Towards Understanding Revelation


Greetings! Today we will start with John Nelson Darby (1800-1882).

John Darby, whose middle name was a namesake of Admiral Nelson because of an uncle who served under Nelson, was born in London to an Anglo-Irish family. He attended school in London until his parents moved to an ancestral castle in Ireland. He graduated from Trinity College in Dublin as a Classical Gold Medalist. He went on to complete studies in the law and was admitted to the Irish Chancery Bar in 1822.

He lasted less than 4 years in the law due to his increasing desire to help the poor Irish Catholics. He became an Anglican priest and took an assignment in the mountainous area south of Dublin. He was reputed to be an excellent pastor, but after about 2 years he realized that the Anglican Church was “in ruins”, too “established” and “lifeless” beyond help. I’ve also read that he was converting many to the Church of England, but had to stop when it became a requirement of membership in the Irish church to swear allegiance to George IV as rightful king of Ireland. 

Darby wrote:

“It is positively stated that the church would fail and become as bad as heathenism. The Christian is directed to turn away from evil and turn to the Scriptures, and Christ is revealed as judging the state of the churches.”

He is referring to:

This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 3:1-7; KJV)

Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; (2 Thessalonians 2:3; KJV)

And Revelation 2-3 is where Darby was seeing Christ judging the churches.

During this time, Darby fell off of horse and sustained serious injuries.  While laid up he did a lot of reading and thinking, concluding that the ‘kingdom’ described in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament really did not match the Christian Church.

He resigned his position around 1831, and joined a group of like-minded people, calling themselves the “Plymouth Brethren”. They rejected the idea of “clergy”, believing that as all Christians have the Holy Spirit, then all are called on to minister, and that the Holy Spirit would lead worship. Darby became their most prominent voice, traveling and speaking in churches in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Darby’s group became more popular, but Darby became more extreme in his beliefs. This caused a split in the Plymouth Brethren. Darby formed a new group called the Exclusive Brethren which followed his stricter path. In opposition, another group called the Open Brethren formed with a more congregational church government and less stringent membership requirements. Despite the disfavor that Darby’s legacy has endured due to his harshness towards his critics, one can make the case that Jesus was equally unbending in His doctrine…though Christ was undoubtedly less harsh sounding in His rebuffs. 

So let’s look at a couple of quotes from Darby. The first one is from ON REVELATION from the mid-19th century:

“The first thing I find in the Apocalypse is that this revelation was not committed to the Church as being in its natural relationship with the Head of the house. Just as we have distinguished in prophecy these two cases—that in which the people were acknowledged of God and that in which they were not, so we have as regards the Apocalypse something like the latter of these two cases. It is a man who receives the communication of it, not the body. There is, however, a slight difference, on account of the seven churches. It is not an internal communication, a communication of grace (an ecclesiastical communication, as one might say, in the good sense of the word); but it is a prophetical communication concerning a certain time.”

I’ve developed a respect for Darby doing this research. He was tough and unbending, but while I don’t always agree with him, he had a pretty clear vision. Up to now, I have not seen anyone actually say that those being talked to in Revelation were not “acknowledged of God.” I don’t entirely agree with this, but certainly the bulk of the prophetic part of it is decidedly not to those acknowledged of God. 

He points out that one man received this message, not the Body of Christ, which, again, while obvious, no one else has pointed it out specifically. I don’t agree with his intimation that the communications to the seven churches is “a prophetic communication concerning a certain time.” Most people today think that the letters to the seven churches are part of ‘as things are now’ as opposed to ‘what is to come.’ But, most people also think that there is a prophetic component to these letters for the larger Church. And while I agree with this current interpretation, to say that they are a totally prophetic communication just isn’t correct…and, so much of Revelation is prophetic that I cannot agree with a statement indicating that just the letters are.

Now let’s look at a quote from his book NOTES ON THE APOCALYPSE, published in 1842:

“The prophecies of the Old Testament strengthened the Jews in their relationship with God, and attached them to His government. Although God permits men to go their own way, led by their own passions, yet He never did, nor ever will, entirely give up the reins of government as to this world. This is what the Apocalypse shows us. All things work together for the glory of Jesus. We see in Heb. xi. 7, the effects of prophecy on faith. The faith of Abel recognizes the sacrifice; Enoch’s walks with God. The faith of Noah condemns the world; it was not limited to the recognition of the efficacy of the sacrifice and walking with God; but Noah was warned of God of things not seen as yet, and, separated in walk from the world by this warning, became heir of the righteousness which is by faith, and condemned the world. The world put to death Jesus the heir. The Church, warned of God of what is about to come to pass, knows that man in rebellion against God has no title to the inheritance of the world, The Church in its suffering state does not possess it.” 

“Christ is presented to us in the Apocalypse as the heir of the world. The Church, like Noah, condemns the world of which she is co-heir with Christ.”

Before we discuss this, here is the Hebrew quote:

By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith. (Hebrews 11:7; KJV)

This is an eye-opening concept to me. I hadn’t picked this up in Hebrews before. By allowing God to remove the righteous, the righteous condemn the unrighteous  because God no longer has to stay His hand to avoid harming the righteous in His wrath. This is so profound in regard to Revelation, and suggests the deeper meaning to the Rapture. Now, people do come to Christ during the Tribulation, but they are not promised safety from man’s or God’s wrath.

On to another interesting point from the same source:

“God is not presented as Father in the Apocalypse: this gives the character of the book. W h e n the glory of the inheritance in the Saints (Eph. i. 17, 18) is treated of, Christ is presented as man; and God, as the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Eph. iii. 14, where the communion of the Father and of the Son is in q u e s t i o n , H e  ispre s e n t e d  a s  t h e  F a t h e r  of o u r  L o r d  J e s u s  C h r i s t . In the Apocalypse, God is presented as the God who governs the world; whereas, when it is the Church that is in question, He is called Father. Moreover, in the Apocalypse, the subject is (not what relates to His connection with the Church, but) the world ; and its connection with God, as governor of the world.” 

Let’s look at the Ephesian quotes:

That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints. (Ephesians 1:17,18; KJV)

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 3:14; KJV)

An interesting topic: the roles of God. Our current world has not seen and does not believe in ‘God the Governor of the world.’  I think that if you have Jesus in your life, it’s natural to relate to God as ‘Father,’ but it’s also important to remember His role as ‘Governor.’ But for those who do not admit to God’s existence, it will be dangerous to ignore the ‘Governor,’ and this is made plain in Revelation.

Let’s move on to our next author: Ernst Wilhelm Theodor Herrmann Hengstenberg, aka E. W. Hengstenberg. This gentleman was a famous German Lutheran minister and was the head of a convent of canonesses! 

The quotes from Hengstenberg will be coming from CLARK’S FOREIGN THEOLOGICAL LIBRARY, VOL. 22: HENGSTENBERG ON THE REVELATION OF ST. JOHN, VOL 1&2, published in 1851. The first quote is personal, from the Preface:

“The Revelation of St John was for a long time a shut book to me…I was not the less persuaded, however, that the blame of this obscurity lay not in the book itself, with the divine character of which I was deeply impressed, but in its exposition; and I did not cease to long for the time when an insight might be granted me into its wonderful depths. Several years ago, I was visited with what was, in other respects, a heavy season of affliction, which obliged me to discontinue for some months my official duties.  I looked about for a rod and staff that might comfort me, and soon lighted on the Revelation. Day and night I pondered on it, and one difficulty vanished after another…The sad times of March 1848 did not interrupt, but rather expedited my labors. It was my purpose to have issued the two volumes of the work simultaneously, but I have now resolved to bring out the first volume alone —- because the Revelation has a very close relation to the wants of the present time, and I reckoned it my duty…that the rich treasury of counsel and comfort, which the Lord has provided for us in this book, should as soon as possible be made accessible…”

1848, which was still in the wake of the turmoil created by Napolean, was a tumultuous year in Europe. Multiple revolutions swept the continent, particularly mentioned are Paris and Vienna, but mostly the Germanic states. The revolutions were put down and many people emigrated, especially to the United States, during that year.

We’ll next look at a very long series of quotes from the chapter “On the Time of the Composition of the Book”, in which Hengstenberg gives a very clear exposition on why the correct time that the book was written was most likely during the reign of Domitian:

“The older theologians proceeded almost uniformly on the supposition, that the Book of Revelation was composed in the closing period of Domitian’s reign — an opinion that finds, in Vitringa [early 18th century Dutch theologian, mentioned in the 18th C part 3 post] especially, an excellent though brief defense. On the whole, however, little comparatively was done to establish this opinion on solid and satisfactory grounds; even Bengal [also mentioned in 18th C part 3 post] did not go deeply into the matter…The interest felt in it was less on account of the exposition, than for the defense of the authority of the old ecclesiastical tradition, which had declared in favor of the composition under Domitian…even in our own day, the prophecy swims, as it were, in the air…In more recent times the position advanced originally by Grotius [1583-1645, called ‘the first Protestant recruit to Preterism’, and ‘extremely liberal’; I could only find one 19th century reprinted work], Hammond [1605-1660, an English Royalist Cleric], Lightfoot [1602-1675, I’ve found his complete works], for the purpose of understanding certain passages of the fate of Judaism, that the Book was composed before the destruction of Jerusalem, has been pretty generally acquiesced in. And on the authority especially of Ewald [1803-1875, German, I’ve found a few of his commentaries] and Lucke [I can’t find this name on the web] the precise opinion, that the Apocalypse was composed under Galba, has obtained very general consent [Galba took control for a short time right after Nero’s suicide]. By many it is uttered with a sort of naive confidence, and most of all by those who have brought almost nothing of an independent investigation to bear upon the subject.”

“…The series of testimonies for the composition under Domitian is opened by Irenaeus. He says…’For if it were necessary at present to declare plainly his name (i.e. the name of the person indicated by the number 666 in the Apocalypse xiii.18), it might be done through him, who also saw the Apocalypse, for it was seen not long ago, but almost in our generation, toward the close of Domitian’s reign.’ Irenaeus was in a position for knowing the truth…He speaks not by way of conjecture or on constructive reasons, but as of a matter established beyond any possibility of doubt. He neither expressly refers, nor alludes to the passage, ch. i. 9, from which the opponents of the composition under Domitian might so naturally attempt to account for the testimonies of antiquity to that era. Nor does he announce it, as if communicating something that had hitherto been unknown, but…he introduces it as a thing generally known and acknowledged…”

I want to throw in the verse that Hengstenberg thinks would benefit those who oppose the book being written under Domitian:

I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Revelation 1:9; KJV)

I seriously do not understand Hengstenberg’s point here as to why this Bible verse would make someone think that John was on Patmos under  some other emperor. Maybe he’ll explain it better in the verse by verse. Anyway, onward:

  “Clement of Alexandria (in the work Quis dives #42, and in Eusebius III.23) says: ‘For since he (John) after the death of the tyrant returned to Ephesus from the isle of Patmos,’ etc. The manner in which he speaks of the matter shows that there is implied a generally known tradition: the tyrant, the Roman emperor of the first century, Domitian, who, as is well known, pre-eminently deserves that name. It cannot be alleged that Clement spoke of the tyrant, and not of Domitian, because he was ignorant of the name. He would in that case have chosen a general designation, not such an one as pre-supposes that he had in view a definite person.

“Origen on Matth. xx. 22,23, says: ‘But the sons of Zebedee have drunk the cup and been baptized with the baptism, since Herod killed James the brother of John with the sword; and the king of the Romans, as tradition testifies, condemned the witnessing John on account of the word of truth to the isle of Patmos. But John himself instructs us regarding his martyrdom, not saying indeed who had adjudged him to it, yet declaring in the Apocalypse as follows: “I, John, your brother and companion in tribulation,” etc., and seems to have beheld the Revelation on the island.’ Here the king of the Romans forms the contrast to Herod the king of the Jews. Origen is silent respecting the name, because he was generally known, and the blank was easily supplied from the tradition, to which he refers…Had Origen not been well assured regarding the name connected with the tradition…he would not have pointed so unconditionally to tradition, without at least intimating that he ascribed to it only a partial credibility.

“The assertion, proceeding only from interested considerations, that what the ancients knew of John’s exile to Patmos was inferred simply from the statement in ch. i. 9, is contradicted by Origen as distinctly as he well could. He remarks expressly, that he derived the fact of John’s banishment to Patmos primarily from a substantial tradition, of whose credibility he, the critic, suggests no doubt. He introduces the testimony of John himself only as a confirmation, and remarks that it is less complete than the tradition…The tradition could not simply have been drawn by Origen from Irenaeus. For, he refers to this far more than is to be found in the merely indicative statement of Irenaeus, who says nothing, indeed, of the condemnation of John and his banishment to Patmos. We have no right…to lay the emphasis on, ‘he appears to have seen the Apocalypse on the island,’ and thence conclude, that the composition of the Apocalypse was only regarded by Origen as having probably taken place in Patmos. It is only a modest expression, which refers not so much to the execution of the particular work, as to human knowledge in general…More cannot justly be attributed to the ‘he appears’, since the tradition, to which Origen refers, on the part of its other vouchers connects the composition of the Apocalypse with the banishment to Patmos as an undoubted fact.

“Eusebius, in B. III. ch. xviii. of his Church History, says, ‘Under him (Domitian) tradition relates, that the apostle and evangelist John, who was still alive, on account of his testimony for the divine word, was condemned to reside in the isle Patmos.’ In B. III. ch. xx.: ‘Then also that the apostle John returned from his banishment on the island, and took up his dwelling again at Ephesus, the tradition of our older men has delivered to us.’ Again, in B. III. ch. xxiii., ‘John governed there (in Asia) the churches, after his return from exile on the island, subsequent to the death of Domitian.’ Also in the Chronicon under the fourteenth year of Domitian, ‘The apostle John, the theologian, he banished to the isle Patmos, where he saw the Apocalypse, as Irenaeus says.’ Eusebius is quite consistent with himself in the several passages, and always speaks with the same confidence…When in the Chronicon he refers to Irenaeus as a sure voucher, it is so far of importance as it shows him to have had no suspicion that that Father had formed it by merely combining notices together. But it does not at all prove that Irenaeus was the only source of the tradition to Eusebius. The contrary is manifest from the circumstance, that what is stated by Irenaeus, and also, because in one of the passages he refers to several depositaries of the tradition. Never once does Eusebius point, by so much as a single syllable, to any other view regarding the author of John’s exile, and the time of the composition of the Apocalypse. So that there must then in this respect have been perfect unanimity in the church. Finally, under the name of Victorinus of Petabio, who suffered martyrdom under Diocletian in the year 303, we have a writing on the Apocalypse, which is printed in the third volume of the Bibl. Part. Lugd., and which as to its substance is undoubtedly genuine, for it bears too exactly the character of the style which Jerome ascribes to Victorinus…But in this work the composition of the Apocalypse under Domitian, during the exile in Patmos, is spoken of as a matter of undoubted certainty.

“These are the testimonies on the time of the composition of the Apocalypse belonging to the age of living tradition. They declare with perfect unanimity that John was banished by Domitian to Patmos, and there wrote the Apocalypse. Variations begin only to appear in the age of theology and learning. Epiphanius [315-403 A.D.] is the first, who puts forth another view. But even there the tradition still has such sway, that all persons of any critical acumen…declare themselves on its side. At the head of these is Jerome, who did not reckon it worth while even to notice the existence of a different account…The matter stands precisely similar with the question regarding the genuineness….

“…It is only in writers of inferior rank that these accounts are to be found. Epiphanius, who is the first in point of time, is also by far the most important. But the judgment which Vitringa expressed regarding him, ‘that he was an extremely incredulous person, and in the mention of traditions or sayings of the ancients much less exact than he seems to be,’ is now generally received. To pitch him against Irenaeus, and treat with discredit the testimony of the latter, on the ground of what he has said, would betray a palpable want of critical acumen. The late Syriac translator and Pseudodorotheus carry still less weight. And Theophylact furnishes a test for the measurement of his sagacity, in announcing, instead of the Apocalypse, that the Gospel was composed at Patmos, without probably a single authority to support the statement.

“…’Only those (remarks Lucke) who place the exile under Domitian, indicate the continuance in a definite way.’ All the others speak in a vague manner, and do not venture to go into more exact specifications: precisely as we should have expected, on the supposition of the one class resting on historical tradition, and the other following uncertain conjectures…The deviators are quite at variance among themselves, while the statement which places the composition under Domitian has the fixed impress, that is the mark of truth. [For instance]The Syriac translation makes the exile of John and the composition of the Apocalypse to have taken place under Nero, Epiphanius under Claudius, and according to Pseudodorotheus he was banished to Patmos by Trajan.

  “…It cannot but appear strange, that all those who depart from the tradition, amid their other diversities agree in this, that they place the composition of the Revelation before the era of Jerusalem’s overthrow. That what impelled them to this was the belief of certain passages in Revelation having respect to the Jewish catastrophe, seems probable alone from the analogy of later critics and expositors, who from Grotius downwards have been chiefly influenced by this consideration to disallow the composition of the Apocalypse under Domitian…”

It’s strange to read the arguments against Revelation being written under the reign of Domitian from a 19th century book, and realize that most of the same arguments are still being used today. They’ve added a few more, and they work hard to denigrate the Early Church Fathers, but Hengstenberg’s arguments still hold water against them.

That’s it for today.  We still have to look at Benjamin Wills Newton, C. J. Vaugn, Charles Wordsworth, John and Jacob Abbott, William Milligan, and Uriah Smith. That makes 11 that we’re looking at, out of a total of 61 sources (there are a little over a 100 for the 20th century!). Take care, this weekend is the Feast of the Trumpets. A lot of people think that just as Jesus died at the exact time that the Passover lambs were being killed, the Church will be Raptured on the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanna). So, if I’m not Raptured this weekend then I’ll be back posting next week. Until then I’ll be praying that we are all part of Jesus’ bride, and that He comes to collect us soon.

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