Mark K. Olson, “Theme of Real Christianity in John Wesley’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation”

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Abstract: This is the final installment of a six-part series on John Wesley’s eschatology. The theme of real Christianity is shown to have guided Wesley in his commentary on Revelation. Several insightful lessons come from this study: First, Wesley linked the theme of real Christianity to the coming kingdom of God. Second, important insights into how Wesley understood his own times in relation to God’s prophetic timetable. Finally, Wesley’s belief in the imminent arrival of Christ’s millennial reign foreshadowed the rise of the modern missionary movement.

[To view the footnotes on this page, scroll down to the bottom of the page. Clicking on the hyperlinked footnotes will take you off site to the notes in the original article location.]

Series Titles:

Part One: Millennial Aspirations and the Problem of Religious Nominalism 
Part Two: The Revival and Methodist Self-Understanding
Part Three: From Heaven Above to New Creation Below
Part Four: Major Themes in John Wesley’s Eschatology
Part Five: John Wesley’s Order of Eschatological Events


When John Wesley attended a society meeting on Aldersgate Street in the spring of 1738, he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” In that moment, as he listened to the reading of Luther’s description of an authentic faith, Wesley felt that his sins were forgiven, and that God had saved him from the enslaving power of sin. So revolutionary was this experience that the motif of real Christianity left its mark on his character and served to define the revival movement under his leadership. Though the great national churches, like the Church of England, sought to preserve the Christian faith within a culture, they also left “nominal Christianity in their wake.”[1] Methodism, therefore, became a locus for a faith that was experimental; or, as David Hempton titled: “an empire of the spirit.”[2] So when Wesley decided to publish a commentary on the book of Revelation the theme of real versus nominal Christianity inevitably became the underlying plot.

On the surface Wesley interpreted Revelation according to standard Protestant hermeneutics of the era. Often labeled the historical method of interpretation, many Protestants followed the lead of Martin Luther by identifying the beast of chapter 13 with the Roman papacy and the great whore of Babylon with the Roman church. The historical method understood Revelation to outline through apocalyptic symbolism the entire history of the church age from the time of the Apostles to the second coming of Christ. While advocates of the historical method over the centuries offered different explanations of the book’s imagery, in Wesley’s day proponents of this method remained confident in its basic approach.

Wesley assumed the historical method of interpretation throughout his commentary and never wavered from its core principles. Yet, unless the reader is attuned to common Wesleyan phrases of real Christianity, which are sprinkled throughout the commentary, the real plot can be missed, and the reader assume that Wesley’s chief concern was to present a standard Protestant polemic against Roman Catholicism. Instead, this paper seeks to show that Wesley’s real aim was to present an apology for real Christianity against religious nominalism. The argument develops as follows: first, it will be shown that real Christianity is inherent to the book’s central theme and then explain how this theme pervades the entire work. This will involve examining in detail Wesley’s exegesis of John’s letters to the seven churches. Second, it will be demonstrated that real Christianity is the controlling motif of the entire work by assessing Wesley’s polemic against the Roman Catholic Church. But before we address these issues, we need to consider the sources Wesley relied upon for his commentary.

Johann Albrecht Bengel

In his brief introduction Wesley acknowledged his debt to the scholarship of pietist theologian Johann Bengel (1687-1752). Bengel pioneered scholarship on the text of the Greek New Testament and produced several works related to the Book of Revelation, including his Gnomon Novi Testamenti and Ekklarte Offenbarung. Both became primary sources for Wesley’s commentary. Wesley shared that for many years he took a serious reading of the opening and closing chapters of Revelation, but the “intermediate parts” were avoided because he despaired of understanding them (presumably chapters four through twenty). But his hopes were revived when he came across Bengel’s works. Many have concluded that Wesley’s commentary on Revelation is little more than a condensed version of Bengel’s notes. This much Wesley admits when he writes, “all I can do is, partly to translate, partly abridge, the most necessary of his observations.” He then added that he did take liberty to alter some of the Bengel’s comments and add a “few notes where he is not full.” So while Wesley abridged Bengel’s work, he flavored it with his own views. I would submit it is here that the theme of real Christianity begins to emerge as a major motif in his commentary. Whether or not Bengel used some of the terminology for real Christianity in his writings on Revelation,[3] the fact remains that much of the language and phrases of vital Christianity in the notes are Wesleyan through and through.

The Proposition of Real Christianity

Wesley opened chapter four with a succinct outline of the Book of Revelation. To appreciate his historical method of interpretation and his argument for real Christianity we need to begin here. His outline offers important clues about his argument in the commentary. It is quoted here in full:

The first, second, and third chapters contain the introduction;

The fourth and fifth, the proposition;

The sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth describe things which are already fulfilled;

The tenth to the fourteenth, things which are now fulfilling;

The fifteenth to the nineteenth, things which will be fulfilled shortly;

The twentieth, twenty-first, and twenty-second, things at a greater distance. (ch 4)

Wesley’s historical method becomes clear from just a cursory reading of this outline: chapters six through nine have been fulfilled; chapters ten through fourteen were being fulfilled in Wesley’s day; chapters fifteen through nineteen will be “fulfilled shortly.” Wesley followed Bengel by identifying 1836 as the year when the beast will be destroyed.[4] Since Wesley published his commentary on Revelation in 1755,[5] this explains the strong strain of imminence in his position. By the 1780’s Wesley was promoting the idea that Methodism was part of the dawning of “latter-day glory,” when Satan will be bound and real Christianity flourishes (20:1-3).

But more important for our purposes is how Wesley understood chapters four and five. He labels them the “proposition.” A closer look will explain why. In his comments on chapter four the role of the Triune God begins to emerge as the foundation for the entire vision John received, but also for the underlying plot of real versus nominal Christianity. Wesley noted that the throne room is presented as the center of all creation. The significance of this truth is that all cosmic and human history “flows out of invisible fountains.” Then after salvation history has accomplished its purpose “on the visible theatre of the world and the church, it flows back again into the invisible world” as its ultimate end (4:2).

This same truth was developed by Wesley identifying the seven Spirits (KJV spelling), the seven lamps of fire, and the sea of glass with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit proceeds out from the throne as a “stream” into the “whole creation” to do his “manifold operations” under the Lordship of Jesus Christ (1:4; 4:6; 5:6). So the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit serve as the source and end of all things. This becomes even more evident when we link his comments in chapter four with those in chapter one. God reveals himself as the Alpha and Omega (1:8). God is the beginning and the end; what he “proposes, declares, and promises” in the Revelation he surely will bring to a “complete and glorious conclusion” (1:8). This includes the kingdom of Satan, for the “most secret history of the kingdom of hell and heaven” are disclosed in the Revelation so God’s people can see how God has worked in the past and thereby know how he will work in the future (4:2). We now begin to see the significance of the historical method for Wesley: the past is the key that unlocks the future. By looking at how God has worked in the past we can see how he will work in the future. This partially explains Wesley’s proclivity toward a postmillennial vision that stressed the role of the present church, and of real Christianity, to usher in the millennium.

In chapter five Wesley linked the proposition – the history of salvation – to the book (KJV) which Christ receives from the right hand of him who sits on the throne. According to Wesley this book represented “all power in heaven and earth” (5:1). Its contents begin in chapter six with the breaking of the seals. In chapter ten he identified the remainder of this book with the little book brought down from heaven by the angel (10:2). So the book’s real significance lies in the fact that it contains the historical plan by which God brings redemption to the world. In other words, this book tells the story how the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, Wesley saw the Book of Revelation as a “royal manifesto…a proclamation showing how Christ fulfills all things” (5:13).

How does all of this relate to the theme of real Christianity? We turn to chapter four. One of Wesley’s longer comments regards the triple declaration of God’s holiness by the four living creatures (4:8). Wesley explained that the word holy signifies separation. But it also denotes that special glory which flows from the divine nature, through all his works, and which distinguishes him from all that is created or impure. So God’s holiness involves the outflowing glory of the Triune God – Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. In regard to the creation, this holiness separates and consecrates people and things to God. In this way true believers become united to God and are renewed in his image (4:8).  To repeat, essential to this view of holiness or real Christianity is the fundamental idea that God is the center of all things. Everything flows out from God and returns to God. Therefore, the outflow of divine glory becomes the source of holiness in the creation, which in turn flows back to God in true devotion and worship.

In chapter five real Christianity is linked to the book and Christ’s investiture to “execute all his offices of prophet, priest, and king” (5:6). Since Christ was slain as the paschal lamb he is worthy to open the book and execute its contents. This execution began at Christ’s ascension when he entered into his state of exaltation. Wesley held that this “state admits of various degrees” (5:7). At his ascension Christ was granted authority over angels and principalities. Ten days later he was given authority to dispense the gift of the Spirit to believers. In Revelation Christ is granted authority to “fulfill all that is written” in the book (5:7). But this includes more than epoch-making events in the natural world. At stake is God’s preservation of the gospel and his holy people throughout the centuries until all the enemies of Christ are defeated. The kingdoms of this world are becoming the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, and his faithful servants are those who are “true, holy, persevering believers” (21:27). So, the motif of real Christianity is interwoven with the proposition of Christ’s coming kingdom and this theme forms the underlying plot of the commentary.

The Language of Real Christianity

The great conflict in Revelation is between a Christian faith that is authentic and vital, and one that is nominal and mere pretense. Wesley does not just delineate between Christian and non-Christian in his commentary, he continually used the adjective “true” and “real” to distinguish between those who are genuine and those who are false. Wesley spoke of “true repentance” (2:5), “true conversion” (11:13), “true saints” (14:12) and “true believers” (21:27). Drawing on categories used by the Reformers and Puritans, Wesley defined the bride of Christ as “all holy men, the whole invisible church” (19:8). By contrast, the visible church includes “dead, unholy Christians” (8:7). These are “false Christians” (11:10), mere “outward-court worshipers” (13:15), who do not repent of invoking departed saints, venerating images, following human tradition, flouting outward pomp, honoring the beast, and pretending to serve God while they live carnal lives (9:20-21; 13:4; 14:8).

But “real Christians” are different (12:7; 14:1). Symbolized by the 144,000 standing on heavenly Mt. Zion, these are the “most eminently holy” who have been freed from “all sin.” They have practiced “universal purity” – a reference to Christian perfection. Their virginity symbolizes their inviolate purity in soul and body (14:1, 3-5). Wesley sees this passage representing the church triumphant bringing encouragement and instruction to the true church on earth, who is suffering persecution at the hands of the beast (13:15; 14:1). “Real, inward Christians” (13:15) overcome the accusations of Satan by the blood of the Lamb; which, writes Wesley, “cleanses the soul from all sin, and so leaves no room for accusing” (12:11). This “little flock of true believers” has not made “shipwreck of their faith” (13:8). They resist the allurement to worship the beast and instead endure “captivity (and) imprisonment,” and in faithfulness resist “unto blood” (13:10). The true saint is “eminently holy” (11:18) and has the “Spirit of adoption…in the heart” (22:17). They are “Jews inwardly” and are rich in “faith and love,” having been “circumcised in the heart” (2:9).

The above examples illustrate how Wesley interpreted the great conflict between real and nominal Christianity in Revelation. So sharp was this conflict in his day that he came to believe the end was near and the beast would soon be judged.  Beginning with his extensive discussion on the identity of the beast, Wesley issued this warning:

O reader, this is a subject wherein we also are deeply concerned, and which must be treated, not as a point of curiosity, but as a solemn warning from God! The danger is near. Be armed both against force and fraud, even with the whole armour of God. (13:1)

So strong did Wesley believe in the soon destruction of the beast and the binding of Satan that he issued this word of exhortation: “How great things these! (sic) And how short the time! What is needful for us? Wisdom, patience, faithfulness, watchfulness. It is no time to settle upon our lees” (20:3). By the 1780’s Wesley began to identify the Methodist movement with the “latter-day glory,” the “most flourishing state of the church” (20:5), when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ and real Christianity becomes a global faith.[6]

The Motif of Real Christianity

We are now ready to examine how real Christianity informed Wesley’s interpretive analysis of Revelation. We begin with the letters to the seven churches (chs 2-3).[7] As we saw above in Wesley’s outline of the book, he understood these letters to serve as an introduction to the main prophetic vision. Drawing upon Israel’s history at Mount Sinai and John the Baptist’s ministry of preparing people by repentance, Wesley argued that these seven letters prepare God’s people to receive this “glorious revelation” by “expelling incorrigibly wicked men” and “putting away all wickedness” (ch 2 preamble). Wesley took the position that each letter is addressed to the pastor (angel) of the church, and that the prophetess Jezebel was the pastor’s wife at Thyatira. So, Wesley’s interest in each church revolved around the motif of real Christianity.

To the pastor at Ephesus, Wesley interpreted the seven stars in Christ’s right hand as God’s intent that the pastor should shine like a star in “purity of doctrine and holiness of life” (2:1). But the pastor and congregation had left their first love, the “first tender love in its vigour and warmth” (2:4). Then quipped Wesley, “Reader, hast thou?” This church was in a “mixed state” and had lapsed in their “degree of faith, love, holiness, though perhaps insensibly.” So Christ called the pastor and church to “true repentance” and to “regain their first love” (2:5). In regard to Christ’s warning to remove the church’s candlestick (KJV), Wesley interpreted this as a threat to replace the pastor with another minister who would care for the church’s spiritual wellbeing (2:6).

To the pastor at Smyrna the Lord only had words of comfort. Christ revealed himself as the firstand thelast to confirm this pastor against the fear of death (2:8). Though this church was afflicted and poor; yet, wrote Wesley, they were rich in “faith and love” – the twin marks of real Christianity (2:9). Though many were claiming to be Jews in this city, a real Jew was one “inwardly,” who was “circumcised in heart.”

For the pastor at Pergamum there were only stern warnings. Wesley interpreted “Satan’s throne” as a reference to rampant idolatry in the city. Christ praised the pastor for “openly and resolutely confessing” his Lord “before men.” Wesley offered a beatitude to any believer who follows in the footsteps of Antipas, who was martyred during the reign of Domitian, “Happy is he to whom Jesus, the faithful and true witness, giveth such a testimony!” But the pastor had not cast out those who teach the doctrine of Balaam and thereby enticed the church to “idol-worship.” This sin will come up again when Wesley confronted the religious nominalism of those in his day who gave homage to the beast.

Wesley identified the “faithful” at Thyatira as a “little flock” (2:18). They were “true believers” who remained faithful by refusing to pay homage to the beast (13:8). But the wife of the pastor was leading many in the church to “partake in the idolatry of the heathens” (2:20). So God would strike her children (i.e. followers) with the “plague, or by some manifest stroke of God’s hand” (2:23). By contrast, Jesus promised to give those who remain faithful the “morning star.” Wesley’s comment reflects how the motif of real Christianity guided his thought:

Thou, O Jesus, art the morning star! O give thyself to me! Then will I desire no sun, only thee, who art the sun also. He whom this star enlightens has always morning and no evening…he that, after having conquered his enemies, keeps the works of Christ to the end, shall have the morning star,—an unspeakable brightness and peaceable dominion in him. (2:28)

To the pastor at Sardis, Wesley stressed the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Though this church had a reputation for being alive, in reality it was dead. From the Spirit, Wesley wrote, “all spiritual life and strength proceed.” This included the “fruits of the Spirit,” even “knowledge of the truth, good desires, and convictions.” But the church was about to die because of “pride, indolence, or levity” (3:1-2). Wesley blamed the pastor for there being only a few who had not defiled their garments due to sin or from “partaking of other men’s sins” (3:4). Wesley then linked the white raiment of the overcomer to Christian perfection: these walk “in joy; in perfect holiness; in glory” (2:4).

As in his comments on the church at Smyrna, Wesley saw the church at Philadelphia as “flourishing” (2:5). This same adjective will be applied by Wesley to the church in the millennium, thereby showing that real Christianity in the present is of the same nature as religion during the millennium. According to Wesley, the “open door” granted to the Philadelphians included the “joy of thy Lord” and the freedom to proceed “unhindered in every good work” (3:8). The pastor (and church) was facing persecution, but if he remained steadfast the Lord promised to “fix him as beautiful, as useful, and as immoveable as a pillar in the church of God.” Holiness and happiness would crown the pastor as the “nature and image of God” would appear “visibly upon him” (3:12).

Last, the pastor at Laodicea was confronted for being lukewarm. Wesley saw the pastor as a nominal believer, an “utter stranger to the things of God, having no care or thought about them” (3:15). Because the pastor boasted of his wealth in “gifts and grace” and in “worldly goods,” the Lord counseled for him to buy “gold purified in the fire.” This was “true, living faith, which is purified in the furnace of affliction.” The “white raiment” referred to “true holiness,” while “eyesalve” pointed to the “unction of the Holy One, which teaches all things” (3:17-18).

The above summary demonstrates how the motif of real Christianity guided Wesley in his analysis of the spiritual condition of the seven churches. But Wesley took the number seven to be representative of the entire church throughout every age. As Wesley put it, “Whether any be as dead as the angel at Sardis, or as much alive as the angel at Philadelphia, this book is sent to him, and the Lord Jesus hath something to say to him therein” (2:5). This fits with Wesley’s historical method of reading Revelation. Since the prophecy covers the history of the entire church age, every generation must read these letters as written for their edification. For every generation needs to be purified by genuine repentance to receive this “glorious revelation.”

As we have already seen, Wesley believed his generation was near the end. The time of the beast’s reign was almost over. Soon the two Jewish witnesses would appear in Jerusalem, proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God and calling all people to repentance and to glorify God (11:3). The beast will arise from the abyss and become the end-time antichrist. He will kill the two witnesses as nominally religious “Turks, and Jews, and heathens, and false Christians” celebrate and give gifts to each other. But God will raise these two prophets from the dead and call them to heaven in the presence of everyone. As a result, revival will break out as nine-tenths of the city is converted that day, leading to a congregation in Jerusalem that will be “larger as well as holier” than any church in that city before, including the one in Acts (11:13). This will be the time when the “grand ‘Pentecost’ shall ‘fully come.’”[8] The beast will be cast alive into hell (19:20), Satan will be bound a thousand years, and the peoples of the world will be converted by the droves.[9] A great Jewish revival[10] will lead the way as Moslems, heathens, and nominal Christians are converted to Christ and real Christianity triumphs as a global faith. But before that great day arrives the beast must be overcome. This calls for patience by those who keep the commands of God, and “particularly the great command to believe in Jesus” (14:12).

The Papacy and Real Christianity

John Wesley’s most extensive notes deal with identifying the beast out of the sea with the Roman papacy (nearly seven full pages). In the eighteenth century, this was the standard Protestant viewpoint, which reached back to Martin Luther. There were good reasons for this interpretation, even in Wesley’s day. For nearly two hundred years there had been strong tensions in England between Catholics and Protestants. Rome was more than a spiritual entity; she was a powerful political force. While rehearsing this history reaches far beyond the limits of this paper, current events illustrate why the English were so fearful of papal influence.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 became a psychologically defining moment for the English. In that year pro-Catholic King James II was replaced by his pro-Protestant son-in-law and daughter William and Mary. Fears of a Catholic dynasty and other factors finally led to these drastic measures. But the pro-Jacobite forces remained active. Over the next sixty years several attempts were made to replace the Protestant monarchs with Catholic kings, two of which took place in 1715 and 1745. These invasions were fueled by sharp tensions between Protestant England, now Great Britain, and Catholic France, who helped finance and support these invasions. War finally broke out between these two countries and their allies in 1755, the very year Wesley published his Explanatory Notes upon Revelation. The “Seven Years War” was the first global conflict and ended with a British victory. During the 1740s, as the Methodist movement gained notoriety, the Wesley brothers were charged several times with holding pro-Catholic sympathies. For example, when rumors of a French invasion surfaced in early 1744, Wesley felt compelled to write a letter to the King affirming his allegiance to the throne.[11] Then, in 1745, as the French invaded, Wesley was called upon again to demonstrate loyalty to the crown before a city mayor.[12]

Besides the political atmosphere, many Protestants saw Catholicism as the poster-child for nominal Christianity. As historian Henry Rack observed, “Religiously, Protestants had mostly regarded Catholicism as a horrid perversion of Christianity.”[13] This was Wesley’s viewpoint in this commentary. At the heart of Wesley’s critique was Rome’s claim of absolute, unbounded power (13:1 Prop. 6; 13:2; 19:20). First, over time the pope had assumed more and more titles that belonged only to God (13:1 Prop. 7, Obs. 23; 17:5). Second, the papacy had assumed political as well as spiritual authority over all other communions, and even nations (13:1 Prop. 2, 6, 7). Third, the Roman Church asserted that salvation was found only in her fold (14:9). Fourth, the worship of the Roman Church contained much idolatry (14:8). Finally, the papacy and Roman Church was responsible for the martyrdom of millions of genuine Christians (13:2, 7, 15; 18:24).

Because of her enormous size, long history, rich tradition, and official claims to represent Christ on earth, many people were allured into her fold to participate in the “fornication” of “her idolatry.” This included the invocation of saints and angels, the worship of images, her outward pomp and human traditions, her fierce and bloody zeal, and her pretence to serve God (14:8). This testing called for the patience of the saints to be faithful to God’s commandments and to Jesus Christ (14:12). Wesley estimated that in the sixteenth century alone more than fifteen million Protestants perished in the inquisition (18:24). For Wesley this confirmed the pope was the antichrist, “It is Christ who shed his own blood; it is antichrist who sheds the blood of others” (13:15). Under such difficult times true believers must exhibit patience by “enduring captivity or imprisonment,” and faithfulness by “resisting unto blood” (13:10).

Wesley also stressed the importance of holiness or real Christianity in overcoming the beast. In chapter fourteen Wesley proposed that the two harvests represented “two general visitations” on the good and the wicked. The grain harvest represents those who have attained a “high degree of holiness” and have an “earnest desire to be with God” (14:14, 16). The same judgment was made of the 144,000 on heavenly Mount Zion (14:1-5). Their very sanctity demonstrated the very nature of real Christianity. God is calling a holy people, who obey his commandments and follow the Lamb with undying allegiance. Though in this life they comprise only a “little flock” and appear as an “invisible church.” In the New Jerusalem they will enjoy the “ever fresh and fruitful effluence of the Holy Ghost” (22:1). There will be no more curse but “pure life and blessing.” Sin will be “totally removed” and they will enjoy the “most perfect happiness” in an “eternal Sabbath” of “perfect peace and happiness” (22:3-5). Believers will have the “nearest access” to him that sits on the throne and enjoy the “highest resemblance of him” (22:4).

In John Wesley’s view, even in eternity real Christianity will define the people of God, especially in their individual stations in the kingdom. Those who “excelled in virtue” in this life will rule over those who were “slothful and unprofitable servants, who were just saved as by fire” (22:4). This last comment is insightful. Wesley believed that the degree to which true believers practice real Christianity in this life will determine their position or station in the new creation. The holier one lives in this life, the higher they will serve in the Lamb’s administration in the eternal city. So, we see that the motif of real Christianity guided how Wesley understood future life in the New Jerusalem. In chapter twenty-two Wesley used the same kind of language as he did elsewhere to describe real Christianity, but here more superlatives were emplyed to describe the eschatological tension between the already and the not yet. That is, real Christians already taste the life of eternity, but not yet in its eschatological fullness.

The New Creation

Randy Maddox described how Wesley’s millennial views evolved over time.[14] Having been raised and educated in the Anglican tradition, Wesley first embraced an amillennial view that saw the resurrection to consist of ethereal bodies in a heavenly state. But by the early 1750s he became disenchanted with the amillennial claim that the church on earth was a sufficient embodiment of the kingdom. This led him to explore alternatives, namely post and premillennialism. Soon after, Wesley came across the writings of Johann Bengel which profoundly shaped his commentary on Revelation. By the mid-sixties Wesley was flirting with premillennialism.[15] Yet, for Wesley premillennialism lost its allure because of its tendency to demote the processal character of God’s renewing work. In its place Wesley was drawn to the Puritan concept of latter-day glory and a novel idea in the eighteenth century that animals have souls. By 1781 Wesley was teaching that animals will partake in the final resurrection.[16] In the new creation they will be elevated to the level that humanity now enjoys in this life, while humans will be elevated to the station of the angels. This eschatology was based on a system of ontology known as the “Great Chain of Being.” This system taught that all creation is so ordered and interconnected, like a great chain, based on innate abilities and capacities. With this ontology it only took a small step for Wesley to envision the new creation as a restored heaven and earth patterned after the pristine condition of the creation before the fall.[17]

Does this mean Wesley jettisoned Bengal’s position that Revelation presents two millenniums? Not necessarily, for Wesley’s own exposition of chapter twenty reveals that Christ’s second coming is after both millenniums (20:3). Though Wesley’s later sermons do not espouse a twin millennium, they do not reject it. What Wesley does endorse in his sermons is a postmillennial view that saw real Christianity as a global faith that will guide the nations in their laws and cultural values. In the millennium the true church will flourish as all nations know and love their Creator and Lord.

Concluding Thoughts

Wesley’s commentary on Revelation reveals just how deep the theme of real Christianity was burned into his soul. The fact that the motif of real Christianity so dominates the thought and argument of the commentary, from beginning to end, confirms this point: Wesley’s aim in the commentary is to present an apology for real Christianity. This is the underlying plot of the entire work. On the surface Wesley espoused a view that Revelation reveals God’s plan in human history by which the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ (5:1). But as the commentary develops it becomes evident that Christ’s kingdom is synonymous with real Christianity (12:5). So, in the end, Christ’s kingdom and real Christianity merge to form a single motif and theme.

The thesis is further confirmed by his stringent polemic against Catholicism. Rome represents all that is wrong with nominal Christianity. This makes her the sinister enemy of the true faith. Of course, Wesley was wrong about the beast being destroyed in 1836. But Catholicism today is not what it was in Wesley’s day. Our geopolitical world is radically different from his. The forces of modern democracy and secularism were only in their infancy when Wesley penned his commentary in the 1750s. Even though he was mistaken about the identity of the beast in an eschatological sense, we can understand why he drew the conclusions that he did.

But this highlights the major weakness of the historical method of interpretation. This method offers an interesting viewpoint on Revelation. Nevertheless, since its proponents have never reached a general consensus on what the symbols represent in an historical sense this method must be abandoned for a better one. Instead, the symbolism in Revelation must be understood against the backdrop of Roman Asia in the first century. So, the historical method remains valid as an interpretive method.

What can be appreciated about evangelical postmillennialism in the eighteenth century – and this includes Wesley – was the foresight of its proponents to see the rise of the modern missionary movement. This viewpoint also contributed in part to the rise of the modern Zionist movement which eventually led to the rebirth of Israel as a nation in 1948. However we view these movements today, it is a fact that the modern missionary movement has its roots in the postmillennialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

These insights highlight the significance of Wesley’s sense of imminence. By the 1750s, Wesley was beginning to see Methodism as an end-time movement. God had raised Methodism (and the other revival movements) to usher in the latter-day glory of Christ’s millennial reign. This sense of imminence gave early Methodists a strong collective identity and sense of purpose. Therefore, Wesley’s commentary on Revelation offers important insights into the psyche of early Methodism. Today, few students of Wesley are even aware that he held such views. It is time for scholars and students to once again revisit this work to learn more about the evangelical eschatology of the founder of Methodism.


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Lindberg, Carter Ed. The Pietist Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2005.

Maddox, Randy Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Meeks, M. Douglas Ed. Wesleyan Perspectives on the New Creation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.

Oden, Thomas C. John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teachings on Christian Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.

Rack, Henry Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989, 1992 (Second Edition).

Wesley, John Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament 2 Vols. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983 Reprint.

Wesley, John The Works of John Wesley 14 Vols. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984 Reprint.

[1] Collins, Kenneth J. The Scripture Way of Salvation: The Heart of John Wesley’s Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997, 145.

[2] Hempton, David Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. Ann Arbor: Yale University Press, 2005.

[3] Only his introduction has been translated from the Latin original into English. In this introduction Bengel never discusses the theme of real Christianity (Bengel, Johann Albrecht Bengelius’ Introduction to his Exposition of the Apocalypse. London: J. Ryall and R. Withy, 1757, Reprint: Michigan Libraries Collection).

[4] During the same period and in a different cultural milieu, Jonathan Edwards believed the beast would be destroyed in 1866, thus showing general agreement among various views (Gerstner, John H. The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards 3 Vols. Powhatan: Berea Publications, 1991-93, III.480).

[5] Wesley published a second edition in 1757 and with Charles’ help a third expanded edition in 1762.

[6] Cf. “The General Spread of the Gospel” §§ 13-26 for one of Wesley’s best expositions on the future millennium (Jackson, Thomas Ed. The Works of John Wesley 14 Vols. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984, Reprint, 6:281-287.Hereafter: Works).

[7] Though the author of Revelation speaks of one letter to the seven churches, Wesley uses the plural “letters” when writing of chapters 2 and 3.

[8] “The General Spread of the Gospel” §20, Works 6:284.

[9] General Spread of the Gospel, §§13-26.

[10] Both Bengel and Edwards supported the idea of a future national revival among the Jews (Bengel, 122; Gerstner, III.488).

[11] Hattersley, Roy The Life of John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning. New York: Doubleday, 2003, 216.

[12] Hattersley, 225-26.

[13] Rack, Henry Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989, 1992, 38.

[14] This section relies heavily on Maddox’s chapter, “Nurturing the New Creation: Reflections on a Wesleyan Trajectory” in Meeks, M. Douglas Ed. Wesleyan Perspectives on the New Creation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.

[15] Maddox, 40.

[16] “The General Deliverance” (Works 6:241-253).

[17] This becomes evident by comparing Wesley’s two sermons “God’s Approbation of his Works” (Works 6:206-215) and “The New Creation” (Works 6:288-296). Both were written in the 1780’s.

[This article was taken with permission from Mark K. Olson’s website where the original version can be found.]