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Chapter 16: Plan and Order of Topics in the Seven Letters

Each of the Seven Letters opens, as letters in ancient time always did, by stating who sends the message and to whom it is sent. But the exordium does not take the form that it would have if the sender of the message were the writer of the letter, viz., “the writer to the person addressed.” In the present case the letters are written by John, who imagines himself to be only the channel through which they come from the real Author; and the exordium is altered to suit this situation. The writer does not name himself; but after naming the persons addressed—To the angel of the Church in Ephesus—he gives a brief description of the Author of the message. The seven descriptions all differ from one another; and, taken together, they make up the complete account given in Revelation 1 of One like unto a son of man. The Divine Author presents Himself in a different aspect to each individual Church; and the seven aspects make up His complete personal description, as the different Churches make up the complete and Universal Church. This expresses in another way what we have tried to show in chapter 14: the Seven Churches make up the complete Church of the Province Asia, because each of them stands in place of a group of Churches, and the Church of the Province Asia in its turn stands in place of the Universal Church of Christ.

This variation from the ordinary formula of ancient letters is connected with the fact, which has already been pointed out, that these are not true letters, but literary compositions, or rather parts of one larger composition. Although for convenience we have called them the Seven Letters, they were not to be sent separately to the Seven Churches. The Apocalypse is a book which was never intended to be taken except as a whole; and the Seven Letters are a mere part of this book, and never had any existence except in the book. The Seven Churches had established their representative position before the book was composed; and that is assumed throughout by the author. They stand to him, in their combination, for the entire Province, and the Province stands to him for the entire Church of Christ; though, when he is writing to Smyrna or Thyatira, he sees and thinks of Smyrna or Thyatira alone.

As to the brief description of the Divine Author, which is prefixed to each of the Seven Letters, there is a special appropriateness in each case to the character or circumstances of the Church which is addressed. To a certain extent we can comprehend wherein this appropriateness lies; but there is probably a good deal which escapes us, because our knowledge of the character and history of the Seven Churches is so incomplete. From this appropriateness it follows that the complete description of the Divine Author, which is made up of those seven parts, is logically later than the parts, though it comes first in the book. This appears especially in the Thyatiran letter. In the highly complex plan of the work, every detail was selected separately in view of its suitability for one or other of the Seven Churches, and was then worked into its place in the full description in the first chapter. Yet the description is complete: the writer worked up the parts into a whole before stating them separately for the Seven churches.

After the formal heading or exordium, each of the Seven Letters begins by a statement intimating that the writer possesses full knowledge of the character and position of the Church which he is addressing. In five out of the seven letters this intimation begins, I know thy works; but in the cases of Smyrna and Pergamum, the opening is different: I know thy tribulation, and I know where thou dwellest. The difference is evidently due to their peculiar circumstances. He who wishes to prove his full knowledge of the Church in Smyrna says that he knows its sufferings; because these were the striking feature in its history. And in Pergamum the most prominent and distinguishing characteristic lay in its situation, “where the throne of Satan is": by that situation its history had been strongly influenced. But in most cases what is essential to know about a Church is what it has done; and so begin all the other five.

As was stated in chapter 3, the letter to an individual church passes easily into an “Epistle General” to the whole Church, for it embodies general principles of nature, order, and government, which are applicable to all. Similarly, to apply the comparison which was there made, the Imperial Rescript addressed to a Province or to its governor embodied general principles of administration, which were afterwards regarded as applicable universally (except in so far as they were adapted to an exceptional condition of the Province addressed). But in every case, when an individual Church is addressed, as here, it is addressed in and for it itself, and its own special individual character and fortunes are clearly present before the writer’s mind. He does not think of the Smyrna group when he addresses Smyrna, nor is he thinking of the Universal Church: he addresses Smyrna alone; he has it clear before his mind, with all its special qualities and individuality. Yet the group which had its centre in Smyrna, and the whole Universal Church, alike found that the letter which was written for Smyrna applied equally to them, for it was a statement of eternal truths and universal principles.

There was undoubtedly a very considerable resemblance between the Seven Cities: the surroundings in which the Seven Churches were placed were similar; and accordingly the character of all was in a superficial view similar. In every city there were doubtless Jews of the nationalist party, bitterly opposed to the Jewish Christians and through them to the Christians as a body, a source of danger and trouble to every one of the Churches; but the Jews are mentioned only in the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia. There were Nicolaitans, beyond all question, in every Asian congregation; but they are alluded to only in the Thyatiran letters as the dominant party in that Church, in the letter to Pergamum as a strong element there, and in the Ephesian letter as disapproved and hated by the Church of Ephesus as a body. Every one of the Seven Churches was a missionary centre; but Philadelphia alone is depicted as the missionary Church.

Underneath the general similarity the writer and the Author saw the differences which determined the character, the past history, and the ultimate fate of all the Seven churches (as described in chapter 4).

But the differences should not be too much emphasised, or exclusively attended to. There are two hostile powers everywhere present, one open and declared, one secret and lurking within the camp; and the thought of these is never far from the writer’s mind, even though he does not expressly mention them in every letter.

One is the Imperial power and the Imperial worship, which the writer saw plainly to be the power of Satan engaged in a determined attempt to annihilate the Church, but doomed beforehand to failure. The Church and the Imperial worship are irreconcilable; one or the other must be destroyed; and the issue is not doubtful. Since the Imperial power has now actively allied itself with the Imperial cultus in this conflict against truth and life, it has doomed itself to destruction.

The other enemy is the Nicolaitan principle. The opposition to the Nicolaitans is the chief factor in determining the character and form of the Seven Letters. But for them there would probably be no letters to the Seven Churches. The rest of the Apocalypse is occupied with the triumph over the Imperial Religion. But there was no need to warn the Churches against it: it was a sham, doomed to destruction, and already conquered in every martyrdom. The one pressing danger to the Churches was within and not without: it lay in their weaknesses of nature, and in that false teaching which was set forth with the show of authority by some prophets and leaders in the Churches. Against the Nicolaitan teachers the Seven Letters are directed in the way of warning and reproof, with strenuous opposition and almost bigoted hatred. Those teachers drew a somewhat contemptuous contrast between their highly advanced teaching, with its deep thought and philosophic insight, and the simple, uneducated, unphilosophic views which St. John championed. They gave undue emphasis to the Greek aspect of Christianity; and in its practical working out they made it their rule of life to maintain the closest possible relations with the best customs of ordinary society in the Asian cities. This attempt was in itself quite justifiable; but in the judgment of St. John (and we may add of St. Paul also) they went too far, and tried to retain in the Christian life practices that were in diametrical opposition to the essential principles of Christianity, and thus they had strayed into a syncretism of Christian and anti-Christian elements which was fatal to the growth and permanence of Christian thought.

But in his opposition to the Nicolaitans the writer does not make the mistake of going to the opposite extreme, minimising the share that Greek thought and custom might have in the Christian life, and exaggerating the opposition between Greek education and true religion. He holds the balance with a steady hand; he expresses himself in a form that should be clear and sympathetic to the Greek Churches whom he was addressing; he gives quiet emphasis to the best side of Greek education in letters which are admirable efforts of literary power; but at a certain point his sympathy stops dead; beyond that point it was fatal to go.

He saw the whole of life, and not merely one side of it; and he was not misled by indiscriminate opposition to the enemy, however strongly he hated them. He would have weakened the Church permanently, if he had made the mistake, too common in the history of religion, of condemning everything that the other side championed. He took from it all that could be taken safely, gave all that it could give to train the religious feeling to the highest, and did everything better than his enemy could.

In studying St. Paul we find ourselves forced to recognise the essential agreement of his views on this question with St. John’s; and in studying St. John we find ourselves forced to the same judgment. With superficial differences they both take the same calm, sane view of the situation as a whole, and legislate for the young Church on the same lines. Up to a certain point the converted pagan should develop the imperfect, but not wholly false, religious ideas and gropings after truth of his earlier years into a Christian character; but there was much that was absolutely false and fundamentally perverted in those ideas; the pagan religions had been degraded from an originally better form by the willful sin and error of men, and all that part of them must be inexorably eradicated and destroyed. The determining criterion lay in the idolatrous element: where that was a necessary part of pagan custom or opinion, there was no justification for clinging to it: unsparing condemnation and rejection was the only course open to a true Christian.

Hence arose the one striking contrast in outward appearance between the views of the two Apostles. St. Paul clung to the hope and belief that the Church might develop within the Empire, and find protection from the Imperial government. St. John regarded the Imperial government as Antichrist, the inevitable enemy of Christianity. But in the interval between the two lay the precise formulation of the Imperial policy, which imposed on the Christians as a test of loyalty the performance of religious ritual in the worship of the Emperors. The Empire armed itself with the harness of idolatry; and the principle that St. Paul himself had laid down in the sharpest and clearest terms at once put an end to any hope that he had entertained of reconciliation and amity between the Church and the existing State.

Again, the Seven Letters repeatedly, in the most pointed way, express and emphasis the continuity of history, in the city and the local Church. The Church is not simply regarded as a separate fact, apart from the city in which it has its temporary abode; such a point of view was impossible and such a thought was inconceivable for the ordinary ancient mind. We have so grown in the lapse of centuries and the greater refinement of thought as to be able to hold apart in our minds the two conceptions; but the ancients regarded the State or the city and its religion as two aspects of one thing. So again, to the ancients every association of human beings had its religious side, and could not exist if that side were destroyed.

The literary form which beyond all others is loved by the writer of the Seven Letters is comparison and contrast. Throughout them all he is constantly striking a balance between the power which the Divine Author wields, the gifts that he gives, the promises and prospects which he holds forth to his own, and the achievements of all enemies, the Empire, the pagan cities, the Jews, and the Nicolaitans. The modern reader has almost everywhere to add one side of the comparison, for the writer only expresses one side and leaves the other to the intuition of his readers. He selects a characteristic by which the enemy prominent in his mind was, or ought to be, distinguished, and describes it in terms in which his readers could not fail to read a reference to that enemy; but he attributes it to the Divine Author or the true Church or the true Christian. Thus he describes the irresistible might that shall be given to the Thyatiran victor in terms which could not fail to rouse in every reader the thought of the great Empire and its tremendous military strength.

Examples of this rhetorical form will be pointed out in every letter; and yet it is probable that many more were apparent to the Asian readers than we can now detect. The thought that is everywhere present in the writer’s mind is how much better the true Church does everything than any of its foes, open or secret.

One example may be given. The simple promise made by the Author to the Smyrnaeans, I will give you the crown of life, when compared with the address which Apollonius made to them, is seen to contain implicit allusion to a feature of the city, which was a cause of peculiar pride to the citizens: “the crown of Smyrna” was the garland of splendid buildings with the Street of Gold, which encircled the rounded hill Pagos. Apollonius in a fully expressed comparison advised the citizens to prefer a crown of men to a crown of buildings. This Author leaves one member of the figure to be understood: if we expressed his thought in full, it would be “instead of the crown of buildings which you boast of, or the crown of men that your philosophers recommend, I will give you the crown of life.”

The peroration of each of the Seven Letters is modelled in the same way: all contain a claim for attention and a promise. The former is identical in all Seven Letters: he that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the Churches. The latter is different in every case, being adapted to the special character of each.

The claim for attention, which is made in the peroration of every letter, is perhaps to be understood as in part applying to the whole Apocalypse, but in a much greater degree it applies to the advice and reproof and encouragement contained in the individual letter and in the whole Seven Letters. There was less need to press for attention to the vision of victory and triumph, while there was serious need to demand attention to the letter, with its plain statement of the dangers to which the Church was exposed. Hence, while the claim is identical in all, it is specially needed in each letter.

The promise made to the victors at the end of every letter is to be understood as addressed partly to the Christians of the city, but still more to the true Christians of the entire Church. The idea that the individual Church is part of the Universal Church, that it stands for it after the usual symbolic fashion of the Apocalypse, is never far from the writer’s mind; and he passes rapidly between the two points of view, the direct address to the local Church as an individual body with special needs of its own, and the general application and apostrophe to the entire Church as symbolised by the particular local Church.

There is a difference among the letters in regard to the arrangement of the peroration: in the first three the claim for attention comes before the promise, in the last four it comes after. It must remain doubtful whether there is any special intention in this, beyond a certain tendency in the writer towards employing variety as a literary device. Almost every little variation and turn in these letters, however, is carefully studied; and probably it is through deliberate intention that they are divided by this variation into two classes; but what is the reason for the division, and the principle involved in it, is hard to say. The first three ranked also as the three greatest cities of the Province, vying with one another for the title "First of Asia,” which all three claimed. In the general estimation of the world, and in their own, they formed a group apart (compare Figure 10, chapter 14), while the others were second-rate. Probably there was a set of seven leading cities in public estimation, as we saw in chapter 14; and certainly there was within that set a narrower and more famous group of three. It may be that this difference almost unconsciously affected the writer’s expression and produced a corresponding variation in the form, though the variation apparently conveys no difference in force or meaning, but is purely literary and formal.

An attempt has been made to explain the variation on the ground that the first three Churches are regarded as having on the whole been faithful, though with faults and imperfections; whereas the last four have been faithless for the most part, and only a “remnant” is acknowledged in them as faithful. But, while that is true of three out of the four, yet Philadelphia is praised very highly, with almost more thoroughness than any even of the first three, except Smyrna; and it is the only Church to which the Divine Author says “I have loved thee.”

So far as grouping can be detected among the Seven Churches, it would rather appear that they are placed in pairs. Ephesus and Sardis go together; so again Smyrna and Philadelphia, Pergamum and Thyatira; while the distant Laodicea stands by itself, far away in the land of Phrygia. Ephesus and Sardis have both changed and deteriorated; but in Ephesus the change amounts only to a loss of enthusiasm which is still perhaps recoverable; in Sardis the deterioration has deepened into death. Smyrna and Philadelphia are praised far more unreservedly than the rest; both are poor and weak; both have suffered from the Jews; but both are full of life and vigour, now and forever. Pergamum and Thyatira have both been strongly affected by Nicolaitanism; both are compared and contrasted with the Imperial power; and both are promised victory over it. Laodicea stands alone, outcast and rejected, because it cannot make up its mind whether to be one thing or another.

This common plan on which all the Seven Letters are framed would alone furnish a sufficient proof that they are not true letters, but literary compositions which are cast in the form of letters, because that form had already established itself in usage. Now the writer certainly did not select this form merely because it was recognised in the pagan literature. He selected it because it had already become recognised as the characteristic and the best form of expression for Christian didactic literature. A philosophic exposition of truth was apt to become abstract and unreal; the dialogue form, which the Greeks loved and some of the Christian writers adopted, was apt to degenerate into looseness and mere literary display; but the letter, as already elaborated by great thinkers and artists who were his predecessors, was determined for him as the best medium of expression. In this form (as has been shown in chapter 3) literature, statesmanship, ethics, and religion met, and placed the simple letter on the highest level of practical power. Due regard to the practical needs of the congregation which he addressed prevented the writer of a letter from losing hold on the hard facts and serious realities of life. The spirit of the lawgiver raised him above all danger of sinking into the commonplace and the trivial. Great principles must be expressed in the Christian letter. And finally it must have literary form as a permanent monument of teaching and legislation.

It was a correct literary instinct that led St. John to express the message to the Seven Churches in letters, even though he had to work these letters into an apocalypse of the Hebraic style, a much less fortunate choice on pure literary grounds, though (as we have seen in chapter 8) it was practically inevitable in the position in which the writer was placed. In each letter, though it was only a literary Epistle addressed to a representative Church, the writer was obliged to call up before his mind the actual Church as he knew it; and thus he has given us seven varied and individualised pictures of different congregations.

Probably the opposition and criticism which he was sure to experience from the Nicolaitans stimulated the writer to reach the high standard of literary quality which characterises the Seven Letters in spite of the neglect of traditional rules of expression. He uses the language of common life, not the stereotyped forms of the historian or the philosophers. As Dante had the choice between the accepted language of education, Latin, and the vulgar tongue, the popular Italian, so St. John had to choose between a more artificial kind of Greek, as perpetuated from past teaching, and the common vulgar speech, often emancipated from strict grammatical rules, but nervous and vigorous, a true living speech. He chose the latter.

While one must speak about and admire the literary power of the Seven Letters, the writer did not aim at literary form. He stated his thought in the simplest way; he had pondered over the letters during the only years in Patmos, until they expressed themselves in the briefest and most direct form that great thoughts can assume; but therein lies the greatest power that the letter can attain. He reached the highest level in point of epistolary quality, because he had no thought of form, but only of effect on his reader’s life.

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