The scope of the Apocalypse is the most important of all the preliminary subjects connected with its interpretation. Apart from its true scope, no correct interpretation is possible. This scope is best gathered from its structure; but, before considering this, we propose to look at it as shown by its place in the Canon of Scripture, and by the relation in which it stands to the other books of the New Testament. This is the first thing that must be discovered in order to get an insight as to its place, subject, object and scope.
The order of the books of the New Testament as a whole varies, both in the manuscripts, versions and catalogues
which have been preserved and have come down to us.
But while the order of the separate books may vary, they are always arranged in four groups which never vary: — (1) The Four Gospels. (2) The Acts of the Apostles. (3) The Epistles. (4) The Apocalypse.
The four groups always follow each other in this order. We say four "groups"; but it will be observed that only the first and third groups; the second and fourth consist of only one single book each.
The order of the separate books in these two groups varies. For example, the order of the Gospels varies. The order of the Epistles varies, for in some lists Paul's Epistles come before the general and other Epistles, and vice versa. But, like Paul's Epistles addressed to churches, which never vary in their order, so thee four groups never vary in their order.
Their inter-relation may be set forth, in brief, in the following structure:—
The New Testament Books
| THE FIRST ADVENT. The coming of the "Son of Man" to present the kingdom. The rejection of the kingdom and crucifixion of the King.
The Acts and the Earlier Pauline Epistles
The Later Pauline Epistles
| THE SECOND ADVENT. The coming of the "Son of Man" to set up the kingdom in power and great glory. The establishing of the kingdom and the crowning of the King.
From this structure it will be seen that the Apocalypse stands out in special relation to, and connection with the four Gospels, and not with the Epistles.
The Gospels record the events connected with the First Advent, and the Apocalypse records the events connected with the Second Advent.
In the Gospels we have "the days of the Son of Man" (Luke 17:22); in the Apocalypse we have "the day of the Lord" (i. 10).
The Gospels close with the great prophecy of "the Son of man in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matt 24:30, xxvi. 64; Mark 13:36; Luke 21:27); followed by the account of His sufferings, piercing and death.
The Apocalypse takes up this theme and opens by declaring the fulfilment of this prophecy, "Behold he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him" (i. 7): followed by the account of the judgments; the coming and the crowning.
The Gospels contain the prophecy of the Great Tribulation: the Apocalypse contains the description of it.
Between the first advent, which is the subject of the Gospels, and the second advent, which is the subject of the Apocalypse, we have the present interval, which is the subject of the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles.
This interval is thus divided into two distinct periods, (1) that covered by the Acts of the Apostles and earlier Pauline Epistles, and (2) that covered by the later Pauline Epistles.
The Acts has for its subject the re-presentation of the King and the kingdom. Israel is again taken up, and Peter, using the keys of the kingdom committed to him for this special purpose, opens the kingdom to Jews and Gentiles. Through the abounding grace of God the kingdom is again offered to Israel, but this being rejected the cup of Israel's iniquity is filled up. The people not only rejected Christ Risen, but they resisted the Holy Ghost. They resisted Jehovah in the Old Testament, The Messiah in the Gospels, and the Holy Ghost in the Acts. Though the ministry of Peter partly overlaps that of Paul, yet it is clear that Israel is specially dealt with as such, until the final sentence is pronounced in Acts 28:17-28, which was speedily followed by the taking of the People out of their city and their Land.
Then we have the period covered by the later Pauline Epistles, which have for their subject the Mystery, or the Church of God.
The church has a different calling, a different standing, and a different destiny from either Jew or Gentile, and yet, composed of both, is now waiting for their calling on high (Phi 3:14).
It may be that these two parts of the present interval slightly overlap, as Paul's ministry in the synagogues and among the Gentiles also overlapped.
Not until shortly after the Apostle's death did God actually (as He had already begun to do judicially) cause to deal with Israel as Israel, scattering the People abroad on the earth — destroying the Temple, and effectually, for a time, breaking off the natural branches from the Olive Tree (Rom 11 ).
After this, we have set before us, in the Epistles, the calling and hope of the church, which is now being taken out, and is waiting to be taken up, to meet the Lord in the air; waiting for "our gathering together unto Him" (1 Thess 1:10; iv. 15 - v. 4; 2 Thess 2:1-3 R.V.), before "the Day of the Lord" shall come.
This is fundamental to our whole position, and is necessary, we believe, to a clearer understanding of the Apocalypse.
It is well therefore that we should further establish the great scope of the Book as taught us by its position in the New Testament; and its special relation to the Gospels.
As the Revelation is the description of that day (i. 10, iii. 3; xvi. 15) and of His "coming as a thief" (compare Matt 24:43-44), it is clear that the promise of 1 Thess 5:4, must be fulfilled before the Lord Jesus is thus revealed. Those concerned will be already at "rest," with Him "when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from Heaven with His mighty angels; in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction, [driven away] from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power, when HE SHALL HAVE COME to be glorified in His saints and to be admired in all them that believe ... in that day" (2 Thess 1:7-10).
The tense here (in verse 10) is not the simple future tense of the indicative mood, but it is the second aorist tense of the subjunctive mood, (...) (elthe), and can mean only shall have come. In verse 7, "when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed" is not a verb at all, but a noun, (...) (en te apokalupsei), and means at the revelation (lit., at the Apocalypse).
But when the time comes to "recompense tribulation" to the world, then Christ will already have come to be glorified in His saints. For "in that day" He "shall have come" to take them up to be with Himself, "for ever with the Lord." This is the teaching of verse 10.
That this is the only sense in which this tense can be taken is clear from the following examples of its use :— Matt 21:40: "When the lord of the vineyard cometh" (shall have come).
Luke 17:10: "So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things." (Here it is so rendered).
Mark 8:38: "Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me... of him also shall the Son of Man be ashamed (here we have the simple future) when he cometh (...) (hotan elthe, the same as in 2 Thess 1:10, i.e., shall have come) in the glory of his Father."
In John 4:25 we have the tense contrasted with another: "I know that Messiah cometh (lit., is coming), which is called Christ; when He is come ((...) shall have come) he will tell us all things."
Acts 23:35: "I will hear thee, said he, when (...) thine accusers are also come" (lit., when thine accusers also shall have come).
John 16:13: "Howbeit, when He, the Spirit of truth, is come" ((...) shall have come).
Rom 11:27: "For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away (lit., shall have taken away) their sins."
The prophecy as to Christ's enemies' being put under His feet (Psa 110:1) is quoted or referred to six times in the New Testament. Christ is now at God's right hand "until His enemies shall have been placed (as) a footstool for His feet." (See Matt 22:44; Mark 12:36: Luke 20:42; Acts 2:34; Heb 1:13; x. 12, 13). Then He will arise and use this footstool, treading His enemies under His feet (Psa 18:37-50). This is the subject of the Apocalypse; and result and fulfilment of it is recorded in 1 Cor 15:25, which speaks of Christ's after-reign, "For He must reign till He hath put (lit., shall have put) all enemies under His feet." So that the two acts are carefully distinguished. First, the placing of the footstool; and then the using of it. The one is at the beginning of the "day of the Lord," the other is at the end of His reign.
All this is conclusive, and tells us that the church of God will be at "rest" at the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. And that, when He comes to take vengeance on His enemies, He "shall have come" already for His saints.
This enables us to see the true place of the Apocalypse in the New Testament. Chronologically it follows on the Epistles, which end with the taking up of (1 Thess 4 ); but logically, i.e., in the purpose of the ages (Eph 3:10 R.V. marg.), it follows the Gospels; and takes up the subject of the King and the Kingdom, where it is there left.
There we see it rejected: here we see it established with judgment, and set up in Divine power and glory.
True, in order of time it follows on the period covered by the Epistles: and what we have to look for, now, is, not the conversion of the world, but the judgment of the world. The professing church is deceiving the world. It tells the world that its mission is to improve the world and, by improving its sanitation, housing its poor, and generally preaching the gospel of earthly citizenship, to bring on a millennium, in which no Christ is thought of or wanted!
While the majority of the Church's teachers are loudly proclaiming that "the day of the Lord" will not come till the world's conversion comes, the Spirit and truth of God are declaring that that day shall not come until the apostasy comes (2 Thess 2:3).
While the majority of the Church's teachers are maintaining that the world is not yet good enough for Christ, the Spirit is declaring in the Word that the world is not yet bad enough.
There is some difference between these two testimonies; and our labour will not be in vain, if we learn from this book of the Revelation to believe God; and, while we "wait for His son from heaven" as our blessed Hope, to warn the world of increasing apostasy (which may go on side by side with increasing morality) and of coming judgment.
Yes, coming judgment. That is the scope of the whole book. We have, here, events which cannot be limited by mere ecclesiastical history; but a wondrous unveiling of the awful scenes which shall end up God's controversy with Satan. It has as its field the whole creation, and not merely a corrupt church in Europe. All the forces of Heaven and Hell are seen in conflict, and bringing to a head the mighty issues involved.
On the one side we see,
(1) The full display of the power of God in Christ, opposed to the full energy of Satan and all his forces in the "day of battle and of war" (Job 38:23).
(2) In this final conflict, we see the full array of all the Heavenly forces which Christ can command and will command. We see spiritual beings, angels and principalities and powers in Heaven, and the great physical forces of creation (Zech 12:4-8; xiv. 1-4, etc., etc.,) brought to bear on the great enemy.
(3) That mighty heavenly host will embrace all who have been delivered and redeemed from "the power of Satan" from the time of sin's beginning, as well as all the angelic beings who have not fallen.
(4) These heavenly forces are led by "the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords," — "the Prince of the Kings of the earth" — the great "Captain of the Lord's host."
On the other side, we see
(1) The full display of Satan's power and authority (xvi. 13, 14), and that, too, from the beginning of his tyranny and usurpation as the "prince of this world" and its "god" (John 12:31; xvi. 11; 2 Cor 4:4).
(2) To this end, all the hosts which he can and will command, from the very beginning of his power — angels and principalities and powers; men and demons from the pit, and men on earth; all these will be led by their captain, and all brought to bear against Him who sitteth upon the White Horse (Rev 19 ; Jude 6; 2 Pet 2:4).
(3) This mighty host will be of far wider extent than the minds of expositors have ever yet conceived.
(4) These forces of earth and hell will have for their leader, Satan, "the prince of this world."
We have here something far beyond the ordinary interpretations put upon this Book: and, we believe that few, if any, can possibly realize all the mighty issues involved in it: and the extent of its results as affecting creation, Israel, and the nations of the world.
To limit it to Popery, or to Christendom (so called) is, we believe, wholly to miss the scope of the Book: and, to lose the weighty lessons if its wondrous Revelation, by committing the mistake condemned by true logic — viz., of putting a part (and a small part too) for the whole.
The awful conflict is of far wider extent than this. It exceeds all the general petty views of its scope; as affairs of State transcend those of a Parish Vestry.
"Michael and his angels" and "the Dragon and his angels" include the whole fighting forces of the heavens. Rev 12 reveals the HEAVENLY ARMAGEDDON, which will bring to an end the hostilities of ages by a final overthrow of the wicked (so far as the super-etherial heavens are concerned).
What the Book tells us of the conflict on earth is of the same character. The scope of it takes in the whole earth, and leads up also to an EARTHLY ARMAGEDDON (Rev 16:16).
The Covenant of marvels (Ex 34:10) refers to judgments which are cosmical in the widest sense of the term.
The scope of the book winds up all the affairs of time, and contains the end of prophecy, the end of knowledge, and the end of the Secret of God (x. 7), and the dawn of the eternal ages of ages.
In short, the scope of the book, as shown by its place in, and relation to, the whole canon of Scripture, is the winding up of the affairs of the whole creation, and the fixing of the eternal states of all things in heaven and on earth.
We are thankful to feel that we are not alone in taking this serious view of the real scope of the Apocalypse.
While many fritter away its solemn scenes in the common-place history of Europe, there are others who see beyond all this, and behold the Divine interposition in the affairs of the whole creation.
We have information about the church in the Epistles: as we see, even in them, the indications of the coming corruption which has since become history. But in the Apocalypse we have something far beyond, and quite different from all this.
The Epistles prepare us for what we know as Ecclesiastical history; and they prepare us also for the end and revealed in the Apocalypse.
Eloquent testimony is borne to this, and therefore to our view of the scope of Revelation, by Canon Bernard;
who approaches the subject from a somewhat different standpoint.
His weighty words are:—
"I know not how any man, in closing the Epistles, could expect to find the subsequent history of the Church essentially different from what it is. In those writings we seem, as it were, not to witness some passing storms which clear the air, but to feel the whole atmosphere charged with the elements of future tempest and death. Every moment the forces of evil show themselves more plainly. They are encountered, but not dissipated. Or, to change the figure, we see battles fought by leaders of our band, but no security is promised by their victories. New assaults are being prepared; new tactics will be tried; new enemies pour on; the distant hills are black with gathering multitudes, and the last exhortations of those who fall at their posts call on their successors to 'endure hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ,'
and 'earnestly to contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints.'
"The fact which I observe is not merely that these indications of the future are in the Epistles, but that they increase as we approach the close, and after the doctrines of the Gospel have been fully wrought out, and the fullness of personal salvation and the ideal character of the church have been placed in the clearest light, the shadows gather and deepen on the external history. The last words of St. Paul in the second Epistle to Timothy, and those of St. Peter in his second Epistle, with the Epistles of St. John and St. Jude, breathe the language of a time in which the tendencies of that history had distinctly shewn themselves; and in this respect these writings form a prelude and a passage to the Apocalypse."
If these things be so, as we assuredly believe they are, then the church is not the subject of the Apocalypse.
The Apocalypse follows the Epistles in sequence of time, and is naturally and historically consequent upon them; but in the Divine order and plan it is logically and dispensationally consequent on the Gospels and Acts.
That this present dispensation shall end in judgment is not only to be inferred from the uniform history of the past; for it is clearly foretold in the Epistles. It is this judgment which is described in the Apocalypse; and it is this book we are now seeking to understand more clearly. This clearness, we believe, will be greater in proportion as we see the position occupied by this Book in the New Testament; and in proportion as we believe that the Church of God has no part in the great Tribulation, and no participation in those judgments.
That it is not the subject of this book we have endeavoured to establish in our fifteen preliminary points: and this view will be further confirmed as we proceed with our consideration and study of the Apocalypse.
—Commentary on Revelation