When Written.—In the Reign of Domitian.—The Character of Domitian.—Patmos.—The Circumstances.—Can the Book be Understood?—Reason for Blunders.—The Object and Scope of the Book.
The Prince of Prophets is John, the Apostle. The grandest of prophecies is the Apocalypse. Its subject is the most sublime, its imagery the richest, and the panorama it unrolls the grandest of any portion of the Book of God. In order to approach the study of the closing book of the Bible with profit, it is necessary to make some preliminary observations.
It is difficult to have a clear understanding of any writer, unless we have some knowledge of the time, place and circumstances under which he wrote. This is essential in the study of prophecy. We must know the date at which it was written in order to determine what things were past and what were future to the mind of the writer. We need to know something of the place, for often the locality has something to do with the origin and meaning of the symbols employed. We should be familiar with the circumstances surrounding him and the times in which he lived, because these often explain the reason of the prophetic utterances and throw their tinge over the events revealed. We are definitely informed that John, the last of the Apostles and the beloved disciple, is the writer; that the place was the isle of Patmos, and that the time was the Lordsday, but it is needful that we learn the year in which he wrote, and I will devote this preliminary chapter to the study of the date and place, when and where, and the circumstances under which the Book of Revelation was written.
The Date:—I shall examine with some care the date of John's exile to Patmos, as the time when Revelation was written is a matter of importance to its correct interpretation. A certain class of expositors have held that John was banished to Patmos during the reign of Nero, about A. D. 64, and before the destruction of Jerusalem, which took place A. D. 70. This assumption is necessary to their system, which holds that the destruction of Jerusalem is the great subject in the mind of the prophet. Had it not been that a date earlier than the overthrow of the Jewish nation was rendered necessary by this theory, it is probable that no one would ever have held that John's exile was earlier than the reign of Domitian.
Dr. Smith in his Bible Dictionary states the case as follows:
The date of the Revelation is given by the great majority of the critics as A. D. 95-97. The weighty testimony of Irenæus is almost sufficient to prevent any other conclusion. He says that "it (the Revelation) was seen no very long time ago, but almost in our generation, at the close of Domitian's reign." Eusebius also quotes tradition, which he does not reject, that in the persecution under Domitian, John, the Apostle and Evangelist, being yet alive, was banished to the Island of Patmos, for his testimony of the Divine word. Allusions in Clement of Alexandria and Origen point in the same direction. There is no mention in any writer of the first three centuries of any other time or place. Epiphianus, evidently by mistake, says that John prophesied in the reign of Claudius. Two or three later and obscure authorities say that John was banished in the reign of Nero.
From this statement it will be seen that the testimony to the date of Domitian's reign is strong and convincing. Irenæus lived in the second century, and was a convert and disciple of Polycarp, who had been a convert and companion of John His positive testimony is supported by the voice of the entire church until the latter part of the fourth century, at which time a writer, Epiphianus, assigns the date to the reign of Claudius Cæsar. This is certainly a mistake, as Claudius died in A. D. 54, and at that time the seven churches of Asia did not all have an existence, and as far as we know only one had been founded. The error of Epiphianus can be explained when we remember that the full name of Domitian was Nero Claudius Domitianus. It is probable that he meant the same Emperor named by Irenæus and Eusebius, but mentioned by him under another portion of his name. The fact also that the first part of Domitian's name was Nero, is probably the only warrant of the "obscure later authorities" for placing John's exile in the reign of Nero. As this latter prince ascended the throne in A. D. 54, and his persecution was only ten years later, it is still too early for the founding, experiences and condition of all of the seven churches in Asia, as they are described in the seven letters to them recorded in the second and third chapters of Revelation.
It is thus seen that the array of testimony to the date of Domitian's reign is so strong as to leave no doubt, except where persons are compelled by their theories of interpretation to assume that John wrote, in the reign of Nero. It will be an aid to make some inquiry concerning Domitian and the persecution of his reign.
His father, Vespasian, was the first of the family who filled the throne. He had hewn his way to the scepter by the sword, having conquered and slain the Emperor Vitellius who preceded him. During his reign the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman armies, and the remnant of the Jewish race were either scattered or carried into slavery. The son of the Emperor, Titus, had conducted the war that had visited upon the Jewish nation the awful calamities predicted by Moses, Daniel and Christ. On the death of his father Titus became Emperor, but died after a short reign and was succeeded by his brother Domitian. The latter was one of the most contemptible tyrants that ever cursed a nation. Of him the great Roman historian, Tacitus, a contemporary, says in a delineation of his character:
Even Nero had the grace to turn away his eyes from the horrors of his reign. He commanded deeds of cruelty, but was never a spectator of the scene. Under Domitian it was our wretched lot to behold the tyrant and to be seen by him, while he kept a register of our sighs and groans. With that fiery visage of a dye so red that the blush of guilt could never color his check, he marked the pale, languid countenance of the victims who shuddered at his frown.
Conscious that he was odious on account of his crimes and ever mindful that his father had reached the throne by violence, he was filled with continual fear, and murdered many distinguished Romans out of suspicion. Having heard the story that the Jews were expecting a King who would rule the world, he was moved by the same dread that caused Herod to seek the young child's life, and he began a persecution of the Jews. As, at this early period, Christians and Jews, both worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were associated by pagans, it is not wonderful that this fury of the Emperor involved Christians as well as Jews. Tacitus states that the tyrant accused some of his own relatives of "Jewish manners," a plausible charge against Roman Christians, and put them to death. Among others his niece Domatilla, who has been since, enrolled among the Catholic saints, was sent into exile and her husband put to death. All the ancient church historians testify to the fact of a persecution in his reign, and nothing is more probable than that John, the greatest living personage in the Church, should be seized by the proconsul of Asia, and either sent into exile, or put to death, both being common modes of punishment at this period.
We have now secured a firm starting point. John says that the things revealed "must shortly come to pass." The series of events must begin to unfold in a short time after his words were written, and continue onward until "Time shall be no longer." As the date at which he wrote is A. D. 95-97, we must examine the pages of history within a few years after this date, or about the second century, for the fulfillment of the predictions first in order.
The Place.—The place where John saw the Lord and witnessed these wonderful visions must possess some interest to the reader. Sometime not far from the devastation of his beloved Judea by the Roman armies, he had taken up his abode at Ephesus, and was spending the evening of his life with the churches of that part of the Asiatic Continent which was then called Asia. This was the peninsula lying between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and bounded on the west by the Ægean. When sent into exile he was imprisoned on a rocky isle, about twenty miles from the coast of Asia. If the reader will examine a map of the eastern Mediterranean, he will observe in the southern part of the Greek Archipelago a speck called by the name of Patmo, or Patmos. John leaves us in no doubt whether this was the place of his banishment. He was "in the isle of Patmos, for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ." This place is a rock in the sea, within sight of the coast of Asia. It is only about a mile in diameter, by six or seven in length. It was a custom of the Romans to send those who had fallen under their pleasure into banishment, and no place was chosen oftener for a place of exile than some rocky islet. Patmos—isolated, small, unfrequented by the world, was exactly suited to their ideas of an island prison. Here John, torn away from the churches that he so loved, could still gaze upon the misty hills of Asia, in the far distance, and think of the saints who were hidden in their valleys.
Circumstances.—A period of about sixty years had passed since the first church was founded in Jerusalem. The apostles had all received the crown of martyrdom except him concerning whom it had been said: "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee." Communities of Christians had been established in the principal cities of Asia and Europe, but the growth of the new religion had begun to arouse the fears of the paganism that swayed the Gentile world. Though to this time no edict of extermination had been fulminated against the faith by imperial Rome, yet the pagan hatred of Christianity found its outbreaks supported by the Government. As John stood on Patmos, an exile by the decree of the mightiest power the world has ever seen, he probably knew of no country which was not held under Roman dominion. All of Africa, as far south as the desert which stopped the progress of the Roman armies: all of Asia, west of the Euphrates; all of Europe, south of the Danube and west of the Rhine, with the island of Great Britain in the Northern Ocean, were a part of the mighty Roman fabric. Judea lay prostrate and bleeding and downtrodden under the tread of Roman legions. The Church of Christ, at this period, and for centuries later, as far as we can determine, was all embraced within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. No apostle ever passed beyond its limits, unless we accept a vague, tradition of Thomas penetrating India. At this period, and for many generations after this, when the Church is persecuted, the persecutor is always pagan Rome. With these facts before us, we need not wonder that the last of the apostles, standing on the confines of the first century, and forecasting the fortunes of the Church, should have much to record concerning the deeds, misdeeds, fortunes, and misfortunes of the mighty empire which was the persecutor both of the Jews and of the people of God.
From the days of Emanuel Swedenborg, nay, even from ancient times, this book has been the favorite field of speculation for fanatical visionaries. So many idle vagaries and extravagant fancies have been published, that many intelligent Bible students have turned away from the Apocalypse as a mystery which cannot be penetrated. They have pronounced it a "sealed" book, which will not be opened to human comprehension until the end of the world. In some minds, grave doubts have been thrown upon its inspiration by its impenetrable obscurity. Some preachers of the gospel, men of sound minds and excellent judgment, have gone so far as to say that they would doubt the reliability of any man who professed to comprehend this portion of the word of God. I ask all such men to pause a moment for reflection. If the Book of Revelation is inspired, it can be understood.
1. No portion of the Bible has been written with the design that it should be sealed to human understanding. The Divine Author has proposed to make himself understood. It requires no clerical order, especially endowed by supernatural light, to act as a medium between God and the rest of their race, to enable men to comprehend the Divine will. It is necessary that men shall have the hearing ear and the understanding heart. They must diligently study the word of the Lord. If they do so faithfully, they will be rewarded by views of the Divine plan and purposes that will constantly grow richer and deeper. This is true of the Bible as a whole, and it is reasonable that it should be true of Revelation.
2. This portion of the Bible is called a "Revelation of Jesus Christ of the things shortly to come to pass". The Greek word for Revelation is transferred into the English by the word Apocalypse. This means uncovering. John uses a word in the opening verse, the meaning of which is that the covering was rolled off of the future so that it could be seen and understood. Did be tell the truth or not?
3. In the fourth verse of the opening chapter a blessing is pronounced upon those who read, hear, and keep the words of this prophecy. No more emphatic blessing is pronounced upon the study of any part of the word of the Lord. This language certainly implies that the student of Revelation will not wander through a region of impenetrable darkness.
4. Revelation is not a sealed book. If the reader will turn to the fifth chapter he will find that a sealed book, the book of the unknown future, sealed from mortal eyes, was in the hands of Him who sat on the throne, and that the Lion of the tribe of Judah prevailed to open the book. One after another in succession the seals are loosed, and the map of the future, especially the history of the Church and its enemies, is unrolled until its final triumph. Not only are the seals opened and the future disclosed, but the predictions have been in a great part fulfilled, and can be read upon the pages of history.
Why, then, if the book can be understood, have many pretended interpreters blundered so ridiculously? There are three reasons.
1. They have often begun the study with a hobby in their heads that they wished to maintain. Any man who goes to the study of the Bible determined to find a certain theory or speculation, will be likely to insist that it is there. Such a state of mind totally unfits one for the, intelligent study of the Scriptures.
2. It is a book of symbolism. There passed before the eyes of John pictures of coming events. He heard the words that were spoken. He says that "he bore record of the word of God and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw." As Daniel by the river Ulai, or Ezekiel upon the banks of the river Chebar, saw visions in which were rolled before the mind a series of pictures representing the events of the future, so John upon the Isle of Patmos, stands forth as the great New Testament prophet, by beholding a panorama of the "things shortly to come to pass." As the future was revealed to them by symbols which fitly represented the things signified, so his visions are filled with symbols. As in Old Testament prophecy it is needful for us to interpret symbols according to the laws for symbolism, so there is the same need in the Book of Revelation. I have met with intelligent persons who have told me that they were filled with dread every time they opened the book. They said they were horrified with the thought of earthquakes, burning mountains, the direful dragon, the dreadful beast, and other monsters. They expected a literal fulfillment, forgetting that these were symbols fitly representing events that would take place. in the religious or political world. To understand Revelation it is needful to turn to a symbol dictionary, and to learn there the meaning attached in the Bible and in Oriental lands to the various symbolical pictures presented. Let every reader remember that John records what he saw. A prophet is a fore-seer. John saw upon the sky, or upon the waters of the sea, or the sands of Patmos, the exact events he describes. He saw these events nearly eighteen hundred years ago. It is our business, as we read of what he saw, to examine the symbols and to determine the meaning by a comparison with history.
3. I give a third reason why the Book of Revelation has not been understood. Too many have failed to study it in the light of history. John says that the things referred to were "shortly to come to pass." They were future when he wrote, prophecy then; they are nearly all in the past, history now. The book of prophecy must be held in one hand and the book of history in the other. Who could understand Nebuchadnezzar's vision of the image with the head of gold without the aid of history? Who could comprehend Isaiah's burden of woe, against Babylon, or Tyre, or Edom, without the aid of the historian? By this help all is plain. The general law for the interpretation of prophecy must, in the very nature of things, apply to Revelation. Too many would-be interpreters have been shamefully ignorant of the history of the Church, and of the perils of the Church from its political or spiritual foes. A familiarity with the great work of the Infidel Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a history of mankind for over 1300 years, will flood the meaning of Revelation with light. The Infidel historian has unwittingly fortified the word of God.
The Scope.—Before we proceed to the interpretation, it is needful for us to determine the scope of the book. The visionary Baldwin found that in a portion, at least, the United States was in the mind of the prophet. Others have pronounced Napoleon Bonaparte the beast. Others have selected Louis Napoleon as a conspicuous figure, while others have gravely presented almost every idle vagary that could be conceived by the human mind. This blundering almost all results from misapprehending the scope of all prophecy.
The Old Testament prophets are confined in their predictions to the fortunes of Israel, temporal and spiritual, the typical nation, and the spiritual nation, or in other words, to the fortunes of the Jews and of the Church. With this great object before them they predict the fate of the great Gentile nations, with whom the Jews came in contact. Hence we have Assyria, Babylon, Tyre, Egypt, etc., made burdens of prophecy.
Exactly the same is true of New Testament prophecy. The prophets speak of the future of Israel and of the Church, and necessarily reveal much concerning the opposing and persecuting nations. It was not in the mind of Christ to give in Revelation the outline of all history, but to outline the fortunes, tribulations and triumphs of the Church. The Church was, in the earlier centuries, almost wholly within the bounds of the vast, persecuting empire of Pagan Rome. Hence this opposing power would come before the prophetic vision, and we will find that the symbolism often refers to the Roman power. Let it be ever present to the mind of the reader that John was the victim of Roman persecution, and an exile on Patmos when he wrote; that he had never been beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, and that there is no historical authority for supposing that any apostle ever stepped upon soil that a Roman citizen would call foreign. Since this mighty empire affects so closely the interests of the Church, it is in harmony with all we know of prophecy to expect it to be the subject of prophetic vision, There also arises a great apostasy, a false church that produces for the time a mighty influence upon the saints of Jesus Christ. This is also a subject of prophecy. I am then prepared to affirm that the general scope of the Book of Revelation is similar to that of the Old Testament prophets; that its primary object is to outline the history of the Church; that, in subordination to this primary object, it portrays the fortunes of the two great persecuting powers, Pagan and Papal Rome. The rise and the development of the False Prophet, another source of persecution, a power that affects both the Roman Empire and the Church, are also given.