THE EPISTLES TO THE SEVEN
A well-known commentator on the Apocalypse has
graphically pictured the aged Evangelist ascending one of the rocky heights
of Patmos, and from thence, as a center, beholding on every side,
even at that early dawn of the Christian era, undoubted evidences of the
spread of the Gospel. Flourishing churches were planted all around, far
beyond the line of the visible horizon. In Greece, those of Philippi
and Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth; in the East, Jerusalem
and Antioch; in the South, Cyprus, Alexandria, and Crete; westward,
in Caesar's household and Caesar's capital; while the bearers of the glad
tidings had even left the impress of their early footsteps on the shores of
France and Spain, and our own remote island of Britain. He who in his former
years had witnessed the whole Church of Christ contained in one
upper-room in Jerusalem, had lived to see its line gone out through all
the earth, and its words to the end of the world.
In that wide sweep—that supposed panoramic prospect,
there was one cluster of Christian congregations, which, above all the rest,
was peculiarly dear to the Exile, that is, the Churches of Asia. Not
the Asia we are accustomed to think of, in its wide geographical
acceptation; not even the Asia Minor—the peninsula equally familiar to us
under the sway of modern Turkey, which embraces a continent in itself; but a
comparatively limited district or province along her western coast line, and
of which Ephesus formed the recognized capital. To these cities and their
Churches, John's great Lord commissions him to write seven distinct
Epistles or addresses.
We are not to understand that seven exhausted the number
of congregations of the faithful planted in that region; for, independent of
other testimony, we have reliable information from the Epistles of Ignatius
that at least two additional cities, larger than some of those mentioned,
had Churches in their midst. The number seven was evidently again
employed as the type of completeness—that same symbol which we have
already had occasion to note in regard to the description of the Holy
Spirit in His manifold operations—"The seven spirits which are
before the throne"—the symbol which we shall meet in other significant
figurations in subsequent portions of the Book. For example, the Lamb having
seven horns and seven eyes; the seven burning lamps
before the throne; or, in the outpourings of Divine judgments, seven
seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders, seven vials.
This symbolic number further betokens, that the
epistolary addresses were designed as a directory of perpetual obligation
for the whole universal Church, of all ages and all climates—European
as well as Asiatic. The internal condition of these congregations, as
unfolded in the varying language employed, reflects, as in a mirror, the
mixed and conflicting aspects and elements which attach in all periods
of her history to the Church-militant. They are, if it may be so expressed,
outlines, filled in with their own appropriate details, but in
bold outline depicting the ever-varying and diversified features in
church life and character—the admixture of wheat with tares, truth with
error, zeal with coldness, fidelity with unfaithfulness, light with
darkness, life with death.
There is Ephesus, bold in resolute endurance,
discerning, intolerant of departures from the faith, and of all tampering
with heathen libertinism—yet this coupled with lamentable declension from
There is Smyrna, battling nobly with tribulation
and danger in the midst of poverty and suffering—rich in faith and good
There is Pergamos, environed with satanic
influences in varied forms and phases—the seat of hostile Jews clinging to
the beggarly elements—the professing members of her Christian Church
polluted with the defiling doctrines of Antinomianism—yet the band of
faithful and true-hearted holding fast the true Name in the face of
persecution and martyrdom.
There is Thyatira, amid charities and zeal and all
outward activities, endangered by the seductions of false teachers, those
who would set up sensuous and sensual worship, deifying material forms, and
encouraging immoral practice.
There is Sardis, with its few noble exceptions,
yet, as a Church, careless, unwatchful, formal, joined to its idols, dying
while it lives of spiritual sloth and blandness.
There is Philadelphia, with its little strength in
the midst of fierce temptations, but keeping resolutely the word with
patience, repressing the spirit of evil, strong and loving in its very
There is Laodicea, distinguished for its worldly
riches, its high-toned profession and spiritual pride; yet lowest in the
scale and standard of all, with its perilous lukewarmness, neither cold nor
hot—a religion of boasting words, but devoid of vitality and moral
strength—"poor, blind, and naked."
Each individual Church has thus its distinctive
peculiarities, its points of danger, and points of strength and safety—its
subjects for commendation or rebuke. And hence these seven written messages
may be regarded as a charge addressed by the Shepherd and Bishop of souls,
through seven representative congregations, to His great diocese of
Universal Christendom. There is a word of solemn warning and
admonition to all, against the sins of pride and worldliness; formalism
and self-sufficiency; doctrinal and heart apostasy; compromise with error;
laxity of life.
There is a word of gracious encouragement to the
lowly, the suffering, the patient, the faithful, the duty-doing, the good
and the true; especially when alive to their spiritual weakness and
insufficiency. And more solemnizing is the lesson they further convey, that
He who spoke so familiarly to John of these seven congregations in that
early age, is, with the same searching scrutiny, in the midst of all His
congregations and churches to this hour, noting with His eyes of flaming
fire their faults and errors; their neglects and failures; their sinful
departures from truth; their tamperings with error; their declensions and
But ready, too (when He sees their weak faith requires
it), with His encouragements and approval—His promises and support;
His sympathy and love; and the last more than the first. In a word, these
Epistles contain a stereotyped message for all time—as much for us in
Britain as for the Orientals of the first century. Nor is it at all
necessary that we should regard the seven Churches, as some writers have
done, as representatives of successive epochs or chronological eras
of the Christian faith—describing the evolution of the church-life of
future Christendom; as if they resembled the rainbow, the seven-colored arc
of heaven, spanning the centuries from the earthly ministry of our Lord to
His second coming—depicting the Ephesian age, the Sardis age, the Laodicean
age, and others. Such an interpretation seems alike forced and fanciful; for
it is at once manifest, by reference to a map, that the names of the towns
are taken in their local order as the Apostle himself may have visited them,
beginning naturally with Ephesus—alike from its own pre-eminence and John's
association with it—taking a northerly line to Pergamos and Thyatira, then a
southerly direction, until the circuit is completed by a return to the great
capital of the province.
We are abundantly warranted, therefore, rather in
asserting that these seven Churches, by a sort of complex unity and
symbolism, embrace all periods as well as all characteristics. The lessons
embodied in their Epistles are limited to no age or circumstances. In common
with every other portion of Scripture, they are "written for our
admonition." In the words of good old Bengel, "Whether one may be so dead
as the Church of Sardis, or may stand so well as that of
Philadelphia, . . . this book is still fitted to be serviceable to him, and
the Lord Jesus has something in it to say to him."
And here may we not pause to remark, how honored was John
to be the instrument in the hand of Christ and of the Divine Spirit,
in preparing this legacy for the Church of the future? Mysterious,
doubtless, at the time to him and to others, was the Providence which
divorced him from the scene of his active labors—his ministries of apostolic
love, and condemned him to silence and inaction in the sea-girt isle. But
his pen was to achieve more lasting good than all his sermons and
spoken utterances. The things which had happened unto him had fallen out
rather to the furtherance of the Gospel. His own tongue, with its fervid
accents, was for the time silent, and his bereaved flock would mourn the
cruel separation. But the place of his exile is to be consecrated as a
temple for mankind—lonely Patmos is to become a spiritual oasis! The
Church throughout all the world is to enjoy the compensating blessing to its
last era, in these letters of surpassing faithfulness and comfort,
and these visions of surpassing glory. He is shown that there are
other ways of glorifying the name and promoting the cause of the Great
Master he served, than by an answer to the prayer, "O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall show forth Your praise."
And so is it still in God's inscrutable dispensations!
By these, there are often gracious ends to be subserved, which at the time
are indiscernible. The tongue of the mute has been caused to sing—the
parched ground has become a pool, and the dry land springs of water. "Men
see not yet the bright light in the clouds." "But it shall come to pass that
at evening time it shall be light."
The form which these seven letters or addresses
assume is unique; or, as it has befittingly been called, artistic.
They are cast in a similar mold and have a harmony and congruity of parts,
which it may be well briefly to notice.
(1.) They are all addressed to "the Angel" of the
respective Churches—the recognized representative or messenger
of each congregation. It was a name or term probably borrowed from the
presiding functionary, the minister or president, of the Jewish Synagogue.
(2.) Each letter begins with "These things says He."
Followed not only with a reference to the glorious Person of the Sender, but
embodying some imagery borrowed from His own previous words in the
preparatory vision. "These things says He that holds the seven stars in his
right hand." "These things says the First and the Last, who was dead and is
alive." "These things says He which has the sharp sword with two edges."
"These things says the Son of God, who has His eyes like a flame of
fire"—and so on.
(3.) Each Epistle further begins with the impressive,
solemnizing formula of the Divine omniscience—"I know your
works." The congregations are thus prepared with befitting seriousness
and awe to listen to the words of the Great Heart-searcher.
(4.) Each address ends with a phrase concerning
conflict and victory, and a promise "to him who overcomes." Moreover,
while the first part of the address is couched in plain words, the closing
promise is in language of varied and beautiful figure—the Tree of life—the
White stone—the Morning star—the White clothing—the New name—the Heavenly
(5.) The address to each Church is wound up with the
solemn exhortation, or refrain, "He that has an ear, let him
hear what the Spirit says unto the Churches"—a sacred reminder, that
although it is Christ who walks in the midst of the Candlesticks, and Christ
who indites those Epistles to His servant John, He does not supersede the
office of that Divine Agent of whom He had aforetime said, "He shall glorify
me, for He shall receive of Mine, and shall show it unto you."
One general practical and comforting observation
may be further added—that Christ, the Divine Overseer, cares for all
His Churches, however great or however small. Perhaps He purposely left out
the larger congregations, and inserted the Epistle to the comparative
handful of believers at the almost unknown Thyatira, in order to give the
assurance to all faithful associations of Christian men, limited in number
and resources—battling it may be for dear life, that it is not numerical
strength or social position, or local influence and importance, which are
required to ensure His cognizance and care. The few names in
Sardis—the little strength of Philadelphia—the hundreds in
Thyatira—as well as the thousands in the teeming marts of Ephesus; the
Church among the Valleys of Piedmont; the missionary settlements of the
lowly and unlettered Moravians; the grain of mustard-seed, wherever it has
fallen—each is tended, and watched, and nurtured by the Great Husbandman
with patient and discriminating regard.
The sublime contrast is alike true and comforting
concerning Churches as concerning individuals: "Your kingdom is an
everlasting kingdom—your dominion endures throughout all generations; yet
the Lord upholds all who fall, and raises up all who are bowed
down." "In that day we will sing about a fruitful vineyard: I, the Lord,
watch over it; I water it continually. I guard it day and night so that no
one may harm it." "A little one shall become a thousand, and a small
one a strong nation."
Well would it be for us faithfully to hold up that mirror
of all these Churches, and see in it the reflection of our individual
selves; to note the warning and the danger-signals as we are careering
onwards in life's swift and speedily-ended journey. How soon, in their case,
did the golden age degenerate into the brass and the iron!
Founded in the midst of ultimate and apostolic zeal, with the dew of
Christian youth upon them, how soon did they lapse into error, apostasy, and
open sin—removed away from the faith and hope of the Gospel, the faithful
counsels and burning prayers and tears of earth's holiest men forgotten, as
a dream when one awakens!
May we not well take home the lessons from their
extinguished light and vanished glories? "If you think you are standing
strong, be careful, for you, too, may fall into the same sin." "You
therefore, beloved, seeing you know these things before, beware lest you
also, being led away by the error of the wicked, fall from your own
steadfastness. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and
Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be glory, both now and forever. Amen."