Chapter 16 - The Apostolic Period

In previous chapters I have given a brief description of the establishment of the church of God in the Apostolic Age, showing its divine organization and characteristics. This description was drawn principally from the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and some of the epistles of Paul. But the mission of the church was not to be limited to the period of the Apostles; it was designed to be world-wide in its extent and to be perpetual, “even unto the end of the world.” This being the case, it was fitting that the history of the church should be described prophetically, in order that we might have definite knowledge concerning the operations of the Divine Hand in working out the church’s destiny after the close of the sacred canon.

Preliminary Statement

We must not overlook the particular place and the supreme importance of prophecy in the divine plan. In the Old Testament dispensation prophets of God predicted many things which came to pass soon in current Hebrew history, but they also uttered many Messianic prophecies, which were to meet their fulfillment in a new and better dispensation. And in the New Testament we read over and over again, “It came to pass that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet.” The Apostle Paul declares that the church of God itself is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20). The church, built upon prophets, as we are told, was also to be graced by the presence and work of prophets of God. “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets” (I Cor. 12:28). “When he ascended up on high he … gave gifts unto men. And he gave some … prophets … for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:8, 11-12). Paul and Peter, as outstanding prophets in the early church, predicted many things that would take place later in the history of God’s unfolding work, but in the Seer of Patmos apocalyptic vision reached supreme heights, carrying forward the history of God’s church through four distinct and well-defined periods, or epochs, reaching to the end of time itself and to the introduction of the last things.

Purpose and Limitations of This Prophetic Sketch

The field of prophecy is so vast that in the limits of space consistent with the main purpose of this book I can do no more than give the briefest sketch. Neither involved questions of interpretation nor minor details can be discussed.
The general method of prophetic treatment employed may be described as evangelical and orthodox. In recent years there has come into some prominence a group of so-called interpreters who question or deny altogether the divine element in our holy religion; who neither believe in divine revelation itself, in miracles, nor in true predictive prophecy. To these—and to a few others who are more or less influenced by their theories—the Book of Revelation is regarded as having no true prophetic value applying to the unfolding of historic events throughout this dispensation; it is classed by them as but another example of the apocalyptic literature rather common in those early days, being nothing but veiled allusions to current events.
The vast majority of commentators and interpreters—including most of the greatest scholars and the noblest Christians who have ever graced the Christian church—have firmly believed in the validity of prophecy and, notwithstanding great variety in their individual interpretations, have generally regarded the prophecies of Revelation as applicable to actual unfolding events in history, to be climaxed finally by the second coming and the last things. I feel honored to stand in their company.
Naturally, I hesitate about applying important symbols to particular events or times when, under the space limitations, I am unable to bring forward satisfactory and convincing proofs.*
With this apology for a partial and inconclusive treatment of an otherwise entrancing and inspiring subject, I shall proceed with the sketch.
With the breaking forth of the glorious light of pristine Christianity arose the church of God, established in unity and in purity, glorious in power, and adorned with all the rich graces of the Holy Spirit. Who can describe her? “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (Prov. 3:17). She is the bride of Christ (John 3:29), the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21:9-10 with Heb. 12:22-23), which is “the mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26).

The Symbolic Woman

John saw her in apocalyptic vision, and he describes her thus: “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: and she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered” (Rev. 12:1-2).
The woman appears as the symbol of the church of God in its early glory. She was arrayed in the most splendid manner, all the brightest luminaries of heaven being gathered around her, thus symbolizing the divine light and glory and exaltation of the primitive church. But she had enemies.
“And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man-child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days” (vss. 3-6).
In the Revelation, symbols drawn from the department of human life invariably refer to ecclesiastical affairs, whereas those drawn from the natural world or inanimate nature usually refer to civil or political affairs, and thus a proper correspondence of character and quality is kept up.

The Great Dragon

The dragon of this vision, if such a creature actually existed, would be a beast from the natural world; therefore it properly symbolizes a tyrannical, persecuting power or government. This we must identify in order to understand the nature of the opposition to the woman, the church.
It was a “red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.” In the following chapter (Rev. 13) we read that John saw a beast rising up out of the sea with the same number of heads and horns, but ten crowns on his horns. “And the dragon gave him [the beast] his power, and his seat, and great authority” (vs. 2). So far as the heads and the horns are concerned, the only difference between the two is that the crowns—a symbol of supreme authority and power—have been transferred from the heads to the horns. John saw the same beast again and received the following explanation of the seven heads: “And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh he must continue a short space” (17:10). Concerning the horns he was told, “The ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet” (vs. 12).
With this explanation before us; it will be easy to identify the dragon of chapter 12 and the beast of chapters 13 and 17 as the Roman Empire; the first under the pagan form, and the second under the papal. The seven heads signify the seven distinct forms of supreme government that ruled successively in the empire. The five that had already fallen when John received the vision were the regal power, the consular, the decemvirate, the military tribunes, and the triumvirate. “One is”—the imperial. The ten horns, or kingdoms, which had not yet risen when the Revelation was given, were the ten minor kingdoms that grew out of the Western Roman Empire during its decline and fall.
The dragon is described with the horns, although they were not yet in existence and did not rise until near the time when the dragon became the beast, as we shall see later. Likewise, he is represented with seven heads, although he really possessed only one head at a time, and five had already fallen, and one was yet to come. He is described with all the heads and horns that he ever had and was to have.
This description is not literal, as some people imagine, but is symbolic. And with our knowledge of the proper use of symbols, we can easily identify this dragon with the Roman Empire under its pagan form.

The Man-Child

A careful study of the facts brought out in the New Testament shows that the man-child symbolizes the mighty host of new converts, or children, that the early church by her earnest travail brought forth. There is also a distinct reason why the church of God in this dispensation should be represented by two individuals—a woman and her son. If but a single symbol were used, how could the church be thereby represented as continuing on earth and fleeing into the wilderness, and at the same time be represented as “overcome,” persecuted to the death, and “caught up unto God and to his throne”?
The Scriptures also testify concerning the identity of this man-child in Isaiah 66:7-8. According to Hebrews 12:22-23, this Zion, or Sion, is the New Testament church, and the man-child that she is said to bring forth is interpreted by Isaiah as “a nation … born at once.” Such language perfectly describes the rapid increase in the church on Pentecost and shortly afterwards, when thousands were added in one day. According to Paul, the host of Jews and Gentiles reconciled to God through Jesus Christ constituted “one new man” in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:15. See also Gal. 3:28, ASV.)

The Holy War

“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death” (Rev. 12:7-11).
This was not a literal conflict fought in the real heaven, as some imaginative writers and orators have pictured; it was a conflict symbolically pictured in heaven, but which actually took place upon the earth.
The whole scene is highly symbolic of the fierce conflict that took place between the early followers of Christ and the hosts of paganism; and so sweeping was the victory gained by the soldiers of the cross that the cry was heard, “Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ; for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.”
The fact that so many Christians lost their lives in this conflict (vs. 11), that the man-child is represented as caught up to God (vs. 5), shows that the dragon employed also the arm of civil power in his opposition to the growing truth. But Christianity increased rapidly, notwithstanding the violent opposition and persecutions by the pagans. An example of its progress is given in Acts 19 where it is said that the entire city of Ephesus was stirred over the preaching of Paul. Before the death of the last of the Apostles, according to the younger Pliny, the temples of the gods in Asia Minor were almost forsaken. In this golden period the true church of God shone forth in all her glory and beauty.
*The prophecies pertaining specifically to the church, briefly alluded to in the present sketch, are treated thoroughly by the author in his book Prophetic Lectures on Daniel and the Revelation. To those who are interested in the general field of prophecy, or in the entire Book of Revelation in particular, my well-known commentary. The Revelation Explained, will be found to contain an adequate and satisfactory treatment of the subject, based on a sound foundation laid down in the introductory chapter, entitled “The Nature of Symbolic Language.” That book may be secured from the publishers of this work.

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