WE now confront the prophetic portions of the Apocalypse, consisting of one long section near the beginning of the scroll (1:4-3:22) and a short section near its end (22:6-17). Before making a minute examination of its details it will help us to take a general survey of its character and scope, its application and object, with special reference to the time and people to whom it is addressed.
In calling these the Prophetic sections, or in dividing the rest of the scroll into Political and Religious sections, we do not wish to be understood as doing more than to point out the general character of each. When we say that Matthew's account sets forth Christ as King, no one supposes that this is the only title used of Him by Matthew. The main divisions of the narrative are made by the acknowledgment that He is Son of God. Neither is John's account without any record of His regal claim. Yet all will acknowledge the helpfulness of investing Matthew with royal robes, of seeing the Servant in Mark, the Man in Luke and the divine Son in John. It is the introduction which fixes His character in each. The genealogy to David and Abraham in Matthew, to Adam in Luke, its absence in Mark, and His precarnate session in John - these alone fix the dominant character of the succeeding account, however much all His glories may be blended as occasion arises. He serves in all, yet He is the Servant in Mark. He is human in all, yet He is the Man in Luke. He is divine in all, yet He is the Son of God in John.
So in the Apocalypse. The introductions to the sections can hardly be misunderstood. The magnificent throne scene of the fourth chapter must introduce us to the political side of earth's deliverance, though not excluding worship. The opening of the temple must reveal the religious aspect of redemption, though not debarring power. Rule and religion run throughout the scroll, but rule rises to prominence at one time and religion at another. We should look to the introduction of each section to guide us in our apprehension of its character. Once determined, this will give us a clue to its contents.
The prophet is the sign of apostasy, So long as the priesthood was true and the king ruled in the fear of God, there was no need of any prophet. But when these fail then God raises up a man to be His spokesman to the people. The primary function of prophecy is to interpret the times so that the people may know the mind of God and the conduct which will accord with His will. Prediction is but a part of the prophetic office. The prophetic sections of this scroll are in perfect accord with this conception of prophecy.
When we remember that the great emphasis in this scroll is on judgment we are prepared to see why these ecclesias are not in Israel, where they ought to be, but far from the land, in the precincts of apostasy. The people as a whole are distant from God, and He finds their representative ecclesias outside the land beyond the sphere of blessing. The one hundred and forty-four thousand are in their true place, on mount Zion, hence their pre-eminent portion. They need no prophet. But the nation as a whole is at such a distance, spiritually, from their rightful place, as these ecclesias are removed, physically from Jerusalem.
The Concordant Version uses the word ecclesia rather "church." The word "church" has acquired a meaning quite foreign to that which the etymology of this word demands. Any company CALLED-OUT, as the sublinear has it, is an ecclesia. The tribal council in the wilderness wanderings (Acts 7:38), the mob at Ephesus (Acts 19:32,41), the synagogue worshipers (Matt.18:17) - all these are really a "church" but would be wholly misunderstood if referred to by that term. So it is here. The very name given to these ecclesias has prejudiced us in favor of an interpretation which they will not bear. In the message to the Philadelphian ecclesia we read of those who are claiming to be Jews and are not, who are of Satan's synagogue. This lacks all pith and point if the Philadelphians were not themselves Jews and members of a synagogue. Hence we are compelled to consider these "churches" as synagogues such as those referred to by our Lord, in which no tax gatherer or man of another nation could have any place (Matt.18:17).
As the word "assembly" does not suggest the principal point of an out-called company, and is well suited to translate another word, it is not a good substitute for "church." So we are forced to find a new term, uncontaminated, yet not unfamiliar, with which to clothe this idea. "Ecclesia," from its associations with "ecclesiastic," etc., is suggested, with the hope that it will never be applied to a building, or restricted to a particular company or economy, but applied to any assembly consisting of members called out of a larger number.
THE ECCLESIAS ARE SYNAGOGUES
This suggests the real reason why these companies are called "ecclesias" rather than synagogues. They are not in the land where almost everyone would belong to the local synagogue, but among the nations. Hence only the Jews in these cities were called out from among the mass of the population to become members of these ecclesias. To call them "churches" would practically exclude the Jews; to call them "ecclesias" allows them to be synagogues, which they undoubtedly will be.
This suggests an important point in reference to their location. They are not found in Jerusalem or Judea, but at a distance in proconsular Asia, a province in Asia Minor, which has since given its name to the whole continent of which it was but a very small part. They belong to the dispersion in the day of the Lord, corresponding to the "sojourners of the dispersion of... Asia" to whom the first epistle of Peter was addressed (1 Peter 1:1).
Indeed, while we limit John's apocalyptic epistles to the Lord's day, Peter's had an immediate application in the past and will be most suitable to the future. The constant emphasis upon suffering and affliction in Peter's letter suits the situation found in these epistles perfectly.
A single consideration should keep us from applying these epistles to the ecclesias of the apostle's day. Two of the early Fathers, Tertullian and Epiphanius say that there was no ecclesia in Thyatira when John wrote these letters. Doubtless this had much to do with the suspicion with which this whole Unveiling was viewed, in the early times. Many rejected it altogether. The application to the ecclesias of that day was not at all possible.
Most of the early sects who refused to give this prophecy a place in the canon did so on the ground that John would not write to an ecclesia which had never been heard of. This was the principle argument of Cerdon and Marcion, who repudiated it. The Alogi pointedly asked "How . . . could he write to an ecclesia which was not in existence?"
We have purposely avoided any explanation of the word "messenger" because of the unusual interest which attaches to the messengers of the seven ecclesias. The rendering "angel" is certainly startling here. None of the ecclesias of scripture had angels among them. And certain it is that the churches of today are not in charge of angels. Yet, neither are they in charge of messengers.
Before attempting the solution of this problem let us discover the true significance of the word. It is a member of a notable family of words, some of which have found a place in English. We protest that we are not "changing" the common version by our rendering "messenger." The translators always render it so when it refers to human beings, and surely it refers to such in these seven ecclesias. What would be the use of sending these letters to angels? The spies sent to search out the land were messengers (James 2:25), John the Baptist is thrice called an angel or messenger (Matt.11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27); John sent messengers to the Lord (Luke 7:24); and He sent messengers before His face (Luke 9:52). In all these passages the Authorized translates correctly, "messengers." It is evident, therefore, that this is the true meaning of the word. It has to do with service, not nature. Whether a messenger be a spirit or a human being must be left to the context and the discernment of the reader. We are of the opinion that the "angels" to whom these epistles are sent are nothing more or less than the messengers of these ecclesias.
There is no such officer in the churches of today. There was none in the churches established by Paul. Where are they to be found?
Only in the synagogue do we find any officer who has any claim to this title. The chief of the synagogue (Mark 5:22; Acts 18:17) ranked first, but below him was the sheliach tsibbur, the legate or messenger of the ecclesia, who was the mouthpiece of the congregation. This is the one represented by the stars, to whom these letters were addressed. It seems certain, from the opening benediction, that in each case there would be but one reader but many hearers. The sheliach who received this message would transmit it by reading it publicly to the congregation in the synagogue.
The symbol of the stars reminds us of the two seeds of Abraham. Some are to be like the sea shore sands: others like the stars of heaven. The messengers are evidently God's light-bearers in the world at its darkest hour, just before the dawn. Daniel speaks of these messengers. The versions completely conceal the connection "The intelligent shall warn . . . and those justifying many are as the stars for the eon and further" (Dan. 12:3, CV).
JOHN A MINISTER OF THE CIRCUMCISION
Having found that the recipients of these epistles are Jews assembled in synagogues, we are reminded of the fact that John was a minister of the Circumcision like His Master. He never was sent to the nations as Paul was. He and Peter made an arrangement with Paul that they should devote themselves to the Circumcision (Gal. 2:7-19). It is evident that he does so in writing this Unveiling.
Between the writings of the Circumcision and Paul's letters there is a vast chasm. Luther was so impressed with this that he had no use for James' epistle, for it seemed to him to contradict the doctrine of Romans. Faith and grace has no place there. It is replaced by faith and acts. The gospel for the Circumcision never even approximated the grace reached in Paul's epistles. The doctrine of Romans, "therefore it is of faith that it might be by grace," and the transcendent teaching of the so-called Ephesian epistle, "saved through faith for grace," sheds no radiance upon these ecclesias.
No one who has basked in the beams of such beneficence can enter the cloudy atmosphere of these letters without experiencing a chill. The nearest approach to it is found in James' epistle. Grace and faith are eclipsed by a strong insistence an acts, on endurance, on repentance. Threats are freely offered for failure to live up to the requirements. It is an atmosphere not only darker than the seven letters of Paul but even those of the Circumcision. To apply them to the present economy of grace is subversion of the truth, destructive of the faith and a crime against grace. Grace mingled with acts is no longer grace. What then shall we call acts without any admixture of grace? Let us leave these epistles where they belong, for they are well suited to the day of wrath. Judgment, says Peter (1 Peter 4:17), must begin at God's house. This is what we have here. How can we confound this with grace going out to aliens, as it is today?
Confirmatory evidence abounds. We will trace it briefly in the allusions and promises in each letter and in the references to the same period which occupies us in the succeeding sections.
It is not simply that these epistles refer us to incidents in Israel's history, but there seems to be a systematic endeavor in these successive references to cover their whole history from the deliverance from Egypt to the period of Minor Prophets. The declension in the ecclesias corresponds closely with the national declension. Their sins and failure will be the sins and failures of their forefathers.
The allusion in the epistle to Ephesus recalls the day of Israel's espousals (Jer.2:2). In the fervency of her first love there was much glorying in Yahweh and little likelihood of straying from Him. Had they kept this, no apostasy would have appeared. Leaving His love led to the decline which is here traced to its end in being spewed out of His mouth.
In the Smyrnan letter we have a parallel to the wilderness wanderings. Israel was tried forty years. They will be tried ten days.
The reference to Balaam, in the letter to Pergamos, takes us on to an incident in the wilderness. Peter speaks of these same people when he warns against those "following in the way of Balaam the son of Bosor" (2 Peter 2:15). Jude, writing of those days, also refers to Balaam's error (10-13).
THE KINGDOM ALLUSIONS
The next four allusions are to the kingdom, the first two to Israel and the last two to Judah. In each case there is one allusion to defection and another to rejection.
Jezebel, who is referred to in the letter to Thyatira, made the advice of Balaam the basis of state religion. A sensual religion will be one of the outstanding features of the end time. The church today is fast drifting in that direction. But the full development of this fearful plague awaits that day.
Sardis engages us with the removal of Israel. Their name is practically blotted out, so that no one knows where they are today. Another instance of this "blotting out" occurs in the sealing of the one hundred and forty-four thousand. Yahweh threatened to blot out the tribe which would introduce idolatry in Israel (Deut.29:18-20). Their names do not appear in the list of the tribes of those who are sealed.
In the Philadelphian letter we turn to Judah. The defection had been great. Uzziah was stricken with leprosy for his presumption in the house of God (2 Chron.26:19). Jotham did not enter it at all (2 Chron.27:2). Ahaz shut up its doors (2 Chron.28:24). Hezekiah opened its doors again, but Shebna, the treasurer, had to be deposed. Eliakim is given this trust. The treasures of the temple were at his command.
The Laodicean letter leads us to the end of the long line of declension. Its message savors strongly of the divine expostulations in the Minor Prophets. Their wretched condition reminds us of Hosea's description (Hosea 2:5-9).
Far more conclusive of the character of these ecclesias are the promises held out to those who are victors. While they allude to the period from Eden to Solomon, their future fulfillment is always found in the earthly sphere where the blessings of Israel are located - never in the celestial realms which are our portion.
As is ever the case, human declension does not hinder God's blessing. While the condition of these ecclesias corresponded with the apostasy of the nation, the promises ascend from blessing to blessing. The conqueror in the first ecclesia has the promise of life while in the last, Laodicea, a place on the throne is prepared for the victorious one.
In Ephesus the allusion takes us back to Eden and the tree of life in its midst. But the promise reaches forward to the new earth and the tree of life in the center of that paradise. What part can we have in that garden? Shall we descend from our place with Christ on His celestial throne?
In Sardis the allusion is to the entrance of death when Adam sinned. The promise reaches out to the second death, from which the conqueror is promised immunity (20:14). Our life is hid with Christ in God. We may not all be conquerors, but all who believe in this day of grace have all that is promised to this conqueror and far more.
The manna recalls the wilderness journey of Israel. It provides for the sustenance of the conqueror of Pergamos. The white pebble was probably one of those used in the casting of lots. Hence this pebble would entitle the conqueror to an allotment in the kingdom. Is that our hope?
In Thyatira this thought rises higher. The conqueror is promised authority over the other nations. Here we are reminded how they left the wilderness and conquered the nations in the land. In the kingdom to come the conqueror of this ecclesia will be given the morning star. Before Christ arises as the sun, He will crush the nations and rule them with an iron club. In this will the Thyatiran conqueror have a share. This could never be our work.
We are reminded of David's last words in the promise to the conqueror in Sardis. He confesses the names of the conquerors of his host and blots out the names of those who are vanquished (2 Sam.23). So will the "mighty man" who conquers in Sardis be rewarded. His name will not be blotted out but confessed before the Father and the messengers. Our names are not in the book of life, hence they cannot be blotted out. Christ Himself is our life.
The promise to the Philadelphian conqueror brings to mind the magnificent temple built by Solomon with its wonderful columns, "Jachin and Boaz." A place in millennial worship seems to be their reward, as well as a title to the New Jerusalem. Neither of these would be any inducement to one who knows the place which has become ours in Christ.
The Laodicean conqueror having most to meet, will reap the richest reward. The allusion to Israel's kings leads on to the future King of kings. A seat on His throne, association with Him in the administration of that kingdom is the desert of those who dare to stem the tide of Laodicean apostasy.
All of these promises, from life to a place of privilege in the Kingdom, are confined to the conquerors. They are not promised to any of the unfaithful members of the synagogue. Not one of them can be realized by a member of the body of Christ, for they are all in a sphere foreign to our expectations. All are fulfilled on earth. Most of them have to do with that kingdom which is the chief subject of this scroll. A place of rule in that kingdom can never be the portion of the nations, for it is the time of Israel's rule over the nations.
THE SECOND PROPHETIC PORTION
The twenty-second chapter of this scroll should have commenced at the sixth verse. There the visions end, and the prophetic strain is resumed. "The God of the spirits of the prophets" takes up the subject of the whole scroll and its relation to His slaves.
The time element in this final chapter is important to its proper understanding. At first John is represented as being present and beholding the holy city. Then, in the third verse, there is a change in the tense: all is future. The vision has ended and John reverts to Patmos. From this point he views the far off future.
But when we enter the prophetic section the future is no longer before us. All is present. His coming cannot be postponed to that far off day. The whole course of events recorded in the scroll is in review.
The spirit of this concluding section is the same as its counterpart. Even the prospect of His return is associated with service, for He says, "My wage is with Me, to pay each one as his work is." They raise their robes to gain the right to enter the city. Those whose conduct unfits them for it, will find no place in the city. The water of life alone is free. Yet even those who have a part in that future bliss may lose it by tampering with this scroll. It is as their Lord that they look for His coming.
All this will be very precious to those of the Circumcision for whom it is intended. It may appeal to the legal church-goer of today, but it falls far short of the favor which is ours in Christ Jesus.