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The Parousia in the Apocalypse.
The First VisionTHE MESSAGES TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES.
Chap. i. 10-20; ii. iii.
Notwithstanding what has been said respecting the imagery and symbolism of the Apocalypse, it is not to be forgotten that underlying these symbols there is everywhere a substratum of fact and reality. We have only to read the messages to the seven churches to discover that we are in a region of actual fact and intense reality. There is such individuality of character in the graphic delineations of the spiritual state of the several churches, that we cannot doubt that they are accurate and truthful portraits of the Christian communities which they describe. There is indeed a strange commingling of figure and fact; but there is no difficulty in discriminating between the one and the other; or, rather, they so admirably blend and harmonise that each lends vividness and force to the other. The explanation, also, of the symbols (ver. 20) converts them into real existences,---‘The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches; and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.’
It is scarcely necessary to say that there is not the slightest foundation for the preposterous theory which represents these delineations of the spiritual condition of the seven churches as typical of successive states or phases of the Christian church in so many future ages of time. Such a hypothesis is incompatible with the express limitations of time laid down in the context, as well as inconsistent with the distinctive individuality of the several churches addressed. Everything shows that it is of the present, and the immediate future, that the Apocalypse treats. The first readers of these epistles must have felt that they came expressly to them, and not to other people, in other times. It is, no doubt, true that these epistles describe types of character which may be repeated, and are repeated continually, in successive generations; but this does not alter the fact that they had a direct and personal application to the churches specified, which they can never have to any other.
Let us endeavour, then, to place ourselves in the situation of those primitive churches in Ephesus, and Smyrna, and Pergamos, and Thyatira, and Sardis, and Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Let us call up the prominent features and actors of the time, and consider the hopes and fears, the dangers and difficulties, which occupied and agitated their minds. Is it not obvious that these things must necessarily constitute the elements which go to the composition of the whole book? If not, it is not easy to see what special interest or concern it could have for its original readers, whose blessedness it was pronounced to be to read, or hear, and keep its words. What, then, do we find in those early days? Suffering and persecuted Christians; malignant and blaspheming Jews; stern Roman magistrates; a brutal and capricious tyrant on the Imperial throne; among themselves false teachers, apostates from the faith; wide-spread degeneracy and defection. In addition to all this we find a general expectation of a great crisis at hand; the conviction that at length the time was come for which all Christians had been taught to wait and hope; the hour of deliverance for the persecuted faithful; the day of retribution and judgment for the enemy and the oppressor. The watchword was passed from man to man, from church to church,---‘Maranatha! The Lord is at hand. Behold, he is coming. He will not tarry.’ We know certainly that this thought burned in the hearts of the first Christians, for they had been taught to cherish it by the instructions of the apostles and by the promise of the Master. Their hope was not the hope of Christians now,---to live on the earth as long as possible, and to die at a good old age, and then go to heaven, there to await a full and final glorification in some distant period. Their hope was not to die at all, but to live to welcome their returning Lord, to be clothed upon with their heavenly investiture; to be caught up into the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so to be for ever with the Lord.
Such unquestionably were the circumstances, expectations, and attitude of the Christian people who received these messages from the coming deliverer by His servant John. It will be obvious how exactly the contents of these epistles correspond with the circumstances of the churches. There is a striking common resemblance in the structure of the epistles, as if cast in the same mould or formed on the same plan. They are all naturally divisible into seven parts:---
The chief point, however, which concerns us in these epistles to the churches is that we find in each of them a distinct allusion to a great and imminent crisis, when reward or punishment is to be meted out to each according to his work. No one can fail to be struck with the indications that an expected catastrophe is at hand. To Ephesus it is said, ‘I will come unto thee quickly’ (chap. ii. 5); to Smyrna, ‘Thou shalt have tribulation ten days’ (chap. ii. 10); to Pergamos, ‘I will come unto thee quickly’ (chap. ii. 16); to Thyatira, ‘Hold fast till I come’ (chap. ii. 25); to Sardis, ‘I will come on thee as a thief’ (chap. iii. 3); to Philadelphia, ‘Behold, I come quickly’ (chap. iii. 2); to Laodicea, ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock’ (chap. iii. 20). It is impossible to conceive that these urgent warnings had no special meaning to those to whom they were addressed; that they meant no more to them than they do to us; that they refer to a consummation which has never yet taken place. This would be to deprive the words of all significance. What can be more evident than that in these sharp, short, epigrammatic utterances all is intensely urgent, pressing, vehement, as if not a moment were to be lost, and negligence or delay might be fatal? But how could such passionate urgency be consistent with a far-off consummation, which might come in some distant period of time, which after eighteen hundred years is still in the future? Why resort to such an unnatural and unsatisfactory explanation when we know that there was a predicted and expected consummation which was to take place in the days when these churches flourished? We therefore conclude that the period of recompense and retribution referred to in all these epistles to the churches was the approaching ‘day of the Lord’---the Parousia, which the Saviour declared would take place before the passing away of the generation which witnessed His miracles and rejected His message.
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