The Revelation Explained
An Exposition, Text by Text, of the Apocalypse of St. John
Showing the Marvelous Development of the Prophecies from the Time of their Delivery on the Isle of Patmos—The Establishment and Growth of Christianity—Rise of Mohammedanism in the Eastern Empire—Of the Papacy in the Western Division—Of Protestantism—The Civil History of the Territory Comprising the Ancient Roman Empire until the End of Time—Together with the Conflicts and Triumphs of the Redeemed until the Final Judgment, and their Eternal Reward and Home in the "New Heavens and New Earth."
By F.G. SMITH
"What the Bible Teaches" and "The Last Reformation," etc.
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"Behold the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them." Isa. 42:9.
"Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets." Amos 3:7.
The subject of prophecy should be of interest to every Bible student. Its importance can not be overestimated. By it we are enabled to ascertain our true position in this time-world. From the early dawn of creation, Inspiration has foretold with certainty the great facts connected with the history of God's chosen people. By this means alone, the divinity of Jesus Christ and the truth of our holy religion has been established in many minds; for it is not in the power of mortals thus to vaticinate future events. With such surprising accuracy have these predictions been fulfilled that even infidels ofttimes bear witness to their truthfulness. "Behold the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them." Isa. 42:9. "For I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done." Isa. 46:9, 10.
The Revelation is a rich mine of prophetic truth. The history of the current dispensation is there delineated in advance so perfectly that we can not but attribute its authorship to Him who knoweth the end from the beginning, and worketh all things after the counsel of his own will. It was written for the special benefit of the people of God, and we should give it prayerful consideration.
In the preparation for this work, I have gleaned historical information from all the general and ecclesiastical histories, encyclopedias, etc., within my reach, and only regret that I had not access to a still greater number. However, knowing that large books are seldom read, I determined in advance not to write an extensive work, but to condense the subject matter as much as possible, and, therefore, I have been obliged to omit much valuable material previously gathered. For this reason many lines of prophetic truth penned by others of the sacred writers have been passed over in silence, even though relating to the same events as certain symbolic visions in the Revelation.
I have availed myself of all the helps and the commentaries within my reach in the study of this important subject. However, I have but seldom referred to the opinions of expositors. In most cases their explanations are not based upon any established rule of interpretation, and the definite laws of symbolic language are usually overlooked or disregarded. Ordinary readers of the Revelation have always supposed that the only course for them was to take the opinion of some learned expositor and to believe on his authority; and when they have found that equally learned and judicious men sustained the most opposite views, they have been bewildered amid conflicting opinions and have decided that, when such men were at issue, it was useless for them to investigate. While, therefore, I have made every available use of their opinions, it was only for the purpose of forming my own and of enabling myself so to unfold the nature of the symbols that every one might see for himself the propriety of the interpretation given.
The present knowledge that has been attained of this prophetic book is largely the result of the combined efforts of all who have labored to unfold its meaning. No one has had the honor of first understanding all its parts, and very few have failed to contribute something, more or less, to its true interpretation. Therefore I have endeavored as much as possible to gather up the good from the labors of my predecessors and to combine it with the results of my own study and research. The Exposition of Mr. Lord has had an important bearing on this work. For many beautiful thoughts concerning the nature and the use of symbols, in the chapter on the nature of symbolic language, I must acknowledge special indebtedness to the Lectures of Thomas Wickes on the Apocalypse, delivered many years ago, although I have ofttimes arrived at quite different conclusions in their interpretation throughout the Revelation. Much appreciated assistance has been derived from the works of other commentators as well.
There is considerable disagreement among historians themselves regarding certain historical points, but their differences are of minor importance so far as the present work is concerned. When such points were involved, I have simply endeavored to follow the best authorities. Lengthy or important quotations from other writers have been duly credited where they appear, hence no special mention is necessary in this place. Minor extracts are merely enclosed within quotation-marks.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 6 Vols., Philadelphia, 1872, is the edition of Gibbon's Rome from which quotations are made.
To assist in simplifying the subject and in placing it before the reader in a concise, comprehensive manner, a number of useful diagrams have been added; for they serve about the same purpose in the study of a subject so complicated as do maps in the study of geography. I would especially call attention to the large "Diagram of the Revelation," where the various lines of prophetic truth are outlined in parallel series, enabling the reader to comprehend at once where the symbolic narrative returns to take up a new line of thought covering the same period of time. In these diagrams, however, no attempt has been made to set forth every phase of thought connected with the subject; only the main features have been outlined.
Feeling directed by the Lord to undertake this work and realizing the greatness of the task, I have earnestly sought for divine wisdom and guidance, and I humbly acknowledge his gracious assistance in its prosecution; and while I can not indulge the hope that human fallibility has been overcome, yet I firmly believe that a careful reliance upon the Holy Spirit has been an effectual means of avoiding error and unfolding many of the hitherto mysterious prophecies of this wonderful book. To his worthy name I ascribe all praise and glory. The future, doubtless, will witness a still greater development of this subject; for men of God more worthy and possessing greater abilities will arise, who, beginning where we have left off, will continue its investigation and throw upon it additional light as yet unrevealed.
That the Lord will bless The Revelation Explained to the good of his church upon earth and grant it a place, however small, in the cause of present truth, is my earnest prayer.
Yours in Christ, F.G. Smith. Grand Junction, Mich., June 26, 1906.
PREFACE TO FOURTH EDITION
The reception accorded this work when it was first submitted to the public was more than gratifying to the author. The lapse of time has only tended to confirm still more strongly the fundamental nature of the principle of interpretation adopted. In order to supply the constant demand, the fourth edition is now issued.
I have taken advantage of this opportunity to make certain revisions necessitated by an increase of knowledge since the work was first written, nearly twelve years ago. This revision, however, did not require an entire re-writing and does not involve a change in fundamentals.
F.G. Smith. Anderson, Ind., Mar. 1, 1918.
Preface Nature of Symbolic Language
Introduction, verses 1-11 Vision of Christ, verses 12-20
Message to Ephesus, verses 1-7 Message to Smyrna, verses 8-11 Message to Pergamus, verses 12-17 Message to Thyatira, verses 18-29
Message to Sardis, verses 1-6 Message to Philadelphia, verses 7-13 Message to Laodicea, verses 14-22
Vision of God's Throne
The Book with Seven Seals
First Seal Opened, verses 1, 2 Second Seal Opened, verses 3, 4 Third Seal Opened, verses 5, 6 Fourth Seal Opened, verses 7, 8 Fifth Seal Opened, verses 9-11 Sixth Seal Opened, verses 12-17
God's Servants Sealed, verses 1-8 The White-Robed Company, verses 9-17
Seventh Seal Opened, verses 1-5 First Trumpet Sounded, verses 6, 7 Second Trumpet Sounded, verses 8, 9 Third Trumpet Sounded, verses 10, 11 Fourth Trumpet Sounded, verses 12, 13
Fifth Trumpet Sounded, verses 1-12 Sixth Trumpet Sounded, verses 13-21
The Rainbow Angel
Temple and Holy City, verses 1, 2 The Two Witnesses, verses 3-6 The Witnesses Slain, verses 7-10 The Witnesses Resurrected, verses 11-14 Seventh Trumpet Sounded, verses 15-19
Woman and Man-Child, verses 1-6 Michael and the Dragon, verses 7-12 The Woman's Flight, verses 13-17
The Leopard Beast, verses 1-9 "The Faith of the Saints," verse 10 The Two-Horned Beast, verses 11-18
The 144,000 on Mount Sion, verses 1-5 The Three Angels, verses 6-11 "The Patience of the Saints," verses 12, 13 Harvest of the World, verses 14-20
Seven Last Plagues
The First Vial, verses 1, 2 The Second Vial, verse 3 The Third Vial, verses 4-7 The Fourth Vial, verses 8, 9 The Fifth Vial, verses 10, 11 The Sixth Vial, verses 12-16 The Seventh Vial, verses 17-21
"Babylon the Great," verses 1-6 Beast and Ten Kingdoms, verses 7-18
Fall of Babylon
Marriage of the Lamb, verses 1-10 Coming of Christ, verses 11-21
The Dragon Bound, verses 1-6 The Dragon Released, verses 7-10 The Judgment Scene, verses 11-15
New Heaven and Earth, verses 1-8 The Heavenly Jerusalem, verses 9-27
River and Tree of Life, verses 1-5 Christ's Coming and Eternity, verses 6-21
Nature of Symbolic Language.
Before proceeding with the interpretation of this wonderful book, it will be necessary for us to pause and make inquiry concerning the nature of the language employed in its prophecies and concerning the mode of its interpretation. It will be seen at a glance that it is wholly unlike the common language of life; and it will be useless for us to undertake to ascertain its signification unless we understand perfectly the principles upon which it is founded.
The question may be asked, "Is the language intelligible at all?" Considering the variety of interpretations placed upon it by expositors and the opinions generally held respecting it, we might conclude that it is not. The majority of the people look upon these prophecies as "a mass of unintelligible enigmas," and are ready to tell the student of Revelation that this book "either finds or leaves a man mad." But are we to look upon its language as being applied at a venture, without any definite rule, capable of every variety of meaning, so that we can never be quite sure that we have its correct interpretation?
Commentators generally unite in attaching a definite meaning to certain symbols, and they tell us that these can not be applied otherwise without violating their nature. They may not give us their reasons for thus applying them (in fact, they generally do not), yet it is evidently assumed that such reasons do exist. Now, if reasons actually exist why a definite signification must be applied to the symbol in the one case, why do they not exist in another case, and in all cases? If any law exists in the case at all, it is a uniform one, for a law that does not possess uniformity is no law; otherwise, it would be an unintelligible revelation, and the only possible thing left for us to do would be to attempt to solve it like a riddle—guess it out. It would be as if the writer were to use words with every variety of meaning peculiarly his own attached, without informing the reader what signification to give them in a given instance. No man has a right thus to abuse written or spoken language; and we may take it for granted that the God of heaven would not make such an indiscriminate use of symbolical language when making a revelation to men. There is no other book the wide world around in which language is as carefully employed as in the Bible; and we can rest assured that when God gave this Revelation to Jesus Christ "to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass," he made choice of proper symbols whose meaning can be definitely evolved, provided we can but ascertain the great underlying principles upon which their original selection was based.
In the ordinary communication of our thoughts we employ arbitrary signs and sounds to which we have universally agreed to fix a definite meaning. Thus, our entire spoken language is made up of a great variety of sounds or words with which by long practise we have become familiar. We call a certain object a horse, not because there is any similarity between the sound and the animal designated, but because we have agreed that that sound shall represent that object. So, also, we have agreed that the characters h-o-r-s-e shall represent the same thing; and by the use of twenty-six characters, called the alphabet, placed together in various combinations, we are able to write our entire spoken language.
The incidents connected with the introduction of written language among a barbarous people are worthy of remark in this connection. That thought can be conveyed to persons at a distance by the use of certain cabalistic characters seems to them incredible, and when compelled to believe it, they look upon the person that can accomplish such wonders as embodying something supernatural. These things I mention merely to call attention to the fact that spoken and written language is a curious and wonderfully complicated affair. This is brought forcibly to our minds when we hear persons conversing in a foreign tongue, or when we pick up a book the characters of which are wholly unlike those of our own language. To us an English book is full of instinctive beauty, every letter or mark possessing a definite meaning that is instantly conveyed to our minds, because we have become familiar with them by diligent study and practise.
There are other ways of transferring thought besides the complicated system just mentioned—ways which are much more natural and simple. Thus, a simpler way to represent a certain object would be to draw a picture of it; or, better still, to represent a certain character or quality by exhibiting, not the object itself, but an analagous one whose peculiar character that property is; for examples: the quiet, peaceful, gentle disposition of a child, by a lamb; a man of cunning, artful, deceptive disposition, by a fox; or a cruel, bloodthirsty, vindictive tyrant, by a tiger, etc. This is hieroglyphical or symbolic language. This language takes precedence over every other for naturalness and simplicity, being common to a greater or less extent among all nations and intelligible to all.
Spoken language was undoubtedly a gift from God originally, while written language is probably a mere human invention. We are not to suppose that the first attempts to convey thought in writing would be by an alphabetical system, but by the symbolic, it being, as before stated, the most natural and within reach of the ordinary ingenuity of man. This is proved by the fact that the inscriptions on the ancient monuments of Egypt and the inscriptions of other nations of antiquity are of this character. It is also a fact worthy of notice that, four thousand years later, men of other countries and of other languages have, by much study and a careful comparison of the symbols, been able to decipher with accuracy those hierographical representations. This of itself is sufficient to establish the point that definiteness can be attached to the use and the interpretation of carefully-selected symbols, when the principles that governed their original selection are discovered.
[Footnote 1: The systems of hieroglyphical writing employed by various nations have, for the most part, remained unintelligible until a key of their interpretation was discovered. In 1799 M. Bouchard, a French captain of engineers, while digging intrenchments on the site of an old temple near the Rosetta mouth of the Nile, unearthed a black stone containing a trilingual inscription in hieroglyphics, demotic characters, and Greek. The last paragraph of the Greek inscription stated that two translations, one in the sacred and the other in the popular Egyptian language, would be found adjacent; hence this celebrated stone has afforded European scholars a key to the language and writing of the ancient Egyptians. The cuneiform writing of the Babylonians and Persians remained a mystery also until modern times, but great progress has now been made in the deciphering of thousands of inscribed clay tablets, cylinders, prisms, etc. The key to its interpretation is the celebrated inscription at Behistun, cut upon the face of a high rock three hundred feet above its base, and recording a portion of the history of Darius. It is written in the cuneiform characters, in three languages—Median, Persian, and Assyrian.]
I do not wish to be understood as implying that the symbolical language of Scripture is identical with the hieroglyphics of ancient monuments. There may be different kinds of symbolic representations; but they are not arbitrary, as is spoken language, and can not be arbitrarily applied; a fixed law governs them all.
Now, the book of Revelation is made up of this symbolic language. It is not, however, confined to this book alone. There are many instances of it to be found elsewhere in the sacred volume, and in many cases it is explained by inspiration itself, thus giving us a reliable key to the whole. Joseph's dream of the eleven sheaves that made obeisance to his sheaf was of this description (Gen. 37:7, 8), and his eleven brethren were angered, because its meaning was apparent—that they should be humbled before him. Also, his dream of the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars (verses 9, 10) was understood to signify the subjection of the entire family unto him, which was actually fulfilled after Joseph's exaltation in Egypt. The chief butler's dream of the vine with three branches bearing grapes, which he took and pressed into the king's cup, was interpretated by Joseph as signifying the butler's restoration in three days to his former position of cup-bearer to the king; while the chief baker's dream of the three baskets upon his head, out of which the birds ate, was interpretated as signifying his execution in the same length of time. Gen. 40. Pharaoh's dream of the seven fat kine and the seven lean kine, also of the seven full ears and the seven thin ears, signified seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Gen. 41.
Again, the four divisions of King Nebuchadnezzar's wonderful image was explained by Daniel as signifying four universal monarchies and the ten toes as signifying the ten minor kingdoms which grew out of the fourth; while the stone that was cut out of the mountain without human intervention he interpreted as signifying the divine kingdom of God. Dan. 2. The two-horned ram of Daniel's vision (chap. 8), according to the explanation of the angel, symbolized the Medo-Persian empire, its two horns signifying the two dynasties of allied kings that composed it. The he-goat signified the Greco-Macedonian empire; his great horn, its first mighty king; and the four horns that replaced the great one when broken represented four kings under whom the empire would eventually be divided into as many parts. In the Apocalypse itself we have a number of symbols divinely interpreted, "The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches." "The seven candle-sticks which thou sawest are the seven churches." "The ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings." "The waters which thou sawest ... are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues." "The woman which thou sawest is that great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth," etc.
It will be seen that the great underlying principle or law upon which symbolic language is based is ANALOGY. An object is chosen to represent not itself, but something of analagous character.
Webster defines symbol as follows: "The sign or representation of any moral thing by the images or properties of natural things. Thus, a lion is the symbol of courage; the lamb is the symbol of meekness or patience." Home, in his Introduction to the Study of the Bible, says: "By symbols we mean certain representative marks, rather than express pictures; or, if pictures, such as were at the time characters, and besides presenting to the eye the resemblance of a particular object, suggested a general idea to the mind, as when a horn was made to denote strength, an eye and scepter, majesty, and in numberless such instances; where the picture was not drawn to express merely the thing itself, but something else, which was, or was conceived to be, analagous to it." The main idea, then, as expressed in the foregoing definitions, is the representation of an object, not by a picture of itself, but by something analagous, such as the exhibition of moral qualities by images drawn from nature. But the use of symbols is not confined to the representation of moral subjects alone. Anything may be symbolized to which a corresponding analagous object can be found.
To establish the principle of analogy here laid down, it will be necessary to refer only to a few of the numerous examples of divinely interpreted symbols in the Scriptures. Any one can readily perceive the analogy between the seven fat kine of Pharaoh's dream and as many years of plenty; so, also, with the seven full, healthy ears that grew up on seven stalks. Likewise, the analogy between the seven thin kine and as many years of famine, and the seven thin, blasted ears that represented the same thing, is apparent. One fat kine or one full ear would symbolize one year of plenty, when crops were abundant; while seven would represent as many distinct seasons of prosperity, etc. Kine do not represent kine, but something analagous. The beasts of Daniel's visions do not represent animals like themselves, or a multitude of such animals, but something of analagous disposition. The analogy between a wild, ferocious beast, stamping upon or devouring everything within its reach, and a cruel, persecuting, tyrannical government is apparent. A horn does not signify a horn, but some great power, such as a dynasty of kings or rulers; and what the horn is to the animal in manifesting its desolating disposition, kings and rulers are to an empire in executing the persecuting or oppressive principles of the body politic. A pure, chaste virgin is used to symbolize the true church of God; whereas a corrupt harlot is chosen to represent an apostate church, and fornication her idolatrous worship.
Although this principle is worthy of further elucidation, yet enough has been said to firmly establish the point that symbolic language is founded upon analogy. It is also clear that, whenever we attach a literal signification to a symbolic object, we immediately destroy entirely its use as a symbol. So we may accept it as one established landmark in the interpretation of the Apocalypse, that every symbol, regardless of the department from which it is taken—whether from the material universe, the animal kingdom, human life or the heavenly realm—stands as the representative, not of itself, but of some other object of analagous character not found in the same department from which it is drawn.
This develops another important fact worthy of attention. If the great law of symbolic language is based upon analogy, it is clear to a demonstration that the symbols employed must be definitely applied. They can not be arbitrary, as the words composing our spoken language are. There is nothing in the nature of the thing to prevent our calling a horse an elephant, provided we had only agreed universally to adopt that designation of the animal referred to (arbitrary sounds can be arbitrarily applied); but we violate nature when we attempt to make a ferocious tiger the symbol of an innocent child, or represent a blood-thirsty tyrant by the symbol of a lamb. A disgusting, polluted harlot may be the proper symbol of an apostate church, but of the pure, holy church of God—never. A proper correspondence must be kept up. We must follow nature strictly.
Symbols are drawn from every department—from animate and inanimate creation, from animal life and human life, from the visible universe below and the heavenly world above, and also from some objects of fancy to which there is no corresponding object in existence, such as Daniel's four-headed beast, or the one in the Revelator's vision with seven heads and ten horns; but in the selection of the same a proper correspondence of quality is kept up. The symbols that are chosen to set forth the great spiritual affairs of the church are such as are in themselves nobler than those selected to describe the political affairs of kings and empires, because in the divine estimation the church is of infinitely greater importance and occupies a more honorable position than worldly kingdoms. Thus, a beautiful virgin bride is chosen to represent the church of God; whereas a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns is chosen to symbolize the Pagan Roman empire. The glorious body of God's reformers is set forth under the symbol of an angel from heaven, with his face as the sun, his feet as pillars of fire, and a rainbow upon his head; whereas the Saracen warriors of Mahomet are locusts upon the earth, with stings of scorpions. The department of human and angelic life is chosen to set forth the spiritual affairs of the church, while the department of nature and of animal life represents the political affairs of nations. To this general rule, there is at least one exception. Certain things connected with God's chosen people under the old dispensation are considered proper symbols to represent similar things or events in the New Testament dispensation, without special regard to the department from which they are drawn. Thus, the temple, altar, incense, candlesticks, holy city, etc., of the former age, though not taken from the department of human or angelic life, are, nevertheless, clearly used to represent affairs of the church, the analogy in the case being apparent because of their former prominence as connected with the Lord's covenant people.
Again, when the symbol selected is that of a living, active, intelligent agent, it represents an analagous intelligent agent. Likewise, the actions of the former plainly denote analagous actions in the latter, and the effects produced by the actions of the symbolic agent signify analagous effects produced by the actions of the agent symbolized. To make it clearer: agents symbolize agents, actions symbolize actions, and effects symbolize effects. If this be not true—if agents can symbolize actions and effects as well as agents, or if actions can symbolize agents and effects—then all is an inextricable maze of confusion, and well may we repeat the words uttered by a certain minister to the writer, "The book should have been called Mystification, not Revelation."
The same principle of analogy is carried out in another particular. Whenever the enemies of God or destructive agents are intended, objects of a corresponding desolating character are chosen as their symbols; whereas the peaceful triumphs of the cross, as exhibited by God's chosen people, are described under symbols of an equally benign and gentle character. Thus, the anti-christian, persecuting power of Rome is described as a ferocious wild beast, stamping everything beneath its feet and spreading desolation on every side. The Vandal hordes of Northern barbarians, who, under Genseric overran the Western Roman empire early in the fifth century, are symbolized by a volcanic mountain cast into the sea and spreading its streams of molten lava in every direction. The fearful pest of Mohammedanism is a dense smoke issuing from the bottomless pit and darkening the heavens. The Saracens of Mahomet are swarms of locusts appearing upon the earth, with scorpion stings, tormenting men five months, or, prophetically, one hundred and fifty years. On the other hand, a church is a candle-stick; its pastor, a beautiful star; the whole church, a virgin bride; the glorious assembly of God's reformers, a rainbow angel, etc.
From the foregoing it will be seen that symbols are not words, but things, chosen because of some analagous resemblance to represent other things; and by a careful study of the nature of the symbols themselves we can ascertain where to look for their fulfilment. In the present work no attempt has been made to prove the interpretations given merely by the authority of learned names (for they can be arrayed on every side of a passage), but the nature of the symbols themselves has been developed; and the reader will be able to judge how nearly the known laws of symbolic language have been followed.
It will be necessary, however, to notice another exception to the rules given, although it can scarcely be said to form an exception—it rather proves the very position taken. Undoubtedly, there are some few objects whose nature forbids their symbolization, there being no object in existence of analagous character that can be chosen as their representative. God, evidently, can not be symbolized; for where is the individual in heaven or on earth that can stand as his representative? "To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?" Isa. 40:18. Man can not represent him, angels can not; for whenever they appear on the panoramic scene, they denote distinguished agencies among men. There may be certain symbols connected with his person, setting forth his divine attributes and proclaiming the eternal majesty of his name; but he himself is described as "One sitting upon a throne," before whom the created intelligences of earth and heaven fall down and worship unceasingly, but no symbol of Him is given. The same exception also applies to the person of Jesus, our Savior and Redeemer. While the human aspect of the Savior, as exhibited during the incarnation in his sacrificial death, may be properly symbolized by a lamb, as in chap. V, there is no created intelligence in God's great universe that can be chosen to represent, in his true, essential divinity, Him who does not deem it robbery to claim equality with God. There may, likewise, be certain symbols connected with his person to give us at least a faint impression of his divine character and infinite majesty; yet when he appears upon the symbolic scene, he distinctly announces, "I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore." "He hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS." So whenever the divine Christ appears on the symbolic scene, he comes in his own person, proclaiming his own name, and we need look for no symbol of him.
Upon the opening of the fifth seal, the souls of the martyrs are represented as crying unto God from the altar for the avenging of their blood on those who dwell on the earth. Where is there an object in all creation analagous to a disembodied spirit? None can be found. It is easy to give them an arbitrary name; therefore they appear in the Revelation under their own appropriate title, as "the souls of them that were slain." Chap. 6:9, 10, also 20:4.
This exception applies to every case where no corresponding object can be selected as a symbol. Where the nature of the subject forbids its symbolization, there the description must of necessity be literal, and all such objects appear under their own appropriate titles. Otherwise, we are to look upon the entire book of Revelation as a vast collection of symbols whose interpretation is to be found, not in the department from which they are taken, but in another, to which they bear a certain analagous resemblance.
Although not pertaining strictly to the subject of symbolic language, yet a word respecting the plan of the prophecy will be appropriate at this time. The prophetic events are not arranged after the ordinary plan of histories, narrating all the contemporaneous events in a given period, whether civil, religious, literary, scientific, or biographical, thus finishing up the history of that period; but it consists of a number of distinct themes running over the same ground. The proof of this assertion will appear as we proceed with the development of the prophecies.
May the wisdom of heaven direct us in the perusal of this wonderful book of Revelation, and may we at last be "accounted worthy to obtain that world," and the glorious privilege of rendering eternal praise to "Him that sitteth upon the throne," "upholding all things by the word of his power," "declaring the end from the beginning," and revealing his mighty works unto the children of men.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
2. Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.
3. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
This book of the Revelation is frequently styled the Apocalypse, derived from the word by which it is designated in Greek. Jesus Christ having received it from God, its author, designed it for the future benefit of his church, and communicated it to his servants by the hand of the beloved apostle John. Its character is described by its title "Revelation," which signifies something revealed or made known; and its object was to "show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass." This object of God's in delivering the Revelation to his church should be a sufficient refutation of the popular theory that this book is unintelligible, and its varied symbols wrapped in such deep mystery that their meaning can not be evolved; for it is not consonant with the supreme power and wisdom of the God-head to suppose that, in making a revelation to man, he would make the fatal mistake of clothing his language with a mystery that defies the intellect of mortals to unveil. It is said of the things herein revealed that they "must shortly come to pass," by which is meant not that they were all to be completely fulfilled within a short time, but that the series of special events predicted were soon to begin. Thus, we speak of a century or eternity as near at hand, by which we mean that the events of the period spoken of are about to commence, although the end of the series may be very far off.
But who are "his servants"? For whose benefit was the Revelation given? Surely it was for all those who become children of God by faith in Christ Jesus, from the beginning of the gospel dispensation when it was given, until the end of time; for a benediction is pronounced upon all those who read and hear its prophecies and "keep those things which are written therein." It was this promised blessing unto the earnest inquirers into the truths of Revelation that enabled the writer to decide to give these prophecies the consideration that is justly their due, and to recognize their infinite importance to the present church; "for the time is at hand" that will close the series of events herein predicted and usher in eternity. Every fulfilment of prophecy brings with it new duties, and enjoins fresh responsibilities upon the people of God; yea, "every revolving century, every closing year, adds to the urgency with which attention is challenged to the concluding portion of Holy Writ." Daniel prophetically described some of the events contained also in the Apocalypse, but he was told to shut up the words and seal the book until the time of the end, when "many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased."
It has been a matter of conjecture as to who the angel or messenger was that Christ sent to deliver the prophecies to John. Some suppose it to have been Gabriel, because of his having been a chosen instrument to deliver similar prophecies to Daniel. Some think it was Elijah, he having been translated that he should not see death, and afterwards appearing on the mount of transfiguration. Others think it was one of the redeemed sons of earth; because afterward, when rejecting the worship John was about to tender him, he says, "See thou do it not: I am thy fellow-servant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God." Chaps. 19:10; 22:9. But we can not identify this messenger positively, as no definite information is given. To these revelations received John bore a faithful record of all things that he saw, implying the fact that they passed in vision before him and he beheld them as in a picture.
4. JOHN to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;
5. And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,
6. And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
7. Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
8. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.
The Apocalypse opens with the salutation of John to the seven churches in Asia, unto whom it was particularly addressed, and for whom special messages were prepared. There were other congregations of the church of God in Asia, or Asia Minor, besides the seven to whom the Revelation was sent, such as Colosse, Miletus, Troas, etc. Why only seven were addressed, we do not know, unless it be that the number seven is used, as elsewhere in the Sacred Volume, to denote fulness or completeness, being, as has been said, "a kind of memorial of the great facts of the first seven days of time which have divided all ages into cycles of weeks." So when we read of Christ's walking in the midst of the seven churches, we are to understand that he is in all the congregations of his people; and the ministers of the seven churches who are upheld by the Lord himself are representative, in one important sense at least, of the entire Christian ministry; for Christ has promised to be with them alway "even unto the end of the world." Mat. 28:20.
This salutation of John's is one of great beauty and splendor, setting forth, as it does, the divine attributes of the great Jehovah in a striking manner as he "which is, and which was, and which is to come," an expression embracing eternity and designating the eternal, unchangeable God. The seven spirits before his throne describe the third person in the Trinity, as will appear clearer hereafter, seven being used as a sacred or perfect number designating his dignity and excellence. Some have supposed that seven angelic spirits were here described; but it is not consistent with the honor due the God-head to suppose that created intelligences should be exalted to a plane of equality with the supreme Deity. Moreover, they would probably have been described as seven angels, and not as seven spirits.
Jesus Christ is mentioned next and more fully described, he being the direct author of the Revelation. He is "the first begotten of the dead, the prince of the kings of the earth," and the one "that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood." The statement that Christ is the "first-begotten of the dead," is parallel to similar expressions in the Bible, where he is declared to be "the first-fruits of them that slept," "and the first-born from the dead." Though others had been restored to life before the resurrection of Christ, yet he was the first to rise with an immortal, glorified body. These expressions may also denote that Christ was the chief or central figure among all those who arose. But it was by virtue of his coming and of his victory over death that any were enabled to rise before his resurrection, as in the mind and purpose of God, who "calleth those things which be not as though they were" (Rom. 4:17), Christ was ordained to die and rise again, from the foundation of the world. He is the "prince of the kings of the earth" by virtue of his being exalted to the right hand of God, with "angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him." 1 Pet. 3:22. "Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come." Eph. 1:21.
"Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood," describes the great atonement work of Jesus Christ, by which we are cleansed from all sin and made a royal, kingly priesthood unto God even in this world. Every soul that has received the blessed experience John here describes will be able to appreciate the unbounded rapture the beloved apostle felt in the contemplation of this wonderful theme of redemption that caused him to ascribe to God, its author, "glory and dominion forever and ever."
This Jesus is he who will come again, not in humiliation and suffering, but in glory and honor; not as a Lamb to shed his blood for the sins of the world, but as the Lion of the tribe of Juda, with infinite power and majesty, causing all the kindreds of earth to wail because of him. The blasphemous Jews, who clamored for his crucifixion; Pilate, who delivered him up; and the Roman soldiery, who drove the nails and pierced his side, producing a death of greatest ignominy—all will see him when he comes. But while the proud enemies of God and the cruel oppressors of his saints are overwhelmed with terror at the sight of His person, the saints of all ages will shout for joy, saying, "Even so. Amen." "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." In the face of this awful truth, how dare men assert that the second advent will usher in a thousand years of peace and tranquility, during which time the wicked will lie in their graves, when God's word declares that every eye shall see him when he comes?
The present description of Christ closes with the statement that he is the Alpha and the Omega, which, being the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, mean the same as "the beginning and the ending"; while the whole concludes with the statement that he is the one "which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty"—which is the same as the description given of God in verse 4. Nothing in addition to this could be ascribed to Christ. Every attribute with which the Deity himself is invested is here ascribed to Jesus Christ. If our Savior is anything more than this description declares him to be, it is beyond the reach of our finite minds to comprehend. The sacred writers everywhere speak of him as a being worthy of worship and praise; and this fact, taken in connection with the universal proneness of men to take the honor from God and to give it to those who are no gods, is a convincing proof that Christ is God and, as such, is worthy of all honor and praise; and nowhere is there given in regard to Christ a warning caution such as John received from the angel at whose feet he fell to worship—"See thou do it not ... worship God."
9. I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
10. I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,
11. Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.
At the time the Revelation was given, John was a prisoner in the Isle of Patmos (now called Patmo or Patino), a small, desolate, rocky island in the Aegean sea, near the coast of Asia Minor, its greatest length from north to south being about ten miles, and its greatest breadth six. To this lonely place, according to Jerome and others, John was exiled during the reign of the tyrant Domitian, in A.D. 95. The reason of his banishment is given—"For the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ." Having confined him to this barren spot, the emperor no doubt thought he had effectually cleared the world of this preacher of righteousness. Doubtless the persecutors of John Bunyan thought the same when they had him shut up in Bedford jail. But when men think the truth is dead and buried out of sight, God suddenly gives it a resurrection with thirty-fold greater glory. It was so in this case. The giving of the book of Revelation—the writing on this spot of the history of the church in advance—has changed the name of this rocky island from deepest infamy to one of sacred interest and holy recollections. The death of Domitian occurred in A.D. 96, and his successor, the humane Nerva, recalled those who had been exiled because of their faithfulness to Christianity; and John returned to Ephesus, where he spent the remainder of his days, dying a natural death at the advanced age of about one hundred years.
[Footnote 2: John Bunyan (1628-1688) was a Puritan. After the restoration of the Stuarts to the throne, at the close of the English Revolution and the failure of the Commonwealth, he was imprisoned for twelve years "on account of non-conformity to the established worship." It was during this dreary confinement that he wrote his "Pilgrim's Progress," the most admirable allegory in English literature.]
The humble manner in which John speaks of himself is affectionate. He does not represent himself to the churches as some great apostle or prophet, but as "your brother and companion in tribulation," a sharer with them in the trials and the persecutions that they were all called upon to endure. He also testified that he was "in the kingdom and patience of Christ," of which we will speak more hereafter.
It was on the first day of the week, or the Lord's day, that the vision recorded in this chapter was given John, while he was "in the Spirit," or under the influence of the spirit of prophecy. He was commanded to write in a book the things that he saw and to send it unto the seven churches of Asia. It is important to bear in mind the fact that these visions are things that John saw, all the actors and events passing before him as a moving panorama—the most stupendous scene that human eyes have ever beheld, containing the future political history of various nations and kingdoms and also the history of the church in her different phases from the beginning until the final consummation. Of the seven churches we will speak more particularly hereafter.
12. And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;
13. 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.
14. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
15. And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
16. 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.
17. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:
18. I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
The hieroglyphic, or symbolic, characters now begin. Turning in the direction from which the voice came, John saw seven beautiful candle-sticks and standing in their midst, a personage whose appearance was inexpressibly glorious. John had recognized the voice of Christ announcing "I am the first and the last," but he was not prepared for the sight that met his gaze when he turned and found himself in the immediate presence of his August Majesty, the Son of God. A human form was there, but clothed in such vestments as proclaimed God; and no wonder mortality was overwhelmed when ushered into the presence of the uncreated Deity—he whose feet glowed as brass in a furnace, whose eyes were as a flame of fire, and whose voice was as the sound of many waters. Any man would have fallen as dead before such a personage as is here described. Men may talk atheism, but it is the atheism of the lips and of a coward heart, an atheism that would flee appalled before the burning footsteps of the Deity, and the irresistible conclusion would be, "It is God himself."
John was not left in doubt regarding the identity of this personage; for, laying his hand upon the prostrate form of the apostle, he said, "Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death." The ever-living One entered death's domains and permitted himself to be bound with chains; but at his pleasure he broke them asunder, conquered death, and rose triumphant, carrying with him the keys of hell and of death; and he has ascended on high, alive forevermore; and at his voice all the dead will arise at his appearing, for the grave can no longer hold its victims.
This vision settles an important fact—that when Christ appears upon the panoramic scene, he comes in his own person, and not in the character of a created substitute. There may be symbols connected with his person—the sword of his mouth may signify vengeance upon his enemies; his eyes as a flame of fire, superior intelligence and penetrating vision, etc.—but he distinctly announces himself to be the Christ of God. There is no creature in the universe that could personate "him that liveth, and was dead, but is alive forevermore."
19. Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;
20. The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.
Here John received a special commission to write the things of the future that were to be given, the things that were then taking place, and also certain events which had come under his personal observation during his life-time, and which were also included in the symbolic visions, thus covering the entire gospel dispensation.
The special symbols employed in this introductory vision are here explained by Christ himself, thus leaving us in no doubt whatever. A star is a fit symbol of the position of a Christian minister—set in the church to give the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world; while a candle-stick fitly represents the congregation working with him and sustaining him in his position. The special power of Christ—symbolized by his right hand—is manifested in upholding his ministers, while he walks in the midst of his churches, ready with the sword of his mouth to defend them from the attacks of their adversaries and to prove their constant Guardian and Protector.
Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;
2. I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
3. And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast labored, and hast not fainted.
4. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
5. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.
6. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.
7. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
The special messages to the seven churches of Asia Minor are not of such thrilling interest as are the symbolic visions of the remainder of the book, yet we can learn many beneficial lessons from the various experiences of these congregations.
At the time the Revelation was given, Ephesus was the chief capital of Proconsular Asia and its pride and glory. It was also that country's chief mart of idolatry, containing, as it did, the magnificent temple of Diana, which is reckoned as one of the seven wonders of the world. This temple, according to the disclosures of modern excavations, was four hundred and eighteen feet in length, and two hundred and thirty-nine in width, with one hundred beautiful external pillars of Parian marble, each a single shaft about fifty-six feet high. The city was proud of the title it had received, "Servant of the Goddess," and even the Roman emperors vied with wealthy natives in lavishing gifts to her. One of the latter, named Vibius Salutaris, presented a large quantity of gold and silver images to be carried annually in procession.
In this proud, wealthy, idolatrous city the apostle Paul planted a Christian church, and the great inroads the gospel made into the prevalent system of idolatry is shown by one circumstance mentioned in the Book of Acts. "And many that believed came, and confessed, and showed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed." Acts 19:18-20. Fifty thousand pieces of silver would be equal to ten thousand dollars' worth, or, according to some estimates, six times that amount. But ten thousand dollars' worth of books on incantation and magic alone destroyed, considering the scarcity of books in that day, shows the wondrous extent to which the gospel had been accepted. This was made the occasion of a great tumult in the city, when one, Demetrius, seeing that the prestige of Diana was diminishing, stirred up the people of the city against Paul and his companions, and cried vehemently, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" The souvenir silver shrines and images of this goddess, which had been in such demand by the multitudes of people constantly visiting the city, were no longer sought for when the knowledge of the one true God was made known; and well might Demetrius and his fellow-craftsmen be alarmed as their means of wealth disappeared.
The spiritual condition of this church in Paul's time is worthy of notice; for it presents a striking contrast with its condition at the time when the special message of the Revelation was addressed to it. Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians taught them the glorious doctrine of entire sanctification (chap. 5:25-27), and they had received the experience; for he gives them the express command, "Grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption." Chap. 4:30. And again, "After that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise." Chap. 1:13. Their ministers, also, had been placed in their position by authority of the Holy Ghost, and were commanded to feed the flock. See Acts 20:28. When this was their heavenly experience, their "first works" of patience, love, and perseverance, were acceptable unto Christ; but it was not their present condition. A sad declension had taken place; therefore the declaration, "I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love." This was no mere human estimate placed upon their piety, but it was their condition as Christ himself knew it to be. He "who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks," and knoweth the hearts of all men, declared they had fallen, and commanded them to repent and to do the first works. How sad that a congregation which had one time enjoyed the fulness of God's favor should fall from grace and be threatened with destruction by the Lord himself! But there is one consolation to be obtained from the experience of this church, and that is, that even if persons have enjoyed an experience of pardon and of sanctification and have lost it, there is a possibility of their recovering the favor of God, provided they "repent, and do the first works."
But Christ, who in chapter 1:5 is said to be "the faithful witness," will not overlook anything that is good, nor censure a congregation unjustly. He finds in this church one fact worthy of commendation—their abhorrence of the deeds of the Nicolaitans. The infamous practises attributed to this party are promiscuous sexual intercourse and the eating of things sacrificed to idols. It is said to have derived its name from Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, who was one of the seven deacons appointed by the church at Jerusalem, Acts 6:5. But there is no satisfactory evidence that Nicolas was its founder; and it is the belief of many, that the sect attributed their origin to him simply to gain the prestige of his name. However, its mention in this connection is sufficient proof that at this time those corrupt principles had been widely promulgated.
The letter closes with an admonition and a promise—an admonition to give heed to the things uttered by the Spirit, and a promise of everlasting life to the overcomer. This shows that Christ does not approve or condemn indiscriminately. If the great mass of professors continue in their backslidden condition, the individual that gives heed to God's Word and is made an overcomer will have a right to "the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God."
What, may we ask, has been the fate of this church against which Christ uttered the threat of removal? There is no proof that they gave heed to the exhortation to repent, and the candle-stick has long since been taken away. Not a vestige of a church remains to mark the site of this once important congregation; nay, the city itself is no more, the stork, the jackal, and a few miserable Turkish huts alone remaining on the site of this once proud metropolis where thousands congregated and cried, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!"
8. And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last which was dead, and is alive;
9. I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
10. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
11. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.
Smyrna was situated on a bay of the Aegean Sea, its beautiful harbor rendering it from time immemorial one of the most important commercial cities of Asia Minor. History does not inform us when the gospel was first introduced in this city; but at a very early date a large congregation existed there, with the venerable Polycarp as its pastor. He suffered death by martyrdom under the reign of Marcus Aurelius about A.D. 167.
In each of the seven letters to the churches Christ introduces himself by some appellation significant of the character he assumes toward them. In this he styles himself "the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive," a fact very important for that congregation to remember during the great seasons of persecution and oppression through which they were to be called to pass.
Against this church Christ has no words of condemnation to utter; all is encouragement and promise. Their condition of poverty is mentioned. It is probable that this very poverty arose because of their accepting Christianity and taking joyfully the spoiling of their goods; for it is a well-known fact that, when individuals embrace Christianity in an idolatrous land, they are disinherited by parents, cast out by relatives, and denied public employment. Even the community refuses to associate with them or to render them assistance in any form. Their means of subsistence is thus cut off, and they are harassed in every possible manner. Perhaps this is the very trial of poverty the church of Smyrna passed through; but Christ declares that they are rich: yea, God hath "chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him." Jas. 2:5. Their enemies may think that they have reduced them to a condition of wretchedness, but in this the persecutors are mistaken. God says the righteous are rich. A certain writer has remarked, "There is many a rich poor man, and many a poor rich man."
The blasphemy of opposing, self-styled Jews is next mentioned. In all probability the term Jew is applied in its spiritual sense. Paul declares that "he is not a Jew which is one outwardly ... but he is a Jew which is one inwardly" (Rom. 2:28, 29), and that "if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." Gal. 3:29. These persons professed to belong to the true "Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16), but they were without salvation; and the Smyrnaen church would not recognize them as belonging to the congregation, and therefore the only name that could be applied to them was "the synagogue of Satan." Had they been tolerated in the assembly of the righteous, Christ would have condemned or rebuked the church for not performing their duty, the same as he did the churches of Pergamos and Thyatira.
Great persecutions for the church of Smyrna are predicted; but he "which was dead, and is alive forevermore," having passed through the ordeal of suffering and death himself, stands in a position to speak words of comfort and consolation, assuring them in the strongest terms that, although wicked men and the devil may cast them into prison and persecute them unto the death, yet "he that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death." The overcomers are of the number of those who, having had "part in the first resurrection, on such the second death hath no power." Chap. 20:6. The ten days doubtless are prophetic time (which will be explained later) and signify ten years, which was probably fulfilled in the terrible persecution that began under the reign of Diocletian, and continued ten years, or from A.D. 302 to 312.
The subsequent history of Smyrna has been different from that of Ephesus, in that it has retained its name and importance until the present day, being the greatest commercial city in the Levant. It has a population of more than two hundred thousand, several thousand of whom belong to the Greek and Armenian churches. The light there has become dimmed, but let us pray that God will soon remember the faith and perseverance of his ancient servants and again trim the lamps that once shone so brightly.
12. And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges;
13. I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.
14. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
15. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.
16. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
17. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.
Pergamos was a city of considerable importance, the ancient metropolis of the province of Mysia and the residence of the Attalian kings.
The description here given of Christ is in accordance with the character of the church addressed and the work he found necessary to perform in it. They are said to be located "where Satan's seat is." Pergamos was a city reputed to be "sacred to the gods" and was one of the headquarters of idolatry. There are numerous such cities now among the Hindoos and other idolatrous nations. These cities are regarded with peculiar veneration and sanctity, and they contain the most honored temples. In the midst of such surroundings the influences against Christianity would be very great.
The congregation is commended because of its loyalty and steadfastness during a period of persecution in which Antipas was slain. When this persecution occurred, we are not informed; and as to the identity of Antipas, we are also left in uncertainty. Some suppose him to have been the elder of the church.
Christ censures them severely, however, for tolerating persons in their midst who held the doctrine of Balaam and the pernicious sentiments of the Nicolaitans, and he threatens to fight against them with the sword of his mouth unless they repent. The doctrine of Balaam is partly explained—he "taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication." When Balak desired Balaam to pronounce a curse against Israel, God by various means miraculously prevented Balaam's doing so; but Balaam craftily instructed Balak to make use of the women of Moab to seduce the men of Israel to sacrifice to their idols and to indulge in the licentious accompaniments to such idolatry. In many places in heathen countries to-day vile women are attached to the temples of the gods, and at certain stated feasts licentiousness becomes a sanctioned part of the religious celebration. Balaam's plan was successful. God was displeased with Israel, and because of this fornication there fell in one day twenty-four thousand. For a full account see Num. 22-25; 31:13-17.
It would appear that the doctrine of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans were classed as two different heresies; but the corrupt tenets of the latter were identical with those of the former, and the probable meaning is, "As the Hebrews had Balaamites among them; so, likewise, you have among you the Nicolaitans teaching the same pernicious doctrines." It is also a singular fact that the Hebrew signification of Balaam and the Greek of Nicolas is the same—"subduer of the people." Thus the doctrine of Balaam would stand as a representation of the principles taught by the Nicolaitans.
The letter to this church also closes with an exhortation and a promise. Hidden manna and a white stone in which is inscribed a new name are rewarded the overcomer. The interpretations of this white stone have been various, but the difficulty seems to lie in determining which ancient custom is meant. The most satisfactory to my mind is that contained in the following account by Mr. Blunt:
"In primitive times, when traveling was rendered difficult from want of places of public entertainment, hospitality was exercised by private individuals to a very great extent, of which, indeed, we find frequent traces in all history, and in none more than in the Old Testament. Persons who partook of this hospitality, and those who practised it, frequently contracted habits of friendship and regard for each other, and it became a well-established custom among the Greeks and Romans to provide their guests with some particular mark, which was handed down from father to son, and insured hospitality and kind treatment whenever it was presented. This mark was usually a small stone or pebble, cut in halves, upon each of which the host and the guest mutually inscribed their names, and then interchanged with each other. The production of these stones was quite sufficient to insure friendship for themselves or descendants whenever they traveled again in the same direction; while it is evident that these stones required to be privately kept, and the names written upon them carefully concealed, lest others should obtain the privileges instead of the persons for whom they were intended." So those who have obtained salvation and are overcomers through the blood have received the sure pledge of Christ's eternal friendship (which those who know not God can not receive) and are invited to partake of all of his hospitalities, even to "eat of the hidden manna," which is experienced by the truly sanctified.
18. And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass;
19. I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first.
20. Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
21. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.
22. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.
23. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.
24. But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden.
25. But that which ye have already hold fast till I come.
26. And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:
27. And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father.
28. And I will give him the morning star.
29. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
To this congregation Christ manifests himself in the character of him "who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet like fine brass," denoting the fact that he is the great discerner of all hearts and that he is able to render unto every man according to his deeds. Whether the expression, "his feet like fine brass," has any particular signification, I am unable to say.
This letter opens with a commendation of the works, the charity, the service, and the faith of this church. In these things they had made considerable advancement. Nevertheless, Christ had something against them, because they had suffered "that woman Jezebel" to teach false doctrines and to seduce the servants of Christ to compromise with idolatry and to commit fornication. It is improbable that Jezebel was her real name; but she was a Jezebel in character, named in this letter after King Ahab's wicked wife, who killed the Lord's prophets, seduced her husband into idolatry, and fed the priests of Baal at her own table. Some have supposed that this appellation designated a number or class of people teaching these doctrines; but the manner in which "her children," or disciples, are spoken of would seem rather to point out a particular woman—one who was a leader and the chief instrument of mischief.
The long-suffering of Christ had been manifested in this case. He had given her an opportunity to repent of her evil deeds, but she would not. Now he declares that he will cause his judgments to descend upon her and her followers. By casting her into a bed is doubtless meant that he would bring her down upon a bed of sickness and pain and thus make her a most distressing object. Her partners in sin were to suffer "great tribulation," and "her children," or disciples, he would kill with death, or deadly pestilence. Thus would this whole corrupt party be visited with divine judgments according to their works; while their great pretensions to wisdom and discernment, "as they speak," or as they term it, will be shown to be nothing but the "depths of Satan."
The frequent references to these gross sins in the letters to the churches may seem a little strange to us in the altered circumstances of society in which we live; but when we consider the tone of public sentiment and the prevalence of idolatry at that time, it will be seen that the lapse into these sins was very easy. Some compromised with the heathen by joining in their idolatrous feasts, maintaining that the meat was not affected one way or the other, and this proved but a stepping-stone to the licentious principles and the corrupt practises of those with whom they thus associated.
The remainder of this letter is full of encouragement to the faithful. The only burden Christ placed upon them was a severe censure because they tolerated that abominable party in their midst. They were exhorted to continue faithful and were promised power over the nations. These they should rule with a rod of iron, the same as Christ, who received this power from his Father. The law, or rod, with which Christ, and his people with him, as kings and priests, rule the nations is the word of God, the most unyielding law, based upon the greatest authority, ever written. "Let the saints be joyful in glory ... let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand; to execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; to execute upon them the judgments written: this honor have all his saints." Psa. 149:5-9.
And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.
2. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.
3. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.
4. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.
5. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
6. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Sardis was one of the chief cities of western Asia Minor. It was beautifully situated on the river Pactolus, in the middle Hermus valley, at the foot of Mount Tmolus, and was once the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, the place of residence of Croesus and other Lydian kings. It was a city of great opulence and splendor, and "distinguished for the voluptuous and debauched manners of its inhabitants."
To this church Christ introduces himself as "he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars"—that is, he has control of the Holy Spirit's agency and of his ministers. Thus, the great spiritual agencies of the church are in his keeping to bestow or to take away as he pleases. Considering the dead condition of this church of Sardis, it was very appropriate for Christ thus to address himself to them. He has no words of commendation to offer, no works of charity, service, faith, and patience of which to approve. They had works, but these were not "perfect before God." They were threatened with sudden visitation, as unexpected as a thief breaking in unawares upon the slumbering inmates of a dwelling in the still hours of night. Their condition was different from that of any of the churches before mentioned. They are not charged with such vile practises as prevailed at Pergamus and Thyatira, the doctrine of the Nicolaitans had gained no foothold among them, yet their works were not perfect. "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and are dead." They had maintained the external form of religion, but the vital power of godliness was lacking.
Although Christ could not commend this church as a body, on account of their lack of spirituality, yet he testified, "Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments." In the midst of all the cold formalism of professors and surrounded by worldliness and iniquity, a few preserved their Christian integrity and were approved by the Lord. "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this ... to keep himself unspotted from the world." Jas. 1:27. All such overcomers have the promise of being clothed in white raiment ("the righteousness of saints "—chap. 19:8) and of having their names preserved in the "book of life" in heaven and confessed before the Father and the holy angels. Wondrous admission into the heavenly realm! Presented to the Father and the innumerable hosts of heaven by the Lord, himself, there, amid sacred environments, to enjoy the transcendent felicity of eternal blessedness! "They are worthy," saith Christ.
Although this church was threatened with sudden visitation, there is no hint given of the manner in which this should be fulfilled, for the reason, perhaps, that it might be all the more unexpected. The church has long since passed out of existence. The city itself has lain in ruins for centuries, the modern village of Sart composed of a few huts inhabited by semi-nomadic Yuruks alone remaining near the ancient site. Cattle now graze on grassy plains once traversed by streets and thronged with the inhabitants of this superb metropolis.
7. And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth;
8. I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.
9. Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.
10. Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
11. Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
12. Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God, and I will write upon him my new name.
13. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Philadelphia was once a large and powerful city, and it continued thus until later times. Prior to the time the Revelation was written, it had suffered severely from repeated earthquakes, which caused it to be almost deserted by its inhabitants. Subsequently, however, it recovered and became a prosperous, influential city.
The character Christ assumes toward this church is that of the Holy and True—one who will justly reward them for their patience and perseverance—and by virtue of his possessing the key of David (a symbol of power and authority), he is able to place before them an open door which no man can shut.
The character of this church is wholly unlike that of the preceding. In that, there was nothing to commend, but much to condemn; whereas to this, all is admonition, encouragement, and promise, because they had "kept the word of his patience" and had not denied his name. Christ knew their works and that they were worthy of approval. They still possessed "a little strength" and had not denied his name.
Christ, who always upholds and rewards his faithful followers, although they be few in number and constitute the despised of earth, was not unrighteous that he should overlook this humble congregation of devoted disciples that had kept his word, but he made them a number of special promises because of their faith and perseverance. The first was the assurance that he had set before them an open door which no man could shut. A door is a means either of entrance or of escape, and signifies that God was going to open before them a greater field of enlargement and success, or else would furnish them a sure means of escape and protection from their cruel and relentless persecutors. It will be remembered that the church of Smyrna also received nothing but commendation and encouragement; but there was no promise of an open door to them. On the contrary, they were told that they should be tried, cast into prison, and suffer tribulation ten days. They were comforted, however, with a certain assurance of future reward and a crown of everlasting life. But before the church of Philadelphia there was opened a scene of greater prosperity, deliverance from enemies, greater enlargement, and the glorious prospect of seeing multitudes of souls brought under the influence of the saving gospel of Christ.
The next promise was that of deliverance from opposing Jews, who were to be humbled before them. This refers, doubtless, to persons who had a mere profession of Christianity and who were not recognized by the congregation—the same as the blaspheming Jews of Smyrna. The faithfulness of God's elect would eventually be the means of bringing them back to an experience of salvation, so that they would worship in the midst of the church again.
Another promise to this congregation was, "I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world." Some dreadful calamity is here predicted, during which the power of God would be mercifully manifested in granting this church a special preservation. Some suppose it to have reference to a great general persecution throughout the Roman empire, during which the Christians of Philadelphia would be spared. This may have been the fact; but whether it was or not, we have no means of information. When we come to consider the symbols of chapter 9, in which the delusive error of Mohammedanism is set forth, we will see what a period of sore trial this delusion was to the Eastern churches. It is also a fact that, in the midst of this abounding heresy, the church of Philadelphia was preserved as was no other church of Asia. When the followers of Mohammed were sweeping like a whirlwind over the Eastern empire, ravaging everything before them, Philadelphia remained an independent Christian city, when all the other cities of Asia Minor were under the power of the Saracen sword. It held out against the Ottoman power until the year 1390 A.D., when it surrendered to Sultan Bayazid's mixed army of Ottoman Turks and Byzantine Christians (?). This was six years after the death of Wickliffe, "the morning star of the reformation," who opposed the corruptions of the Papacy, gave the world the first English translation of the Bible, and sowed the seeds that soon grew and produced a Huss, a Jerome, and a Luther. So God preserved the Christians of Philadelphia in the East until he began raising up others to herald his truth in the West, whose labors soon ripened into the glorious Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.
His final promise to the overcomer is that he shall be made a pillar in the temple of God, and receive the name of God, of Christ, and of the New Jerusalem, or city of God. In some manner the Christian is labelled with the name of God, whose property he is; with the name of Christ, by whom he was purchased; and with the name of the New Jerusalem, or city of God, his inheritance and eternal abiding-place; and he is made a pillar in the temple of God. By turning to Heb. 12:22, 23, we find that the general assembly and church of God in this dispensation constitutes, in one important sense, the New Jerusalem, or city of God, in which the overcomers abide. "But ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem ... to the general assembly and church of the first-born, which are written in heaven." The church is also styled the house or temple of God, composed of people out of all nations who "are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord ... for an habitation of God through the Spirit." Eph. 2:20-22. See also 1 Cor. 3:17; 1 Pet. 2:5; 1 Tim. 3:15.
To be a pillar in this temple of God means to occupy a conspicuous or useful position in supporting the truth, examples of which are to be found in such characters as "James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars" in the church in apostolic times. Gal. 2:9. In the last prayer of Christ to the Father, he says concerning his disciples, "While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name" (John 17:12); and since the church promised by Christ (Mat. 16:18) has been established, we continually bear the name of the Father, its title being the church or city of God. We also bear the new name of Christ, as explained in chapter 2:17, and we meet together and worship in that name (Mat. 18:20), obeying the exhortation of the apostle Paul—"Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him." Col. 3:17. A better understanding of the manner in which we receive the name of God and of his city will be obtained when we come to the consideration of the followers of a false, degenerate church represented as receiving the "mark of the beast," by which they are designated.
To inquire further into the history of this church, Philadelphia still remains with a population of about fifteen thousand. It contains a number of places of public worship, a resident (Greek) archbishop, and several inferior clergy. Mr. Keith, in his "Evidence of Prophecy," speaks of the then presiding bishop, and says that he acknowledges "the Bible as the only foundation of all religious belief" and admits that "abuses have entered into the church, which former ages might endure, but the present must put down." It is also a singular coincidence that the modern Turkish name of the city, Ala-Shehr, signifies "city of God."
This description of the church of Philadelphia I will bring to a close by adding the following extract from Gibbon, recorded in his noted history entitled "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." It is of especial value since the writer, being an avowed infidel, can not be convicted of misconstruing historical facts in order to favor Christianity.
"The captivity or ruin of the seven churches of Asia was consummated [by the Ottomans] A.D. 1312, and the barbarous lords of Ionia and Lydia still trample on the monuments of classic and Christian antiquity. In the loss of Ephesus the Christians deplore the fall of the first candle-stick of the Revelation. The desolation is complete; and the temple of Diana and the church of Mary will equally elude the search of the curious traveler. The circus and three stately theatres of Laodicea are now peopled with wolves and foxes. Sardis is reduced to a miserable village. The God of Mohammed without a rival is invoked in the mosques of Thyatira and Pergamus; and the populousness of Smyrna is supported by the foreign trade of the Franks and Armenians. Philadelphia alone has been saved by prophecy or courage. At a distance from the sea, forgotten by the emperors, encompassed on all sides by the Turks, her valiant sons defended their religion and freedom above fourscore years, and at length capitulated with the proudest of the Ottomans. Among the Greek colonies of Asia, Philadelphia is still erect—a column in a scene of ruins—a pleasing example that the path of honor and safety may sometimes be the same." Vol. VI., p. 229.
14. And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
15. I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
16. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
17. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
18. I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye salve, that thou mayest see.
19. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
20. Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
21. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
22. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Laodicea was one of the wealthiest cities of Asia Minor. It was built upon some low hills, and occupied an important situation in the center of a very fertile district. It was famous for its money transactions and for the beautiful soft wool grown by the sheep of the country, which facts are both alluded to in the message. Verses 17, 18. During the reign of Tiberius Caesar it was entirely destroyed by an earthquake, but its wealthy inhabitants rebuilt it immediately. A Christian church was soon planted there; for Paul makes the request that his epistle to the Colossians be read in the church of Laodicea and that his epistle to the church of Laodicea (which was not included in the New Testament canon) be read unto them. Col. 4:16.
The condition of this church, according to the burden of the message, was worse than that of any of the others; for there is not only no commendation of former faith and piety, but it is not even said of them, as of the church at Sardis, that a few names were left who had not defiled their garments. Christ, who here represents himself in the character of the "faithful and true Witness," testifies that they are "neither cold nor hot." They did not have enough piety nor zeal to cause them to do anything for the honor of Christ and his cause, neither were they open enemies. They were merely lukewarm, insincere friends, and, as such, were in a position to do the greatest harm. A certain writer has said, "We always dread a professed but insincere friend; he is the least desirable of all relations."