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132

II.

EPISTLE TO THE CHURCH OF SMYRNA.

Rev. ii. 8-11.

Ver. 8. “And unto the Angel of the Church in Smyrna write.”—The next in order to Ephesus of the seven Churches is Smyrna, the next in the natural order as it is also in the spiritual, lying as it does a little to the north of that city. Smyrna, ἄγαλμα τῆς Ἀσίας, as it has been called, was one of the fairest and noblest cities of Ionia; most favourably placed upon the coast to command the trade of the Levant, which equally in old and modern times it has enjoyed. In early ecclesiastical history Smyrna is chiefly famous as the Church over which Polycarp presided as bishop. This Church must have been founded at a very early date, though there is no mention of it either in the Acts or the Epistles of St. Paul. Knowing as we do that at a period only a little later than this, Polycarp was bishop there, a very interesting 133question presents itself to us, namely, whether he might not have been bishop now; whether he may not be the Angel to whom this Epistle is addrest. There is much to make this probable; and the fact, if it were so, would throw much light on the character of the Epistle, and beautifully account for that key-note of martyrdom to which it is set; while the difficulties which some find in this, rest mainly on the erroneous assumption that the Apocalypse was composed under Nero or Galba, and not under Domitian. It is true indeed that we have thus to assume an episcopate of his, which lasted for more than seventy years; for “the good confession” of Polycarp did not take place till the year 168, while the Apocalypse was probably written in 96. Let us see, however, how far ecclesiastical history will bear us out in this. As early as 108 Ignatius on his way to his Roman martyrdom found Polycarp the bishop or Angel of the Church of Smyrna (Mart. Ign. 3), addressing to him a letter which, despite of all which has been said against it, must still be considered genuine. We have only to extend his episcopate twelve years a parte ante, and he will have been Angel of Smyrna when this Epistle was addrest to that Church.

Is there any great unlikelihood in this? His reply to the Roman Governor, who tempted him 134to save his life by denying his Lord, is well known—namely that he could not thus renounce a Lord whom for eighty and six years he had served, and during all this time had received nothing but good from Him (De S. Polyc. Mart. 9; Eusebius, H. E. iv. 15). But these “eighty and six years” can scarcely represent the whole length of his life, for Irenæus (Adv. Hær. iii. 3. 4; cf. Eusebius, H. E. iv. 14) lays such a stress on the extreme old age which Polycarp had attained, that, great as this age is, we must yet esteem the number of his years to have been greater still. They represent no doubt the years since his conversion. Counting back eighty-six years from the year 168, being that of his martyrdom, we have A.D. 82 as the year when he was first in Christ. This will give us fourteen years as the period which will have elapsed from his conversion to that when this present Epistle was written, during which time he may very well have attained the post of chiefest honour and toil and peril in the Church of Smyrna. Tertullian indeed distinctly tells us that he was consecrated bishop of Smyrna by St. John (De Præsc. Hæret. 32); and Irenaeus, who declares to us that he had himself in his youth often talked with Polycarp, declares the same (Eusebius, H. E. iv. 14; cf. iii. 36; Jerome, Catal. Script. s. v. Polycarpus; Jacobson, Patt. Apostoll. p. 564; and Röthe, Die 135Anfänge d. christl. Kirche, p. 429). There are then very sufficient reasons for thinking it at least possible, to me it seems probable, that to Polycarp himself the words which follow were first spoken.

These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive.”—Being addressed, as this Epistle is, to a Church exposed, and hereafter to be still more exposed, to the fiercest blasts of persecution, it is graciously ordered that all the attributes which Christ here claims for Himself should be such as would encourage and support his servants in their trials and distress. Brightman: “Titulos sibi sumit [Christus] qui præsenti rerum conditioni conveniunt. Unde varium suæ gloriæ radium in singulis Epistolis spargit, pro variâ fortunâ quâ sunt Ecclesiæ.” For these titles of Christ, “the first and the last,” and “which was dead, and is alive,” or rather, “who became dead, and lived again,” see i. 17, 18. Ἔζησεν here is not “vixit,” but “revixit” (cf. Ezek. xxxvii. 3; John v. 25; Rev. xiii. 14); death having been for Him only the passage to a more glorious life. How then should his servants fear them who could kill the body, and then had nothing more which they could do? how should they doubt of committing their souls to One, who had so triumphantly redeemed his own?

Ver. 9. “I know thy works, and tribulation, 136and poverty; but thou art rich.”—For the first clause see what has been said already on ver. 2; the words of themselves express neither praise nor blame. The “tribulation” refers out of all doubt to the affliction which the Church of Smyrna endured at the hands of its Jewish and heathen persecutors and oppressors, θλίβειν and θλῖψις being constant words to express this (1 Thess. iii. 4; Heb. xi. 37; Acts xx. 23; Rev. i. 9, and often). So too their “poverty” will probably have come upon them through the spoiling of their goods (Heb. x. 34), and the various wrongs in their worldly estate which the profession of the faith of Christ will have brought with it.

But thou art rich.”—How much better this, poor in the esteem of the world, but rich before Christ, than the condition of the Laodicean Angel, rich in his own esteem, but most poor in the sight of Christ (iii. 17). There can, of course, be no doubt that “rich” here means rich in grace (cf. Rom. viii. 32; Col. ii. 3; 1 Tim. vi. 18), having treasure in heaven (Matt. vi. 20; xix. 21; Luke xii. 21), as the same word πλούσιος expresses in a similar, but yet a far higher sense, rich in glory elsewhere (2 Cor. viii. 9). These words, to which James ii. 5-7 furnishes a remarkable parallel, constitute a very beautiful parenthesis, declaring as they do the judgment of heaven concerning this 137Church of Smyrna, as contradistinguished from the judgment of earth. Men saw nothing there save the poverty, but He who sees not as man seeth, saw the true riches which this seeming poverty concealed, which indeed the poverty, rightly interpreted, was; even as He too often sees the real poverty which may lie behind the show of riches; for there are both poor rich-men and rich poor-men in his sight.

And I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.”—The most important question which presents itself here is, In what sense shall we take the term “Jews”? by “those which say they are Jews, and are not,” shall we understand Jews literally so called, who, being the natural seed of Abraham, claimed also to be the spiritual; or accepting “Jews” here as the designation of the true circumcision not made with hands, that is, of Christians, shall we see in these, some who claimed to be Christians, but whose right to belong to his Church Christ here denies? The former appears to me the preferable interpretation. The analogy of such passages as Rom. ii. 28, 29; ix. 6; Phil. iii. 2, 3, seems to point this way.2828   There is a long discussion in one of Augustine’s letters (Ep. cxcvi. § 6-16), how far Christians, as the true circumcision, might rightfully be called Jews. Then again 138these opposers and blasphemers were evidently persecutors to bonds and death of the faithful at Smyrna; but, extreme shame and disgrace as some of the heretical sects were bringing on the true Church at this time, there is no tittle of evidence that they had the power or the desire to persecute it with the weapons of outward persecution. It was otherwise, however, with the Jews literally so named. What their ‘blasphemy’ against Jesus of Nazareth, against the Lord of glory, but known to them as “the hanged one,” was, and still is, we know only too well (see Eisenmenger, Entdecktes Judenthum, vol. i. pp. 61-188). While too the opposition of the heathen was still languid and occasional, the jealousy of Rome being hardly awakened, the fierceness of their enmity, the eagerness with which they sought to arouse that of the heathen, almost every page in the Acts declares (xiii. 50; xiv. 2, 5, 19; xvii. 5; xxiv. 2; 1 Thess. ii. 14); and many a page of early ecclesiastical history no less. Moreover, this blasphemy and malignant antagonism of the Jews against the truth displayed itself in bitterest enmity against this very Church of Smyrna. We learn from that precious document, the Epistle of the Church of Smyrna recording the martyrdom of Polycarp, that Jews joined with heathens in crying out in the amphitheatre that the Christian bishop should be cast 139to the lions; and when there was a difficulty about this, that he should be burned alive; which being granted, the Jews, as was their wont (ὡς ἔθος αὐτοῖς), were foremost and forwardest in bringing logs for the pile; they, too, doing all that lay in their power to hinder the remains of the martyr from being delivered to his followers for burial (ch. 12, 13, 17).

In the words which follow, “but are the synagogue of Satan,” I find another proof that Jews, literally so called, are intended. To them belonged the synagogue, to Christians the Church. Throughout all the New Testament συναγωγή is only once used for a Christian place of assembly (Jam. ii. 2), never for the body of the faithful in Christ Jesus. With this one exception, capable of an easy explanation (see my Synonyms of the New Testament, § 1), the word is abandoned to the Jews. And that of theirs, which might have been the Church of the living God, is now “the synagogue of Satan”—a hard saying, a terrible word, but one which they, once the chosen people of the Lord, had wrought with all their might to deserve. Nothing else indeed was possible for them, if they would not be his people indeed; they could not be as the heathen, merely non-Christian, they must be anti-Christian. The measure of their former nearness to God was the measure of their present distance 140from Him. In the height to which they were lifted up was included the depth to which, if they did not continue at that height, they must inevitably fall. And this, true for them, is true also for all.—As nothing is accidental in this Book, so it is worth remarking that as we have here “the synagogue of Satan,” so presently “the throne of Satan” (ii. 13), and then lastly, “the depths of Satan” (ii. 24); “the synagogue of Satan” representing the Jewish antagonism to the Church, “the throne of Satan” the heathen, and “the depths of Satan” the heretical.

Ver. 10. “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer.”—The great Captain of our salvation never keeps back or conceals what those who faithfully witness for Him may have to bear for his name’s sake; never entices recruits into his service, or seeks to retain them under his banner, by the promise that they shall find all things easy and pleasant there. So far from this, He says of Paul at the outset of his apostolic career, “I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts ix. 16; cf. Matt. x. 16-31; Luke ix. 23; John xvi. 1, 23; Ezek. ii. 3-7; Jer. i. 19); and in like manner He announces to the Angel of Smyrna that bonds, and tribulation, and death itself, are before him and before others, as many as at Smyrna shall continue faithful to the end. But 141for all this they are not to fear. Presently He will declare to them why they should not fear; but first he further unrolls in their sight the scroll of their sufferings.

Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried.”—Ὁ διάβολος (= κατήγωρ, Rev. xii. 10), a name given to Satan by the Alexandrian translators with reference to the work of accuser ascribed to him, Job i. 2; Zech. iii. 1, 2. How well under him the Jews played the secondary rôle of διάβολοι, first against the Lord Himself, and then against his servants, appears in the Gospels (Luke xxiii. 2; John xix. 12), in the Acts (xvii. 5-8; xxiv. 2), and in all the early Church history. From a multitude of passages in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, and Origen’s answer to Celsus (iii. 1; vi. 27), it is clear that they were the authors of the calumnies against the Christians with which the malice of the heathen was stimulated and fed.

The manner in which this persecution of the saints is here traced to the direct agency of Satan, is very well worthy of note. We sometimes assume that Christians were persecuted, because the truth for which they bore witness affronted the pride, the prejudices, and the passions of men; and this is true; but we have not so reached to the ground of the matter. There is nothing more remarkable 142in the records which have come down to us of the early persecutions, and in this point they singularly illustrate the Scripture before us, than the sense which the confessors and martyrs, and those who afterwards narrate their sufferings and their triumphs, entertain and utter, that these great fights of affliction through which they were called to pass, were the immediate work of the Devil, and no mere result of the offended passions, prejudices, or interests of men. The enemies of flesh and blood, as mere tools and instruments, are nearly lost sight of by them in a continual reference to Satan as the invisible but real author of all. And assuredly they had right. So we might boldly say, even if we had not the warrant of such Scriptures as this. Thus, who that reads that story of the persecution of the saints at Lyons and Vienne, A.D. 177, happily preserved for us by Eusebius (H. E. v. 1) in the very words of the survivors, that wondrous tale of persistent inventive cruelty on the part of the heathen, overmatched by a superhuman patience on the part of the faithful, but must feel that here there is infinitely more than a conflict of bad men with good? There is rather on the one side an outbreak from the bottomless pit, the might and malice of the Devil, making war against God in the person of his saints; on the other, such a victory over Satan as could only have 143been surpassed when Christ Himself beheld him fall like lightning from heaven. This reference to the Devil as the primary author of all assaults upon the Church, the sense of which speaks out so strikingly in these Acta Martyrum, of the Gallic martyrs, hardly speaks out less strongly in others; thus see the Ep. de S. Polycarpi Mart. iii. 17, 19; Mart. Ignat. 7.

From the fact that our Translators have rendered ἵνα πειρασθῆτε, “that ye may be tried,” we may certainly conclude that they contemplated these πειρασμοί rather as the gracious trials of God (cf. Jam. i. 2, 3; 1 Pet. i. 7) than the temptations of the Devil. Yet assuredly this is not so; and Tyndale and Cranmer, who translate, “to tempt you,” are to be preferred; so Marckius: “Ut tentemini; non simplici probatione constantiæ, quo pacto Deus tentat suos, sed incitatione ad malum et infidelitatem, quo pacto Deus neminem tentat.Temptation from the Devil, not trial or proof from a Heavenly Father’s hand, is that which, according to this word of the Lord, was in store for them. It is indeed perfectly true that the same event is oftentimes both the one and the other—God sifting and winnowing the man to separate his chaff from his wheat, the Devil sifting and winnowing him in the hope that nothing else but chaff will be found in him. It is quite true also that πειράζειν is used in 144both senses; sometimes in a sense closely bordering upon that of δοκιμάζειν, and then ascribed to God, who, as the supreme δοκιμαστὴς τῶν καρδιῶν, tempts and makes trial of his servants to show them what of sin, of infirmity, of unbelief is in themselves; and showing them this, to leave them holier than before this temptation He found them (Heb. xi. 17: cf. Gen. xxii. 1; Exod. xv. 25; Deut. xiii. 3). At the same time πειράζειν is much oftener used of tempting by the Devil, solicitation on his part to evil (Matt. iv. 1; 1 Cor. x. 13; Gal. vi. 1; 1 Thess. iii. 5; Heb. ii. 18; Jam. i. 13); and the words going immediately before, “Behold the Devil will cast some of you into prison,” are decisive that the Lord is here warning his servants, as HIe did in the days of his personal ministry upon earth, against fierce assaults of their ghostly enemy which were close at hand, that so by watchfulness and prayer they might be able to stand in the evil day that was so near (Luke xxii. 32).

The temptations of imprisonment He especially adduces here. In the records of the Church’s early conflicts with the heathen, we constantly find the prison doing its work; those who endured torture bravely being returned to prison, that so it might be seen whether hunger and thirst, darkness and chains, would not be effectual in breaking down by little and little the courage and the steadfastness 145which had resisted manfully the first onset of the foe. Sometimes it would prove so. The Church’s early story, furnishing in the main a glorious commentary on these words, furnishes a mournful commentary as well. When temptations such as the Lord here speaks of arrived, it would be ever seen that there were many weak brethren, and some false brethren; and the Church, rejoicing over the steadfastness of multitudes among her children, had yet to mourn over the faltering infirmity of some, and the bold apostasy of others (Eusebius, H. E. v. 1. 10; Cyprian, De Laps. 1, 2).

And ye shall have tribulation ten days.”—For ἕξετε Lachmann and others have received into the text ἕχητε, which then equally with πειρασθῆτε will depend ἵνα. These “ten days,” during which the tribulation of Smyrna shall endure, have been very variously interpreted, some understanding by them a very long period (cf. Gen. xxxi. 41; Job xix. 3; Num. xiv. 22); and some a very short (Gen. xxiv. 55; Num. xi. 19). Those who interpret in the former sense have very commonly seen here allusion to the ten persecutions which the Church is often said to have passed through, during the three hundred years of its conflict with heathen Rome. It has been objected that this enumeration of exactly ten persecutions is merely an arbitrary one; that, if we include in our list 146only those which had some right to be called general, as extending over the whole Roman empire, the persecutions would not be so many; if all those which reached any one Church or province, they would be many more. But, setting this objection aside, I am persuaded we must look for something very different here from an announcement of the great length of time over which the persecution would extend; the “ten days” declare rather the shortness of time within which all this tyranny would be overpast. I conclude this from the fact that only so will the words fall in with the whole temper and spirit of this verse, which is encouraging and consolatory throughout. Here, as so often elsewhere, the briefness of a trial is urged as a motive for the patient endurance of it (cf. Isai. xxvi. 20; liv. 8; Ps. xxx. 5; Matt. xxiv. 22; 2 Cor. iv. 17; 1 Pet. i. 6; v. 30).

Be thou faithful unto death, and I woill give thee a crown of life.”—More than one of the early Fathers have written an “Exhortatio ad Martyrium,” but what are they all as compared with this? It needs hardly be observed that this “unto death” is an intensive, not an extensive, term. Christ does not mean, “to thy life’s end,” contemplating life under the aspect of time; but “to the sharpest and worst which the enemy can inflict upon thee, even to death itself.” Dare and endure, the words 147would say, the worst which evil men can threaten and inflict, even death itself (Matt. x. 22; xxiv. 13; Ecclus. iv. 28). Marckius: “Quam exigit [fidelitatem] usque ad mortem, non tam terminum temporis notans, quanquam et ad metæ nostræ finem sit perseverandum, quam quidem gradum mali, in quo fidelitas nostra demonstranda est, ut mortem ipsam in causâ fidei et pietatis subire non detractemus.” For the words of the promise which follow, “and I will give thee a crown of life,” compare 2 Esdr. ii. 42-47, which, however, it can hardly be doubted is the interpolation of some later Christian hand (see Lücke, Offenb. d. Johan. p. 155, 2d edit.).

This “crown of life,” always remaining essentially the same, is not the less designated by a rich variety of images. Here, and with St. James (i. 12), it is “a crown of life;” with St. Paul, “a crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. iv. 8; cf. Plutarch, Philop. et Flam. 3: δικαιοσύνης καὶ χρηστότητος στέφανος); with St. Peter, “a crown of glory” (1 Ep. v. 4); with Isaiah, “a crown of beauty” (lii. 3, στέφανος κάλλους, LXX.; with which compare διάδημα τοῦ κάλλους, Wisd. v. 17); in the Mart. S. Polycarpi, “a crown of incorruption” (ἀφθαρσίας, xvii. 19; cf. Eusebius, H. E. v. 1; μέγας τῆς ἀφθαρσίας στέφανος; with Ignatius, “a crown of conflict” (ἀθλήσεως, Mart. 5, with probable reference to 2 Tim. ii. 5). Whether Lucian intended a sneer at these 148glorious promises of the Scripture, when he introduces the impostor Peregrinus, who had been among the Christians, though he died a Cynic, to declare his intention of adding, by a voluntary death, a golden crown to a golden life (χρυσῷ βίῳ χρυσῆν κορώνην ἐπιθεῖναι, De Mort. Pereg. § 33), may be questionable. That he has many such scoffs at the promises of Scripture, as at its miracles and other facts, no one who has at all studied the matter will be disposed to deny.

One may pause to consider here, Is this crown the diadem of royalty, or the garland of victory, “Krone” or “Kranz”? I believe the former. It is quite true that στέφανος is seldom used in this sense, much oftener διάδημα (see my Synonyms of the New Testament, § 23); yet the “golden crowns” (στέφανοι) of chapter v. can only be royal crowns (cf. ver. 10); στέφανος too is the word which all the Evangelists employ of the crown of thorns, evidently a caricature of royalty, which was planted on the Saviour’s brows. Did we indeed meet these words “a crown of life” in the Epistles of St. Paul, we should be justified in saying that in all probability the wreath or garland of the victor in the games, the “crown” in this sense was intended. St. Paul was familiar with the Greek games, and freely drew his imagery from them (1 Cor. vii. 24-27; Phil. iii. 12; 1 Tim. vi. 12); does not fear to contemplate 149the faithful under the aspect of runners (θεόδρομοι, as Ignatius, ad Philad. c. ii., calls them) and wrestlers in the games. His universal, Hellenic as well as Jewish, education, exempted him from any scruples upon this point. Not so, however, the Christians of Palestine. These Greek games were strange to them, or only not strange, as they were the objects of their deepest abhorrence; as witness the tumults and troubles which accompanied the first introduction of them by Herod the Great at Jerusalem, recorded at length by Josephus (Antt. xv. 8. 1-4). Tertullian’s point of view, who styles them (Scorp. 6) “contentiosa solemnia et superstitiosa certamina Græcarum et religionum et voluptatum,” would very much have been theirs. And. then, to me at least, decisive on this point is the fact, that nowhere else in the Apocalypse is there found a single image drawn from the range of heathen antiquity. The Book moves exclusively in the circle of Jewish imagery—either sacred or cabalistic; derived in largest part from the depths of the temple service. The palms in the hands of those who stand before the throne (vii. 9) may seem an exception to the universality of this rule; but really are far from so being. It is quite true that the palm was for Greek and Roman a token of victory, but this “palmiferens company,” to use Henry More’s words, these happy palmers, do not stand before the throne as 150conquerors,—Tertullian’s exposition, “albati et palmis victoriæ insignes” (Scorp. 12.), being at fault,—but as those who keep the true feast of tabernacles, the feast of rest, of all the weary toil in the wilderness accomplished and ended; and as such, and to mark them for what they are, they bear, according to the injunctions of the Old Testament, the branches of palms in their hands (Lev. xxiii. 40; cf. Neh. viii. 15; 2 Macc. x. 7; John xii. 13; Josephus, Antt. xiii. 13. 5); see some beautiful remarks on this point in Hengstenberg, in part anticipated by Vitringa. I must needs then believe, that these are royal crowns, not victorious garlands, which the Lord is promising here.

Ver. 11. “He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches; he that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.”—This “second death,” setting forth the “vita non vitalis,” the death in life of the lost, as contrasted with the life in death of the saved, is a phrase peculiar to the Apocalypse (cf. xx. 6, 14; xxi. 8); but is not uncommon in the later Jewish theology; indeed frequent in the Chaldee Paraphrase. Vitringa: “Phrasis nata haud dubie in scholâ sanctorum virorum qui fidem et spem Ecclesiæ post reditum ex exilio Babylonico explicarunt.” But though the word is not on the lips of the Lord during his earthly life, He does not shrink from proclaiming the 151fearful thing. The δεύτερος θάνατος of this Book is the γέεννα of Matt. v. 29; Mark ix. 43-49; Luke xii. 5. The phrase is itself a solemn witness against the Sadduceeism and Epicureanism, which would make the natural death the be-all and end-all of existence. As there is a life beyond this present life for the faithful, so a death beyond the death which falls under our eye for the wicked. “Vita damnatorum mors est,” is the fearful gloss of Augustine on these words.2929   Philo too, though he does not know this phrase, “the second death,” has a terrible commentary upon it (De Prœm. et Pœn. 12): ἄνθρωποι μὲν γὰρ πέρας τιμωριῶν εἶναι νομίζουσι θάνατον· ἐν δὲ τῷ θείῳ δικαστηρίῳ μόγις ἐστίν οὗτος ἀρχή. And going on to ask what is the punishment of the ungodly, he answers, ζῆν ἀποθνήσκοντα ἀεὶ, καὶ τρόπον τινὰ θάνατον ἀθάνατον ὑπομένειν καὶ ἀτελεύτητον, with more which I cannot quote.

So much has been idly written upon names, not a little most idly on the names of these seven Churches, and the mystical meanings which they contain, that one shrinks from any seeming fellowship in such foolish and unprofitable fancies; and yet it is difficult not to remember here that σμύρνα, the name of this suffering Church which should give out its sweetness in persecution and in death, is a subform of μύῤῥα (Lobeck, Pathol. p. 241); and that myrrh, an aromatic gum of Arabia. served for embalming the dead (John xix. 39; cf. Herodotus, 152ii. 40, 86), went up as incense before the Lord (Exod. xxx. 23), was one of the perfumes of the bridegroom (Ps. xlv. 8), and of the bride (Cant. iii. 6); all which Vitringa has excellently urged: “Myrrha itaque nobis hic symbolice figurat graviores Ecclesiæ afflictiones, amaras equidem et ingratas carni, πρὸς τὸ παρόν, quod ad tempus præsens, sed ex quibus fructus provenit vere salutaris. Solet enim eas Deus suâ providentiâ Ecclesiæ immittere, ut electos et electorum fidem præservet a corruptione, et illos hoc etiam medio veluti condiat ad immortalitatem, et fragrantiam iis conciliet egregiam virtutum Christianarum, quarum exercitium persecutiones Ecclesiæ solent suscitare.


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