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Sunday, July 14th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Revelation 1

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1

(1) The Revelation of Jesus Christ.—The book is a revelation of the things which are and the things which shall be. “John is the writer, but Jesus Christ is the author,” says Grotius; and consistently with this the action of Christ is seen throughout. It is Christ who bids John write to the seven churches; it is Christ who opens the seven seals (Revelation 6:1), who reveals the sufferings of the Church (Revelation 6:9), who offers the prayers of the saints (Revelation 8:3), and delivers the little book to John (Revelation 10:1-11). Thus it is seen that though the rise and fall of earth’s history is included in the revelation, it is a revelation also of a living person; it is not the dull, dead onward flow of circumstances, but the lives of men and nations seen in the light of Him who is the light of every man and the life of all history; and thus we learn that “only a living person can be the Alpha and Omega, the starting-point of creation and its final rest.” The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of this prophecy, as of all others. The Father gives this to the Son whom He loves, and shows Him all things that Himself doeth.

Shortly.—On this word much controversy has turned. Its force, “speedily,” affords a groundwork, and, it must be admitted, a plausible one, to the præterist school of interpreters, who hold that the whole range of Apocalyptic predictions was fulfilled within a comparatively short time after the Apostle wrote. The truth, however, seems to be that the words of God are of perpetual fulfilment: they are not only to be fulfilled; they have not only been fulfilled; but they have been and they are being fulfilled; and they yet will be fulfilled; and the principles which are enunciated by the Prophet, though “shortly” fulfilled, are not exhausted in the immediate fulfilment, but carry still lessons for the succeeding generations of mankind.

Johni.e., the Apostle and Evangelist. The arguments in support of this identification are admitted even by the most captious critics to be conclusive. “The Apocalypse, if any book can be traced to him, must be ascribed to the Apostle John” (Supernatural Religion). (See Excursus A.) To many it will seem natural that John, the beloved disciple, should be the recipient of this revelation. Those who have been nearest to God learn most of His will. Such are friends, not servants, for the servant knoweth not what his Lord doeth; and thus, as in the Old Testament to Abraham, the friend of God, and to Daniel, a man greatly beloved, so in the New Testament to the disciple who leaned on Jesus’ bosom, are shown the things which God was about to do. “Mysteries are revealed unto the meek. The pure in heart shall see God. A pure heart penetrateth heaven and hell” (Thomas à-Kempis).

“More bounteous aspects on me beam,

Me mightier transports move and thrill;

So keep I fair through faith and prayer,

A virgin heart in work and will.”—Sir Galahad.

Verse 2

(2) Who bare record.—Elsewhere as well as here. And he tells us of what he bore record—of the Word of God. The writer declares that the substance of his testimony and witness had been this Word of God. We have here an indication of what the general character of his teaching had been. It evidently had been a teaching laying stress on that aspect of truth which is so forcibly set before us in the Fourth Gospel and the Epistles bearing the name of John. (Comp. Revelation 19:11; John 1:1; John 1:14; 1 John 1:1, et al. Note also that the words “record,” “testimony,” “witness,” found in this verse, recur in the Gospel and Epistles. Comp. John 5:31-40; John 19:35; John 21:24.)

Verse 3

(3) Blessed is he that readeth. . . . prophecy.—Any declaration of the principles of the divine government, with indications of their exemplification in coming history, is a prophecy. Sometimes the history which exemplifies these principles is immediate, sometimes more remote; in other cases (as, I venture to believe, is the case with the predictions of this book) the events are both immediate and remote. The prophecy gives us the rule, with some typical application illustrative of its method of working; after-history affords us the working out of various examples. We, then, as living actors in the world, have not only to read and hear, but to keep—keep in mind and action those principles which preside over the development of all human history (James 1:22). The word “keep” is in itself a proof to me that the whole fulfilment of the Apocalypse could not have been exhausted in the earliest times, nor reserved to the latest times of the Church’s history, but that its predictions are applicable in all eras.

The time is at hand.—In the apostolic mind this was always true, though the restless idleness of the Thessalonians was blamed (2 Thessalonians 2:2; 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12). The spirit of vigilance and of ever readiness for both the providential advents and the final advent of the Christ was enjoined. (Comp. Romans 13:12; James 5:9; 2 Peter 3:8-9.)

Verse 4

(4) JOHN to the seven churches (or, congregations) which are in Asia.—It is needless to observe that the Asia here is not to be regarded as co-extensive with what we know as Asia Minor. It is the province of Asia (comp. Acts 2:9-10; Acts 16:6-7), which was under a Roman proconsul, and embraced the western portion of Asia Minor. In St. John’s time it consisted of a strip of sea-board, some 100 square miles in extent. Its boundaries varied at different periods; but roughly, and for the present purpose, they may be regarded as the Caycus on the north, the Mæander on the south, the Phrygian Hills on the east, and the Mediterranean on the west.

Seven churches.—It has been maintained by some (notably by Vitringa) that the epistles to the seven churches are prophetic, and set forth the condition of the Church in the successive epochs of its after-history. The growth of error, the development of schisms, the gloom of superstition, the darkness of mediæval times, the dawn of the Reformation, the convulsions of after-revolutions, have been discovered in these brief and forcible epistles. Such a view needs no formal refutation. The anxiety for circumstantial and limited fulfilments of prophecy has been at the root of such attempts. When we read God’s words as wider than our thoughts we stand in no need of such desperate efforts at symmetrical interpretations; for the truth then is seen to be that words addressed to one age have their fitness for all; and that these epistles are the heritage of the Church in every epoch. In this sense the churches are types and representatives of the whole family of God. Every community may find its likeness here. This much is admitted by the best commentators of all schools. “The seven churches,” says St. Chrysostom, “are all churches by reason of the seven Spirits.” “By the seven,” writes St. Augustine, “is signified the perfection of the Church universal, and by writing to the seven he shows the fulness of one.” And the words, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches,” ‘are, as has been well observed, a direct intimation that some universal application of their teaching was intended.

Grace be unto you, and peace.—Three apostles, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John, adopt the same salutation. Not only is this a kind of link of Christian fellowship between them, but its adoption by St. John, after St. Paul had first used it, is a slight token that the Apocalypse cannot be regarded (as some recent critics would have it) as an anti-Pauline treatise. As the Christian greeting, it transcends while it embraces the Greek and Hebrew salutations. There is no tinge of the sadness of separation; it is the greeting of hope and repose, grounded on the only true foundation of either, the grace of God, which is the well-spring of life and love.

From him which is, and which was, and which is to come (or, which cometh).—The phrase presents a remarkable violation of grammar; but the violation is clearly intentional. It is not the blunder of an illiterate writer; it is the deliberate putting in emphatic form the “Name of Names.” “Should not,” says Professor Lightfoot, “this remarkable feature be preserved in an English Bible? If in Exodus 3:14 the words run, ‘I AM hath sent me unto you,’ may we not also be allowed to read here, from ‘HE THAT IS, AND THAT WAS, AND THAT IS TO COME?’“ The expression must not be separated from what follows. The greeting is triple: from Him which is, and which was, and which cometh; from the seven Spirits; and from Jesus Christ—i.e., from the Triune God. The first phrase would therefore seem to designate God the Father, the self-existing, eternal One, the fount and origin of all existence. Professor Plumptre suggests that the phrase used here may be used in allusion and contrast to the inscription spoken of by Plutarch, on the Temple of Isis, at Sais: “I am all that has come into being, and that which is, and that which shall be; and no man hath lifted my vail.” The heathen inscription identifies God with the universe, making Him, not an ever-being, but an ever-becoming, from whom personality is excluded: the Christian description is of the personal, everlasting, self-revealing God—who is, who was, and who cometh. We should have expected after “is” and “was” “will be;” but there is no “will be” with an eternal God. With Him all is; so the word “cometh” is used, hinting His constant manifestations in history, and the final coming in judgment. This allusion to the Second Coming is denied by Professor Plumptre, but as he admits that the words, “He that cometh,” used in the Gospels, and applied by the Jews to the Messiah, may be designedly employed here by the Apostle, it is difficult to see how the Advent idea can be excluded. The word appears to imply that we are to be always looking for Him whose “comings” recur in all history as the earnests of the fuller and final Advent.

From the seven Spirits.—The interpretation which would understand these seven Spirits to be the seven chief angels, though supported by names of great weight, is plainly untenable. The context makes it impossible to admit any other meaning than that the greeting which comes from the Father and the Son comes also from the Holy Spirit sevenfold in His operations, whose gifts are diffused among all the churches, and who divides to every man severally as He will. For corresponding thoughts in the Old Testament, compare the seven lamps and seven eyes of Zechariah (Zechariah 3:9; Zechariah 4:2; Zechariah 4:10), “the symbols of eternal light and all embracing knowledge.” It may not be inappropriate to note that Philo speaks of the number seven in its mystical import as identical with unity, as unity developed in diversity, and yet remaining one. This unity in diversity is the thought St. Paul seems anxious to keep before the minds of the Corinthians, lest their gifts should become the source of division. All work that one and self-same spirit (1 Corinthians 12:11). The after-recurrence in this book of the number seven is, I think, selected to support this thought of completeness and variety; the dramatic unity is preserved, though the scenes which are unfolded are amply diversified; and the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven vials, are not three successive periods, but three aspects of one complete period presided over by that one Spirit whose guidance may be seen in all ages, and in diverse ways. The Spirits are before the throne. This reference to the throne gives a touch of authority to the description. The Holy Spirit who pleads with men is the Spirit from God’s Throne.

Verse 5

(5) From Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten (or, firstborn) of the dead, and the prince (or, ruler) of the kings of the earth.—The triple title applied to Christ corresponds to the three ideas of this book. Christ the Revealing Prophet, the Life-giving High Priest, and the real Ruler of mankind.

The faithful witness.—There may be a reference here, it has been suggested by Prof. Plumptre, to the bow in the cloud, which is described in Psalms 89:37 as the faithful witness. The coincidence of expression is remarkable: “I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth; he shall stand fast as the sun before me, and as the faithful witness in heaven.” The idea of testimony and witness is a favourite one with St. John, who records its use by our Lord Himself. (Comp. John 3:32; John 5:36; John 18:37. See also Revelation 19:10; Revelation 22:18. Comp. also the work of the Only Begotten as stated in John 1:18.)

The prince (or ruler) of the kings of the earth.—The message does not come from One who will be, but who is the true ruler of all earthly potentates. The disposition to dwell on the future and more visibly recognised reign of Christ hereafter has tended to obscure the truth of His present reign. It is instructive to notice that this book, which describes so vividly the manifestations of Christ’s kingdom (Revelation 11:15; Revelation 12:10), claims for Him at the outset the place of the real King of kings. Such was the Apostle’s faith. “Above all emperors and kings, above all armies and multitudes, he thought of the Crucified as ruling and directing the course of history, and certain in His own due time to manifest His sovereignty” (Prof. Plumptre). “What are we to see in the simple Anno Domini of our dates and superscriptions, but that for some reason the great world-history has been bending itself to the lowly person of Jesus” (Bushnell). “A handful read the philosophers; myriads would die for Christ; they in their popularity could barely found a school; Christ from His cross rules the world” (Farrar, Witness of History). Such is a real kingship.

Unto him that loved us, and washed us.—Instead of “washed us,” some MSS. read, “loosed us.” There is only one letter’s difference in the two words in Greek. The general tone of thought would lead us to prefer “washed” as the true reading. On a solemn occasion, which St. John remembered clearly, our Lord had said, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me.” The thought of the “cleansing blood,” intensified by the recollection of the water and blood which he had seen flowing from Christ’s pierced side, often recurred to his mind (Revelation 7:13-14; 1 John 1:7; 1 John 5:6-8).

Verse 6

(6) And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever (or, unto the ages).—The symbol of washing in the last verse naturally leads on to the thought of consecration, accompanied by blood-sprinkling, to the work of the priest (Exodus 19:6; Exodus 19:10; Exodus 24:8; Hebrews 9:21). The book will declare the kingship and priesthood of the children of God—a sovereignty over human fears and sufferings—their priesthood in their lives of consecration, and their offering of themselves even unto death.

“And all thy saints do overcome
By Thy blood and their martyrdom.”

The doxology here is two-fold: glory and dominion. The doxologies in which the Redeemed Church takes part grow in strength in the earlier chapters of this book. It is three-fold in Revelation 4:9-11; four-fold in Revelation 5:13; and it reaches the climax of seven-fold in Revelation 7:12.

Verse 7

(7) Behold, he cometh with clouds.—Better, with the clouds. The reference to Christ’s words (Mark 14:62) is undoubted. In the “clouds” St. Augustine sees the emblem of the saints of the Church, which is His body, who spread as a vast fertilising cloud over the whole world.

Every eye shall see him, and they also which (they were who = “whosoever”) pierced him.—Here again is a reference to the incident of the piercing of Christ’s side (John 19:34), recorded only by St. John.

Shall wail because of him.—Or, shall wail over Him. The prophecy in Zechariah 12:10, is the suggesting one of this. But the passage in Zechariah describes the mourning of grief over the dead; the passage here is the mourning towards one who was dead, and is alive. He towards whom they now direct their sorrow is the One over whom they should have wailed when He was laid in His tomb.

Verse 8

(8) The beginning and the ending.—These words are of doubtful authority; they are in all probability taken from Revelation 22:13, and interpolated here. The description of the verse applies, with little doubt, to our Lord, and the words are a strong declaration of His divinity.

The Almighty.—The word thus rendered is, with one exception (2 Corinthians 6:18), peculiar to this book in the New Testament.

Verse 9

(9) I John, who also am your brother . . .—More literally, I, John, your brother and fellow partner in the tribulation and kingdom and patience in Jesus,. . . . because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. He was a fellow-sharer of tribulation with them, and he shares that patience which brings experience, because it is a patience in Jesus. It is not patience for Christ, like 2 Thessalonians 3:5, nor patience of Christ, but rather patience which draws its life and energy of endurance from Him.

Patmos.—Professor Plumptre notices how little the scenery of Patmos colours the Apocalypse. “The vision that follows is all but unaffected by the external surroundings of the seer. At the farthest, we can but think of the blue waters of the Mediterranean—now purple as wine, now green as emerald, flushing and flashing in the light as the hues on the plumage of a dove.” The position of the Apostle in Patmos was probably that of an exile, free to roam where he would within the limits of the island. There was at any rate no limit of chains or guard, as in the case of St. Paul (Acts 28:16; Acts 28:20). He tells us what was the cause of his exile. It was his faithfulness in proclaiming, as we know he loved to do, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. “St. John, proclaiming the Word of God, who was before all worlds, who had been made flesh and dwelt among men, who was the King of kings and Lord of lords, struck a blow at the worship as well as the polity of the Roman empire. He opposed the God-man to the man-god” (Maurice on the Revel., p. 20). The contest is incessantly the same. False creeds ever aim to deify man. “Ye shall be as gods” is their motto and their bible. “Emmanuel,” is the motto of the true faith—

“The Lord was God, and came as man; the Pope
Is man, and comes as God.”—Harold.

The crucified, suffering Saviour, God in Christ, very God, and one with man in sorrow, was the stumbling-block in the past, and is the ideal which offends many now. (See Bp. Alexander’s Bampton Lectures, p. 30, et seq.) The terms of the conflict remain unchanged through the ages. (Comp. Revelation 6:9.)

Verse 10

(10) I was (or, I became) in the Spirit.—The mind, drawn onward by the contemplation of things spiritual, is abstracted from the immediate consciousness of outward earthly forms of life. In great natures this power is usually strong. Socrates is related to have stood rapt in thought for hours, and even days, unconscious of the midday heat, or the mocking wonder of his comrades. To high-souled men, set upon the spiritual welfare of the race, this power of detaching themselves from the influence of the outward is the result of their earnestness; the things spiritual are to them the real; the things seen are temporal. It is the Holy Spirit alone which can give the power of this spiritual abstraction; but it is through the ordinary use of means that this power is bestowed. In St. John’s case it was on the Lord’s Day that this spiritual rapture was vouchsafed.

The Lord’s day.—There is no ground whatever for the futurist interpretation that this expression refers to the “Day of the Lord,” as in 2 Thessalonians 2:2. The phrase in this latter passage is totally different. The phrase here is. en te kuriake hemera. The adjective is applied by St. Paul (perhaps coined by him for the purpose) to the Lord’s Supper: from the Supper it came to be applied to the day on which Christians met for the breaking of bread. The day is still called κυριακὴ (kuriake) in the Levant. On the Lord’s Day the vision came to the Apostle. It was the hour of sweetest, closest communion, when the memories of Christ risen, and the fellowship he had enjoyed at Ephesus, would work on his spirit, and aid in raising him in highest adoration, like St. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). When so rapt, he heard a voice, strong, clear, and resonant as a trumpet. The Apostle’s voice could not be heard among his beloved flock at Ephesus; but there was a voice which would reach from the exile at Patmos, not to Ephesus and its sister churches, but to all churches and throughout all time. The mouth which persecution closes God opens, and bids it speak to the world. So St. Paul, through the Epistles of his Captivity, still speaks. Luther, by his translation of the Bible, spoke from his confinement at Wartburg; and Bunyan, by his divine allegory, shows how feeble were the walls of his cell at Bedford to silence the voice of God. If speech be silver and silence golden, it is also true in the history of the Church that from the captivity of her teachers she has received her most abiding treasures.

Verse 11

(11) I am Alpha and Omega.—In this verse we pass from St. John to Him who was the Word, of whom St. John gave testimony. He who is the faithful witness now speaks. “What thou seest, write,” &c. The previous words, “I am Alpha,” &c., are not found in the best MSS. The words “which are in Asia,” are also omitted.

The seven churches.—There were more than seven churches in Asia Minor; but the number selected indicates completeness. Thus, though having special reference to the conditions of those churches, the epistles may be regarded as epistles conveying ever appropriate lessons to the churches of succeeding ages. The names of the seven churches are enumerated, as they would naturally be by a person writing from Patmos. “First, Ephesus is addressed, as the Asiatic metropolis, and as the nearest church to Patmos; then the other churches on the western coast of Asia; then those in the interior” (Wordsworth).

Verse 12

(12) Seven golden candlesticks.—Comp. the vision in Zechariah 4:2-11. It has been observed that there is a difference in the two visions. In Zech., as in Exodus 25:31-32, the seven branches are united, so as to form one candlestick; here there are said to be seven candlesticks; and from this supposed difference it is argued that we have a hint of the variety of the Christian churches, as distinguished from the singleness of the Jewish church. But is it not more probable that what St. John saw was the old familiar seven-branched candlestick, identical in form with that which has been rendered familiar to all by the Arch of Titus, but that as the mention of the seven churches was then fresh in his mind, his eye fell rather upon the seven limbs and seven lights than on the whole candlestand, especially if, as Prof. Plumptre suggests, the figure of the Christ concealed part of the main stem? Thus to his view the separate individuality of the churches, and their real union in Him who was the Light, would rather be symbolised. Thus, too, the external teachings of the earlier symbols are not disturbed: the new revelation illumines the types and shadows of the older. “These symbols were intended to raise them out of symbols; the truths were to throw light on the parables, rather than the parables on the truths. Men were to study the visions of an earlier day by the revelations of that day” (Maurice, Apocalypse, p. 22).

Verse 13

(13) In the midst of the seven candlesticks (the word “seven” is omitted in some of the best MSS.) one like unto the Son of man.—“He who kindled the light to be a witness of Himself and of His own presence with men was indeed present.” He was present the same as He had been known on earth, yet different—the same, for He is seen as Son of Man; the same as He had been seen on the Resurrection evening; the same as He appeared to Stephen; the same Jesus, caring for, helping and counselling His people: yet different, for He is arrayed in the apparel of kingly and priestly dignity. He is robed to the foot with the long garment of the high priest. St. John uses the same word which is used in the LXX. version of Exodus 28:31, to describe the robe of the Ephod. (Comp. Zechariah 3:4.) It has been understood by some, however, to indicate the “ample robe of judicial and kingly power.” There is in the vision a combination of both thoughts. He is the King-Priest who is seen by the Evangelist, the Melchisedec whom the Epistle to the Hebrews had so gloriously set forth (Hebrews 5:9-10; Hebrews 6:20; especially Hebrews 7:1-17). He is girt about the breasts with a golden girdle. The girdle is not around the loins, as though ready for action and toil (Luke 12:35), but it is worn as by one who rests from toil in the “repose of sovereignty.” So, according to Josephus (Ant. iii. 7, § 2), the Levitical priests were girdled. The girdle is of gold; not interwoven with gold, as was the high priest’s girdle (Exodus 28:8), but pure gold, the emblem of a royal presence. (Comp. Isaiah 11:5; Daniel 10:5; Ephesians 6:14.)

Verse 14

(14) His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow.—The whiteness here is thought by some to be the token of the transfiguration in light of the glorified person of the Redeemer. “It is the glorious white which is the colour and livery of heaven.” This doubtless is true; but it appears to me a mistake to say that there is no hint here of age. It is argued that the white hair of age is a token of decay, and that no such token would have place here; but surely this is straining a point, and making a mere emblem an argument. Age and youth alike have their glories; the glory of young men is their strength; the hoary head, too, the token of experience, dignity, authority, is the glory of age. Physically, white hair may be a sign of decay; typically it never is, else the effort to produce the appearance of it in the persons of monarchs and judges would never have been made. The white head is never in public sentiment other than the venerable sign of ripe knowledge, mature judgment, and solid wisdom; and as such it well betokens that full wisdom and authority which is wielded by the Ancient of Days, who, though always the same in the fresh dew of youth, is yet from everlasting, the captain of salvation, perfect through suffering, radiant in the glorious youthhood of heaven, venerable in that eternal wisdom and glory which He had with the Father before the world. (Comp. Daniel 7:9.) “He was one,” Saadias Gaon beautifully says, “with the appearance of an old man, and like an old man full of mercies. His white hair, His white garments, indicated the pure, kind intentions He had to purify His people from their sins.”

His eyes were as a flame of fire.—Comp. Revelation 19:12; Daniel 10:6. The eyes of the Lord, which are in every place, beholding the evil and the good, are here described as like unto fire, to express not merely indignation (He had looked once on the Jewish rulers in indignation) against evil, but determination to consume it; for our God is a consuming fire, purging away sin from those who forsake sin, and consuming in their sin those who refuse to be separated from it. (See Revelation 20:9; Daniel 7:9-10; Jude 1:7.)

Verse 15

(15) His feet like unto fine brass.—The feet, like the feet of the ministering priests of Israel, were bare, and appeared like chalcolibanus (fine brass). The exact meaning of this word (used only here) is not certain. The most trustworthy authors incline to take it as a hybrid word, half Greek, half Hebrew—chalcos, brass, and labân, white, to whiten—and understand it to signify brass which has attained in the furnace a white heat. “Such technical words were likely enough to be current in a population like that of Ephesus, consisting largely of workers in metal, some of whom—if we may judge from the case of Alexander the coppersmith (Acts 19:34; 2 Timothy 4:14)—were, without doubt, Jews. I believe the word in question to have belonged to this technical vocabulary. It is at any rate used by St. John as familiar and intelligible to those for whom he wrote” (Prof. Plumptre in the Epistles to Seven Churches, in loco).

His voice as the sound (better, voice, as the same word—phoné—is used twice, and translated first “voice” and then “sound” in our English version) of many waters.—Daniel described the voice of the Ancient of Days as the voice of a multitude (Daniel 10:6); but the voice of the multitude was in earlier Hebrew writings compared to the sound of the waves of the sea, which the voice of the Lord alone could subdue (Psalms 65:7; Psalms 93:4). This image the Evangelist adopts to describe the voice of Christ—strong and majestic, amid the Babel-sounds of earth. That voice, whose word stilled the sea, sounds as the waves of the sea, which St. John heard Him rebuke.

Verse 16

(16) And he had (or, having) in his right hand seven stars.—The stars are explained later on (Revelation 1:20) to be the emblems of the angels of the seven churches; they are described as stars in His right hand; they, perhaps, appeared as a wreath, or as a royal and star-adorned diadem in His hand. (See Isaiah 62:3.) It expresses their preciousness in Christ’s sight, and the care He takes of them. A similar emblem is used of Coniah (Jeremiah 22:24), where he is compared to the signet upon God’s right hand.

And out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword.—There need be no doubt about the meaning here: the imagery of the Bible elsewhere is too explicit to be mistaken; it is the sword of the Spirit, even the word of God, which is here described; it is that word which is sharper than any two-edged sword, and which lays bare the thoughts and intents of the soul (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12. Comp. Isaiah 49:2). This is the weapon with which Christ will subdue His enemies; no carnal weapon is needed (2 Corinthians 10:4). Those that take any other sword in hand than this to advance His kingdom will perish with the weapon to which they have appealed (Revelation 13:10; Matthew 26:52), but those who arm themselves with this will find it mighty through God. With this weapon of His word He Himself fights against His adversaries (Revelation 2:12; Revelation 2:16; Revelation 19:15; Revelation 19:21); with this He lays bare the hidden hypocrisies of men, cuts off the diseased members, and wounds that He may heal.

“The sword wherewith Thou dost command,
Is in Thy mouth and not Thy hand.”

It is a two-edged sword; it has the double edge of the Old Testament and the New; “the Old Testament, cutting externally our carnal; the New Testament, internally our spiritual sins” (Richard of St. Victor). It has the double edge of its power to rebuke sin and self-righteousness; the evil of wrong-doing and the evil motives which wait on right-doing; the two edges of which will cut off sin from man, or else man in his sin. (Comp. Isaiah 11:4, and 2 Thessalonians 2:8.) The Greek word here rendered “sword” is used six times in this book, and only once (Luke 2:35) elsewhere in the New Testament.

His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.—It is the spiritual truth which gives the splendour to such descriptions as these. The dazzling glory of Him who is the Sun of Righteousness is intolerable to human eyes. There is no marvel in this when we remember that He is the brightness of His Father’s glory, and that the Father dwells “in that light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). It is the lustre of holiness and righteousness which is here signified, and which “the eye of sinful man may not see,” but of which saints and angel messengers may catch a faint reflection; so that the angel’s face may look like lightning (Matthew 28:3), and “the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). (Comp. the shining of Moses’ face, Exodus 34:29.)

Verse 17

(17) I fell at his feet as dead.—At the sight of Him, the Evangelist fell as one dead. “Was this He whom upon earth St. John had known so familiarly? Was this He in whose bosom He had lain at that Last Supper, and said, ‘Lord, which is he that betrayeth Thee?’ When I saw Him thus transformed, thus glorified, I fell at His feet as one dead. Well might such be the effect, even upon the spirit of a just man made perfect—and St. John was still in the body—of such an open revelation of the risen glory of Christ” (Dr. Vaughan). It was pity, and the pang felt at the severity of retribution which overtook sin, which made Dante fall as a dead body falls (Inferno, v.); it is the felt consciousness of unworthiness which seems to have overcome the Evangelist. This consciousness has its witness outside the Bible as well as in it. “Semele must perish if Jupiter reveals himself to her in his glory, being consumed in the brightness of that glory.” (Comp. Exodus 33:18; Exodus 33:20, “Thou canst not see My face; for there shall no man see Me and live.”) For every man it is a dreadful thing to stand face to face with God. Yet the consciousness of this unworthiness to behold God, or to receive a near revelation of His presence, is a sign of faith, and is welcomed as such. Of him who said, “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof,” Christ said, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matthew 8:8-10).

He laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not.—The words “unto me” should be omitted. The gesture is designed to give the assurance of comfort; the hand which was raised up to bless (Luke 24:51), which was reached forth to heal the leper, to raise the sinking Peter (Matthew 14:31), and to touch the wounded ear of Malchus, is now stretched out to reassure His servant; and the words, like those which John had heard upon the Mount of Transfiguration, and when toiling against the waves of Galilee, bid him not to be afraid. (Comp. Daniel 10:10.)

I am the first and the last.—The “last” must not be taken here to mean the least and lowest, as though it referred to our Lord’s humiliation; the last points forwards, as the first points backwards. He was before all things, and so the first; and though all things change, folded up as a vesture, yet His years shall not fail, and so He is the last. “The first because all things are from Me; the last because to Me are all things” (Richard of St. Victor). (Comp. Colossians 1:16-18; Hebrews 1:11-12.) This pre-eminence of first and last is thrice claimed for the Lord Jehovah in Isaiah (Isaiah 41:4; Isaiah 44:6; Isaiah 48:12), and thrice for the Lord Jesus in this book (in this passage, in Revelation 2:8, and Revelation 22:13).

Verse 18

(18) I am he that liveth, and was dead.—Better, and the living One (omit the words “I am”); and I became dead; and, behold, I am alive (or, I am living) unto the ages of ages (or, for evermore), “Amen” is omitted in the best MSS. This verse must be carefully kept in connection with the preceding, as the description should go on without pause. He is the living One—not merely one who once was alive, or is now alive—but the One who has “life in Himself, and the fountain and source of life to others, John 1:4; John 14:6; the One who hath immortality,” 1 Timothy 6:16 (Trench). Yet He became dead. There are two wonders here: the living One becomes dead, and the dead One is alive for evermore. It is another form of the glorious truth and paradox of which the Apostles were so fond (Philippians 2:8-9; Hebrews 2:9). Comp. Christ’s words, Luke 9:24, and Luke 13:43, which contain promises which He only could make who could say, “I have the keys of death and of Hades.” The order of these words has been transposed in our English version. The true order is the more appropriate order, “For Hades is the vast unseen realm into which men are ushered by death; dark and mysterious as that realm was, and dreaded as was its monarch, our risen Lord has both under His power. The keys are the emblems of His right and authority.” (Comp. Revelation 3:7-8.) It is not of the second death that He speaks; our Lord is here seen as the conqueror of that clouded region, and that resistless foe which man dreaded. (Comp. John 11:25; Hebrews 2:15.) Comp. Henry Vaughan’s quaint poem “An Easter Hymn”—

“Death and darkness get you packing,
Nothing now to man is lacking;
All your triumphs now are ended,
And what Adam marred is mended;
Graves are beds now for the weary,
Death a nap to wake more merry.

Christ had spoken before of the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18), and of the keys. (Comp. also 1 Peter 3:19.) The key of the grave was one of the four keys which the Eternal King committed to no ministering angel, but reserved for himself (so Targum and Talmud). The whole verse affirms the undying power and inalienable authority of our Master, and is a fitting prelude to a book which is to show the inherent divine tenacity of Christianity. The Church lives on because Christ its Head lives on (John 14:19). The resurrection power which the Lord showed is to be reflected in the history of His Church. “The greatest honour is due to Christianity,” says Goethe, “for continually proving its pure and noble origin by coming forth again, after the great aberrations into which human perversity has led it, more speedily than was expected, with its primitive special charm as a mission. . . . for the relief of human necessity”

Verse 19

(19) Write the things which thou hast seen (better, sawest).—It is well to notice the small connecting word “then,” which has been omitted in the English. It gives the practical thought to the whole of the previous vision. This vision is to be described for the benefit of the Church of Christ, that she may never forget Him who is the foundation on which she rests; the true fountain of her life; and in whom she will find the source of that renewing power to which the last Note alludes. In the history of the faith it will be always true that they who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength (Isaiah 40:28-31). Lest, then, at any time the saints of God should be tempted to cry that “their judgment was passed over from their God,” the Evangelist is bidden first to detail this vision of Him who is the Life and Captain of His people. He is also to write the things which are—those eternal principles and truths which underlie all the phenomena of human history; or the things which concern the present state of the churches—and the things which are about to be after these things—those great and wondrous scenes of the fortunes of the Church and of the world which will be unfolded.

Verse 20

(20) The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand.—Having bidden him write the meaning of this mystery, or secret, He gives to St. John an explanatory key: “The seven stars are angels of seven churches (or congregations): and the seven candlesticks” (omit the words “which thou sawest”) “are seven churches.” The angels have been understood by some to be guardian angels; but it is difficult to reconcile words of warning and reproof (as in Revelation 2:4-5), and of promise and encouragement (as in Revelation 2:10), with such a view. More probable is the view which takes the angel to be the ideal embodiment (so to speak) of the Church. The more generally adopted view is that the angel is the chief pastor or bishop of the Church. The description of them as stars favours this view. Similar imagery is applied elsewhere to teachers, true and false (Daniel 12:3; Jude 1:13. Comp. Revelation 8:10; Revelation 12:4). It is stated that the word “angel” was applied to the president in the Jewish synagogue. See, however, Excursus A.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Revelation 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/revelation-1.html. 1905.
 
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