THE LETTERS TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES.
By D. M. PANTON.
It is of a practical importance impossible to exaggerate that we should understand exactly how our Lord presents Himself to the Churches; and the Apocalypse opens (Rev. 1: 13) with this overmastering revelation. Jesus moves amongst the Churches, not as the Sacrifice, but as the Priest; He presents Himself to the Church militant, not as the Saviour, but as the Investigator; He stands amongst us all in the assembly, not so much the human Jesus as the Divine judge. Mr. William Kelly has put it excellently thus:- “Christ was in their midst as a judge; and as such He is about to execute judgment on the Seven Churches, as well as upon the world. Responsibility on earth is the question: not the privileges of the Church, or the saints in Christ, but the obligation of the churches to represent Him, and His estimate of their state. The lightbearers are under His scrutiny and judgment.”.. “So that the Seven Letters are not so much messages from an absent Lord, as sentences of a present judge, telling us what Christ’s judgment of each of us is, and what we each may expect in the great day of His coming” (Dr. J. A. Seiss).
So, closeted though He is with the Churches alone, wholly apart from the world and world-judgment, all the attributes our Lord presents to us are challenging, awesome, minatory. John saw Him thus:- “His head and His hair are white, as white wool, white as snow” - eternity, omniscience, wisdom; judging as the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7: 9) and His eyes were as a flame of fire-piercing all secrets, and penetrating all souls; supernaturally conscious, Christ brings (as a flame does) the light with which He sees: “and His feet like unto burnished brass, as if it had been refined in a furnace” - copper, the hardest of metals, actually aglow; feet already trampling all that the eyes condemn: “and His voice” - which John had heard with startling suddenness, even as we shall so hear it at the Advent – “as the voice of many waters” - no still, small voice to woo, but the falling thud of a Niagara, to which all must listen: “and out of His mouth proceedeth a sharp two-edged sword” - amputating sin and cutting off fruitless boughs: “and His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength” - creating day; so that while all is night around, calling for stars and lamps, for those who see Christ within the Church, it is broad day.
lamps illumine the night. “I saw seven golden lampstands” - candles
(self-consuming) were neither used in the
[* “To have given a distinct chronological history, so marked as to be apparent from the first, would have falsified the true posture of the Church in habitually waiting for the Lord from heaven” (W. Kelly).]
the Lamps and the Sun are the Stars. “And He had in His right hand seven stars”: “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches.” That these Angels are charged with sin, and
that one of them is in danger of death (Rev. 2: 10),
establishes that they are not angelic beings; neither is it conceivable, nor
does it ever occur in Scripture, that our Lord should send messages to angels
through a man. John was to write a
letter to each Angel and send it to him: how could he do so to an angel? The Angels of God are described in the
Apocalypse as “stars of heaven” (Rev. 12: 4): the Angels of Christ, the chief
stewards of the Churches, are stars of the earth; stars of
So we realize the momentous import of the Letters. “What thou seest write in a book, and send it to the seven churches”: so that the Letters to the Seven are as much meant for all Churches as the Apocalypse itself, for they are part of the catholic book, to be universally circulated: exactly as Paul’s seven letters to the Churches (to Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica) are seven only, because they are for the Church universal of all ages. In these Letters our Lord weighs, estimates, judges the works, the grace, the creed, the discipline, the love of each church, and commands a hearing for what the Holy Ghost, through His lips, is saying to all assemblies. “Hear,” He says, “what the Spirit saith TO THE CHURCHES.” “Such language, seven times underlined, as if printed in the largest capitals, has in it an intensity of universality and urgency beyond anything in all the volume of Scripture” (Dr. J. A. Sciss). The Seven Letters are probably the only unabridged utterances of our Lord that have reached us, verbally complete; they are enforced with an entreaty and command to hear them seven times repeated; they stand on the threshold of the last judgments, revealing where our Lord’s heart is - with His Church - on the eve of the apocalypse of wrath; and every Letter is stamped with a section of His portrait - an imprimatur than which none could be conceived more momentously august. No letters - not even those of Paul - are more charged with the heart of God: they are the ipsissinia verba of Deity.
1. THE PRIEST.
Each Letter opens with a section of the portrait of our Lord as He was seen by John; nor are these sections of the Priest’s portrait, as He walks amid the Lampstands with ceaseless vigilance and holy inquisition, drawn at random. Each dominant virtue or vice in a church draws forth, as by an irresistible magnetism, the corresponding response of grace from the person of Christ. To Ephesus, the fading church, He presents the shining stars and the burning lamps; to Smyrna, the martyr church - the risen, immortal, Christ; to Pergamos, the erroneous Church - the pruning sword; to Thyatira, the immoral church - the eyes of fire and the feet of judgment; to Sardis, the dead church - the sevenfold fulness of the Spirit of life; to Philadelphia, the blameless church, the wide-flung door of ample service; and to Laodicea, the worldly church - an exiled Christ. It is the Priest, not only investigating present holiness with a view to future glory, but the personal Christ presenting Himself in such exact conjunction with the mystical Christ, that each church’s peculiar need is confronted, here and now, with the corresponding fulness of Divine gace.*
[* Our Lord’s description of the synagogue as “the synagogue of Satan,” and of the Jews as among the keenest antagonists of His disciples
during the period covered by the Letters (Rev. 3: 9),
at once disposes of the view that the Letters are in any sense or degree
Jewish, and establishes the fact, also abundantly internally proved, that the
highly technical word “ecclesia” is used by our
Lord - as invariably in the New Testament, with but a solitary exception (Acts 7: 38) - of Jew and Gentile gathered out
between the two Advents, and compacted together into the mystical Body of
Christ. Such Ecclesiae at
2. THE ANGEL.
In each Letter the Angel alone is directly
addressed. The Angel hears for the
church, receives for the church, is responsible for the church, and transmits
the word of Christ to the church; held in the grasp of Christ - in solemn words
that have haunted my own memory for years – “so that,
if faithful, none can pluck him thence, but, if unfaithful, none can deliver”
(Govett). It is obvious that the Angel is not a spirit,
for the Angel in
3. THE WORKS.
isolated lampstands, in the place of Israel’s seven-branched unity upon one
stem (Ex. 25: 32) - for in Israel all turned
on the central Temple - reveal the Church as here regarded, not in its corporate
standing, as the Body or the Bride of Christ, but as seen from the view-point
of isolating judgment. In standing, the
Church is a vessel filled with a liquid interpenetrating and one; in
responsibility, it is a vessel in separate water-tight compartments, a leakage
4. THE INVESTIGATION.
Lord next splits the works into good and bad. He first fastens - as Paul also
habitually does - on what He can praise: virtues - such as “patience,” thrice repeated, as so sorely needed in an
angel; service - such as “labour unto weariness” (Rev. 2: 2),
a tender sympathy with a tired angel; attitude - such as antipathy [strong and settled dislike]
to evil men (Rev. 2: 2), the recoil
of holiness; and suffering - such as imprisonment, “where Satan’s throne is” -
due allowance made for acuteness of circumstantial difficulty. Every angel, however - except two - is flawed
with a “but” – “but I have this against
5. THE ADJUDICATION.
Lord’s adjudication now stands forth as critically decisive of church
truth. As for the individual there is no
second conversion, so for the Church there is no second Pentecost: all the Lord
Jesus can say is, - “Strengthen the things that remain”
(Rev. 3: 2).
A return to pristine purity on the part of an individual assembly is the
utmost that is possible in a fallen dispensation. Churches being judged now - as distinct from
individual disciples, to be judged at the Bema - unfaithfulness imperils a
lampstand, and threatens a church with total spiritual extinction. The line of adjudication taken by our Lord
sheds a flood of light. If spiritually
dying, no sacerdotal succession can redeem a chureb, no State recognition
rescue it, no erudition [learning] restore it, and no splendour of outward activity
resusitate it, it fails, if it fails at all, inherently, and dies for want of
its own virtue: a dead church - dead in the sight of God - loses its lampstand
from the Holy of holies. On the other
hand, it is a truth of exquisite significance that no assembly is beyond
6. THE INCENTIVES.*
is what’s lacking most in the
Lord draws to a close in each Letter with a distincion of supreme
significance. With unerring finger He
has located each collective peril; now, within each assembly, He severs the overcomer from the overcome:
and He discloses stupendous glories, and incalculable perils, both made wholly contingent on fidelity, or
infidelity, up to the moment of His return.
“In the seven Epistles there are seven promises
to the individual overcomer, which are
all to be fulfilled during the thousand years of Christ’s reign on the earth”(J Sladen). To the rekindled Ephesian -
the Tree of Life; to the martyred Sardian - the crown of life; to the sound
Pergamite - the white stone; to the pure Thyatiran - authority over the
nations; to the revived Sardian - the white garment; to the blameless
philadelphian - the pillars in the Temple; and to the separated Laodicean - the
Messianic throne. Correspondingly grave
are the consequences of unfaithfulness.
Had our Lord returned at that moment - as He might have done - for the Angels of Sardis and
[* “If therefore thou shalt not watch” - is the warning to the Sardian Angel – “I will come as a thief, and thou shall not know what .hour I Will ARRIVE OVER thee” (Rev. 3: 3, Gk.): the Parousia will have begun, to the total ignorance of the unrapt Angel.]
7. THE APPLICATION.
Our Lord finally embeds, in every Letter, an individual .call which, cast like a net over the assemblies, catches, for present holiness and consequent glory, every hearing ear. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit” for .Christ and the Spirit are essential Deity: what Christ utters, the Spirit utters: there is fusion in the Godhead, but no confusion – “saith to the Churches.” By this phrase the Letters are instantly made catholic. It is not what the Spirit saith to this Church or, “what the Spirit saith to the Seven Churches”; but, “what the Spirit saith to the churches” - all churches, everywhere. The seven churches are seven strata always present in the geology of the Church Universal.* As the whole Apocalypse was sent through an angel “for the churches” (Rev. 22: 16); as also our Lord makes Thyatira an example by which “all the churches shall know” (Rev. 2: 23); and as the very selection of seven churches, no more and no less, indicates catholicity: so, in this urgent and insistent application, every ear that can hear is laid under Divine command to accept these as universal epistles of the Holy Ghost. “He that hath an ear” - for the final summons is individual; “let him hear” - for individual purity can be flawless in the midst of institutional corruption (Rev. 3: 4); “what the Spirit” - the Person resident with the Church to apply to it these Letters throughout the Age; “saith to the churches” - the Church, consecutive and catholic. Our Lord’s last and priceless utterances are the holy heritage of all disciples, in all ages, for primitive purity and heavenly life.**
[* With the graded history of the Church supposed to be found in the seven consecutive Letters, I do not deal: it is a truth, if proved a truth, which one would be happy to accept; and certainly a condition equivalent to Laodicea seems disclosed in other Scriptures, as the final stage of the Church. The fact also that the references to Old Testament narrative - that is, the typology of the Letters - seem historically graded affords at least an impressive inference. But two things need to be said. Firstly, no proof - proof sufficient, for example, to turn the edge of Archbishop Trench’s refutation - seems yet forthcoming; and secondly, the scheme is beset by an acute peril - lest, while vast ingenuity is being expended on the exact adjustment of the prophecy to its alleged fulfilment, the pregnant practical issues of the Letters, immediate and urgent, are overlooked. This would be a disaster of the first magnitude, and, I venture to add, solemnly athwart [i.e., ‘across; from side to side of’] the holy purposes of Christ. “By the seven churches is signified the perfection of the universal Church, and by writing to seven the Lord shows the fulness of the, one” (Augustine).]
[** “These variations occur in individual Christian experience; in the life of individual churches; and in the history of the Universal Chulch. And not only so, but they all find their illustrations in different portions of the Catholic Church of any one period. Though in each period the Church as a whole may predominantly present one of the seven types, yet illustrations of all the others may be found in different sections” (Dr. E. C. Craven).]
conclusion let us summarize the drift of the Letters, as expressed in a single
utterance of our Lord, “I will kill her children with
death; and ALL THE CHURCHES shall
know that I am He which searcheth the reins and hearts; and I will give unto
each one Of YOU ACCORDING TO YOUR WORKS”
(Rev. 2: 23). Concerning the solemn warnings to believers
contained in the Letters, and in the Gospels and Epistles, Isaac Taylor says:- “We of this age may
expound, as we think fit, these appalling words; or may extenuate these
phrases; or, if we please, let us cast away the whole doctrine as intolerable
and incredible. But it is a matter of
history that the
“All the churches shall know”: for only by a closer knowledge of Christ can the Church shape its life as it should; and Jezebel judged is Christ revealed. From this sharp discipline in Thyatira the churches shall know what? “THAT I AM HE WHICH SEARCHETH THE REINS AND HEARTS; AND I WILL GIVE UNTO EACH ONE OF YOU ACCORDING TO YOUR WORKS.” The truth stated is obvious. All the churches shall know - either now, or at the Judgment Seat of Christ - that we are dealing, primarily and ultimately, not with church officers, or church assemblies, or even the Church catholic, but with Him “before Whom all hearts are open, and from Whom no secrets are hid.” All the churches shall know that the Eyes of Fire search, not outward conduct only and external works, but also the reins and hearts where the motives lie. All the churches shall know that the recoil of a disciple’s life upon his future destiny is exact, proportionate, and sure. All the churches shall know that although church discipline may fail, the Priest’s discipline never fails; and that [See ‘Sin after Conversion.’] sins, not bound by the Church on earth through guilty complicity or slothful negligence, will yet stand forth as bound in heaven. All the churches shall know that the Lord is jealous with a godly jealousy for the purity of His Assembly; and that He holds nothing dearer on earth than the love, the witness, and the sanctity of His people. All the churches shall know that the severest discipline, and the utmost sweep of the Sword of His Mouth, only prove that as many as He loves, He rebukes and chastens; that Laodicea itself is still being invited to the Throne; and that neither things present nor things to come can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Finally, all the churches shall know that the latent possibilities in every discipleship, springing out of our marvellous standing, are golden beyond the highest dreams man ever dreamed. “Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when He cometh shall find SO DOING. Of a truth I say unto you, that He will set him over ALL THAT HE HATH” (Luke 12: 43).
Each sees one colour of Thy rainbow-light,
Each looks upon one tint and calls it heaven
Thou art the fulness of our partial sight;
We are not perfect till we find the seven.
Thine is the mystic life great
Thine is the Parsee’s sin-destroying beam,
Thine is the Buddhist’s rest from tossing waves,
Thine is the empire of vast
Thine is the Roman’s strength without his pride;
Thine is the Greek’s glad word without its graves;
The truth that censures and the grace that saves.
Some seek a Father in the heavens above,
Some ask a human image to adore,
Some crave a spirit vast as life and love:
Within Thy mansions we have all and more.
- GEORGE MATHERSON.