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Bible Commentaries

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

- Revelation

by Editor - Joseph S. Exell

The Preacher’s Complete Homiletic


I-II Peter, I-II-III John, Jude




By the

Author of the Commentaries on Hebrews and James

New York




Church Seasons: Advent, 1 Peter 4:7; 2 Peter 3:1-7; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 22:20-21. St. Thomas’s Day, 1 Peter 1:8. Christmas, 1 John 4:9; 1 John 5:20. Lent, 1 John 3:3; Revelation 2:7. Good Friday, 1 Peter 3:18; 1 Peter 4:1; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10; Revelation 1:5; Revelation 5:12. Easter, Revelation 1:17-18. Ascension Day, 1 Peter 1:3. Whit Sunday, 1 John 2:20. All Saints’ Day, Revelation 7:9-10.

Holy Communion: 2 Peter 3:11; 2 Peter 3:18; 1 John 1:3; 1 John 3:1; 1 John 3:13-17; 1 John 3:24; Jude 1:21.

Missions to Heathen: Revelation 11:15; Revelation 14:6-7; Revelation 22:17. Bible Society, 2 Peter 1:16-21; Revelation 1:1-3; Revelation 14:6-7.

Special: Ordination, 1 Peter 5:1-4. Workers, 1 Peter 2:12; 1 Peter 4:1-2. Baptism, 1 Peter 3:21. Confirmation, Revelation 2:4. Marriage, 1 Peter 3:1-6. Women, 1 Peter 3:1-6. Harvest, Revelation 14:13-16; Revelation 15:0; Revelation 17:0 -

20. Death, 2 Peter 1:11; 2 Peter 1:14-15; Revelation 14:13; Revelation 21:7. Close of year, Revelation 21:5.



ONE consideration is persistently kept in view in this Commentary, which is to be regarded as supplemental to Commentaries of the ordinary kind. The author and editor has not been required to discuss theories of interpretation, or even, in any elaborate way, the significance and meaning of symbols, or the fulfilment of prophecy in history. One question alone has to be answered: How can the book of Revelation be used, wisely, skilfully, and suggestively, for pulpit purposes. The question of authorship need not be discussed. For the preacher it is enough to say that no name has ever been submitted, and no suggestion of authorship has ever been made, that do not involve far more serious difficulties than are associated with the traditional view. And the chief objections to the Johannine authorship rest upon a very imperfect estimate of John’s character, which was at once more intense, and more intensely mystical, than is usually recognised. The supreme interest that both his gospel and his epistles reveal in the personal Christ, and in the living relations of Christ with His people, should satisfy us that he must be the author of the other work, whose supreme subject is the present relation of the living, personal Christ to His Church. John’s gospel is the preparation for the book of Revelation.

The date of the book is much disputed, but the trend of modern opinion is decidedly in favour of an early date, before the destruction of Jerusalem, and if that date be accepted, we may gain great help towards the apprehension of the symbols and the historical allusions, by fixing attention upon the unusually alarming, and even mysterious, incidents and circumstances of that particular time. It has not been sufficiently considered that the author clearly expected the things which were represented to him in visions to come to pass shortly. He never gives the slightest indication that his eye swept over long centuries of Christian conflict. In the opening words of the book the Revelation is most distinctly declared to be of “things which will shortly come to pass.” And when the entire series of visions is passed, lest there should be any possible misconception, the assurance is renewed in the closing words, “Seal not up the words of the prophecy of this book; for the time is at hand.” “He which testifieth these things saith, Yea, I come quickly.” If we expect to find anticipative Church history in this book, such expressions are inexplicable. If we expect to find principles illustrated in the life and relations of individuals, the Church, and Society, in the Johannine age, which gain illustration in every recurring age, then we satisfy such expressions, and at the same time understand how the book becomes one of age-long interest and helpfulness to Christ’s Church.

Dr. Schaff says: “The early date is now accepted by the majority of scholars. In its favour may be urged the allusion to the Temple at Jerusalem (Revelation 11:1 seqq.) in language which implies that it yet existed, but would speedily be destroyed; and, further, that the nature and object of the Revelation are best suited by the earlier date, while its historical understanding is greatly facilitated. With the great conflagration at Rome, and the Neronian persecution, fresh in mind, with the horrors of the Jewish war then going on, and in view of the destruction of Jerusalem as an impending fact, John received the visions of the conflicts and final victories of the Christian Church. His book came, therefore, as a comforter to hearts distracted by calamities without a parallel in history.”

Warfield notes the chief arguments in favour of the early date, thus:

1. The whole tradition of the Domitian origin of the Apocalypse rests on Irenæus.
2. There is not even an obscure reference in the book to the destruction of Jerusalem as a past event.

3. Jerusalem is, instead, spoken of as still standing, and the Temple as still undestroyed (Revelation 11:1-3, seqq., and even Revelation 1:7, Revelation 2:9, Revelation 3:9, Revelation 6:12; Revelation 6:16).

4. The time of writing is exactly fixed by the description of the then reigning emperor, in Revelation 13:13, Revelation 17:7 to Revelation 12:5. The chief argument with evangelical men, however, is that derived from the literary differences between the Apocalypse and the gospel of John, which are thought by many to be too great to be explained, except on the supposition that a long period of time intervened between the writing of the two books.

Warfield argues against the early date, and so does Principal David Brown, D.D., who says: “Two dates are given:

1. Reign of Nero, about 68 A.D.
2. Reign of Domitian, about 95 or 96. For 1, there is no external evidence; for 2, Irenæus, it is claimed, was speaking from knowledge when he declared that the Revelation was seen not long since, but almost in his generation, near the close of Domitian’s reign. Concerning the internal evidence for 1, it may be noted (1) that the use of the term ‘Lord’s day’ as the common term for the first day of the week shows that the book was written long after Nero’s reign.
(2) The difference between the Greek of this book and of the gospel is explained by the ecstasy of the writer, and by the difference of the subject-matter in the case of the Apocalypse. It is prophetic, full of strange details, Old-Testament phrases.
(3) Instead of the Apocalypse being the connecting link between the Synoptists and the fourth gospel, the same truths are expressed in each, and the Apocalypse has a more developed form of the same truths than the gospel, though, doubtless, the gospels and epistles of John were written later. Is it natural that such lofty developments of truth as the Revelation exhibits should belong to the earliest apostolic age? Note other specific characteristics of the book, arguing for the later date:
1. The conception of the Church as divided into sections—‘seven golden candlesticks.’
2. The degenerate state of the Churches.
3. Use of the Lamb as a proper name.

4. The phrase, the books of life, which is used in a highly developed sense.

5. Other unique and peculiar words and phrases denoting an advanced state of doctrinal conception. All this constrains us to reject the early date.”

Probably the key to a satisfactory explanation of the book of Revelation lies in a decision as to its date, and the contents of St. John’s field of vision at the earlier or at the later date.
Another question of grave importance concerns the unity of the contents of the book. The modern mania for finding a composite character in all the Bible books has produced a theory of this kind in relation to the book of Revelation. It can best be met and answered by showing how systematic and regular the construction of it is, and that the apparent breaks upon the continuity of the writer’s scheme are no marks of distinct authorship, but only indications of an independent individuality. Side-issues are treated in a similar way both by St. Paul in his epistles, and by St. John in his gospel and epistles.
The unity of the book will be seen at once if we set before ourselves its ground-plan. St. John always begins his work by stating his thesis. The beginning both of his gospel, and of his first epistle, is a summary of what the gospel and epistle are written to unfold and illustrate; and precisely in the same way the first three chapters of the book of Revelation present a summary of what the rest of the book unfolds and illustrates. Briefly stated, his thesis is something like this: the glorified and living Christ is actually now with His Church, for the completion of that redemptive work which He has begun. That Church, in its unity of principles, spirit, and experience, can be represented by the seven Churches of Asia. That Church is left in the world, and cannot fail to be influenced, both for good and evil, by surrounding circumstances of distress, persecution, etc. But the living Lord is using all these circumstances for the carrying on of His sanctifying work, making them to be discipline, and even judgment, as need be. Moreover, that same living Lord who is using all the schemes of men, and calamities of nature, for the fulfilling of His purpose in His Church, is also controlling and overruling all these schemes of worldly men and nations. And this double control of the Church and the world must move towards a final issue. What that will be can only now be suggested by symbol, but of these two things we can be absolutely assured: it will be the triumph of Christ and righteousness, and it will involve the infinite glory, purity, and blessedness of Christ’s Church.
That being the introductory thesis, it is worked out under the figure of seven seals, which are affixed on the book which contains the record of the various ways in which the living Christ will discipline His Church, and govern and judge the world in the interests of His Church. The seals are not successive in order of time, nor do they represent anything occurring in order of time. They indicate the seven kinds of things that Christ will use for the work He is doing in His Church.

But here we come upon a peculiarity in St. John’s treatment of his theme. It reminds us of the construction of the Book of Job. The test of Job, by material loss and by bodily suffering, is briefly and lightly passed over, and the strength of the work is given to the testing of Job by doubts, questions, and false faiths, presented to his mind. So in the book of Revelation, the six seals which mainly represent the influence of nature-forces and physical calamities on the Church are lightly dealt with, and the strength of the work is put into the elaboration of the seventh seal, which concerns the more subtle and perilous testings of intellectual and moral evils within the Church.

The seventh seal is elaborated under seven trumpets; and the seventh trumpet is elaborated under seven vials and bowls.
When the entire circle of possible earthly influences is completed, and the Church, in one or other of its sections, has been fully subjected to all possible earthly influences that can imperil or discipline it, then the triumph of Christ will have come, and that will prove the glory hour for His Church.
There is one marked peculiarity of the work which has hardly received sufficient attention. There are throughout interposed visions, all of a similar character, being either visions of some from the Church who have gained their triumph, or anticipative worship and praise of the finally triumphant Christ. In these interposed visions are to be found the practical applications of the book. It was written with a most distinct purpose. It was not intended to furnish precise information as to what would come to pass, but to comfort, strengthen, and cheer persecuted, strained, tempted, anxious Christians in what did come to pass. Its message was really this: Whatever happens to you, you will be safe. Through whatever happens you will be moving to a final victory; because the living Christ is with you, controlling all, and making all “work together for good.”

It must be borne in mind that, from St. John’s point of view, there were four classes of persons in his day, and that each class bore distinctive relations to the outward and inward, the physical and moral, evils of the times. Their various liability to influence is indicated in this book, and we have to find which class was dominant in St. John’s mind when we seek for the precise reference of particular prophecies. They were:

(1) Jews;
(2) Jewish Christians;
(3) Gentile Christians;
(4) Gentiles. How far some of the visions concern the ancient people of God, as distinct from the Christian Church, is a matter of interpretation in which Dr. F. Godet (“Essay on the Apocalypse “) may prove a good guide.

It needs only to be remarked that the imagery of the book rests largely upon the prophetic writings of Ezekiel and Daniel, and perhaps, to a greater extent than we can now trace, upon the apocryphal writings or traditions of that day, especially the book of Enoch. It is, however, more than possible that some genius in interpretation may arise, who will show that the book of Revelation is really no more than an expansion of the eschatological discourse of our Divine Lord. From that point of view the reference of the figures and visions to the immediate age of St. John will be more fully indicated, but at the same time the permanent application of the principles illustrated will be more fully recognised. It was, precisely, the book of Divine comfortings for that age; it is the book of Divine comfortings for every age; for it is the assurance that the living Christ is with His Church, and that the triumph of Christ and His Church is sure, and is coming to-morrow.


The latest elaborate attempt to solve the problem of the Apocalypse is from the pen of Dr. Daniel Voelter, Professor of Theology at Amsterdam, who has already handled the subject in a work entitled “Investigations into the Origin of the Apocalypse” (1st edition, 1882; 2nd edition, 1885). The substance of the new effort is as follows. The growth of the Apocalypse into its present form is ascribed to editorial revision, not to compilation. An apostolic nucleus, or Ur-Apocalypse, was gradually enlarged, until the work attained its present dimensions. This nucleus, the greater part of which is contained in chaps. 4–9, is believed to have been composed by the Apostle John, in Palestine, about the year A.D. 62. It was probably, in the first instance, written in Hebrew. Professor Voelter considers the composition of a work in Greek by one of the original apostles extremely improbable. He also rejects the statements of Irenæus concerning the last years of the Apostle John. Additions found in chaps. 10, 11, 17, 18, and 19) were made by an unknown hand in A.D. 68 and A.D. 70. The document was then revised by four successive editors. The first is identified with Cerinthus, the well-known heresiarch, who is represented by Irenæus as the special aversion of John; he wrote under Titus—that is, A.D. 79–81. The activity of the second is put towards the end of the reign of Domitian, or about A.D. 95; that of the third is assigned to the reign of Trajan; and the last, to whom we are said to owe the epistles to the Seven Churches of Asia, is supposed to have written about A.D. 130. In the opinion of Professor Voelter, therefore, six hands can be traced in the Apocalypse as we possess it, and its gradual growth extended over a period of nearly seventy years. This complicated theory is expounded with considerable learning and admirable patience and ingenuity; but in all probability very few will accept it. The author’s treatment of a very important tradition is not calculated to win the reader’s confidence in his judgment, and he is signally unsuccessful in differentiating the styles of the alleged writers and revisers. He admits that they are all largely dependent on the Old Testament, and that Hebraisms occur in all parts of the book. The opening remark of the preface, that a peculiarly sinister influence seems to dominate apocalyptic research, is well illustrated by this clever but most inconclusive work.—“The Thinker.”

The book which closes the New Testament “shuts up all” “with a sevenfold chorus of hallelujahs and harping symphonies,” as Milton says, in its stately music, and may well represent for us, in that perpetual cloud of incense rising up fragrant to the Throne of God and of the Lamb, the unceasing love and thanksgiving which should be man’s answer to Christ’s love and sacrifice.—A. Maclaren, D.D.


Jewish apocalyptic literature arose from two factors, oppression and the Messianic hope. Pre-Christian apocalypses were a complaint of the persecution of Israel, coupled with an assurance of deliverance by the advent of the Messiah. Christian apocalypses complained of the oppression of the Church by hostile Jews and Romans, with exhortations to courage and hope in view of the destruction which would be visited upon their enemies by the second advent of the Messiah, which was regarded as imminent. The Apocalypse, or Revelation, of John is the noblest example of such Christian writings. The aim of the book was distinctly practical; it was written primarily for its own time, and must have had a powerful effect in promoting Christian courage and hope during the bitter persecutions which the Church then sustained. The book is obscure because it deals with obscure themes,—the programme of the future and Christ’s return to judgment. Also because, being strongly political in its bearings, clearness would have been dangerous; it was a proclamation of the curse of heaven on the Roman power. And, lastly, because the language of concealment (which the initiated would be able to interpret correctly) consists of Oriental symbols, largely derived from books like Ezekiel and Daniel, which are necessarily more or less enigmatic to the Western and modern mind. The contents are briefly as follows: chaps. 1–3 are introductory, containing the messages of the ascended Lord to the seven Churches. Chap. 4 begins the apocalypse proper, which consists in a series of visions. It presents in striking imagery a description of the glory of God, and the homage of the universe to Him. Chap. 5 describes the sealed book containing the mysteries of the future, which Jesus only can unlock, and His praise is sung. Chap. 6 records the breaking of six seals, revealing the calamities and judgments which are to come upon those who spurn Christ and persecute His followers. Chap. 7 introduces a pause before the breaking of the last—the seventh—seal, and gives a picture of the host of the redeemed. Chaps. 8, 9, see the seventh seal broken, and there come forth seven angels with trumpets to proclaim the revelation of the final mysteries. Six in turn announce signs and portents of the coming judgment, which will witness Messiah’s enemies destroyed, and saints glorified. Chaps. 10–11, 14, record a pause before the seventh angel’s proclamation, and represent the coming joy and sorrow, the overthrow of Jerusalem, the faithful testimony of the Christians, and the cruelty of their foes. Revelation 11:15-19, the proclamation of the seventh angel. Chaps. 12, 13, present, under various figures, the opposition of the Roman power to the Church. Chap. 14 pictures the certain triumph of Christ. Chaps. 15, 16, record the outpouring of the seven vials of wrath and destruction. Chaps. 17, 18, witness the complete overthrow of the Church’s arch-enemy, Rome. Chap. 19 celebrates in angelic chorus the victory of Christ. Revelation 20:1-10 records the binding and final subjection of Satan. Revelation 20:11-15, the final judgment. Chaps. 21, 22, present the consummation of the Kingdom of God, the culmination of the great drama of conflict and judgment in a scene of eternal peace and joy.—Prof. G. B. Stevens, D.D.

St. John was not a prophet in the ancient and vulgar sense; he was not a mere seer of coming events, a mere student and interpreter of the shadows they cast before them; but a wise and holy man, who had a keen and trained insight into the moral laws by which God governs the world, and so heartily believed in these laws as to be quite sure that in the ethical, as in the physical, world, effects spring from causes and correspond to them—that actions are invariably followed by their due consequences and rewards. And, hence, the Apocalypse of St. John is not a series of forecasts, predicting the political weather of the world through the ages of history; it is rather a series of symbols and visions in which the universal principles of the Divine Rule are set forth in forms dear to the heart of a Hebrew Mystic and poet. What is most valuable to us in this book, therefore, is not the letter, the form; not the vials, the seals, the trumpets, over which interpreters, who play the seer rather than the prophet, have been wrangling and perplexing their brains for centuries; but the large general principles which these mystic symbols of Oriental thought are apt to conceal from a Western mind. Whether or not, for example, the vision of an angel flying through heaven to proclaim an impending judgment was taken by St. John’s first readers to indicate an approaching event of world-wide moment, is a question of comparatively slight importance to us; it is, indeed, mainly a question of curious antiquarian interest.—S. Cox, D.D.


In the first three chapters we have the subject of which it is to treat set before us. That subject is the Lord Jesus Christ, not so much in the essential and external glory of His Divine Sonship as in the glory belonging to Him as the Head of His Church. In other words, the subject of the Apocalypse is the Church in Christ, and the object of the book is to present to us a picture of the trials and struggles in the world at the time when, at His Second Coming, her Lord makes His glory manifest, and completes His victory over all her enemies.
It is true that St. John did start from events in his own day; but he beheld in them illustrations of principles which had marked the dealings of God with His people in all past ages of His Church, and which would continue to mark His dealings to the end. That end is constantly before him. It is not reached either in the destruction of Jerusalem or in any prospect of the overthrow of the Roman power. It comes only with the final manifestation of the Lord, with the final judgment of the wicked, and with the casting of death and Hades into the lake of fire.
Unquestionably it must be admitted that the author wrote from the standpoint of his own age, with its events before his eyes, and with a practical purpose bearing primarily upon it. But that did not hinder him from beholding these events less in themselves than in the eternal principles that underlay them, and came into manifestation through them. Nothing is clearer than that he was the child of his time in a sense in which few writers are. Why should he not also be steeped in the principles which had made the past what it was, and which were to form the future? To think that he was so; to think that he cared more for the ideal than the phenomenal, for the deeper meaning of facts than for the facts themselves, is to put him on a level with the highest, not the lowest, spirits of our race, and with all in whom God has most clearly spoken.
We shall be wrong if we treat the book as predictive, and if we seek in particular events, either of the Church’s or the world’s history, for the fulfilment of its supposed predictions. The book is mainly occupied with the enunciation of the great principles which guide the action of the Church’s Lord, until the time of His return.

Everything contained in the Apocalypse is to be understood symbolically and spiritually. Even did this not appear on the face of the book as a whole, the writer gives us in one case a clear indication of the principle of interpretation he would have us apply. When speaking of the fate of the two witnesses, he says, in ch. Revelation 11:8, “And their dead bodies lie in the streets of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt”—words clearly showing that, in this instance at least, we are not to interpret literally. Apart, however, from these particular words, literal interpretation must be admitted by all to be, at least in the main parts of the book, impossible. The only question might be, whether we are to draw any line between the symbolical and the literal, and if so, where and how? No absolute rule can be laid down. The skill and tact of the interpreter can alone guide him. But this much may be said, that where by far the larger portion of the book is symbolical, the probabilities are in favour of the supposition that all is so.

Symbolical language may be a not less definite exponent of human thought than any other form of speech that we employ. The same symbol may be used, and, on the lips of a true teacher, will be used as strictly as any word that literally expresses his idea. The meaning may, in the present instance, be at first more difficult to discover, because in the West, which is so much colder and more phlegmatic than the East, we are accustomed to give much less play to the imagination than is done in regions at once warmer, grander, and more mysterious. But of this we may be assured: that a distinct meaning lies beneath the figures that are employed.
One of the great lessons of the Apocalypse consists in this, that it unfolds such a bright view, not of a world beyond the grave, but of this present world, when we contemplate it with the eye of faith, and penetrate through the veil of sense to the great springs of spiritual action by which it is really moved. It may be doubted if in this respect there is one single picture of the Apocalypse applicable only to the future inheritance of the saints. What is set forth in its apparent visions of future happiness is rather the present privilege of believers, when they look at what they possess in the light of that Christian revelation in which old things pass away, and all things are made new. If we enter upon the study of it with this feeling—and it is a feeling which, as the spirituality of the Church increases, will more and more commend itself to the Christian mind—the visions of this book will be to us what they were to the apostle who first beheld them. They will give us followship on the loneliest rock of the wide ocean of life, and they will lighten the darkest spots of earth with a heavenly and unchanging glory.—W. Milligan, D.D.


There are two possible theories, the historical and the descriptive. The descriptive theory is that which sees in the book only the symbolical representation of great ideas and principles; proclamations of eternal truth in general terms. Against this it is urged;

1.—The mere expression of general principles of the Divine government hardly affords a sufficient motive for so complicated and difficult a book. These ideas are plainer than the book written to enforce them.
2. The theory is not self-consistent, for it admits that there may be some predictive or historical element in the book. And if any of this element is to be admitted—and it is difficult to see how it can be shut out—then this scheme of interpretation fails to satisfy the demand which the book itself makes.
3. This book ranks with Daniel, and the two books stand or fall together. Both are what are called apocalyptic, and are more than mere prophecy. What may be asserted of prophecy cannot be in all respects true of them. While we have no right to class these two books with that heap of writings which are usually denominated “apocalyptic,” yet it must be granted that such a method of interpretation as the “descriptive” is out of keeping with them, as having characteristics similar, though in a higher degree, to those other writings. The purely historical theory sees in the book only closely related events which it needed no predictive power to discover.—Principal David Brown, D.D.


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