In the beginning of this book we have an account of a glorious vision presented to the beloved disciple. He was instructed to write down what he saw, and to send it to the Seven Churches in Asia, "unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea." [264:1] A vision so extraordinary as that which he describes, must have left upon his mind a permanent and most vivid impression. "I saw," says he, "seven golden candlesticks, and in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of Man clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hair were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters -- and he had in his rigid hand seven stars, and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength." [264:2]
In the foreground of this picture the Son of God stands conspicuous. His dress corresponds to that of the Jewish high priest, and the whole description of His person has obviously a reference, either to His own divine perfections, or to His offices as the Saviour of sinners. He himself is the expositor of two of the most remarkable of the symbols. "The seven stars," says He, "are the angels of the Seven Churches, and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest, are the Seven Churches." [264:3]
But though the symbol of the stars has been thus interpreted by Christ, the interpretation itself has been the subject of considerable discussion. Much difficulty has been experienced in identifying the angels of the Seven Churches; and there have been various conjectures as to the station which they occupied, and the duties which they performed. According to some they were literally angelic beings who had the special charge of the Seven Churches. [264:4] According to others, the angel of a Church betokens the collective body of ministers connected with the society. But such explanations are very far from satisfactory. The Scriptures nowhere teach that each Christian community is under the care of its own angelic guardian; neither is it to be supposed that an angel represents the ministry of a Church, for one symbol would not be interpreted by another symbol of dubious signification. It seems clear that the angel of the Church is a single individual, and that he must have been a personage well known to the body with which he was connected at the time when the Apocalypse was written.
It has often been asserted that the title "The angel of the Church" is borrowed from the designation of one of the ministers of the synagogue. [265:1] This point, however, has never been fairly demonstrated. In later times there was, no doubt, in the synagogue an individual known by the name of the legate, or the angel; but there is no decisive evidence that an official with such a designation existed in the first century. In the New Testament we have repeated references to the office-bearers of the synagogue; we are told of the rulers [265:2] or elders, the reader, [265:3] and the minister [265:4] or deacon; but the angel is never mentioned. Philo and Josephus are equally silent upon the subject. It is, therefore, extremely doubtful whether a minister with this title was known among the Jews in the days of the apostles. Even granting, what is so very problematical, that there were in the synagogues in the first century individuals distinguished by the designation of angels, it is still exceedingly doubtful whether the angels of the Seven Churches borrowed their names from these functionaries. If so, the angel of the Church must have occupied the same position as the angel of the synagogue, for the adoption of the same title indicated the possession of the same office. But it was the duty of the angel of the synagogue to offer up the prayers of the assembly; [266:1] and as, in all the synagogues, there was worship at the same hour, [266:2] he could, of course, be the minister of only one congregation. If then the angel of the Church discharged the same functions as the angel of the synagogue, it would follow that, towards the termination of the first century, there was only one Christian congregation in each of the seven cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. It may, however, be fairly questioned whether the number of disciples in every one of these places was then so limited as such an inference would suggest. In Laodicea, and perhaps in one or two of the other cities, [266:3] there may have been only a single congregation; but it is scarcely probable that all the brethren in Ephesus still met together in one assembly. About forty years before, the Word of God "grew mightily and prevailed" [266:4] in that great metropolis; and, among its inhabitants, Paul had persuaded "much people" [266:5] to become disciples of Christ. But if the angel of the Church derived his title from the angel of the synagogue, and if the position of these two functionaries was the same, we are shut up to the conclusion that there was now only one congregation in the capital of the Proconsular Asia. The angel could not be in two places at the same time; and, as it was his duty to offer up the prayers of the assembled worshippers, it was impossible for him to minister to two congregations.
These considerations abundantly attest the futility of the imagination that the angel of the Church was a diocesan bishop. The office of the angel of the synagogue had, in fact, no resemblance whatever to that of a prelate. The rank of the ancient Jewish functionary seems to have been similar to that of a precentor in some of our Protestant churches; and when set forms of prayer were introduced among the Israelites, it was his duty to read them aloud in the congregation. The angel was not the chief ruler of the synagogue; he occupied a subordinate position; and was amenable to the authority of the bench of elders. [267:1] It is in vain then to attempt to recognise the predecessors of our modern diocesans in the angels of the Seven Churches. Had bishops been originally called angels, they never would have parted with so complimentary a designation. Had the Spirit of God in the Apocalypse bestowed upon them such a title, it never would have been laid aside. When, about a century after this period, we begin to discover distinct traces of a hierarchy, an extreme anxiety is discernible to find for it something like a footing in the days of the apostles; but, strange to say, the earliest prelates of whom we read are not known by the name of angels. [267:2] If such a nomenclature existed in the time of the Apostle John, it must have passed away at once and for ever! No trace of it can be detected even in the second century. It is thus apparent that, whatever the angels of the Seven Churches may have been, they certainly were not diocesan bishops.
The place where these angels are to be found in the apocalyptic scene also suggests the fallacy of the interpretation that they are the chief pastors of the Seven Churches. The stars are seen, not distributed over the seven candlesticks, but collected together in the hand of Christ. Though the angels seem to be in someway related to the Churches, the relation is such that they may be separated without inconvenience. What, then, can these angels be? How do they happen to possess the name they bear? Why are they gathered into the right hand of the Son of Man? All these questions admit of a very plain and satisfactory solution.
An angel literally signifies a messenger, and these angels were simply the messengers of the Seven Churches. John had long resided at Ephesus; and now that he was banished to the Isle of Patmos "for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ," it would appear that the Christian communities among which he had ministered so many years, sent trusty deputies to visit him, to assure him of their sympathy, and to tender to him their friendly offices. In primitive times such angels were often sent to the brethren in confinement or in exile. Thus, Paul, when in imprisonment at Rome, says to the Philippians -- "Ye have well done that ye did communicate with my affliction ... I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you." [268:1] Here, Epaphroditus is presented to us as the angel of the Church of Philippi. This minister seems, indeed, to have now spent no small portion of his time in travelling between Rome and Macedonia. Hence Paul observes -- "I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and companion in labour and fellow-soldier, but your messenger and he that ministered to my wants." [269:1] In like manner, the individuals selected to convey, to the poor saints in Jerusalem, the contributions of the Gentile converts in Greece and Asia Minor, are called "the messengers of the Churches." [269:2] The practice of sending messengers to visit and comfort the saints in poverty, in confinement, or in exile, may be traced for centuries in the history of the Church. It also deserves notice that, in other parts of the New Testament as well as in the Apocalypse, an individual sent on a special errand is repeatedly called an angel. Thus, John the Baptist, who was commissioned to announce the approach of the Messiah, is styled God's angel, [269:3] or messenger, and the spies, sent to view the land of Canaan, are distinguished by the same designation. [269:4]
Towards the close of the first century the Apostle John must have been regarded with extraordinary veneration by his Christian brethren. He was the last survivor of a band of men who had laid the foundations of the New Testament Church; and he was himself one of the most honoured members of the little fraternity, for he had enjoyed peculiarly intimate fellowship with his Divine Master. Our Lord, "in the days of His flesh," had permitted him to lean upon His bosom; and he has been described by the pen of inspiration as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." [269:5] All accounts concur in representing him as most amiable and warm-hearted; and as he had now far outlived the ordinary term of human existence, the snows of age must have imparted additional interest to a personage otherwise exceedingly attractive. It is not to be supposed that such a man was permitted in apostolic times to pine away unheeded in solitary exile. The small island which was the place of his banishment was not far from the Asiatic metropolis, and the other six cities named in the Apocalypse were all in the same district as Ephesus. It was, therefore, by no means extraordinary that seven messengers from seven neighbouring Churches, to all of which he was well known, are found together in Patmos on a visit to the venerable confessor.
This explanation satisfies all the conditions required by the laws of interpretation. Whilst it reveals a concern for the welfare of John quite in keeping with the benevolent spirit of apostolic times, it is also simple and sufficient. In prophetic language a star usually signifies a ruler, and it is probable that the angels sent to Patmos were selected from among the elders, or rulers, of the Churches with which they were respectively connected; for, it is well known that, at an early period, elders, or presbyters, were frequently appointed to act as messengers or commissioners. [270:1] We may thus perceive, too, why the letters are addressed to the angels, for in this case they were the official organs of communication between the apostle and the religious societies which they had been deputed to represent. It is obvious that the instructions contained in the epistles were designed, not merely for the angels individually, but for the communities of which they were members; and hence the exhortation with which each of them concludes -- "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches." [270:2] When the apostle was honoured with the vision, he was directed to write out an account of what he saw, and to "send it unto the Seven Churches which are in Asia;" [270:3] and this interpretation explains how he transmitted the communication; for, as Christ is said to have "sent and signified" His Revelation "by his angel unto his servant John," [271:1] so John, in his turn, conveyed it by the seven angels to the Seven Churches. It was, no doubt, thought that the messengers undertook a most perilous errand when they engaged to visit a distinguished Christian minister who had been driven into banishment by a jealous tyrant; but they are taught by the vision that they are under the special care of Him who is "the Prince of the kings of the earth;" for the Saviour appears holding them in His right hand as He walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks. When bearing consolation to the aged minister, each one of them could enjoy the comfort of the promise -- "Can a woman forget her sucking child that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will not I forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands." [271:2]
It has often been thought singular that only seven Churches of the Proconsular Asia are here addressed, as it is well known that, at this period, there were several other Christian societies in the same province. Thus, in the immediate neighbourhood of Laodicea were the Churches of Colosse and Hierapolis; [271:3] and in the vicinity of Ephesus, perhaps the Churches of Tralles and Magnesia. But the seven angels mentioned by John may have been the only ecclesiastical messengers in Patmos at the time of the vision; and they may have been the organs of communication with a greater number of Churches than those which they directly represented. Seven was regarded by the Jews as the symbol of perfection; and it is somewhat remarkable that, on another occasion noticed in the New Testament, [271:4] we find exactly seven messengers deputed by the Churches of Greece and Asia Minor to convey their contributions to the indigent disciples in Jerusalem. There are, too, grounds for believing that these seven religious societies, in their varied character and prospects, are emblems of the Church universal. The instructions addressed to the disciples in these seven cities of Asia were designed for the benefit of "THE CHURCHES" of all countries as well as of all succeeding generations; and the whole imagery indicates that the vision is to be thus interpreted. The Son of Man does not confine His care to the Seven Churches of Asia, for He who appears walking in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks is the same who said of old to the nation of Israel -- "I will set up my tabernacle among you, and my soul shall not abhor you, and I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people." [272:1] In the vision, the "countenance" of the Saviour is said to have been "as the sun shineth in his strength;" [272:2] and the prayer of the Church catholic is -- "God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us, that that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations." [272:3]
The preceding statements demonstrate the folly of attempting to construct a system of ecclesiastical polity from such a highly-figurative portion of Scripture as the Apocalypse. In the angel of the Church some have believed they have discovered the moderator of a presbytery; others, the bishop of a diocese; and others, the minister of an Irvingite congregation. But the basis on which all such theories are founded is a mere blunder as to the significance of an ecclesiastical title. The angels of the Seven Churches were neither moderators, nor diocesans, nor precentors, but messengers sent on an errand of love to an apostle in tribulation.