BC-AD70) / EARLY CHRISTIAN PRETERISM (AD50-1000) / FREE ONLINE BOOKS (AD1000-2008)
The Parousia in the Apocalypse.
INTERPRETATION OF THE APOCALYPSE.
We come now to the consideration of the most difficult and obscure part of divine Revelation, and we may well pause on the threshold of a region so shrouded in mystery and darkness. The conspicuous failures of the wise and learned men who have too confidently professed to decipher the mystic scroll of the apocalyptic Seer warn us against presumption. We might even feel justified in declining altogether a task which has baffled so many of the ablest and best interpreters of the Word of God. But, on the other hand, do we honour the book by refusing to open it, and pronouncing it hopelessly obscure? Are we justified in so treating any portion of the Revelation which God has given us? Is the book to be virtually handed over to diviners and charlatans, to be the sport of their fantastic speculations? No; we cannot pass it by. The book holds us, whether we will or no, and insists upon being heard. After all, it must have a meaning, and we are bound to do our best to understand that meaning. Wonderful book! that, after ages of misinterpretation and perversion, has still the power to command the attention and facinate the interest of every reader. It refuses to be made the laughing-stock of imposture and folly; it cannot be degraded even by the ignorance and presumption of fanatics and soothsayers; it can never be other than the Word of God, and is therefore to be held in reverence by us.
But is it intelligible? The answer to this is, Was it written to be understood? Was a book sent by an apostle to the churches in Asia Minor, with a benediction on its readers, a mere unintelligible jargon, an inexplicable enigma, to them? That can hardly be true. Yet if the book were meant to unveil the secrets of distant times, must it not of necessity have been unintelligible to its first readers---and not only unintelligible, but even irrelevant and useless. If it spake, as some would have us believe, of Huns and Goths and Saracens, of mediaeval emperors and popes, of the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, what possible interest or meaning could it have for the Christian churches of Ephesus, and Smyrna, and Philadelphia, and Laodicea? Especially when we consider the actual circumstances of those early Christians,---many of them enduring cruel sufferings and grievous persecutions, and all of them eagerly looking for an approaching hour of deliverance which was now close at hand,---what purpose could it have answered to send them a document which they were urged to read and ponder, which was yet mainly occupied with historical events so distant as to be beyond the range of their sympathies, and so obscure that even at this day the shrewdest critics are hardly agreed on any one point? Is it conceivable that an apostle would mock the sufferings and persecuted Christians of his time with dark parables about distant ages? If this book were really intended to minister faith and comfort to the very persons to whom it was sent, it must unquestionably deal with matters in which they were practically and personally interested. And does not this very obvious consideration suggest the true key to the Apocalypse? Must if not of necessity refer to matters of contemporary history? The only tenable, the only reasonable, hypothesis is that it was intended to be understood by its original readers; but this is as much as to say that it must be occupied with the events and transactions of their own day, and these comprised within a comparatively brief space of time.
LIMITATION OF TIME IN THE APOCALYPSE.
This is not a mere conjecture, it is certified by the express statements of the book. If there be one thing which more than any other is explicitly and repeatedly affirmed in the Apocalypse it is the nearness of the events which it predicts. This is stated, and reiterated again and again, in the beginning, the middle, and the end. We are warned that ‘the time is at hand;’ ‘These things must shortly come to pass,’ ‘Behold, I come quickly;’ ‘Surely I come quickly.’ Yet, in the face of these express and oft-repeated declarations, most interpreters have felt at liberty to ignore the limitations of time altogether, and to roam at will over ages and centuries, regarding the book as a syllabus of church history, an almanac of politico-ecclesiastical events for all Christiandom to the end of time. This has been a fatal and inexcusable blunder. To neglect the obvious and clear definition of the time so constantly thrust on the attention of the reader by the book itself is to stumble on the very threshold. Accordingly this inattention has vitiated by far the greatest number of apocalyptic interpretations. It may truly be said that the key has all the while hung by the door, plainly visible to every one who had eyes to see; yet men have tried to pick the lock, or force the door, or climb up some other way, rather than avail themselves of so simple and ready a way of admission as to use the key made and provided for them.
As this is a point of highest importance, and indispensable to the right interpretation of the Apocalypse, it is proper to bring forward the proof that the events depicted in the book are comprehended within a very brief period of time.
The opening sentence, containing what may be called the title of the book, is of itself decisive of the nearness of the events to which it relates:---
And in case it might be supposed that this limitation does not extend to the whole prophecy, but may refer only to the introductory, or some other, portion, the same statement recurs, in the same words, at the conclusion of the book. (See chap. xxii. 6.)
The reader will not fail to notice the significant resemblance between this note of time and the watchword of the early Christians. To say o kairoz egguz (the time is at hand) was indeed the same thing in effect as to say o kusioz egguz (the Lord is at hand), Phil. iv. 5. No words could more distinctly affirm the nearness of the events contained in the prophecy.
‘Behold, he is coming’ [Idou, ercetai], corresponds to ‘Behold, I am coming quickly’ [Idou, ercomai], in Rev. xxii. 7. This may be called the keynote of the Apocalypse; it is the thesis or text of the whole. To those who can persuade themselves that there is no indication of time in such a declaration as ‘Behold, he is coming,’ or that it is so indefinite that it may apply equally to a year, a century, or a millennium, this passage may not be convincing; but to every candid judgment it will be decisive proof that the event referred to is imminent. It is the apostolic watch word, ‘Maran-atha!’ ‘the Lord is coming’ (1 Cor. xvi. 22). There is a distinct allusion also to the words of our Lord in Matt. xxiv. 30, ‘All the tribes of the land shall mourn,’ etc., plainly showing that both passages refer to the same period and the same event.
The last clause does not adequately express the sense of the original; it should be ‘the things which are about to happen after these’ [a mellei genesqai meta tauta].
Indicative of the near approach of a season of violent persecution, shortly before the breaking out of which the Apocalypse must have been written.
This warning not is repeated again and again throughout the Apocalypse. Its meaning is too evident to require explanation.
This figure is already known to us in connection with the Parousia. St. Peter declared ‘the day of the Lord will come as a thief’ [in the night] (2 Pet. iii. 10). St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, ‘Yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night’ (1 Thess. v. 2). And both these passages look back to our Lord’s own words Matt. xxiv. 42-44, in which He inculcated watchfulness by the parable of ‘the thief coming in the night.’ Here, again, the time and the event referred to are the same in all the passages, and were declared by our Lord to lie within the limits of the generation then existing.
These expressions are evidently indicative of events hastening rapidly to their accomplishment; there was to be no long interval between the prophecy and its fulfilment.
This is only the repetition in another form of the declaration in the preceding statement. How can it be possible to attach a non-natural sense to language so express and decisive?
This passage, which repeats the declaration made at the commencement of the prophecy (chap. i. 1), covers the whole field of the Apocalypse, and conclusively establishes the fact that it alludes to events which were almost immediately to take place.
This threefold reiteration of the speedy coming of the Lord, which is the theme of the whole prophecy, distinctly shows that that event was authoritatively declared to be at hand.
Thus we have an accumulation of evidence of the most direct and positive kind that the whole of the Apocalypse was to be fulfilled within a very brief period. This is its own testimony, and to this limitation we are absolutely shut up, if the book is to be permitted to speak for itself.
If the foregoing conclusions are well founded, they virtually decide the much-debated questions respecting the date of the Apocalypse. Perhaps it may be admitted that the weight of authority, such as it is, inclines to the side of the late date: that is, that it was written after the destruction of Jerusalem; but the internal evidence seems to us overwhelming on the side of its early date. That the Apocalypse contemplates the Parousia as imminent is surely an incontrovertible proposition. That the Parousia is always represented as coincident with the judgment of the guilty city and nation is no less undeniable. Those who cannot find the Parousia, the destruction of Jerusalem, the judgment of Israel, and the end of the age [sunteleia tou aiwnoz] in the Apocalypse, as in all the rest of the New Testament, and find them also as impending events, must be blind indeed. What other tremendous crisis was approaching at that period to which the Apocalypse could refer? Or what event could be more worthy to be described in the sublime and awful imagery of the Apocalypse than the final catastrophe of the Jewish dispensation, and the unparalleled woes by which it was accompanied?
1. That the Apocalypse was written before the destruction of Jerusalem will follow as a matter of course if it can be shown that that event forms in great measure the subject of its predictions. This, we believe, can be done so as to satisfy any reasonable mind. We appeal to chap. i. 7: ‘Behold he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced hiim: and all the tribes of the land shall wail because of him.’ ‘The tribes of the land’ can only mean the people of Israel, as is proved by the original prophecy in Zech. xii. 10-14, and still more by the language of our Saviour in Matt. xxiv. 30. There cannot be the shadow of a doubt that the ‘coming’ referred to is the Parousia, the precursor of judgment, terrible to those ‘who pierced him,’ and always declared by our Lord to lie within the limits of the existing generation.
2. After the fullest consideration of the remarkable expression th kuriakh hmera [the Lord’s day], in Rev. i. 10, we are satisfied that it cannot refer to the first day of the week, but that those interpreters are right who understand it to refer to the period called elsewhere ‘the day of the Lord.’ There is no example in the New Testament of the first day of the week [Sunday] being called ‘the Lord’s day,’ or ‘the day of the Lord;’ but the latter phrase is appropriated and restricted by usage to the great judicial period which is constantly represented in Scripture as associated with the Parousia. There is no difference whatever between h hmera kuriakh and h hmera tou kuriou. Nothing could be more violent than to refer to one phrase to one period or day, and the other to a totally different one. There is no evidence that the phrase, ‘the day of the Lord,’ had a fixed and definite meaning in the apostolic churches. (See 1 Cor. i. 8, v. 5; 2 Cor. i. 14; 2 Thess. ii. 2, v. 2; 2 Pet. iii. 10.) Notwithstanding Alford’s objection on the score of grammar, we hold that there is nothing ungrammatical in the construction which regards th kuriakh hmera as ‘the (great) day of the Lord.’ On the contrary, we prefer the construction, on the score of the grammar, ‘I was in spirit in the day of the Lord.’ That is to say, the Parousia is the stand-point of the Seer in the Apocalypse: a fact which is amply borne out by the contents.
3. In Rev. iii. 10 we are informed that a season of severe trial was then imminent, viz. a bitter persecution of those who bore the Christian name, extending over the whole world [oikoumenh---or the Roman Empire]. Now the first general persecution of Christians was that which took place under Nero, A.D. 64. We infer that this was the persecution then impending, and therefore that the Apocalypse was written prior to that date.
4. That the book was written before the destruction of Jerusalem appears from the fact that the city and temple are spoken of as still in existence. (See chap. xi. 1, 2, 8.) It is scarcely probable that if Jerusalem had been a heap of ruins the apostle would have received a command to measure the temple; should represent the Holy City as about to be trodden down by the Gentiles; or that he should see the witnesses lie unburied in its streets.
5. But, in truth, the Apocalypse itself is the great argument for its having been written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. To suppose its prophetical character, and make it bear the same relation to the great consummation called in the New Testament ‘the end of the age’ that the Iliad bears to the siege of Troy. It may be safely affirmed that on this hypothesis it is incapable of interpretation: it must continue to be what is has so long been, the material for arbitrary and fanciful speculation; ever changing with the changing aspect of the political and ecclesiastical world. But we venture to think that if the views advocated in this volume are correct, the interpretation of the Apocalypse becomes possible, and that such interpretation will carry with it its own evidence, commending itself by its consistency and fitness to every fair and candid judgment. A true interpretation speaks for itself; and as the right key fits the lock, and so demonstrates its adaptation, so a true interpretation will prove its correctness by satisfactorily showing the correspondence between the historical fact and the prophetical symbol:
THE TRUE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE APOCALYPSE.
We are now better prepared to grapple with the question, What is the real meaning of the Apocalypse? The fact that, by its own showing, the action of the book must necessarily be comprehended within a very short space of time, and the knowledge (approximately) of the date of its composition, are important aids to a correct apprehension of its object and scope. To regard it as a revelation of the distant future, when it expressly declares that it treats of things which must shortly come to pass; and to look for its fulfilment in mediaeval or modern history, when it affirms that the time is at hand, is to ignore its plainest teaching, and to ensure misconception and failure. We are absolutely shut up by the book itself to the contemporary history of the period, and that, too, within very narrow limits.
And here we find an explanation of what must have struck most thoughtful readers of the evangelic history as extremely singular, namely, the total absence in the Fourth Gospel of that which occupies so conspicuous a place in the Synoptical Gospels,---the great prophecy of our Lord on the Mount of Olives. The silence of St. John in his gospel is the more remarkable that he was one of the four favoured disciples who listened to that discourse; yet, in his gospel we find no trace of it whatever. How is this to be accounted for? It may be said that the full reports of that prophecy by the other evangelists rendered any allusion to it by St. John unnecessary; yet, remembering the intense interest of the subject to every Jewish heart, and its bearing upon the apostolic churches generally, it does seem unaccountable that no notice should be taken of so important a prediction by the only one of its original auditors who left a record of the discourses of Christ. But the difficulty is explained if it should be found that the Apocalypse is nothing else than a transfigured form of the prophecy on the Mount of Olives. And this we believe to be the fact. The Apocalypse contains our Lord’s great prophecy expanded, allegorised, and, if we may so say, dramatised. The same facts and events which are predicted in the Gospels are shown in the Revelation, only clothed in a more figurative and symbolical dress. They pass before us like scenes exhibited by the magic lantern, magnified and illuminated, but not on that account the less real and truthful. In this view the Apocalypse becomes the supplement to the gospel, and gives completeness to the record of the evangelist.
This may at first sight appear a gratuitous and fanciful hypothesis, but the more it is considered the more probable it will be found. We cordially subscribe to the following words of Dr. Alford:---
Even a slight comparison of the two documents, the prophecy and the Apocalypse, will suffice to show the correspondence between them. The dramatis personae, if we may so call them,---the symbols which enter into the composition of both,---are the same. What do we find in our Lord’s prophecy? First and chiefly the Parousia; then wars, famines, pestilence, earthquakes; false prophets and deceivers; signs and wonders; the darkening of the sun and moon; the stars falling from heaven; angels and trumpets, eagles and carcases, great tribulation and woe; convulsions of nature; the treading down of Jerusalem; the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven; the gathering of the elect; the reward of the faithful; the judgment of the wicked. And are not these precisely the elements which compose the Apocalypse? This cannot be accidental resemblance,---it is coincidence, it is identity. What difference there is in the treatment of the subject arises from the difference in the method of the revelation. The prophecy is addressed to the ear, and the Apocalypse to the eye: the one is a discourse delivered in broad day, amid the realities of actual life,---the other is a vision, beheld in a state of ecstasy, clothed in gorgeous imagery, with an air of unreality as in objects seen in a dream; requiring it to be translated back into the language of everyday life before it can be intelligible as actual fact.
STRUCTURE AND PLAN OF THE APOCALYPSE.
As commonly interpreted nothing can be more loose and unconnected than the arrangement of the Apocalypse. It seems an intricate maze, without any intelligible plan, ranging through time and space, and forming a chaos of heterogeneous ages, nations, and incidents. In reality there is no literary composition more regular in its structure, more methodical in its arrangement, more artistic in its design. No Greek tragedy is composed with greater art or more strict attention to dramatic laws. It is no exaggeration to say with the learned Henry More, ‘There never was any book penned with that artifice as this of the Apocalypse, as if every word were weighed in a balance before it was set down.’ Yet the plan of its construction is simple, and almost self-evident. The number seven governs it throughout. The most unobservant reader cannot fail to notice four of its great divisions which are distinguished by this mystic number,---the seven churches, the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven vials. As every division has certain marked characteristics by which its beginning and ending are distinctly indicated, it is not difficult to draw the lines between the several divisions. In addition to the four already specified we find other three visions, viz. the vision of the sun-clad woman, the vision of the great harlot, and the vision of the bride. These complete the mystic number seven, and form the clear and well-defined arrangement into which the contents of the Apocalypse naturally fall. It would be difficult indeed to invent any other. There are also a preface, or prologue, at the commencement of the book, and an epilogue, at the conclusion; so that the whole arrangement stands as follows:---
Such is the natural self-arrangement of the book, so far as its great leading divisions are concerned; there are also several subordinate divisions, or episodes as they may be called, which fall under one or other of the great divisions. We shall find that in the different visions there is a common structural resemblance, and that, more particularly, each division concludes with a finale, or catastrophe, representing an act of judgment or a scene of victory and triumph.
But the most remarkable feature in the Apocalypse, so far as its structure is concerned, remains to be noticed. It is that the several visions may be described as only varied representations of the same facts or events; re-arrangements and new combinations of the same constituent elements. This is obviously the case with two of the great divisions, viz. the vision of the seven trumpets and that of the seven vials. These are almost counterparts of each other; and though the resemblance between the other visions is not so marked, yet it will be found that they are all different aspects of the same great event. If we may venture to use such an illustration we should say that the visions are not telescopic, looking at the distant; but kaleidoscopic,---every turn of the instrument producing a new combination of images, exquisitely beautiful and gorgeous, while the elements which compose the picture remain substantially the same. As Pharoah’s dream was one, though seen under two different forms, so the visions of the Apocalypse are one, though presented in seven different aspects. The reason of the repetition is probably in both cases the same. ‘For that the dream was doubled unto Pharoah twic, it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass'’(Gen. xli. 32). In like manner the events foreshadowed in the Apocalypse are declared by their sevenfold repetition to be sure and near.
Every reader of the Apocalypse must be struck by the manner in which certain numerals are employed, not so much in an arithmetical sense as in a symbolical. The numbers three, four, seven, ten, and twelve, the half of seven, and the square of twelve, are used in this significant manner. Of all those mystic numbers, as they may be called, seven is the dominant one, which we find continually recurring from beginning to end of the book. That it is invariably used in a symbolical, and never in a literal and arithmetical, sense we will not venture to assert, but that it is frequently, if not generally, so employed must be apparent to every thoughtful reader. It was the number of dignity among the Jews, the symbol of totality or perfection, and signifies all of the species, or the highest kind of the species, to which it refers. It is not necessary where this number occurs to require the full tale of units to be made up; it simply means completeness or excellence. Thus we have seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven vials, seven spirits, seven lamps, seven horns, seven eyes, seven stars, seven mountains, seven kings. It would be absurd to require the exact arithmetical value in all these instances, though it would be rash to affirm that in every one of them the number is symbolical. Still, even in the instance which at first seems the most manifestly literal, viz. the seven churches which are particularly enumerated, it is possible that there may be an underlying symbolism. It can scarcely be supposed that there were only seven churches in all Asia Minor; there may have been seven times seven; but doubtless these seven stand as representatives of the whole number, not in Asia only, but everywhere else. What the Spirit said to them He said to all. It will be found of no small importance to the correct interpretation of the Apocalypse to bear in mind the symbolic character which belongs to the numbers most frequently employed in it.
We have already endeavoured to show that the Apocalypse is essentially one with the prophecy on the Mount of Olives; that is to say, the subject of both is the same great catastrophe, viz. the Parousia, and the events accompanying it. The Apocalypse announces its great theme in the opening sentence of the book, after the preface or prologue. That opening sentence is the seventh verse of the first chapter:---
This is the thesis of the whole discourse; the first prophetic utterance in the book, and also the last; the key to the whole revelation.
It will be seen that these words are the echo of our Lord’s prediction in Matt. xxiv. 30:---
There is no possibility of mistaking the reference in these words; there is no ambiguity or uncertainty as to whose coming or what coming is intended. The time and the manner of the coming are plainly indicated: it is near: ‘Behold, he is coming.’ It is in glory: ‘He is coming with clouds.’ The two predictions are in fact identical. The time of its fulfilment was now drawing nigh, for the standpoint of the Seer was in ‘the day of the Lord.’ That which our Saviour declared to be within the limits of the generation then existing was now, at the close of some thirty or forty years, on the very eve of accomplishment. The knell of doom was just about to sound: ‘Behold, he is coming.’
Not less clearly indicated is the scene of the coming catastrophe. It is the land of Israel. This is plain from the express statement of both passages, in the Apocalypse and in the gospel: ‘All the tribes of the land’ [pasai ai fulai thz ghz]. The loose way in which this phrase is sometimes taken as referring to all the nations of the globe cannot be sufficiently reprobated. The original source of the expression (Zech. xii. 12), ‘the families of the land,’ shows that the land of Israel, and especially the city of Jerusalem are intended; and a similar limitation is required in the citations both in the gospel and in the Apocalypse. The allusion to the crucifixion strongly confirms this conclusion---‘they also who pierced him.’ The crucifiers of the Lord of glory are specially ‘particularised among the mass that see with dread the tokens of an approaching avenger.’
Email PreteristArchive.com's Sole Developer and Curator, Todd Dennis
(todd @ preteristarchive.com)
Opened in 1996