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REVELATION OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE - Chapter 1 - Verse 20

Verse 20. The mystery of the seven stars. On the word mystery, see Barnes on "Eph 1:9".

The word means, properly, that which is hidden, obscure, unknown—until it is disclosed by one having the ability to do it, or by the course of events. When disclosed it may be as clear, and as capable of comprehension, as any other truth. The meaning here, as applied to the seven stars, is, that they were symbols, and that their meaning as symbols, without a suitable explanation, would remain hidden or unknown. They were designed to represent important truths, and John was directed to write down what they were intended in the circumstances to signify, and to send the explanation to the churches. It is evidently implied that the meaning of these symbols would be beyond the ordinary powers of the human mind to arrive at with certainty, and hence John was directed to explain the symbol. The general and obvious truths which they would serve to convey would be that the ministers of the churches, and the churches themselves, were designed to be lights in the world, and should burn clearly and steadily. Much important truth would be couched under these symbols, indeed, if nothing had been added in regard to their signification as employed here by the Saviour; but there were particular truths of great importance in reference to each of these "stars" and "lamp-bearers," which John was more fully to explain.

Which thou sawest in my right hand. Gr., "upon my right hand"— epi thv dexiav mou: giving some support to the opinion that the stars, as they were seen, appeared to be placed on his hand—that is, on the palm of his hand as he stretched it out. The expression in Re 1:16 is, that they were "in (en) his right hand;" but the language here used is not decisive as to the position of the stars. They may have been held in some way by the hand, or represented as scattered on the open hand.

The seven golden candlesticks. The truth which these emblematic representations are designed to convey.

The seven stars are. That is, they represent, or they denote— in accordance with a common usage in the Scriptures. See Barnes "Mt 26:26".

 

The angels of the seven churches. Gr., "Angels of the seven churches:" the article being wanting. This does not refer to them as a collective or associated body, for the addresses are made to them as individuals— an epistle being directed to "the angel" of each particular church, Re 2:1,12, etc. The evident meaning, however, is, that what was recorded should be directed to them not as pertaining to them exclusively as individuals, but as presiding over, or representing the churches, for what is recorded pertains to the churches, and was evidently designed to be laid before them. It was for the churches, but was committed to the "angel" as representing the church, and to be communicated to the church under his care. There has been much diversity of opinion in regard to the meaning of the word angels here. By the advocates of episcopacy, it has been argued that the use of this term proves that there was a presiding bishop over a circle or group of churches in Ephesus, in Smyrna, etc., since it is said that it cannot be supposed that there was but a single church in a city so large as Ephesus, or in the other cities mentioned. A full examination of this argument may be seen in my work on the "Apostolic Church," [pp. 191-199, London ed.] The word angel properly means a messenger, and is thus applied to celestial beings as messengers sent forth from God to convey or to do his will. This being the common meaning of the word, it may be employed to denote any one who is a messenger, and hence, with propriety, any one who is employed to communicate the will of another; to transact his business, or, more remotely, to act in his place—to be a representative. In order to ascertain the meaning of the word as used in this place, and in reference to these churches, it may be remarked,

(1.) that it cannot mean literally an angel, as referring to a heavenly being, for no one can suppose that such a being presided over these churches.

(2.) It cannot be shown to mean, as Lord (in loc.) supposes, messengers that the churches had sent to John, and that these letters were given to them to be returned by them to the churches, for

(a) there is no evidence that any such messengers had been sent to John;

(b) there is no probability that while he was a banished exile in Patmos such a thing would be permitted;

(c) the message was not sent by them, it was sent to them—"Unto the angel of the church in Ephesus write," etc.

(3.) It cannot be proved that the reference is to a prelatical bishop presiding over a group or circle of churches, called a diocese, for

(a) there is nothing in the word angel, as used in this connexion, which would be peculiarly applicable to such a personage—it belong as applicable to a pastor of a single church as to a bishop of many churches.

(b) There is no evidence that there were any such groups of churches then as constitute an episcopal diocese.

(c) The use of the word "church" in the singular, as applied to Ephesus, Smyrna, etc., rather implies that there was but a single church in each of those cities. Compare Re 2:1,8,12,18; see also similar language in regard to the church in Corinth, 1 Co 1:2; in Antioch, Ac 13:1; at Laodicea, Col 4:16; and at Ephesus, Ac 20:28.

(d) There is no evidence, as Episcopalians must suppose, that a successor to John had been appointed at Ephesus, if, as they suppose, he was "bishop" of Ephesus; and there is no probability that they would so soon after his banishment show him such a want of respect as to regard the see as vacant, and appoint a successor.

(e) There is no improbability in supposing that there was a single church in each of these cities—as at Antioch, Corinth, Rome.

(f) If John was a prelatical "bishop," it is probable that he was "bishop" of the whole group of churches embracing the seven: yet here, if the word "angel" means "bishop," we have no less than seven such bishops immediately appointed to succeed him. And

(g) the supposition that this refers to prelatical bishops is so forced and unnatural that many Episcopalians are compelled to abandon it. Thus Stillingfleet, than whom an abler man, or one whose praise is higher in episcopal churches, as an advocate of prelacy, is not to be found, says of these angels: "If many things in the epistles be directed to the angels, but yet so as to concern the whole body, then, of necessity, the angel must be taken as a representative of the whole body; and then why may not the angel be taken by way of representation of the body itself, either of the whole church, or, which is far more probable, of the concessors, or order of presbyters in this church?"

(4.) If the word does not mean literally an angel; if it does not refer to messengers sent to John in Patmos by the churches; and if it does not refer to a prelatical bishop, then it follows that it must refer to some one who presided over the church as its pastor, and through whom a message might be properly sent to the church. Thus understood, the pastor or "angel" would be regarded as the representative of the church; that is, as delegated by the church to manage its affairs, and as the authorized person to whom communications should be made in matters pertaining to it— as pastors are now. A few considerations will further confirm this interpretation, and throw additional light on the meaning of the word.

(a) The word angel is employed in the Old Testament to denote a prophet; that is, a minister of religion as sent by God to communicate his will. Thus in Haggai (Hag 1:13) it is said, "Then spoke Haggai, the Lord's messenger, [Heb. angel,

HEBREW

—Septuagint aggelov kuriou] in the Lord's message unto the people," etc.

(b) It is applied to a priest, as one sent by God to execute the functions of that office, or to act in the name of the Lord. Mal 2:7, "For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts"—

HEBREW

—that is, "angel of the Lord of hosts."

(c) The name prophet is often given in the New Testament to the ministers of religion, as being appointed by God to proclaim or communicate his will to his people, and as occupying a place resembling, in some respects, that of the prophets in the Old Testament.

(d) There was no reason why the word might not be thus employed to designate a pastor of a Christian church, as well as to designate a prophet or a priest under the Old Testament dispensation.

(e) The supposition that a pastor of a church is intended will meet all the circumstances of the case: for,

(1) it is an appropriate appellation;

(2) there is no reason to suppose that there was more than one church in each of the cities referred to;

(3) it is a term which would designate the respect in which the office was held;

(4) it would impress upon those to whom it was applied a solemn sense of their responsibility. Further, it would be more appropriately applied to a pastor of a single church than to a prelatical bishop; to the tender, intimate, and endearing relation sustained by a pastor to his people, to the blending of sympathy, interest, and affection, where he is with them continually, meets them frequently in the sanctuary, administers to them the bread of life, goes into their abodes when they are afflicted, and attends their kindred to the grave, than to the union subsisting between the people of an extended diocese and a prelate—the formal, unfrequent, and, in many instances, stately and pompous visitations of a diocesan bishop—to the unsympathising relation between him and a people scattered in many churches, who are visited at distant intervals by one claiming a "superiority in ministerial rights and powers," and who must be a stranger to the ten thousand ties of endearment which bind the hearts of a pastor and people together. The conclusion, then, to which we have come is, that the "angel of the church" was the pastor, or the presiding presbyter in the church; the minister who had the pastoral charge of it, and who was therefore a proper representative of it. He was a man who, in some respects, performed the functions which the angels of God do; that is, who was appointed to execute his will, to communicate his message, and to convey important intimations of his purposes to his people. To no one could the communications in this book, intended for the churches, be more properly entrusted than to such an one; for to no one now would a communication be more properly entrusted than to a pastor.

Such is the sublime vision under which this book opens; such the solemn commission which the penman of the book received. No more appropriate introduction to what is contained in the book could be imagined; no more appropriate circumstances for making such a sublime revelation could have existed. To the most beloved of the apostles—now the only surviving one of the number; to him who had been a faithful labourer for a period not far from sixty years after the death of the Lord Jesus, who had been the bosom friend of the Saviour when in the flesh, who had seen him in the mount of transfiguration, who had seen him die, and who had seen him ascend into heaven; to him who had lived while the church was founded, and while it had spread into all lands; and to him who was now suffering persecution on account of the Saviour and his cause, it was appropriate that such communications should be made. In a lonely island; far away from the abodes of men; surrounded by the ocean, and amid barren rocks; on the day consecrated to the purposes of sacred repose and the holy duties of religion—the day observed in commemoration of the resurrection of his Lord, it was most fit that the Redeemer should appear to the "beloved disciple" in the last Revelation which he was ever to make to mankind. No more appropriate time or circumstance could be conceived for disclosing, by a series of sublime visions, what would occur in future times; for sketching out the history of the church to the consummation of all things.

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