by W.M. Ramsay

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The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia
W. M. Ramsay
1904

Chapter 4: The Letters to the Seven Churches

One of the most remarkable parts of that strange and difficult book, the Revelation of St. John, is the passage 2:1 to 3:22, containing the Seven Letters. The Apocalypse as a whole belongs to a large and well-known class of later Jewish literature, and has many features in common with previous Apocalypses of Jewish origin. St. John was using an established literary form, which he adapted in a certain degree to his purposes, but which seriously fettered and impeded him by its fanciful and unreal character. As a general rule he obeys the recognised laws of apocalyptic composition, and imitates the current forms so closely that his Apocalypse has been wrongly taken by some scholars, chiefly German, as a work of originally pure and unmixed Jewish character, which was modified subsequently to a Christian type.

In this work, Jewish in origin and general plan, and to a great extent Jewish in range of topics, there is inserted this episode of the Seven Letters, which appears to be almost entirely non-Jewish in character and certainly non-Jewish in origin and model. There must have been therefore some reason which seemed to the author to demand imperatively the insertion of such an episode in a work of diverse character. The reason was that the form of letters had already established itself as the most characteristic expression of the Christian mind, and as almost obligatory on a Christian writer. Though many other forms have been tried in Christian literature, e.g. the dialogue, the formal treatise, etc., yet the fact remains that--apart from the fundamental four Gospels--the highest and most stimulating and creative products of Christian thought have been expressed in the epistolary form. This was already vaguely present in the mind of St. John while he was composing the Apocalypse. Under this compelling influence he abandons the apocalyptic form for a brief interval, and expresses his thought in the form of letters. In them he makes some attempt to keep up the symbolism which was prescribed by the traditional principles of apocalyptic composition; but such imagery is too awkward and cumbrous for the epistolary form, and has exerted little influence on the Seven Letters. The traditional apocalyptic form breaks in his hands, and he throws away the shattered fragments.

In the subsequent development of St. John's thought it is plain that he had recognised the inadequacy and insufficiency of the fashionable Jewish literary forms. It seems highly probable that the perception of that fact came to him during the composition of the Revelation, and that the Seven Letters, though placed near the beginning and fitted carefully into that position, were the last part of the work to be conceived.

It must also be noticed that the book of the Revelation, as a whole, except the first three verses, is cast in the form of a letter. After the brief introduction, the fourth verse is expressed in the regular epistolary form:--

John to the Seven Asian Churches:
Grace to you and peace, from him which is and which was and which is to come; and from the Seven Spirits, etc.

Such a beginning is out of keeping with the ordinary apocalyptic form; but the pastoral instinct was strong in the writer, and he could never lose the sense of responsibility for the Churches that were under his charge. Just as the Roman Consul read in the sky the signs of the will of heaven on behalf of the State, so St. John saw in the heavens the vision of trial and triumph on behalf of the Churches entrusted to his care. All that he saw and heard was for them rather than for himself; and this is distinctly intimated to him, 1:11, What thou seest, write in a book, and send to the Seven Churches.

The expression just quoted from 1:11, write in a book, and send, obviously refers to the vision as a whole. It is not an introduction to the Seven Letters: it is the order to write out and send the entire Apocalypse. This the writer does, and sends it with the covering letter, which begins in 1:4. Hence 1:11 explains the origin of 1:4. The idea of the letter as the inevitable Christian form was firmly in the writer's mind. He must write an Apocalypse with the record of his vision; but he must enclose it in a letter to the Churches.

The Apocalypse would be quite complete without the Seven Letters: chapter 4 follows chapter 1 naturally. The Seven Letters spring from the sense of reality, the living vigorous instinct, from which the Christian spirit can never free itself. An Apocalypse could not content St. John: it did not bring him in close enough relation to his Churches. And so, as a second thought, he addressed the Seven representative Churches one by one; and, as the letters could not be placed last, he placed them near the beginning; but the one link of connection between them and the Apocalypse lies in the words with which each is finished: he that hath an ear, let him hear what the spirit saith to the Churches, i.e. not merely the words of the Letter, but the Apocalypse which follows.

It is also not improbable that St. John had received a greater share of the regular Jewish education than most of his fellow-Apostles, and that, through his higher education, the accepted Jewish forms of composition had a greater hold on his mind, and were more difficult for him to throw off, than for Peter, who had never been so deeply imbued with them. However that may be, it is at least evident in his later career that a new stage began for him at this point, that he discarded Hebrew literary models and adopted more distinctly Greek forms, and that his literary style and expression markedly improved at the same time. Proper consideration of these facts must surely lead to the conclusion that no very long interval of time must necessarily be supposed to have elapsed between the composition of the Revelation and of the Gospel. The change in style is indeed very marked; but it is quite in accordance with the observed facts of literary growth in other men that a critical and epoch-making step in mental development, when one frees oneself from the dominion of a too narrow early education, and strikes out in a path of originality, may be accompanied by a very marked improvement in linguistic expression and style.

The Seven Letters are farther removed from the type of the "true letter" than any other compositions in the New Testament. In their conception they are strictly "literary epistles," deliberate and intentional imitations of a literary form that was already firmly established in Christian usage. They were not intended to be sent directly to the Churches to which they were addressed. They had never any separate existence apart from one another and from the book of which they are a part. They are written on a uniform plan, which is absolutely opposed to the spontaneity and directness of the true letter. At the stage in his development, which we have supposed the author to be traversing, he passed from the domination of one literary form, the Jewish apocalyptic, to the domination of another literary form, the Christian epistolary. He had not yet attained complete literary freedom: he had not yet come to his heritage, emancipated himself from the influence of models, and launched forth on the ocean of his own wonderful genius. But he was just on the point of doing so. One step more, and he was his own master.

How near that step was is obvious, when we look more closely into the character of the Seven Letters. It is only by very close study, as in the chapters below devoted to the individual letters, that the reader can duly appreciate the special character of each. To sum up and anticipate the results of that closer study, it may here be said that the author of the Seven Letters, while composing them all on the same general lines, as mere parts of an episode in a great work of literature, imparts to them many touches, specially suitable to the individual Churches, and showing his intimate knowledge of them all. In each case, as he wrote the letter, the Church to which it was addressed stood before his imagination in its reality and its life; he was absorbed with the thought of it alone, and he almost entirely forgot that he was composing a piece of literature, and apostrophised it directly, with the same overmastering earnestness and sense of responsibility that breathe through St. Paul's letters.

As will be shown fully in chapter 14, the Seven Churches stood as representative of seven groups of congregations; but the Seven Letters are addressed to them as individual Churches, and not to the groups for which they stand. The letters were written by one who was familiar with the situation, the character, the past history, the possibilities of future development, of those Seven Cities. The Church of Sardis, for example, is addressed as the Church of that actual, single city: the facts and characteristics mentioned are proper to it alone, and not common to the other Churches of the Hermus Valley. Those others were not much in the writer's mind: he was absorbed with the thought of that one city: he saw only death before it. But the other cities which were connected with it may be warned by its fate; and he that overcometh shall be spared and honoured. Similarly, St. Paul's letter to Colossae was written specially for it alone, and with no reference to Laodicea; yet it was ordered to be communicated to Laodicea, and read publicly there also.

This singleness of vision is not equally marked on the surface of every letter. In the message to Laodicea, the thought of the other cities of the group is perhaps apparent; and possibly the obscurity of the Thyatiran Letter may be due in some degree to the outlook upon the other cities of its group, though a quite sufficient and more probable reason is our almost complete ignorance of the special character of that city.

To this singleness of vision, the clearness with which the writer sees each single city, and the directness with which he addresses himself to each, is due the remarkable variety of character in the whole series. The Seven Letters were evidently all written together, in the inspiration of one occasion and one purpose; and yet how different each is from all the rest, in spite of the similarity of purpose and plan and arrangement in them all! Each of the Seven Churches is painted with a character of its own; and very different futures await them. The writer surveys them from the point of view of one who believes that natural scenery and geographical surroundings exercise a strong influence on the character and destiny of a people. He fixes his eye on the broad features of the landscape. In the relations of sea and land, river and mountains--relations sometimes permanent, sometimes mutable--he reads the tale of the forces that insensibly mould the minds of men. Now that is not a book which he that runs may read. It is a book with seven seals, which can be opened only by long familiarity, earnest patient thought, and the insight given by belief and love. The reader must have attuned himself to harmony with the city and the natural influences that had made it. St. John from his lofty standpoint could look forward into the future, and see what should come to each of his Churches.

He assumes always that the Church is, in a sense, the city. The local Church does not live apart from the locality and the population, amid which it has a mere temporary abode. The Church is all that is real in the city: the rest of the city has failed to reach its true self, and has been arrested in its development. Similarly, the local Church in its turn has not all attained to its own perfect development: the "angel" is the truth, the reality, the idea (in Platonic sense) of the Church. Thus in that quaint symbolism the city bears to its Church the same relation that the Church bears to its angel. But here we are led into subjects that will be more fully discussed in chapters 6 and 16. For the present we shall only review in brief the varied characters of the Seven Churches and the Seven Cities, constituting among them an epitome of the Universal Church and of the whole range of human life.

The note alike in the Church and in the history of Ephesus has been change. The Church was enthusiastic; but it has been cooling. It has fallen from its high plane of conduct and spirit. And the penalty denounced against it is that it shall be moved out of its place, unless it recreates its old spirit and enthusiasm: "I have this against thee that thou didst leave thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen and repent and do the first works; or else I come to thee, and will move thy lamp out of its place." And, similarly, in the history of the city the same note is distinct. An extraordinary series of changes and vicissitudes had characterised it, and would continue to do so. Mutability was the law of its being. The land and the site of the city had varied from century to century. What was water became land; what was city ceased to be inhabited; what was bare hillside and cultivated lowland became a great city crowded with a teeming population; what was a harbour filled with the shipping of the whole world has become a mere inland sea of reeds, through which the wind moans with a vast volume of sound like the distant waves breaking on a long stretch of sea-coast in storm.

The distinctive note of the letter to Smyrna is faithfulness that gives life, and appearance bettered by reality. The Church "was dead and lived," like Him who addressed it: it was poor, but rich: it was about to suffer for a period, but the period is definite, and the suffering comes to an end, and the Church will prove faithful through it all and gain "the crown of life." Such also had the city been in history: it gloried in the title of the faithful friend of Rome, true to its great ally alike in danger and in prosperity. The conditions of nature amid which it was planted were firm and everlasting. Before it was an arm of the vast, unchanging, unconquerable sea, its harbour and the source of its life and strength. Behind it rose its Hill (Pagos) crowned with the fortified acropolis, as one looks at it from the front apparently only a rounded hillock of 450 feet elevation; but ascend it, and you discover it to be really a corner of the great plateau behind, supported by the immeasurable strength of the Asian continent which pushes it forward towards the sea. The letter is full of joy and life and brightness, beyond all others of the Seven; and such is the impression the city still makes on the traveller (who usually comes to it as his first experience of the towns of Asia Minor), throwing back the glittering rays of the sun with proportionate brightness, while its buildings spring sharp out of the sea and rise in tiers up the front slopes of its Pagos.

Pergamum stands before us in the letter as the city of authority, beside the throne--the throne of this world and of the power of evil, where the lord of evil dwelleth. And to its victorious Church is promised a greater authority, the power of the mighty name of God, known only to the giver and the receiver. It was the royal city of history, seat of the Attalid Kings and chief centre of the Roman Imperial administration; and the epithet "royal" is the one that rises unbidden to the traveller's lips, especially as he beholds it after seeing the other great cities of the land, with its immense acropolis on a rock rising out of the plain like a mountain, self-centred in its impregnable strength, looking out over the distant sea and over the land right away to the hills beside far off Smyrna.

Thyatira, with its low and small acropolis in its beautiful valley, stretching north and south like a long funnel between two gently swelling ridges of hill, conveys the impression of mildness, and subjection to outward influence, and inability to surmount and dominate external circumstances. The letter to Thyatira is mainly occupied with the inability of the Church to rise superior to the associations and habits of contemporary society, and its contented voluntary acquiescence in them (which was called the Nicolaitan heresy). Yet even in the humble Thyatira he that perseveres to the end and overcomes shall be rewarded with irresistible power among the nations, that smashing power which its own deity pretends to wield with his battle-axe, a power like but greater than that of mighty Rome itself. In the remnant of the Thyatiran Church, which shall have shown the will to resist temptation, weakness shall be made strong.

The letter to the Sardian Church breathes the spirit of death, of appearance without reality, promise without performance, outward show of strength betrayed by want of watchfulness and careless confidence. Thou hast a name that thou livest and thou art dead...I have found no works of thine fulfilled...I will come as a thief comes; and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. And such also was the city and its history. Looked at from a little distance to the north in the open plain, Sardis wore an imposing, commanding, impregnable aspect, as it dominated that magnificent broad valley of the Hermus from its robber stronghold on a steep spur that stands out boldly from the great mountains on the south. But, close at hand, the hill is seen to be but mud, slightly compacted, never trustworthy or lasting, crumbling under the influences of the weather, ready to yield even to a blow of the spade. Yet the Sardians always trusted to it; and their careless confidence had often been deceived, when an adventurous enemy climbed in at some unguarded point, where the weathering of the soft rock had opened a way.

Philadelphia was known to the whole world as the city of earthquakes, whose citizens for the most part lived outside, not venturing to remain in the town, and were always on the watch for the next great catastrophe. Those who knew it best were aware that its prosperity depended on the great road from the harbour of Smyrna to Phrygia and the East. Philadelphia, situated where this road is about to ascend by a difficult pass to the high central plateau of Phrygia, held the key and guarded the door. It was also of all the Seven Cities the most devoted to the name of the Emperors, and had twice taken a new title or epithet from the Imperial god, abandoning in one case its own ancient name. The Church had been a missionary Church, and Christ Himself, bearer of the key of David, had opened the door before it, which none shall shut. He Himself "will keep thee from the hour of trial," the great and imminent catastrophe that shall come upon the whole world. But for the victor there remains stability, like that of the strong column that supports the temple of God; and he shall not ever again need to go out for safety; and he shall take as his new name the name of God and of His city.

The Laodicean Church is strongly marked in the letter as the irresolute one, which had not been able to make up its mind, and halted half-heartedly, neither one thing nor another. It would fain be enriched, and clad in righteousness, and made to see the truth; but it would trust to itself; in its own gold it would find its wealth, in its own manufactures it would make its garments, in its own famous medical school it would seek its cure; it did not feel its need, but was content with what it had. It was neither truly Christian, nor frankly pagan. This letter, alone among the Seven, seems not to bring the character of the Church into close relation to the great natural features amid which the city stood; but on the other hand it shows a very intimate connection between the character attributed to the Church and the commerce by which the city had grown great.

The second half of this letter gradually passes into an epilogue to the whole Seven; and this proves that, in spite of the individual character of each letter, they form after all only parts in an elaborate and highly wrought piece of literature. It is hardly possible to say exactly where the individual letter ends and the epilogue begins; in appearance the whole bears the form after which all the letters are modelled; but there is a change from the individualisation of the letter to the general application of the epilogue.

To comprehend more fully the individuality of the Seven Letters one should compare them with the letters of Ignatius to the five Asian Churches, Ephesus, Smyrna, Magnesia, Tralleis, Philadelphia, or with the letter of Clement to the Corinthian Church. Ignatius, it is true, had probably seen only two of the five, and those only cursorily; so that the vagueness, the generality, and the lack of individual traits in all his letters were inevitable. He insists on topics which were almost equally suitable to all Christians, or on those which not unnaturally filled his own mind in view of his coming fate.

But it is a remarkable fact that the more definite and personal and individual those old Christian letters are, the more vital and full of guidance are they to all readers. The individual letters touch life most nearly; and the life of any one man or Church appeals most intimately to all men and all Churches.

The more closely we study the New Testament books and compare them with the natural conditions, the localities and the too scanty evidence from other sources about the life and society of the first century, the more full of meaning do we find them, the more strongly impressed are we with their unique character, and the more wonderful becomes the picture that is unveiled to us in them of the growth of the Christian Church. It is because they were written with the utmost fulness of vigour and life by persons who were entirely absorbed in the great practical tasks which their rapidly growing organisation imposed on them, because they stand in the closest relation to the facts of the age, that so much can be gathered from them. They rise to the loftiest heights to which man in the fulness of inspiration and perfect sympathy with the Divine will and purpose can attain, but they stand firmly planted on the facts of earth. The Asian Church was so successful in moulding and modifying the institutions around it because with unerring insight its leaders saw the deep-seated character of those Seven Cities, their strength and their weakness, as determined by their natural surroundings, their past history, and their national character.

This series of studies of the Seven Letters may perhaps be exposed to the charge of imagining fanciful connections between the natural surroundings of the Seven cities and the tone of the Letters. Those who are accustomed to the variety of character that exists in the West may refuse to acknowledge that there exists any such connection between the character of the natural surroundings and the spirit, the Angel, of the Church.

But Western analogy is misleading. We Occidentals are accustomed to struggle against Nature, and by understanding Nature's laws to subjugate her to our needs. When a waterway is needed, as at Glasgow, we transform a little stream into a navigable river. Where a harbour is necessary to supply a defect in nature, we construct with vast toil and at great cost an artificial port. We regulate the flow of dangerous rivers, utilising all that they can give us and restraining them from inflicting the harm they are capable of. Thus in numberless ways we refuse to yield to the influences that surround us, and by hard work rise superior in some degree to them.

Such analogy must not be applied without careful consideration in Asia. There man is far more under the influence of nature; and hence results a homogeneity of character in each place which is surprising to the Western traveller, and which he can hardly believe or realise without long experience. Partly that subjection may be due to the fact that nature and the powers of nature are on a vaster scale in Asia. You can climb the highest Alps, but the Himalayas present untrodden peaks, where the powers of man fail. The Eastern people have had little chance of subduing and binding to their will the mighty rivers of Asia (except the Chinese, who regulated their greatest rivers more than 2,000 years ago). The Hindus have come to recognise the jungle as unconquerable, and its wild beasts as irresistible; and they passively acquiesce in their fate. Vast Asiatic deserts are accepted as due to the will of God; and through this humble resignation other great stretches of land, which once were highly cultivated, have come to be marked on the maps as desert, because the difficulties of cultivation are no longer surmountable by a passive and uninventive population. In Asia mankind has accepted nature; and the attempts to struggle against it have been almost wholly confined to a remote past or to European settlers.

How it was that Asiatic races could do more to influence nature at a very early time than they have ever attempted in later times is a problem that deserves separate consideration. Here we only observe that they themselves attributed their early activity entirely to religion: the Mother-Goddess herself taught her children how to conquer Nature by obeying her and using her powers. In its subsequent steady degradation their religion lost that early power.

But among the experiences which specially impress the traveller who patiently explores Asia Minor step by step, village by village, and province by province, perhaps the most impressive of all is the extent to which natural circumstances mould the fate of cities and the character of men. The dominance of nature is, certainly, more complete now than it was of old; but still even in the early ages of history it was great; and it is a main factor both in molding the historical mythology, or mythical explanations of historical facts that were current among the ancient peoples, and in guiding the more reasoned and pretentious scientific explanations of history set forth by the educated and the philosophers. The writer of the Seven Letter has stated in them his view of the history of each Church in harmony with the prominent features of nature around the city.

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