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The Parousia in the Apocalypse.
The Seventh Vision
THE HOLY CITY, OR THE BRIDE. Chaps. xxi. xxii. 1-5.
This vision is the last of the series, and completes the mystic number of seven. It is the grand finale of the whole drama, the triumphant consummation and climax of the apocalyptic visions. It stands in striking antithesis of the vision of the harlot city; it is the new Jerusalem in contrast to the old; the bride, the Lamb’s wife, in contrast with the foul and bloated adulteress whose judgment has passed before our eyes.
The structure of the vision may detain us for a moment. It is introduced by a preface or prologue, extending from the first verse of chap. xxi. to the eighth. At the ninth verse the vision of the bride opens in the same manner as the vision of the harlot, by ‘one of the seven angels, which had the seven vials, full of the seven last plagues,’ inviting the Seer to come and behold ‘the bride, the Lamb’s wife.’ The vision reaches its climax or catastrophe at the fifth verse of chap. xxii. The remainder forms the conclusion, or epilogue, not of this vision only, but of the Apocalypse itself.
PROLOGUE TO THE VISION.
Although this section may be regarded as introductory to the actual vision described from the ninth verse onwards, yet it is really an integral part of the representation, and covers the very same ground as the subsequent description. It is as if the Seer, full of the glorious object revealed to his eyes, began to tell its wonders and splendours before he could stay to explain the circumstances which had led to his being favoured with the manifestation. The passage now before us is really an abridgment or outline of what is developed in fuller detail in the subsequent part of this and the first five verses of the following chapter.
We now find ourselves surrounded by scenery so novel and so wonderful that it is not surprising that we should be in doubt where we are. Is this earth, or is it heaven? Every familiar landmark has disappeared; the old has vanished, and given place to the new: it is a new heaven above us; it is a new earth beneath us. New conditions of life must exist, for ‘there is no more sea.’ Plainly we have here a representation in which symbolism is carried to its utmost limits; and he who would deal with such gorgeous imagery as with prosaic literalities is incapable of comprehending them. But the symbols, though transcendental, are not unmeaning. ‘They serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things;’ and all the pomp and splendour of earth are employed to set forth the beauty of moral and spiritual excellence.
It is impossible to regard this picture as the representation of any social condition to be realised upon earth. There are, indeed, certain phrases which at first seem to imply that earth is the scene where these glories are manifested: the holy city is said to ‘come down out of heaven;’ the tabernacle of God is said to be ‘with men;’ ‘the kings of the earth’ are said to ‘bring their glory and honour into it; ‘ but, on the other hand, the whole conception and description of the vision forbid the supposition of its being a terrestrial scene. In the first place, it belongs to ‘the things which must shortly come to pass;’ it falls strictly within apocalyptic limits. It is, therefore, no vision of the future; it belongs as much to the period called ‘the end of the age’ as the destruction of Jerusalem does; and we are to conceive of this renovation of all things,---this new heaven and new earth, as contemporaneous with, or in immediate succession to, the judgment of the great harlot, to which it is the counterpart or antithesis.
Secondly, What is the chief figure in this visionary representation? It is the holy city, new Jerusalem. But the new Jerusalem is always represented in the Scriptures as situated in heaven, not on earth. St. Paul speaks of the Jerusalem which is above, in contrast with the Jerusalem below. How can the Jerusalem which is above belong to earth? There cannot be a reasonable doubt that the city which is here depicted in such glowing colours is identical with that which is referred to in Heb. xii. 22, 23: ‘Ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels; to the general assembly and church of the first-born, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.’ Clearly, therefore, the holy city is the abode of the glorified; the inheritance of the saints in light; the mansions of the Father’s house, prepared for the home of the blessed.
Once more, this conclusion is certified by the representation of its being the dwelling-place of the Most High Himself: ‘The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it;’ ‘the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it;’ ‘his servants shall serve him, and they shall see his face.’ In fact, this vision of the holy city is anticipated in the catastrophe of the vision of the seals, where the hundred and forty and four thousand out of all the tribes of the children of Israel, and the great multitude that no man could number, are represented as enjoying the very same glory and felicity, in the very same place and circumstances, as in the vision before us. The two scenes are identical; or different aspects of one and the same great consummation.
We therefore conclude that the vision sets forth the blessedness and glory of the heavenly state, into which the way was fully opened at the ‘end of the age,’ or sunteleia tou aiwnoz, according to the showing of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
THE HOLY CITY DESCRIBED.
Chaps. xxi. 9-27; xxii. 1-5.
Having thus arrived at the conclusion that the heavenly state is here signified, we shall not be guilty of the presumption and folly of entering into any detailed explanation of the symbols themselves. There is an apparent confusion of the figures by which the new Jerusalem is represented, being sometimes described as a city. the same double figure is employed in the description of the harlot, or old Jerusalem, which is sometimes represented as a woman and sometimes as a city. In the seventh vision the figure of the bride is dropped almost as soon as it is introduced., and the whole of the remaining description is occupied with the details of the architecture, the wealth, and splendour, and glory of the city. Some of the features are evidently derived from the visionary city beheld by Ezekiel; but there is this remarkable difference, that whereas the temple and its elaborate details occupy the principal part of the Old Testament vision, no temple at all is seen in the apocalyptic vision,---perhaps for the reason that where all is most holy no one place has greater sanctity than another, or because where God’s presence is fully manifested, the whole place becomes one great temple.
There is one point, however, which deserves particular notice, as serving to identify the city called the new Jerusalem. In Hebrews xi. 10 we meet with the remarkable statement that the patriarch Abraham sojourned as a stranger in the very land which had been promised to him as his own possession, and that he did so because he had faith in a larger and higher fulfillment of the promise than any mere earthly and human city could have bestowed. ‘He looked for the city which hath the foundations, whose builder and maker is God.’ What is this but the very city described in the Apocalypse---the city which has twelve foundations, inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb; the city which is built by no mortal hands; ‘the city of the living God,’ the heavenly Jerusalem? This is a decisive proof, first, that the writer of the epistle had read the Apocalypse, and, secondly, that he recognised the vision of the new Jerusalem as a representation of the heavenly world.
This epilogue at the conclusion of the book corresponds with the prologue at the commencement, and exemplifies the structural symmetry of the composition. Still more remarkable are the emphasis and frequency with which the approaching fulfillment of the contents of the prophecy is affirmed and reiterated. Seven times over it is declared, in one form or another, that all is on the point of being accomplished. The statement with which the book opens is repeated at this close, that the angel of the Lord has been commissioned ‘to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass.’ The monitory announcement, ‘Behold, I come quickly,’ is thrice made into this concluding section. The Seer is commanded not to seal the book of the prophecy, because ‘the time is at hand.’ So imminent is the end that it is intimated that now it is too late for any alteration in the state or character of men; such as they are so must they continue: ‘He hat is unjust, let him be unjust still.’ The invocation addressed by the four living creatures to the expected Son of man, ‘Come!’ (chap. vi. 1, 3, 5, 7), is repeated by the Spirit and the bride; while all that hear are invited to join in the cry: and, lastly, the final expression of the whole book is the fervent utterance of the prayer, ‘Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.’ All these are indications, which cannot be misunderstood, that the predictions contained in the Apocalypse were not to be slowly evolved as ages roll on, but were on the eve of almost instant accomplishment. The whole prophecy, from the first to last, relates to the immediate future, with the solitary exception of the six verses of chap. xx. 5-10. Nineteen-twentieths of the Apocalypse, we might almost say ninety-nine hundredths, belong, according to its own showing, to the very days then present, the closing days of the Jewish age. The coming of the Lord is its grand theme: with this it opens, with this it closes, and from beginning to end this event is contemplated as just about to take place. Whatever else may be dark or doubtful, this at least is clear and certain. The interpreter who does not apprehend and hold fast this guiding principle is incapable of understanding the words of this prophecy, and will infallibly lose himself and bewilder others in a labyrinth of conjecture and vain speculation.
So ends this wonderful book; so elaborate in its construction, so magnificent in its diction, so mysterious in its imagery, so glorious in its revelations. More than any other book in the Bible it has been sealed and shut to the intelligent apprehension of its readers, and this mainly on account of the strange neglect of its own unambiguous directions for its right understanding. Herder, who brought his poetical genius rather than his critical faculty to the elucidation of the Apocalypse, asks,---
‘No!’ answers an able and sagacious critic, Moses Stuart, whose labours have done much to prepare the way for a true interpretation,---
But perhaps a better answer may be given. The key was sent along with the book, and it has been allowed to lie rusty and unused, while all kinds of false keys and picklocks have been tried, and tried in vain, until men have come to look upon the Apocalypse as an unintelligible enigma, only meant to puzzle and bewilder. The true key has all along been visible enough, and the attention of men has been loudly called to it in almost every page of the book. That key is the declaration so frequently made that all is on the point of fulfillment. If the original readers were competent, as Stuart contends, to understand the Apocalypse without an interpreter, it could only be because they recognised its connection with the events of their own day. To suppose that they could understand or feel the slightest interest in a book that treated of Papal councils, Protestant reformation, French revolutions, and distant events in foreign lands and far-off ages, would be one of the wildest fancies that ever possessed a human brain. From first to last the book itself bears decisive testimony to the immediate fulfillment of its predictions. It opens with the express declaration that the events to which it refers ‘must shortly come to pass,’ and it closes with the reiteration of the same statement,---‘The Lord God hath sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly come to pass.’ ‘The time is at hand.’
The only luminous interpretation of the vision of the Apocalypse has been given by critics who have consented to use this authentic and divine key to its mysteries. Yet it is remarkable that very few, if any, have done so consistently and throughout. It is surprising and mortifying to find such an expositor as Moses Stuart, after proceeding with courage and success a certain way, suddenly falter, drop the key which had done such good service, and then stagger blindly and helplessly on, groping and guessing through the Egyptian fog which surrounds him. Yet no theologian of our time has contributed so much to the true interpretation of the Apocalypse. By his own admirable commentary he has laid all students of this wonderful book under the highest obligation, and conferred a lasting benefit on the whole church of Christ. Unhappily, by failing to carry out his own principles consistently to the end, he missed the honour of conducting his followers into the promised land of a true exegesis.
As for the majority of interpreters, it is scarcely possible to conceive a more absolute and reckless disregard to the express and manifold directions contained in the book itself than that which they have exhibited in their arbitrary speculations. Of willful perverseness no one will accuse them; but it seems unaccountable that scholarly and reverent students of divine revelation should either overlook or set aside the explicit declarations of the book itself with regard to its speedily approaching fulfillment; that they should, in spite of those plain assertions to the contrary, lay it down as an axiom that the Apocalypse is a syllabus of civil and ecclesiastical history to the end of time; and that they should then, in defiance of all grammatical laws, proceed to invent a non-natural method of interpretation, according to which ‘near’ becomes ‘distant,’ and ‘quickly’ means ‘ages hence,’ and ‘at hand’ signifies ‘afar off.’ All this seems incredible, yet it is true. Language serves only to mislead, words have no meaning, and interpretation has no laws, if the express and repeated declarations of the Apocalypse do not plainly teach the speedy and all but immediate fulfillment of its predictions.
It ought to have occurred to the interpreters of the Apocalypse that it was an overwhelming a priori presumption against their method that it required an immense apparatus criticus, vast stores of historical information, the lapse of many ages, and ‘something like prophetic strain,’ to produce an exposition satisfactory even to themselves. Of what value such ‘revelation’ could be to the primitive believers, who with trembling hearts obeyed the injunction that sent them to the baffling task of studying its pages, it is not easy to see. Nor is it much more value to the mass of modern readers, who must have a high critical faculty to be able to discern the fitness and truthfulness of the interpretation offered, and to decide between conflicting interpretations. It is no wonder that, occupying such a false position, the defenders of divine revelation laid themselves open to the assaults of such sceptics as Strauss and ‘the destructive school of criticism,’ and, taking refuge in non-natural interpretation, endangered the very citadel of the faith. It must be acknowledged that a culpable negligence of the ‘true sayings of God’ on the part of Christian expositors has often given a vantage ground to the enemies of revelation of which they have not been slow to avail themselves.
Without undue presumption it may be claimed for the scheme of interpretation advocated in these pages that it is marked by extreme simplicity, by agreement with historical facts, and by exact correspondence with the symbols. There is no wresting of Scripture, no perversion or accommodation of history, no manipulation of facts. The only indispensable apparatus criticus is Josephus and the Greek grammar. The guiding and governing principle is implicit and unwavering deference to the teachings of the book itself. The apocalyptic data have been the sole landmarks regarded, and it is believed that they have not been insufficient. To assume that no mistakes have been made would be preposterous; but succeeding travellers by the same route will soon correct what is proved to be erroneous, and confirm what is shown to be right.
It has been the object of the writer to demonstrate that the Apocalypse is really the reproduction and expansion, in symbolical imagery adapted to the nature of a vision, of our Lord’s prophetic discourse spoken on the Mount of Olives. That discourse, as we have shown, is one continuous and homogeneous prediction of events which were to take place in connection with the Parousia, the coming in His kingdom of the Son of man, an event which He declared would happen before the passing away of the existing generation, and which some of the disciples would live to witness. Similarly, the Apocalypse is a revelation of the events accompanying the Parousia, but entering far more into detail, and displaying far more of the glory and felicity of ‘the kingdom.’
Eighteen centuries ago, as the Seer gazed on the glorious vision of the city whose walls were of jasper, and its gates of pearl, and its streets of pure gold, he was assured again and again that ‘these things must shortly be done,’ and that ‘the time was at hand.’ Standing on the verge of the long-expected Parousia, listening for the footfall of the coming King, knowing that ‘the end of the age’ must be imminent, and looking eagerly for ‘the day of the Lord,’ how could it be otherwise than that St. John and his fellow-disciples should believe themselves on the point of witnessing the fulfillment of their cherished hopes? How could it be otherwise, when the Lord Himself, giving His own personal attestation to the assurance of His almost immediate advent, declared thrice over, in the most explicit terms, ‘Behold I come quickly;’ ‘Behold, I come quickly;’ ‘Yea, I come quickly’?
We are thus led to the conclusion, alike from the teaching of the Apocalypse and the rest of the New Testament scriptures, that in the days of St. John the Parousia was universally believed by the whole Christian church to be close at hand. It was the promise of Christ, the preaching of the apostles, the faith of the church. We are also taught the significance of that great event. It marked a new epoch in the divine administration. Until that event took place the full blessedness of the heavenly state was not open to the souls of believers.
The Epistle to the Hebrews teaches that until the arrival of the great consummation something was wanting to the full perfection of them who had ‘died in faith.’ The same thing is taught in the Apocalypse. Until the ‘harlot city’ was judged and condemned, the ‘holy city’ was not prepared as the habitation of the saints. We are given to understand also that the close of the Jewish dispensation, the abrogation of the legal economy, and the destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem, indicating the dissolution of the peculiar relation between Jehovah and the nation of Israel. The nation had rejected its King, and the King had judged the nation; and the Messianic mission, both for mercy and for judgment, was then fulfilled. The faithful remnant were gathered into the kingdom, or ‘the new Jerusalem,’ and the whole frame and fabric of Judaism were shattered and destroyed for ever. The kingdom of God was now come, and He who for so long a period had conducted its administration, its Mediator and Chief, now that He has crowed the edifice, resigns His official character and ‘delivers up the kingdom’ into the Father’s hands. His work as Messiah is accomplished; He is no longer ‘a minister of the circumcision;’ the local and limited gives place to the universal, ‘that God may be All in all.’ This does not mean that the relation between Christ and humanity ceases, but that His mission as King of Israel is fulfilled; the covenant-nation no longer exists; there are no longer Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised; the Israel of God is wider and greater than Israel after the flesh; Jerusalem which is above is not the mother of Jews, but is ‘the mother of us all.’
It was in the full view of that glorious day, which was about to ‘open the kingdom of heaven to all believers,’ that the beloved disciple made response to his Lord’s announcement of His speedy coming, ‘Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!’
1 Stuart on the Apocalypse, sect. 12.
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