THIS commandment was addressed by Jesus Christ to the apostle John, called in the title of the book, JOHN THE DIVINE. The name Θεολογος, the Theologian or Divine, was bestowed upon him by the Fathers in a peculiar sense, because HE, more than any other of the inspired writers of the New Testament discussed the sublime mysteries of Christian Theology, and particularly asserted and enforced the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. Of him too it was said, "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Unto him were granted the visions which are written in this book. The Revelation of Jesus Christ was signified unto his servant John, who bare record of all things that he saw.
This venerable man, who had lived in habits of the nearest intimacy with his Saviour; had witnessed his private friendships and devotions; had leaned on his bosom at the last supper; and who had stood by his cross while he suffered death for our redemption; now remained alone, the last of the apostles, to instruct by inspiration the rising churches. Far advanced in years, with the fervour of youthful zeal, mellowed by the experience of age, he cherished for the numerous believers of the first century, the feelings of an affectionate parent. His distinguished usefulness provoked from the enemies of Christianity a malevolence which neither his mildness of manners, nor his hoary hairs could disarm. John was persecuted.
Domitian, the Roman emperor, the degenerate son of the amiable Vespasian, was a man of ambition and blood. He succeeded to the Purple at the death of his brother Titus, and surpassed, if possible, Nero himself, in baseness and cruelty. By his orders, a war of extermination was waged against the Christians, and the apostle John after a series of other sufferings, was banished into the Isle which was then called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. This took place in the fifteenth year of the reign of Domitian, A.D. 95. being the 90th year of the apostle’s age, and 62 years after the crucifixion of our Saviour.
Patmos, since called Patino or Palmosa, lies upon the coast of Asia, not far from the Island of Samos, in that arm of the Mediterranean which stretches to the northward, between Europe and Asia, and bears the name of the Archipelago, or AEgean Sea. This island is one of the most barren spots that can well be imagined: even at the present day, notwithstanding the industry of the Caloyer monks, who attempt its cultivation, and have consecrated its rocks to superstition. It was then a desert. Here the persecutor hoped that the exile would die of famine. He was, however, disappointed.
The same God who supported Moses and Elijah for many weeks together without food, revealed himself to the beloved disciple; and, by his power, supported his body, while by the Revelation made to him, his solitude was sweetened, and his seclusion from society made a distinguished blessing to the church of Christ.
In the early ages of the church there was no dispute about the authenticity of the book of Revelation, nor any one to deny that the apostle John was the writer. When, however, in process of time, the question of the millennium became a suspect of violent controversy, the Apocalypse itself was attacked. The millenarians rested their doctrine upon the 20th chapter of this book; and their antagonists, in pursuit of victory more than truth, denied the canonical authority of a work which seemed to lend its aid to what they deemed a dangerous hypothesis. The objections thus raised were handed down to succeeding ages. Unsanctified literature takes pride in collecting and repeating them.
The argument for rejecting from the canon the book of Revelation, is stated in full force by the learned Michaelis, in the very elaborate work, An Introduction to the New Testament, and is convincingly refuted by Mr. Woodhouse, in his Introduction to a New Translation of the Apocalypse. It is a remark very frequently and very justly already made, that no part of the sacred volume is less dependent upon historical testimony than this book. Its own prophecies, fulfilled and fulfilling, proclaim its divine origin. It is nevertheless true, that the external evidence of its authenticity is various, clear, and conclusive.
The testimony of IRENAEUS would be decisive in a court of justice. He was a man of intelligence and veracity. His opportunity of knowing the truth upon this subject cannot be disputed. He was born soon after the date of the Apocalypse. He was by birth a Greek, and brought up under the ministry of the celebrated POLYCARP, who was cotemporary with the apostle John, and actually settled in Smyrna, one of those Asian churches to which an epistle is addressed in the book of Revelation. Irenaeus removed from Asia, and was settled in Lyons, the second city of France for commerce and opulence. He maintained after his removal a constant correspondence with the Asiatic churches. In his own character he was confessedly learned, prudent, and pious. He made the Apocalypse his particular study, comparing, the several manuscript copies of it, and appealing in case of disputed passages, to the testimony of apostolical men.
Irenaeus in many instances ascribes this book to "John the evangelist, the disciple of the Lord; that John who leaned on his Lord’s breast at the last supper;" and expressly says of the Revelation, "it was not seen a long time ago, but almost in our own age, toward the end of Domitian’s reign."
This witness is supported by many others, yea, Polycarp himself, an auditor of the apostle John, and a minister of the church of Smyrna, begins the solemn prayer which he uttered at the stake, when about to seal by martyrdom the testimony which he held, with the words of Rev. 11:17. Κυριε, ο Θεος, ο Παντοκρατορ. I offer no apology for prolonging thus far the introduction of my discourse. It appeared to me necessary to say so much about the writer of the Apocalypse, previously to laying before you
AN OUTLINE OF ITS CONTENTS.
The general arrangement of its several parts is laid down in the command of our Lord, which is now the subject of discussion.—Write the THINGS WHICH THOU HAST SEEN, and the THINGS WHICH ARE, and the THINGS WHICH SHALL BE HEREAFTER.
Correct method is important in every pursuit. Science cannot exist without it. A few facts on any subject under consideration, regularly classified, furnish more real information than thousands assembled without order, and without discrimination. This principle, so well attested by the several branches of natural and moral science, ought not to be neglected by the expositor of the Apocalyptical visions. Here, method is necessary to prevent confusion, to ascertain events, and to understand the mysteries of this book.
Several excellent Commentators infer from the words of my text a threefold division of the general contents of this book. According to this arrangement, "the things which thou hast seen," ἁ ειδες, are limited to the contents of this chapter, from the 12th to the 17th verse, and constitute PART I. of the whole book. PART II. embraces "the things which are," ἁ εισι, the present condition of seven churches of Asia Minor, addressed and described in the second and third chapters. PART III. by far the largest, respects "the things which shall be," ἁ μελλει γινεσθαι, including the remaining part of the book from the fourth chapter to the end.
This arrangement appears to me perfectly correct. I have attended to all that Lord Napier, Dr. Johnston, Mr. Woodhouse, and several other learned men, have offered in behalf of a twofold division, without being convinced of its propriety. I readily acknowledge that the original text will admit their translations—"Write the things which thou seest, even the things which are, and the things which are about to be;" but it does not require it; and the standard version is in this instance more congenial with the context. The apostle had already, under the influence of inspiration, seen things worthy of being recorded. Descriptive addresses to several churches then existing, were about to be delivered to him, and both these, as well as the predictions of future events, are actually written in this book. The fact is the best commentary on the precept. John did as he was commanded.
Verse 10th, He was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day—the Christian Sabbath. Deprived of the ordinances of public worship, in which he had long taken delight; this first day of the week provided eminent communion with his Redeemer, and furnished means of improvement to the church of God, in a degree superior to any thing which might have been expected from his own sermons or exhortations, to any congregation in which he would have been labouring that day, had not the power of persecution prevailed. Thus doth God make the wrath of man to praise him.
In the concerns of life, we are limited in the reception and communication of our ideas to the exercise of our faculties through the medium of bodily organs. Therefore are we said to be in the body. But when the Spirit of God communicates what is independent of our own organs, and by a supernatural power supersedes the immediate exercise of our bodily senses, it may be with propriety said, we are in the Spirit. The vision of bliss, which the apostle Paul had in heaven, 2 Cor. 12:3. was of such a description as that he could not positively say, whether he received it through the medium of the natural organs of perception, or in the same manner in which disembodied spirits communicate ideas to one another; and he accordingly says, whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth. To be in the Spirit, to have the Spirit in us, and to be inspired, are terms of the same signification.
That inspiration which the apostle had in Patmos, is chiefly of the species called vision. The Holy Spirit presented objects to his understanding, precisely as they would have been perceived, if actually addressed to his sense of sight. The visions were, however, usually accompanied with suitable explanation, and both are found in the first as well as the last part of the Apocalypse.
So soon as John was inspired, he was directed to write this book, giving an account of all his visions, verse 11. What thou seest write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia.
This is the general command. Under it the Apocalypse was written, and copies were transmitted to the several churches. Ὁ βλεπεις γραψον, write whatsoever thou seest—all the visions of inspiration. Whatsoever is revealed to thee, write. The command to write is repeated verse 19, and the ὁ βλεπεις the whole contents of the Apocalypse divided into three parts. The first part, "what thou hast seen"—ἁ ειδες is of course limited to that which is contained between this and the former command. It is that part of the visions of this book which had been already vouchsafed to the inspired writer.
The vision of the Son of Man, the Candlesticks, and the Stars.
This general division is very short. It is contained in the first chapter, from the 12th to the 17th verse. It is, however, a very interesting vision, and happily introductory to each of the other general divisions of the Apocalypse. While it displays in a remarkable manner the dignity of Christ’s person, and the extent of his authority over things visible and invisible, it furnishes an application of symbolical language eminently useful in illustrating the succeeding prophecies. "I saw seven golden candlesticks; and in the midst of the seven candlesticks, one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars; and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword; and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength."
In this striking representation, the Redeemer of the church appears exalted above all creatures; God-man, preserving and sanctifying his churches, supporting and directing the angels or ministers, and promoting the glory of the Godhead by securing our salvation. The scenery is borrowed, partly, from the system of the universe, as in the mention of sun and stars; and partly, from the Old Testament temple service, wherein the high priest and the golden candlesticks prefigured Messiah, and the several churches. The phraseology, and the application of it, coincide with the predictions of Daniel, chap. 10. The churches and ministers are said to be seven in number, because it was intended to make a special communication of the Apocalypse to seven particular churches; and because also seven is a symbol of completeness, both among Jews and Gentiles; and, in this sense, repeatedly employed in the work which we are considering.
Description of the actual condition of the Seven Churches.
This part of the Apocalypse embraces the second and third chapters. It is longer than the first, but it is short compared with the third part. The first part served not only to give a general and happy view of the Mediator, in connexion with his church and her ministers universally, but also to show the particular interest which he had in each community, as exemplified in the case of seven adjacent cities in Asia Minor. This part, by describing the religious state of several well-known churches, serves to illustrate the general principle of Christ’s superintendency, as well as to show in all ages the things in ecclesiastical bodies, of which he approves or disapproves. An actual description, moreover, of these churches which are here addressed, served in the first instance, both to procure a ready reception for this inspired book, and also to confirm the faith of the primitive Christians, in a work which portrayed with so much fidelity and accuracy the state of religion in the cities to which it referred. Thus, by a declaration of general principles in the first place, and by a delineation of existing facts in the second, the way is prepared for entering upon that prospective history, which in the third place, constitutes the principal part of the Apocalypse.
The seven epistles, now under consideration, are accordingly to be viewed as history. They are of course, at present, as interesting as ever. They illustrate doctrine, they inculcate obedience, now, as well as in the first or second century. The character in them described, and the treatment due to it, from the moral Governor of the universe, will always be profitable subjects of investigation. In this point of view, therefore, these epistles may be said to have a prospective reference. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be ; and that which is done, is that which shall be done. To the churches of America, of Africa, and of Europe, as well as those of Asia, they will lie applicable, so far as their character corresponds with that which is given in this book. I am not, however, capable of perceiving any advantage to be derived from giving to this part of the Apocalypse the title of prophecies. It is, to say the least of it, straining a point without an adequate object.
There have not been wanting commentators who class these seven epistles among the predictions of future events. Such interpreters represent each of the Asiatic churches mentioned in the Revelation, not as an ecclesiastical body, then in fact existing; but as a symbol, either of a particular era of the christian world, or of some great section of the Church of God. With the aid of a little fancy, and some ingenuity, of which learned men are always fond, the descriptions of the second and third chapters are converted into so many allegories, and are applied accordingly either to seven great periods in the progress of christianity, or to seven grand divisions of christendom. I have heard, upon this principle, the church of Philadelphia represented, by one learned friend, as the type of the Millennium, and by another, profoundly versed in allegory, as the type of the present state of religion in the United States of America.
This mode of interpretation is liable to many objections.
1. Upon this principle it would be impossible to determine, what, in scripture, is history, and what, parable or allegory. There is no toleration except in cases of necessity, for deviating from the literal and obvious meaning.
2. There were, when the Apocalypse was written, situate in the Lesser Asia, seven christian churches in cities of the names set down in this book; and there is no intimation in the book itself, that these were not the communities intended to be addressed.
3. There is nothing in the whole contents of these epistles to forbid a literal interpretation of them, as applicable to the actual churches of Asia.
4. The text of this discourse certainly distinguishes THE THINGS THAT ARE, from THE THINGS WHICH SHALL BE hereafter—the description of present condition, from the prediction of future events. But there is no history left, if we include the seven epistles among the prophecies. By comparing chap. 1:19. with chap. 4:1. it will readily appear that the prophetical part of the Revelation does not commence until the fourth chapter. Therefore, these seven epistles are narrative.
5. There is no key whatever for dividing time into seven distinct periods, bearing any resemblance to these epistles. They cannot be made to apply to the seven periods into which the prophetic part is divided. History indeed affords such a variety of views of different ages, that ingenuity can devise some periods resembling the Asian churches. But each prophecy has a key of its own, and we are not to indulge fancy in accommodating history to prediction. No such key is found in the second and third chapters.
Visions of Futurity.
This part of the Apocalypse commences with the fourth chapter, as is distinctly announced by a voice from heaven, accompanied, too, with an immediate influence of the divine Spirit. After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee the things which must be hereafter. And immediately I was in the Spirit. From these words it is obvious, that the general division, "the things which shall be hereafter," is not only justified, but also distinctly stated to begin with the vision, narrated chap. 4. and 5.
It is to this part that I design to turn, in a more particular manner, your attention. It contains an outline of history from the apostolical age to the end of the world.
The several prophecies were revealed to the apostle John in FOURTEEN separate VISIONS. These were successively vouchsafed to him with all the necessary means of understanding them, and of faithfully narrating them for our instruction. Three of these visions relate to the condition of the church among the nations of the earth generally, and to the opposition made from various quarters against true religion. One of them respects the millennium, and one the state of future glory. Nine are employed in describing that most perplexing and distressing period, which has usually been known in the church by the designation Antichristian.
These visions do not exactly pursue a chronological order. There is indeed a general respect to the progress of time; but, in order to show the connexion of events, it was deemed necessary to attend to the chain of cause and effect, until each great subject of discussion should be fully brought into view. The prophecy, after this, returns to the consideration of other important subjects, which may have been either cotemporary with the former, or even prior to it in the order of time.
It appears to me, that to follow these visions in the order in which they stand, and so to unfold their meaning, would be an excellent method of explaining the prophecies of the Apocalypse. Such an arrangement would combine simplicity and novelty, with a more formal development of the peculiar imagery of the Apocalyptical style than any other method of discussion. So far as I know, such an arrangement has not been adopted by any commentator. The order of the several chapters, and the chronological order, have most frequently been pursued by commentators, except in those instances in which dissertations have been given upon the several special subjects which appeared to an author most interesting.
The chain of connexion, however, laid down in the Revelation itself, the history of the public interests of true religion in the Roman Empire, is the one which I have determined to follow. It connects the predictions of the Old Testament prophets, particularly those of Daniel, respecting the latter days, with the prospective history given in this book. It binds together in one continuous whole, extending through a long succession of ages, the leading events of the christian world; and it preserves the chronological arrangement sufficiently distinct for all useful purposes. It affords the best opportunity of developing the great moral principles of social order among the children of men with precision, perspicuity, and comprehension. It forms the best Index for the study of all authentic history. And it furnishes to men of extended views, and liberal sentiment, the most abundant motives for pursuing in the present age a general course of policy, characterised by magnanimity, intelligence, and integrity. It, accordingly, by holding up, in a steady and clear light, suitable examples, both for warning and for imitation, tends, in a remarkable degree, to correct the practice of accommodation and shuffling, by which the several actors upon the great theatre of the ecclesiastical world attempt to render the pursuits of religion subordinate to personal ease, or elevation, or avarice.
The principle which is always obvious, and which gives unity to the whole of the prophetic declarations is, The CONNEXION BETWEEN THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION, AND SOCIAL ORDER IN THE HUMAN FAMILY.
This grand principle, interesting in the highest degree to every Philanthropist, worthy of the most minute attention of the christian divine and the philosophic civilian, is selected by the prophet Daniel, and after his exhibition of it, is more largely illustrated, in its various bearings upon the actual state of the nations of the earth, in the predictions of the book of Revelation.
The prophet Daniel takes it up from that time in which the forms of social order, divinely prescribed for the nation of the Hebrews, were destroyed by the Chaldean conqueror, and illustrates its history during a long period, principally of trial and pain, until the time of the millennium. During the whole of this long period, consisting of about two thousand five hundred years from the subjugation of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the prophet exhibits the church of God in a state of depression; and the character of the kingdoms of this world, hostile to the moral principles which Jehovah commands the sons of men to observe in their collective as well as in their individual capacity.
The triumphs of unrighteousness over religion and morality, and over the peace, the persons, and the rights of men, especially of religious men, are depicted in the page of inspiration with a pencil as bold as it is correct. The governments of the earth are, so far as they have any proximity to the church of the Most High, represented by him who best knows their character, as both irreligious and oppressive. Of these, four great successive systems are described in the second and seventh chapters of Daniel, as, in turn, obtaining universal empire, and together occupying the whole time. A wild beast, θηριον, is the fit symbol of their character. It is the symbol of immorality, impiety, and oppression. A wild beast is ungovernable, and prone to destroy. These empires are disobedient to God, and destructive to man. They appear in the following order.
BEAST, is the prophetical symbol of an IMMORAL TYRANNICAL POWER.
Daniel’s Four Beasts are the great Universal Empires, as follow.
1. The Chaldean empire, from the capture of Jerusalem to that of Babylon,
4. The Roman empire under its various forms, from the time Pompey reduced Jerusalem until the close of the seventh vial,
Before the Revelation was given to John the Divine, the fourth beast of Daniel, or the Roman empire, had obtained full power. The prophecies of this book of course respect the general principle, viz. The connexion between the Christian religion, and social order, chiefly, as it refers to the Roman power, and to the state of the church within the bounds of that astonishing empire. This consideration is an index to the several visions. It must not be forgotten by the expositor of prophecy. By far the greatest part of the Apocalypse relates to this object. The SEALS, and the TRUMPETS, and the VIALS, constitute the great chain which connects all the prophecies into a regular system in explanation of the principle stated above. And all these have respect to the Roman empire. They afford an enlarged history of the fourth beast, and its opposition to the christian church.
The order which I am to follow in these lectures is now sketched out. I shall begin the exposition of the Apocalyptical predictions with a view of the sealed book, and proceed to an interpretation of the seven seals. I shall then explain the seven trumpets. I shall afterwards go on to the consideration of the seven vials. These three periods, which precede in the history of christianity, the commencement of the millennium occupy the whole of this book, from the beginning of the fourth to the twentieth chapter.
I shall however close this lecture with a summary account of the contents of the book of Revelation, given at one view.
PART I. Is an introductory vision of the Lord Jesus Christ in his mediatorial character, "Head over all things to his body the church."
PART II. Is a series of letters addressed to seven churches mentioned by name—of letters which unfold the religious condition, and explain the duty of these several churches.
PART III. Is prophetical. It gives a history of Christ’s kingdom, explaining the maxims of religion in application to social institutions among men. It carries forward, and, at greater length, illustrates the predictions of other prophets, especially Daniel, as they relate to the fourth universal empire, or Roman power. And its whole contents are subdivided into seven distinct periods.
The seven distinct periods of the Apocalyptical prophecy are the following, viz.
1. The period of the seals.
It respects the history of the Pagan Roman empire, as it is connected with the progress of the christian religion.
2. The period of the trumpets.
It respects the history of the empire after christianity became in name, but not in spirit and in truth, the established religion; with a view of the manner in which the events of the period affected the actual church of God.
3. The period of the vials.
It represents the decline and fall of the Antichristian empire.
4. The period of the millennium.
Then nations shall not only cease to be immoral and tyrannical, but all social institutions shall be sanctified, and all ecclesiastical and civil affairs be rendered conformable to the word of God in spirit and design.
5. The period of subsequent deterioration—of Gog and Magog.
6. The period of the final judgment.
7. The period of celestial glory.
"This order of the prophecies," said the very judicious Lowman, "is, I think, intelligible and natural; and I believe, more agreeable to the important facts in history than other systems., It is certain such a plan will well answer the useful designs of prophecy in general—to prepare the church to expect opposition and sufferings in this present world; to support good men under all their trials of faith and patience; to give encouragement to perseverance in the true religion, whatever dangers may attend it; to assure the attention of providence, and the protection of God to his own cause; that no opposition shall finally prevail against it: that the judgments of God shall punish the enemies of true religion: that their opposition to truth and righteousness shall surely end in their own destruction; when the faithful perseverance of true christians shall be crowned with a glorious state of immortal life and happiness."
Let us, my brethren, endeavour to secure for ourselves an interest in that religion which will certainly enable us to support with fidelity toward God, the profession of our faith, and also after the toils of this life are ended, to pass into the place of perfect holiness and happiness.
 Verses 1, 2. [back]
 Verse 9. [back]
 Iren. lib. iv. 350. [back]
 See Woodhouse’s Introduction, &c. [back]
 Matt. 22:43; Ezek. 2:2; Rev. 4:2; Johnston in loco. [back]
 The number SEVEN, as a symbol, will be more largely explained hereafter. [back]
 That the prophetic period is seven-fold will afterwards appear. [back]
 Johnston. [back]
 In this all Commentators are agreed. Θηριον, Wild Beast, ought to be carefully distinguished from Ζωον, Living Being, Chap. 4. The former word is by the Greek writers peculiarly applied to venomous animals. Parkhurst thinks the Greek θηρ may be derived from הער, to divide or TEAR. Vossius derives it from the Heb. פרא to run wild, a wild ass, whence also the Latin feries, ferox, and the English FEROCIOUS. In Acts 28:4. it denotes a Viper. The apostle Paul, quoting the Poet Epimenides, Tit. 1:12. applies the word to the inhabitants of Crete. And Suicer, in his Thesaurus, show, that it is usual with the Greek and Roman writers to apply such epithets to cruel and unreasonable men. Josephus calls Herod Θηριον φονικον θηριον, a wild beast, a murderous wild beast. Civil power, opposed to religion, is unreasonable and wicked. God instructs us to esteem such rulers as wild beasts. [back]
 Calmet’s Dictionary, Supplement on the word prophecy. [back]