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IN this publication I at length accomplish, however imperfectly, a wish which I have cherished for a large number of years. During the time that I fulfilled my pleasant labours at King’s College, I lectured three times to the theological students there on these seven Epistles; and the lectures to them delivered constitute the groundwork of the present volume, though much has been added, and some little changed, in the final revision which I have given to my work before venturing to challenge a larger audience for it. I confess that each time I have gone over these Epistles I have become more conscious of the manifold difficulties which they present; and more than once have been half disposed not to offer to others, in the way of interpretation of them, what has so little satisfied myself. I have not, however, held my hand. There has ever seemed to me a very useful warning contained in 6that German proverb which says, “The best is oftentimes the enemy of the good;” and without claiming for an instant that title of good for my book, I do not doubt that many a good book has remained unwritten, or, perhaps, being written, has remained unpublished, because there floated before the mind’s eye of the author, or possible author, the ideal of a better or a best, which has put him out of all conceit with his good; meanwhile some other, having no ideal at all before him, either to stimulate or to repress, steps in and poorly fills the place which the other would have filled, if not excellently, yet reasonably, well. I repeat that thus saying, I am as far as possible from implicitly claiming for my book this quality of good; but still it may contain, I trust it does contain, enough of profit in it to justify me in giving it into the hands of men.
And indeed, if there is much in the difficulties with which these Epistles abound to repel and deter, there is much also in these same difficulties to allure and attract. And not in these only. The number of aspects in which they present themselves to us as full of interest is extraordinary.
For example, the points of peculiar attraction which they offer to the student of ecclesiastical history 7are many. Who are these Angels of the Churches? What do we learn from their evident preeminence in their several Churches, about the government and constitution of the Church in the later apostolic times? or is it lawful to draw any conclusions Again, was there a body of heretics actually bearing the name of Nicolaitans in the times of St. John? And those that had the doctrine of Balaam, and the followers of the woman Jezebel, with what heretics mentioned elsewhere shall we identify these? Or, once more, what is the worth of that historico-prophetical scheme of interpretation adopted by our own Joseph Mede and Henry More, and many others down even to the present day; who see in these seven Epistles the mystery of the whole evolution of the Church from the days of the Apostles to the close of the present dispensation? Was this so intended by the Spirit? or is it only a dream and fancy of men?
Nor less is there a strong attraction in these Epistles for those who occupy themselves with questions of pure exegesis, from the fact of so many unsolved, or imperfectly solved, problems of interpretation being found in them. It is seldom within so small a compass that so many questions to which no answer with perfect confidence can be given, occur. What, 8for instance, is the exact meaning, and what the etymology, of χαλκολίβανος (i. 15; ii. 18)? what the interpretation of the white stone with the new name written upon it (ii. 17)? why is Pergamum called “Satan’s seat” (ii. 13)? with many other questions of the same kind.
Nor can any one, I think, attentively studying, fail to be struck with what one might venture to call the entire originality of these seven Epistles, with their entire unlikeness, in some points at least, to any thing else in Scripture. Contemplate, for instance, the titles of Christ here, “the Amen,” “the Faithful and True Witness,” “the Beginning of the Creation of God,” “He that hath the seven Spirits of God,” and others which I might name. While the analogy of faith is perfectly preserved, while there is no difficulty in harmonizing what is here said of Christ’s person and offices with what is taught elsewhere, yet how wholly new a series of titles are these. It is the same with the promises; some, it is true, as “the tree of life,” “the crown of life,” “the new name,” have been anticipated in other parts of Scripture, yet how many appear here for the first time; and set forth what Augustine so grandly calls “beatæ vitæ; magna secreta,” under aspects as novel as they are animating and alluring; 9such are “the hidden manna,” the “white stone,” the “white raiment,” the “pillar in the temple of God,” and “the morning star.” And very striking, as combined with this originality, with this free movement of the Spirit here, is the strict and rigid symmetrical arrangement of these Epistles, the way in which they are all laid out upon the same plan, distributed according to exactly the same ever-recurring laws. The surprise which we feel on tracing this for the first time, is similar to that which overtakes one who, attempting any thing like a critical study of the Psalms, discovers the rigid laws to which, so far as concerns the form, they are for the most part submitted, or rather, which they have imposed on themselves, and to which they delight to conform.
Then, once more, the purely theological interest of these Epistles is great. I have already referred to the titles of Christ, the entirely novel aspects under which the glory of the Son of God is here set forth. But they have another and profounder interest. Assuredly there is enough in these two chapters alone to render Arianism entirely untenable by any one who, admitting their authority, should consent to be bound in their interpretation by the ordinary rules of fairness and truth. On this 10matter I have several times dwelt in the course of my interpretation. And, finally, the practical interest of these Epistles in their bearing on the whole pastoral and ministerial work is extreme. It is recorded of the admirable Bengel that it was his wont above all things to recommend the study of these Epistles to youthful ministers of Christ’s word and sacraments. And indeed to them they are full of teaching, of the most solemn warning, of the strongest encouragement. We learn from these Epistles the extent to which the spiritual condition of a Church is dependent upon that of its pastors; the guilt, not merely of teaching, but of allowing, error; how there may be united much and real zeal for the form of sound words with a lamentable decay of the spirit of love; or, on the other hand, many works and active ministries of love, with only too languid a zeal for the truth once delivered; with innumerable lessons more. For one who has undertaken the awful ministry of souls, I know almost nothing in Scripture so searching, no threatenings so alarming, no promises so comfortable, as are some which these Epistles contain.
Surely, if all this be so, it is very much to be regretted that while every chapter of every other 11book of the New Testament is set forth to be read in the Church, and, wherever there is daily service, is read in the Church, three times in the year, and some, or portions of some, are read oftener there, while even of the Apocalypse itself two chapters and portions of others have been admitted into the service, under no circumstances whatever can the second and third chapter ever be heard in the congregation. Any one who knows, or at all guesses, how small the amount of the private reading of the Scriptures among our people, and the extent, therefore, to which the stated public reading in the congregation is the source of whatever knowledge of it the great mass of our people possess, the means by which they are at all leavened by it, must deeply regret that chapters so rich in doctrine, in exhortation, in reproof, in promises, should thus be withheld from them. Certainly, if at any time a reconsideration of the portions- of Scripture appointed to be read in the Church should find place, the slight cast on these chapters, and in them on the Apocalypse itself, with the injury inflicted on the people by their total omission, ought not to be allowed to continue.
But to bring these prefatory remarks to a close. Whether the attempt here made to draw out some 12of the riches contained in this portion of God’s Word may have any interest for others, I know not: but for myself this volume must ever retain a very solemn interest. Besides the serious solemnity of giving any work that professes to be a work for God into the hands of men, I can never disconnect this book from two great sorrows which fell on me, while it was preparing for, and passing through, the press; sorrows which have left me far poorer than before; and yet, I would humbly hope, richer too, if better able to speak to others of truths whose price and value has been brought home with new power to myself; if theology has been thus more closely connected for me with life, and with life’s toil and burden, from which it is ever in danger of being dissociated and divorced. It is my earnest hope that so it may prove; and in this hope I humbly commend my book, with all its shortcomings, to Him who can alone make it profitable to any.
July 31, 1861.
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