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by Joseph Benson
REVELATION OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE.
This Book of the Revelation has, for very good reasons, been received as one of the sacred books of the New Testament. The chief of these reasons have been mentioned by many authors, and are represented with great evidence and strength by Sir Isaac Newton, who observes, he does not find any other book of the New Testament so strongly attested, or commented upon so early, as this. And Dr. Lardner has collected with great care and faithfulness the testimonies of the most early Christian writers to the books of the New Testament, in his Treatise on the Credibility of the Gospel History. The testimony of some of the most eminent to the authority of this book is as follows: 1. Justin Martyr, a person of great name, about the year of Christ 140, and so about fifty or sixty years after the writing of this book, expressly calls it a prophecy, and ascribes it to John the apostle, saying, “A man from among us, by name John, one of the apostles of Christ, in the Revelation to him, has prophesied,” &c. 2. Mileto, bishop of Sardis, one of the seven churches mentioned in the second and third chapters, wrote a book on the Revelation by St. John, which some think was an entire commentary; but whether or not, it shows he esteemed it a book of canonical authority. 3. Irenæus, who wrote about A.D. 178, within seventy or eighty years of St. John, expressly ascribes the Revelation to him, calling him the disciple of the Lord. His testimony to this book, as Lardner observes, “is so strong and full, that, considering the age of Irenæus, it seems to put it beyond all question that it was the work of St. John the apostle and evangelist.” 4. A little later, Theophilus of Antioch, in a book of his against the heresy of Hermogenes, makes use of testimonies from St. John’s Revelation 5:0. Clement of Alexandria quotes these revelations as St. John’s, saying, “As John testifies in the Revelation.” And he refers to them as the words of an apostle, or as having the authority of apostolic writings. 6. Tertullian, who wrote about the year of Christ 200, and so somewhat about a hundred years after the time in which this book was written, observes, “John, in his Apocalypse, is commanded to correct those who ate things sacrificed to idols, and committed fornication.” And again: “We have churches, disciples of John; for, though Marcion rejects his Revelation, the succession of bishops, traced to the original, will assure us that John is the author of it.” We cannot wonder that Marcion should reject the Revelation, since he rejected all the Old Testament, and of the New received only the gospel of St. Luke, and ten epistles of St. Paul, which also he had corrupted and altered.
But this book of the Revelation, though never rejected by the ancient church, and as fully authenticated as any part of the canon of the New Testament, yet from the obscurity of the prophecies contained in it before their completion, was less known and less studied than the gospels, Acts, and epistles. Perhaps, says Dr. Apthorp, it was purposely concealed from being publicly read in the congregations of the early Christians, on principles of prudence and loyalty, as it distinctly foretold the subversion of the Roman empire, and the erecting other dynasties on its ruins. It was, however, universally received by the Latin Church, most interested in its predictions; and Eusebius and the Greek Church concurred with the Latins in venerating its authority as an essential part of the sacred canon. Indeed, the churches in general, nearest the times of the writing of this book, received it with so full consent, that, in a very few years, as Dr. Mill observes, it was acknowledged and placed in the number of apostolical writings, not only by the churches of Asia, but by the neighbouring churches of Syria and Samaria, by the more distant churches of Africa and Egypt, by Rome, and the other churches of Europe. Such reasons there are to receive this as one of the books of the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament, that hardly any one book has more early, full, or authentic attestations given to it.
Now all who thus receive it must acknowledge that it proceeds from the Spirit of prophecy; and that Spirit itself declares, “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear, the words of this prophecy,” &c., chap. Revelation 1:3. If we acknowledge this to be a true testimony respecting this book, as we must if we own it to be a book of Holy Scripture, we must acknowledge, also, that, how obscure soever the words of this prophecy may be, they are yet sufficiently intelligible to be very useful. Considering, however, the nature and design of prophecy, and the style and manner of expression generally used in it, we are not to expect that prophecies should be as easily understood as doctrines or precepts delivered in plain language, and the common familiar forms of speech. The nature and intention of prophecy were not to gratify our curiosity, by giving us to know future events, or, as it were, enabling us to tell the fortunes of the church and world; but to answer wise and good purposes; to confirm our faith, patience, and constancy; to encourage our hope and trust in God, and give us assurance of his protecting the cause of truth and righteousness, that is, of true religion: and especially to answer these good ends when we might be tempted to forsake true religion, by the power of prevailing error and reigning corruption, or might be greatly dejected and despair of success, when opposition to the truth is so powerful and violent as hardly to leave a reasonable prospect of bearing up against it. In such a state of things, which often has happened, it has been the use of prophecy to support the confidence and courage of good men, with lively and affecting representations of the majesty, power, and goodness of God; of his care to protect his cause and people, and of the power of his providence to superintend and order all things in the world in that way which shall most promote his own glory and the salvation of mankind. And, finally, the design of prophecy is to represent these things in such a manner as shall fix men’s attention, and confirm their faith in the truth of the Scriptures in which such prophecies are contained, and in his faithfulness certainly to accomplish his word in all things.
When such events of future time are foretold as shall, in their accomplishment, confirm our faith in the goodness, power, and faithfulness of God, and by such strong and lively representations thereof as shall make deep impressions on our minds, they answer a very wise and important design, and are of greater use than plainer precepts, enjoining constancy and perseverance, or plain promises of encouragement and reward, delivered in expressions more easy to be understood. In the first ages of Christianity, as well as in after times, good men were wont to be greatly discouraged with the afflictive state of the church, and the powerful opposition that was made to the gospel. For they hardly knew how to reconcile such a state of things with what they thought the Scriptures had given them reason to expect in the kingdom of the Messiah. It was, therefore, wise and proper, by a prophecy in the Christian Church, to support the minds of good men under these afflictions with assurances of Christ’s second coming, in its proper season, and of the watchful providence of God over his cause and people in the mean time. Thus the prophecies of this book are to us in the Christian Church of the like use that the prophecies of Christ’s first appearance were of to his ancient church.
That this is, properly speaking, a book of prophecy of things to come, as well as a description of the then present state and condition of the churches in Asia, Christ himself declares, Revelation 1:19, saying, “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;” and, Revelation 4:1, John heard a voice, which said, “Come up hither, and I will show thee the things that must be hereafter.” Some of these predictions, indeed, related to events not far distant from the time when the vision and prophecy were given, and, therefore, were soon to be accomplished. Thus the book is termed, Revelation 1:1, “the Revelation of Jesus Christ, &c., to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass;” and, Revelation 1:3, “Blessed is he that readeth, &c., for the time is at hand.” But from these and such like expressions we cannot infer, as some have done, that the whole prophecy was to be accomplished in a few years after the vision. They only show that the things foretold were soon to begin to be accomplished; not that their accomplishment was soon to end; the time included in these predictions evidently extending from the period when John had these visions to the day of final judgment.
At the time when John received the discoveries contained in this book, he was in banishment for “the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus;” and the church was under persecution so long as the Roman empire continued heathen. Severe persecutions were almost perpetually renewed; and, a little before the time of Constantine, they were so severe, that they seemed to threaten the utter destruction of all who could not be forced to renounce the Christian faith, and fall in with the idolatrous worship established in the empire. The last persecution, under Diocletian, destroyed such incredible numbers, that the persecutors boasted they had effaced the name and superstition of the Christians, and had restored and propagated the worship of the gods. Yet the divine providence, after several great revolutions, made way for the authority of Constantine the Great, who put an end to the long persecution of ten years, gave freedom to the churches, and finally gave all protection and countenance to the Christian Church, and all assistance to promote the Christian faith and worship. So that the same power which before persecuted now protected the religion of Christ. The first period of prophecy, then, seems naturally to point out this period of history, which in general answers to it with great propriety and exactness, and will direct us to look for the fulfilment of the several parts of it, in some of the events of providence, which took place between the time of the vision, and the year of Christ about 323, when the opposition of the idolatrous power of Rome gave way to the protection and favour of Christian emperors.
The second period of prophecy points out the period of history between the year of Christ 323 to about 750, in which compass of time we seem to be directed to look for the accomplishment of the several particular predictions contained in this period; namely, when the Roman empire beginning to lose its power, and becoming unable to protect the church, a swarm of idolatrous nations from the northern countries, under several names, broke in upon that empire, and divided the western part of it into several separate and independent governments, or kingdoms; so that the Christian faith and worship were in as much danger from the idolatry of the northern nations, who had divided the empire among them, as they were before in danger from the idolatry of the empire itself. It pleased God, also, to permit that impostor, Mohammed, and his successors, to gain so much ground, and to spread that imposture so far and so fast, that it threatened the ruin of the Christian name and religion in the East. Yet the idolatrous northern nations were soon themselves brought to embrace Christianity, and to use all their power and authority to protect and promote it. And though the Saracens made great inroads for some time, yet was their progress stopped both in the east and west, as shall be shown in the proper place.
The third period seems also to be determined to the time of its beginning and ending by the prophecy itself, including the time of the beast, of the woman’s being in the wilderness, and of the treading down of the holy city; which times are variously expressed, but plainly in such a manner as to intend the same duration. It is said to be for “forty-two months;” (Revelation 11:2; Revelation 13:5;) “for a time, times, and half a time;” (Revelation 12:14;) which ways of numbering are explained by another; namely, twelve hundred and sixty days, Revelation 11:3. The difficulty then of assigning the exact historical time of this period lies chiefly in fixing when these twelve hundred and sixty days are to begin; or, which will be the same, at what period in history we are to fix the beginning of the power of the beast, of the flying of the woman into the wilderness, and of treading the holy city under foot; for these are the calamities of this period. When the last-mentioned period shall have continued the time specified in the above-mentioned numbers, namely, forty-two months, a time, times, and half a time, or twelve hundred and sixty days, according to the style of prophecy, the beast shall be destroyed, that old serpent, which is the devil and Satan, shall be bound a thousand years, during which time the church shall be in a happy and peaceful state, which will be the fourth remarkable period, described Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:2.
When these thousand years shall be expired, Satan again shall be loosed out of his prison for a short time; and this will make a fifth period, Revelation 20:7. This shall occasion a new and the last attempt of error and wickedness against truth and righteousness; but this attempt shall end in the final ruin of all the enemies of religion, which shall be the sixth period, chap. Revelation 20:9-10.
The seventh period, set forth in chap. 21., 22., respects the everlasting happiness of the righteous and faithful servants of God and Christ in a state of glorious immortality, and an endless sabbath. This order of the prophecies given by Lowman appears very natural and intelligible, and more agreeable to the important facts of history than perhaps any other system; and yet it is the truth of history which alone can show us what has been the providence of God toward the church and world from the time of this vision of St. John to our own days.
It is evident such a plan of prophecy and order of history are well calculated to answer the important designs of revelation in general, to prepare the church to expect opposition and sufferings in this present world, to support good men under all the trials of their faith and patience, to give encouragement to persevere in true religion, whatever dangers may attend our so doing, to assure us that God will attend to and protect his own cause, so that no opposition shall finally prevail against it; that God will assuredly judge and punish the enemies of truth and righteousness, and that their opposition thereto shall certainly end in their own destruction, when the faithful perseverance of the true followers of Christ shall be crowned with a glorious state of immortal life and happiness.
The great truths concerning the majesty of God, the wisdom and care of his providence, the dignity, authority, and power of Christ, the protection of the church, the restraint and punishment of its enemies, and the final happiness of all who shall faithfully persevere in true faith, piety, and virtue, are here delivered in such an awful manner, such animated language, and striking representations, as must greatly affect the spirits of genuine Christians. A regard to this book of Revelation, as predicting events by a Spirit of prophecy, which, therefore, will surely come to pass, serves to raise us above the fear of men, by a lively faith and assured confidence in God. To look upon the promises and threatenings of this book as infallible predictions, which shall certainly be accomplished, must animate every well-disposed and considerate person to resist all temptations of error and sin with faithfulness, constancy, and zeal. The lake of fire, and the terrors of the second death, the portion of the fearful and unbelieving; and, on the other hand, the glory and felicity of the New Jerusalem, and a right to the tree of life, the portion of all the faithful, are represented by such strong and lively images, as are calculated, not only to fix men’s attention, but to touch their hearts and affections, and engage them with zeal and diligence to follow the wise directions of truth and righteousness. And an exact conformity between these prophetic descriptions and the real state of the church and the world, for a series of some hundreds of years, gives continually new and increasing evidence of the truth and importance of the Christian revelation, and the authenticity and authority of the books of the New Testament; and it greatly confirms our faith in God’s promises and threatenings, and thereby gives them their full force and influence upon us. Such is the improvement which the Holy Spirit of prophecy designed should arise from the perusal of this book of Revelation; and doubtless it has had, and still will have, this effect upon thousands that seriously read and weigh its contents. For one of its prophetic declarations is, “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear, the words of this prophecy, and keep those things that are written therein.”
It must be observed, however, that in the interpretations and applications of these prophecies we are not to expect demonstrations, or such proofs as shall be liable to no manner of objection; or that some weak and ill- informed persons may not wrest these prophecies, as they do the other scriptures, and may do any principles whatsoever, to extravagant expectations, designs, and actions. It should be sufficient to satisfy us, if we find a proper and probable sense of these prophetic expressions and descriptions, suited to the manifest and wise design of the whole prophecy. And if these interpretations are supported by an application of events in history, that are justly applicable, both to the prophetic descriptions, and to the series and order of the predictions; if they are events worthy a spirit of prophecy to reveal, and agreeable to the spirit and intention of this prophecy in particular, we may, without exposing ourselves to the charge of being over credulous, reasonably rest satisfied with them. Then we may represent these prophecies to ourselves in that noble and useful view in which a great author (Bossuet, bishop of Meaux, Explication of the Revelation, Preface) has placed them: “In the gospel of St. John we read the life of Christ on earth; a man conversing with men, humble, poor, weak, and suffering; we behold a sacrifice ready to be offered, and a man appointed to sorrows and death; but in the Revelation we have the gospel of Christ now raised from the dead. He speaks and acts as having conquered the grave, and triumphed over death and hell, as entered into the place of his glory; angels, principalities, and powers being made subject to him; and exercising the supreme universal power he has received from the Father over all things in heaven and earth, as our Saviour, for the protection of his church, and for the sure happiness of his faithful servants in the end.”
Nothing, says Dr. Apthorp, who pursues the same line of interpretation with Lowman, in the Jewish prophecies themselves, exceeds the sublimity of the exordium of the Apocalypse; “the vision of Jesus Christ, the monarch of his church, and the divine instructions to the Asian churches, and in them to the churches of all succeeding times, Revelation 1:1-8; Revelation 4:0. In the second vision heaven opens, the throne of God is surrounded by his saints, and the Lamb opens the seven seals amidst the acclamations of the angelic hosts, chap. 5.-viii. In the third vision the angels sound the seven trumpets, 8.-11. In the fourth vision the dragon persecutes the church, the two beasts rise from the earth and sea, and are defeated by the Lamb, Revelation 11:15; Revelation 14:0. In the fifth vision the angels pour the vials of the wrath of God on the kingdom and throne of antichrist, chap. 15-19. In the sixth vision Satan is bound for a thousand years, chap. 20. The seventh vision reveals the destined glories of the true religion, emblemized by the new heavens and new earth, and the New Jerusalem descending from God out of heaven, chap. 21, 22.”
Respecting the style of this book we may rely on the testimony of Blackwall. “The Revelation,” says he, in his Sacred Classics, “is writ in much the same style with the gospel and epistles, and entertains and instructs the reader with variety of Christian morals and sublime mysteries. From this noble book may be drawn resistless proofs of our Saviour’s eternal existence; the incommunicable attributes of eternity and infinite power are there plainly and directly applied to Jesus, the Son of God. It is in vain to look for more lofty descriptions or majestic images than you find in this sacred book. Could the acclamations and hallelujahs of God’s household be expressed with more propriety and magnificence than by the shouts of vast multitudes, the roaring of many waters, and the dreadful sound of the loudest and strongest thunders? And how transporting an entertainment must it be to the blessed to have all the strength of sound, tempered with all its sweetness and harmony, perfectly suited to their celestial ear and most exalted taste! The description of the Son of God in the nineteenth chapter, Revelation 19:11-17, is in all the pomp and grandeur of language. We have every circumstance and particular that is most proper to express power and justice, majesty and goodness; to raise admiration and high pleasure, corrected with awe.”
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26