Studies in his Life and Writings
By W. H. Griffith Thomas
Our Lord said that James and John should drink of his cup of suffering, and as James had the first sharp, short form of it (Acts 12:2), so it fell to John's lot to experience a long, protracted suffering, extending over many years, until at length all the other apostles had passed away (John 21:22). We see something of this in that part of his life connected with the Book of Revelation. Although this is the last Book of the Bible, it is probably not the last in chronological order; and yet we have no information about the actual life of the Apostle later than what is found here. Without attempting to obtain any idea of the Book itself, we will concentrate on the various hints that are given about John himself, in order to discover all that is possible about his character.
I. The Seer
To John was given the privilege of receiving "the Revelation of Jesus Christ," the "unveiling" of some of the deepest truths concerning the present and future of the world in relation to Christ. This revelation came from God through an angel to John, and it is worth while to remember that as in the Gospels he gives the fullest, clearest picture of Christ, so here it was his privilege to receive, and then pass on, some of the most important aspects of Christian truth concerning the future. A seer is "one who sees," and the emphasis on this thought and word all through this Book is particularly interesting and important. John received and reproduced the messages given to him from God concerning his Master. There are few, if any, positions in the Christian Church more important than those connected with insight into truth, and one remarkable feature is that spiritual insight is often dissociated from ordinary intellectual power. Paul makes a special point of ''knowledge" in his later Epistles as one of the outstanding features of a mature Christian life, and in one passage he associates this with perception (Phil. 1:9).
In another instance the ripe Christian, as contrasted with the elementary believer, is described as one who has his "perceptions permanently exercised" (Heb. 5:14). No wonder, then, that John was selected for this special work. In this he was akin to the Old Testament "seer," whose spiritual vision was so important in connection with Divine revelations. The true "seer" is the one who has "visions of God" (Ezek. 1:1), and then reports these visions to others for their guidance, instruction, and warning. The influence of the Holy Spirit upon the mind of the believer is one of the most vital truths in Christianity, and is frequently emphasized by Paul (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23).
II. The Witness
The Apostle was not only a seer; he was called upon to testify what he saw, and the earliest witness he bears in this Book is particularly striking, because it reveals some of the fundamental realities of the Christian Gospel (Rev. 1:4-8). (1) First of all, he bears witness to the great truth of the Divine Trinity — Father, Spirit, and Son. The Father is described in language equivalent to the Old Testament word "Jehovah," as the One "Who is, and Who was, and Who is to come"; eternal, unchangeable, and therefore, dependable. The Spirit is described in all his fullness by the phrase, "the seven spirits that are before his throne" (see also Rev. 3:1; 4:5; 5:6). Jesus Christ is then spoken of as "the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth." This seems to suggest his threefold work as Prophet, Priest, and King. He witnesses to truth; he bestows life as "the first-born from the dead"; and he gives power as the ''ruler of the kings of the earth." Thus, as Prophet, he reveals; as Priest, he redeems; and as King, he rules. (2) Then comes the assurance of "grace" and "peace" from this Divine source.
Grace is one of the greatest words of the New Testament. It is found at least a hundred times in Paul, and while only seen six times in John, yet the references are decidedly characteristic (John 1:14, 16, 17; 2 John 3; Rev. 1:4; 22:21). Grace brings salvation, and thus deals with the past; it bestows sufficiency, and thus meets the present; it ensures satisfaction, and thus guarantees the future. Peace is the effect of grace, and this again is a great Biblical conception.
There seems to be a twofold peace suggested by the Apostle John (John 14:27; 16:33; 20:19, 21, 26). There is the peace of relationship restored and the peace of restfulness realized. These include peace of conscience covering the past, peace of soul providing for the present, peace of heart assuring the future. Or we may think of the peace of pardon, of power, of purity, of provision, of perception, of promise, and all because of the indwelling presence. (3) Then follows the outburst of praise based on these realities. The Apostle expresses himself in one of those doxologies of which the Epistles have so many. Christianity is essentially joyous, and necessarily calls for a song. There is a twofold doxology here, and it is interesting to observe the threefold doxology in Chapter 4, the fourfold in Chapter 5, and the sevenfold in Chapter 7. Our experience of Christianity ought to be a growing joy expressed in a growing song. The reason given here for praise is the Saviour's love as shown in his grace and power. He "loveth us" (R. v.), showing that his death did not exhaust his affection, and the proof of this is that he has "loosed us" from our sins. The Authorized Version, in using the word "washed" (Greek — louo), thus differs from the R. V. "loosed" (Greek — luo). Whichever reading we adopt, both are true. The Authorized Version thinks of sin as a stain; the Revised Version as a chain. Our Lord's power follows from his grace, because in making us "a kingdom" and "priests," he assures us of authority and access, as we do him service. Thus, the song is called forth by his compassion, his cleansing, his crowning, and his consecration of us. No wonder the Apostle poured out his soul in saying, "To him be the glory and the dominion forever and forever. Amen."
III. The Sufferer
After this outburst the Apostle soon reminds his readers of his own position. He was in the island of Patmos, and was already experiencing some of those troubles which were the inevitable lot of the primitive Christians. But he does not emphasize any uniqueness in this respect, for he speaks of himself as their "brother, and partaker" of these sufferings. It is also interesting to notice that he speaks of the tribulation, kingdom, and patience as "in Jesus," for they were all associated with his relation to Christ. From the very first it was through much tribulation that believers could enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22), and yet although tribulation was their portion, it could not effect the blessed fact that they possessed a "kingdom," which, because it was "in Jesus," made them safe from all harm. Meanwhile, the "patience" or "endurance" which enabled them to meet these sufferings also came from the same source, and the Lord Jesus Christ gave them grace sufficient for every need. The Apostle's earthly location might be "in Patmos," but his spiritual position was "in the Spirit." Thus he, like Paul, is able to show the two aspects of the believer "in Christ" and "at Colossas" (Col. 1:2). This was exactly what his Master had said many years before: "In Me... peace; in the world... tribulation" (John 16:33). All this suffering was, of course, due to the "Word of God and the testimony of Jesus." It has always been impossible to be faithful to Christ for very long without incurring opposition, and even raising hostility, but notwithstanding these troubles, the believer has the source of comfort and strength in his communion with his Heavenly Master, and he knows that "greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world" (1 John 4:4).
IV. The Worshiper
Before the Apostle John could bear witness to the world of the great truths God had to reveal to him, it was necessary for him to see in all his Divine glory the Master whom he had long loved and served (Rev. 1:10-20). The call came to him to write what he saw in a book, and send it to seven churches, and when he turned to see who it was that was speaking to him, he had a vision of his Master in his exaltation. The various items mentioned are symbolical of our Lord's functions, and all seem to come from the Old Testament, where they were associated either with the priest or the king. There were also seven symbols of his character, expressive of what he was to his people. It is impossible to dwell in detail on this vision, and it must suffice to notice its effect on the Apostle as he fell at the feet of his Master as one dead. Then came the threefold response. First, assurance in the touch of the hand and the voice, which said, "Fear not." Next the word of authority telling John that his Master was not dead, but alive for evermore, and possessor of the keys of death and of Hades. And then, arising out of this, assurance and authority came the appointment to do his work and tell others what he had seen and what he was to be told. Thus the Apostle had a vision of Christ as loving, watchful, active, and helpful. He is not dead, but alive; he sees and knows what his people need; he is walking amidst the churches, and is ready to cheer the despondent: to send messages of grace, and thus to inspire with his constant presence, power, and peace.
V. The Servant
All through this Book John is seen as a faithful worker for his Master, and this position is particularly clear when on two occasions he comes face to face with the angel who was revealing to him the truth. From the purely natural point of view it was not surprising that he fell down before the feet of the angel to worship (19:10; 22:8), but at once he was corrected, and reminded that the angel was only a "fellow servant." The ministry of angels is an important feature in the Christian religion. In the Old Testament they brought Divine messages and performed Divine services, but to-day they do not do the former of these, for with the gift of the Holy Spirit and the completion of revelation, our intercourse with the unseen has passed into the "fellowship of the Holy Ghost." But the angels still exercise their ministry on our behalf, and are ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation (Heb. 1:14). Yet although they are so, we are not aware of them, otherwise it would be as easy for us to worship the messenger as it was for the Apostle John, Where he almost stumbled we should not be likely to stand. This reference to angels as "fellow servants" is a helpful reminder of the true position of the believer as a worker for God, and there is scarcely anything more significant than the title, "His servant John" (Rev. 1:1). Angels, prophets, apostles, and Christian brethren are all in one way or another workers in God's vineyard. There are varieties of gifts, but the same God, the same Lord, the same Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4-7).
VI. The Watcher
It is in this position of Watcher that the Apostle John specially comes before us in connection with the "unveiling." To him it was given to see and to tell the future, and the three words continually found together through this Book, especially in its earlier chapters, are "I saw," "I heard," and "write." And while not concerning ourselves with any precise interpretation of this remarkable Book, it may be said that the vision included at least four things:(1) A vision of Christ in all his majesty; (2) a vision of the Church in all its reality; (3) a vision of the world in all its hostility; (4) a vision of eternity in all its glory. The Apostle declares who the Lord Jesus Christ is, as' the hope of his Church and the ruler of the universe. Then we are told of God's victory over sin, God's kingdom, God's city, and God's presence. Whatever else this Book records, there is no doubt that it reveals the Lord Jesus Christ in all the glory of his grace and rule in time and eternity. The Apostle was permitted to reveal the first position between Christ and the world, and then the inevitable victory of his Master in that day "when the kingdoms of this world shall have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever."
Thus we see the Apostle in this latest record of his life as "suffering, serving, shining." His life was lived in Christ. His love was constantly centered on his Master. His labor, whether in suffering or in service, was always done for his Master's glory, and all the while he was inspired with the hope that, notwithstanding every adverse circumstance, his Master would and must reign until every enemy should be vanquished (1 Cor. 15:25). It is for us to occupy the same position, maintain the same attitude, endure, it may be, the same suffering, and endeavor to do the same work. It is not enough that we should be nominally Christians; there must be in our life the same practical reality as we find in the Apostle John's, if we would witness to our Master and win souls for his kingdom.