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Bible Commentaries

Ironside's Notes on Selected BooksIronside's Notes

- Revelation

by Henry Allen Ironside

Author's Introduction

It is regrettable that to so many Christians the book of Revelation seems to be a sealed book. That is not what God intended. The book of Daniel was to be sealed until the time of the end (Daniel 12:9), but of Revelation it is written: “Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand” (22:10, italics added). It is clearly evident that this portion of Holy Scripture was given for our instruction and edification, yet thousands of the Lord’s people permit themselves to be robbed of blessing by ignoring it.

Significantly enough, the book of Revelation begins and ends with a blessing pronounced on those who read and keep what is written therein (1:3; 22:7). Surely God did not mean to mock us by promising a blessing on all who keep what they cannot hope to understand! Only unbelief would so reason. Faith delights to appropriate every part of the sacred record and finds that “they are all plain to him that understandeth” (Proverbs 8:9).

The true title is given in the opening verse. It is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” not “The Revelation of St. John the Divine.” There is no authority for this latter designation and it shows all too plainly how far some early editor had slipped away from basic principles. John was a saint as all believers are saints. He was not a divine! Such a title would have amazed him beyond measure. Nor is the book the revelation of John or of any other servant of God. It is the revelation of Jesus Christ Himself.

The word rendered “revelation” and sometimes “apocalypse” means literally “an unveiling.” So this book is the unveiling of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is its one great theme. It presents Him as the Son of man in the midst of the churches during the present dispensation and as the Judge and the King in the dispensations to come. If you want to learn to appreciate Christ more, read this book frequently and prayerfully. It reveals Him as the Lamb rejected, yet soon to reign in glory-the Lamb on the throne!

Observe the title is not in the plural. People often speak of the book of Revelations. There is no such book in the Bible. It is the Revelation-one blessed, continuous manifestation of God’s unique Son, the anointed Prophet, Priest, and King. Revelation is the crowning book of the Bible. It is like the headstone of Zechariah 4:7 that completes and crowns the whole wondrous pyramid of truth.

The Pentateuch of Moses forms the broad, solid foundation of this vast pyramid. The covenant history is built on this foundation; then come the Psalms and poetical books followed by the prophetic series of the Old Testament. Higher up we have the Gospels and the Acts, then the Epistles with their deep spiritual instruction. To complete the glorious structure, this last solemn but exceedingly precious book, the Revelation, linking the rest of Scripture with the soon-to-be-manifested glory of God.

Or if you think of Holy Scripture as forming a great golden circle of truth, we start with Genesis, the book of beginnings, and go on through the Testaments until we come to Revelation, the book of the last things. We find it dovetails exactly into the book of Genesis and thus completes the inspired ring. The Word of God is one absolutely perfect, unbroken, and unbreakable circle. A comparison of Genesis and Revelation will readily show how we have the types in Genesis and the completion of the truth in Revelation-in the one book the beginning, in the other the consummation. Genesis gives us the creation of the heavens and the earth. Revelation presents a new heaven and a new earth.

Genesis shows us the earthly paradise, with the tree of life and the river of blessing lost through sin. Revelation gives us the paradise of God with the tree of life and the pure river of life proceeding out of the throne of God and the Lamb. We are shown paradise regained through Christ’s atonement.

In Genesis we see the first man and his wife set over all God’s creation. In Revelation we behold the second Man and His bride ruling over a redeemed world.

In Genesis we are told of the first typical sacrificial lamb. In Revelation the Lamb once slain is in the midst of the throne.

In Genesis we learn of the beginning of sin, when the serpent entered the garden of delight to beguile Adam and Eve with his sophistries. In Revelation that old serpent called the devil and Satan is cast into the lake of fire.

In Genesis we have the first murderer, the first polygamist, the first rebel, the first drunkard, etc. In Revelation all those who refuse to accept God’s grace in Christ Jesus are banished from His presence forever.

In Genesis we view the rise of Babel, or Babylon. In Revelation we are called to contemplate its doom.

In Genesis we see man’s city; in Revelation the city of God.

Genesis shows us how sorrow, death, pain, and tears-the inevitable accompaniments of sin and rebellion-came into the world* Revelation does not close until we have seen God wiping away all tears and welcoming His redeemed into a home where sin, death, pain, and sorrow never come.

And so we might go on contrasting and comparing these two books, but enough has been cited to stir each interested believer to study for himself. What we ourselves get out of our Bibles in the presence of God is worth far more than all that another passes on to us. We may learn from each other, but it is best to take nothing for granted. Like Ruth the Moabitess, we should “beat out that [which we have] gleaned” through meditation and prayer.

But before we examine this remarkable book, we should point out three very distinct views of Revelation held by commentators. They are generally known as the preterist, historical, and futurist. Each of the three systems of interpretation might be subdivided into various, conflicting schools, but the names give the main point of view in each case.

As a rule, the preterists see very little in the book beyond a weird religio-political document. It was supposedly written by some unknown person who took the name of John in order to give acceptance to his writings, or a John other than the apostle. Preterists hold that the author’s real object was to comfort his Christian brethren in a time of great persecution under one of the Roman emperors. So he portrayed the final outcome of the stern conflict as a great victory for the saints, resulting in the overthrow of paganism and the recognition of a glorious city of God in its place.

The historical school believe that the momentous events of the last nineteen hundred years are the fulfillment of the seals, trumpets, and vials, and the other special visions of the book. According to this view, Revelation cannot be understood apart from a thorough knowledge of the history of the nations comprising Christendom-the sphere where Christ’s authority is nominally owned. The schools of interpretation founded on this supposition are many and varied.

The futurists consider that the largest part of the book applies to a period still future. They believe that only the first three chapters refer to the present church dispensation. Some extreme futurists even relegate these chapters to the end times also; they do not see the church in Revelation at all. Our position in expounding this book will coincide with the futurists first mentioned. The basis for this view will be addressed later.

Recall the occasion when the Lord Jesus restored Peter’s soul after his fall. He told him how when he was old another would lead him where he would not want to go, thus indicating the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then Jesus said, “Follow me.” Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, and said, “Lord, and what shall this man do?” The Lord answered, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me” (John 21:18-22). Notice that the Lord Jesus very clearly sets forth two things that are often confused by some Christian teachers-death and the second coming of Christ. He said, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” Jesus clearly put “tarry till I come” in contrast with Peter’s dying before His return. There is no place in Scripture where death and our Lord’s second coming are confused. For death is not the second coming of the Lord; it is to be swallowed up in victory at that second coming. But most of us are extremists, so when the Lord said to Peter, “If I will that he tarry till I come,” the saying “that disciple should not die” was spread among the disciples (23). Jesus did not say that he would not die, but “If I will that he tarry till I come.” And, of course, time proved that the disciples’ hasty conclusion was incorrect.

John died many years ago. Some years before the end of his earthly life, he was banished to the desolate island of Patmos for his faithfulness. There he had a wonderful vision unfolded before him of truth connected with our Lord Jesus’ second coming. Through this vision his ministry abides with us until Christ comes again. John is absent from the body, but present with the Lord--has been for over 1900 years; but through the ministry given to us in this wonderful book of Revelation, John abides until Jesus comes. He continues to throw light on all the complex problems that God’s people have to meet in this present dispensation. He also helps us understand, as no other ministry does, the great program that God Himself is soon going to carry out.

Introductory Notes by Arno C. Gaebelein

Submitted by H A Ironside on Mon, 04/14/2008 - 05:00

* Henry Allen Ironside

* Revelation

The Capstone

This great final book of the Word of God may well be called the capstone of the entire Bible. A pyramid becomes a pyramid by the great capstone, and the Bible becomes the full and complete revelation of God through this document. If the Revelation were not in the Bible, the Bible would be an unfinished book; the issues raised in the preceding documents would be forever unsolved.

The Authorship

The title as we find it in the King James version is “The Revelation of St. John the Divine”; it would be better to take the opening words of the book and call it “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” But the title in the King James version tells us that John is the author. This is confirmed by the book itself, for the writer said so twice in the first chapter: in verse 4, “John to the seven churches”; and in verse 9, “I John, who also am your brother.” At the close of the book he named himself again: “I John saw these things” (22:8).

There is also unquestionable historical evidence that the author is the apostle John, the beloved disciple, the son of Zebedee. The author of the Gospel of John and the Epistles is also the author of the book of Revelation.

The Date of the Book

The traditional view is that the date of the book is a.d. 96. This is correct. Irenaeus, the friend of Polycarp, who knew John, stated that “the Revelation was seen at Patmos at the end of Domitian’s reign.” Domitian reigned from a.d. 81 to 96. Clement of Alexandria left the testimony that John returned from his exile on the death of the emperor, who was Domitian, in the year 96.

The Message and Interpretation

The Revelation is marked out in the beginning as a book of prophecy (1:3). Furthermore the book is in greater part written in symbolic language, which is a very important fact to be remembered in the interpretation. The message is prophetic, and this message is clothed in symbols, which are not difficult to interpret. Like all the other books of the Word of God, it has a perfect arrangement.

Among the various methods of interpretation, that of the futurist school is the only one that is satisfying and in full harmony with the entire prophetic Word. The futurists claim that nothing beyond the third chapter of Revelation has been fulfilled; the fulfillment of the remaining chapters is still future. The word church is found in Revelation only in chapters 2 and 3, which contain the prophecy concerning the church on earth. This divinely given history of the church is about finished, and the predicted events from chapter 4 to the end of Revelation are yet to happen.

The Preface

John began, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him.” According to this opening statement, our Lord-as the Son of man-received a revelation from God. As the only begotten Son of God, Christ had no need of a revelation; in His deity He is acquainted with all the eternal purposes; One with God, our Lord knows the end from the beginning. But He who is very God took on in incarnation “the form of a servant…and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself” (Philippians 2:7-8); and as this man he received the revelation concerning the judgment of the earth and His own glory.

“God… raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory” (1 Peter 1:21). This glory that He received from God is fully and blessedly revealed in John’s prophetic book. It is the revelation of the Son of man’s acquired glory and how this glory is to be manifested in connection with the earth. And this revelation He makes known to His servants because His own are sharers with Him in all He received from God.

The Center

The book of Revelation is pre-eminently Christ’s revelation: the revelation of His person and His glory. “In the volume of the book it is written of me” (Hebrews 10:7). The whole Word of God bears witness of Him who is the living Word. He is the center, the sum total, and the substance of the Holy Scriptures. Inasmuch as the last book of the Bible is the Revelation of Jesus Christ, an unveiling of Himself, we find in it the most complete revelation of His person and His glory.

It is here where many expositions of Revelation have missed the mark. Occupied chiefly with the symbols of the book, the mysteries, the judgments, and the promised consummation, they have neglected to emphasize sufficiently Him who throughout this book is the center of everything.

A Book of Prophecy

Knowledge of the chief content of the Old Testament prophetic word is an absolute necessity for the study of the book of Revelation. For instance the Christian who does not have a fair grasp of Daniel’s prophecies or who is ignorant of the place that the people Israel hold in the purposes of God, finds the book of Revelation to be a sealed book, without any possible meaning. This is one of the chief reasons that this book has suffered so much both from the critics and from the hands of commentators.

We read in 2 Peter 1:20-21 that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” A better translation than “private interpretation” would be “its own interpretation.” Peter meant that prophecy must be interpreted by comparing Scripture with Scripture. The “holy men of God,” the prophets, were the instruments of the Holy Spirit and made known God’s purposes in a progressive way. To understand any prophecy we must take the entire prophetic Word into consideration. There is a wonderful harmony in the great body of prophetic dispensational truths.

Divine Direction

John the beloved disciple was in banishment in the isle of Patmos, just as Daniel the man greatly beloved had been in captivity in Babylon. The Lord called these two great servants to behold the panorama of the future. Both wrote down their visions. While in the book of Daniel we find no direct command to write, we find such a command in Revelation 1:19. The correct translation is, “Write therefore what thou hast seen, and the things that are, and the things that are about to be after these.” John, guided by the Holy Spirit, then wrote according to the divine direction.

In examining this command to write, we find that three things are mentioned: the past, the present, and the future. John was to write first about the past; when he received these instructions, he had already seen something and he was instructed to write the vision down. Then he was to write about the present, “the things that are”; and finally he was to write about the future, “the things that are about to be.”

The Promised Blessing

“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” (Revelation 1:3). A blessing is promised to him who reads, hears, and keeps-not to him who understands and knows everything that is in the book. If such were the condition, the writer and reader would have no claim on the promised blessing. The Bible teacher or any other man who says he knows and understands everything found in this great finale of God’s Word is very much misaken. We cannot be sure about everything in some of these visions, and the full meaning of some may not be understood till the world sees the fulfillment.

What is the blessing we can expect through the reading and prayerful study of the words of this prophecy? First of all we receive through this book a wonderful vision of our Savior and Lord. This is what we as His people need above everything else and it is this that brings blessing into our lives.

But we also receive another blessing, for in reading through this book we see what is in store for this age, what judgments will overtake the world, and how Satan’s power will be manifested to the full on those who reject God’s grace. Judgment, tribulation, and wrath are swiftly coming upon this age, but out of all this our gracious Lord has delivered us. There is no judgment, no wrath for us who know Him as our sin-bearer and hiding-place. Praise must fill our hearts when we read the words of this prophecy and remember the grace that has saved us from all that is coming upon this age.

Another blessing is the assurance of ultimate victory and glory. Dark is the age and it is becoming darker, but in the book of Revelation we behold the glory that is coming for His saints first of all and, after the judgment clouds are gone, for Jerusalem, the nations, and the earth. Reading Revelation fills the heart with the certainty of the outcome of it all. If we continue to read the book and continue to breathe its heavenly and solemn atmosphere, the result will be a closer walk with God, a more spiritual worship, and a greater and more unselfish service for Him who “loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father” (1:5-6).

Chapter XI, The End Of The Parenthesis

We come now to consider the book of the Revelation. Within our present limits we can do this only in outline. I have taken it up more fully elsewhere.2 My one thought now is to show how the bulk of the visions of the Apocalypse fit in after the Great Parenthesis has terminated.

The Lord Himself has indicated the divisions of the book of the Revelation in chapter 1, verse 19. We are told that He said to the Apostle John: “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.” A somewhat more literal rendering of the last two parts of this verse would be: “The things which are now going on, and the things which shall be after these things.”

At the time that the Lord uttered these words, John had only seen the vision of chapter 1, the Son of Man in the midst of the candlesticks. Therefore, we are justified in saying that the first division of this Book would be chapter 1, verses 1 to 18. The things which are now going on would embrace the next two chapters where, under the similitude of seven letters addressed to seven actual Christian churches or assemblies existing in the last decade of the first century of the Christian Era in the reign of the Emperor Domitian, under whose tyrannical sway John was banished to the Isle of Patmos, we have an outline picture of the moral and spiritual conditions which the Lord saw would prevail through seven periods of the Church’s history from apostolic days to the end of its testimony on earth. These churches were all located in the Roman proconsular province of Asia, where John himself, according to the best records that we have, spent something like the last thirty years of his life. For a very definite reason the Lord selected the particular seven that we have here. There were other cities in this province in which churches were located, but they are not referred to here. Hierapolis was one of them; Colossae was another. The seven here selected will be seen, by consulting a map, to form a kind of a rough circle, so that if one took the highway from Ephesus, he would go on to Smyrna, then Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, and from there back to Ephesus.

We are told in the twentieth verse of chapter 1, which introduces this division: “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.” The Lord, then, is seen in the midst of these churches which are in the place of witness-bearing here on the earth. If we are only to think of the state and condition of the churches in the day when the Apocalypse was written, there is no particular mystery involved, but the mystery is now readily unfolded, for as we stand almost in the middle of the twentieth century, we can look back over all the years that have gone and see how remarkably these letters fit into seven great periods of Church history.

Observe, we do not have here specific historical facts as to individuals predicted. I mention this because some have objected to what has already been said because of the fact that the great outstanding characters of Church history seem to be utterly ignored. “How,” one commentator asks, “could the letter to Sardis, for instance, speak of the great State churches of Protestantism when there is no mention of Luther, Calvin, or any of the other outstanding heroes of the Reformation?” The answer, of course, is that we are not dealing here with events or persons so much as with principles. In the letter to Sardis we see the moral and spiritual condition of Protestantism, and that is what the Spirit of God sought to make known. The most convincing proof that this suggested interpretation is the correct one is this: If we were to change the order of these letters in any degree, we would have confusion, but taken as they are, everything is in perfect accord with Church history. We cannot, for instance, substitute Sardis for Smyrna, Laodicea for Thyatira, Pergamos for Ephesus, or make any other change without spoiling God’s wonderful portrayal of the prophetic story of the Church.

According to this view, then, we are now living in the Laodicean period of Church history. Ephesus sets forth the early days when living apostles still ministered to the Church on earth. Smyrna pictures the moral and spiritual conditions prevailing in the days of the ten great outstanding Roman persecutions. Pergamos tells of the union of Church and State in the days of Con- to heed His voice. They agree perfectly with the seal judgments.

But in chapter 7 we have a parenthesis between the sixth and the seventh seals, and here we find 144,000 Israelites sealed before the Great Tribulation actually begins. The angel is instructed to “hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads” (verse 3). In the latter part of the chapter we have a vision of a great multitude of Gentiles who will be saved in that day. They are pictured as they will appear when they have come through that awful time of trial, even as we read in verse 14: “These are they which came out of great tribulation [or more literally, the tribulation, the great one], and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The Lord shows John these two groups that he may know that all the terrors of the Great Tribulation with the outpouring of the wrath of God in the earth will not hinder the Spirit of God from working from heaven upon the hearts of men and women who have not heard and rejected the Gospel in this parenthetic age but who will be still living on the earth in that day.

When the seventh seal is broken, seven angels are seen standing before God, to whom are given seven trumpets of judgment. The sounding of the first trumpet introduces the Great Tribulation; the sounding of the seventh trumpet brings it to an end and ushers in the glorious kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw in the ninth chapter of Daniel that when the seventy weeks were finished, the vision of prophecy would be sealed up, and all would be complete. And in Revelation 10:0, verses 5 to 7, we read:

“And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer: but in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets.”

The expression, “There should be time no longer,” does not actually mean that eternity was about to begin, but “time” is used here in the sense of delay, as if one has an appointment at a certain hour and waits expectantly for another who has agreed to meet him, and finally, disappointed, says, “There is no more time,” which simply means that he cannot longer delay. Note, then, that when the seventh trumpet sounds, the mystery of God’s long toleration of evil will be ended. Everything will come out in the clear, and God’s ways with men will be fully justified.

In chapter 11 we have further details as to this:

“And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. And the four and twenty elders, which sat before God on their seats, fell upon their faces, and worshipped God, saying, We give thee thanks, 0 Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come; because thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned. And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:15-18). It is clear from this passage that the seventh trumpet ends the Great Tribulation. It is not, as some have supposed, the same as “the trump of God” in First Thessalonians 4, otherwise called “the last trump” in First Corinthians 15. In those passages the trump of God sounds for the Rapture of the Church. Here the seventh angel sounds his trumpet at the end of the tribulation period to introduce the reign of Christ. It will be then that all heaven will rejoice because the world-kingdom of our God and His Christ will have come.

A second section of this third great division begins in verse 19 of chapter 11, and goes on to the end of chapter 19, but with this we need not now be concerned. Those who want to make a fuller study of it may do so at their leisure, and there are many helpful books that would assist the reverent student.

Chapter 20 gives us details as to the Millennial Kingdom, and we are carried on in the next two chapters to the eternal kingdom. The book closes with an appendix from chapter 22, verse 8, to the end.

There is one point that it may be well to dwell upon inasmuch as many have been perplexed by it. Ordinarily we speak of the Rapture as involving the first resurrection, but it is well to remember that the resurrection of our Lord was part of that first resurrection and it also includes the resurrection of saints who will be put to death under the Beast and the Antichrist in the awful days of the Great Tribulation. In chapter 20, after the binding of Satan preliminary to the setting up of the kingdom, we read, in verses 4 to 6:

“And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.”

The question has often been asked, “If the first resurrection takes place at the close of the Great Tribulation, how can it be said that the saints of this and past dispensations will be raised and living believers changed and all caught up to heaven before the tribulation begins?” In order to understand this clearly, let us examine the passage carefully.

John says, “I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them.” This has been translated, “I saw thrones, and sitters upon them to whom judgment was given.” Now this is a distinct group, and refers clearly to those symbolized by the twenty-four elders who have already been before us in these marvelous visions of God. These are the saints of the Church Age and of past dispensations. Then John indicates another class. He says: “And I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshiped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” The resurrection of this group completes the first resurrection. None others of the dead will live again until the Millennium is past. Speaking of both these groups, the Spirit of God says, “This is the first resurrection,” and a blessing is declared as the portion of all who participate in it and who will be priests of God and of Christ and reign with him a thousand years.

With this Millennial Kingdom, human history on this earth will be concluded. When the wicked are raised at the end of the Kingdom Age and stand before the Great White Throne for judgment, the present created heavens and earth will be destroyed by fire from heaven and will be succeeded by that

“One far off divine event,

Toward which the whole creation moves,”

when there shall be a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness, where God will be all in all. This is the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. It consists of two aspects-the heavenly and the earthly-but the new heavens and the new earth will be in such intimate relationship with the New Jerusalem descending from God out of heaven, linking both together, that it can be said when that eternal day begins, “God Himself shall be with them, they shall be His people, and He will be their God.” Nothing will be permitted to disturb the happy relationship existing between God and His saints. The whole problem of good and evil will have been “threshed out,” if I may use such a term, during the ages of time and those who are saved will be the exhibit of the grace of God through all the ages to come. Happy, surely, are those who shall have their portion with the redeemed in that glorious consummation!

2 Lectures on the Book of Revelation by the same author can be obtained from the publishers.

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