One way to learning the art of preaching is to read the writings of effective communicators. And William Barclay is an effective communicator par excellence.
His books are never difficult to read or understand. And readers (and I presume listeners, too) never wonder at the end what it was about that they had just read or heard. Perhaps what made Barclay effective is the fact that he preaches on radio - a cruel medium in speech communication that requires clarity, precision, and artless simplicity. And Barclay does all three, and with depth and perception, too.
Reviewing Barclay can be difficult because I do not always agree with him theologically. And yet, because I recognize his greatness as a communicator, I learn to swallow my pride. I have read every single one of his commentaries, and most of his other books. The one I have chosen to review is uniquely Barclay in style.
Letters to the Seven Churches is of course an exposition on the second and third chapters of Revelation. Several other books or commentaries share the same title. This one is identifiably Barclay's work for two reasons. The first is his profound knowledge of the classics: Greek and Roman civilization. And the other is his hermeneutical skill in extracting useful data and using them to highlight the biblical text.
And so for his exposition on each church, there are two chapters: the first chapter gives you the background to the city; and the other shows how the biblical text can be understood in the light of that background. To give you a flavour of the work, the following is a summary of select chapters.
Commenting on the not very productive nature of God's people at Ephesus, the author highlights the threat of judgement (Rev.2:5) in typical Barclay fashion. "Uselessness always invites disaster." It is a theme Barclay has developed in at least two other places: in his commentary on Revelation, and in his book on the parables of Jesus, entitled And Jesus Said.
In his study on Smyrna, Barclay points to the city as an important centre of Caesar worship, and which has a huge Jewish population. As a result, Christians easily become targets of persecution and victims in martyrdom. Their chief accusers were of course the Jews. Barclay then observes dryly, "To fight with one's mouth is always contemptible" (p.43). It makes one think of all the verbal vitriol that had been poured, sometimes under the illusion of defending the truth. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and more vicious.
The study on Thyatira is worth its weight in gold (!). Barclay highlights the city's prominence in trade and industry, and observes how it can be "committing commercial suicide", in the context of the existence of the powerful trade-guilds, to resist the allures of business and pleasure. To Barclay, the situation at Thyatira is "curiously modern" (pp.71,72), with the threat to the survival of the church coming not from the outside, but from within its own ranks.
Sardis was a city that thought itself invulnerable; it was also a city marked by ease and decadence. Barclay entitles his study on the church as "The Church of the Living Death." Barclay offers hints in this study as to when we might sense a church is in danger of death: when it begins to worship its own past; is more concerned with forms than with life; loves systems more than it loves Jesus Christ; and when it is more concerned with material than spiritual things. After reading Barclay's comments, it can be deeply disturbing to attend any business meeting of any church, and note the kind of issues we often spend time on.
In his study on Philadelphia, Barclay draws attention to the frequency of earthquakes and how this explains the promise of the risen Christ that the church would be a "pillar" and not have to leave (Rev.3:12). What is particularly helpful is Barclay's explanation that this is not a promise of protection from death, but deliverance from the fear of death. It is a fine line not many preachers know how to draw. (Just think of how many sermons of the "God will protect you" variety that we have heard). Barclay's perceptive exposition of a crucial Gospel truth (pp.97,98) is something rarely encountered in modern preaching.
I have selected five studies here which made the deepest impression on me, and readers will doubtless enjoy the other chapters as well. Rethinking Barclay's writings has done two things for me. First, it has taught me some measure of humility. I have not always thought well of William Barclay. I thought of him as a wishy-washy all-things-to-all-men kind of character. Letters to the Seven Churches brings out a side to Barclay that could be seen as strong and highly principled. It is so easy to misread others.
The other thing that impressed me ever more deeply about Barclay is his ability to maintain balance between being academic and being accessible. Barclay never comes across as a dry-as-dust ivory-tower academic, widely read that he was. And yet he never gives the impression of being patronizing or condescending for all his very folksy style of speaking and writing. In a strange way, he makes me think of a greater Rabbi whom the common people heard gladly.
(Review by Rev Ng S. C.)