Chapter 10: The Revelation

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 10: The Revelation

The Gospel of the Victor Christ

The Revelation is a book which has had a troubled history in the Church. F. V. Filson says of it that of all the NT books the Revelation seems to have aroused the most persistent protests, when the NT was being built up. There are only three uncial manuscripts which contain its text in full. It was not even translated into Syriac until late in the fifth century, and in that Church as late as the fourteenth century Ebedjesu does not list it among the books of the NT. There is no such thing as a Greek commentary on the Revelation until the fifth or sixth century. Luther would have none of it. "I hold it", he said, "to be neither apostolic nor prophetic. . . My spirit cannot acquiesce in the book. I abide by the books which present Christ pure and clear." "After all, in it Christ is neither taught nor acknowledged." Zwingli unequivocally rejected it: "With the Apocalypse we have no concern, for it is not a biblical book. . The Apocalypse has no savour of the mouth or mind of John. I can, if I so will, reject its testimonies."

The main objection to the Revelation has always been on the ground of its unintelligibility. The Apocalypse, said Jerome, has "as many mysteries as words" (Letters 53:9) A despairing scholar said that the study of the Revelation either finds a man mad or leaves him so. H. B. Swete relates how he heard Benson tell of the answer of an intelligent reader to the question, "What is the form the book presents to you?" The answer was, "It is chaos". The result is that in modern times the Revelation has either been completely neglected, or it has become the playground of the religious eccentrics in their attempts to draw out time schedules of the last days.

That all this should have been so is a great pity, for to dispense with the Revelation would be to leave an unfillable gap in the literature of the NT; and, although many of its details must remain wrapped in mystery, its general message is clear, and it is a message which, especially in days of trouble, the Church can never do without. The Revelation itself claims to be two things, things which are closely inter-related and which are nonetheless essentially different.

The Revelation claims to be prophecy. The command to John is to prophesy (10:11). It is the God of the holy prophets who sends his angel with the message (22:6). The angel speaks to John of his brothers the prophets (22:9). The book is the book of prophecy and its words are the sayings of prophecy (22:7, 10, 18, 19). This in itself is a great enough claim, for the Jews sadly believed that the voice of prophecy had been silent for four hundred years. "We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet, and there is none among us who knows how long" (Psalm 74:9). In I Maccabees decisions are repeatedly left until a prophet should come "and tell us what to do" (I Maccabees 4:46; 9:27; 14.41). With the coming of the Christian Church prophecy was reborn (Acts 2:15-17; 11:28; 13:1; 15:32; Romans 12:6; I Corinthians 12:28; I Thessalonians 5:20; Ephesians 4:11). And it so happens that the Revelation is the only book claiming to be Christian prophecy that we possess.

But the Revelation is also a self-styled Apocalypse. The word translated Revelation is apokalupsis, which literally means a drawing aside of the veil to disclose some hidden sight. It is like the opening of the curtain on some drama, but the drama in question is not a man-made play but God-made history.

We often think of the Revelation as a quite unique book with nothing else like it; but it is of the first importance to remember that in fact the Revelation is the one representative in the NT of a type of literature called apocalyptic literature which was very common between the Testaments and in NT times. There are a large number of these Revelations or Apocalypses, both Jewish and Christian, still extant. All of them deal with the same situation. The Jews never lost their sense of being the chosen people, nor did they ever lose the confidence that some day God would openly and in the eyes of the world vindicate his own people. In the early days the dream was that that vindication would take place through the triumphant exploits of a king of David's line; the champion was a human champion and the victory was in time and in the world. As the centuries went on, the Jews came to feel that the forces of evil had become so dominant that this vindication could never come by human means. The only way in which it could ever come was by the direct and divine intervention of God. So, as we have seen before, the Jews came to have a standard time scheme. There is this present age, which is wholly bad, which is under the complete domination of evil, and from which God has withdrawn; the world is abandoned to the Devil. There will be the age which is to come, which will be wholly good, and wherein God will he King over all without a rival left to dispute his universal sway; and in this golden age the people of God will come into their own. But, as we have said, the Jewish thinkers had long since abandoned all hope that this might happen by any human means, and so between the two ages they placed the Day of the Lord. That would be the day when God broke directly into history with supernatural power which no man could resist. That day had in Jewish thought three main characteristics. It would come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. It would shatter the world; the sun would be turned into darkness and the moon into blood; it would be the end of things as they are now. It would be a time of judgment in which the wicked and the enemies of God would be obliterated and annihilated. The result would be the new world, the world of God.

All Apocalypses tell what is to happen in the terrible time between. They are all visions of the end time. For that very reason all Apocalypses are unintelligible in detail, for they are trying to draw a supernatural picture in natural terms. They are trying to tell of things which the eye has not seen and the ear has not heard and which have not entered into the mind of man. They are all trying to say the unsayable, to express the inexpressible, to describe the indescribable, to depict the unpaintable, to put into words divine, supernatural events which there are no words to describe. If then both prophecy and apocalyptic are trying to describe the future, what is the difference between them? In what follows we are drawing on the works of many of the authors who are cited in the bibliography.

1. Prophecy is theistic; apocalyptic is deistic. That is to say, the prophets see God in control of the world, but still present in the world and involved in the world; the apocalyptists see God as withdrawn from the world and acting on the world from outside.

2. In prophecy there is no thought that God is limited and frustrated by another divine power of evil. The cause of all the trouble is the misuse of the free will of man. In apocalyptic the revolt has reached heaven, and the Devil, Satan, Antichrist has become a personal power, disputing the dominion of the world with God.

3. To the prophets the reformation of all things was to come within this world; it was this world which was to be remade and recreated. To the apocalyptists this world was fit for nothing but total destruction, and the golden age would come only when this world had disintegrated into nothingness and a new world had been created.

4. In prophecy the Messiah is ordinarily a human champion of the line of David; in apocalyptic the Messiah is a divine, supramundane, heavenly figure, who will break into the world from the outside.

5. Normally, with the single exception of our own NT Apocalypse, all apocalyptic books are pseudonymous. That is to say, they are written under the names of great figures of the past, such as Moses, Isaiah, Baruch, Enoch. There is something pathetic here. The prophet spoke in his own name and in the name of God; but the apocalyptist knew that he was second-rate, that he was derivative and not original, that he was living in an age when the stream of inspiration had run dry.

6. Apocalyptic is always literary; prophecy was delivered face to face by word of mouth to the people. Apocalyptic belongs to the library rather than the market-place, and smells of the lamp.

7. E. F. Scott makes the interesting point that apocalyptic is irresponsible. The prophet was involved in some definite situation; what he was demanding and pleading for was action here and now; he had to justify what he said in immediate contemporary action. The apocalyptist is a student or theologian shut up in his ivory tower with no chance of being called to put his visions into concrete social and political action.

8. In the nature of things prophecy is always highly practical; equally in the nature of things apocalyptic is highly speculative. Prophecy is about sin and repentance, action and decision, here and now in the human situation; apocalyptic is about wars in heaven, divine actions and purposes, and events of a future beyond time. The result is, as E. F. Scott says, that the atmosphere of the prophetic writings is vivid, concrete, historical, while the atmosphere of the apocalyptic writings is abstract, rarefied, symbolic and remote from everyday life.

So then apocalyptic is basically a dream of a future when God will break into time and remake the world. Now one thing is clear -- such a dream would inevitably be most vivid when the present was most bitter. It would be when life was an agony that men would turn their longing eyes to the future intervention of God. Is there then any desperate situation towards the end of the first Christian century which would explain how our Apocalypse came to be written, a situation from which men looked away to the ultimate triumph of God and of the people of God?

Sometime between AD 80 and 90 just such a situation emerged in the Christian Church. In the Revelation we come upon a completely new phenomenon. In the rest of the NT there is respect for the Roman government. Jesus had told men to render to Caesar what was Caesar's and to God what was God's (Matthew 22:15-22). Paul was a Roman citizen and proud of it. He was perfectly prepared to use the rights his citizenship gave him (Acts 21:39; 16:37-39). He counselled respect for the state as divinely appointed and the Christian Church was ordered to pray for the state and its leaders (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:2). Peter's instruction was to fear God and to honour the king (I Peter 2:17). But in the Revelation there is a complete volte-face. There emerges a blazing burning hatred of Rome; Rome is Babylon, the scarlet woman, the great harlot, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs (14:8; 17:1-6). The hope and the prayer of the John of the Revelation is for the complete and total destruction of Rome. What had happened?

The answer is the emergence of compulsory Caesar worship. As far back as 195 BC the process began which was to end in the head-on collision between the Roman Empire and the Christian Church. In that year in the city of Smyrna there was erected the first temple of the divinity of Rome. This was no compulsory thing; it was completely spontaneous. Rome brought to these provincials such evenhanded and impartial justice, such peace, safety and security, as under selfish and capricious tyrants they had never known. They felt that there was something divine about a power which could rule like that, and so the temple was erected to the spirit of Rome.

But something was thereby started which had a long way to go. The spirit of Rome, the divinity of Rome, was clearly centred and incarnated in one man. Many a time in the far away days earthly heroes on their death had been elevated to the rank of deity. And so there came another step in 29 BC, for in that year a temple was erected in Ephesus to the godhead of Julius Caesar after his death. First, the spirit of Rome had been deified; then the dead Emperor had been deified; and then almost exactly at the same time there came the last step. In Pergamum there was erected a temple, not to a dead Emperor, but to the living Augustus; and Emperor-worship had begun.

The early Emperors found this something of an embarrassment. They were very hesitant to accept this honour that was being forced upon them, and for long they allowed it in the East, but forbade it in the West. And then towards the end of the first century the process was complete. The great need of the far-flung Roman Empire was some unifying principle, something which would weld that heterogeneous conglomeration of nations into one. That unifying principle was found in Caesar-worship. It became 'the keystone of the imperial policy'. It became something like what the crown is in the British Commonwealth of nations; it became that which held the empire together. In the end it became necessary for every citizen of Rome to come to a stated place in his district on a certain day, burn his pinch of incense to the godhead of Caesar, and say: "Caesar is Lord."

It must clearly be noted that this was in essence far more a demonstration of political loyalty than of religious worship; and it must still more clearly be noted that Rome was the reverse of intolerant, and, if a man made this confession of political faith, he could then go away and worship any god he liked, so long as that worship did not conflict with public decency and order. All a man had to do was to say: "Caesar is Lord."

This is the one thing on earth no Christian would do. No Christian would take the name Lord and give it to anyone other than Jesus Christ. The result was that the Christians were regarded as dangerously disaffected citizens, as possible revolutionaries, as enemies of the state. And so the stage was set for the greatest battle in history. The choice was clear-Caesar or Christ? The Church with its humble people and its slaves was face to face with the might of Rome against which no power on earth had ever stood. As Sir William Watson wrote:

So to the wild wolf Hate was sacrificed

The panting, huddled flock, whose crime was Christ.

Here was the terrible situation with which the Church was faced, a situation in which humanly speaking the Church was doomed.

The Revelation has another connection with Rome. The beginning of the Roman persecution of the Christian Church had a certain almost accidental quality about it. It was due to the action of Nero, that Emperor whose name has become a synonym for infamy, and who to pagan and Christian alike seemed an unholy monster. On 19th July AD 64 the great fire of Rome broke out and it raged for a week, destroying alike the most sacred buildings and the homes of the common people, and leaving the people of Rome bound together in a community of misery. It was impossible to convince the citizens of Rome that Nero himself had not been responsible for the fire, for he had a passion for building and it was his ambition to rebuild Rome. In an effort to divert suspicion from himself Nero pinned the crime on to the Christians. Not even the Romans themselves believed that the Christians were really responsible, but the persecution was of the utmost savagery. Nero sowed up the Christians alive in the skins of beasts and set his hunting dogs to tear them in pieces. He rolled them still alive in pitch, and then used them as living torches to light his gardens. The sheer cruelty of the Neronic persecution left an indelible impression on the minds of the Christians.

In due time in AD 68 Nero's reign came to an end in utter chaos. It was said that the people danced in the streets at the news that Nero was dead. But soon a rumour was sweeping the city and the country; it was said that Nero was not dead; he seemed immortal in his wickedness; it was said that he had gone to Parthia to wait there and that he was soon to descend on Rome from Parthia with the Parthian hordes. This belief came to be known as the Nero Redivivus, the Nero Resurrected, legend. It was so powerful a legend that in AD 69, 80 and even as late as 88 pretenders claiming to be the Nero Redivivus arose in Parthia.

Now by this time Christianity had come to think in terms of Antichrist, the figure who was the supreme opponent of God, God's enemy in the universe; and not unnaturally the Nero Redivivus legend and the Antichrist conception became entangled together. Such had been the cruelty of Nero, to such an extent had Nero acquired the reputation of being the scourge of the Church and the antagonist of God that he became identified with Antichrist. We get this specially in the picture of the Beast in the notorious thirteenth chapter of the Revelation. The beast from the sea (13:1) is Caesar-worship invading Asia Minor. The seven heads are the seven Emperors to whom Caesar-worship had been given up to that time, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. After the death of Nero there had been some months of chaos in which three Emperors had reigned for brief periods, Galba, Otho and Vitellius. They with the seven others make up the ten horns. The blasphemous name on the heads is kurios, lord, the title which belonged only to Christ and which the Roman Emperors blasphemously claimed. One of the heads had a mortal wound that had been healed. That head (13:2, 12) is the worst of all and that head stands for Nero wounded to death and resurrected, Nero Redivivus, Antichrist. The number of the beast is 666 (13:18), and that is the sum total of the letters in the name Nero Caesar in Hebrew, when the letters are taken as numbers. (Greek and Hebrew had no signs for the numbers, and the letters stood for the numbers, as if in English a=1, b=2, c=3, and so on.) Such was the reputation of Nero and so strong was the Nero Redivivus legend that Nero was identified with Antichrist and with the Beast.

So then the Revelation was written at a time when the might of Rome was rising up to crush the Church, and when an Antichrist who was a reincarnation of Nero was expected to come. That time was in fact the reign of the Emperor Domitian. We have already seen that the early Roman Emperors were more than half embarrassed by the rise of Caesar-worship, but not so Domitian (AD 81-96). He demanded it; he liked the crowd to greet him like a god when he entered the amphitheatre; he began all his edicts, "Domitian, Lord and God, commands". He was not like Nero a man of sudden rages; he was rather a cold-blooded, calculating eliminator of all who stood in his way. On the face of it, it was difficult to see what could save the Christian Church. If we remember this situation, the whole atmosphere of the Revelation becomes dramatically intelligible. Let us then turn to the book itself.

So far from bringing chaos, the Revelation follows a carefully wrought dramatic pattern. It falls into seven parts.

1.There is the Prologue in chapter I, which tells of the situation in the life of John in which the book was written.

2. There are chapters 2 and 3 in which the seven Churches are urged to put their houses in order before the storm burst and the crucial struggle began.

3. In chapters 4 and 5 the scene shifts to heaven, and the seer is granted in his vision admission to the presence of God.

4. In heaven the book of destiny is opened. We are, as it were, given a preview of history in advance; and the history which we are allowed in symbol to see is that of the terrible end-time between the two ages, the birth-pangs and the prelude to the new heaven and the new earth. It is therefore history in a series of cataclysmic disasters. There are the seven seals and their opening, with a fresh disaster at each opening (6:1-17). There are the seven trumpet blasts, each bringing some new terror (8:1-13; 9:1-21; 13:15-19). There are the seven bowls, the pouring out of which brings a series of terrible things (16:1-21). It is as if John heaped together every terrible thing in one composite picture of awfulness. The scene shifts and we see war in heaven, in which the Devil is cast out and comes to earth (12). Then the Beast comes to the earth and does his dreadful work (13).

5. We are now coming near to the end of the drama. There comes the defeat of the Beast (17:19-21). There comes the temporary defeat and binding of the power of evil, which is followed by the Millennium, the thousand-year reign of the martyred saints with Christ, an idea found only in the Revelation (20:1-6).

6. At the end of the Millennium there is one grand conflict to end all conflicts. The forces of evil are conquered; the Devil is flung into the lake of fire; and there follow the general resurrection and the final judgment (20:7-15).

7. Finally, there is the picture of the new heaven and the new earth (21:1-8), and in particular of the new Jerusalem (21:9-22:5).

So the dramatic progress through tragedy into triumph, through death into life, is depicted.

It is necessary that we should stop to look at one part of this picture, the picture of the Millennium, for it has often played, and often still plays, a quite disproportionate part in Christian thought.

1. Two things are to be noted. The Revelation (20:1-6) is the only book in the NT which knows anything about it, and even there it appears in only a few verses. Second, the Millennium affects, according to the Revelation, only those who have died as martyrs (20:4); others will remain asleep until the general resurrection.

2. Where did Millenarianism Qr Chiliasm (chilios is the Greek for a thousand) come from? Millenarianism was strongest where the Church was most Jewish. Jewish eschatology is fluid, and, although the general view is that the reign of the Messiah will last for ever, there are parts of it in which the Messiah has a limited reign. Enoch sees history as a series of weeks. There are seven weeks of the world as it is; in the eighth week there is the week of the righteous in which the righteous are given a sword to destroy their enemies, and the house of God is built. In the ninth week the wicked are written down for destruction; in the tenth week there comes the judgment and only after that the final blessedness. In that time-scheme the eighth and ninth weeks correspond to the Millennium. II Esdras (7:28, 29) fixes the Messianic reign at four hundred years, after which the Messiah will die. The four hundred years is arrived at by combining Genesis 15:13 and Psalm 90:15. Abraham is told that Israel's affliction will last for four hundred years; the Psalmist prays: "Make us glad as many days as thou hast afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil." Therefore the period of bliss must be also four hundred years. Commonest of all was the idea that the age of the world would correspond to the time taken for creation. The time taken for creation was held to be six thousand years, since a day with the Lord is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day (Psalm 90:4; II Peter 3:8). The world would therefore last for six thousand years and the seventh thousand would be the Sabbath, the reign of the Messiah. This is almost exactly Millenarianism. There can be little doubt that Millenarianism can be traced back to Jewish esehatology.

3. Millenarianism was never a universally accepted belief of the Church. It was too often conceived of in very material terms. It was in fact objected against Cerinthus that he looked for a Millennium "of desires and pleasures and marriage festivals, delights of the belly and sexual passion, eating and drinking and marrying". The Millenium could become perilously near a Mohammedan paradise. Origen rebuked such views, saying that in heaven we would indeed eat, but we would eat the bread of life; we would drink the cup of wisdom. Augustine, who had originally been a literal Millenarianist, dealt Millenarianism what was almost its death blow, at least as part of the main stream of the belief of the Church. He came to see the binding of Satan as the binding of the strong man (Mark 3:27; Luke 11:22); the thousand years as the time between the first advent and the final conflict; the first resurrection as the resurrection which the Christian shares with Christ in baptism.

Millenarianism has never been a fully integrated part of the belief of the Church. Almost certainly it is a survival from Jewish eschatology. Anything in the Revelation must in any event be interpreted symbolically. To stress it literally is to seek to found a doctrine on a few verses of Scripture and to neglect the mainstream of NT teaching. It must be said that Millenarianism belongs rather to the eccentricities of Christian theology.

There are many who have been quite out of sympathy with the theology of the Apocalypse. Even F. V. Filson describes the Revelation as being "off the Gospel centre". H. B. Swete says: "No one who comes to the Apocalypse fresh from the study of the Gospels and Epistles can fail to recognize that he has passed into another atmosphere." E. F. Scott says: "He (John) has nothing to say about love, humility, forgiveness. He frankly hated his enemies and rejoiced in their downfall. In the whole course of the book we can catch hardly a distant echo of the sermon on the Mount. . . .From the Revelation it could never have been gathered that Jesus was compassionate, that he healed the sick and encouraged the helpless and outcast and bore our infirmities, that he was meek and lowly of heart. . . As we know him from this book, Christ is a great but terrible figure, righteous but implacable, the champion of his people, but breathing destruction on his enemies." Christ is the Christ of the sharp-two-edged sword (1:14-16); Christ is the Christ of the sickle wherewith the earth is reaped (14:14-16); Christ is the rider on the white horse wading through the blood of his enemies (19:11-16). God is never said to love anyone, not even the Christians. He is might and majesty and power ('5.3, 4); and the sinner will drink the wine of his wrath and fury which go out against men (14:10, 19; 15.7; 19.15). And yet it must be remembered that this also is the God who wipes the tear from every eye (7.17).

And yet it remains true that to criticize the Revelation harshly is to show a curious lack of historical insight and a complete lack of sympathy. The Revelation was written in a time when the might of Rome had risen to crush the Christian Church. No one had ever withstood the ineluctable might of Rome. What possible defense could these poor, humble Christians, without money, without social standing, without earthly wisdom, without political influence, find against the flood-tide of the majesty of Rome? The John of the Revelation answers in one word -- God.

The most characteristic title for God in the Revelation is pantokrator, which quite literally means in control of everything. That word is used of God eight times in the Revelation and only once in the rest of the NT, and that in a quotation from the OT (Revelation 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7, 14; 19:6, 15; 21:22; II Corinthians 6:18). The battle-cry of the Revelation is: "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns" (19:6). It is as if the Christian in ail his defenselessness faced the Empire in all its might and said: "You think that you have the last word. You have not. The last word belongs to God, and we and you and all the universe are in his control." The John of the Revelation has laid hold on the majestic power of Almighty God, when there was no other defence. In other words, certainly the Revelation stresses the might of God, but that might is exercised in love for his people. Certainly the Revelation paints the picture of the warrior Christ, but it is not Jesus of Nazareth who is in John's mind; it is Jesus Christ, risen, ascended, glorified and willing and able to save his people against impossible odds. The Revelation preaches the Gospel of the Victor Christ with whom a man can face odds which would drive a Christless man to utter despair.

Before we leave the Revelation, let us ask one question. In view of the fact that there are many who would have discarded this book, are there any reasons why we must strenuously refuse to let it go?

1.The Revelation sees the whole universe as the scene of the battle between God and the Devil, between Christ and Antichrist, between good and evil, a struggle which will continue to the end of time. It therefore lays before men, as few NT books do, the necessity to decide for or against God. It asks every man: "On what side are you?"

2. The Revelation lays down the place of the Church in this battle. The Church is in the front line. In heaven the battle has been won and Satan has been cast out; but it still rages on earth; and for the winning of it the strength and the purity of the Church are essential. The Revelation is a call to Christian commitment for the sake of God.

3. The Revelation lays it down above all else that God is in control. Even when life is at its darkest and its most agonizing, even when it seems that Christianity is in danger of extinction, even when the forces of the world seem irresistibly strong, "the Lord God omnipotent reigneth".

4. The Revelation therefore lays down the majestic resources of the Christian in any rime of trouble. Whatever forces may be on the other side, the Christian has God. This does not exempt a man from the struggle and the agony and the cross; but it does mean that fidelity is the way to glory. That is why in every time of trouble the Revelation has come again into its own.

5. The Revelation is quite certain that history is going somewhere. History is not a chaos; history is not a meaningless jumble of events; history and destiny are one; and a man is faced with the question: "Are you in the way, or on the way?"

6. The Revelation lays it down that in spite of the place of the Church in the scheme of things, in spite of the challenge to the individual Christian, in the last analysis the end can only come by the action of God. The ultimate victory can never be man-won; it must always he God-given and God-achieved.

7. In view of all this the Revelation lays it down that heaven is more important than earth, and time than eternity. It is not what happens on earth that is important, but what happens in heaven when earth is done. And it is for that very reason that a man must accept the blood and sweat and tears of the human situation. A man's duty is never to seek survival, but always to seek life.

There are doubtless many things in the Revelation which defy understanding, but the central truth remains crystal clear-- Christ is the Victor Christ.