Revelation is perhaps the one book in the New Testament that Christians are most likely to find dauntingly inaccessible. Occasional verses are familiar, but as a whole this is a minefield of hard to follow allusions tangled up with other people’s outlandish speculations about the end times. Yet by taking this approach we miss Christ’s purpose in giving us this book, and correspondingly we miss out on the encouragement and instruction we should be getting from it. When James Durham embarked on his massive commentary on Revelation, he began by picking out the clearest themes of the book and pointing out why we should find it more accessible than we do. In this updated extract from his commentary, Durham shows the very plain and encouraging truths that Revelation reveals.
It may look very presumptuous to read this book, or attempt to explain it. Indeed there is need of much humility and soberness in going about such a work, and much need that the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who has given this book as a benefit to His church, would help us to take it up rightly.
Reasons to read Revelation
Yet its subject matter is very profitable and comforting to the church, to the end of the world. And when Christ gave it, as His last will and word to His church, his aim in doing so was to give a revelation, to make known His mind to them. This is why John is forbidden to seal it up – so that it would remain open for the good of His church. There is also plenty to motivate us and encourage us to read and search into it, for example the blessing in verse 3, “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy,” a saying which is repeated again after the prophetic part is immediately closed (chapter 22:7,14).
These all add up to notable encouragements, not only to try to read and seek to understand the Book of the Revelation, but also to lay it on us as a duty. We therefore resolve, through God’s grace, to attempt it, so that it will not be altogether useless to the “servants of God” to whom it is sent, according to verse 1.
It is true that many things in this book are obscure. It is also likely that we cannot expect them to be fully cleared up till God opens them up in some singular way.
However, there are many clear, edifying, and comforting passages of God’s mind in it. The Holy Ghost mixes these in for us to feed on, and to sweeten the passages that are more obscure, and to encourage the reader to search for the meaning of these more obscure parts.
Additionally, even in the passages that are most obscure, we may identify doctrines about the disposition of the church’s enemies, and how God gives His people victory, preservation and deliverance. The very obscure passages are after all things where there is little risk to us of being ignorant, compared to the danger of ignorance in fundamental truths, and yet they are things which God allows folks to search out by wisdom (“Here is wisdom,” he says, as in chapter 13:18).
Revelation’s introduction to itself
The whole style and shape of the Book of Revelation is by way of an epistle. It is Jesus Christ, by John, writing His last will to His church. And if any Scripture displays the sovereignty, majesty, justice, mercy and truth of God, for the comfort of His people, and in a way that makes the hearts of His enemies quake, this does.
It seems clear that the writer is John the Apostle, honoured here to bear Christ’s last message to His church. In chapter 1 he is simply called John, without any further designation, implying that he was the John so well known and famous for an infallible and extraordinary measure of the Spirit. This John was banished to the Isle of Patmos, which, from the ancient famous story, is clearly John the Apostle, as he was banished there under the persecution of Emperor Domitian. The description of him in verse 2 matches how he describes himself in his Gospel (John 21:24). Of course, this book (being prophetic) differs somewhat in style from his other writings, yet the style is not so unlike his, for there are many words and phrases in his Gospel, and in several chapters of this Book, which are very alike (such as, calling Christ the Word, and the Lamb, phrases which are distinctively John’s).
In the first verse of chapter 1, this book is called The Revelation, that is, the making open and unfolding of some things which had previously been obscure. Although they may still be obscure to us, yet they are no longer obscure in themselves, nor are they now as obscure to us as they were before.
It is also called the revelation of Jesus Christ. Partly because it was given out by Jesus Christ, the administrator and great prophet of His church. And partly also because so much of this revelation concerns the governing of His church.
It is the revelation which God gave unto him (that is, to Jesus Christ). This denotes the order of the persons of the Godhead in their subsisting and operations – the Father works from Himself, by the Son. It denotes too the way that Christ works as Mediator – he does the will of Him that sent Him: for, as God, the Son understands all things essentially by Himself, but as Mediator, things are given and communicated to Him.
The purpose of giving this revelation is to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass. This revelation must not be kept suppressed, but made forthcoming to His servants. His servants are not all the creatures, nor everyone in the visible church, nor even only those who are special servants by office (as John was, as an apostle), but those who were and are His followers, His subjects, and those who believe in Him in the visible church.
The subject of this revelation is things which must shortly come to pass – not things in the past, and not so much things in the present (although these are mentioned in chapters 2 and 3), but mainly, things to come. And it’s said that they must shortly come to pass, because, though the full accomplishment of them will not be till the end of the world (so these events cannot be confined within some few years), yet they began to be fulfilled instantly on the back of this revelation.
The way we receive this revelation is, He sent and signified it by His angel. Jesus Christ made use of the services of His angel to communicate this revelation, both to set out His dignity and grandeur, and to win the greater credit for the message.
The person it is revealed to is, His servant John. John was His servant by special delegation and office, in a special employment, as a steward in His house. Beyond all others, Christ’s servants have this great advantage and benefit, the privilege and prerogative that Christ writes His letters to them. Not a word is written to kings and great men, but this revelation is for Christ’s servants. To be Christ’s servants is to be God’s freemen, and they are the ones who manage to get the furthest distance into his secrets and mysteries.
Observe Christ’s way of working. Though this revelation is sent to His servants, yet it does not go to them directly, but first it is given to Christ, and He gives it to His angel, and the angel gives it to John, and John brings it out to the churches. Jesus Christ must have His own place. The first notice of anything concerning the good of the Church comes to Christ as Mediator, and He does nothing but He first reveals it to His servants the prophets (Amos 3). They are His servants of state to make known His mind to His people.
Blessings to the reader of Revelation
This book is commended in verse 3, Blessed is he that readeth and they that hear the words of this prophecy. This is to stir up folks to make use of it, because he knew many would be apprehensive about it, and readily put it to one side as useless and unprofitable. However, all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable, etc. (2 Timothy 3:16). So this is added, Blessed is he that readeth.
This book is not a thing to be spoken of only, without being read and studied. Its seals are opened, and blessed are they that read it. It is a happy and a good thing, soberly and humbly to read, and to seek to understand it.
He adds, And blessed are they that hear the words of this prophecy. Not only private but also public reading and hearing of this book is commended, i.e., when it is read and expounded in public worship. By Christ’s own ordinance, this book is to be brought forth to His people.
Of course, people are ready to grow vain and complacent, and liable to rest on reading and hearing. So he adds another word, and keep those sayings that are written therein. It’s not the reading or the hearing simply, that will bring the blessing; but the observing and making right use of it.
Then he adds a reason why it should be read and heard, and why its sayings should be observed and made use of: because the time is at hand, when the things in this book will be fulfilled. Time is hastening on to when folks will be called to a reckoning as to what use they made of these sayings – the time when he will pour out His wrath on His enemies, and be very kind to His church and people.
Observe what a good thing it is to be studying the Scripture. It is a mark of the blessed man (Psalm 1). It makes the man of God wise to salvation. Particularly, it is good to be reading this book, and hearing it read. Those who are good at reading, let them use this gift well; and those who do not have this gift, let them take and make good use of other opportunities that will bring them to the knowledge of Christ’s mind. Blessedness is given to only six or seven sorts in the Book of Revelation, but twice or thrice over to those who study it (Revelation 22:7, 14).
Yet observe too that it’s not enough to give yourself to reading and hearing the Word, and you must not rest on reading and hearing. Rather, join practise with both. “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it” (Luke 11:28). It is not the reader, or the hearer, but the doer, who is the blessed one. Indeed, supposing you were able to unfold all the mysteries in Revelation, if you do not conform yourselves to their intended meaning in your practice, you are just like the man in James 1:23-24, who, beholding his natural face in a glass, goeth his way, and forgetteth what manner of man he was. He that is a hearer, and not a doer, deceives his own soul. The hearing and reading that does you good, is what is put into practice.
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