The favourite interpretations of the term are two: that the "angels of the churches" are either the guardian angels to whom they were severally committed, or their bishops or chief pastors. Both interpretations may be unhesitatingly rejected.
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For as to the first, there is a total absence of proof that it was either a Jewish or an early Christian idea that each Christian community had its guardian angel; and as to the second, if there was, as there seems to have been, in the synagogues of the Jews, an official known as the "angel" or "messenger," he occupied an altogether inferior position, and possessed none of the authoritative control here ascribed to the several "angels" mentioned.
Besides this, both interpretations are set aside by the single consideration that, keeping in view what has been said of the number seven in its relation to the number one, the seven angels, like the seven churches, must be capable of being regarded as a unity. But this cannot be the case with seven guardian angels, for such a universal guardianship can be predicated of the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Head of the Church, alone.
Nor can seven bishops or chief pastors be reasonably resolved into one universal bishop or the moderator of one universal presbytery. The true idea seems to be that the "angels" of the churches are a symbolical representation in which the active , as distinguished from the passive, life of the Church finds expression. To St.
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John every person, every thing, has its angel. God [Pg 26] proclaims and executes His will by angels. In like manner the "angels of the churches" are the churches themselves, with this mark of distinction only,—that, when they are thus spoken of, they are viewed not merely as in possession of inward vigour, but as exercising it towards things without. The interpretation now given is confirmed by the fact that the "angels," as appears from the words of chap.
The uniformity of treatment, too, which must be claimed for the number seven when used both with the churches and the stars, is thus rendered possible; for if the former may represent the universal Church in what she is , the latter will represent the same Church in what she does. Thus, then, in the seven "golden candlesticks" and in the seven "stars" or "angels" we have a double picture of the Church; and each of the two figures employed points to a different aspect [Pg 27] of her being.
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It is possible also that the double designation may have been chosen in conformity with a rule, often observed in the Apocalypse, which leads the writer to speak of the same thing, first under an emblem taken from Judaism, and then under one from the wider sphere of the great Gentile Church. The "golden candlestick" burning in the secret of God's Tabernacle gives the former, the "star" shining in the firmament the latter. Such then being the case, the seven epistles being addressed to the seven churches, and not to any individual in each, the following particulars with regard to them ought to be kept in view:—.
They are intended to set before us a picture of the universal Church. At first sight indeed it may seem as if they were only to be looked at individually and separately.
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The different churches are addressed by name. In what is said of each there is nothing out of keeping with what we may easily suppose to have been its condition at the time. There is as much reason to believe that each epistle contains an actual historical picture as there is to believe this in the case of the epistles of St.
Paul to Rome, or Corinth, or Ephesus, or Philippi. Any other supposition would convey a false idea of the principles upon which the Apocalypse is framed, would destroy the reality of the Apostle's writing, and would compel us to think that his words must have been unintelligible to those for whom, whatever their further application, they were primarily designed. The question, however, is not thus exhausted; for it is perfectly possible that both certain churches and certain particulars in their state may have been selected rather than others, because they afforded the best typical representation of the [Pg 28] universal Church.
Several reasons may satisfy us that this was actually done. One of the early fathers speaks of churches at Magnesia and Tralles. Yet St. John addressed himself not to seven, but to "the seven churches which are in Asia," as if there were no more churches in the province. He makes a selection, without saying that he does so; and it is a natural supposition that his selection is designed to represent the universal Church. Every reader of the book of Revelation is familiar with the singular part played by that number in its structure, and with the fact that unless chap.
It is the number of unity in diversity, of unity in that manifoldness of operation which alone entitles it to the name of unity. Such expressions, therefore, as the "seven Spirits of God" or the "seven eyes of the Lamb," are evidently symbolical. The same idea must be carried through all the notices of the number, unless there be something in the context clearly leading to a different conclusion. Nothing of that kind exists here. Were these two chapters indeed out of harmony with the rest of the book, or had they little or no relation to it, [Pg 29] it might be urged that they were simply historical, and that no deeper meaning was to be sought in them than that lying on the surface.
We have already seen, however, that their connexion with the other chapters is of the closest kind; and we cannot therefore avoid bringing them under the scope of the same principles of interpretation as are elsewhere applicable. Their number—seven—must thus be regarded as typical of unity, and the seven churches as representative of the one universal Church.
Had each epistle been designed only for those to whom it was immediately sent, that call would probably have been addressed to them alone. Instead of this it is couched in the most general form: He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches. John in the first chapter of his book. It is true that in the case of one or two of the particulars mentioned this is not at once apparent; but in that of by far the larger number it is so clear that we are entitled to infer the existence of some secret link of connexion in the mind of the sacred writer even when it may not be distinctly perceptible to us.
The descriptions, too, of the epistles are no doubt fuller and more elaborate than those of the vision; but this circumstance is easily accounted for when we remember that the seven different delineations of our Lord contained in the second and third chapters are in the first chapter combined in one.
Keeping these considerations in view, the main point is [Pg 30] incontestable that the germ of the epistolary description is to be found in every case in the preliminary vision. Thus to the first church—that of Ephesus—Jesus introduces Himself as He that holdeth the seven stars in His right hand, He that walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks  ; and the description is evidently that of chap. To the fourth—the church of Thyatira—the Saviour begins, These things saith the Son of God, who hath His eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet are like unto burnished brass  ; and we see the source whence the words are drawn when we read in chap.
Comparing chap. Turning now to chap. In chap. To the sixth church—that of Philadelphia—it is said, These things saith He that is holy, He that is true, He that hath the key of David, He that openeth, and none shall shut, and that shutteth, and none openeth  ; and we can have no difficulty in recognising the germ of the extended description in chap. The tree of life of the first epistle meets us again, more fully spoken of, in the description of the new Jerusalem. To the church of Ephesus the Saviour describes Himself as He that holdeth the seven stars in His right hand, He that walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks  ; and the description has no more reference to Ephesus than to any other of the churches named.
In like manner to the church of Laodicea He describes Himself as the Amen, the Witness faithful and true, the Beginning of the creation of God. The second appellation reminds us of John xviii.
The third appellation, again, cannot be limited to the thought of the mere material creation, as if [Pg 34] equivalent to the statement that by the Word were all things made. It would thus fail to correspond with the two appellations preceding it, which undoubtedly apply to the work of redemption, while at the same time the addition of the words "of God" would be meaningless or perplexing. Let us add to this that in chap.
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It may not indeed be necessary to exclude the thought of the material universe; but, in so far as it is alluded to, it is only as redeemed, in its ideal condition of rest and glory, when the new Jerusalem has come down out of heaven, and when the Church's enemies have been cast into the lake of fire. It is no mere fancy, therefore, when we say that we have in this a proof that the first and last epistles are not simply members of a continuous series, the last of which may leave the first far behind, but that they are binding terms which gather up all the members of the series and group them into one.
These churches cannot therefore represent the Jewish Church alone, but must embody that wider idea of the Christian Church which was brought in when the middle wall of partition between Jews and Gentiles was broken down, and when both were reconciled in one body by the Cross, becoming one Church in the Son and in the Father. Were we dealing with the Jewish-Christian Church, we should unquestionably find it located in Jerusalem or in some of the cities of Palestine. When we are taken to heathen soil, and to churches known to have been at least for the most part Gentile, it is a proof that we have before us that great Gentile Church in the very conception of which lies the thought of universality.
That book is symbolical. It begins with a symbolical representation in the first chapter.
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Symbolism, by the admission of all, is resumed in the fourth chapter, and is continued from that point to the end. Now it is certainly possible that between these two groups of symbols a passage only strictly historical might be introduced. But if there be reason on independent grounds to think that here also we have facts used at least to a certain extent to serve a higher than a simply historic thought, it cannot fail to be allowed that the general unity of the book is thus preserved, and that a completeness is lent to it which we are entitled to expect, but which would be otherwise wanting.
The seven churches then of chaps. The Seer selects such particular churches of Asia and such special features of their condition as afford the best illustration of that state of God's kingdom in the world which is to be the great subject of his prophetic words.
He is to keep in view throughout all his revelation certain aspects of the Church in herself and in her relation to the world. But these aspects were not merely in the bosom of the future. Still less are they an ideal picture drawn from the resources of the writer's own imagination. To his enlightened eye, looking abroad over that part of the world in which his lot was cast, they were also present, one in one church, another in another.
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