We must here, at the outset, remove the greatest source of all the misunderstandings which have arisen with regard to these seven |churches.|
The fact of their being called |churches| has naturally led commentators and students of this book to infer that it is the Church of God, or at any rate the historic Christian Church, which is meant.
The difficulty is thus arbitrarily created. The Bible student is at once confronted with an overwhelming difficulty. He has read the Epistles which are addressed to the churches by the Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul; and, on turning to the Epistles in Rev. ii. and iii., he is at once conscious of a striking change. He finds himself suddenly removed from the ground of grace to the ground of works. He meets with church-officers of whom he has never before heard; and with expressions with which he is wholly unfamiliar: and he is bewildered.
Two courses are open to him: either to try and force the words into a meaning to suit both, thus lowering the standard of the Church of God, and the Christian's own standing in Christ; or, to invent some purely imaginary interpretation and baseless hypothesis by applying them to Christendom, and holding that instead of seven assemblies we have seven stages of Church history: some going so far as to give the very years which mark off these periods.
Those who feel this to be a very difficult task, and lack the knowledge of history which is absolutely essential to this system of interpretation, wonder why God gave to Jesus Christ to show unto His servants what must come to pass hereafter, and yet expected them to become deep students of history in order to understand what He has revealed!
No wonder that most Bible readers, after struggling for a time with this fantastic idea, give it all up in despair; abandoning the reading of the book, and losing the |blessing| which is pronounced upon its readers.
As a first step toward removing this great evil, let us note at once that the word (...) (ecclesia), rendered |church,| is by no means limited to the restricted sense which is thus forced upon it.
Ecclesia means simply an Assembly: any assembly of people who are called out (for that is the etymological meaning of the word) from other people.
Hence, it is used of the whole nation of Israel as distinct from other nations.
The Greek word Ecclesia occurs seventy-five times in the Septuagint Translation of the Old Testament, and is used as the rendering of five different Hebrew words. As it is used to represent one of these, seventy times, we need not concern ourselves with the other four words.
This Hebrew word is (...) (Cahal), from which we have our English word call. It means to call together, to assemble, or gather together, and is used of any assembly gathered together for any purpose. This Hebrew word Cahal occurs 123 times, and is rendered: |congregation,| 86 times; |assembly,| 17; |company,| 17; and |multitude,| 3 times: but is never rendered |church.| Its first occurrence is in Gen. xxviii.3 - |that thou mayest be a multitude (margin, assembly) of people,| i.e., a called-out people. That is what Israel was, a people called out and assembled from all other peoples.
In Gen. xlix.6 we read - |O my soul, come not thou into their secret (Council or Senate); Unto their assembly (cahal), mine honour, be not thou united.|
Here the word cahal is used, not of all Israel as called out from the nations, but of the assembly of those called out of form the Tribal Assembly (or Council) of the tribes of Simeon and Levi.
Then, it is used of the worshippers, or those called out from Israel, and assembled before the Tabernacle and Temple, and in this sense is usually rendered |congregation.| This is the meaning of the word in Ps. xxii.22: |In the midst of the congregation will I praise Thee;| and verse 25: |My praise shall be of Thee in the great congregation.|
This is the usage of the word in the Gospels, and even in the Acts of the Apostles before the new use, which the Holy Spirit was going to make of the word, was revealed.
When Christ said, |Upon this rock will I build my Ecclesia,| He did not use the word in the exclusive sense in which it was afterwards to be used, but in the older and larger sense in which the word had been before used, which would embrace the whole assembly of His People, while not excluding the future application of the word to the Church or Body of Christ when that secret should have been in due season revealed.
When the Spirit, by Stephen, speaks of the Ecclesia in the wilderness (Acts vii.38), he means the congregation of pious worshippers of God at the Tabernacle.
When the Lord added to the Ecclesia daily (Acts ii.47), He added to the number of those 120, who first assembled themselves together in the upper room in Jerusalem.
When Saul says he persecuted the Ecclesia of God, he does not use the word in the limited sense, which it subsequently acquired after he had received the special revelation concerning it: but in the sense in which it had been used up to, and in which it was used at, that time. It means merely that he persecuted the People of God - the congregation of God. He is speaking of a past act in his life which took place long before the revelation of the secret, and his words must be interpreted accordingly. We must not read into any of these passages that which was the subject of a subsequent revelation! which passages are perfectly clear without it. The word Ecclesia in the Old Testament, the Gospels, and (for the most part) in the Acts, must be taken in the sense of its earlier usage as meaning simply the congregation or assembly of the Lord's people, and not in the sense which it acquired, after the later and special signification had been given to it by the Holy Spirit Himself.
As we have already abundantly shewn, in the consideration of our foregoing thirteen points, the Apocalypse is linked on to the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Acts (and not to the later Pauline Epistles), and we ought to use the word Ecclesia in the sense in which it is there used; and not, surely, in the newer and special sense which it acquired, and in which it is used, in the Epistles.
In the Pauline Epistles we read nothing about an |angel| as having to do with the churches of God which Paul planted.
But we do meet with the word Angel in connection with the Synagogue; (though not in the Old Testament). There, there was an officer, who was called Sheliach Tzibbur (...): Tzibbur meaning Assembly; and Sheliach, the Angel or Legate of the Assembly, and the Leader of Divine worship, from (...) (shalach) to send.
The chief officer was the Archisynagogos, or |Ruler of the Synagogue;| and after him came the Sheliach Tzibbur; or |Angel of the Assembly,| who was the mouthpiece of the congregation. His duty it was to offer up public prayer to God for the whole congregation. Hence his title; because, as the messenger of the assembly, he spoke to God for them.
When we have these facts to our hands, why arbitrarily invent the notion that |angel| is equivalent to Bishop, when there is not a particle of historical evidence for it?
Episcopoi, or Bishops, are clearly spoken of in other parts of the New Testament (though not in the modern sense of the term. See Acts xx.28; Phil. i.1; 1 Tim. iii.2; Tit. i.7). But the office of |Angel| in the Church of God is never used either inside or outside the Word of God. One might just as well argue for the popular interpretation of the word |angel,| from the fact that the word has been so used and applied by the |Catholic Apostolic| Church within recent times.
Add to this the use of the word synagogue, which we have in Rev. ii.9 and iii.9. Here again translators mislead us. For, while the Greek word occurs 57 times in the New Testament, and is translated synagogue 55 times, it is rendered |assembly| in Jas. ii.2, and |congregation| in Acts xiii.43.
It should, of course, be rendered synagogue in these two places, as well as in all the others, as it is in the R.V. (though in Jas. ii.2 it has assembly in the margin). Had the A.V. so rendered it in Jas. ii. it would have marked and emphasised the fact that James wrote |to the Twelve Tribes which are scattered abroad,| and would have shown how his epistle has a present point of appeal to the scattered people, as well as a direct future application to them, like that of the seven epistles in Rev. ii. and iii. In any case, the use of the word |synagogue| in Rev. ii.9 and iii.9 stamps these Epistles as Jewish, Satan's synagogue being put in opposition to the other assemblies.
When the word Ecclesia, in the Apocalypse is rendered |Church,| and the word |Synagogue| in Rev. ii.9 and iii.9, is interpreted of the church, it is playing fast and loose with the |words which the Holy Ghost speaketh,| and which He has employed, not only for His revelation, but for our instructions.
We hold that the Apocalypse contains a record (by vision and prophecy) of the events which shall happen |hereafter| in the Day of the Lord; that the whole book is concerned with the Jew, the Gentile, and the Earth, but not with the Church of God, or with Christendom; or with the latter only so far as the present corruption of Christianity shall merge in the great apostasy, and form part of it, after the Church, the Body of Christ, shall have been removed.
But there will be a people for God on the earth during those eventful years. There will be the remnant of believing Israelites; the 144,000 sealed ones; the great multitude; and other bodies of faithful ones who are referred to all through the Book (see chaps. vii., xi., and xii.17). In which latter passage we read of |the remnant of her (the woman's) seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.|
Will not these need special instruction? Have these been forgotten by Him who sees the end from the beginning? The Pauline Epistles will of course be of use as an historical record of what will then be past, just as we have the record of Israel's history in the Old Testament now.
Our answer to these questions is that God has provided for their instruction, and warning, and encouragement, in the second and third chapters of this book.
Right at the beginning they are the first subjects of Divine remembrance, provision, and care. Their needs must be first provided for, before anything else is recorded of the things which John saw; and there they will find what is specially written for their learning.
Even now, the nucleus of this Remnant is being prepared. Hundreds of Jews are believing in Christ as the Messiah, who know nothing of Him as the Saviour. And even among the unbelievers in Israel a political movement is on foot which may speedily lead up to and issue in the events of which Revelation treats.
Of course this means that we are to consider the interpretation of Rev. ii. and iii. as future, and belonging to the |hereafter.| As to application, we, of course, quite understand, and readily admit that these epistles have been read by the saints of God all through the ages; and all who have thus read them have received a blessing according to the promise. We may so read them now, ourselves, and apply them, so far as we can do so consistently with the teaching for this dispensation of grace, contained in the Pauline Epistles. Applying these thus we leave the full and final interpretation for those to whom it will specially belong hereafter.
Few are aware that the evidence as to the existence of these assemblies as churches is very scanty. Indeed, concerning some, not only is evidence wanting; but concerning others it is quite opposed to their ever having existed at all.
Tertullian (about 145-200) says that leaders of certain sects, such as Cerdon and Marcion, rejected the Apocalypse on the ground that it could not have been written by John, inasmuch as (among other reasons) there was no Christian Church in existence at Thyatira in the time of John.
Epiphanius (who wrote about A.D.367) deals with the Alogi, a sect which disputed the genuineness of the Apocalypse, and on the same grounds. He quotes their words: |moreover, some of the [the Alogi] again seize on this passage in this same Apocalypse [Rev. ii.18]. And they allege, by way of opposition, that it is again said: 'write to the angel of the Church which is in Thyatira,' although there was no Christian Church in Thyatira. How then could he write to a church which was not in existence?|
The answer of Epiphanius acknowledged the historical fact: but his answer was that St. John wrote to the church at Thyatira, not because it was then in existence, but because it would be at some future time.
We do not see how he could have given a better answer.
In A.D.363 was held the Council of Laodicea. It was attended by thirty-two bishops of Asia, among whom was the bishop of Ephesus. This Council framed a list or canon of the sacred books, but the Apocalypse was not included in the catalogue.
How can we account for this as a historical fact if these seven churches were all then existent; and if these epistles were sent to them at the time, Laodicea being one of them?
The facts being what they are, the enemies of the Bible draw from them an entirely false conclusion. They use them against the authenticity and genuineness of the Apocalypse, and against its claim to a place in the Canon of Scripture.
We, on the contrary, strongly hold the canonicity and inspiration of the Apocalypse, but we use the undoubted historical facts against a false system of interpretation which is a very different thing.
An opponent of the Bible, in a large and important work, uses the common system of a apocalyptic interpretation as an argument against all Scripture. Speaking of Revelation, he says, |As all parties admit that it contains the destiny of the church, each sect has applied it to itself, frequently to the exclusion of all others.|
All parties, we are thankful to say, do not admit to the popular system of interpretation; and our present object is to show that there is a |more excellent way,| not of interpreting it, but of believing it; a way which, while it honours it as the word of God, satisfactorily meets the erroneous conclusions drawn from facts.
If these |churches| are future assemblies of Jewish believers on the earth, after the Church has been |caught up to meet the Lord,| then all is clear, consistent, and easy to be understood.
The real difficulty is created by attempting to read the Church into the book where it has no place.
As to the |seven lamp-stands,| ought not this expression at once to send our thoughts back to the one golden lamp-stand of the Tabernacle (Exod. xxv.31-39). ONE lamp-stand with seven lamps, indicative of Israel's unity in the Land and in the City? Here, the scattered condition of the nation is just as distinctly indicated by the fact that the seven lamps are no longer united in one lamp-stand. The nation is no longer in the Land, for Jerusalem is not now the center; but the people are |scattered| in separate communities in various cities in Gentile lands. So that just as the one lamp-stand represents Israel in its unity, the seven lamp-stands represent Israel in its dispersion; and tells us that Jehovah is about to make Jerusalem again the center of His dealings with the earth.
We must further note that John was not told to send seven separate letters to seven separate assemblies, as is generally assumed and believed. Indeed the contrary is the fact. The great Voice said, |What thou seest, write in A BOOK and send IT unto the seven assemblies.|
Over three-quarters of a million copies of this Book of the Revelation have in the last few years been placed in the hands of the Jews throughout the world. We allude to the Salkinson-Ginsburg translation of the New Testament in Hebrew, published by the Trinitarian Bible Society, and distributed by the Mildmay Mission to the Jews, and by other similar agencies throughout the world.
So that |the book| has been and is being sent to those for whom it was written, and at no distant day many assemblies of Jews will hear and read the words of this prophecy, and a people be prepared who will keep |the words of this prophecy,| and receive in a special manner the blessing pronounced in i.3.
They will be able to understand what is now so inexplicable to Gentile Christian readers. We find nothing in our Pauline Church Epistles that fits into what is said to these assemblies. But those readers will be at once reminded of the various stages of their own past history, and they will find in almost every sentence some allusion to the circumstances in which they will find themselves as described in this book.
We will show this; first, from the references made to their past history; and when we come to deal with these Epistles separately, we will, in some circumstance in the Apocalypse itself, give a reference to nearly every sentence in these seven Epistles.
It is a remarkable fact that
Seven past phases of Israel's history
are referred to in these Epistles: and the literary order in Revelation corresponds with, and answers to, the historical order in the Old Testament.