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 first love.

There is Smyrna, battling nobly with tribulation and danger in the midst of poverty and suffering—rich in faith and good works.

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 weakness.

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 shortcomings.

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 Throne.

(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."