"The seven churches"
The word "church" stands in the English Testament as the equivalent of a compound Greek word (ekkleesia (NT:1577), from ek (NT:1537) and kaleoo (NT:2564), signifying to call out of or from among. In three instances, our translators have rendered it assembly. This is its primary sense, which underlies all its applications in the New Testament, the Septuagint, and the Greek language in general. The pagan Greeks used it to denote the select assemblies of free citizens convened for the transaction of public affairs, in which the common populace, strangers, and such as had forfeited civic rights, had no place. It is used by Stephen to denote the congregation of the children of Israel in the wilderness, who had been called forth from Egypt, and were on their way to the promised land (Acts 7:38). It is sometimes used to denote the entire community of Christian people, of all nations and ages; as where the Saviour says: "Upon this Rock will I build my [ekkleesia] (NT:1577) Church;" and where Paul exhorts the elders to "feed the [ekkleesia] (NT:1577) Church of God which he hath purchased with His own blood." It is also used to denote the small companies of Christians belonging to one household, as where we read of "Nymphas and the [ekkleesia] (NT:1577) Church which is in his house;" "Priscilla and Aquilla, and the [ekkleesia] (NT:1577) Church that is in their house." But its most frequent application is to denote some particular society of Christians, in the same neighborhood or city, organized around a common altar, and statedly coming together in the same services: as we read of "the [ekkleesia] (NT:1577) Church which is at Corinth;" "the [ekkleesia] (NT:1577) Church which is at Jerusalem," etc.. It means an assembly, convened by authority, and constituted of a specific class, out of, but withdrawn from, the general mass of the population. It therefore most expressively sets forth what a true church is.
Everywhere the Gospel speaks of a calling and an election, and the Church is the organized society of the called and elected. It is the assembly or community of those whom God has called out from the world into a common fellowship of faith, hope, and obedience, and which is preserved and perpetuated by means of functions and services included in the call. And wherever there is a company of such as have received and believed the Gospel, organized into one body, in the charge of one authorized minister, and coming together in the same stated services, there is a true Church. And such societies were "the [(hepta] (NT:2033) [ekkleesiai] (NT:1577)) seven churches" of the text, concerning which I propose to notice more especially:
I. THEIR LOCATIONS
II. THEIR SIGNIFICANCE
The locations of these seven churches are given twice: first, in the general commission which John received; and second, in the specific directions what to write to each. The command of the trumpet voice was: "What thou seest, write in a book, and send it to the seven churches: unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea" (Revelation 1:11). And in the succeeding chapters, he was further directed to write "unto the angel of the Church in Ephesus; unto the angel of the Church in Smyrna; unto the angel of the Church in Pergamos," etc..
These are not unknown places. They all lie within the scope of a few hundred miles north of the Mediterranean and east of the outlet of the Black Sea. The churches in these localities are sometimes called "the seven churches of Asia," but the "Asia" of which the Scriptures speak is not the great continent of Asia, or even of Asia Minor, but only the western part of Asia Minor, directly south of the Black Sea. The whole of it does not include a larger territory than the single State of Pennsylvania. Less than 13 months ago, I passed entirely around two sides of it, and visited two of the most noted places to which the text refers.
The first in the list is Ephesus. This was once an important and magnificent city-to proconsular Asia, about what Philadelphia is to Pennsylvania. Of the seven, it was the nearest to the point at which John had the vision. It was the center of trade for a rich and beautiful country, and the seat of its government, learning, art, wealth and religion. It was a place specially consecrated, in the minds of the people, by many myths and legends of gods and goddesses, and by the presence of a temple which was one of the wonders of the world. It was here that Paul lived for two years, and achieved some of his most brilliant missionary successes. Here he performed many "special miracles," healing the sick and casting out demons, even with "handkerchiefs and aprons" which he had touched. Here he gained that glorious triumph over the exorcists and magicians, for whom Ephesus was famous, who "brought together their books, and burned them before all men" (Acts 19:19), the price of which was "fifty thousand pieces of silver." Here he daily taught and debated the great doctrines of the faith, until "all Asia" had tidings of the truth as it is in Jesus, and the frightened silversmiths began to cry out for their craft, in consequence of the power of his arguments against the alleged divinity of Diana and the worshipfulness of her shrines. Here he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians; and to the converts here he afterward sent a masterly epistle, which constitutes an important part of the Christian Scriptures.
Ephesus was also the home of the Apostle John. Here he ministered and subsequently died. The ruins of a church still remain, which are said to mark the spot where he was buried. Here, most likely, the blessed mother of the Saviour had her last home, and laid off her mortal body. Here Apollos was converted to Christ, and first exercised his great gifts in the Gospel’s interests. Here, too, the beloved Timothy lived, and discharged the duties of his sacred ministry, and died a victim of mob violence for his protests against the licence and frenzy of the great festival of Artemis. And next to Jerusalem itself, the world, perhaps, has not another spot around which cluster so many holy histories, classic interests, and precious traditions.
But Ephesus is a mere desolation now, altogether waste, without an inhabitant. The great marketplace, where the exchanges of a renowned metropolis were once conducted, I saw planted with tobacco, unenclosed, unattended, weedy, and forsaken. The great lizards, as we rode along, darted about in amazement at the sight of man, over fallen columns of porphyry and marble, and splendid cornices and capitals, which were once the admiration of the world. And silence, malaria and death brooded upon what was proudly styled "the first of cities," and embraced the names of some of the greatest in wealth and wisdom, religion and literature, arts and arms. The vast theater, the largest ever constructed, which once rang with the shouts of the frenzied thousands who, "all with one voice, about the space of two hours, cried out, Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" (Acts 19:34). still shows its grand outlines of walls and arches; but old wild bushes are gnarled around its heavy masonry, and the camel was browsing in its forsaken circles as I rode through it. Even the glorious temple of the great mother goddess can no longer be identified with certainty. Two piles of colossal ruins are each claimed as its remains, and I plucked wild berries in both of them. Remnants of cyclopean walls, causeways, temples, streets, and houses, line the plains and hills and mountain-sides of a vast area which once was filled with their glory; but the whole place is a complete desolation, enveloped in a poisonous atmosphere, and tenanted only by things unclean and vile.
Smyrna is the next in the list, the next nearest to Patmos, and the next in importance. It is the only one of the seven places named which retains anything of its ancient standing. It is finely situated, at the head of a beautiful bay, about forty miles northeast of Ephesus. It is now the commercial center of the Levant, and is being invested with a system of railroads, sending out their iron arms into the interior, to gather to it the riches and trade of the fertile lands which lie almost desolate behind it. It has a population of about 120,000, mostly Greeks, but profusely intermingled with people of all nations, languages, complexions, religions and fashions, who live in small, dark houses, strung along narrow, crooked and filthy lanes, dignified with the name of streets. There are a few good, clever buildings; but it does not appear so much like a city, as a sort of confused convention of the long-severed inhabitants of Babel, with a view to make a city, upon the plan of which they cannot agree. One of its most marked features is the constant coming and going of almost interminable strings of camels and donkeys, which even the railroads have not been able to supersede. The appearance and habits of the people are anything but attractive, and mosquitoes abound almost to suffocation.
Smyrna was originally founded by Alexander, and is stoutly claimed as the birthplace of Homer. It was at first laid out with great regularity and architectural taste, and was considered the most beautiful city in Asia. It was celebrated for its library, its temples, and its sacred festivals and games. There is no allusion to it in the Scriptures, except in the Apocalypse. How and when Christianity was introduced into it, we have no account. The Church there was no doubt founded during Paul’s stay at Ephesus. It was the seat of Polycarp’s ministrations and martyrdom. It was there that Irenaeus studied, and that many Christians in different ages perished on account of their faith. The hillside of Pagus, on which Polycarp was burned, has since been reddened with the blood of fifteen hundred confessors at one time, and eight hundred at another. It is as sacred in Christian annals as it is majestic and conspicuous to the beholder. Remnants of the ancient acropolis still stand on its summit, from which the view is exceedingly attractive. Fancy could hardly paint a more fitting mount for the ascension of the saints who from thence went up to their rest.
Pergamos is the next in the list. This lies directly north of Smyrna, perhaps 40 miles distant. It was settled and named by the AEolian Greeks, after the fall of Troy. I was within 20 miles of it, but no nearer. At the time the Apocalypse was written, it was a sumptuous city, the home of rich chiefs, who had adorned it with magnificent residences, temples and groves. It had a library which rivaled that at Alexandria, a great medical school, and was famous for the rites which were there celebrated in honor of Aesculapius. It was not a commercial town, such as Ephesus, but a union of a pagan cathedral city, a university seat, and a royal residence, embellished, during a succession of years, by kings and chiefs fond of expenditure and ample in resources. It was a city of pagan temples-a grand Pantheon of pagan worship-a metropolis of sacred sensuality-and hence, "Satan’s throne." It is now a mere tomb of former greatness. Half-buried arches, columns prostrate in the sand, and a few thousand Turkish and Greek huts, is about all that remains to mark the luxuriant and sensuous city, where the faithful Antipas suffered, and so much glory reigned.
Twenty or thirty miles to the southeast was Thyatira, the fourth in the list, and once a considerable town, founded by Seleucus Nicator. In the time of John, it was mainly inhabited by Macedonians, who had formed themselves into various guilds of potters, tanners, weavers, rope-makers and dyers. Lydia, the seller of purple stuffs, whom Paul met at Philippi, was from this place, and was connected with one of these departments of the industrial activity for which it was distinguished. It was a place of great amalgamation of races and religious observances. It now has about thirty thousand inhabitants, and is full of ruins. The mouths of many of the wells are made of capitals of old columns; and the streets, in places, are paved with fragments of carved stones-the relics of the ancient city.
From Thyatira, some 30 miles to the southward, we come to Sardis, at the foot of Mount Tmolus, on the banks of a rivulet famous for its golden sands. Here the wealthy Croesus lived and reigned. Here the wise Thales, Cleobulus, and Solon had their homes. And on the plains around it once lay the hosts of Xerxes, on their way to find a sepulchre at Marathon. It was a rich and glorious city when Cyrus conquered it; and though subsequently destroyed by an earthquake, it obtained considerable distinction under the Romans, in the reign of Tiberius. It is now a scene of melancholy ruins, with a mill and a few shepherds’ huts. When Emerson visited it, he says: "There were more varied and vivid remembrances associated with the sight of Sardis, than could possibly be attached to any other spot of earth; but all were mingled with a feeling of disgust at the littleness of human glory: all-all had passed away! There were before me the fanes of a dead religion, the tombs of forgotten monarchs, and the palm-tree that waved in the banquet hall of kings; while the feeling of desolation was doubly heightened by the calm, sweet sky above me, which, in its unfading brightness, shone as purely now as when it beamed upon the golden dreams of Croesus."
Southeastward, less than forty miles, stood Philadelphia, the great wine-market of Phrygia, rocked with oft-recurring earthquakes, and with a population once large and powerful, but never very distinguished. It took its name from the king who founded it. It is still a considerable country town, with a dozen churches or more, but not Christians enough to fill one-fourth of them, and those of a very doubtful sort. In Roman times, it was not of sufficient importance to command law-courts of its own, but belonged to a jurisdiction which had its center in Sardis. Those who constituted the Church to which John was commanded to write, are supposed to have been poor people, living on the outskirts, and heavily taxed for public purposes.
Laodicea lay some 50 miles still further to the southeast. It was built, or rather rebuilt, by one of the Seleucid monarchs, and received its name in honor of his wife. It was a place of considerable size, trade and wealth. Both under the Romans and under the Turks, it has been the battleground of contending parties in Asia Minor. The remains of theaters, temples and other public edifices, still bear testimony to its former greatness. It does not appear that Paul ever visited it in person; but it was evidently through him that Christianity was there introduced; and to the believers there he once wrote a letter-which has been lost.
(NOTE: Colossians 4:16. It is thought by some that the epistle here referred to has not been lost, but is the same as the Epistle to Philemon, or the First Epistle to Timothy.)
-and sent his friendly greetings from his prison at Rome. In subsequent times it became a Christian city of eminence, the see of a bishop, and a meeting-place of church councils. It was destroyed by the Muslim invaders, and is now a scene of utter desolation. There is a small village in the neighborhood, the houses of which are built of its ruins. Emerson says it is even more solitary than Ephesus, for the latter has the prospect of the rolling sea, or of a whitening sail, to enliven its decay; while Laodicea sits in widowed loneliness, its walls grass-grown, its temples desolate, its very name perished. He left it in a thunderstorm, preferring to hasten on, through rain and tempest, to delay in that melancholy spot, where everything whispered desolation, and where the very wind that swept impetuously through the valley sounded like the fiendish laugh of Time, exulting over the destruction of man and his proudest monuments.
So much then for the locations of these seven churches. We pass to the more important matter of their significance. This is indicated in the number seven. The earliest commentator on the Apocalypse, whose work has come down to us, was Victorinus, Bishop of Pettau, or Petavium, who died a martyr in the year 303 AD He was the contemporary of Irenaeus, and a man of piety, diligence in setting forth the teachings of the Scriptures, and vigorous in his perceptions of the meaning of the sacred writers. Most of his writings have been lost, except some fragments. His comments on the Apocalypse survive, in a text less pure than we could wish, but sufficiently giving the substance of his views. In his Scholia in Apocalypsin, he says that what John addresses to one Church he addresses to all; that Paul was the first to teach us that there are seven churches in the whole world, and that the seven churches named mean the Church universal; and that John, to observe the same method, has not exceeded the number seven.
(NOTE: The passage, as it stands in Migne’s Patrologiae (tom. 5, col. 320), reads thus: "Istae septem stelliae sunt septem Ecclesiae quas nominat in vocabulis suis, et vocat eas ad quas fecit epistolas. Non quia ipsae solae sunt Ecclesiae, aut principes; sed quod uni dicit, omnibus dicit. Nihil enim differunt, ut ex illa ratione quis paucorum similium majori numero anteponat. In toto orbe septennatim Ecclesias omnes, septem esse nominatas, et unam esse Catholicam Paulus docuit. Et primum quidem ut servaret et ipse typum septem Ecclesiarum, non excessit numerum. Sed Scripsit ad Romanos, ad Corinthios, ad Galatas, ad Ephesios, ad Thessalonicenses, ad Philippenses, ad Colossenses … In his ergo septem Ecclesiis, unius Ecclesiae Catholicae, fideles sunt, quia una in septem qualitatem fidei et electionis est.")
What Victorinus means, is that Paul, in writing to seven churches, and to seven only, intended to have it understood that all the churches of all time are comprehended in seven; and that, in the same way, the seven churches in the Apocalypse are meant to comprise all the churches in the world: that is, the Church universal of all ages. This was also the view of Tichaenius, of the fourth century; Arethas of Cappadocia, and Primasius of Adrumetum, in the sixth; and Vitringa, Mede, More, Girdlestone, and a large body of divines, of later periods.
(NOTE: This view has, indeed, been pronounced "egregious trifling"-"a mere castle in the air"-"the offspring of nothing but imagination"-"mere gratuitous assumption." And if blustering words make it so, there is no doubt that we must so regard it. But the murderers of Victorinus got no credit, in the judgment of truth and heaven, for their work; and those who seek to overturn his opinion in this particular, may yet find themselves with quite as little for theirs. The author whose language I have just given has so stultified himself by his rejection of the natural and necessary conclusion announced by Victorinus, that, after two large and ponderous volumes on the Apocalypse, he has left it wholly unexplained why seven churches, and only seven, and these particular seven, were chosen to be the subjects and recipients of these seven epistles.
Nay, when he comes to his elaborate exposition of the significance of numbers, he gives the data for his own confutation, and, in effect, establishes what he elsewhere ridicules. "Seven," he says, "is the designation of that which is perfect"-"the perfect number by way of eminence"-"often employed in the sense of a complete, adequate, perfect number"-"the number nearly everywhere employed throughout the book in a symbolic way"-"a number which may stand, as it were, in the place of a representative of all other numbers." Take these conclusions, and apply them to the seven churches, and to what other result are we brought but exactly that announced by Victorinus-that the seven churches stand for the entire Church, the complete society of professing Christians, the Church universal, in the whole of its membership and the entireness of its earthly condition and career?)
There is a sacred significance in numbers: not cabalistic, not fanciful; but proceeding from the very nature of things, well settled in the Scriptures, and universally acknowledged in all the highest and deepest systems of human thought and religion.
The unit, one, is the source and parent of all numbers. It therefore stands for God, in the most hidden absoluteness of His being, in which the whole Godhead, and all things, stand. "There is one God, and there is none other but He" (Mark 12:32). One expresses commencement, and God is the commencement. The unit underlies all continuation, and by God all things consist. And nothing can so well express the absolute First Cause, as the number ONE. It stands for the absolute Unity in heaven, and the abstract individual on earth.
But Godhead, as let forth to the contemplation of rational beings, is a Trinity-a One Three and a Three One. Nearly all the leading nations of antiquity, in harmony with revelation, have so represented Him. In this Trinity, the Son is the second. Two, therefore, stands for Christ, and is significant of incompletion, or something missing. It is the first from the one, and reposes on the one, and is necessary to the making up of the first complete complex number, but is not complete in itself. It is the productive number, but it is only complete when the product is added. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Man and wife are two-one, but the product of dual unity is needed to complete the family.
Three is the number of individual completion. It is composed of three numbers, each of which is in itself one, and which multiplied together still make only one. Three, therefore, represents the Trinity, each number of which is God, and yet the Three together are still only One. It is the simplest composite unity, and forms the simplest compound figure in geometry-the equal-sided triangle, which is indivisible, and unresolvable into anything else. It is the first and fixed compound unit of mathematical science. It therefore properly stands for the Trinity and individual completeness. As such, it has also been done in all God’s works. Man is body, soul, and spirit-three-one. The family is man, and wife, and offspring-three-one. Religion is knowledge, action, and experience-three-one.
"Matter, and breath, and instinct, unite in all the beasts of the field;
Substance, coherence, and weight, fashion the fabrics of the earth;
The will, the doing, and the deed, combine to form a fact;
The stem, the leaf, and the flower-beginning, middle, and end;
Cause, circumstance, consequent: and every three is one.
Yea, the very breath of man’s life consisteth of a trinity of vapors,
And the noonday light is a compound-the triune shadow of Jehovah."
Four is the worldly number. It proceeds from three, and includes three. And as three represents the Trinity-the highest, and the perfect-four designates that which proceeds from the Trinity, and is dependent thereon: the creation, the universe. Hence, the world resolves itself into four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. The points of the compass are four: north, east, south, west. There are four seasons, four winds, four grand divisions of the earth. The great world-powers of history and prophecy are four. The living beings, supposed to represent the forces of providence, are four. Ezekiel’s vision of God’s providence in the world revealed four cherubim, four wheels with four sides, four faces, and four wings. The waters in Eden were four. The fourth commandment, and the fourth clause in the Lord’s Prayer, refer to the earth. The square and the cube, those important ground-forms of common geometric relations, are fours. And to the Oriental philosophers, four is always the figure of the universe, especially of the world. There is therefore no mistaking of this number.
Five represents progress, but incompleteness. It is the perfect three, with the imperfect two. On the fifth day life was created in the sea, but there was yet no life on land. Five toes, or five fingers, are but half of what pertain to a complete man. Under the fifth seal the martyrs are impatient, but are told to wait yet a season. They are enjoying some of the fruits of their faith, but their crowns are deferred. The fifth vial is poured upon the seat of the beast, but does not destroy it utterly. The virgins were five wise and five foolish, showing that the one class does not include all the saved, nor the other all that fail to enter into the marriage of the Lamb.
Six is the Satanic number. As the darkest hour immediately precedes the dawn, and the darkest years are the last before the millennial Sabbath, so the number immediately preceding the complete seven is the worst of all. The sixth body in the solar system is a shattered one. The sixth epistle to the churches tells of an hour of universal trial and suffering; the sixth seal brings destruction and death; the sixth trumpet destroys the third part of mankind; and the sixth vial introduces the unclean spirits who gather the kings of the earth and of the whole world to the war of the great day of God Almighty. The antichrist’s number is three sixes: six units, six tens, and six hundreds-666-the individual completion of everything evil. And Christ was crucified on the sixth day, which is still the common execution day, and is popularly regarded as the most unlucky of the seven.
Seven is the number of dispensational fullness. It is the complete in that which is temporary-not the finally complete. It carries with it the idea of sacredness in that which relates to this world. It is the Trinity and the created in contact-the divine Three with the worldly four. Hence, it is always connected with whatever touches the covenant between man and God, worship, and the coming together of the Creator and the creature. Hence, the sacred number. "The evidences of this reach back to the very beginning. We meet them first in the hallowing of the seventh day, in pledge and token of the covenant of God with man, as indeed in the binding up of seven in the very word Sabbath.
(NOTE: Trench on the Seven Epistles.)
They are also traceable in the nature and confirmative power of an oath, which is signified by a Hebrew word embracing this number. It is a number which, somehow, occurs in cases of union between God and man; in representations of the holy in the earthly; in all expressions of the completeness of any specific sacred order or time. The instances, at any rate, are too numerous to mention. The Bible is full of them. And the Apocalypse, which is the book of the consummation of all God’s dispensational dealings with mankind, is, above all, a book of sevens. It consists of seven visions, with the sevenfold ascription of glory to God and to the Lamb, and discloses to us the seven Spirits of God, the seven candlesticks, the seven stars, seven lamps of fire, seven seals, seven horns and seven eyes of the Lamb, seven angels with seven trumpets, seven thunders, seven heads of the beast and seven crowns upon those heads, the seven plagues, seven vials, seven mountains, and seven regencies. And it is this book of sevens because it is the book of the fullness of everything of which it treats-the Trinity’s consummation of all divine dispensations. It is therefore the number of dispensational fullness. And whatever bears this number, in the divine reckoning, is full, complete, with nothing left out, and nothing of its own kind to be added.
Eight is the number of new beginning and resurrection. The eighth day is the beginning of a new week. The Jewish child was circumcised the eighth day, which was its birth into covenant relations. Noah was "the eighth person," and his family consisted of eight, and they started the new world after the flood. Christ rose from the dead on the eighth day. David was the eighth son of Jesse, and he established a new order for Israel. In the eighth year, the Jews were to sow the ground again as the fresh beginning of a new septenary. The eighth head of the beast was the revival of the seventh. Our Sunday, which celebrates the new creation which began in the Saviour’s resurrection, is the eighth day, the first of the new week. And the eternal order of blessedness is to begin with the eighth thousand years from Adam.
Ten is the number of worldly completion, especially in the line of worldly evil. The great beast of worldly power, in its final form, has ten horns. The body of man, in earthly completeness, has ten fingers and ten toes. The moral law, as applicable to man in this world, has ten precepts. The earthly manifestations of Christ after His resurrection were ten. The tribulation spoken of to the Church in Smyrna was for ten days. The lost tribes of Israel are ten. The Church, in its mixed earthly condition and slumbering, is represented by ten virgins. It is the union of the worldly four and the Satanic six; of the new eight and the incomplete two; of the individually perfect three and the dispensationally full seven.
Twelve is the number of final completeness. Hence, the twelve months in the year, the twelve signs in the zodiac, the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles of the Lamb, the twelve stars in the crown of the woman clothed with the sun, the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem, the twelve fruits of the Tree of Life, etc.
But I will not linger among these numbers. I have said enough to show that they have an important significance, rooted in the nature of things, and acknowledged in the Scriptures and in the common language and thinking of the great mass of mankind. They are not inventions of men, but expressions of God and His works. They also furnish new and forcible evidence of the truthfulness of the estimate of this book which I have given-to wit: that it is the book of the consummation-a divine picture of the fullness and winding up of all God’s dispensations in this world. I have given more than was necessary for my purpose, but I thought it best to give the connected list. The text contains but one of these numbers. That number is seven. These churches are seven. And if this number has the significance which I have assigned it, and which seems to be admitted by all who have looked into the subject, it gives us the key to the true significance of these churches. It assigns to them the unmistakable character of completeness. As "the seven Spirits which are before the throne" are the one Holy Spirit, in all the fullness and completeness of His offices and powers in this dispensation, so "the seven churches" are the one holy, universal Church, in all the amplitude and completeness of its being and history, from the time of the vision to the end.
Nor does this conflict with the fact that these were literal historic churches, existing, at the time the apostle wrote, at the places which I have described. They were churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, etc., as really as our John’s is a church of this present Philadelphia. But there were other churches then existing, at Colossae, Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, Rome, and elsewhere, some of them larger and more powerful than some of those named. Why, then, were these not taken into the account? Did they not need instruction, and rebuke, and encouragement, and warning, as well as the favored seven? The only explanation is, that they were somehow included in the seven. They were not specifically and locally addressed, because what concerned their estate, and the mind of Christ with reference to it, are embraced and expressed in the seven. In other words, these seven churches, in their names, in their graces, in their defects, in their relations to Christ, and in His promises and threatenings to them severally, comprehend everything found in the entire Church, as it then existed, or was to exist.
Seven, by common consent, is just the number to express this idea. That it is a mere accident in the composition-a mere grace of rhetoric, the more to interest the reader by the artistic method by which these momentous matters are handled, I cannot admit. That a man with the zeal and fire of the apostle John, standing in the midst of the most stupendous and overwhelming scenes ever to be enacted on earth, should, amid it all, coolly set to work to elaborate a style, and round up his message into graceful sections and harmonious divisions, merely to entertain the taste and please the imagination of his readers, is to me incomprehensible. The idea carries absurdity on its face. And it so sinks the apostle into the poet, and the inspired man of God into the rhetorician, and the direct words of Christ into the fancies of men, that it strips the Apocalypse of that sacredness which it claims for itself; transmutes it into a mere religious Iliad, or Paradise Lost, or Paradise Regained, and places it before us as a book for aesthetic criticism and rhetorical study, rather than, as it was meant to be, a message from Jesus to regulate our faith, and hope, and life, with reference to the judgment to come, every word and feature of which is from God, and much in the very language of God. I must, therefore, insist that this doctrine of numbers, if we had nothing else, settles upon these seven churches a representative comprehensiveness which embraces the entire fullness of the Church of all time.
(NOTE: "The seven must be regarded as constituting a complex whole-as possessing an ideal completeness. Christ, we feel sure, could not have placed Himself in the relation which He does to them-as holding in His hand the seven stars, walking among the seven golden candlesticks, these stars being the angels of the churches, and candlesticks the churches themselves-unless they ideally represented and set forth, in some way or other, the universal Church militant here upon earth."-Trench on the Seven Epistles, p. 44.
"The number seven is used throughout the Apocalypse in a symbolic sense, and is admitted to be expressive of completeness or perfection. Why should ‘the seven churches’ be an exception to the rule? Were the seven local churches, the names of which are given, the only light-bearers or candlesticks? Did the light entirely cease to shine when these Asiatic churches ceased to exist? Let these seven churches, or candlesticks, be regarded as a sevenfold or perfect representative of the one Church, in its responsibility to Christ as His light-bearer or witness before the world, and we have an interpretation at once consistent with the entire character of the book, and sufficient to account for the selection of seven local churches, the divers states of which furnish what was needed for this sevenfold or perfect view of the whole professing body."-Plain Papers, p. 418.
"The number seven in the Scriptures denotes something universal and complete."-Luther (see Walch’s Luther, ix. 2063).)
There are, however, other considerations to corroborate this view. One is found in the seven times repeated admonition: "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto 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. Why is this? The whole Apocalypse is encircled with a special promise of blessing to him that reads and keeps it. We find it in the first verses, and among the last; and we argue from it that there is something special in this book, calling for our particular attention. And when we find this sevenfold additional admonition affixed to the seven epistles, and in each place made to refer to the whole seven, what are we to gather from it but that, in the mind of Jesus, there is much more in these seven epistles than we find on the surface of them, and that they apply to Christians universally, and concern every man, throughout all Gospel times, in a way which turns the peculiarities of these seven particular churches into types and images of the Church general in its entireness of membership and history?
Admit that these epistles contain a panoramic outline of the whole visible Church, as that Church and her deeds appear in the light of the throne of God, and this vehemency, the scope and intensity of which cannot be exaggerated, is at once explained. If, in dealing with these epistles, every man, of every age, has a divine thermometer whereby to tell exactly where he or his Church stands in Christ’s judgment, and one constructed and delivered to him from Christ himself for this specific purpose, then this fullness and unlimitedness of urgency is comprehensible and fitting; but on any other assumption, it degenerates into mere poetry and rhetoric. And as I am bound to believe that Christ’s words, so solemnly and significantly given, are entitled to all the fullness of meaning of which they are capable, I must conclude, from this sevenfold charge concerning these seven epistles, that these seven churches of Asia, as here described, were meant to be paradigmatic of the whole Church, every Church, and every member of the Church, and Christ’s judgment of them, then and thereafter, up to and inclusive of His final apportionment of rewards and punishments to each.
The same may be argued from the word "mystery," as applied to these churches and their angels. It intimates, from the start, that there is something more intended than is seen upon the surface; and what that something is, we find in the view I have given. And, indeed, the nature of the vision in which John received these epistles, assumes that not these seven churches alone, but in them the entire Church, is to be contemplated. The angels of other churches, and other ages, are as much stars in Christ’s right hand as these seven, and why should we think to leave them out of the solemn representation?
These seven churches, then, besides being literal historical churches, stand for the entire Christian body, in all periods of its history. But how, or in what respects? Upon this point, let me add a word or two before I close.
In the first place, the seven churches represent seven phases or periods in the Church’s history, stretching from the time of the apostles to the coming again of Christ, the characteristics of which are set forth partly in the names of these churches, but more fully in the epistles addressed to them. There has been an Ephesian period-a period of warmth and love and labor for Christ, dating directly from the apostles, in which defection began by the gradual cooling of the love of some, the false professions of others, and the incoming of undue exaltations of the clergy and church offices. Then came the Smyrna period-the era of martyrdom, and of the sweet savor unto God of faithfulness unto death, but marked with further developments of defection in the establishment of castes and orders, the licence of Judaizing propensities, and consequent departures from the true simplicities of the Gospel. Then followed the Pergamite period, in which true faith more and more disappeared from view, and clericalism gradually formed itself into a system, and the Church united with the world, and Babylon began to rear itself aloft.
Then came the Thyatiran period-the age of purple and glory for the corrupt priesthood, and of darkness for the truth; the age of effeminacy and clerical domination, when the Church usurped the place of Christ, and the witnesses of Jesus were given to dungeons, stakes and inquisitions; the age of the enthronement of the false prophetess, reaching to the days of Luther and the Reformation. Then came the Sardian period-the age of separation and return to the rule of Christ; the age of comparative freedom from Balaam and his doctrines, from the Nicolaitans and their tenets, from Jezebel and her fornications; an age of many worthy names, but marked with deadness withal, and having much of which to repent; an age covering the spiritual lethargy of the Protestant centuries before the great evangelical movements of the last hundred years, which brought us the Philadelphian era, marked by a closer adherence to the written word, and more fraternity among Christians, but now rapidly giving place to Laodicean lukewarmness, self-sufficiency, empty profession, and false peace, in which the day of judgment is to find the unthinking multitude who suppose they are Christians and are not.
The details in these outlines I leave until we come to the more direct exposition of the epistles themselves, but will yet observe, on this point, that everything which marks one of these periods pertains also, in a lower degree, to every period. It is simply the predominance, and greater or less vigor, of one element at one time, which distinguishes the seven eras from each other. The seven periods, in other words, coexist in every period, as well as in succession, only that in one period the one is predominant, and in another the other.
In the next place, the seven churches represent seven varieties of Christians, both true and false. Every professor of Christianity is either an Ephesian in his religious qualities, a Smyrnaote, a Pergamite, a Thyatiran, a Sardian, a Philadelphian, or a Laodicean. It is of these seven sorts that the whole Church is made up, the several marks and characteristics of each of which will be brought out hereafter.
Nor are we to look for one sort in one period, or in one denomination, only. Every age, every denomination, and nearly every congregation, contains specimens of each. As all the elements of the ocean are to be found, in more or less distinctness, in every drop from the ocean, so every community of Christian professors has some of all the varied classes which make up Christendom at large. One may abound most in Ephesians, another in Smyrnaotes, another in Thyatirans, and others in other kinds; but we shall hardly be at a loss to find all in all. There are Protestant Papists, and Papistical Protestants; sectarian anti-sectarians, and partyists who are not schismatics; holy ones in the midst of abounding defection and apostasy, and unholy ones in the midst of the most earnest and active faith; light in dark places, and darkness in the midst of light.
Thus, I find the seven churches in every church, giving to these epistles a directness of application to ourselves, and to professing Christians of every age, of the utmost solemnity and importance. They tell what Christ’s judgment of each of us is, and what we each may expect in the great day of His coming. In every age, and in every congregation, Christ is walking among His churches, with open, flaming eyes; and these epistles give us His opinion of what His all-revealing glance discovers. And as we would know where we stand, and what we may expect when this Apocalypse is fulfilled, let us carefully examine, and pray God to help us to the true understanding of, these special summaries of what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Joseph A. Seiss, The Apocalypse