THE PAROUSIA IN THE APOCALYPSE.
(excerpt from J. Stuart Russell's The Parousia)
We come now to the consideration of the most difficult and obscure part of divine Revelation, and we may well pause on the threshold of a region so shrouded in mystery and darkness. The conspicuous failures of the wise and learned men who have too confidently professed to decipher the mystic scroll of the apocalyptic Seer warn us against presumption. We might even feel justified in declining altogether a task which has baffled so many of the ablest and best interpreters of the Word of God. But, on the other hand, do we honour the book by refusing to open it, and pronouncing it hopelessly obscure? Are we justified in so treating any portion of the Revelation which God has given us? Is the book to be virtually handed over to diviners and charlatans, to be the sport of their fantastic speculations? No; we cannot pass it by. The book holds us, whether we will or no, and insists upon being heard. After all, it must have a meaning, and we are bound to do our best to understand that meaning. Wonderful book! that, after ages of misinterpretation and perversion, has still the power to command the attention and fascinate the interest of every reader. It refuses to be made the laughing-stock of imposture and folly; it cannot be degraded even by the ignorance and presumption of fanatics and soothsayers; it can never be other than the Word of God, and is therefore to be held in reverence by us.
But is it intelligible? The answer to this is, Was it written to be understood? Was a book sent by an apostle to the churches in Asia Minor, with a benediction on its readers, a mere unintelligible jargon, an inexplicable enigma, to them? That can hardly be true. Yet if the book were meant to unveil the secrets of distant times, must it not of necessity have been unintelligible to its first readers - and not only unintelligible, but even irrelevant and useless. If it spake, as some would have us believe, of Huns and Goths and Saracens, of mediaeval emperors and popes, of the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, what possible interest or meaning could it have for the Christian churches of Ephesus, and Smyrna, and Philadelphia, and Laodicea? Especially when we consider the actual circumstances of those early Christians - many of them enduring cruel sufferings and grievous persecutions, and all of them eagerly looking for an approaching hour of deliverance which was now close at hand. What purpose could it have answered to send them a document which they were urged to read and ponder, which was yet mainly occupied with historical events so distant as to be beyond the range of their sympathies, and so obscure that even at this day the shrewdest critics are hardly agreed on any one point? Is it conceivable that an apostle would mock the suffering and persecuted Christians of his time with dark parables about distant ages? If this book were really intended to minister faith and comfort to the very persons to whom it was sent, it must unquestionably deal with matters in which they were practically and personally interested. And does not this very obvious consideration suggest the true key to the Apocalypse? Must it not of necessity refer to matters of contemporary history? The only tenable, the only reasonable, hypothesis is that it was intended to be understood by its original readers; but this is as much as to say that it must be occupied with the events and transactions of their own day, and these comprised within a comparatively brief space of time.
This is not a mere conjecture, it is certified by the express statements of the book. If there be one thing which more than any other is explicitly and repeatedly affirmed in the Apocalypse it is the nearness of the events which it predicts. This is stated, and reiterated again and again, in the beginning, the middle, and the end. We are warned that "the time is at hand;" "These things must shortly come to pass," "Behold, I come quickly ;" "Surely I come quickly ." Yet, in the face of these express and oft-repeated declarations, most interpreters have felt at liberty to ignore the limitations of time altogether, and to roam at will over ages and centuries, regarding the book as a syllabus of church history, an almanac of politico-ecclesiastical events for all Christendom to the end of time. This has been a fatal and inexcusable blunder. To neglect the obvious and clear definition of the time so constantly thrust on the attention of the reader by the book itself is to stumble on the very threshold. Accordingly this inattention has vitiated by far the greatest number of apocalyptic interpretations. It may truly be said that the key has all the while hung by the door, plainly visible to every one who had eyes to see; yet men have tried to pick the lock, or force the door, or climb up some other way, rather than avail themselves of so simple and ready a way of admission as to use the key made and provided for them.
As this is a point of highest importance, and indispensable to the right interpretation of the Apocalypse, it is proper to bring forward the proof that the events depicted in the book are comprehended within a very brief period of time.
The opening sentence, containing what may be called the title of the book, is of itself decisive of the nearness of the events to which it relates:
Chap. 1:1: The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants what things must shortly come to pass .
And in case it might be supposed that this limitation does not extend to the whole prophecy, but may refer only to the introductory, or some other, portion, the same statement recurs, in the same words, at the conclusion of the book. (See chap. 22:6.)
Chap. 1:3: Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
The reader will not fail to notice the significant resemblance between this note of time and the watchword of the early Christians. To say o kairos eggus (the time is at hand) was indeed the same thing in effect as to say o kurios egguz (the Lord is at hand), Philippians 4:5. No words could more distinctly affirm the nearness of the events contained in the prophecy.
Chap. 1:7: Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all the tribes of the land shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
'Behold, he is coming' [ Idou, erchetai ], corresponds to 'Behold, I am coming quickly' [ Idou, erchomai tachu ], in Revelation 22:7. This may be called the keynote of the Apocalypse; it is the thesis or text of the whole. To those who can persuade themselves that there is no indication of time in such a declaration as 'Behold, he is coming,' or that it is so indefinite that it may apply equally to a year, a century, or a millennium, this passage may not be convincing; but to every candid judgment it will be decisive proof that the event referred to is imminent. It is the apostolic watch word, 'Maran-atha!' 'the Lord is coming' (1 Corinthians 16:22 ). There is a distinct allusion also to the words of our Lord in Matthew 24:30, 'All the tribes of the land shall mourn,' etc., plainly showing that both passages refer to the same period and the same event.
Chap. 1:19: Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.
The last clause does not adequately express the sense of the original; it should be 'the things which are about to happen after these' [ a mellei genesthai meta tauta ].
Chap. 3:10: I will keep thee from the hour of temptation [trial], which shall come [ is about to come ] upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
Indicative of the near approach of a season of violent persecution, shortly before the breaking out of which the Apocalypse must have been written.
Chap. 3:11: Behold, I come quickly.
This warning note is repeated again and again throughout the Apocalypse. Its meaning is too evident to require explanation.
Chap. 16:15: Behold, I come as a thief.
This figure is already known to us in connection with the Parousia. Peter declared 'the day of the Lord will come as a thief' [in the night] (2 Peter 3:10 ). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, 'Yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night' (1 Thessalonians 5:2). And both these passages look back to our Lord's own words Matthew 24:42-44, in which He inculcated watchfulness by the parable of 'the thief coming in the night.' Here, again, the time and the event referred to are the same in all the passages, and were declared by our Lord to lie within the limits of the generation then existing.
Chap. 21:5, 6: And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new...And he saith unto me, It is done.
These expressions are evidently indicative of events hastening rapidly to their accomplishment; there was to be no long interval between the prophecy and its fulfilment.
Chap. 22:10: And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.
This is only the repetition in another form of the declaration in the preceding statement. How can it be possible to attach a non-natural sense to language so express and decisive?
Chap. 22:6: And he said unto me, These sayings are faithful and true; and the Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done.'
This passage, which repeats the declaration made at the commencement of the prophecy (chap. 1:1), covers the whole field of the Apocalypse, and conclusively establishes the fact that it alludes to events which were almost immediately to take place.
Chap. 22:7: Behold, I come quickly.'
Chap. 22:12: Behold, I come quickly.'
Chap. 22:20: Surely I come quickly.'
This threefold reiteration of the speedy coming of the Lord, which is the theme of the whole prophecy, distinctly shows that that event was authoritatively declared to be at hand.
Thus we have an accumulation of evidence of the most direct and positive kind that the whole of the Apocalypse was to be fulfilled within a very brief period. This is its own testimony, and to this limitation we are absolutely shut up, if the book is to be permitted to speak for itself.
"This is the first voice, and keynote of the whole. The epistles to the seven churches all take their tone from this thought, and are the voice of a Lord who will "come quickly." The visions which follow draw to the same end, and the last voices of the book respond to the first, and attest its subject and its purpose. 'He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come Lord Jesus.'" -- T.D. Bernard, Bampton Lectures for 1864, p. 193.