That God should have chosen John to be His channel for the closing volume of the New Testament is worthy of our consideration, and need surprise none. His heart, filled with the love of Christ and with a deep sense of His personal glory, made him a suited vessel for the Holy Spirit's communication of his Gospel, his Epistles, and the Revelation of Jesus Christ. No doubt many Johns were on earth, not a few of them in the church of God, yet none but one was entitled to introduce himself as he does in Rev_1:1; Rev_1:4; Rev_1:9; Rev_22:8. It was not only the John who was in Patmos, but who could say, "I came to be" (ἐγενόμην there for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. The emperor who exiled him dreamt ma of the divine purpose. But could it apply to any John but one? The foundation was laid in his Gospel; and there he only appears as the disciple whom Jesus loved. It was enough: who could dispute the hand that wrote it? The Epistles suppose his Gospel already written; the fuller one allows no name but the Name above every name; yet is the tone throughout that of the beloved disciple unmistakably. To the shorter pair he prefixes "the elder" respectively to the elect lady and her children, and to Gauis the beloved. Do we need more to discern the writer? But it was due to a prophetic book, above all one so profound and lofty and far-reaching, that the name of him that wrote it should be given, yet with a simplicity and a dignity all his own, a wondrous reflex of the Lord Jesus in His servant.
Nor is it a new thing for God to set out the strongest contrasts by the same inspired writer The apostle Peter, who opened the door of the kingdom for the Jews, was chosen to open it for the Gentiles also (Acts 2, 10). Again, he who was the apostle of the uncircumcision called the Jewish believers at length to go forth to Jesus without the camp bearing His reproach. So too the devoted witness of the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ was, in God's mind if not in man's, the most fitting medium for revealing the judgments of God coming on the earth. In this lay the moral reason; that Christ, if rejected as the gift of God's grace and hence the object of faith, is His executor of judgment (Joh_5:21-29). If men despise the fourfold testimony (there also pointed out) which God gave to His Son, what can be so imperative? The decline, the corruption, and the apostasy of Christendom only make the judicial intervention of God indispensable, in order to clear away rebellious lawlessness, and to establish His kingdom in righteousness, power, and glory. Now that the truth was about to be set at naught as the law had been before in Israel, John was, more than any other, the one left on earth, a suffering exile, to make known the solemn vision of God avenging the injured rights of His own Son, the Son of Man; and this, first by providential inflictions, and at last by Jesus, the Word of God, Himself coming in the personal execution of judgment.
Hence, although there are striking contrasts in form, subject, and issues between the Gospel of John and the Revelation, the person of the Lord Jesus is pre-eminently kept before us in both as the object of God's care and honour. Therefore, even those who could little cuter into the scope of its prophetic visions have gathered unspeakable comfort from the various displays of Christ Himself furnished by this book, especially in times of trial, rejection, and persecution. Who that knows ecclesiastical history, who that has present acquaintance with souls, is not aware that the faithful, with ever so little light but under hardship, have found exceeding nourishment and help in the Apocalypse? Men of mere learning too often have made it as dry as an old almanac.
It is not the Father made known in and by the Son, but the "revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him." Even in that Gospel, which is so fragrant with His divine love, we have the frequent, not to say constant, admonition of the remarkable position which Christ takes. He is carefully regarded as the sent One who lived on account of the Father, as in the Gospel man on earth, so in the Revelation man most truly wherever He may be seen, whether in heaven or on earth, yet in both as truly God, the Eternal. The book is Jesus Christ's revelation, "which God gave to him."
In the Gospel (Joh_5:26) it is said the Father gave the Son to have life in Himself. Nothing can more demonstrate how loyally He accepts, and will not speak inconsistently with, the place of man to which He stooped. For in Him was life: yea, He was the eternal life which was with the Father before the worlds were. Nevertheless, having become man in divine grace, He speaks according to the lowly position which He entered here. In glory it is just the same, as we see in the book before us. "Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him to show to his bondmen." The terms "show" here and "signified" in the clause that succeeds are used with striking propriety, when we consider the visions on the one hand and the signs and symbols on the other which characterise the book. The aim is not to bring them out of that position, or to entitle them to the dignity of children of God. This characterises the Gospel, which distinctively is the revelation of grace and truth in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son. Here it is what God was going to do for His glory as the rejected One, who, therefore, shows it to His "bondmen" - a term that suits those who might be in another relationship, after the church closes its history on earth, during a brief crisis of exceptional judgments.
Hence the comprehensive term is clearly employed with divine wisdom, "to show to his bondmen the things which must shortly come to pass" Remark that it is not "the things which are about to come to pass," which is exactly right in ver. 19, where, after the past vision, the present and the future are distinguished. Here it is to show His bondmen "the things which must come to pass shortly." If Jonah was sent with a warning of minatory character to arouse Nineveh to repent and thus escape their threatened ruin, John was to show the things which, as the guilt was intolerable, must (δεῖ come to pass shortly. The apostasy of Christendom entails not conditional threats, but necessary and inevitable judgments. The critical facts are disclosed in which we see the church condition set aside because of its final and utter failure to shed the light of the sanctuary, till its last phase becomes so nauseous that the. Lord spues it out of His mouth. Then follow judgments on the world with strokes of ever-increasing severity, in which God was about to maintain the glory of the firstborn, whom He at length introduces personally into the world to reign.
"And he sent and signified (it) through his angel to his bondman John." Sons of God are not contemplated as such, but bondmen of Jesus. Again, "angel" is not without the best reason named with the revelation which God here gives. In the Gospel we read of eternal life in the Son, and this by the grace of God given to the believer; as the Holy Ghost was the only One competent to minister and effectuate such grace according to the counsels of God, and in the ordering of His love. The judicial character of the Revelation calls for a quite different style of communication, and reserve replaces the intimacy of grace. The intervention of "His angel" is therefore to be thus accounted for, as in itself it was fitting.
Here we have visions in display of God's judicial ways, visions of judgment which He would inflict on the ever-growing iniquity of man when ripe. In the Gospel John may speak, but he speaks as one who had seen, and above all heard, the Lord - one who could bear his own testimony for whatever he utters. He may speak but seldom of himself, and efface himself otherwise so effectually, that there are not wanting those who question whether after all the writer could be "the disciple whom Jesus loved." The doubt is quite unfounded certainly; but none can charge John with putting himself forward by the manner in which he writes. So too in his Epistles, which contemplate the Christian company, or a family, or a friend, the one aim is to place the children of God in immediate communion with the Father and the Son. The inspired apostle wrote them all, no doubt, and the various members of God's family, as well as the servants of the Lord, are owned in their place. But therein He who is God our Father manifestly instructs, comforts, and admonishes His own.
But here we meet intervention on every side. God gives a revelation of Jesus to show to His bondmen the things which must shortly come to pass; and Jesus passes it on through His angel to His bondman John; and John testifies accordingly. Thus we have all sorts of links in the chain, and we may ask why. For it is novel, especially in the New Testament. How comes this remarkable introduction of the revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to Him, and from Him through an angel to one bondman to show the future to His other bondmen? How is it that we here miss the direct dealing with us, the immediateness of address which is our portion elsewhere? The reason, as solemn as it is instructive, is implied indeed in the analogy of the Old Testament; for God did not always address His people there. Yet habitually God's messengers were sent to Israel, even when prophets were raised up. At first all addressed the people in His name. The word of Jehovah was sent to Jehovah's people. But what an affecting change took place when the message became indirect? See the book of Daniel as the fullest proof of it. And no doubt it was really meant for the people; but God gave it to Daniel, and only so.
This opens the true meaning of the remarkable change in the Apocalypse as compared with the rest of the New Testament. When the children of Israel had hopelessly betrayed the Lord, and their departure was complete before His eyes, not only in the first rent-off portion or the ten tribes of Israel but in the remaining two, when not only Judah apostatised but even the house of David, the anointed king, the last regular link; between Jehovah and His people, then He addressed His people no more but only a chosen faithful servant as His witness. It was a sure token that all was over for the present as to immediateness of communion between God and His people. God could no longer recognise them as His own: they were Lo-Ammi, not My-people, as He had warned before through Hosea. Applying this to the church and to our own circumstances, is it not most grave?
It is not in the least doubted that God proves Himself faithful in the worst of times. No deduction could be more false than that Daniel, his three companions, and possibly others also, were not personally as pleasant to Him as David was. Did He not look with exceeding satisfaction in His grace upon the servant who felt and answered to His own feelings about His people? It was precisely because of this that Daniel received so exceptional an honour. In a certain sense it was better to be a Daniel in the midst of ruin than to have had the best position when times were prosperous. When all was out of course to stand faithful was a greater proof of fidelity, than to be so when things were regular. Thus grace is equal to every difficulty, and a time of ruin gives occasion for more grace.
But the solemn fact faces us that such a crisis even then came: the church of God is no longer directly addressed in the book. John stands in a position analogous to Daniel; he, not that which still bore the name of the Lord here below, becomes now the object of communications from the Lord Jesus. However the grace of the Lord might act, however He might animate as well as warn, still the address is made directly to His servant John, and not to the church. Even where we have addresses, as we find in chapters 2 and 3, they are not immediately to the churches, but to their "angels." It is manifest that all accentuates the same serious conclusion, the ruin of the Christian testimony in its responsibility. This does not touch the stability of grace, or of God's faithfulness; but it tells the old and humbling story of what man is, however blessed.
Hence and thus John "testified the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ." It seems here restricted, not meaning the truth in general, nor the gospel in particular, though we cannot doubt that John did preach the gospel, and did nourish the church of God in all His revealed truth. This however is not the subject of the Apocalypse, nor the sense of our text. All is here limited to that which "he saw"; which is of importance to apprehend the force of the passage, as also the character of the book. The word "and" must vanish, if we respect the best authorities; for a third description is not meant, but rather an explanation restricting the other two. But how are we to understand the word of God and the testimony of Jesus here? The answer is given by the last clause when "and" is taken away. It consists of the visions recorded in this book, "whatsoever [or all] things that he saw." John receives a new character of word and testimony, his visions; but it is none the less God's word and Christ's witness.
Accordingly the Apocalypse can be slighted only by unbelief; for it, no less than the Gospels or the Epistles, is here styled "the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ." They revealed grace; it announces judgments. What a rebuke to proud scholars and prejudiced theologians, too unspiritual to appreciate the book, and too self-complacent to learn! It is thus carefully ushered in, but in the prophetic method morally fitting for the series of visions which John saw. This is of so much the greater emphasis, as it is apparently designed in an express manner to counteract the tendency (but too common notwithstanding) to treat the Apocalypse as of less, if not doubtful, value, and of precarious authority. But no: it is stamped to John by our Lord Jesus as the word of God and His own testimony. We know that too many disputers of this age have in their folly dared to insult the book. The Judge of quick and dead more carefully authenticates it than any other in the canon of scripture. If it consists not of that which directly edifies the Christian in the privileges of grace, it urgently announces the doom of such as despise God and prefer their own ideas and will to His revelation.
Be it remarked too, that a special blessing is prefixed to the prophecy. Was it not expressly and graciously to encourage His bondmen, as well as to foreclose the cavils of unbelief? "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of the prophecy, and keep the things which are written therein." It is even for those to hear and keep who could not read; and blessed are such. What can one think of those who all but exclude it from their liturgies? What of those who boast of their freedom from these forms, and are no less disrespectful and unbelieving? Doubt not its practical power. No one ever decried the book whom it did not morally condemn; none read or hear, and keep it without rich blessing.
The stated reason given is much to be weighed; for it is not, as men often assume, because we are to be in the predicted circumstances. As a matter of fact, the Christian, the church, does not pass through the special troubles here described. Not a word to this effect is implied, but quite a different reason is given. As the book itself lets us know that the church will be on high outside the scene of earth's exceeding troubles and inflicted judgments, so the motive assigned in the preface is of a strikingly holy nature, adapted to all those who walk by faith, not by sight, and free from all selfish considerations: "for the fit time [is] at hand." It is not that the time is actually come, so that we must go through all or any of the strictly future part; but the fit time is near. God therefore writes for our comfort, admonition, and general blessing in whatever way it may be wanted; He takes for granted that we are interested in whatever He has to say to us. "For the fit time is at hand." It is a false principle therefore that we can only be profited by that which concerns ourselves, or supposes us to be in the actual circumstances described. The words are to be heard, the things written in the book to be kept; not the seven Epistles only, but all its contents to the end of all things. Prophecy edifies those who believe God before it comes to pass. It is a proof against unbelievers when fulfilled; but its true aim and best blessing is for those who heed it before.
Then comes the salutation. Here too all is as peculiar in itself as suitable to the book on which we enter: "John to the seven churches which [are] in Asia." The First Epistle of John is essentially for all saints in its nature and contents, as the absence of local address implies. It treats of what never passes, of eternal life not in Christ only but possessed by all the faithful, "which thing is true in him and in you." But here local churches were no less requisite, for reasons to appear, in full variety, and so as to account for judicial extinction. This could not have been if the saints were viewed as the object of sovereign grace, as in the Epistle to the Ephesians. With solemn responsibility, as here, it is easy and plain.
Again on no other occasion do we find anything akin to this. Hitherto we read of the saints receiving an epistle in one place or another. A particular assembly, or the assemblies of a wide district like Galatia, may be addressed. Never but here is an address given to a distinct number of assemblies, particularly one so definite and significant symbolically as "seven." Surely something is meant outside the ordinary course of things, where so unexampled a style is adopted. The spiritual usage of "seven" in prophetic scripture cannot be questioned. Nor is it confined to prophecy, for the same force holds good wherever symbol is employed. In typical scripture also seven is the regular sign of spiritual completeness.
Who then but uninstructed or prejudiced minds can question that the Lord meant more than the actual assemblies in the province of Asia? That the letters were written and sent to literal congregations from Ephesus to Laodicea admits of no dispute. But can one doubt that these were chosen, and the addresses shaped to them, so as to bring before those who have ears to hear the complete circle of the Lord's testimony here below, as long as there should be anything possessed (responsibly, if not fully) of a church character? The state of things might be one of ruin, for the first church had to fear its lamp removed; it might become even gross and false, as much was in several: still an ecclesiastical profession subsisted if only for His dealing in judgment. This never appears after chap. 4. No such condition exists afterwards; thenceforth the ecclesiastical footing disappears for man's allegiance. In short, as long as church responsibility exists here below, these addresses apply as such, and no longer. Low as we are, and bound to humble ourselves for the actual state of ruin and scattering of the church as a divine institution, who is bold enough to deny that the Lord still owns and deals judicially at least, though this be far from all, with a church status on earth? Revelation 4 tells us much more in confirmation; but this in its own time and due place.
"To the seven churches which [are] in Asia: Grace [be] to you, and peace, from him that is, and that was, and that is to come." It is not "from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," or any other form found in the apostolic Epistles. The salutation is from God in His own being, the ever-existing One, He who is, and who was, and who is to come. It asserts the continuity of His present being emphatically with the past and with the future. It is not "He who was, and is, and is to come," as in Rev_4:8, but "He who is, and who was, and who is to come." His essential being is set in the first place, and not only that He is the God of ages or Jehovah, the name: revealed to the sons of Israel. "And from the seven Spirits that [are] before his throne." Here again we find a description of the Holy Ghost expressly in government, and with decided difference from what meets us in the New Testament generally. The allusion is clear to Isa_11:2, where the sevenfold power of the Holy Ghost in government is connected with the person and for the kingdom of the Messiah. "And the Spirit of Jehovah shall rest," etc. This is taken up here, and applied in a far larger way for purposes suitable to the Apocalyptic prophecy, which contemplates the ruin of Christendom.
Indeed the same remark will be found true of all the use that is made of Old Testament citations and allusions in the Apocalypse. Constant reference is made to the Law, Psalms, and Prophets; but it is never a mere repetition of what was found there. This would be in effect to deprive ourselves of the Apocalypse, instead of apprehending its peculiar profit. If one identifies the Jerusalem of Isaiah with the New Jerusalem of the Revelation, or sets the Babylon of Jeremiah to exhaust the Apocalyptic Babylon, it is clear that this is just to lose the special instruction God is here giving us. Doubtless it is a main source of confusion on the scope of the Apocalypse to this day. Yet if we do not take into account the Old Testament oracles as to Babylon or Jerusalem, if we slight the instruction derived from the prophets generally, we are hardly prepared for appreciating or even understanding the Apocalypse as a whole. Thus, either to dislocate the New absolutely from the Old, or to see no more than a rehearsal of the Old in the New, is an almost equal error. There is a divine link in all, as the Spirit's mind had an unmistakable reference; but the Apocalypse gives an incomparably wider range, and a more profound character, and none the less because the present things are shown to be out of course, and demand to be set aside. The Apocalypse looks on things after the Holy Ghost had taken His place in the Christian and in the church on earth; above all it was after the Son had appeared, manifested God the Father, and accomplished redemption here below. Hence all the fulness of divine light which had come out in Christ's person and work, as well as by the Spirit for the church of God, is necessary to remember in order to seize the just bearing of the Apocalypse.
The seven Spirits then refer, beyond fair doubt, to the Holy Ghost acting with all variety in the way of government ("before his throne"). How different from the truth of the same Spirit sent forth from heaven, and baptising the saints into the one body of Christ here below! But there is no just ground for thinking of created spirits or angels in this connection any more than in Rev_5:6. Never do the seven Spirits pay worship to God; and the reason is, that they mean God's Spirit. It is only in Christianity and the church that we know God as He is - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In government, whether of Old or in Apocalyptic scenes, He is not so revealed. But it is an offence against truth to mix up Creator and creature. It is the completeness of the Holy Ghost's energy as an overruling power. What the application of this may be depends on the context where it is used. It is in relation to Christ dealing ecclesiastically in Revelation 3, and again in His relation to the earth in Revelation 5; but it is always the Spirit in full variety of governmental power, rather than the same Spirit viewed in His unity as forming the church into one body. This we have had already in the Pauline Epistles, where the proper sphere of the Christian as a member of Christ's body is treated especially, and indeed only there.
God as such is thus introduced in Old Testament style and character, but applied to New Testament subjects in a far larger way; the Holy Ghost also is similarly brought before us; and so too with our Lord. "And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the prince [or, ruler] of the kings of the earth." Indeed there is nothing more remarkable, especially when we bear in mind who the writer is, than the absence here of Christ's proper relationship to the children of God. Revelation of grace is precisely what is not found in this book, if one search into the character of its visions generally. "Jesus Christ" appears as the Faithful Witness. This clearly He was on the earth when man wholly failed. In a very different tone it was John's topic everywhere. We may look on the Lord as gone up to heaven, where Paul loved to contemplate Him glorified; but John habitually points to Christ the eternal Word and Son as He was here below. If he speaks of Him as the Lamb above, the description is founded on His having been the rejected sufferer on earth. Next He is "the firstborn of the dead." This too He was on earth. Satan, who had the power of death, had nothing in Him; but by the grace and for the glory of God He died, and rose victorious, the Firstborn of the dead. Again, as "the prince of the kings of the earth," He waits to be displayed when He comes by-and-by to earth. But what He is now for us in God's presence and does in heaven in activity of grace is exactly what we have not given us here. There is the most careful exclusion from the book of His heavenly position as Head or even our High Priest. Even the present grace which livingly connects Him with the Christian is left out.
Thus the Lord Jesus is here brought before us as Man on earth, required specially for the purpose of this prophetic book. God was announced in His own eternal being; the Holy Ghost in His varied fulness of governmental power; the Lord Jesus in that which connected Him not with heaven but with the earth, even if risen from the dead, and the coming King of kings. He is for this and perhaps other reasons put in the last place.
But when Christ is named, the voice of Christians is at once heard. This is so much the more remarkable, because it is one of the sweet exceptional ripples which cross the ordinary current of the book at the end as well as at the beginning. It is not so when the course of the visions is fairly entered on. Before these begin Christians are heard, as the bride is after the visions close. The name of Jesus is enough to stir the heart, for those who know Him as we do, in a suited doxology. He may not be described in His relationships peculiar to us, but He who is described is the One that loves us and that we love. So we say, "To him that loveth us" (for this is the true reading and rendering, not merely that "loved" us) - "to him that loveth us, and washed us from our sins in his blood; and he made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father; to him [be] the glory and the might unto the ages of the ages." What was a condition to Israel, and a condition they broke forthwith by their rebellion against Jehovah in idolatry, is to us an accomplished fact, and an abiding gift of grace through redemption, not the place of priests only but of kings. Even here, or anywhere else in the book, it is not said "to our Father," however true this be in itself. All is in keeping with the aim of the Revelation "to his God and Father." We are regarded not in the nearness of God's children, but in conferred dignity and office. "To him be the glory and the might for ever and ever." He is worthy.
As this is the heart's outpouring of its own delight in Jesus, so the next verse gives a warning testimony suitable to the book, lest there should be any weakening of what Jesus will be to those who stand in no such relation to Him. "Behold, he cometh with the clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they which [οἵτινες pierced him, and all kindreds of the earth [or, land] shall wail [or, beat their breasts] at him." This clearly is judicial, and has nothing to do with His presence or coming for us. But after our own delight and thanksgiving have gone forth toward Jesus, the solemn testimony to others quite suitably follows the song of praise, which had (if one may say, involuntarily, certainly of the Holy Spirit in our hearts) burst forth at His name. It is Christ coming in judgment. He shall be seen by every soul - if there be any difference, to the sorest anguish above all - by those that pierced Him (i.e. the Jews). "Yea, Amen." We have learnt to bow and bless God.
"I am the Alpha and the Omega, saith [the] Lord God, that is, and that was, and that is to come, the Almighty." He who is the Source and Doer of all, who communicates everything that can be made known to man, He it is who here speaks, the Lord God, the Eternal, and the Almighty putting His voucher on the book from the beginning. The words, as often elsewhere in John's writings, purposely mix up God and Christ. But here it is the divine sanction of every word, whether in vetting aside the guilty present or in establishing the future down to the eternal state. None but the true God could speak to it; and John expressly says that Jesus is the true God. For the prophecy embraces God's judgment of the world, of living and dead, in a regular order beyond all other books, till time melts into eternity, and all things are made new.
Then John describes himself in a manner adapted to the testimony he is called to render: "I John, your brother and fellow-partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and patience in Jesus, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus." There is to be ample employment of symbol; but literal fact is carefully stated: the place, a bare and stern isle of the Sporades, where the apostle was banished for the truth's sake; and also the very day when he saw the vision. How all here said harmonises with what afterwards comes out! The whole book supposes saints in tribulation, with their spiritual experience formed into the associations of the kingdom rather than those of Christ's body the church, as yet surely suffering on account of the word of God and of the testimony of Jesus. Particular care is taken to show this to us.
Not that the full church relationship was lacking to John; but he stands here as prophet rather than apostle, a representative man for others as well as ourselves. While therefore he had all that is properly Christian, he also had special communications of another sort for saints who follow us at the end of this age, when "the tribulation" will be emphatically verified. Thus he introduces himself here as a joint partaker, not of God's promise in Christ by the gospel, but in His kingdom and patience. It is true for us all, but in special harmony with the latter-day sufferers, and not specifically with the church. The place here presented is of course a Christian's; but that is put forward which belonged to others, who should not have the same corporate standing as ourselves. Yet there is a careful guard against any supposition that he was not in the full enjoyment of his due place in Christ.
This seems to be one reason why it pleased God to give the visions of the book on the Lord's day. "I became in Spirit on the Lord's day." It is not "the day of the Lord," as has been strangely fancied, but expressed by a wholly different phrase, which guards from any such thought (ἐν τῃ κυριακῃ ἡμέρᾳ It is the characteristic day of the Christian, the birthday of his distinctive blessing, as it assuredly ought to be an especial joy of his heart, because it is the resurrection day of grace and new creation, not the seventh day of old creation rest and law. In the day of the Lord no churches are recognised on earth, nor is the Lord in any such relation as here appears. It opens in Rev_19:11. The Greek phrase in the two cases wholly differs. "The Lord's day," like "the Lord's Supper," is unique; "the day of the Lord" is always expressed differently, often as it occurs in both Old Testament and New.
On that day the inspired writer John came under the power of the Holy Spirit to take in and give out the visions he was to see. "And I heard behind me a great voice as of a trumpet." It was significant, no doubt, that the voice was "behind" him. The main object of all prophecy tended rather to have thrown him forward. But before the Spirit of God could fitly launch into the visions of the future, there must be a retrospective glance. Therefore in these preliminary chapters our Lord is seen as Son of Man judging in the midst of the seven lamps. God only discloses the distinct future when the existing object of His care is done with. In the Spirit John must be, both to shut out every impression from external objects, and to give him an entrance into all that God was about to reveal. Yet first of all we should recognise the fact that it was on the Lord's day; and next that, before he was shown what lay before, he must turn to the voice behind him and learn what the Lord judged of that which bore His name on the earth. But how new to John "a great voice as of a trumpet" from the Lord Jesus! How different from the good Shepherd's voice he and the other sheep heard and knew! A loud voice as of a trumpet summoned attention imperatively: compare Exo_19:19. So it will for another end in that day (Isa_27:13; Mat_24:31). In the normal state of the church it would have been incongruous.
Omit the spurious opening clause, and read after it, "saying, What thou seest, write." The reference of the voice behind is exclusively to the seven assemblies. When the proper prophecy is about to begin, the first voice which he heard as of a trumpet says, "Come up hither." There is no question then of a voice behind: he goes upward, given to look into the future. But there must first be a retrospective notice, in which the Lord pronounces His judgment on that which bore the name of Christendom here below. "What thou seest, write in a book, and send [it] to the seven churches; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamum, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea. And I turned to see the voice which was speaking with me. And having turned, I saw seven golden lamps [or, lampstands]." These were responsible light-bearers, not the stands alone of course but their lamps, viewed according to God's mind about them constituted in divine righteousness. Therefore were they "golden." It is a great principle, and remarkably characterises John's writings So the standard for the Christian is not in anywise the law (it was so for the Jew); for us it is Christ Himself, and cannot without the utmost loss be anything else. "He that saith he abideth in him, ought himself also so to walk" - how? Like an Israelite? Not so; for the Christian ought to remember that he is a heavenly man (1Co_15:48), not a man of dust like Adam. He "ought himself also so to walk even as he (Christ) walked." The Christian is not under law but under grace; and this, not for salvation only, but for present walk (Rom. 6). If he have the blessing in faith, he cannot evade the responsibility in practice.
Thus it is with the seven golden lamps. All must be and was measured according to God's mind, and the place in which He set the assemblies. Consistency with Him as God revealed in Christ is their rule. Hence it is they appear as "golden" damps. They had from God divine righteousness as their character; but they come under moral judgment as to their ways. How many saints there are who in their personal walk are pious and vigilant, and yet entirely overlook that their corporate responsibility to the Lord is no less obligatory! Here the question is about that public testimony to His word and name. For John saw "in the midst of the [seven] lamps one son-of-man like, clothed with a garment down to the foot." The one seen was like a son of man. Christ was not like, but truly, "the Son of Man." Yet this phrase says more than the inspired text. Like "the" Son of Man might enfeeble or deny the truth. One like a son of man was seen at a glance. That He was the Son of Man became soon plain enough; but here as everywhere we must adhere to scripture.
There is not now the sign of activity; the robe was not tucked up for gracious service with girded loins. The Son of Man is seen clad in the flowing garb of dignity reaching to the feet, and He is "girt about the breasts with a golden girdle." Divine righteousness girds Him at the breasts in dignity as judge, not at the loins for strenuous work of grace. But He is Ancient of days as well as Son of Man. "And his head and his hairs [were] white as white wool, as snow; and his eyes as a flame of fire; and his feet like fine brass, as if they glowed in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters, and having in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth a sharp two-edged sword going forth; and his countenance as the sun shineth in its power." His eyes indicated scathing and consuming judgment; His feet, inflexible and unsparing firmness in it; His voice bespoke resistless majesty. Subordinate rulers ecclesiastical were in His right hand of power; out of His mouth went forth the word that judged with unerring decision on both sides, and His countenance with supreme authority and might shine forth as the great light that rules the day.
Do even the children of God believe that these are the characteristics of Christ walking in the midst of the churches? How many a saint, jealous and self-judging as to his personal ways before God, excuses his ecclesiastical associations as of no real living moment! He might know with entire assurance that the worship, the ministry, and the general state are wholly at issue with God's word; but he has been taught to regard all these as necessary evils, which he has to bear. How opposed to this laxity is the responsibility which the Lord here enforces! For what means His eyes as a flame of fire? What His feet as if they glowed in a furnace? What a sharp two-edged sword going forth out of His mouth? Is He not at war with the loose or latitudinarian?
Hence we have to remark that Christ is seen, not as Head, nor as Priest, nor Advocate, but in a judicial point of view. He is spoken of as Son of Man; and, as we know, this is the aspect in which it is given Him to execute every kind of judgment, as is expressly so taught in John's own Gospel. He is judging the lamps set to shed light in a world of darkness, and this at the very time the light grew dim and precarious, if not at first expiring. Yet with this another feature betrays John, suiting him as the writer strikingly. He that is seen as Son of Man is described with those marks which belong distinctively to the "Ancient of days." Daniel sees the "Ancient of days" in one way, and the Son of Man in another, though even there the Ancient of days came, indicating their oneness (7). John sees the Son of Man with the qualities of the Ancient of days. He is man; but the man seen then and thus is a divine person, the eternal God Himself. Let me ask, Whose style does this identification of nature fall in with but the writer's that we are now reading? Does it not convince more than ever, not so much similarity of phrase which might be imitated? Morally speaking Jesus must execute judgment; but John does not lose sight of His divine glory, even where the subject is not grace; but judgment, with the kingdom to follow everywhere anticipated.
A threefold glory of Christ appears: what is personal in the robe, girdle, and hair; what is relative in His eyes, feet, and voice; and finally, what is official in His right hand, mouth, and countenance. But there is more also. For it is said, "And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying, Fear not; I am the first and the last." It was no similitude of mere man, but the Lord. Such terms alone become One who is divine. He who is first is necessarily God; and He who is first, being God, must certainly be last. Jesus declares Himself to be all this; yea, more than this, "the living one, and I became dead." He deigned not only to become man, but as willingly to die, cost what it might, as His death did everything to blot out the evil and prepare for all blessing. The phrase is the strongest way of putting the matter. It is not merely that He died: this is not quite what He says here, though it is said elsewhere, and very truly. He says that He "became" dead. This forcibly implies His own willingness to die, as indeed He became what did not belong to Him personally, and what seemed extraordinarily incongruous with the glorious person as already described. Is it not conveyed in the peculiarity of the phrase? So careful is the Holy Ghost to watch over the dignity of Christ even in that which told out the depths of His humiliation. "And, behold, I am living unto the ages of the ages." He is the vanquisher of death, and of him who had its power. We must leave out the word "Amen," which here, being spurious, only and evidently mars the sense.
Let it suffice once for all to say that the text adopted rests on the basis of the ancient and best authorities. There is positive evidence of a convincing and satisfactory kind for the insertions, omissions, or changes throughout. Do not imagine that in this there is arbitrary innovation. The real innovators were those who departed by slip or by will from the very words of the Spirit. Arbitrariness now would be in maintaining what has insufficient authority against that which is as certain as can be. Error surely is not in seeking the oldest and best supported text, but in allowing tradition to tie us to comparatively modern and certainly to mistaken, if not corrupted, readings. We are bound in everything to yield to the highest authority, with the context to help us in deciding where the best manuscripts differ as they do. So in the next words our Lord really says, "And I have the keys of death and of hades"; and who but He could say them? Not so runs the common text; but that is the true order. No one goes to Hades before he dies, Death being in relation to the body, Hades to the separate spirit. How truly Christ died and lived, that He might be Lord of both dead and living!
"Write therefore [improperly omitted] the things which thou sawest, and the things which are, and what is* about to take place after these." This gives us, as is familiar to most Christian readers, the general threefold division of the book of Revelation. The things that he saw were the glory of Christ in relation to this book, as described in the first chapter, on which we have already touched. Short as the account is, one can hardly exaggerate its importance in itself and for all that follows; for it is the Lord revealed as assuming formally a judicial character. "The things which are" express not merely the then present, but the prolonged condition set forth in the addresses to the seven churches. The expression is striking; because, while applying to the existing seven assemblies, it naturally conveys (when the epistles to them are adequately understood) that the churches were somehow to exist continuously. A formal prophecy would have falsified the church's hope as a constant and vital reality. Divine wisdom gave such an extension to "the things which are" as should bear on the successive states of the church as long as it should be here on earth. We can see now why it was. Possibly, when the epistles were sent out in the days of John, no particular emphasis might be laid on "the things that are"; the saints would naturally be absorbed in the call on themselves. But inasmuch as analogous states have since gone on to the present, the immense force such a phrase when duly weighed carries in itself becomes evident. Nothing would then be allowed to weaken waiting for Christ as our proximate hope; but if He tarried, it is an abiding appeal as long as the church abides here below.
* It is not without interest to note the singular, which puts together as a mass the future "after these things" "The things which are" we find in the plural, each of them being distinctive in a way not so applicable to the judgments on the world in the Seals, Trumpets, and Vials, which series differ not so much in kind as in growing severity, which is morally just.
Singular to say, an effort has been revived which never ought to have been made to explain its force, especially in the light of what goes before and of what follows. The Greek, except in very careless style, cannot bear "and what they signify"; for this would require τίνα (or ἅτία instead of ἅ thus giving a different force to the second ἃ from the first and third. N.T. phraseology allows no such laxity; and the context, being dislocated thereby, totally forbids it. Others seek to attain the same result by the plea that εἰσὶν may practically mean "signify" here, as sometimes elsewhere. But there is no analogy here with any such cases; and for the plain and conclusive reason, that in none of them is there a distinction compared with the past and the future. The only sound and satisfactory rendering, therefore, is that adopted in the A. and R. versions, and indeed in almost all others, modern as well as ancient. There is necessarily a closer connection with "the things which thou hast seen," in which was the vision of the Son of Man judging in the midst of the golden lamps; but to "the things that are" belongs its own distinct importance as conveyed in the seven epistles, and by its peculiarity lending itself to the continuous existence of the present state.
"What is about to take place after these" is the exact translation of the next phrase. Even "afterward" would be here equivocal. "After these things" gives the true sense required, as it is the closely literal rendering. Not another instance in the Revelation can bear the vague "hereafter," or even "afterward" which is meant in Joh_13:7. Here again the context fixes the precision of its general usage, and forbids the looser application, which might be, where no line of distinction is drawn between past and present. The beginning of Rev. 4 confirms fully the exact rendering "after these things." The strictly future division of the book cannot begin whilst a church condition exists.
A little more follows. "The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest on my right hand, and the seven golden lamps: the seven stars are angels of the seven churches; and the seven lamps are seven churches." As the lamps symbolise churches, so do the stars their angels. Surely "the mystery" prepares us for views of the subordinate lights or angels, and of the lamps or churches far beyond the letter of then existing facts. What "mystery" was there in the historical facts of these seven churches in proconsular Asia? It seems inconceivable that such a word should be employed here if no more had been intended than the actual circumstances. But if these "seven" were selected for this prophetic book to represent in divine wisdom successive phases of the existing church state, however protracted, the propriety of the term becomes apparent Thus, too, is explained the application of "the stars," well known in the ancient prophecy of Daniel, but due here to the extraordinary and abnormal state of the Christian testimony and a state of decline and approaching ruin; for the last of them indicates no revival or recovery, but the Lord spueing it out of His mouth.
In each letter the Lord addresses "the angel." Who and what is he? The regular charges of elder) and deacons are passed over in silence; nor are the gifts of the ascended Christ in evidence. But a new title at issue with the sanctioned order hitherto would be a strange thing on our Lord's part, when on man's a decline had set in. We never hear of "angel" as an official title in the ordinary arrangements of the New Testament. "The angel" is a term for the leader that suits chaps. 2 and 3 of such a prophetic book as the Revelation, just as literal angels are in keeping with the book of Daniel. Does it mean what we commonly call an angelic being? Not here surely, where "angels of the churches" are spoken of. If we hear of the angel of fire, and even of the angel of Jesus Christ, as of Jehovah elsewhere, there is no difficulty, though all these be outside the thoughts and language of the Epistles. But it is very new to hear of the angel of this or that assembly. Again, we can understand an angel employed, a spiritual messenger from on high, as the means of communication between the Lord and His servant John; but how harsh to suppose that His servant John writes a letter from Christ to a literal angel! This is one of the clear difficulties in which those are involved who suppose angelic beings to be here meant. The nature of the case precludes it.
As "angel" is used in the sense of a representative, so in reference to the assemblies the Lord here avails Himself of this general idea. A messenger or moral representative of each assembly is implied. "Angel" was used of a human representative. For instance, when John the Baptist sent two of his disciples, there was a representation of his mind by these men when they gave the message of him who sent them (Luk_7:24). The representative force appears also in Act_12:15 (only here it was of a spiritual character); and so in Mat_18:10. But it assumes a different shape when it was a question of assemblies. They were His chief lights, representing each the assembly, and so became His medium in judging its state according to the divine standard.
If therefore we look at the abstract nature of the angel of the church, what is taught by the term? Presumably this, that the Lord had in view not necessarily an elder, nor a teacher, but one who might be either or both; but before His mind he truly represented, and was in a special way bound up with the responsibility of, the state of the assembly. Whoever that might be was meant by the angel of the church. The state of Christianity, or rather of the churches, made this reserve suitable morally. The Lord adopts it in judging, rather than the ordinary medium of either the gifts or the local charges. It is the prophetic character of the book, the critical condition of the churches, which accounts not only for the angel representatives, but for the separate view of the churches. For the unity of the body of Christ is a wholly distinct truth, and stands on the basis of divine counsels now and for ever made good by and in Christ the Head. "The seven churches" have their own moral bearing as introducing God's future dealings with the world when they vanish from the scene. All effort, from this special aim, to set aside unity, and to supplant it by independency, is as unintelligent as it is vain and evil. To deduce from the stars and the candlesticks new officials and congregational independency would be to overthrow the nature of ministry and the unity of the church, as already taught wherever the Holy Spirit reveals either truth. But what does man's will not essay? "The things that are" abide still, though going on from danger at the beginning to utter rejection at the last: a strange time and state to organise the church anew, and an unheard of function.