Coming Events and Present Duties
Being Plain Papers on Prophecy
J.C. Ryle, 1879
The Reading Which is Blessed
"The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw — that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near!" Revelation 1:1-3
We live in "troublous" and "perilous" times. It is many years since there has been so much in the aspect of public affairs to raise anxious thoughts as there is in the present day. We are always apt to exaggerate the importance of events that happen in our own days. I do not forget that. But I cannot retract what I have just written. I look around me at the things now going on in the Church and in the world. I look forward to the possible future. And as I look, I feel that I am justified in speaking of our times as "perilous" and "troublous." I appeal to the judgment of all who observe the history of their own times. "Is there not a cause?"
There are three heavy judgments which God can send upon a nation — the sword, the pestilence, and the famine. All these three have fallen heavily upon our country within the last few years. The Irish famine, the Russian war, the cholera, the cattle plague — have left marks on this country which cannot be erased. Surely these signs of the times deserve no common notice. They should make us say with Habakkuk, "I will stand upon my watch, and set upon my tower, and will watch to see what He will say unto me" (Hab. 2:1). They should make us cry with Daniel, "O my Lord, what shall be the end of these things?" (Daniel 12:8.)
But one thing, at all events, is clear — and that is the duty incumbent on Christians to search more diligently than ever the prophetic Scriptures. Let us not be, like the Jews at the first advent, blind to the hand of God and the fulfillment of His purposes in all that is going on in the world. Let us rather remember that the word of prophecy is given to be "a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns, and the daystar arises" (2 Peter 1:19). Let us walk much in that light. Let us search "what and what manner of time the Spirit of Christ in the Prophets did signify, when He testified before the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow" (1 Peter 1:11). Let us compare prophecies fulfilled, with prophecies unfulfilled — and endeavor to make the one illustrate the other. Let us strive, above all, to obtain clear views of the things yet to be expected, both in the church and the world, before the end comes and time shall be no more.
With such feelings I now invite you to enter on the consideration of the verses of Scripture which stand at the head of this address. Those verses, I need hardly remind you, are the preface or opening words of the Book of Revelation. May the blessing which is specially promised to the readers and hearers of this book, be with all into whose hands this address may fall! Reader, there are three points to which I desire to call your attention:
1. The general character of the Book of Revelation.
2. The arguments commonly used to deter men from reading it.
3. The many useful lessons which the study of it is calculated to teach.
1. The GENERAL CHARACTER of the Book of Revelation.The Book of Revelation differs widely from any other book of the Old or New Testaments. In many respects, it is thoroughly unlike the rest of the Bible. There is a solemn and majestic peculiarity about it. It stands alone.
It is peculiar in the dignity with which it begins. The very first verse prepares the reader for something extraordinary, for a book even more directly from God, if possible, than one written under the plenary inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is called, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass; and He sent and signified it by His angel unto His servant John."
It is peculiar in the subject matter which it contains. It contains less of doctrinal and practical Christianity, in proportion to its length, than any book of the New Testament. With few exceptions its pages are filled with prophecies — prophecies of the widest range, extending, it seems to me, from the time of John to the very end of the world; prophecies embracing a vast number of events, spreading over the whole "times of the Gentiles" and covering the mighty interval between the destruction of the first Jerusalem, and the descent of the new Jerusalem from Heaven; prophecies of universal importance to all mankind, having reference not only to the condition and prospects of the believing Church, but also of the unconverted world.
It is peculiar in the style and dress in which its subject matter is clothed. With the exception of the 2nd and 3rd chapters, the greater part of the book is composed of visions which the Apostle John saw in the Spirit. In these visions the vast range of the Church's history was revealed to him under emblems, figures, allegories, symbols, and similitudes. The meaning of the great majority of these symbols and emblems is not explained. The general characteristics of these visions are much alike. All are marked by a vastness, a grandeur, a majesty, a life, a force, a boldness, a sublimity entirely unparalleled in any human writings.
The door opened in Heaven,
the voice like a trumpet speaking,
the sea of glass like crystal,
the seven seals,
the seven trumpets,
the seven vials,
the four angels holding the four winds,
the mighty angel with a face like the sun, his right foot on the sea, his left on the earth,
the woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet,
the great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns,
the beast that rose out of the sea,
the mighty earthquake,
the destruction of Babylon,
the summoning of the fowls of Heaven to the supper of the great God,
the binding of Satan,
the great white throne,
the last judgment,
the descent of the New Jerusalem from Heaven,
the description of the glorious city —
who can read such things without being struck by them? Who can study them and avoid the conclusion, "This is written with the finger of God!"
Such is the general character of the Book of Revelation. Such is the book which you are emphatically told it is "blessed" to read. I will only offer two general remarks on the symbolic style in which the book is composed and then pass on.
1. One remark is, that you must not regard the use of symbolic language as entirely peculiar to the Book of Revelation. You will find it in other parts of Scripture. The very emblems and figures of the Apocalypse, whose meaning seems so obscure, are often employed by the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. You read, for example, of four living creatures in the fourth chapter. You read of four also in Ezekiel (1:5). You read of horses in the vision of the four first seals. You read of horses also in the vision of Zechariah (6:2,3). You read of a sealed company in the seventh chapter. You read also of a sealed and marked people in the vision of Ezekiel (chapter 9). You read of a plague of locusts under the fifth trumpet. You read of locusts also in the prophecy of Joel (chapter 2). You read of John eating the little book in the tenth chapter. You read also of Ezekiel eating the scroll in his vision (chapter 3). You read of olive trees and candlesticks in the vision of the two witnesses. You read of the same emblems in the prophecy of Zechariah (chapter 4). You read of a beast having seven heads and ten horns in the thirteenth chapter. You read of a similar beast in the Book of Daniel (chapter 7). You read of a wondrous celestial city in the twenty-first chapter. You have the description of a city scarcely less mysterious, though different, at the end of Ezekiel (chapter 40 etc.)
These things are worthy of remark. They show us that we must not be stumbled by the symbols of Revelation, as if they were altogether a new and strange thing. We must remember they are used in the Old Testament as well as here, though far more sparingly, in communicating the mind of God to man. The peculiarity of the Apocalypse is not so much the use of symbols and emblems — as the profuse abundance of them.
My other remark is, that a symbolic style of composition will always seem more strange to us — than it does to Oriental nations. Figures, parables, illustrations, and similitudes are infinitely better known in the countries around the Holy Land, than they are among ourselves. The hieroglyphic inscriptions, for example, which abound in Egypt and elsewhere in the East, are nothing more than symbolic writings. Who does not know that at first sight, these hieroglyphics seem uncouth, meaningless, dark, and obscure? The first step the student of them must take, is to become familiar with their appearance. By and by he may hope to become acquainted with the key to their meaning. Ultimately, that key being found, these very hieroglyphics are found full of interesting matter.
It is much the same with the Book of Revelation. It is a book of sacred hieroglyphics. Its very style is one to which our matter of fact northern mind is utterly unaccustomed. To us, therefore, its visions seem doubly strange — strange because we are not familiar with such a mode of conveying our ideas — stranger still, because in many cases we have no clue to their meaning. Our first step must be to read them and study them much, so as to become familiar with their outward garb, with the style of composition in which they are clothed. So studying in a prayerful spirit — we may hope that the meaning of their inward contents will be gradually made more plain to our minds.
One thing let us always remember in reading the visions of the Apocalypse. Whether we understand little or much, let us settle it in our minds as a fixed principle, that every vision in the book has a real definite meaning. The time is short. We hasten on towards a day when every page shall be unfolded and unsealed. Every knot shall be untied. Every hard question shall be solved. Then shall we see that the Revelation, like every other part of the inspired volume, was all "very good." Then shall we find that the blessing pronounced on its students was not given in vain, and that those readers whom God blesses, are blessed indeed.
2. Let us consider, in the next place, the OBJECTIONS commonly used to deter men from studying the Book of Revelation.There never have been lacking good men who have cried down the study of Revelation as unprofitable. They have spoken of it as a book too dark and mysterious for use. They have bid men to respect it as inspired — but not touch it; to reverence it at a distance, as part of the Bible — but not draw near to it or handle its contents. To this prejudice we probably owe the unhappy omission of the book from the daily calendar of lessons in the Liturgy of the Church of England. No place was found for a book to the reading of which a special blessing is promised. Truly we may say in this case, "Great men are not always wise — neither do the aged understand judgment" (Job 32:9).
Reader, when such prejudices have existed against the study of the Book of Revelation among good men — you will not wonder that the children of the world should have gone further. Men, more witty than wise, have launched sharp sayings, jests, and jibes at its students. They have not been ashamed to find a mark for witticism in its solemn and mysterious visions. Scaliger declared that one of Calvin's wisest acts was his abstaining from writing a commentary on the book. Dr. South, a clever writer, though an unsound theologian, said, that the study of Revelation either "found a man mad — or made him so."
But, after all, what is the real worth of the objections commonly made to the study of Revelation? Let us weigh them in the balances and see to what they amount. To my own mind they appear neither so serious nor so unanswerable as is commonly supposed.
One class of objectors dislike the book because it seems to point to a coming state of things in the world, which, to their minds, is monstrous, incredible, and improbable. That God should send plagues and judgments upon the nations of the earth because of their sins against Him; that the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the captains, and the rich, and the mighty, and the bond, and the free — should really flee to hide themselves from the wrath of the Lamb; that the kingdoms of this world should really become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ; that the saints of the Lord Jesus should ever reign upon the earth, and everything that defiles be cast out — all this is to their minds almost absurd.
"It is contrary to their common sense," they tell us. "It is a mark of a weak mind to believe it. It is extravagance. It is raving. It is enthusiasm. It cannot be! A book from which we draw such strange fanatical opinions can never be a profitable one to study."
I am not careful as to the answer to be given to such objectors. They would do well to remember that the great leading events yet to come, to which Revelation points, are in no way more astonishing than many which have already taken place in the world. The destruction of the old world by the flood — the wasting of Babylon, Nineveh, Tyre, and Egypt — the scattering of the Jews, and their perpetual preservation, notwithstanding, as a separate people — all these were things utterly improbable at the time when they were foretold. But we know that they all came to pass. And as it has been in days gone by — so it shall be in days to come.
Men, in their pride of heart, forget that in the eyes of an Eternal God, the movements of the nations of the earth are but as the struggles of a few ephemeral insects. Yet a little time, and despotic and constitutional governments, liberal and conservative parties — all, all shall be swept away. God has said it, and with Him nothing is impossible.
As to the manner in which the great events predicted in Revelation shall be brought about — we do not pretend to explain it. There are many things which we accept as facts, and yet would find it impossible to explain. We believe the creation of all things out of nothing. We believe the doctrine of the Trinity in Unity. We believe the fact of the Incarnation. But who would dare to offer an explanation of any of these great mysteries? We have a right to regard unfulfilled prophecy in the same light. We claim belief for its facts, though the mode of their accomplishment is at present hid from our eyes.
I leave this first class of objectors here. I fear the secret spring of their arguments, in too many cases — is the dislike of the natural heart to spiritual things. The heart not taught by the Holy Spirit rebels against the idea of severe judgments against sin — a kingdom of Christ — a reign of the saints. And why? The plain truth is, that it is not so much the Book of Revelation that such a heart really objects to — as the whole Gospel of Christ and all the counsel of God.
Another class of objectors must next be noticed. These are they who deprecate the study of Revelation because of the wide differences which prevail in the interpretation of its contents, and the notorious mistakes into which interpreters have fallen. I do not for a moment pretend to deny the existence of these differences and mistakes.
1. Some good men tell us confidently that the whole book is entirely unfulfilled. They look for an accomplishment of its visions so clear and unmistakable, that there shall be no room left for doubt.
2. Other good men assure us, with no less confidence, that the whole book is already fulfilled, with the exception of a small portion at the end.
3. A third school of expositors maintains that the Revelation is partly fulfilled — and partly unfulfilled.
As to the details of the book, the meaning and application of the several visions it contains, the fulfillment of times and seasons, time would fail if I were to recount the various interpretations that have been put forth and the errors that have been committed.
Now, what shall we say to these things? What can the advocate for Apocalyptic study reply to these undeniable facts? My reply is, that the variations and mistakes in the views of interpreters, constitute no argument against the study of the book itself. Because others have missed the road in searching for truth — you and I are not to give up the search altogether and sit down in contented ignorance.
Who has not heard of the extravagant and contradictory theories which astronomers, geologists, and physicians have occasionally propounded in their respective sciences? Yet who would think of giving up astronomy, geology, or medicine in despair, because of the conflicting tenets and avowed mistakes of their professors? Luther and Zwingle differed widely about the Lord's Supper. Cranmer and Hooper differed widely about vestments. Wesley and Toplady differed widely on predestination. Yet no one in his senses would think of giving up the study of the Christian system because these good men could not agree.
My answer furthermore is, that the very mistakes and differences of Apocalyptic interpreters, are not without their use. They have cleared the field in many a direction and shown us what the Revelation does not mean. Expositors have shown in many cases, the weakness of other men's interpretation — even if they have not succeeded in establishing their own. To know what an unfulfilled Scriptural prediction does not mean, is one step towards knowing what it does mean.
When Napoleon was overtaken by the rising tide in a dark evening on the sandy shore of the Red sea, he is said to have ordered his attendants to disperse and ride in different directions, charging each one to report as he proceeded whether the water grew shallower or deeper. There was great wisdom in that order. Each man's report was useful. The report of him who found the water deepening was in its way as useful as the report of the successful finder of the right path.
It is much the same with the widely varying explanations of Revelation. It is evident that many of them must be wrong. But all in their way have done good. There is hardly one, perhaps, which has not contributed some sparks of light.
My answer beside this is, that the differences of Apocalyptic interpreters, as great as they undoubtedly are, are often magnified and absurdly exaggerated. The common points of agreement among expositors are more in number and greater in importance, than men commonly suppose.
Whether the seals, trumpets, and vials are fulfilled or not — all students of the Revelation agree that there are judgments predicted in it on the unconverted and unbelieving. Whether days mean literal days, as some say, or years, as others say — all are agreed that the time of the wicked triumphing is defined, limited, and fixed by the counsels of God. Whether the beast with horns like a lamb is the Papal power or not, nearly all are agreed that Romish apostasy is foretold in the book, and doomed. Whether Christ shall come and reign visibly on earth or not, for 1000 or 365,000 years — all are agreed that He shall come again with power and great glory, that the kingdoms of this world shall sooner or later become the kingdoms of our God, and that all believers should look and long for their Lord's return.
I doubt much whether this point is as much considered by the opponents of Apocalyptic study as it deserves. I grant them freely that the divergences and contrarieties of the paths drawn out by the expositors of the book are very many and very great. But, I bid them remember that the great terminus towards which all their lines lead is always one and the same. Oh, that men would remember that mighty terminus, and realize the tremendous importance of the end and breaking up of all things towards which they hasten! Then would they be more anxious to study any book which handles matters like those contained in Revelation. Then would they be less ready to catch at any excuse for declining Apocalyptic study.
The only remaining objection to the study of Revelation which I shall notice, is that which is drawn from the mysterious character of a large portion of the book. That the Revelation is full of dark and difficult things, it is of course impossible to deny. Some of its symbols and emblems, the Spirit of God has thought good to interpret and explain. The seven stars, the seven candlesticks, the incense, the fine linen, the waters on which the woman sat, the woman herself — all these and a few more are expounded, perhaps as a specimen of the kind of meaning which should be attached to the symbols of the book generally.
But, after every deduction, there remain a very large number of visions and emblems which the Spirit has not thought fit to interpret. These symbols are unquestionably dark and mysterious. It is not, perhaps, saying too much to admit that after all the attempts of commentators, ancient and modern, preterist and futurist — there are many visions and symbols of Revelation which, we must confess, we do not understand! I do not say that elaborate and learned expositions of them have not been offered — but not expositions so manifestly satisfactory that we can demand a reader's assent to them.
If truth be spoken, we must allow that all the expositions of some parts of the Revelation are nothing better than ingenious conjectures. We admire them as we read. We are not prepared to say that they are not true, or to furnish a reason for refusing our assent. But still they fail to carry conviction with them. We somehow feel the mark is not yet hit, the spring of the lock is not yet touched, the whole truth is not yet discovered.
But I appeal to the common sense of men and their sense of fairness, and I ask them whether they have a right to expect that such a book as the book of Revelation can in the very nature of things — be anything but dark and mysterious. Here is a prophetic book which spans the mighty gulf between the end of the first century — and the day of judgment; a book which was given to show God's dealings with the Church and the world during a space of well night 2000 years; a book which points to the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms, with all the attendant wars and tumults over a third part of the habitable globe; a book, above all, which does not tell its story in simple, plain matter of fact narration, but clothes it in majestic visions, symbols, emblems, figures, and similitudes.
Here are we reading this book during a life of three score and ten years at most, with all the cares and anxieties of this world pressing upon us, with an understanding partaking in the corruption of the fall, with a heart naturally earthly and sensual, and, even after conversion, weak and deceitful, knowing little of ourselves, knowing little of contemporary history, finding constantly how hard it is to discover the real truth about events happening in our own day.
Is it likely, I ask, is it probable, is it agreeable to common sense — that such students, coming to such a book — should find it anything but mysterious and hard to understand? Can anyone doubt as to the reply? The plain truth is, that we are like children watching some mighty building in process of erection. They see a thousand operations which they are utterly unable to comprehend or explain. They see scaffolding and stones, and iron and brick, and mortar and timber, and rubbish. They hear noise, and hammering, and cutting, and chipping. It seems to their eyes, to be a vast scene of hopeless confusion. And yet to the eye of the architect — all is order, system, and progress. He sees the end from the beginning. He knows exactly what is going on.
It is much the same with us in trying to pass a judgment on the application of many of the Apocalyptic visions. We are like those who stand on the outward surface of a sphere. The range of our mental vision is exceedingly limited. We know so little and see so little beyond our own circle, the very pages of history are so often full of inaccuracies and lies — that we are really very poor judges of the question whether such and such visions have been fulfilled or not.
More light, I firmly believe, may yet be expected before the end come. Much may probably be yet unfolded and unsealed. But as to any certainty about the meaning of all parts of the Apocalypse — when I see how little certainty there is about anything 1000 miles from us in distance, or 100 years in time — I own I do not look for it until the Lord comes.
And here let me turn for a moment to those who secretly wonder why the Book of Revelation was not written more plainly, and why things of such vast interest to the Church have been purposely clothed in the mysterious garb of symbol, allegory, and vision. I might easily remind such people of Bishop Sherlock's remark on this very point: "To inquire why the ancient prophecies are not clearer is like inquiring why God has not given us more reason, or made us as wise as the angels."
But I have no wish to leave them there. I would rather use an argument which has often proved satisfactory to my own mind, and silenced the speculative questionings of a curious spirit. I ask you then, whether you cannot see wisdom and mercy in the darkness which it has pleased God to throw around the prophetic history of His Church? You wonder in your own heart, why the things to come were not more clearly revealed.
But, consider for a moment how fearfully deadening and depressing it would have been to the early Christians, if they had clearly seen the long ages of darkness and corruption which were to elapse before the Lord returned. Reflect for a moment how much unhappiness primitive believers were spared, by not knowing for certain, the events which were to take place. If humble saints in the days of imperial persecution could have dreamed of the eighteen weary centuries during which the saints were yet to wait for their Lord from Heaven — they might almost have sat down in flat despair.
If Polycarp had foreseen the present state of Asia Minor, or Ignatius that of Syria, or Chrysostom that of Constantinople, or Irenaeus that of France, or Athanasius that of Egypt, or Augustine that of Africa — their hands might well have trembled and their knees waxed faint. Count up, I say, the dark and painful pages of which there are so many in the annals of Church history. Set down in order the heresies, and false doctrines, and apostasies of which there has been such a rank growth, Arianism, and Romanism, and Socinianism, and Neologianism, and their kindred errors. Place before your mind's eye the centuries of ignorance and superstition before the Reformation, and of coldness and formality since Luther's generation passed away. Count up the crimes which have been perpetrated in the name of Christianity, the massacres, the burnings, the persecutions within the Church, not forgetting the Albigenses, the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of the Huguenots, and the fires of Smithfield.
Do all this faithfully, and I think you will hardly avoid the conclusion that it was wise mercy which drew so thick a veil over things to come! Wise mercy showed the early Christians a light in the distance — but did not tell them how far it was away. Wise mercy pointed out the far off harbor lights — but not the miles of stormy sea between. Wise mercy revealed enough to make them work, and hope, and wait. But wise mercy did not tell all that was yet to be fulfilled before the end.
Who thinks of telling his little children, in their early years, every trial and pain and misery which they may have to go through before they die? Who thinks of filling their tender ears with the particulars of every bodily disease they may have to endure, and every struggle for success in life in which they may have to engage? Who thinks of harrowing up their young souls by describing every bereavement they may have to submit to, or speaking at length on every deathbed they may have to watch? We do not do it, because they could not understand our meaning, and could not bear the thought of it if they did!
And just so, it seems to me, does the Lord Jesus deal with His people in the Apocalyptic vision. He keeps back the full revelation of all the way they must go through, until the time when He sees they can bear it. He considers our frame. He teaches and reveals, as we are able to bear.
In reply to those who object to the study of Revelation, there is, after all, no argument so powerful as the simple promise of the Word of God. The predictions of Revelation may seem to many improbable and absurd. The differences and mistakes of interpreters may fill others with disgust and dislike, to the very name of Apocalyptic study. The acknowledged mysteriousness and confessed difficulties of the book may incline many to shrink from perusing it.
But there the book stands — a part of those Scriptures which are all given by inspiration and all profitable. And there on the forefront of the book, stands a promise and an encouragement to the reader and hearer: "Blessed is he who reads — and they who hear." These words, no doubt, were spoken in foresight of the objections that men would raise against the study of the book. Give these words their full weight. Fall back on them when all other arguments fail. They are a reserve which will never give way. God has said it — and will make it good. "Blessed is he who reads, and they who hear the words of the prophecy of this book!"
3. The third and last thing which I now wish to consider is, the number of USEFUL LESSONS which the Book of Revelation is calculated to teach.I am anxious to impress this point on your attention. I want you to establish it in your mind as a settled thing, that the Book of Revelation is an eminently profitable book for every reader of the Bible to study. It is a fountain to which the poorest and most unlearned shall never go in vain.
I say, then, that there are many blessed and comfortable truths scattered up and down, all over the Book of Revelation, which are intelligible to the simplest comprehension — and yet full of food for the most spiritual mind. God has mercifully so ordered the composition of the book, that there is hardly a chapter from which a man may not draw some striking and edifying thought. He may be unskilled in the interpretation of visions. He may have no idea of the meaning of seals, or trumpets, or vials, of the two witnesses, of the woman fleeing into the wilderness, of the first or second beasts. But still, if he perseveres in humble, prayerful study of the whole book — he shall find in almost every page, verses which shall richly repay his pains. They shall shine out on him like stars in the dark vault of Heaven in a moonless night. They shall refresh him like an oasis in the wilderness and make it impossible for him to say, "All is barren." They shall sparkle like precious stones on the shore as he walks by the deep waters of the mysterious book, and make him feel that his journey in search of treasure is not in vain.
"It is true, many things in the Book of Revelation are obscure, and it is likely that the full clearing of them is not to be expected until God in some singular way shall open them up. Yet there are many clear, edifying, and comfortable passages of God's mind in it, the Holy Spirit mixing them in to be fed upon, to sweeten those passages that are more obscure, and to encourage the reader to search for the meaning of them." — Durham on Revelation. 1658.
Let me select a few examples in order to show what I mean.
There is much about the Lord Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation. There are names, and titles, and expressions about Him there, which we find nowhere else. There is new light thrown on His offices, His power, His care for His people. Surely this alone is no small matter. To know Jesus, is life eternal. To abide in Jesus, is to be fruitful. If we are indeed born of the Spirit — we can never hear too much about our Savior, our Shepherd, our High Priest and Physician! If our hearts are right in the sight of God — we can never hear too much about our Savior-King! Like snow in summer and good news from a far country, so are any fresh tidings about Christ.
There is much about the desperate corruption of human nature in the book of Revelation. There is evidence on this subject in the Epistles to the Seven Churches, and the repeated accounts of the incorrigibleness and impenitence of the nations of the earth under judgments, which we shall all do well to lay to heart. We can never be too well acquainted with our own sinfulness and weakness. The spring of all humility, thankfulness, grateful love to Christ, and close walk with God — is real, thorough, scriptural knowledge of the wickedness of our own hearts. None will ever build high — who does not begin low. The soul that loves much — is the soul that feels its debt is great, and that much has been forgiven.
"When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind Him at His feet weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them." Luke 7:37-38. "Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven — for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." Luke 7:47
There is much about Hell in the book of Revelation. There are many fearful expressions which show its reality, its misery, its eternity, its certainty. How deeply important is it to have clear views on this solemn subject in the present day! A disposition appears in some quarters, to shrink from asserting the eternality of punishment. A flood of that miserable heresy, universalism, seems coming in upon us. Amiable and well-meaning enthusiasts are speaking smooth things about the love of God being lower than Hell, and the mercy of God excluding the exercise of all His other attributes of justice and holiness. Tender-hearted women and intellectual men are catching at the theory that, after all, there is hope in the far distance for everybody, and that the devil's old delusion deserves credit, "You shall not surely die!" Oh, reader, beware of this damning delusion! Be not wise above that which is written. Believe me, it is a great thing to believe in the reality of Hell. Study the Apocalyptic visions well and you will find it hard to disbelieve it.
There is much about Heaven in the book of Revelation. I speak of Heaven in the common acceptance of the word. I mean the future abode of the people of God. And I say that no book in God's Word tells us so much about Heaven as the Apocalypse. If there was nothing else to be learned from the book beside this, we ought to be most thankful.
Where is there a believer in the Lord Jesus who does not frequently think on the world to come and the resurrection state? Who that has lost a dear friend or relative, who died in the Lord — can abstain from meditating on the life of glory and the place of meeting? Who among the people of God does not frequently reach forward in imagination into that unknown and unvisited abode and strive to picture to his mind's eye, the manner of the place and its employments? It is mysterious, no doubt. But nowhere is the veil so much lifted up, as it is in the book of Revelation.
There is much about the prospects of the Church of Christ in the book of Revelation. When I speak of the Church, I mean the Church of the elect, the living body of Christ, whose members are all holy. The pages of the Apocalypse show plainly that the triumphs, and rest, and ease, and peace of that Church, are not in this world.
Its members must make up their minds to battles and fightings, to trial and persecution, to cross and affliction. They must be content to be a little flock, a poor and despised people, until the advent of Christ. Their good things are yet to come.
Well would it be for believers if they would learn from Revelation, to moderate their expectations from missions, schools, and all other ecclesiastical machinery. Then would we not hear, as we now often do, of disappointments and despondency and depression among true Christians, and especially among ministers. We live in the time when God is taking out a people. These are the days of election — but not of universal conversion. We are yet in the wilderness. The bridegroom is not yet with us. The days of absence and mourning and separation are not yet past and gone.
There is much in Revelation to show the folly of depending entirely on the powers of this world, for the advancement of true religion. There is much to show that believers should not look to kings, and princes, and rich men, and great men — for the bringing in and support of the kingdom of Christ. The times are not yet come when kings shall literally be "the nursing fathers" of the Churches.
It is striking to observe how often the Apocalypse speaks of them as the enemies of God's cause, and not the friends. We need this lesson here in England. With a settled conviction that the principle of an Established Church is scriptural and sound, I still feel we need reminding that alliance with the powers that be, has its disadvantages as well as its advantages to the visible Church of Christ. It is apt to engender indolence, apathy, and formality among professing Christians. I firmly believe that the Church of England would have exerted itself more and done more for the world, if its members had been more familiar with the Book of Revelation, and learned from it to expect little from the State.
There is much in the book of Revelation to show the painful childishness of the vast majority of true Christians all over the world. Here we are, the greater part of us, scrambling and wrangling about the merest trifles, contending about forms, and ceremonies, and outward matters of man's devising — as if they were the essentials of Christianity — while millions of heathen are perishing for lack of knowledge, and myriads of our countrymen are dying around our own doors, as ignorant as the heathen! And all this time the eternal purposes of God are rolling on to fulfillment — the kingdoms of this world are on the brink of dissolution — the day of judgment is at hand, and an hour draws near when Episcopacy, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, Establishments, and voluntary Churches — shall be clean swept out of the way, and nothing but grace, faith, and heart-holiness shall abide and stand the fire!
Never, never do I, for one, read the Apocalypse without feeling the excessive littleness of Christians. We are like children busy with our little houses of sand, at low water by the seaside. The tide is rising. Our houses will soon be gone. Happy shall we be if we ourselves escape with our lives!
There is much, in the last place, in the book of Revelation to show the safety of all true believers in Christ, whatever may come upon the world. Awful as are the woes of which the Apocalypse speaks, there is not a syllable to show that a hair shall fall from the head of any one of God's children.
Hidden, like Noah, in the ark;
plucked, like Lot, from the fiery judgment;
withdrawn, like Elijah, from the reach of their enemies;
rescued, like Rahab, from the ruin of all around —
they at least may read the Revelation without being afraid.
The book that looks dark and threatening to the world — speaks no terrors to true believers. Like the wondrous pillar of cloud (Exodus 14), it may fill the mind of an ungodly man with gloom — but, like the same cloud, it shall give light by night to the people of God.
Reader, what shall we say to these things? I have mentioned eight things which stand forth plainly and unmistakably in the Book of Revelation. There is no mystery about them. They require no deep learning to understand. A humble mind and a prayerful heart will not fail to discover them. These are the kind of things which we can never know too well.
The person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the corruption of man,
the reality of Hell,
the nature of Heaven,
the prospects of the Church,
the folly of trusting in princes,
the childishness of God's people,
the safety of believers in the day of wrath —
these are the kind of subjects with which we cannot be too familiar. These are the plain lessons which, with all its many difficulties, the book of Revelation will unfold. Truly if these things are engraved deeply on our minds, our reading the Apocalypse will be blessed indeed!
These are the kind of things which Satan labors hard to keep us from. Well may that old enemy fill men's minds with prejudice against Apocalyptic study. Well may he suggest the evil thought, "it is all mysterious, it is all too deep — we need not read it." Let us resist him in this matter. Let us cleave to Revelation more closely every year. Let us never doubt that it is a profitable study for our souls.
It only remains now to CONCLUDE this address with three practical remarks.
1. For one thing, let us thank God that the things needful to salvation are all clear, plain, and devoid of mystery to a humble mind.Whatever difficulties there may be in the visions of the Apocalypse — the most unlearned reader of the Bible shall never miss the way to Heaven if he seek to find it in a childlike and prayerful spirit. The guilt, and corruption, and weakness of man is not a hidden thing, like a seal, a trumpet, or a vial. Christ's power and willingness to save, and justification by faith in Him — are not a dark thing, like the number 666. The absolute necessity of a new birth and a thorough change of heart is not an uncertainty, like the meaning of the two witnesses. The impossibility of salvation without fitness for Heaven is not a mystery, like the interpretation of the vision of the four living creatures.
But, reader, remember while you thank God for this clear teaching in the things essential to salvation — that this very clearness increases your personal responsibility. Take heed, lest an open door being set before you, any of you should fail to enter in by it and be saved.
Hearken, everyone into whose hands this address may come, and understand. I give you a plain warning this day. Do not forget it. You may reach Heaven without knowing much about the deep things of the Apocalypse — but you will never get their without the saving knowledge of Christ and a new heart. You must be born again. You must renounce your own righteousness and acknowledge yourself to be a sinner. You must wash in the fountain of Christ's blood. You must be clothed in the garment of Christ's righteousness. You must take up the cross of Christ and follow Him. These are the things absolutely needful. These are the things without which no man, learned or unlearned, high or low — can ever be saved. Rest not, rest not until you know these things by experience. Without them you may know the whole list of Apocalyptic commentaries, be familiar with all that they have written on the subject — and yet rise at the last day a lost soul — knowing much intellectually, like the devils — but, like the devils, ruined forever!
2. For another thing, let me entreat all students of the Book of Revelation, to beware of dogmatism and positiveness in expressing and maintaining their views of the meaning of its more mysterious portions.Nothing, I firmly believe, has brought more discredit on the study of prophecy, than the excessive rashness and overweening confidence with which many of its advocates have asserted the correctness of their own interpretations and impugned the expositions of others. Too many have written and talked as if they had a special revelation from Heaven, and as if it was impossible for anyone to maintain a character for common sense — if he did not see with their eyes! Let us all watch our hearts and be on our guard against this spirit.
Dogmatism is a great trap which Satan lays in men's way when he cannot prevent them studying the Apocalypse. Let us not fall into it. Let us rather pray for a spirit of modesty and humility in offering our solutions of the deep things of symbolic prediction. Let us allow that we may possibly be wrong — and that others may possibly be right.
Believe me, we all need this caution. We are unhappily prone to be most positive — when we have least warrant for our assertions, simply because our pride whispers that our reputation for discernment is at stake, and that having made statements mainly on the authority of our own judgment, we are specially bound to defend them. Happy is that student of prophecy, who is willing to confess that there are many things of which he is yet ignorant. Happier still, and more uncommon too — is he who is able to use those three hardest words in the English language, "I was mistaken."
3. Finally, let all believers take comfort in the thought that the end to which all things are coming is clear, plain, and unmistakable.There may yet be judgments in store for the world, of which we know nothing. There may be "distress of nations with perplexity" far exceeding anything we have yet heard of, read, or seen. There may be more grievous wars, and famines, and pestilences, and persecutions yet to come. But the end is sure! Yet a little while, and He who shall come, will come, and will not tarry.
The kings of the earth may struggle and contend for their own worldly interests; but sooner or later the kingdoms of their world shall become the kingdoms of our God, and of His Christ. There shall be an eternal peace. He shall come and take possession, "whose right it is." The dominion and power shall be given to the saints of the Most High, and of the increase of their peace shall be no end. Oh, that we may all remember this! In patience let us possess our souls, and in every trying time do as Luther did, repeat the forty-sixth Psalm:
"God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. Selah There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah Come and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire. Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress."