Two Views of the History of the Church
The suggestions that follow as to the history of the professing church on earth pursue lines of illustration taken from two passages of Scripture. They do not expound those two passages but are made with the desire that the consideration of them will produce a walk in the ways and spirit suitable to that period of the church's history in which we are living. Both passages will be compared with the letters to the seven assemblies in Revelation 2 and 3.
In making this comparison it should be remembered that the book of Revelation doesn't present the church as the body of Christ, but rather as a vessel of testimony originally set in this position by God and responsible to Him about the witness that it renders. This is what is judged; not the body of Christ, but the testifying vessel in this present dispensation, a dispensation committed to man's responsibility. Hence what publicly takes the place of being the church remains even through the tribulation.
In this first article a journey of the apostle Paul will be considered in order to see the effects of neglecting or receiving the truths which were particularly entrusted to him. In the second article the life of Samson will be compared to the various phases of the history of the church with the objective of learning various moral lessons.
In following this line of comparison with Revelation 2 and 3, two things must be kept in mind:
Paul's sad remark in 2 Timothy 1: 15 that, "all who are in Asia,... have turned away from me," and
The historical presentation of the assembly of God in the Acts.
Men have said that Luke, in his desire to write with method to Theophilus, didn't know where to stop. Of course, he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the Acts, but there is a measure of truth in what men say. Luke couldn't stop with his Gospel. The Man Christ Jesus ascended to heaven and so the Acts gives something of the historical consequences of His being there. Where do you stop a history? Man's ability to record history ceases when the present moment is reached but God knows the end from the beginning. Does the history of the assembly in Acts cease suddenly at the end of Acts 26, to be replaced with interesting details as to shipping and transport in the first century, followed by a detailed survey of things to be understood merely in terms of earthly significance? Surely not. God knows the end from the beginning and loves to bring us into communion with Himself in revealing it to us. Nevertheless He knows the character of our hearts. The history of the vessel of testimony must be presented in a mystical way and be interpreted with spiritual understanding. This is true of both Paul's voyage and of the addresses to the seven assemblies. God knew of the assembly's future and He desired to communicate it to us, but to do so in a manner which would leave full room for our expecting the Lord's coming at any moment.
The entire history is there. It doesn't stop at chapter 26 but continues thereafter in a mystical way. In 2 Timothy 1: 15 they had turned away from Paul; they had not apostatized from Christ. In Acts 27 it is Paul personally and his counsel that are in view. Without being dogmatic we can trace the history of the assembly in relation to the way the unique truths committed to Paul, which characterise Christianity, have been treated by Christians to the present day.
The Shipwreck in Acts 27. Chapter Outline
1. Introductory. Julius in charge.
2. Ship of Adramyttium.
3. One day to Sidon. Paul allowed to see friends.
4. Sailing under shelter of Cyprus due to contrary winds.
5. Over the waters of Cilicia and Pamphylia.
Arrived at Myra in Lycia.
6. Ship of Alexandria. Bound for Italy.
7. Sailing slow at first due to wind, up until Cnidus.
Redirected down to Crete. Sailed in its shelter with difficulty.
8. Arrived at Fair Havens near the city of Lasaea.
9. much time spent.
10. Paul's counsel. Disaster ahead.
11. Centurion believed rather the helmsman and owner.
12. majority suggestion to leave for Phoenice, a better port.
13. Sailing. Gentle south wind. Confidence. Sailed close to Crete.
14. Not long after-hurricane. Euroclydon.
15. driven by wind
16. under shelter of Clauda, able themselves to master ship.
17. used helps, frapping the ship.
feared running aground at Syrtis (quicksands).
18. next day threw cargo overboard
19. third day threw furniture out
20. no sun or stars many days. All hope of salvation lost.
21. Paul's counsel.
(i) Should have listened to him earlier
22. (ii) Predicts no loss of life (God's promise)
26. (iii) Predicts they would arrive at an island
27. 14th night near midnight. Sailors perceived land was near.
28. they confirmed their thoughts by fathoming.
29. fearing rocks they cast four anchors.
30. sailors tried to flee under the pretext of taking out anchors.
31. Paul's counsel. All must abide in the ship.
32. soldiers therefore cut away ropes of lifeboat.
33. Paul's counsel. (i) Eat some food.
35. (ii) Broke bread.
36. All took courage.
37. All 276 numbered and accounted for.
38. When they had had enough food they threw the wheat overboard.
39. They did not recognise the land. Made their own plans.
40. Cast off anchors, loosened rudder, went with wind.
41. Ran aground where 2 seas meet. Prow stuck fast; stern broken.
42. Soldiers want to kill prisoners.
43. No, swim if you can.
44. The rest floated on what they could.
ALL GOT SAFELY TO LAND.
The chapter commences with Paul as a prisoner. It is remarkable that a characteristic feature of the man to whom the peculiar truths of the present dispensation were committed is that of physical suffering and difficulty.
Under law the mark of God's blessing was prosperity in material things. In the present day every blessing is spiritual (Eph. 1: 3). Under law blessings could be seen. Today they are apprehended by faith. Paul endured physical privation. He represented a dispensation which is in faith (1 Tim. 1: 4). As we trace through the chapter we must not forget that it is not merely Paul personally that is in view, but rather the features and truths peculiar to this dispensation, which were committed to him, and that are represented by him (Col. 1: 25, 26).
Although a prisoner he was allowed to see his friends (v. 3). The voyage started with full liberty for persevering in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles (Acts 2: 42).
The first mark of decline was the cessation of that perseverance. They "set sail thence" (v. 4). The church departed from the teaching and fellowship of the apostles. All in Asia turned away from Paul. In leaving their first love they left Christ as Paul had presented Him. Paul preached "the glad tidings of the glory of the Christ" (2 Cor. 4: 4). He preached Christ in glory. In leaving her first love, the church forgot her links with Christ in glory. She did not hold the head (Col. 2: 19). As Head, He leads by affection (Eph. 5). This sense of His affection and the response to it was lost.
Ecclesiastical men today still revere the so-called church fathers. Their writings demonstrate the complete turning away from Paul, the leaving of all that pertains to Christ in glory. One who was required, as part of his early training in life, to read their writings, said of them, "the thought of the presence of the Holy Ghost animating living members, or His unfolding the riches or fulness of blessing, flowing from living union (with the Head), never crossed their mindsl."
1 Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Volume 14, p. 42.
The part of the voyage from Myra (v. 5), and before arriving at Fair Havens (v. 8), links with the phase of the church's history which was marked by persecution and suffering. The names Myra and Smyrna have the same root-myrrh, giving the thought of suffering. The slow sailing for many days (v. 7) would correspond with "ye shall have tribulation ten days" (Rev. 2: 10).
"I know where thou dwellest" (Rev. 2: 13). What a change was experienced by the church of God! Instead of persecution, acceptance by the world. Instead of difficult sailing, Fair Havens. The sense of being a pilgrim and a stranger was lost and was replaced by dwelling, "much time having now been spent" (v. 9). Instead of sojourning, settling down. Instead of crying to God on account of persecution, "the fast... was already past" (v. 9 ).
The entire course of disastrous consequences, of which this was but the beginning, was perceived by Paul (v. 10). He spoke of departure and never held out hope of complete recovery (see, for example, Acts 20: 29-30; 2 Tim. 3). Nobody believed him (vv. 11, 12). The majority opinion held sway. They thought that if they kept at it things would get better. It was really comfort that they had in mind. Are things different today? Men still cling to the idea that the world will improve, that by the preaching of the gospel the knowledge of the glory of Jehovah will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2: 14); that by moral and social reform and political influence a kingdom will be formed that will never be destroyed (Dan. 2: 44); that "by God's grace, by God's strength, we can change the world"; all with a view to settling down here. The heavenly side of Christian truth was and is rejected. Paul's counsel was and is rejected.
Verses 14 to 20. Oh the sense of ease the south wind gave (v. 13). What a false sense of security! The period of acceptance by the world had Satan's desired effect of lulling the assembly into a sense of comfortable numbness. Perched on deck with proud confidence, they made a sitting target for the sweeping hurricane of popery.
This introduces perhaps the darkest and longest blot on the assembly's history in this world. The features figured by all that happened to the ship hardly need comment: driven by the wind (v. 15)-every wind of doctrine; they made themselves masters of the boat (v. 16)-as lording it over their possessions, recognising positions of ecclesiastical mastery; they used helps (v. 17)-human helps, saints, men and women dead and living. With no sense of the value of the finished work of Christ, they feared running aground and with cargo and furniture thrown overboard (v. 18, 19) they saw neither sun nor stars for many days (v. 20) and gave up all hope of salvation. No guidance from God. No access to His Word. What absolute utter darkness! Well might we speak of them as the dark ages.
How significant that over this entire period there is not one word from Paul.
"Ye ought, O men, to have hearkened to me." What characterised the revival known as the Reformation was a return to the Word of God. Gospel truth, justification by faith alone without works, the finished work of Christ, the sovereignty of God-all revived to the hearts and minds of many. The gospel Paul unfolded in Romans became the food and impulse of men of faith. Yet, as we also see here in verses 21 to 25, it is not a word of congratulation that the Lord gave to Sardis. In many respects, it is a word of rebuke. Paul's voice was heard again after a silence of about one thousand years, but the word heard did not go beyond the truth of the gospel and the assurance of salvation.
The words of the Lord Jesus to Philadelphia were, "thou hast kept the word of My patience" (Rev. 3: 10). He has been patiently waiting for the day when He will receive His bride to Himself. Early last century this was impressed on the hearts of godly men and women who responded to the exhortation, "Behold, the bridegroom; go forth to meet Him" (Matt. 25: 6). The Person of Christ and the imminence of His return drew forth a response from the hearts of many. They kept the word of His patience. In the words of our chapter, they "supposed that some land neared them" (v. 27). This "supposing" was founded on the teaching of the Word of God, by the Spirit of God, who confirmed to the hearts and minds of many the nearness of Christ's return.
This fresh response to the Word of God in its presentation of Christ and His coming enabled the subsequent understanding and appreciation of all the characteristic truths of the dispensation which had been committed to Paul. This was accompanied by an intense sense of humility on account of the assembly's failure. It was accompanied by godly fear (v. 29) and this produced an absolute reliance on the Word of God and the Person of Christ. They cast four anchors. It is Christ, the anchor for the soul. For connected with the apprehension of Himself as dead and risen, as ascended and seated at God's right hand, and as coming again are the four great realms of truth peculiar to the present dispensation: 1-the truth of the gospel; 2-the great doctrines of Christian life and position in connection with His death and resurrection; 3-the truth of the assembly in all its varied aspects in connection with His having ascended and seated Himself at God's right hand; and 4-the rapture of the saints, their association with Christ in His millennial reign, and the manifestation of His glory by the judgment of the living and the dead, following His coming again. In summary, evangelical, doctrinal, ecclesiastical and prophetic truth.
These wonderful truths are so closely linked together: they depend on one another, they are consistent with one another, and they characterise this dispensation. They were, in a peculiar manner, committed to the apostle Paul, who by them completed the Word of God (Col. 1: 25). Early last century, when the anchors were cast, one wrote of "the testimony of God which He is giving at this time," and enumerated the following truths as examples of that testimony:
"the peculiar glory of the exalted Man, its consequences in the sending of the Holy Ghost, the union of the church with its Head, the indwelling of the Comforter in the individual saints, their being members of His body, of His flesh, and His bones; the taking the bride up and presenting it to Himself, and the rapture of the saints: all that constitutes distinctively Christianity."1
How greatly we need to feed on and be formed by these truths.
When once the saints had been drawn together by the appreciation and affection for Christ, and by the love of the truth, it was not long before Satan attacked. The consequence of his attack was that the principle of independency was manifested (v. 30); the sailors tried to go out on their own. The Person of Christ and the truth of God unite and establish souls. When these are, in any measure, let go (collective) unity and (individual) establishment decline commensurately.
v. 33, 34
Paul's counsel to those on the ship was to partake of some food. How we need to feed on the Word of God. "Controversy may instruct but it seldom feeds the soul."2 When recovered, all these doctrines had to be fought for. They were rejected by the mass of the Christian profession. Yet the soul is not nourished by arguing and contending for the truth-rather by meditating on it and responding to God in worship on account of it.
v. 35, 36
Paul broke bread. This is obviously not the Lord's supper-but how forcibly does the use of the words describing his act remind us of it! The Lord's supper was one feature of the dispensation which was delivered to Paul in order to ensure its perpetuation until the Lord comes (1 Cor. 11: 23). In it there is seen the link between the three great positions of Christ mentioned earlier. The risen and ascended Lord delivered it to Paul. By celebrating it we announce the Lord's death. It is to continue until He comes again.
It is a solemn indictment against us that we can, as rejoicing in the work of God and the blessings of God, subtly begin to grow complacent in them and to regard them as though we had merited them. No doubt each one on the ship took courage from the words Paul spoke and the exhortations he gave; but the courage taken from the Word of God became corrupted, and confidence in self took its place. Thus pride enters in. A simple matter to number the people (v. 37), but what consequences! David learned this the hard way (2 Sam. 24). The self-complacent spirit of Laodicea can lie virtually undetected in our hearts, and once it has taken root it grows rapidly.
"And having satisfied themselves with food, they lightened the ship, casting out the wheat into the sea" (v. 38).
"thou sayest I am rich, and am grown rich, and have need of nothing" (Rev. 3: 17).
How we need to confess that so much of this departure is true of us today. The wheat would correspond to all the truth connected with Christ in resurrection (John 12: 23, 24); all food that would tend to strengthen our appreciation of Him in glory and, in so doing, fashion us more and more in His image; all ministry that would have as its object our living down here as those who belong to heaven and have Christ as our life, having died with Him and been raised with Him. How dare we throw it overboard! How dare we say "we have had enough"!
Subsequent to throwing the wheat overboard they are unable to recognise the land and as a consequence they try to make do as best they can. Is our spiritual vision also impaired through not feasting on "all the counsel of God" as announced by Paul (Acts 20: 27)? Have we relied rather on our own expedient solutions to the state in which we are found individually and collectively? How the intensity of the love of the Lord Jesus would seek to remedy this situation (Rev. 3: 18-20). If we are willing to recognise any of these sad features as characterising us, there is a way back: the way of repentance.
Acts 27, however, refers to what is general. Any one of us may well buy gold and white garments and eyesalve, we may well repent and respond to His call and have fellowship with Himself, but the church of God, already in ruins as to its testimony here, has no hope of recovery held out to it. The truth will be cast away yet more and more and every wind of doctrine will take control until all is a complete wreck testimonially (v. 40).
A sorry end indeed to the history of the vessel of testimony left here in responsibility to Christ; but a just end in view of the setting aside of all that was revealed to, and announced by, the apostle Paul. Yet in the faithfulness of God, although his doctrine has been ignored and rejected, the final results of it will not fail. Not one of Christ's own will be lost. He will not be dissatisfied with the fruit of the travail of His soul. He will not fail to present the assembly, glorious, to Himself. As Man filling all things, He will take delight in that which is His fulness. These things are connected with the eternal counsels of the Godhead, counsels which were once unknown, but have now been made known through the apostle Paul. They will not fail. The truth of these things is still available to us today. May we have a heart for them!
Two Views of the History of the Church (2)
There are very few words of encouragement found by tracing through the incidents in the life of Samson for the purpose of comparison with the history of the seven assemblies in Revelation 2 & 3. Samson's deep and shameful failure to maintain a testimony to the holiness of God, compared with the church's failure (our failure) to maintain God's testimony, give occasion for us to listen afresh to the warnings the Lord Jesus Christ may have for us. The lessons of history are lessons for the present time.
The initial comments made by the inspired historian in recounting Samson's early life in Judges 13: 24, 25 may readily be compared to the bright days of the church's early history. Samson grew, Jehovah blessed him, and the Spirit of Jehovah began to move him. The book of Acts shows the same features of growth (Acts 6: 7), blessing (Acts 4: 32, 33) and the moving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9: 31). Yet there is very little said about this period of Samson's life in Judges, in proportion to the details given regarding his failure. Likewise this early period of the church's history was very brief compared to the centuries of failure that ensued.
Judges 14: 1: "Samson went down."
Revelation 2: 4: "thou hast left thy first love."
Decline is immediate and rapid: "And Samson went down." His affection was not set in the midst of the people of God. He became motivated by lust and not love-the lust of the eyes. The last phrase of verse 3, "she pleases me well," is translated in the German Bible, "she is right in my eyes," in full keeping with the final summary of the book of Judges as given in its concluding verse.
The rebuke which the Lord Jesus gave to Ephesus was, "thou hast left thy first love." The bride had ceased to look for the Bridegroom. In the early days of the church, corresponding to the period represented by Ephesus in Revelation 2, one of the first things lost was the immediate expectation of Christ's return, the return of the Bridegroom.1
Although Samson himself was a bridegroom, his hopes, aspirations and desires regarding the marriage relationship were completely misguided. His first love was a love for God and His people which thus found its activities and interests among them (ch. 13: 25). This love was replaced by lust for one of the daughters of the Philistines. If we are losing heart for the Lord's coming as a perfect expression of His love for us then we face the same danger into which both Samson and the early church fell.
Judges 14: 5: "a. lion roared against him."
Revelation 2: 10: "the devil is about to cast of you into prison."
Samson's failure here was in touching the dead body of a lion (Numbers 6: 6). No! It wasn't failure, it was sin. How often we are guilty by our words, of reducing the sinfulness of sin-by using terms which do not strike the conscience. Samson sinned-he acted in direct contravention to the revealed mind of God.
There is, however, no sin mentioned in the Lord's address to the assembly at Smyrna. The lion is mentioned, that is, Satan as a roaring lion (cf. 1 Peter 5: 8) acting in persecution against them. The encouragement to them of which the bees and the honey are but a picture is also mentioned, that they would receive a crown of life and in no wise be injured of the second death: words speaking of resurrection from the lips of the One who became dead and lived. "Out of the eater came forth food, And out of the strong came forth sweetness" is surely a beautiful meditation on the theme of death and resurrection-yet for Samson this victory was marred by his sin.
Like Samson, we face the continual danger of allowing victories given by God to be occasions for our sinfully dishonouring Him. Perhaps it was also true for Smyrna and for the professing church in the historical period which Smyrna typifies. For us there is no "perhaps." Let us beware not only of the roaring lion but also of the workings of fleshly pride and complacency which may arise when God gives us any victory.
Judges 14: 10: "Samson made there a feast."
Revelation 2: 13: "where the throne of Satan is."
Samson again went down into the territory of the Philistines. It was there that he made a feast; it was there that he did what was customary among the young men; it was there that he made a friend (v. 20). He played a game of cunning with those who were experts at cunning games, and he lost.
The assembly at Pergamos dwelt where Satan's seat is. Historically this represents the period when the once antagonistic world began to show favours to the professing church. The result was a settling down in the world-a diminishing of the realisation that Christians are pilgrims and strangers. God's ways with His ancient people were characterised by bringing them out from the place where Satan had dominion and making them pilgrims and strangers: it was so with Abraham and it was so with Israel. Pergamos settled down, and the result was the accepting of doctrines which encouraged intimate links with this world in its religious character (Revelation 2: 14).
Samson went to where the enemy was, not to fight but to feast. The enemy's mask was a mask of friendship, as it was in the case of Pergamos. We should reject everything which has the character of denying that, "friendship with the world is enmity with God," whether it be a teaching or a practice.
Judges 16: 1: "a harlot."
Revelation 2: 20: "the woman Jezebel."
The commencement of friendship with the world is often very subtle and its development can be slow. Judges 15 refers to incidents which follow on from the feast Samson had made. As time went by, what started as a compromise of friendship with the Philistines in chapter 14 developed into sexual immorality in chapter l6.
Samson's promiscuous relationships, having developed from the seeds of compromise, are like the Thyatira period in the church's history. What started in Pergamos, ripened in Thyatira. In one it was the throne of Satan, in the next the depths of Satan. In one it was "thou hast" those who hold doctrines of compromise, in the next "thou permittest" the woman Jezebel who not only holds but teaches and leads into the same evils. The neutral condescension to "have" things in Pergamos became an active condoning of them in Thyatira.
We must beware of what we allow (individually or collectively) because what we allow will eventually become what we actively teach and encourage.
Judges 16: 20: "Jehovah had departed from him."
Revelation 3: 1: "a name that thou livest, and art dead."
"A name that thou livest, and art dead," conveys the sad message of having reputation but no (present) ability. One of the marks of Protestantism (figured by Sardis) is its reliance on "the historic Christian faith"2 dating back to the Reformation, and making the Reformation a standard to be maintained, rather than seeking that the process of recovery may continue.
Samson relied on what he knew of his past ability, his past victories, and did not bother to examine his present condition. The warning to Sardis was "Be watchful, and strengthen the things that remain." Samson was not watchful. He slept. He yielded to Delilah's influence. He had a name to live; a name associated with strength, power, might, influence-but it was all gone. His hair was gone and he didn't know it.
Collectively, if we make past victories and past recovery our standard, we come short of God's desire and may imagine that a reputation won by our predecessors in some way throws credit upon ourselves. We can fail individually in supposing that because God has used us in the past He will continue to do so, regardless of our spiritual condition.
Judges 16: 21: "seized him, and put out his eyes."
Revelation 3: 17: "thou art the wretched and the miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."
A name, a claim and an aim. These are respectively Sardis, Laodicea and Philadelphia.
The condemnation of Laodicea is expressed in Revelation 3: 17 with the contrast between "thou sayest" and "thou art." We never have to say anything. There is no need to claim anything to ourselves. We must beware of this. There are many principles we claim to uphold and yet in practice we deny them. In the story of Samson the section which parallels Philadelphia follows that which parallels Laodicea-and surely this can be an encouragement to us. We must not give up hope. The Spirit of God has indicated that a testimony will be continued right through to the end, that the Lord's death would be shown forth "until He come." We should have this before us as an aim, yet beware of claiming that we are fulfilling it.
Judges 16: 22: "But the hair of his head began to grow."
Revelation 3: 8: "a little power."
Even if we dare call Samson's last act a victory we will nevertheless admit that it contains nothing in which Samson could boast. This is not an attempt to downgrade what the Lord said to Philadelphia-but we should realise, if the comparison is considered, that the features of recovery follow on from what is only horrible failure.
A little strength. Samson's end was nothing like his beginning. There are doubtless many things in assembly experience and practice which marked the beginning of the dispensation which will never be practically attained at the present time-but look at the exhortation, "hold fast what thou hast." All Samson had was two pillars and he held them fast and made use of them. What a responsibility we have. Just because some features of the assembly may be unattainable due to the ruin that has come in it doesn't mean that we should give up. We must seek to maintain what is proper to the whole assembly-but with this proviso-to do it in simplicity, not claiming any greatness to ourselves, but recognising how feeble is our attempt, as Samson did. At the very end he bowed himself with might (Judges 16: 30). His power, little as it was comparatively, was brought into useful evidence through his bowing himself.
How we delight in any little feature of recovery. How the Lord Jesus delights in it too. Let us not overrate it, or take pride in it, or claim things as though we had achieved them. Let us rather acknowledge any recovery as being evidence of past failure and of present inadequacy. Samson's final victory was not something about which any would boast. Let us make recovery our aim, as those who are conscious of weakness, and not our claim as though we were totally unconscious of our true condition.
1 For an account of the recovery of the truth of Christ's return as an immediate hope see "Precious Truths Revived and Defended Through J. N. Darby," available from the publisher.
2 Quoted from a book entitled "Light over Australia" published as a manual of Christian doctrine representative of the creeds of "the body of the Protestant Church."