In Revelation 1, Jesus Christ appears in glory, standing in the midst of his churches. In Revelation 2–3, he writes letters to those same churches, filled with words of affirmation, correction, and promise.[i] Although originally addressed to churches in first-century Roman Asia, Jesus’ letters speak to issues faced by twenty-first-century American churches as well. Indeed, as John Stott points out, they identify “seven marks of an ideal church,”[ii] which make them perpetually relevant to each church in every age.
Throughout Christian history, pastors have written letters of spiritual direction for entire congregations, as well as for individual seekers, converts, and emerging church leaders. Paul is a master of this form of pastoral guidance; thirteen New Testament books are letters bearing his name. In fact, the letter is the primary literary genre of the New Testament, encompassing all its books except the Gospels and Acts.
Letters fit hand-in-glove with spiritual direction for several reasons. First, they are personal. A writer pours out his soul to a similarly souled reader, inviting that reader into a partnership of spiritually formed thoughts, feelings, and actions. Just so, good spiritual direction requires a partnership between the mentor and the one being mentored.
Second, letters are deliberate. A writer carefully crafts sentences to communicate meaning through particular words and turns of phrases. The right words draw the reader closer, but the wrong ones needlessly push away. So also, the good spiritual director offers counsel circumspectly, for what he says will either help a younger Christian along or throw obstacles on the spiritual path.
And third, letters are occasional. A writer reacts to the circumstances of his reader. Many of Paul’s letters—the Corinthian correspondence, for example—are responses to the problems faced by his churches. So also, good spiritual direction utilizes both the successes and failures of the one being mentored as “teachable moments” where praise can be given and grace applied.
Although we usually envision Jesus Christ as a preacher, sitting upon a hillside teaching the masses, we must learn to think of him as a pastoral letter writer par excellence, for that is what Revelation 2–3 shows him to be. Each of his seven letters is personal: To all seven congregations he reveals something of his multifaceted personality (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). And each letter is occasional: The words “I know” appear throughout as a testament to Christ’s knowledge of his congregations’ triumphs and defeats (2:2, 3, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15).
And most importantly, each letter is a masterpiece of spiritual deliberation, of words particularly chosen to produce a desired effect. Eugene H. Peterson detects a pattern in the structure of each letter: “There is, first, a positive affirmation; second, a corrective discipline; and third, a motivating promise.”[iii] Affirmation: “I know….” Correction: “But…” (2:4, 14, 20; 3:1). Promise: “To the one who conquers…” (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21).
We ought to pay attention to this pattern of spiritual direction, for it teaches us about ourselves and about how we ought to treat one another. We learn that Jesus Christ loves us—sinners that we are—although he refuses to leave us in our sins. Instead, he affirms our little triumphs, corrects our big faults, and promises us his eternal kingdom, if we but “conquer” through his power. And we learn that we should treat one another as Christ does. What graces we have received—of affirmation, correction, and promise—we must pass along to all.
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[i] Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 50.
[ii] John Stott, The Incomparable Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 177–181.
[iii] Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 50.