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Early Years of Christianity: The Apostolic Era.
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§ II. The Revelation.

Before entering on the exposition of the doctrine of St. John in its most complete form, as we find it in the gospel and epistles, it will be needful, in order to trace the gradual development of the revelations of the New Testament, that we show what is the fundamental idea of the Apocalypse.

We may observe first, that so far from being in opposition to the other writings of St. John, this book comprehends all the essential points of his theology, but in the condition of germs not yet fully developed. There is no stronger evidence of this agreement than the place given in the Revelation to the person of Jesus Christ. Every thing centers in the Saviour. He is called the "Lion of the tribe of Judah," and the "Root of David "—expressions which point to his humanity. Rev. v, 5; xxii, 16. His divinity is no less distinctly recognized. He is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Rev. i, 17; ii, 8; xxii, 13. Clothed in a vesture dipped in blood, he is called the Word, or the Word of God, and he is followed by the armies of heaven.540540Καλεῖται τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, ὁ Λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ. Rev. xix, 13. The Revelation is full of the idea of redemption. It delights in representing the Saviour under the image of the Lamb slain, whose blood cleanses from all sin. Rev. v, 9. The heavenly hosts adore him. The King of humanity, as he was once its victim, he holds the keys of hell and of death. Rev. i, 18; iii, 21. He is the divine Head of the Church, its guide and defense. Rev. iii, 19. The Church, in spite of a Jewish symbolism, which is easy of interpretation, is clearly distinguished from the synagogue. It comprehends a "multitude of every nation and kindred and people and tongue." Rev. v, 9. It is composed of those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, and who are walking in the way of holiness. Rev. vii, 14, 15; xiv, 3, 4. The Apocalypse rests, therefore, on the same doctrinal basis as the fourth gospel;541541For the discussion of this assertion see the note on the Apocalypse at the end of the volume. Compare Lechler, "Apost. und Nachapost. Zeit.," 199-201. and, if it is true that it was written nearly thirty years previously, we may fairly conclude that what is called the system of St. John was not the product of speculation, or of the combination of Jewish and Hellenic elements, but that it was formed in substance before these elements, borrowed from pagan philosophy, could by possibility have entered into the current beliefs of the Church. We must seek, then, some other source than Alexandrian philosophy for the theology of John; and what other source can, at this early period, have been open to him but the teaching of the Master?

The Revelation is not a recital of doctrine—it is primarily a book of prophecy; it opens a wide and glorious horizon to Christian hope, and paints it with glowing colors. It bears the impress of the age in which it was written. It raises the events of that time to the height of solemn symbols; thus, it is at the same time the book of revelations and an important historical record. In it, as has been well said, we breathe the very atmosphere of martyrdom. Written immediately after the first, and, perhaps, the most cruel of all the persecutions—that in which the brutal hatred of Roman paganism spent its first fury—the book of Revelation catches, as it were, the lurid reflection of the flames which consumed the Christians in the gardens of Nero; while, at the same time, it is illuminated throughout with the certainty of triumph. Contrasting the glory of the Church above with the indignities heaped on the Church below, the Revelation seems to drown the cries and the blasphemies of earth in the songs of the blessed and of the angels. After depicting the conflict and sufferings of the saints, and the terrible judgments of God upon their persecutors, it opens a vista of the heavenly places. It is one of the grandest conceptions of the sacred writer, perpetually to link together earth and heaven, and to show in the events of religious history the counterpart of other events, of which the abode of the blessed is the scene. The sealed book which contains the mystery of the destinies of humanity is at the foot of the throne of God. From thence resound the seven trumpets which declare the doom of the wicked; from thence do the angels pour forth their vials of wrath. While, for the visible Church, all is humiliation and suffering or weary waiting, all is glory for the Church invisible; yet never was the mysterious link uniting the two more plainly manifested. The Church triumphant watches the struggle of the Church militant with a tender, unceasing solicitude, and all heaven is attentive to the obscure drama enacted in one corner of the universe. No stronger consolation than this could have been given to the Christians, who were treated by their adversaries as the offscouring of all things. Nor has the assured blessedness of the faithful ever been depicted in a manner more beautiful and touching. If the sacred writer employs for this description the rich coloring of oriental symbolism, we are yet fully conscious that the blessedness he describes is essentially spiritual. "These which are arrayed in white robes, whence came they?" "These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes." Rev. vii, 13-17.

But the sacred writer is not content with proclaiming in a general manner the suffering and triumph of the Church. The further he proceeds in his delineation of the struggle between Christianity and Antichrist, the more definite does he become in detail, though he makes use of a stately symbolism, sometimes strange, and always full of variety. Just as ancient prophecy was subject to rhythmical conditions, and uttered its most passionate inspirations in conformity with the rules of Hebrew poetry, so the prophet of the New Testament arranged his abundant materials in harmonious order. The Apocalypse has a rhythm of its own, taking the word in its wide acceptation. The seven trumpets follow the seven seals, and these again are succeeded by the seven vials. In the three cycles of revelations there is always a pause after the sixth link of the series to prepare for the last link, which is itself destined to bring in a new series.542542Thus, after the sixth seal, there is an interval during which we are shown the elect around the throne of God. Rev. vii. After the sixth trumpet we have the episode of the book bitter and sweet, and of the measurement of the temple. Rev. xxi. Lastly, after the sixth vial, we hear the solemn warning, "Behold, I come as a thief." Chap. xvi, 15. See Lücke, "Offenbarung," 409-411. This series is not immediately introduced. The prophet seems to be lost for awhile in meditation on the history of the world and of the Church.543543See Rev. viii, 1; see also chap. xii. From chap. xii to chap. xvi, after the seven trumpets and before the seven vials, the sacred writer describes in detail the enemies of the Church. After the three series, intended to be all prophetic of the same visitations, we have the descriptions of the great conflict, which is itself divided into three acts: 1st. The fall of Babylon. Rev. xviiii, xix. 2d. 2d. The combat between Antichrist and Satan, terminated by the reign of Christ over his own. Rev. xx, 1-6. 3d. The last struggle and the last victory, the new heaven and the new earth. Rev. xx, 11; xxii. Such is the plan of the Apocalypse. We find in it the same gradation as in the prophecy of Christ referring to the last times. Matt. xxiv, 5. Thus the agonies and convulsions of nature which are to precede the final judgment, the wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, the darkening of the sun, the falling of the stars, the universal terror—all these signs given in brief touches by the Master, are dwelt upon by the inspired disciple in bold symbolism. The terrible rider on the red horse, who comes forth at the opening of the second seal to take peace from the earth, is the personification of war; as the man mounted upon the black horse, and with the pair of balances in his hand, represents famine. The earthquakes and the darkening of the sky are heralded by the opening of the sixth seal.

The first trumpets and the first vials announce the same order of judgments, and both have reference to the commencement of the prophecy of the first gospel. Jesus Christ, after predicting the chastisements and judgments of God in nature, declared his judgments in history, and first of all, the destruction of Jerusalem. St. John, who wrote after the overthrow of the Temple, proclaims another judgment of God. Sentence is to be passed now, not upon Jerusalem, but upon Rome, the impure and bloody Babylon, the incarnation at that time of the genius of evil. What a grand delineation does the evangelical Prophet give of this diabolical paganism—now as the beast with seven heads and ten horns, opening its mouth to pour out blasphemy against God; now as the great whore, robed in purple and scarlet, making the inhabitants of the earth drunk with the wine of her fornications, herself drunk with blood of the martyrs of Christ, having ascended out of the bottomless pit and going into perdition! What an impression was such a prophetic cry calculated to produce, uttered as it was in the presence of the Roman Colossus still standing in all the pride of its great power! "Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city!" Rev. xiv, 8. "Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets; for God hath avenged you on her. And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all. And the voice of harpers, and musicians, and of pipers, and trumpeters, shall be heard no more at all in thee; and no craftsman, of whatsoever craft he be, shall be found any more in thee; and the sound of a millstone shall be heard no more at all in thee; and the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee: for thy merchants were the great men of the earth; for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived. And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth." Rev. xviii, 20-24.

But the Church has not only to fight against Antichrist without; it has also to resist Antichrist within: to do battle, that is, with heresy and false prophecy. "Many false prophets shall arise and shall deceive many," said Jesus Christ. Matt. xxiv, 11. St. John represents false prophecy under the image of a beast coming up out of the earth, in appearance like a lamb, but speaking as a beast, doing great wonders, and deceiving them that dwell on the earth by his miracles. Rev. xiii, 1-14. Behind this visible opponent the Apostle shows us the invisible enemy, the dragon, the old serpent, which gave power to the beast. Rev. xiii, 4. The conflict is unto blood, alike in the prediction of the Saviour and in the Apocalypse. The two witnesses, who are Moses and Elias—types of all the confessors of Christ—are put to death; but the Spirit of life from God enters into them again and they are victorious. Rev. xi, 9-11. The holy of holies of the spiritual temple is never profaned. The Church keeps an inviolable sanctuary. Rev. xi, 1, 2. She herself, in spite of the rage of her adversaries, who are gathered together like wild beasts around a travailing woman, is delivered by God from their violence; her child, the divine fruit of this sore travail, is caught up into heaven. Rev. xii, 5. St. John unites in this beautiful image the old economy and the new; both are set forth in this woman, who, in peril and pain, brings forth a glorious offspring. Of the ancient economy the Christ was born, who now rules in heaven with a rod of iron; while by him the Church, in the midst of her anguish, and encompassed with bitter foes, bears many sons unto glory. Ever persecuted, she is ever by God delivered, and the fruit of her labor is received up into heaven.

Thus, in the Revelation as in the prophecy of Jesus Christ, are unfolded the judgments of God as manifested in nature and in history, and the sanguinary and victorious struggles of the Church with her many adversaries. The inspired writer has added in his picture new features drawn from the historical events of the time and interpreted by the spirit of prophecy, but the words of St. John have not, any more than the words of Christ, an application restricted to his own age. The immediate events which he foretells have all a typical value. Just as with the Master, the destruction of Jerusalem was the symbol of the end of the world, so with the disciple, the destruction of Rome symbolizes and precedes the final judgment of God. Prophecy has thus advanced a step and enlarged its horizon as the conflict itself has become wider. St. John gives us clearly to understand that the drama is far from being finished after the overthrow of the Western Babylon, and that it is to be recommenced on the smoking ruins of Rome. In fact, after the Roman power shall have been broken, ten kings are to rise up against Christ, and to give to the conflict a new character of violence. Rev. xvii, 12-15. These ten kings (strange to say) shall be led forth to the battle by the Roman beast, which appears again to make war upon the mystic Lamb. Rev. xix, 20. We recognize here the depth of prophetic insight in the Revelation. We might have thought that the beast, which represented the savage spirit of Antichrist, was dead with imperial Rome, in which it found its most perfect embodiment. Far otherwise; that spirit is deathless upon earth; it has been; it will still be. The wound of the beast shall be healed. Rev. xiii, 3. In one man—Nero, the fifth Emperor—the spirit of Antichrist was absolutely incarnate; and the Antichrist of the last times544544It is not possible to determine with certainty whether Antichrist will be simply a diabolical power, or a personality. We incline, however, to the latter interpretation. shall so closely resemble him that Nero may be said to reappear in him. The name of Nero fills, in the prophetic picture of Antichrist, the same prominent position as the name of Cyrus or of David in the prophetic delineations of Messiah in the oracles of the Old Testament.545545See, in reference to this whole subject, Note L at the end of the volume. We know how frequently the prophets proclaim the return of a well-known person, when they intend to signify that a man in all points like him is to appear. We need only to refer to the prophecies concerning Elijah, and to the passage in the Revelation, in which the two witnesses are designated as Moses and Elias. The triumph of the Church is connected in the Apocalypse, as in the first gospel, with the return of Christ. To proclaim that triumphant return, and to describe its glorious results, is the great object of the book of the Revelation, as to wait for it is the highest consolation left by the Master to his disciples.

In the Apocalypse two distinct periods are marked in this final triumph of Christianity over Antichrist. The first victory is brought about by the direct and visible intervention of the Saviour, taking up the cause of his people and gloriously establishing the reign of his Church upon earth.546546The idea of a millennium preceded by a first resurrection is suggested by Rev. xx; but we must not forget the symbolical character of the book. The glorious triumph of the Church is in itself a judgment of the world. The world is judged by the saints whom it had made its victims; their victory is its condemnation. The writer of the Revelation, when he shows us the saints raised from the dead and sitting upon thrones, employs an image analogous to that used by him to describe the triumph of the two faithful witnesses in the Church. Rev. xi, 11. We may observe, that at the close of chap. xx, 12-15, mention is made of a general resurrection of the dead in which all are judged according to their works. The judgment had then yet to take place, and the Christians appointed to salvation were not yet raised. After this period the old adversary of God will once again prevail to deceive the nations; but this will be his last effort. The drama of history concludes with his condemnation and with the solemn judgment of the children of men, conducted by Him whom once they crucified and who now reappears in all the glory of his power. Then comes the end, and then commences that eternal blessedness of the elect celebrated by St. John in the language of heaven.547547See chapters xxi and xxii of the Revelation.

"And there shall be no more curse; but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall serve him. And they shall see his face, and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there: and they need no candle, neither light of the sun, for the Lord God giveth them light, and they shall reign for ever and ever."

Such is this marvelous book—one of the most sublime gifts of the Spirit of God to the Church; one which would have been its best consolation in all ages, as it was that of the martyrs of Lyons and of Asia Minor, if it had not been too often transformed into an unintelligible cipher, through a misconception of its historical basis. One important truth we learn from it, namely, that history interpreted by God is a great oracle, which, in each of its periods, repeats, with a living comment, the prophecy of Jesus Christ concerning the last times. The struggle which is renewed from age to age between Christ and Antichrist, the partial triumph of the former, and the more and more decisive defeats of the latter, bring us to the final conflict and crowning victory, which will be coincident with the return of Christ in glory. The Church, in the certainty of victory, has a right to cry in presence of any power, however great and glorious, which has lent itself to the service of sin: "Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen!" Its fall will be the reiterated prophecy of that of the Satanic power, which for so many ages has set itself against God. The day is coming when that power shall be forever broken, and the disciples of Christ shall see the end of their day of shame, and shall reign in glory with him after whom they have borne the cross.

How greatly were such consolations needed in the year 71, on the eve of so much suffering and ignominy, when the few disciples gathered around St. John saw all the brutal violence of imperial Rome, and all the seductions of heresy arising out of the pit to fight against them.548548It is not possible to attempt to give even an outline of the history of the interpretation of the Apocalypse. Its commentators may be divided into two classes: 1st. Those who see the fulfillment of the greater part of its revelations in the past. The Apocalypse is to these an inspired manual of the universal history of the last eighteen centuries. 2d. Those who hold that this book relates exclusively to the last times. This interpretation, which is combined with an unintelligent literalism, is wholly inadmissible. In both theories, however, there is an element of truth. It is true that the great phases of history may be discovered in the Apocalypse, because the key to the whole history of mankind is found in the conflict of Christ and Antichrist. It is also true that a final accomplishment of the prophecies is to be looked for in the last times, and especially the personal return of Jesus Christ. Our interpretation appears to us to combine these two systems in their elements of truth, while setting aside what is false and extravagant in both.


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