Revelation of John
I. TITLE AND GENERAL CHARACTER OF BOOK
2. Uniqueness and Reality of Visions
II. CANONICITY AND AUTHORSHIP
1. Patristic Testimony
2. Testimony of Book Itself
3. Objections to Johannine Authorship--Relation to Fourth Gospel
III. DATE AND UNITY OF THE BOOK
1. Traditional Date under Domitian
2. The Nero-Theory
3. Composite Hypotheses--Babylonian Theory
IV. PLAN AND ANALYSIS OF THE BOOK
1. General Scope
2. Detailed Analysis
V. PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION
1. General Scheme of Interpretation
2. The Newer Theories
3. The Book a True Prophecy
VI. THEOLOGY OF THE BOOK
The last book of the New Testament. It professes to be the record of prophetic visions given by Jesus Christ to John, while the latter was a prisoner, "for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (Re 1:9), in PATMOS (which see), a small rocky island in the Aegean, about 15 miles West of Ephesus. Its precursor in the Old Testament is the Book of Dnl, with the symbolic visions and mystical numbers of which it stands in close affinity. The peculiar form of the book, its relation to other "apocalyptic" writings, and to the Fourth Gospel, likewise attributed to John, the interpretation of its symbols, with disputed questions of its date, of worship, unity, relations to contemporary history, etc., have made it one of the most difficult books in the New Testament to explain satisfactorily.
I. Title and General Character of Book.
"Revelation" answers to apokalupsis, in Re 1:1. The oldest form of the title would seem to be simply, "Apocalypse of John," the appended words "the divine" (theologos, i.e. "theologian") not being older than the 4th century (compare the title given to Gregory of Nazianzus, "Gregory theologian"). The book belongs to the class of works commonly named "apocalyptic," as containing visions and revelations of the future, frequently in symbolical form (e.g. the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Bar, the Apocalypse of Ezr; see APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE), but it is doubtful if the word here bears this technical sense. The tendency at present is to group the New Testament Apocalypse with these others, and attribute to it the same kind of origin as theirs, namely, in the unbridled play of religious fantasy, clothing itself in unreal visional form.
2. Uniqueness and Reality of Visions:
But there is a wide distinction. These other works are pseudonymous--fictitious; on the face of them products of imagination; betraying that this is their origin in their crude, confused, unedifying character. The Apocalypse bears on it the name of its author--an apostle of Jesus Christ (see below); claims to rest on real visions; rings with the accent of sincerity; is orderly, serious, sublime, purposeful, in its conceptions; deals with the most solemn and momentous of themes. On the modern Nerotheory, to which most recent expositors give adherence, it is a farrago of baseless fantasies, no one of which came true. On its own claim it is a product of true prophecy (Re 1:3; 22:18 f), and has or will have sure fulfillment. Parallels here and there are sought between it and the Book of Enoch or the Apocalypse of Ezra. As a rule the resemblances arise from the fact that these works draw from the same store of the ideas and imagery of the Old Testament. It is there the key is chiefly to be sought to the symbolism of John. The Apocalypse is steeped in the thoughts, the images, even the language of the Old Testament (compare the illustrations in Lightfoot, Galatians, 361, where it is remarked: "The whole book is saturated with illustrations from the Old Testament. It speaks not the language of Paul, but of Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel"). These remarks will receive elucidation in what follows.
II. Canonicity and Authority.
1. Patristic Testimony:
The two questions of canonicity and authorship are closely connected. Eusebius states that opinion in his day was divided on the book, and he himself wavers between placing it among the disputed books or ranking it with the acknowledged (homologoumena). "Among these," he says, "if such a view seem correct, we must place the Apocalypse of John" (Historia Ecclesiastica, III, 25). That it was rightly so placed appears from a survey of the evidence. The first to refer to the book expressly is Justin Martyr (circa 140 AD), who speaks of it as the work of "a certain man, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ" (Dial, 81). Irenaeus (circa 180 AD) repeatedly and decisively declares that the Apocalypse was written by John, a disciple of the Lord (Adv. Haer., iv.20, 11; 30, 4; v.26, 1; 35, 2, etc.), and comments on the number 666 (v.30, 1). In his case there can be no doubt that the apostle John is meant. Andreas of Cappadocia (5th century) in a Commentary on the Apocalypse states that Papias (circa 130 AD) bore witness to its credibility, and cites a comment by him on Re 12:7-9. The book is quoted in the Epistle on the martyrs of Vienne and Lyons (177 AD); had a commentary written on it by Melito of Sardis (circa 170 AD), one of the churches of the Apocalypse (Euseb., HE, IV, 26); was used by Theophilus of Antioch (circa 168 AD) and by Apollonius (circa 210 AD; HE, V, 25)--in these cases being cited as the Apocalypse of John. It is included as John's in the Canon of Muratori (circa 200 AD). The Johannine authorship (apostolic) is abundantly attested by Tertullian (circa 200 AD; Adv. Mar., iii.14, 24, etc.); by Hippolytus (circa 240 AD), who wrote a work upon it; by Clement of Alexandria (circa 200 AD); by Origen (circa 230 AD), and other writers. Doubt about the authorship of the book is first heard of in the obscure sect of the Alogi (end of the 2nd century), who, with Caius, a Roman presbyter (circa 205 AD), attributed it to Cerinthus. More serious was the criticism of Dionysius of Alexandria (circa 250 AD), who, on internal grounds, held that the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse could not have come from the same pen (Euseb., HE, VII, 25). He granted, however, that it was the work of a holy and inspired man--another John. The result was that, while "in the Western church," as Bousset grants, "the Apocalypse was accepted unanimously from the first" (EB, I, 193), a certain doubt attached to it for a time in sections of the Greek and Syrian churches. It is not found in the Peshitta, and a citation from it in Ephraim the Syrian (circa 373) seems not to be genuine. Cyril of Jerusalem (circa 386 AD) omits it from his list, and it is unmentioned by the Antiochian writers (Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret). The Canon attributed to the Council of Laodicea (circa 360 AD) does not name it, but it is doubtful whether this document is not of later date (compare Westcott; also Bousset, Die Offenb. Joh., 28). On the other hand, the book is acknowledged by Methodius, Pamphilus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril Alex., Epiphanius, etc.
2. Testimony of Book Itself:
The testimony to the canonicity, and also to the Johannine authorship, of the Apocalypse is thus exceptionally strong. In full accordance with it is the claim of the book itself. It proclaims itself to be the work of John (Re 1:1,4,9; 22:8), who does not, indeed, name himself an apostle, yet, in his inspired character, position of authority in the Asian churches, and selection as the medium of these revelations, can hardly be thought of as other than the well-known John of the Gospels and of consentient church tradition. The alternative view, first suggested as a possibility by Eusebius, now largely favored by modern writers, is that the John intended is the "presbyter John" of a well-known passage cited by Eusebius from Papias (Historia Ecclesiastica, III, 39). Without entering into the intricate questions connected with this "presbyter John"--whether he was really a distinct person from the apostle (Zahn and others dispute it), or whether, if he was, he resided at Ephesus (see JOHN,GOSPEL OF )--it is enough here to say that the reason already given, viz: the importance and place of authority of the author of the Apocalypse in the Asian churches, and the emphatic testimony above cited connecting him with the apostle, forbid the attribution of the book to a writer wholly unknown to church tradition, save for this casual reference to him in Papias. Had the assumed presbyter really been the author, he could not have dropped so completely out of the knowledge of the church, and had his place taken all but immediately by the apostle.
3. Objections to Johannine Authorship--Relation to Fourth Gospel:
One cause of the hesitancy regarding the Apocalypse in early circles was dislike of its millenarianism; but the chief reason, set forth with much critical skill by Dionysius of Alexandria (Euseb., HE, VII, 25), was the undoubted contrast in character and style between this work and the Fourth Gospel, likewise claiming to be from the pen of John. Two works so diverse in character--the Gospel calm, spiritual, mystical, abounding in characteristic expressions as "life," "light," "love," etc., written in idiomatic Greek; the Apocalypse abrupt, mysterious, material in its imagery, inexact and barbarous in its idioms, sometimes employing solecisms--could not, it was argued, proceed from the same author. Not much, beyond amplification of detail, has been added to the force of the arguments of Dionysius. There were three possibilities--either first, admitting the Johannine authorship of the Apocalypse, to assail the genuineness of the Gospel--this was the method of the school of Baur; or, second, accepting the Gospel, to seek a different author for the Apocalypse--John the presbyter, or another: thus not a few reverent scholars (Bleek, Neander, etc.); or, third, with most moderns, to deny the Johannine authorship of both Gospel and Apocalypse, with a leaning to the "presbyter" as the author of the latter (Harnack, Bousset, Moffatt, etc.). Singularly there has been of late in the advanced school itself a movement in the direction of recognizing that this difficulty of style is less formidable than it looks--that, in fact, beneath the surface difference, there is a strong body of resemblances pointing to a close relationship of Gospel and Apocalypse. This had long been argued by the older writers (Godet, Luthardt, Alford, Salmon, etc.), but it is now more freely acknowledged. As instances among many may be noted the use of the term "Logos" (Re 19:13), the image of the "Lamb," figures like "water of life" words and phrases as "true," "he that overcometh," "keep the commandments," etc. A striking coincidence is the form of quotation of Zec 12:10 in Joh 19:37 and Re 1:7. If the Greek in parts shows a certain abruptness and roughness, it is plainly evidenced by the use of the correct constructions in other passages that this is not due to want of knowledge of the language. "The very rules which he breaks in one place he observes in others" (Salmon). There are, besides, subtle affinities in the Greek usage of the two books, and some of the very irregularities complained of are found in the Gospel (for ample details consult Bousset, op. cit.; Godet, Commentary on John, I, 267-70, English translation; Alford, Greek Test., IV, 224-28; Salmon, Introduction to the New Testament, 233-43, 2nd edition; the last-named writer says: "I have produced instances enough to establish decisively that there is the closest possible affinity between the Revelation and the other Johannine books"). Great differences in character and style no doubt still remain. Some, to leave room for these, favor an early date for the Apocalypse (68-69 BC; on this below); the trend of opinion, however, now seems, as will be shown, to be moving back to the traditional date in the reign of Domitian, in which case the Gospel will be the earlier, and the Apocalypse the later work. This, likewise, seems to yield the better explanation. The tremendous experiences of Patmos, bursting through all ordinary and calmer states of consciousness, must have produced startling changes in thought and style of composition. The "rapt seer" will not speak and write like the selfcollected, calmly brooding evangelist.
III. Date and Unity of the Book.
1. Traditional Date under Domitian:
Eusebius, in summing up the tradition of the Church on this subject, assigns John's exile to Patmos, and consequently the composition of the Apocalypse, to the latter part of the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). Irenaeus (circa 180 AD) says of the book, "For it was seen, not a long time ago, but almost in our own generation, at the end of the reign of Domitian" (Adv. Haer., v.30, 3). This testimony is confirmed by Clement of Alexandria (who speaks of "the tyrant"), Origen, and later writers. Epiphanius (4th century), indeed, puts (Haer., li.12, 233) the exile to Patmos in the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD); but as, in the same sentence, he speaks of the apostle as 90 years of age, it is plain there is a strange blunder in the name of the emperor. The former date answers to the conditions of the book (decadence of the churches; widespread and severe persecution), and to the predilection of Domitian for this mode of banishment (compare Tacitus, History i.2; Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, III, 18).
2. The Nero-Theory:
This, accordingly, may be regarded as the traditional date of composition of the Apocalypse, though good writers, influenced partly by the desire to give time for the later composition of the Gospel, have signified a preference for an earlier date (e.g. Westcott, Salmon). It is by no means to be assumed, however, that the Apocalypse is the earlier production. The tendency of recent criticism, it will be seen immediately, is to revert to the traditional date (Bousset, etc.); but for a decade or two, through the prevalence of what may be called the "Nero-theory" of the book, the pendulum swung strongly in favor of its composition shortly after the death of Nero, and before the destruction of Jerusalem (held to be shown to be still standing by Re 11:1-19), i.e. about 68-69 AD. This date was even held to be demonstrated beyond all question. Reuss may be taken as an example. According to him (Christian Theology of the Apostolic Age, I, 369 ff, English translation), apart from the ridiculous preconceptions of theologians, the Apocalypse is "the most simple, most transparent book that prophet ever penned." "There is no other apostolical writing the chronology of which can be more exactly fixed." "It was written before the destruction of Jerusalem, under the emperor Galba--that is to say, in the second half of the year 68 of our era." He proceeds to discuss "the irrefutable proofs" of this. The proof, in brief, is found in the beast (not introduced till Re 13:1-18) with seven heads, one of which has been mortally wounded, but is for the present healed (Re 13:3). "This is the Roman empire, with its first 7 emperors, one of whom is killed, but is to live again as Antichrist" (compare Re 17:10 f). The key to the whole book is said to be given in Re 13:18, where the number of the beast is declared to be 666. Applying the method of numerical values (the Jewish Gematria), this number is found to correspond with the name "Nero Caesar" in Hebrew letters (omitting the yodh, the Hebrew letter "y"). Nero then is the 5th head that is to live again; an interpretation confirmed by rumors prevalent at that time that Nero was not really dead, but only hidden, and was soon to return to claim his throne. As if to make assurance doubly sure, it is found that by dropping the final "n" in "Neron," the number becomes 616--a number which Irenaeus in his comments on the subject (v.30,1) tells us was actually found in some ancient copies. The meaning therefore is thought to be clear. Writing under the emperor Galba, the 6th emperor (reckoning from Augustus), the author anticipates, after a short reign of a 7th emperor (Re 17:10), the return of the Antichrist Nero--an 8th, but of the 7, with whom is to come the end. Jerusalem is to be miraculously preserved (Re 11:1-19), but Rome is to perish. This is to happen within the space of 3 1/2 years. "The final catastrophe, which was to destroy the city and empire, was to take place in three years and a half. .... The writer knows .... that Rome will in three years and a half perish finally, never to rise again." It does not matter for this theory that not one of the things predicted happened--that every anticipation was falsified. Nero did not return; Jerusalem was not saved; Rome did not perish; 3 1/2 years did not see the end of all things. Yet the Christian-church, though the failure of every one of these predictions had been decisively demonstrated, received the book as of divine inspiration, apparently without the least idea that such things had been intended (see the form of theory in Renan, with a keen criticism in Salmon's Introduction to the New Testament, lecture xiv).
3. Composite Hypotheses--Babylonian Theory:
What is to be said with reference to this "Nero-theory" belongs to subsequent sections: meanwhile it is to be observed that, while portions of theory are retained, significant changes have since taken place in the view entertained of the book as a whole, and with this of the date to be assigned to it. First, after 1882, came a flood of disintegrating hypotheses, based on the idea that the Apocalypse was not a unity, but was either a working up of one or more Jewish apocalypses by Christian hands, or at least incorporated fragments of such apocalypses (Uslter, Vischer, Weizsacker, Weyland, Pfieiderer, Spitta, etc.). Harnack lent his influential support to the form of this theory advocated by Vischer, and for a time the idea had vogue. Very soon, however, it fell into discredit through its own excesses (for details on the different views, see Bousset, or Moffatt's Introduction to the New Testament, 489 ff), and through increasing appreciation of the internal evidence for the unity of the book. Gunkel, in his Schopfung und Chaos (1895), started another line of criticism in his derivation of the conceptions of the book, not from Jewish apocalypse, but from Babylonian mythology. He assailed with sharp criticism the "contemporary history" school of interpretation (the "Nero-theory" above), and declared its "bankruptcy." The number of the beast, with him, found its solution, not in Nero, but in the Hebrew name for the primeval chaos. This theory, too, has failed in general acceptance, though elements in it are adopted by most recent interpreters. The modified view most in favor now is that the Apocalypse is, indeed, the work of a Christian writer of the end of the 1st century, but embodies certain sections borrowed from Jewish apocalypse (as Re 7:1-8, the 144,000; Re 11:1-19, measuring of the temple and the two witnesses; especially Re 12:1-17, the woman and red dragon--this, in turn, reminiscent of Babylonian mythology). These supposed Jewish sections are, however, without real support in anything that is known, and the symbolism admits as easily of a Christian interpretation as any other part of the book. We are left, therefore, as before, with the book as a unity, and the tide of opinion flows back to the age of Domitian as the time of its origin. Moffatt (connecting it mistakenly, as it seems to us, with Domitian's emphasis on the imperial cult, but giving also other reasons) goes so far as to say that "any earlier date for the book is hardly possible" (Expository Greek Testament, V, 317). The list of authorities for the Domitianie date may be seen in Moffatt, Introduction, 508.
IV. Plan and Analysis of the Book.
1. General Scope:
The method of the book may thus be indicated. After an introduction, and letters to the seven churches (Re 1:1-20 through Re 3:1-22), the properly prophetic part of the book commences with a vision of heaven (Re 4:1-11; 5:1-14), following upon which are two series of visions of the future, parallel, it would appear, to each other--the first, the 7 seals, and under the Re 7:1-17th seal, the 7 trumpets (Re 6:1-17 through Re 11:1-19, with interludes in Re 7:1-17 and again in Re 10:1-11; 11:1-12); the second, the woman and her child (Re 12:1-17), the 2 beasts (Re 13:1-18), and, after new interludes (Re 14:1-20), the bowls and 7 last plagues (Re 15:1-8; 16:1-21). The expansion of the last judgments is given in separate pictures (the scarlet woman, doom of Babylon, Har-Magedon, Re 17:1-18 through Re 19:1-21); then come the closing scenes of the millennium, the last apostasy, resurrection and judgment (Re 20:1-15), followed by the new heavens and new earth, with the descending new Jerusalem (Re 21:1-27; 22:1-21). The theme of the book is the conflict of Christ and His church with anti-Christian powers (the devil, the beast, the false prophet, Re 16:13), and the ultimate and decisive defeat of the latter; its keynote is in the words, "Come, Lord Jesus" (Re 22:20; compare Re 1:7); but it is to be noticed, as characteristic of the book, that while this "coming" is represented as, in manner, ever near, the end, as the crisis approaches, is again always postponed by a fresh development of events. Thus, under the 6th seal, the end seems reached (Re 6:12-17), but a pause ensues (Re 7:1-17), and on the opening of the seventh seal, a new series begins with the trumpets (Re 8:2 ff). Similarly, at the sounding of the 6th trumpet, the end seems at hand (Re 9:12-21), but a new pause is introduced before the last sounding takes place (Re 11:15 ff). Then is announced the final victory, but as yet only in summary. A new series of visions begins, opening into large perspectives, till, after fresh interludes, and the pouring out of 6 of the bowls of judgment, Har-Magedon itself is reached; but though, at the outpouring of the 7th bowl, it is proclaimed, "It is done" (Re 16:17), the end is again held over till these final judgments are shown in detail. At length, surely, in Re 19:1-21, with the appearance of the white horseman--"The Word of God" (Re 19:13)--and the decisive overthrow of all his adversaries (Re 19:18-21), the climax is touched; but just then, to our surprise, intervenes the announcement of the binding of Satan for 1,000 years, and the reign of Jesus and His saints upon the earth (the interpretation is not here discussed), followed by a fresh apostasy, and the general resurrection and judgment (Re 20:1-15). Precise time-measures evidently fail in dealing with a book so constructed: the 3 1/2 years of the Nero-interpreters sink into insignificance in its crowded panorama of events. The symbolic numbers that chiefly rule in the book are "seven," the number of completeness (7 spirits, seals, trumpets, bowls, heads of beasts); "ten," the number of worldly power (10 horns); "four," the earthly number (4 living creatures, corners of earth, winds, etc.); 3 1/2 years--42 months--"time, and times, and half a time" (Re 12:14) = 1,260 days, the period, borrowed from Dan (7:25; 12:7), of anti-Christian ascendancy.
2. Detailed Analysis:
The following is a more detailed analysis:
1. Title and Address (Rev 1:1-8)
2. Vision of Jesus and Message to the Seven Churches of the Province of Asia (Re 1:9-20)
3. The Letters to the Seven Churches (Rev 2; 3)
(1) Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7)
(2) Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11)
(3) Pergamos (Rev 2:12-17)
(4) Thyatira (Rev 2:18-29)
(5) Sardis (Rev 3:1-6)
(6) Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13)
(7) Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22)
II. THE THINGS TO COME. FIRST SERIES OF VISIONS: THE SEALS AND TRUMPETS
1. The Vision of Heaven
(1) Adoration of the Creator (Rev 4)
(2) The 7-Sealed Book; Adoration of God and the Lamb (Rev 5)
2. Opening of Six Seals (Rev 6)
(1) The White Horse (Rev 6:1,2)
(2) The Red Horse (Rev 6:3,4)
(3) The Black Horse (Rev 6:5,6)
(4) The Pale Horse (Rev 6:7,8)
(5) Souls under the Altar (Rev 6:9-11)
(6) The Wrath of the Lamb (Rev 6:12-17)
3. Interludes (Rev 7)
(1) Sealing of 144,000 on Earth (Rev 7:1-8)
(2) Triumphant Multitude in Heaven (Rev 7:9-17)
4. Opening of Seventh Seal: under This Seven Trumpets, of Which Six Now Sounded (Re 8:1-13; 9:1-21)
(1) Hail and Fire on Earth (Rev 8:7)
(2) Burning Mountain in Sea (Rev 8:8,9)
(3) Burning Star on Rivers and Fountains (Rev 8:10,11)
(4) One-third Sun, Moon, and Stars Darkened (Re 8:12). "Woe"--Trumpets (Re 8:13)
(5) The Fallen Star-Locusts (Rev 9:1-11)
(6) Angels Loosed from Euphrates--the Horseman (Rev 9:12-21)
(1) Angel with Little Book (Rev 10)
(2) Measuring of Temple and Altar--the Two Witnesses (Rev 11:1-13)
6. Seventh Trumpet Sounded--Final Victory (Rev 11:14-19)
III. SECOND SERIES OF VISIONS: THE WOMAN AND THE RED DRAGON; THE TWO BEASTS; THE BOWLS AND LAST PLAGUES
1. The Woman and Child; the Red Dragon and His Persecutions (Rev 12)
2. The Beast from the Sea, Seven-headed, Ten-horned (Re 13:1-10); the Two-horned Beast (Re 13:11-18)
3. Interludes (Rev 14)
(1) The Lamb on Mt. Zion; the 144,000 (Rev 14:1-5)
(2) The Angel with "an Eternal Gospel" (Rev 14:6,7)
(3) Second Angel--(Anticipatory) Proclamation of Fall of Babylon (Re 14:8)
(4) Third Angel--Doom of Worshippers of the Beast (Rev 14:9-12)
(5) Blessedness of the Dead in the Lord (Rev 14:13)
(6) The Son of Man and the Great Vintage (Rev 14:14-20)
4. The Seven Last Plagues--the Angels and Their Bowls: the Preparation in heaven (Re 15:1-8)--the Outpouring (Re 16:1-21)
(1) On Earth (Rev 16:2)
(2) On Sea (Rev 16:3)
(3) On Rivers and Fountains (Rev 16:4-7)
(4) On Sun (Rev 16:8,9)
(5) On Seat of Beast (Rev 16:10,11)
(6) On Euphrates--Har-Magedon (Rev 16:12-16)
(7) In the Air--Victory and Fall of Babylon (Rev 16:17-21)
IV. EXPANSION OF LAST JUDGMENTS (Rev 17 through 19)
1. The Scarlet Woman on Beast--Her Judgment (Rev 17)
2. Doom of Babylon and Lament over Her (Rev 18)
3. Interlude--Announcement of Marriage of the Lamb (Rev 19:1-10)
4. Rider on White Horse ("The Word of God") and His Armies--Last Battle and Doom of Beast, False Prophet, and Their Followers (Re 19:11-21)
V. THE MILLENNIUM--NEW HEAVENS AND NEW EARTH (Rev 20 through 22)
1. Satan Bound; First Resurrection and Reign of Saints for 1,000 Years (Re 20:1-6)
2. Loosing of Satan and Final Conflict--Doom of Adversaries and of the Devil (Re 20:7-10)
3. General Resurrection and Last Judgment (Rev 20:11-15)
4. New Heavens and New Earth
(1) The New Jerusalem from Heaven (Rev 21:1-9)
(2) Description of the City (Rev 21:10-27)
(3) Blessedness of Its Citizens (Rev 22:1-7)
(4) Epilogue (Rev 22:8-21)
V. Principles of Interpretation.
1. General Scheme of Interpretation:
As a book intended for the consolation of the church under present and future afflictions, the Apocalypse is meant by its author to be understood (Re 1:3; 22:7). He must have been aware, however, that, while its general scope might be apprehended, mystery must rest upon many of its symbols, till the time of their actual fulfillment. The book relates to "things which must shortly come to pass" (Re 1:1)--in their beginnings at least--and the divers interpretations since put upon its prophecies are the best evidence of the difficulties attaching to them. Schemes of interpretation have generally been grouped into praeterist (the prophecies being regarded as already fulfilled), futurist (the fulfillment being thrown wholly into the future), and the historical (the fulfillment being looked for in the continuous history of the church from John's day till the end). (1) The older praeterist view may be taken as represented by Moses Stuart, who finds the fulfillment of Re 6:1-17-Re 11:1-19 in the destruction of Jerusalem (Commentary, 520 ff), and of Re 13:1-18-Re 19:1-21 in the reign of Nero (690 ff). Even he, however, has to interpret the chapter on the last things of the future. (2) The futurist view connects the whole with the times of the second advent and the millennium. The beast is an individual who shall then appear as Antichrist. This rejects the plain intimations of the book that the events predicted lay, in their beginnings at least, immediately in the future of the writer. (3) The historical view connects the various symbols with definite occurrences--as the invasions which overthrew the Roman Empire (the first 4 trumpets), the Saracens (first woe-trumpet), the Turks (second woe-trumpet), the papacy (the beast, Re 13:1-18; the scarlet woman, Re 17:1-18), etc. A day-year principle is applied to the periods (1,260 days--1,260 years). As representatives of this view may be mentioned Mode, Vitringa, Sir Isaac Newton, Elliott in Horae Apocalypticae, A. Barnes.
2. The Newer Theories:
These older schemes are largely put out of date by the newer theories, already alluded to, in which the Apocalypse is explained out of contemporary conditions, the legend of the returning Nero, Jewish apocalypse, and Babylonian mythology. These are praeterist theories also, but differ from the older in that in them all real prophecy is denied. A mainstay of such theories is the declaration of the book that the events announced are close at hand (Re 1:1,3; 22:20). When, however, it is remembered that, on any view, this nearness includes a period of 1,000 years before the judgment and descent of the new Jerusalem, it will be felt that it will not do to give these expressions too restricted a temporal significance. The horizon is wider. The coming of Christ is ever near--ever approaching--yet it is not to be tied down to "times and seasons"; it is more of the nature of a process and has anticipatory exemplifications in many crises and providential events forecasting the end (see above). The "coming," e.g. to the church at Ephesus (Re 2:5), or to the church at Pergamos (Re 9:16)--contingent events--can hardly exhaust the full meaning of the Parousia. The Nero-theory demands a date at latest under Galba, but that date we have seen to be generally abandoned. Those who place it under Vespasian (omitting three short reigns) sacrifice the advantage of dating the book before the destruction of Jerusalem, and have to fall back on a supposititious Jewish fragment in Re 11:1-19, which those who incorporated it must have known had never been fulfilled. The attempt to give a "contemporary historical" interpretation to the symbols of the successive churches, as Gunkel has acutely shown, completely breaks down in practice, while Gunkel's own attempt at a Babylonian explanation will be judged by most to be overstrained. "Dragon" in the Old Testament and elsewhere may be associated with widespread oriental ideas, but the definite symbolism of the Apocalypse in Re 12:1-17 has no provable connection with Babylonian myths. There is the widest disagreement in theories of "composite" origin (from Jewish apocalypse). What seems simple and demonstrable to one has no plausibility to others. A form of "Nero Caesar," indeed, yields the mystic 666, but so do 1,000 other names--almost any name, with proper manipulation (compare Salmon, lecture xiv). Lastly, the returning-Nero legend yields no satisfactory explanation of the language in Re 13:3,12,14; 17:11. The theory is that these words allude to the belief that Nero would return from the dead and become Antichrist (see above). Tacitus attests that there were vague rumors that Nero had not really died (Hist. ii.8), and later a pretender arose in Parthia taking advantage of this feeling (Suet. Nero. 57). The idea of Nero returning from the dead is categorically stated in Sib Or 5:363-70 (circa 120 AD); compare Sib Or 4:119-22 (circa 80AD ). Augustine mentions the idea (City of God, xx.19, 3), but without connection with the Apocalypse. By Domitian's time, however, it was perfectly certain that Nero had not returned, and there was no longer, on this interpretation, any appositeness in speaking of a "head" the "deathstroke" of which was healed (Re 13:3), which became the "eighth head" of Re 17:11--if, indeed, the apostle could be conceived capable of being influenced by such vagaries. The events predicted lay, evidently, still in the future. It may be added that neither Irenaeus, nor any early interpreter, seems to have heard of the connection of 666 with "Nero." Ireneus himself suggests the solution Lateinos (compare Salmon, ut supra).
3. The Book a True Prophecy:
It is not proposed here to attempt the lines of a positive interpretation. If it is once recognized that the Apocalypse is a book of true prophecy, that its symbols stand for something real, and that its perspective is not to be limited to a brief period like 3 1/2 years, the way is opened, not, indeed, for a reading into it of a series of precise historical occurrences, but still for doing justice to the truth which lies at the basis of the historical interpretation, namely, that there are here prefigured the great crises in the age-long conflict of Christ and His church with pagan and anti-Christian adversaries. Events and tendencies may be grouped, or under different forms may relate to the same subject (e.g. the 144,000 sealed on earth--a spiritual Israel--in Re 7:1-8, and the triumphant multitude in heaven, Re 7:9-17); successions of events may be foreshortened; different pictures may overlap; but, shining through the symbols, great truths and facts which have historical realization appear. There is no need for supposing that, in a drama of this range, the "heads" of the beast of Re 13:1-18 and Re 17:1-18 (behind whom is the Dragon-enemy, Satan, of Re 12:1-17) stand, in contrariety to the analogy of Daniel, for seven individual emperors, and that "the image of the beast," which has life given to it and "speaks" (Re 13:14-15), is the statue of the emperor; or that such tremendous events as the fall of the Roman Empire, or the rise of the papacy--with which, however, must be combined all ecclesiastical anti-Christianism--or the false prophecy of later intellectual anti-Christianism have no place in the symbolism of the book. Sane, reverent thought will suggest many lines of correspondence with the course of God's providence, which may serve to illuminate its dark places. More than this need not be said here.
VI. Theology of the Book.
On this it is hardly necessary to dwell, for expositors are now well agreed that in its great doctrines of God, Christ, man, sin, redemption, the teaching of the Apocalypse does not vary essentially from the great types in the Epistles. The assonances with John's mode of thinking have already been alluded to. It is granted by all writers that the Christology is as high as anywhere in the New Testament. "It ought unhesitatingly to be acknowledged," says Reuss, "that Christ is placed in the Apocalypse on a paragraph with God" (op. cit., I, 397-98; compare Re 1:4,17; 2:8; 15:8; 22:13, etc.). Not less striking are the correspondences with the teaching of Paul and of Peter on redemption through the blood of Christ (Re 1:5; 5:9; 7:14; 14:4, etc.). The perverted conception of the school of Baur that we have in the book an anti-Pauline manifesto (thus also Pfieiderer; compare Hibbert Lectures, 178), is now practically dead (see the criticism of it by Reuss, op. cit., I, 308-12). The point in which its eschatology differs from that of the rest of the New Testament is in its introduction of the millennium before the final resurrection and judgment. This enlarges, but does not necessarily contradict, the earlier stage of thought.
Moses Stuart, Commentary on Apocalypse; Alford, Greek Testament, IV, "The Revelation"; S. Davidson, Introduction to the New Testament (3rd edition), 176 ff; G. Salmon, Introduction to the New Testament (2nd edition), lects xiii, xiv; Elliott, Horae Apocalypticae, with literature there mentioned; Farrar, Early Days of Christianity, chapter xxviii; Milligan, Discussions on the Apocalypse; H. Gunkel, Schopfung und Chaos; W. Bousset, Die Offenbarung Johannis, and article "Apocalypse" in EB, I; C. Anderson Scott, "Revelation" in Century Bible; J. Moffatt, Introduction to Literature of the New Testament (with notices of literature); also "Revelation" in Expositor's Bible; Trench, Epistles to the Seven Churches; W. M. Rarnsay, Letters to the Seven Churches; H. B. Swete, The Apocalypse of John.