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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

- Revelation

by Editor - Joseph Exell



The Author of the Apocalypse

There is very strong external evidence to prove that this book was written by the Apostle John. Passing over some earlier apparent witnesses, we find unmistakable mention of it in the writings of Justin Martyr. He expressly refers to it as the work of the apostle, in the dialogue which he held with Trypho, an unbelieving Jew, in the very city of Ephesus where John lived, and within half a century after his death. Equally clear and explicit is the testimony of Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of John. Irenaeus even gives as his authority for preferring 666 to 616 as “the number of the beast” (Revelation 13:18), the testimony of those who had seen John face to face. The book is twice mentioned in the Canon of the Muratorian Fragment, once in such a way as to imply that it was publicly read in church; it was one of the books on which Melito, Bishop of Sardis, wrote a commentary (about 170 a.d.); and it is expressly quoted as “the Scripture” in the letter sent by the persecuted Christians of Vienne and Lyons to their brethren in Asia Minor (177 a.d.). But soon after the middle of the second century the book began to be regarded with suspicion, owing to the use made of it by the Montanists, who indulged in extravagant notions regarding the “thousand years” of Christ’s reign with His saints (chap. 20.). The feeling of distrust was strengthened by observing what a marked difference there was in the language and style of the Revelation and of the other works ascribed to John; and a considerable amount of controversy took place on the subject. Ultimately, however, the objections were overruled, and the book obtained general acceptance in the Church. In modern times the controversy has been renewed; and objectors are still disposed to insist, as of old, on the internal marks of a different authorship from that of the fourth Gospel. In particular it is pointed out that whereas the Gospel is written in good Greek, the Revelation is full of grammatical mistakes and eccentricities. To meet this objection the following considerations may be adduced:--

(1) The difference in the nature and contents of the two books; the one being mainly narrative or colloquial, the other being formed on the model of the Old Testament prophets.

(2) The possible effect on the Apostle of twenty years’ residence in Ephesus, in the way of improving his knowledge of Greek.

(3) The unfavourable circumstances under which he appears to have written the Revelation; and the possible employment by him of a skilled Greek amanuensis in the composition of the Gospel. On the other hand, amid all the diversity between the two books both in ideas and in language, there are not wanting some important features of resemblance, betokening an identity of authorship.

1. The name “Lamb” is only applied to the Saviour in the fourth Gospel (John 1:29; John 1:36) and in the Revelation (Revelation 5:6; Revelation 5:8; Revelation 5:12, etc.), although it is indirectly referred to in 1 Peter 1:19 and Acts 8:32. In like manner the name “Word” is only applied to the Saviour in the Gospel of John (John 1:1, etc.), in First Epistle of John (1 John 1:1, “the Word of life”), and in the Revelation (Revelation 19:13, “the Word of God”).

2. Some of John’s favourite expressions, such as “he that overcometh,” “witness” (noun or verb), “keep (my) word,” are of frequent occurrence in the Revelation.

3. In Revelation 1:7 we seem to have an echo of John 19:34-37, where alone the piercing of our Lord with the spear is recorded, and where there is the same quotation of Zechariah 12:10 --in the same unusual form.

4. The Greek word meaning “true” or “real,” in opposition to what is false or spurious, occurs nine times in St. John’s Gospel, four times in 1 John, and ten times in the Revelation; but only five times in all the rest of the New Testament.

5. The Revelation, like the fourth Gospel, recognises our Lord’s pre-eminence and His title to Divine honours (Revelation 1:8; Revelation 1:17-18; Revelation 3:14; Revelation 3:21; Revelation 5:9; Revelation 5:13; Revelation 19:16; Revelation 22:13).

6. A still stronger feature of resemblance may be seen in the similarity of the representations which the two books give of the Saviour’s triumph as resulting from successive conflicts terminating in apparent and temporary defeat. In these conflicts the Gentiles take the place held by the unbelieving Jews in the Gospel; and the “disciples” of the earlier days are represented by the Church, or “the bride” (of Christ). It has been objected that the Revelation, unlike the other writings of John, gives the name of its avowed author (Revelation 1:1; Revelation 1:4; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 22:8). But this is sufficiently accounted for by the prophetical character of the book. It was the practice of the prophets of the Old Testament, although not of the historians, to mention their names in their writings. (J. A. McClymont, D. D.)

Time and Place of Composition

As to the time of its composition, tradition is far from consistent. The author of the Muratorian fragment, e.g., incidentally places it earlier than the Pauline epistles; but Irenaeus expressly states that it “was seen towards the close of the reign of Domitian.” This is sometimes interpreted as implying that the book was also written then; but more probably he intended his readers to understand that it was written after Domitian’s death--under Nerva, or perhaps even in the reign Of Trajan. But Tertullian seems to suggest the time of Nero as the date. Jerome dates the supposed banishment of John certainly, and the writing probably, in the 14th year of Domitian; but in this, perhaps, he is only repeating Irenaeus. There is some reason to think that this date is partly derived from an interpretation of Revelation 1:9, which is not now usually accepted. Epiphanius mentions the time of Claudius. The place where the Revelation was received is professedly Patmos, and ancient writers usually assumed that it was also committed to writing there … . The two-sided character of the evidence, both external and internal, as to date led Grotius (1644) to suggest that the problem raised by it might perhaps be solved by the assumption that the book was written by its one author at different times, partly in Patmos and partly at Ephesus. Vogel (1811-1816) offered a different solution--that it was written partly by the Apostle John and partly by the presbyter John, a theory which seems to have had some attraction for Schleiermacher, and, temporarily at least, for Bleek. Volter (1882-1885) thinks that the original Apocalypse as written by the Apostle in 65-66 a.d. consists of: Revelation 1:4-6; Revelation 4:1-5; Revelation 4:10; Revelation 6:1-7; Revelation 8:8-9; Revelation 11:14-19; Revelation 14:1-7; Revelation 18:1-19; Revelation 14:14-20; Revelation 19:5-10. To this the Apostle himself (68-69 a.d.) added Revelation 10:1-11; Revelation 13:1-18; Revelation 14:8; Revelation 17:1-18. It received subsequent additions by other hands in the time of Trajan (Revelation 11:15; Revelation 11:18; Revelation 19:11-12; Revelation 21:1-8), of Hadrian (chaps. 5:11-14; 7:9-17; 13.; 14:4, 5, 9-12; 15:1-17:1), and of Antoninus Pius (prologue, epistles to churches, etc.). A new line of investigation in the same direction was opened by Vischer, who (1886) sought to show that the groundwork of the composite book was primarily not Christian but Jewish, written in Hebrew, but translated and freely adapted by a Christian redactor. This view was accepted by Harnack (1886), and Substantially, though with large modifications, by Pfleiderer (1887), and Weyland (1888). Schon also (1887) and Sabatier (1888) maintained the composite character of the work, holding it, however, to be essentially of Christian origin (end of first century) but with incorporation of Jewish fragments. The most powerful and suggestive of recent works based on the theory of composite origin is that of Spitta (1889) who dintinguishes a Christian Apocalypse, dating from about 60 a.d., which he attributes to John Mark, and two Jewish Apocalypses dating respectively from Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem in 63 b.c., and from Caligula’s time, about 40 a.d. These three sections of the work correspond roughly to the visions of the seals, the trumpets, and the vials. The work of redaction, spirts holds, was done towards the end of the first century. (J. Sutherland Black.)

The Interpretation Of The Apocalypse

According to St. Augustine, the events which come to pass in this world are neither fortuitous nor isolated. Divine Providence directs, co-ordinates, and controls them all, causing everything to concur towards the triumph of purity, holiness, justice, and truth. Whoever hears the voice from on high and follows it, belongs to the elect people--to “the City of God”; beside which lies the city of the earth occupied with the interests of this lower sphere--a city proud, tyrannical, the persecutor of the saints, but which does not the less subserve, albeit by means of which it is unconscious, the establishment of the Divine Kingdom. Such was Babylon in the East; such was Rome in the West: both imperial cities, and both ordained to diffuse God’s revelation--the one the Old Testament, the other the New. The empire of Rome was universal, because such must be the Kingdom of Christ: and as the Old Law was but the preparation for the New, so all events in the old world converged towards Rome and towards the Coming of Christ; in the same manner as all events after that Coming have concurred to the final triumph and to the universality of the Christian Faith. If this central thought be kept in mind, many interpretations, seemingly opposed to each other will be found to harmonize; it being assumed that the successive events which are taken to be the complete accomplishment of an Apocalyptic prediction are but illustrations merely--specimens, so to speak--of God’s dealings with the Church and with the world. There are three principal systems of exposition, as they are commonly classified, according to which the Apocalypse has, for the most part, been interpreted:--the Preterist, the Historical or Continuous, the Futurist. To these, however, must be added the principle of interpretation which adopts for its leading idea the great conception of St. Augustine stated above. This system may be styled the “Spiritual.” As Ebrard says: “The Apocalypse does not contain presages of contingent, isolated events; but it contains warning and consolatory prophecies concerning the great leading forces which make their appearance in the conflict between Christ and the enemy. So full are its contents that every age may learn therefrom, more and more, against what disguises of the serpent one has to guard oneself; and also how the afflicted Church at all times receives its measure of courage and of consolation.” (Archdeacon Lee.)


The Prologue (chaps. 1.-3.), setting forth--

1. The vision of Christ, including the commission given to the Apostle (Revelation 1:1; Revelation 1:11; Revelation 1:19); an intimation of the historical personality of the seer, as well as the place and occasion of his receiving the Revelation (verses 9-11).

2. The enumeration of the Seven Churches (Revelation 1:11; Revelation 2:3.) which symbolise the Church universal (Revelation 3:22) for whose sake the prophetical utterances are intended.

3. The Seven Epistles (chaps. 2., 3.).

The revelation proper (Revelation 4:1-11; Revelation 5:1-14; Revelation 6:1-17; Revelation 7:1-17; Revelation 8:1-13; Revelation 9:1-21; Revelation 10:1-11; Revelation 11:1-19; Revelation 12:1-17; Revelation 13:1-18; Revelation 14:1-20; Revelation 15:1-8; Revelation 16:1-21; Revelation 17:1-18; Revelation 18:1-24; Revelation 19:1-21; Revelation 20:1-15; Revelation 21:1-27; Revelation 22:1-5).

1. The prelude (chaps. 4., 5.) which introduces the Divine judgments. These chapters contain two scenes--the appearance in heaven of the throne of God (chap. 4.), and the appearance of the Lamb who takes the sealed book “out of the right hand of Him that sat on the throne” (chap. 5.).

2. The vision of the seven seals (Revelation 6:1-17; Revelation 7:1-17; Revelation 8:1), including an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals which consists of two scenes--that of the sealing of the elect (Revelation 7:1-8), and that of the “great multitude which no man could number” (Revelation 7:9-17).

3. The vision of the seven trumpets (Revelation 8:2-13; Revelation 9:1-21; Revelation 10:1-11; Revelation 11:1-19), including as before an interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets, which again consists of two scenes--that of the “little book” (Revelation 10:1-11), and that of the “two witnesses” (Revelation 11:1-14).

4. The vision of the woman and her three enemies (Revelation 12:1-17; Revelation 13:1-18) the dragon (Revelation 12:8-17), the beast from the sea (Revelation 12:17; Revelation 13:10), the beast from the earth or “false prophet” (Revelation 13:11-18).

5. The group of visions in chap. 14.

(1) The vision of the Lamb with His company on Mount Sion (Revelation 14:1-5).

(2) The vision of the three angels proclaiming judgments (Revelation 14:6-11).

(3) The episode (Revelation 14:12-13).

(4) The vision of the harvest and the vintage (Revelation 14:14-20).

6. The vision of the seven vials (Revelation 15:1-8; Revelation 16:1-21), again including an interlude between the sixth and seventh vials which now consists of one scene--that of the three unclean spirits gathering the kings of the earth “into the place which is called Har-Magedon” (Revelation 16:13-16).

7. The vision of the final triumph (Revelation 17:1-18; Revelation 18:1-24; Revelation 19:1-21; Revelation 20:1-15; Revelation 21:1-27; Revelation 22:1-5), presenting four scenes.

(1) The history and fall of Babylon (Revelation 17:1-18; Revelation 18:1-24; Revelation 19:1-10)--the hostile world-power.

(2) The overthrow of Satan (Revelation 19:11-21; Revelation 20:1-10)--the hostile spiritual power.

(3) The universal judgment (Revelation 20:11-15).

(4) The glories of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:1-27; Revelation 22:1-5).

The epilogue (Revelation 22:6-21) which gradually passes from visionary representation, and referring back in Revelation 14:8 to the prologue, closes with a Divine attestation, and with threats mingled with promises. (Archdeacon Lee.)


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