Commentary on the Book of Revelation
Book 1: Present Things As Foreshown In The Book Of Revelation (Chapters 1-3)
The Book and Its Subject
(Chap. i: 1 - 5)
The book of Revelation is the one only book of New Testament prophecy. As the completion of the whole prophetic Scriptures, it gathers up the threads of all the former books, and weaves them into one chain of many links which binds all history to the throne of God. As New-Testament prophecy, it adds the heavenly to the earthly sphere, passes the bounds of time, and explores with familiar feet eternity itself. Who would not, through these doors set open to us, press in to learn the things yet unseen, so soon to be for us the only realities? Who would not imagine that such a book, written with the pen of the living God Himself, would attract irresistibly the hearts of Christians, and that no exhortation would be needed for a moment to win them to its patient and earnest study?
It should be so, assuredly. How little it is so, the book in its first words is witness to us: for no book is so full of just such exhortation. And especially the first part, with which we are to be for the present occupied, abounds with solemn warnings to attention, regularly appended to its several sections: "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." Why is it that just here, where at first sight we have only addresses to the churches of far-distant times, these calls should be multiplied? Why but because there was just this danger to be guarded against? why but because the Spirit of God foresaw that a generation of men, most blind to their own interests when most wedded to them, would slight the very words of Christ Himself unless thus directly made over to them? What shall we say of those who with all this warning slight them still?
Scripture is thus ever prophetic, not in its plain predictions merely, but in its manner also. Why should Peter be the one to tell us that all Christians are "a holy priesthood," but in view of those who should misuse his name in after-times? or why should he be the one to announce to us that we are born again by the word of God, which is preached in the gospel, thus with two blows destroying ritualism to its foundations? or why should Mary never prefer a request to her Son and Lord but to be checked for it, save as an after-rebuke to those who should think to avail themselves of the Virgin's intercession?
So too is not the very title of this book, with its subject announced, and encouragement both to reader and hearer? How could words be better suited to rebuke the neglect, into which so many have fallen, in which so many still are found, of what is Christ's own "revelation," given to Him by God, "to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass"? Does a "revelation" hide, or reveal? Is that which is revealed to servants, to be kept (v. 3) by them in their service to their Lord, given in so doubtful a manner as to be more perplexity than guidance? Is not this an accusation of Him who has forbidden to His people doubtful paths, because "whatsoever is not of faith is Sin"?
Strange is the mistake that "the Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto Him," means His "appearing, because His appearing is the central theme of the book' No doubt it is so, and that His appearing is spoken of elsewhere as His revelation, but here, that "which God gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass,' is plainly the book itself, and defines its character It is not simply an inspiration, as all Scripture is, but something revealed for the r instruction of the saints Many are too little clear yet as to the difference between the two But revelation is that in which is a direct communication from God to man - a fresh discovery of truth other wise unknown, while inspiration is that which preserves from error, and assures that all that is written is for true profit and blessing to man.
"Jesus Christ's revelation" emphasizes the book before us, as what is from the Lord Himself in a peculiar way, of special importance and value where all is of value; and it is received by Him from God, as One who all through takes the place of Man, and as such is exalted of God, never exalts Himself. True pattern for His servants! He asks them to walk in no other path than He has trodden, and where they may have fellowship with Him.
This book is the servant's book. So it is plainly stated: "To show unto His servants." We may not expect, therefore, to be shown, except we come under this title; and indeed every child of God has the responsibility and privilege of service, - has something, no doubt, of the reality of it, as the Lord says, "He that hath My commandments and keepeth them, he it is who loveth Me" (Jno. xiv. 21). And so the apostle: "This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments" (i Jno. v. 3). Both passages maintain that the only right measure of love is that of practical obedience. Emotional glow, warm feelings, are indeed to be desired, - nay, to be expected, from those conscious of redemption by the blood of Christ; but these vary with different natures, vary in the same person at different times, may even deceive very much the subject of them, while obedience is the test of the judgment-seat itself. Words and deeds we read of then as alone in question.
Yet there is need of a counter-check here too; for how much frequently goes under the name of service which is in truth even disobedience and self-will! How much there is also of legal drudgery and pretentious claim, which the light of God's holy presence will shrivel into nothing! "Lo, these many years do I serve thee" is the language of one to whom the music of the father's house was a strange and unaccustomed sound; and "I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess" was said by one less acceptable to God by far than the despised publican, who could only groan out in His presence, "God be merciful to me the sinner!" The service of love and the service of claim are opposites. "He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him who died for them and rose again." Thisis the moral power of Christianity - the fruit of grace, and only that. For if still there is a possibility of condemnation in the day of judgment, fear stirs me to self-interest, I work for myself to escape the condemnation. "Faith worketh by love " - an entirely opposite principle. Such service is necessarily freedom, the more so the more it rules me, and entire happiness. In exact proportion to love will be the desire to serve the object of our love: as we read of the "work of faith," so we do of the "labour of love." But earnest and self-sacrificing as this labour may be, it can never be drudgery, never aught but joy. If such is our service, the thankful offering of those knowing themselves washed from their sins in the blood of Christ, then Revelation, with its survey of the whole field of labour, and its communication of the mind of Christ as to all, - Revelation, with its windows open toward Jerusalem, and its eternal sunshine for our souls, - Revelation, with its throne of God and the Lamb, and the stimulation of its encouraging words to the overcomer, - is the very book for us, surely. We shall enter with rapt hearts into the truth of this:
"Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of the book of this prophecy, and keep the things that are written therein."
It is the book for all servants. We have many and different fields of service, it is true; and happy as well as important it is to recognize this fact. There are high positions and lowly ones; positions before the eyes of multitudes, and positions hidden from almost all eyes, save His who are in every place. But every where it is a joy to know that we are accepted, not according to the place we are put in, but the way we fill it - the way we do the Master's work there. Lowliness and obscurity will be no discouragement to those in the communion of the Father and the Son: they cease to have meaning there. And publicity and prominence are how unspeakably dangerous, if the soul is not correspondingly before God; like the tree which spreads its branches and lifts its top toward heaven, if its roots are not proportionately deep in the unseen depths below.
Whatever the field of service, the book of Revelation is for all. All need alike the warnings, all need alike the encouragement. From the most hidden retirement, He whom we serve in love would have our hearts with Himself, busy with all that is of interest to Him. In the place of intercession Himself above, He would have us in fellowship with Him below; our prayers rising up for all parts of the earth His Word is visiting, and where the true "irrepressible conflict" is going on between the evil and the good; our praises, too, returning to Him for all He is daily accomplishing. In Revelation is given us the one "mind of Christ" about all, that our prayers may be the intelligent guiding of the Holy Spirit, and our hearts giving their sympathies aright, our energies going forth in channels of His own making. Little indeed, in many of the systems of interpretation of this book, may be found, it is true, such help as this; and quite unable we may be to extract the spiritual blessing to be found in seals or trumpets which speak only of Alaric the Goth, or Attila the Hun: but for the simple ones who believe God, the mere direct label of this book for Christ's servants may certify that there is something deeper while simpler than all this for souls that seek it.
There the words stand for faith to receive and rejoice in, - "Jesus Christ's revelation, which God gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass." Join us in prayer, beloved reader, ere we pass on, that we may give His people from these pages real help and blessing drawn from this precious book! "Things which must shortly come to pass." This would now no doubt impress us, as we look back from the end of eighteen centuries fulfilled since it was written, with the belief that already some, if not much, of what is here spoken of must already have come to pass. And this we shall find confirmed fully in the sequel. But two things we should guard here carefully, - the possibility on the one hand, and the profit on the other, of tracing with certainty, in the light of the prophetic Word, things which have not come to pass, and even will not while we are upon the earth. These two things, it is plain, hang very much together; for if there be not profit in it, it would seem clear that God would not enable us to do it; while of course there can, on the other hand, be no profit to us in a thing we cannot do.
But this impossibility of knowing can only be meant seriously as applying to details, and to a certain extent every Christian would allow this. Events are not so mapped out and put together for us as to make us able to see otherwise than "through a glass darkly " - the apostle's own emphatic word. We can see only as one behind a window, and in twilight, and are apt to fall into mistakes. Many have been thus made, which have thrown the study of future prophecy, for some, into utter disrepute. Yet who would say, or think the apostle meant to say, that "through a glass darkly" nothing, or nothing to the purpose, could be seen? The uncertainty applies mainly to the smaller features; there is much certain, much that grows always clearer as we look upon it. Who that would use the mistakes that have been made for discouragement from prophetic study has ever been a student of it P I dare to say, none. Granted, the mistakes: let us use them for humility, use them as arguments to more prayer, more careful searching, then, after all, they will be helpful in the end. We can see already why and how many of them came about; we can see how better to avoid them also in the future, and that the Word was not to blame, is not the less trustworthy, because we made them. We see that we trusted it too little, trusted ourselves too much.
Then as to the profit. All our blessings lie in the field of unfulfilled prophecy. What are all our promises but this? And then as to the earth, and what is to take place upon it, it is true that such interpretations as are common in many popular books leave one with the profound sense that they minister rather to spiritual dissipation than to profit. What can be supposed more unprofitable than the question if the antichrist is to come of the Napoleon family ? - a great and grave point with many for years past; or whether the stars falling from heaven might be fulfilled in a shower of meteors? Such things seem to be utterly barren, and unworthy of a book so solemnly announced, so commended to us as is this.
Surely, "he that prophesieth speaketh to the church to edification and exhortation and comfort" might not be an inapt word to condemn such profitless speculation; and there is abundance of it in popular commentaries. But here the question is really not of fulfilled or unfulfilled prophecy. Such supposed fulfillment may be brought forward to vindicate Scripture - which has no need of it - or a certain system of interpretation, which it more justly would set aside. But unfulfilled prophecy, as we find it in the Word of God, even when it speaks of earthly events, and such as cannot be while we are upon the earth, always gives them morally; as what can be more practical for us than to trace out in the future, as men are constantly seeking to do, the results of the present? In this way we may find the scriptural fall of stars to have the deepest significance.
That all here is in the fullest way practical is very clear, from the blessing pronounced on those who "keep the things which are written" in the book. This "keeping" is observing them in such a way that our practical conduct shall be governed by them. Indeed we shall find that the wisdom of them we must be content to " buy," with what men would call many a sacrifice. There are costs to be counted if we would possess it really. And this is the demand that all truth makes upon us. It requires subjection to it as the first thing. We must not trifle with the words of our Lord and Saviour, nor set Him limits as to how far we shall obey Him. It is this, however little avowed, that darkns the minds of saints, diminishing all spiritual perception. It is this that is at the bottom of all doctrinal heresy. We will not have the truth, and seek out inventions to cover our nakedness; or at least we have not the soldier's "virtue," which is courage, and so cannot "add to" our "virtue knowledge."
I would warn my readers that the book of Revelation makes great demands upon those who keep its words. But I may assure them, on the other hand, that the more the demand the greater the blessing. Can it be otherwise when Christ it is who is speaking to us of that easy yoke and that light burden, in which, as we take them, we find rest to our souls? Will any that know their Lord charge Him with being a "hard man," or a taskmaster? Our givings up are here in reality only gains. We have that in Him which we are never called to give up, and which the more we prove the more its sufficiency is found for all conditions; the more we give up for it the deeper the endless joy.
But submission there must be. Absolute submission is what He rightly calls for; and it is well to search our hearts, to see if our desire and purpose are, to give Him that without reserve. How blessed to be among those who in uprightness of heart can say, "I esteem all Thy precepts concerning all things to be right, and I hate every false way" (Ps. cxix. 128)!
The Style and Character of the Book
(Chap. 1. 4 - 5.)
We now come to the opening words of the book itself. It is in form a letter from the beloved apostle to "the seven assemblies which are in Asia ." This Asia was the Roman province called by this name, being the west coast of what is now, for the sins of christendom, Turkey in Asia . The churches in it were even then, though traditionally the scene of John's as in the Acts of Paul's labours, already departing from the faith and spiritual power of Christianity; and this, as we may see more hereafter, gives at once a certain character to the book. Whoever they were of whom Paul in his very last epistle says, "This thou knowest, that all they which be in Asia are turned away from me, of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes," it is clear that Asia was thus the scene of a revolt from that "apostles' doctrine and fellowship" which it was a marked feature of the bright Pentecostal times to maintain.
The salutation shows at once the style of the book. It is not "grace and peace from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ," but "from Him who is, and who was, and who is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before His throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful Witness, and the Firstborn of the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth." Here, it is evident, we are not in the intimacy of children, but in the character of servants, according to what the previous verses have announced. The book is the book of the throne - of divine government; and that, not merely of the world, but of Christians no less. Indeed, where should divine government be more exemplified and maintained than among the people of God. "You only have I known of all the families of the earth," says God to His people of old; "therefore will I punish you for your iniquities." It is true that toward us now grace is fully revealed, and the throne is a "throne of grace," but its holiness is none the less inflexible. Would it be grace if it were not so? or do we desire to be delivered from the conditions of holiness, or from the sovereignty of God? No; grace enables for the conditions, - does not set them aside; and it sets God fully on the throne for us, makes the "shout of a King" to be in our midst. Children with the Father, where should there be whole-hearted, unreserved obedience if not among these?
The throne here is Jehovah's throne, for "who is, and was, and is to come" is just the translation of the covenant-name of Israel 's God. "Grace and peace" salute us from this unchangeable One - this eternal God. The new revelation has not displaced, nor mended, (as rationalism would have it,) the God of Israel for us! It has declared Him: displaced shadows, filled in gaps, perfected the partial and fragmentary into the glorious God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! taught us to see in the older Scriptures themselves a fullness of meaning of which those who wrote them could have no possible perception. Do David's psalms yield us less than they yielded to faith of old? And if the New Testament has no corresponding book, is it not because, now that the Spirit of God is come, our psalmody is to be found in every book, which for us He has combined into one harmony of praise and triumphant joy?
Yes, the One who is was, and is to come. Our present God is He who from first to last abides, in every generation, amid all changes changeless; sitting on high above all water-floods; whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. What a resting-place for faith! "Oh Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations!"
But not only are grace and peace breathed from this ever-living One, but also "from the seven Spirits which are before His throne." We all recognize at once that these seven Spirits stand for the plenitude of the Holy Spirit; and in the fourth chapter they are represented as seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, while in the fifth they are the "seven eyes" of the Lamb, "sent forth into all the earth." This, again, evidently connects with Isaiah xi, where these seven Spirits are seen to be energies of the Spirit which are found in the Man, Christ Jesus, as reigning over the earth.
"Grace and peace," then, from these - how blessed! All the ministries of divine government upon the earth working in blessing toward us; all the course of things as guided and controlled by God, spite of all hindrances, all puzzles and perplexities, still working in one harmony of grace and peace toward His own. How easy to be bold and patient both, if we believe this!
Then also "from Jesus Christ, the faithful Witness, and the First-born of the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth." "Faithful" is emphasized here, for our encouragement surely, if grace and peace are from such an One, but yet in contrast with other witness too, as that of the Church, so little faithful. Is it not a needed word for those oppressed with the sense of failure, - almost ready to give up what are His principles, because of the break-down of those who have undertaken to carry them out? In such a case, how good to remember that on the one hand we are servants and not masters, with no liberty to dispense with one even of His commandments, and on the other, that we serve One who Himself is faithful, however we have failed. Shall we go to Him and say, "Master, Thy principles are impracticable for a world and a time like this"? or shall we lack in courage when results are in His hand who has never failed, and never will, while He oftentimes submits to apparent defeat. Such was the cross, the victory of victories, and we must submit, here as elsewhere, to the rule of the woman's Seed. To this are we not in fact brought in the next words? "The Firstborn of the dead" unites us with Him as the later-born, and resurrection is the mode of His triumph over apparent defeat. But it is divine triumph, in which not alone evil is vanquished, but God is manifested in His resources and in His grace.
Grace and peace are ours from One who is conqueror over death, and who brings us into the place into which as Forerunner He has entered, while already He is, as risen, and on the Father's throne, Ruler of the kings of the earth, - the scene through which in the meantime we are passing. In a little while, when He takes His own throne, we shall share also in this. Thus are we furnished at the outset for present service. Placed before the living and eternal God, the energies of His Spirit ministering to us, the Captain of our salvation cheering us on with the joy of already accomplished victory, the pledge of certainty as to our own. Now for the response of our hearts to this before we start: without our hearts are in tune, and we can go cheerily into the battlefield - for it is a battlefield into which we go, and not as spectators merely, - we should only expose ourselves there to our shame. The singers must be in the forefront of the Lord's army, as in Jehoshaphat's of old, and then there will be good success. So the saints' answer to their Captain's voice here is with a song: -
"Unto Him who loveth us,
And hath washed us from our sins
In His own blood,
And hath made us a kingdom,
Priests to His God and Father,
Unto Him be glory and might
Unto the ages of ages.
This is a sweet response of loyal hearts on the edge of the battlefield. It is the good confession of His name, and of the debt we owe Him, which has made us His own forever. Good it is, the open joyful maintenance of this, which at once separates us from the world that rejects Him, and puts us in the ranks of His witnesses and followers. "By Him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, confessing His name." No such wholesome, invigorating, gladdening work as is confession.
"Unto Him who loveth us," not "loved us," as the common version reads. It is a present reality, measured only aright by a past work - " and hath washed us from our sins in His own blood." Let us take care we measure it ever so! Not by our own changeful feelings or experiences, as we are so prone to do, but by the glorious manifestation of itself thus: an infinite measure of an infinite fullness; for who knows aright the value of the blood of Christ?
"And hath washed us from our sins:" what an encouragement for those who have to go into a world full of temptation and defilement! We have known sin as sin - known it as needing the precious blood of Christ to cleanse us from its guilt, and known ourselves too as thus cleansed. If we are "idle and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ," it can only be because we have "forgotten that" we were "purged from" our "old sins."
But more: He has "made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father." Israel was promised, conditionally upon obedience, "Ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." (Ex. xix. 6.) They failed in obedience, and Levi's special priesthood was the consequence of their failure, while, as part of this failed people, not even the priesthood could pass within the vail. Grace has now given us as Christians that access to God to them denied, and to God fully revealed as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who has thus revealed God has given us our place in His presence - a happy, holy place of praise and intercession. "To Him be the glory and might unto the ages of ages!"
An "Amen" is added here, that we may as individuals join our voices to the voice of the Church at large. It is a blessed thing to be part of the innumerable company who have a common theme sand a common joy; but it is also blessed to have our own distinct utterance and our own peculiar joy, The more distinct the better. Would the apostle have felt it the same thing to say, "Who loved us, and gave Himself for us," true as it might be, as to say, "Who loved me, and gave Himself for me"? Assuredly he would not. The "chief of sinners," realizing himself that, had something which was individual to himself, and which would not be lost or overlooked in the general song. And we have, each one of us surely, special experiences to call forth peculiar praise. Note, too, that the power of the life lived to God is associated by him with this individualization: "The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me."
Thus, then, the heart gives out its response to its beloved Lord. Now, then, it is qualified for testimony to Him. "If we be beside ourselves, it is to God; if we be sober, it is for your cause." The soul in company with Christ turns necessarily to the world with its testimony of Him: the Enochlife is joined with the Enoch-witness. For it was he of whom it is written, "he walked with God, and he was not,for God took him," who "prophesied, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment upon all.'" The Church it is who is called, like another Enoch, to walk here with Him whom she is soon to be called away to meet and be ever with; and the next verse in Revelation puts into her mouth her similar testimony : - "Behold, He cometh with clouds, and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth shall wail because of Him." This is evidently not the Church's hope, but the Church's testimony. It takes up the theme of the Old-Testament prophets, with direct appeal even to their prophecies; for Daniel saw of old the Son of Man come with the clouds of heaven, and Zechariah declares how Israel look upon Him whom they have pierced, and how the tribes of the land mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son, and are in heaviness as he that is in heaviness for his first-born." (Dan. vii. ii; Zech.xii.io, 72.)
I do not doubt that, while the words in Revelation repeat the very language of the older prophets, - for " kindreds" in the common version is literally "tribes," and "earth" and "land" are, both in Hebrew and Greek, but the same word, - yet that in the passage before us a wider application is to be made than this. Not only shall they see who have pierced Him, but "every eye." Naturally, therefore, not the tribes of the land only, but of the earth at large, shall wail on account of Him. The testimony is neither to nor of Israel only, though including these. And while the mourning in Zechariah is unto repentance, the word here is large enough to admit of the wail of despair as well as of repentance.
The Church's testimony is addressed to all. Christ is coming; the day of grace running out; judgment nearing with every stroke of the hour. A testimony which we know from Scripture, as we may realize every day around us, wakes only the scorn of "scoffers, walking in their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of His coming? for since the fathers fell asleep all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation." Whose, then, is this Voice which here solemnly confirms the testimony of approaching judgment? It is surely none other than the voice of God Himself: -
"Yea, amen: I am Alpha and Omega, saith the Lord God, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty."
The "Yea, amen," are not, as our books give them, part of the seventh verse, but commence the verse following; and the words "I am Alpha and Omega, the Eternal, the Almighty," exhibit fully the One with whom men's unbelief brings them into controversy. He challenges all unbelief. Is He not doing so today, when on every side signs political, ecclesiastical, moral, and spiritual warn men, if they will but attend, that the Lord is at hand? Why, the cry itself is a sign - " Behold the Bridegroom!" Can they deny it has gone forth? Call it a mistake, call it enthusiasm, call it high treason to the world's magnificent and immense progress, still it stands written, - "And at mid night there was a cry, Behold the bridegroom! go ye forth to meet him!' . . . And as they went to buy, the bridegroom came He who speaks is Alpha and Omega, whose word as the beginning and end of all speech: all that can be said is said when He has spoken, at the beginning, who spoke all things into being, and whose word, "It is done," will fix their eternal state He who speaks is Jehovah, the covenant-keeping God, unchangeable amid all changes, true to His threats and to His promises alike. And He who speaks is the Almighty, lacking no power to fulfill His counsel. This is He who says, "Yea, amen, to the testimony that He who was crucified in weakness shall come again in power, and every knee shall bow to Him, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Son of Man Among the Churches
(Rev. i. 9-20.)
We come now to the vision which introduces the messages to the seven assemblies which with it constitute the first part of the book. The second part is similarly introduced by the vision of the fourth and fifth chapters. There is a very evident and characteristic difference between the standpoints of the two. In the one case it is John, companion with the saints in tribulation and endurance, and the scene is on earth; in the other case he is called up to heaven, and the scene is there.
The apostle writes, not as such, but as one in the common fellowship of the martyrs of Jesus, with whom testimony and suffering were linked necessarily together, the kingdom to be reached through tribulation. He being in Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ, the word of God is afresh communicated to him, and the testimony of Christ anew committed into his hands. Is it not the abiding principle, only in a more than usually eminent example, that "to him that bath shall more be given"? Did ever any one find himself so in Patmos without learning something of the revelations of Patmos ? Surely it could not be. Joseph becomes in his prison the "revealer of secrets;" Moses in his wilderness banishment sees the burning bush; David in his affliction develops the sweet singer of Israel; Paul gives out the mystery of the Church from the place of his captivity; John follows only in the footsteps of these; and those who have followed him, though at a humbler distance, and with no fresh revelations because the Word of God is complete, have they no unfoldings of the Word, no nearer views of its Subject and Revealer, to more than compensate for the sorrow of the way - rhapsodies though they may seem to those of days of less demand and less enthusiasm? Yet when the apostle puts himself down thus simply as "partaker with you in the tribulation and kingdom and patience in Jesus," does he not expect us also, and invite us, as it were, into this fellowship? and must we not in some true sense be there in order to profit aright by this communication? If we will be friends with the world, can we expect to understand or be in sympathy with the prophet of Patmos ? And if it be a Christian world we think of, the words have nothing but an evil significance, if we take the significance from Scripture. But among the many tongues with which for our sins we are afflicted, how few are content to speak simply the language of Scripture!
"I became in the Spirit on the Lord's day," it should be. It was not simply in the right and normal Christian state in which John found himself, as so many think, but carried out of himself by the power of the Spirit; his senses closed to other things, his spirit awake to behold the things presented to him, and hear the voice that speaks to us also in him. The expression is found again in the beginning of the fourth chapter, at the opening of the vision there.
"On the Lord's day" does not mean, as some suppose, the prophetic "day of the Lord," for which there is a different expression, and which would not really apply at all to this first vision and what follows it. It is the Lord's day, the day of Christian privilege, in which in the joy of His resurrection we look back upon His death. Yet this does not surely shut out the looking forward to His coming: "ye do show forth the Lord's death till He come." This is the only right attitude for the Christian to be in, as one that expects his Lord. And this is indeed why, as it would seem, the voice that John hears speaks behind him, and he has to turn to see the One who speaks to him. His attention is to be directed to the present state of the Church; turned back, therefore, from the contemplation of the coming glory, to what to one so engrossed is a thing behind.
He turns, and sees seven golden candlesticks, or "lampstands," as the word is. They answer in number to the seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, the significance of which we have already seen. They represent, as we are told, the seven assemblies (v. 20), and, plainly, as responsible to exhibit the light of the Spirit, during the night of the Lord's absence. The reference to the golden candlestick of the sanctuary is evident, and the contrast with it is as much intended for our notice, and should be as evident. The candlestick of the sanctuary was one only, its six branches set into the central stem, and it speaks of Christ, not the Church. The seven candlesticks are for lights, not in the sanctuary, where Christ alone is that, but in the world. And while there is a certain unity, as representing doubtless the whole Church, yet it is the Church seen, not in its dependent connection with Christ, but historically and externally, as "churches." Each lampstand is set upon its own base, stands in its own responsibility, as is manifest. To speak of the Son of Man in the midst as the - visible bond of union is surely a mistake. He is judging, not uniting.
Moreover, it is the Church in the larger, not the narrower sense here. Sardis as a whole is dead, and not alive. Christ is outside of Laodicea . Individually, they are local assemblies, which, as we shall see, stand each for the professing church of a certain epoch, or what in it characterizes the epoch. To see in them but Ephesus and its contemporary churches, as a large mass of interpreters still do, is indeed to be blind, and not see afar off; but the proof as to this comes naturally later. They are golden candlesticks, as set for the display of the glory of God (of which the gold speaks); but this is not what of necessity is displayed by them; they have the privilege and responsibility of it, but the candlestick may be, and in fact is, removed.
But the vision here is not simply, nor mainly, of the candlesticks - the churches; it is of One rather from whom alone they receive all their importance, - - "One like unto the Son of man, clothed with a .garment down to the foot, and girt about at the breasts with a golden girdle." The attire is that of a priest, but not in service, for the girdle is not .about the loins, and the dress hangs loosely to the feet. As Priest, He is therefore a son of man, but He is more; and this the words, "One like unto the Son of man," indicate. Why "like unto" this, if He were indeed only this? The precise expression, moreover, is from Daniel, as what follows unites with it the features of the Ancient of days as pictured there. Thus it is the divine-human Priest, the true Mediator between God and men, as God and Man.
Yet He is not interceding. The characters which follow show Him as when He comes to judge the world, and these are applied, in the third and fourth addresses, to the judgment of the churches. "His. head and His hair were white as white wool, as. snow;" this marks Him as the Ancient of days, the perfection of holy wisdom; "and His eyes were like a flame of fire" - with the same absolute holiness searching all things; "and His feet like unto white brass, as glowing in a furnace" judgment following, as inexorable against evil; "and His voice as the voice of many waters," - the sound of that ocean which reduces man so easily to his. native littleness and impotence.
Such is He who in grace has become the Son of man, but whose holiness is as unchangeable as His love is perfect. All judgment is committed unto Him, because He is the Son of man. The Church and the world alike are in His hand whose glorious uprising will bring, in a short time, summer to the earth. "And He had in His right hand seven. stars; and out of His mouth goeth a sharp two-edged sword; and His countenance was as the sun shineth in its strength." All this exhibits the Lord as just ready to come forth and take the kingdom; it is as if He had left the sanctuary, and were clothing Himself in the cloud with which He returns. And so Scripture, when urging our responsibility upon us, carries us constantly on to the day of His appearing, when the result of conduct will be brought out and manifested to all. There is a wide distinction always recognized between this and His coming to receive us to Himself, with which nothing but grace is associated. This is the time when we receive the fruit of His work; and beautiful it is to see, and unspeakably comforting it is to realize, that first of all - before any thing else, His heart must have its way, and the sufficiency of His cross be shown to set the believer in full, unchallengeable possession of eternal blessedness, before ever a note of judgment has sounded, or a question as to his work been made. And this is plain from the fact of what the resurrection of the saint is stated to be. "It is sown in corruption " - the body of the dead saint; - "it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power." And we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, we shall be changed like them into the image of the heavenly, and caught up together with them, to meet the Lord in the air. Thus incorruption, glory, power, are ours before ever we see the face of the Lord or are manifested before His judgment-seat.
But with His appearing is associated the recompense of works; and thus all exhortations, warnings, encouragements, contemplate this. And so the Lord is seen in the vision here, though among the churches. In this way all is simple, and we cannot confound His being "in the midst of the assembly" with His being in the midst of the assemblies, or seek for principles of gathering in what is of a totally different nature. "Who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks" is the Lord's own word to the church in Ephesus . How different is the thought of His walking in the midst from His being in the midst as the centre of gathering! Principles of church-order and discipline are not to be sought in the book of Revelation. It is most important to realize that God's Word, if it be beyond our systems, has a system of its own; and that He has so arranged His truth that His people may know where to look for it, and find it with more simplicity than in fact we do. Each book has its line of truth, distinct from, however much connected with, every other one. The first of Corinthians is the book of church-order and discipline. Revelation is the book of the throne, and divine judgment. And the simplest view of the vision before us agrees with this, which will only be more manifest the deeper we look.
The vision of glory overpowers the apostle: "And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, Fear not.'" How the Christ of the gospel comes out here! What words more characteristic of Him than this, "Fear not"? "Perfect love casteth out fear," and such love is His who speaks, not alone to John in this, but to all who, realizing more His majesty than His grace, would put Him back into the distance and darkness from which He has come out to us. What we are is no more in question; the cross has manifested that fully: all for us lies now in what He is; and the cross has revealed that too. Word and deed witness for Him and unto us, and His right hand of power acts with His word: "Fear not; I am the First and the Last, and the Living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and have the keys of death and of hades."
Here again divine and human characters are mingled. The First is Cause of all; the Last, the end of all. "All things were created by Him and for Him " no expression of divinity could be clearer or fuller than this. Then the Living One is necessarily also the Source of life, - living and life-giving. But this Living One has died, gone into death to become its Conqueror Alive for evermore, He has the keys of death and of hades, - that is, of that which holds the body and that which holds the soul of the dead. Thus man's condition is plumbed to the bottom, for death is the seal of that condition. Only that which meets the condition can break the seal of it. He, then, who has been in death for us has turned its awful shadow into morning, not to bring back indeed out of its grasp the first creation, but to open for us the door into infinitely higher blessing. The gates of strength have yielded to our Samson, and more: out of the eater comes forth meat, and out of the strong sweetness. How beyond measure is this love of One who, though the Living One, has been in death for us! How rich have we become through this voluntary poverty! And "He who descended is the same also who ascended up, far above all heavens, that He might fill all things."
He goes on: - "Write, then" - with this assurance, - " the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be after these; the mysteryof the seven stars which thou sawest in My right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven candlesticks are the seven churches."
These words give us the division of the book. "The things which are" must needs apply to the seven assemblies and their state. "The things which shall be after these " - not "hereafter," which is too vague, - to the things which follow from the fourth chapter on. This is evident, whatever view we take of the interpretation of these sections. With the first of them only have we to do here, - "the things which are," or present things.
Present, then, in what sense? present at that time merely, and now long past? or, as many now consider, present still? Do the addresses to the churches give only such lessons for us here today as must necessarily be found in what is said to Christian gatherings of by-gone days by One who with perfect wisdom, knowledge, holiness, and love speaks to just such as we are? Or is there, beside all this, as many believe, a more precise, designed correspondence between these seven Asiatic assemblies and as many successive periods in the history of the Church at large - a prophetic teaching for all time, until the Lord come, and our path here is ended? Let us look briefly at what has been urged as to this latter view.
Against, it has been urged that the addresses are not given as a prophecy of the future, but simply as to churches then existing, now long passed away. This is undoubtedly the most forcible objection that has been made; for imagination is unholy license in the things of God, and the addresses have not the general style of prophecy, as must be admitted. We do right, then, to be watchful here.
But answer has been made to this: in the first place, that at the very beginning of the book, we have the whole of it called a prophecy: "Blessed is be that readeth and they that hear the words of the book of this prophecy, and keep the things that are written therein." It seems, therefore, that we have distinct warrant for holding the addresses to be prophetic, and that we should rather require it for refusing them this place.
Beside this, the disguise which confessedly they assume may be accounted for. The Christian's privilege and duty are, to be always expecting his Lord. He who says in his heart, "My Lord delayeth His coming", is a "wicked servant." There was to be room for this expectancy, as the best help against discouragement, the most effectual remedy against settling down in the world, the best means of fixing the eyes upon Christ and things above. This was not to beget false hope or encourage mistake, for the time of the Lord's return they were assured they did not know: "Watch, for ye know not when the time is." But thus to put before men - a prophecy of a long earthly history for the Church - would be to destroy what was to be a main characteristic of Christians, to take out of their hands the lamp of testimony to the world itself, the virgin's :lamp lighted to go forth to meet her Lord.
And it is blessed to see that now, if, in the end of the days, the full meaning is being revealed, and we are shown how much of the road we have actually traveled, the effect is, after all the long delay, to encourage expectation, not to damp it. That we are nearing the end is sure; that any part of the road remains before us to be trodden, we have no assurance. The very thing which to past generations would have been an evil too fully to disclose is now for us as great and manifest again.
For the prophetic view is further urged the constant emphatic appeal to our attention with which every one of these addresses ends. Was it only for men of that day and place that it is written, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches"? No part of Scripture is so emphasized beside. Again, are there no candlesticks amid which Christ walks except those of these Asiatic churches? The very number 7 is characteristic of this book, as it is significant of completeness also. As the seven Spirits speak of the complete energy of the one blessed Spirit, do not the seven churches stand for the varied aspects of the one Church of God on earth?
And to them as representatives of this one Church is the whole book committed, - not for their own use merely, but for ours. As John is. the representative servant, so the churches are representatives of the Church.
But the great proof of the correctness of the prophetic view is (what as yet it would be premature at any length to enter on,) the real correspondence between the picture given of the seven churches and the well-known history of the professing church. We have the successive steps of its decline - first hidden, then external; the judaizing process by which it was transformed from a company of saved and heavenly people into a mixed multitude uncertain of heaven, clinging to the certainties of earth; away from God, and committing the sacred things, for which they are too unclean, to an official class of go-betweens. Then open union with the world, once persecuting, now Balaam-teachers for hire promoting and rating it. Then the reign of Jezebel, inspired - and infallible, her cup full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication. Then Protestantism, soon forgetting the things which it had heard, sunk into its grave of nationalism, though with a separate remnant as ever, dear to God. Then an era of revival and blessing, the Spirit of God working freely, outside of sectarian boundary-lines, uniting to Christ and to one another. Then, alas! collapse and threat of removal, Christ rejected and outside, the lukewarmness of water ready tq be spued out of I-us mouth. Such is the picture: does it appeal to us? In the midst of all this, in the central church, the centre of the darkness, at midnight surely, there begins a cry, faint though at first, but gathering strength as the time goes on, "Go ye out to meet Him!" In Thyatira first, "Hold fast till I come!" To Sardis , "I will come on thee as a thief." To Philadelphia , - more as in haste now, - " I come quickly." Then - Laodicea , and the end!
Does this appeal to us? What follows then? Briefly: a scene in heaven, and a redemption-song before the throne; a Lamb slain, who as Judah's Lion unseals the seven-sealed book; churches no more on earth, but once more Jews and Gentiles; and out of these, a multitude who come out of the great tribulation; until, after the marriage of the Lamb has taken place in heaven, its gates unclose, and the white-horsed Rider and His armies come Out to the judgment of the earth. This to many even yet may read as strange as any fiction. I cannot of course enter on it now. But there are those who object that by this view the relative importance of events is quite inverted. Two chapters give us the whole course of christendom; the largest part of the book by far is taken up with the details of some seven years after the Church is removed to heaven: why so rapid a survey of what so immediately concerns us ? - so lengthy a relation of what will not take place till after the saints of the present time have passed from the scene?
But how often are we mistaken in the relative importance of things! God seeth not as man seeth; and the common view which appropriates seal after seal to the succession of Roman emperors, trumpet after trumpet to the inroads of Goths and Vandals, vial after vial to the French revolution and Napoleonic wars, has surely missed His estimate of importance. But more: the events which fill so many chapters have indeed for us the very greatest significance. The time is that "end of the age" which is the harvest of the world; it is the judgment for which all around is ripening, and in which every thing comes out as He who judges sees it. Is it not for us of the greatest possible moment to see that final, conclusive end of what is now often so pretentious and delusive? Here we may surely gather, if we will, lessons of sanctification of the most practical nature. Indeed we are sanctified by the truth; and whatever is of the truth will sanctify.
Ephesus: The Decline of the Church
THE ADDRESSES TO THE CHURCHES
(Rev. ii. 1 - 7.)
It is not in any wise as being the metropolitan church of Asia that we find Ephesus first addressed. This, which has been the thought of many, has assuredly no countenance from the Word. The Church of God , which is Christ's body, is not composed of churches, but of members, united together by that blessed Spirit which unites all to Christ the Head. Hence, the "churches," or "assemblies," are only local gatherings of so many Christians as find themselves, in the providence of God, actually together. Each of these is, according to Scripture, the Church in that place, as the true text reads invariably in these two chapters. This expanded would be, as in the epistle to the Corinthians, the " Church of God " in such or such a place. The place adds nothing to this title, nor one gathering of its members superior or inferior in privilege or responsibility to any other. It is true that the Church of God is not only designated as the body of Christ in Scripture, but also as the House of God - the place of His abode. But here, again, it is the Church at large that is so. There are not bodies of Christ, but "one body." just so there are not houses of God, but "the house." In each place, the local assembly represents the Church at large, as being indeed the local Church, - what of the Church at large is in that place. And this may vary, from time to time, in numbers, spirituality, and many other ways: and thus there will be peculiar local responsibilities, differences, and privileges, as is recognized in the chapters before us; but the standing in each the same.
No doubt we must not forget, as indeed we are not allowed to forget, the immense difference between profession and reality. A dead Sardis could not be in reality of the body of Christ at all. But this is nevertheless what the Church means, if it means any thing according to Scripture. The professing church is this, or it is a lie; and how solemn a lie! No, the reason why Ephesus stands at the head of those addressed here is of another nature. It is to be found, not in any external supremacy over the rest, but in its original spiritual eminency, and as the church to which the truth as to the Church had been first of all committed, and this, not as to its order upon earth, but as to its heavenly character. The Ephesians had been addressed by Paul, as now at a much later date they are by the Lord Himself; and it is in comparing the tenor of these two epistles that we find the significance of its being Ephesus , and no other, with which we here begin. The epistle to the Ephesians is that which carries us up to the height of Christian position, quickened out of death in trespasses and sins as following the course of a world governed by Satan, - and quickened with Christ, raised up together, and seated together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. This is individual, true of all believers, if there were no Church at all; but God has done more, and as united to Christ by His Spirit, we are members of His body, the fullness of Him who filleth all in all. Both as body of Christ and habitation of God, the apostle develops the doctrine of the Church in this epistle; while in the fifth chapter he carries us back to the beginning, and shows us once more the Church under the type of Eve, espoused to Him who will yet present her to Himself a glorious Church.
These are the truths, given to all saints, no doubt, but of which the Ephesian disciples were counted worthy to be the first recipients. And the apostle could write to them in this way as "faithful" ones, communicating what the spiritual state at Corinth or Galatia or among the Hebrews would have hindered his making known to them (I Cor. iii. i, Heb. v. 11 - 14). If Corinth headed a list of churches declined from first love, we should not marvel; but can we fail to realize the significance of its being Ephesus , the special custodian of the truth of the Church itself, in its heavenly reality?
The style of the address is, at the very outset, a sign of distance, as unusual as full of significance on the part of the Lord toward His people. There can be no proper question that the churches are themselves addressed, for this is directly stated at the conclusion of each epistle: "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." Yet the Lord's words are, "To the angel of the church" in each case, and to this the style of the address fully corresponds. The responsibility of every thing that is wrong is ascribed to the angel; it is he that has them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, or of the Nicolaitanes; it is he that suffers the woman Jezebel; it is he who is threatened with the removal of his candlestick. It is quite plain that he represents the church in some way, and it is urged that the word "angel" has this force of a representative wherever it does not stand for the heavenly beings so called, who though higher naturally in the scale of creation, yet minister to the heirs of salvation.
The word "angel" means, as every one knows, simply "messenger," and is applied to the spirits of heaven as God's messengers to men. But it is plain that the messenger does represent, so far as his errand is concerned, the one who sends him. "He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth Me; and he that receiveth Me receiveth Him that sent Me." Thus this meaning of the word is easily derived from its original one.
However, the representative character of the angel here is plain. It is natural enough that the advocates of episcopal or presbyterian order should find, as they do with equal facility, the bishop or the pastor in this representative-angel. In Scripture elsewhere it is impossible to find either of these things, largely as they are now believed in, and therefore as impossible, if we cleave to Scripture, to read them in here. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers we read of as gifts to the Church at large, though a Peter might especially address himself to the circumcision as a Paul to the Gentiles. But where have we the apostle of this place or that? Just as little have we the pastor of this church or of that. Bishops and deacons, it is true, we do find with a local office; still, never the bishop of an assembly, but the bishops; with whom it is allowed that the elders were identical.* "They ordained them elders in every church" (Acts xiv. 23). The one representative of each assembly supposed to be signified by the angel cannot be found in Scripture elsewhere.
Ephesus had its bishop-elders long before this, as we see in Acts xx. Its diocesan bishop at the time when this was written tradition makes the apostle John himself! He, then, cannot be the angel to whom he is told to write, nor will the search be more successful in other directions. All that can be truly urged is that this address to the angel is in accord with what we know to have been the state of things a century or so after the time of Revelation.
And this is quite in accord with its sad significance.
We have epistles to individuals, as to Timothy and Titus, never to the church through these. We have the epistle to the saints in Christ at Philippi , with the bishops and deacons, not to the bishops and deacons for the church. The constant method of address is to the church as such; and suppose here the "angel" were to stand for the bishops of Ephesus , how evident would it make the contrast between the first epistle (perhaps of thirty-odd years back,) and this second one. No more the direct address of familiar intimacy, (though now from the very lips of the priestly Mediator. Yet His love has not changed; the change, then, has been in His people The strange style is from One whom they have treated as a stranger.
Sadly it tells of the close of the old intercourse which he who seeks will find as invited to, if it were Laodicea , "I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." Turn to the Acts, and see how free, how tender, how as a thing of course - which deepens, not lessens, the wonder of it, - this intercourse can be. Or look back even to Genesis, if you will, and learn how truly God's last thought is His first thought. It is man who has driven back these approaches upon God's part, and forced Him into the cloud and darkness. The Church has but repeated the old history, though now, because the Light has come, the darkness is more strange and terrible.
But it is important to ask, Has He for our sins, then, given up His Church to this? and does the "angel" speak of distance maintained on His part toward even one, the least of all His saints? With whom, as with the angel, does He still speak face to face? Is it with an official class who interpret Him to those beneath them? Does the sun, as in winter-time, no longer reach the valley-bottoms, but only gild the tops of the hills with light? or is it to some gifted men that Christ reveals Himself, who, as planets, shed the little of His radiance they can reflect on others? Ah, no; it is not men of gift, still less an official class, who are indicated by the angel. The heart of those who know their Lord shall answer, It is not. No; nor, alas! is it any longer the church as a whole either; very far from that! Read the superscription "to the angel" in the light of the subscription, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches," and you will find that still the question of who are nearest Christ is answered by another, who has ears and eyes and heart for Him. He still speaks as of old to those who as of old listen. His ways, His attitude, His heart, can know no change. The stars that shine in His firmament are the overcomers of the darkness, not of the world now merely, but of the church, - planets that know their orbit and are held by their centre, and shine by the light of Him who shines on them. "The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches." If to the opened ear Christ speaks, it is plain that the responsibility of hearing is as much as ever that of all. None are released from it. And yet it is not to the mass that He can speak any more, or the overcoming would not be in the church, as it clearly is. Already it is the few that listen, and the constraint in the Lord's manner is but the indication of His sense of this.
It may seem strange, however, that if the "angel" stands for these who listen to Christ's voice, He should hold them responsible, as we have already seen, for all the evil in the church with which they are connected. How, it may be asked, can He thus burden with the sins of the whole the few who we an ear to hear? The responsibility of an official class is more readily recognized than of those who may be, however spiritual, the feeblest possible to accomplish any change in the condition of around them. But this is not the question. is true we are powerless to alter the general The ebb-tide of ruin can be stemmed by no effort of ours, and this feebleness of ours may seem an available plea to withdraw us from responsibility as to it. But not so teaches the word of the Lord. Our associations are here distinctly recognised as part of our general condition. We are to "depart from evil," not be unequally yoked with believers, purge ourselves from vessels to dishonour, and follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, to those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart. For association with evil we are therefore never responsible. It may be said that such principles, carried fully out, would involve a very narrow path and a wholesale giving up of spheres of usefulness. But be it so or be it not so, it is not ours to choose. Our path is defined for us. "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams; for rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness as iniquity and idolatry."
Yes, "rebellion"! How gladly would we call an obedience limited by our own wills by some lighter name than that! Yet what else, in truth, was that which brought out Saul's true character, and lost the kingdom to him and to his seed forever? What he left undone was a mere trifle to what he did. And the sheep and oxen had been spared to sacrifice to the Lord. What fairer excuse have people now to offer for much disobedience - evil plausibly intended to bring forth good? And how hard is it to understand that while we may obey in much that in fact costs us little, the true test of obedience is just in that in which we are called to renounce our wills and our wisdom, perhaps to forfeit the esteem and companionship of others, by doing what has only the Word of God to justify it and must wait for eternity to find right appreciation! But now to listen to His word to Ephesus , who "holdeth the stars in His right hand, and walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks." The one point of the address is plain, and it is left to stand in sufficient, solemn, decisive contrast with all else that is unmingled commendation. Works, labour, patience, abhorrence of that which is evil, trying fearlessly those who put forth the highest claims, bearing for Christ's name's sake, and not fainting, - all this, put in the balance with one solemn charge: "Thou hast left thy first love." And this follows: "Repent, and do the first works, or else I will come unto thee, and will remove thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent."
Let us look at these things more closely. Their interest for us is of the deepest, for upon this one root of evil has grown all that has ever been in the Church's long decline through the centuries which have intervened between that day and this. And this it is which, as we see, brings about her removal from the place of witness for Christ on earth This it is too which is the secret of decline in every individual Christian. For us all, it should rouse the earnest, heart searching inquiry "Is it I?" For, if it can be truly said of any of us, "Thou hast left thy first love," it is vain for us to think that other things can be really judged. The single eye is wanted even to see them with. We must get back to this, or there is no real recovery. Two masters, the Lord says Himself, we cannot serve.
How much there was He could commend at Ephesus ! "I know thy works" is commendation clearly. But not only had they works, they laboured. Do you think there are really so many of whom it couId be said, they labour? We have recognized, what is so precious to understand, that we have our different spheres of service, and that there is no mere secular work, if really done for Christ. But to labour is to work with energy - to "toil," as the Revision gives it. How many of us toil for Christ?
Then they had patience - endurance. Many begin well, like the Galatians, but in the face of unforeseen difficulties give way. It is the mark of divine work that it endures. Human energy quickly spends itself: faith draws upon a stock that never decreases. It was true faith that wrought in these Ephesian saints. Patience, too, is apt to degenerate into a toleration, more or less, of evil. Finding it on every hand, and no where perfection, the very contact with it is apt to dull the spiritual sense. Charity would fain put also the mildest construction upon every thing. We are bidden to "take forth the precious from the vile," but we learn to tolerate the vile because of the precious. We become liberal where we have no right. The Lord praises the Ephesians for the opposite conduct: "Thou canst not bear them which are evil." And where there was the very highest assumption, they did not fear to test it: "Thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars."
But more, it was true love to Christ which wrought in all this: "Thou hast patience, and hast borne for My name's sake, and hast not wearied." Yet here it follows: "Nevertheless I have against thee," - not" somewhat," as if it were a little, - " that thou hast left thy first love." But how dreadful a dishonour to Christ is this, to lose one's first love! It is as if at first sight He was more than He proved on longer acquaintance! Is not here the very germ of final apostasy? I do not, of course, mean that the Lord will allow any of His redeemed to be lost out of His hand. "God is faithful, who hath called us into the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ;" and this faithfulness of God is our security: "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance." Nor only so; if we are born of God, we have that within us which cannot suffer us to become what we were before: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." Yet while this is true on the one side, in the child of God as identified with the divine nature by which he is such, - still, on the other side, it is no less true that in the believer also there remains yet the old nature. In him still there is that which lusts against the Spirit, and only if ye "walk in the Spirit, ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh."
Here is what makes the world to us such a battlefield. Capable, on the one hand, of enjoying all the joys of heaven; capable, on the other, of being attracted by that which lies under the power of the wicked one, - the eye affecting the heart, - day by we are solicited by that which daily lies before s and from which there is no escape. Our danger is first of all distraction, some gain to us which means loss for Christ, or that dulling of the spiritual we just now spoke of; the dust of the way is upon the glass in which Faith sees her eternal possessions. Our remedy is the presence of He who with basin and towel would refresh His pigrims, cleansing away the travel-stains that they nay have part with Him.
Here alone first love is maintained. Here, in His presence, we learn His mind. The holiness of truth is accomplished in us. What is unseen but eternal asserts its power. The illusions of the prince of this world pass from us. The glory of Christ is revealed, and the eye here also affects the heart; He becomes for us more and more the light - in which we see light, the Sun which rules the day, not only enlightening but life-giving: the light in which we walk is the "light of life." Now here, as I have said, first love cannot but be maintained. Who could be daily in His presence, ministered to by Him, having part with Him, and yet grow cool in response to His love? It is impossible. Where this is the case, intimacy has not been kept up. We have not permitted the basin and towel to do its work. Assurance of heart before Him has been replaced by an uneasy sense of unfitness for His presence, the true causes of which we have not been willing fully to face, and for which the remedy has therefore not been found. In this state there may be yet much work and labour and zeal, and true love at the bottom. Fruit may be on the tree, plentiful as ever, but not to the Master's taste as once, not ripened in the Sun. Form and bloom and beauty may be little lacking: this was the state at Ephesus. But the Lord says, "Repent, and do the first works."
What is the test, then, of "first love"? Not "work " - activity in outward service; this they had at Ephesus : not even "labor," for this too they had: no, nor yet "endurance " - though a more manifest sign than either of divine power in the soul. Not zeal against evil, nor boldness to examine and refuse the highest pretensions; not suffering even for Christ's name, and that unwearied. All this is good and acceptable to God, and the Ephesians had it all, and yet says the Lord, "I have against thee that thou hast left thy first love."
What, then, is the test of first love? It is in the complete satisfaction of the heart by its object. You know what power often there is in a new thing to take possession of one for the time being. And in first love, it is characteristic that it engrosses the subject of it. The Lord claims again and again the power to give this complete satisfaction of heart to His people. "He that drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but he that drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a fountain of water springing up unto eternal life." "He that - cometh unto Me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst." "If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink. He that believeth on Me, as the Scripture bath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."
Now this it is that will give a peculiar character to the life which nothing else will. It is of this the apostle speaks when he says, "The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, - who loved me, and gave Himself for me." It is this satisfaction with a heavenly object of which he is giving the effect when he says, "This one thing I do: forgetting the things which are behind, and reaching forth unto that which is before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." "What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea, doubt-less, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ."
This is the secret of happiness, who can doubt? That for which he counted all else dung and loss must have given him surpassing, supreme happiness. And happiness such as this, derived from nothing in the world, is power over the world. The back is upon it. The prize is elsewhere. The steps hasten upon a path that glows with the light of heaven. Holiness is found, as it only can be found, in heavenliness. Such was the apostle, and Christianity is nothing else to-day. Blessed be God, it is not something further to be found far on in the Christian course, -but at the beginning. It is first love which has these characteristics. In Christ Himself, at once for present need, all fullness is found, as His own words declare. "He that cometh to Me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst." It is in drinking of other streams that the old thirst comes back upon him who does so. "The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" are "all that is of the world." He that drinketh of this water shall thirst again. So the world holds its own by their very misery.
But we are not speaking of the men of the world. It is to Ephesus - to the saints there - the Lord is speaking: to those to whom the heavenly truth had been unvailed, the depositaries of it upon the earth, the representatives of the Church at large. And it is to the Church at large, through Ephesus , that this is now addressed. Can any doubt the truth of such an application? Would that it were even possible! but we have not to go beyond the New Testament itself to find the application confirmed, and to hear the prophetic announcement of still further departure even to the very end. The epistles of Paul, long before Revelation, reveal a state of things already beginning, such as it is hard to realize of those early days. In one of the very earliest comes the statement, "The mystery of iniquity doth already work," and "that day " - the day of the Lord - " shall not come, except there come a falling away first." The two epistles to the Corinthians are the next in time to those to the Thessalonians, and at Corinth there is sin such as was not named among the Gentiles, with divisions beginning, and some denying the resurrection of the dead. Next, Galatia is backsliding from Christ under the law, and receiving another gospel. Then, to the Romans he has to write, bidding them avoid those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine they have learned. His next epistles are written from a Roman prison: but here he has to say of those to whom he had written that their faith was spoken of through the whole world, "All seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ."
The epistles to Timothy may close the sorrowful picture: "At my first answer no man stood with me, but all forsook me: " Paul ends his course like His Master. Not alone at Rome : "This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia have departed from me." But now all that will be vessels of honour, fit for the Master's use, are to purge themselves from the vessels to dishonour. Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse; and in the last days perilous times shall come, men throwing the Christian dress over their unchanged natures, having the form of godliness but denying the power thereof. From such they must turn away.
Peter, John, Jude, add each some fresh feature to the terrible picture; but we need not dwell upon it more. We see the professing church is ruined and doomed. The true-hearted are already a remnant. By the "many antichrists" then present, the latest apostle decides that it is the last time. We look beyond even the Ephesian epistle here to see the hopelessness of the thought of any general repentance. And the word abides, "I will take away thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent."
The promise to the overcomer meanwhile rings out its words of cheer, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of My God." There is to be no yielding, however the difficulties of the way increase. God's stars shine by night as by day, and the darkness only makes them more apparent. It is no new thing, the darkness. The path of faith has been in all ages essentially alike. The incentive comes from beyond, and no sorrows of the way can mar the beauty of the paradise of God.
The tree of life in the garden of old meant clearly dependent life, which was to be ministered to Adam by its means. In himself, innocent as he was, there was no continuance apart from this. God would thus remind him of the essential mutability and dependence of the creature - a safe and wholesome lesson.
For us too, redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, and possessors of eternal life, this is still life in dependence; and herein is the secret of its eternity. It is life in Christ, in the Son who is alone essential Life. Of the fruits of this we shall partake forever. How suited an appeal to those in the state addressed in this epistle! It is failure in maintaining the place of dependence, in receiving out of His fullness in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, that is the very secret of their condition. The mind, the will, the heart, are in independence. He who keeps close to Christ overcomes. How suited, then, the encouragement to one who knows already the blessedness of this place, to look on to the time when in far other circumstances the full results of it shall be attained, - when eternally it will be ours to know the joy of that dependence which secures His ministry of love to us forever! "For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things; to whom be glory forever. Amen."
Smyrna : The Double Assault of the Enemy
(Rev. ii. 8 - 11)
The decline of the Church opens the way for the power of the enemy to display itself; and the assault is a double one - from without and within at the same moment. The result is, however, very different in the two cases. The outside assault is failure, for it is impossible that the Lord should leave His saints to be subdued by power beyond their own; while the defeat of Satan's wiles is another matter. Here they must put on the whole armour of God, that they may be able to stand in the evil day. We shall be able from this point to trace an instructive correspondence beween the history of the kingdom as developed in the first four parables of the thirteenth of Matthew and that of the Church in the first four addresses here. There also the failure (or partial success) of the good seed is the first fact insisted on, and then follows the inroad of the enemy. The two are put in connection by the words, "While men slept, the enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat."
Here, as not in the parable, the open assault is connected with the secret and inward one, and we shall see, if the Lord permit, that the two are really parts of one whole, the one favouring the other. The roar of the lion is well calculated to frighten souls into the secret snare; and in this regard we could not say that it had no success. God, on the other hand, suffers it to alarm His people into their place of refuge; and with true souls this would be its effect. The test is permitted to manifest the condition of things, and it is His way to allow such tests ever, as in all dispensations we shall find to be the case. Alas, for the invariable result as to man! but He will be glorified through all.
Let us look briefly first at the open attack which, as it makes a figure in ecclesiastical history, gives us a date to attach to the period before us. Even those who do not see the historical application of these addresses generally admit a reference in the "tribulation ten days" to ten persecutions under the Roman emperors. That there were just so many can hardly be made out, and the expression need not be pressed so literally. It is quite plain, nevertheless, how the address to Smyrna suits this period, which lasted from Domitian's persecution now begun, right on to Constantine, - that is, for over two centuries. This was undoubtedly the martyr-age of the Church as a whole, although the persecution may have been more bitter locally in other periods. The power of Rome , absolute as it was throughout her wide-spread empire, when wielded against Christianity, left little room for escape any where, while as a heathen power it was antagonistic to all that professed the name. The address to Smyrna , therefore, comes exactly in place here; and the very name - "myrrh," - used, as this was, in the embalming of the dead, reminds us of how "precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." Indeed this is manifest all through the address. It is as "the First and the Last, who" yet "was dead, and is alive," that He speaks to them. In the voice of One who though divine stooped down to death and is come out of it, and who gives them thus only to drink of the cup of which He has drunk, and to be baptized with the baptism wherewith He has been baptized. How fully can He say, "I know thy tribulation"! and how sweet the commendation, "I know thy poverty, but thou art rich"! Yea, "blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for My sake: rejoice, and be exceeding glad."
The times are so changed, we look back with a shudder to the sufferings endured at these times, unable, as it would seem, to comprehend the blessedness of this link of sorrow with the Man of sorrows. And yet we can see, even through the lapse of intervening centuries, how the "Spirit of glory and of God" rested upon these sufferers. The Captain of their salvation was at all charges for them, and as the sufferings of Christ abounded in them, so their consolation also abounded by Christ. They had heard His voice saying, "Fear not those things which thou shalt suffer; be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."
Multitudes were thus faithful; but we are apt to form a wrong estimate of the times gilded by the glory of this faithfulness. Just so, in the address to Smyrna , the Lord's undisguised and tender sympathy with His own under persecution hides from the eyes of many the evil which is pointed out by Him as there in terms of indignant reprobation. By most, "The blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not" is supposed to refer to the well-known and constant enmity of the unbelieving nation against the followers of their rejected Messiah. It is evident that they are treated as outside of those whom the Lord is here addressing, and that the "angel" is not, as elsewhere, charged with responsibility for their presence. But so neither are the Nicolaitanes, or the followers of Balaam at Pergamos, or the woman Jezebel at Thyatira, addressed directly by the Lord, while no one doubts, nor can it be doubted, that they formed part of the respective assemblies. The question of responsibility is a more difficult one, and we shall be obliged to consider it a little later.
"Those who say they are Jews and are not" might be taken, no doubt, as parallel to the apostle's words that "they are not all Israel which are of Israel ," and "he is not a Jew which is one outwardly." Still it would not seem that they would so much need to profess themselves such, if they were of the nation really; nor does it seem that so much would be made of the falseness of a profession for which there was after all a certain justification. If this, too, were really the character of those in question, there is no significance, that one can see, in the appearance here as regards any divine judgment of the churches.
The moment we realize the adversaries here spoken of as judaizers within the professing church, we find that we have in them as much the formal root of decline as in first love left we had the internal principle. The mention of them at this point becomes a necessity really for the perfecting of the picture of what has in fact taken place. With the heart-failure first reproved, it is the key to the condition of things which is all around us, it characterizes the state of ruin which has come in. It is this which has robbed Christians of the enjoyment of their place with God; it is this which has put them back into the world out of which grace had called them; it is this which has built up once more a priestly hierarchy as necessary mediators between a mixed and carnal people and a far-off God. It is this which is indeed the triumph of the great adversary, although God be as ever sovereign above it; and no name could more fitly designate the instruments by which he has degraded the Church of God into the synagogue than the name by which the Lord brands them here - " the synagogue of Satan."
The title precisely indicates the change accomplishing. The Church of God is indeed every way the precise opposite of Satan's synagogue. The word which we translate "church" is, as well known, properly "assembly," - a title which, if it had been retained in our common version, would have prevented the possibility of some significant perversions. The assembly could not be confounded, for instance, with a material building, though spiritually indeed God's house. Nor could it be the clergy merely, as from Romanism, though by more than Romanists, it has been made to signify. These applications of the term are but indications of the very change of which we are now speaking. The assembly of God in Scripture is Christ's body, the fellowship of those who are His members, and of none but these. It is true that the responsibility of this place may be assumed by those who are not such, and so we find the assembly in Sardis pronounced by the Lord to be dead, and not alive. Yet in the divine thought this is what the assembly is, and at the Lord's table every one declares this: "we being many are one bread, one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread."
Thus it is the assembly, or gathering, of those who are Christ's members, called out by grace out of the world., and this is what the word used means.
"Ecclesia" is the assembly of those called out; while "synagogue" means merely a "gathering together," no matter of whom. The latter, of course, was the Jewish word, as the former the Christian; and they exactly express the difference between the respective gatherings. Christ died, "not for the nation of Israel only, but also that He might gather together in one the children of God which were scattered abroad." Outside of the Jewish fold He had sheep to bring in, and inside of it not all were His sheep. Judaism did not unite the children of God as such, as is plain, and its separation was not of believers from the world, but of Israel from the Gentiles. So, consequently, the children of God were not given their place with God, and had no Spirit of adoption - did not cry, "Abba, Father." God was saying, "I am a father to Israel " - and this which comes nearest to Christian knowledge shows in fact the contrast. Relationship was by birth, not new birth, and did not mean justification and eternal life, as it means now. Those who belonged to the family of God might perish forever, and those outside His family might be saved eternally.
Judaism decided the eternal state of none. As a dispensation of law, it could give no assurance, it could preach no justification. For if the law says on the one hand "the man that doeth these things shall live in them," it says also "there is none righteous - no, not one." And that was not merely the effect, but the designed effect: "We know that whatsoever the law saith it saith to them that are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God." It was thus ordained for the probation of man, a probation necessary before grace could be proclaimed; but on this account it could but as a means of salvation bear witness to its own incompetency.
The announcement of that new covenant under which Israel 's sins and iniquities would be no more remembered was such a witness. Thus, as the law could not justify, it could not bring to God. The unrent vail is the characteristic of Judaism as the rent vail is of Christianity. "Thou canst not see My face, for there shall no man see Me and live" is the contrasted utterance to His who says, "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father;" as is "who can by no means clear the guilty" the opposite declaration to that of the , gospel, that we "believe on Him who justifieth the ungodly." The darkness is passed from the face , of God, and the true light - for God is light - shineth. We walk, therefore, in the light, as God is in the light, and have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth from all sin. The judaizing of the Church means therefore, first of all, the putting God back (if that were possible; possible for our hearts it is) into the darkness from which He has come forth; replacing the peace which was made for us upon the cross with the old legal conditions and the old uncertainty. Darker than the old darkness this, inasmuch as the Christ for whom they only looked is come, and come but to put His seal upon it all: come, and gone back, and declared little more, at any rate, than was said before, and only definitively shut out hope of any further revelation Thus in the Judaizing gospel confidence is presumption "No man knoweth whether he is worthy of favour or hatred" is quoted as if from Paul instead of Solomon. In fact, is not Ecclesiastes scripture as well as Romans? and will you make scripture to contradict scripture? Did not Christ say, also, "I came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill"? and ought we not to follow Him?
Peace is of course lost, and in the dread uncertainty that everywhere prevails, who can distinguish any longer between God's children and the world? Yet Judaism had its family of God, its ordinances which separated them from those around, its absolutions by the way which encouraged hope, while yet, as continually needed, they sanctioned no presumptuous assurance. The Christian family could still exist, baptism and the supper of the Lord take the place of the old Jewish ordinances, the Christian ministry conform to the Levitical priesthood, and the Church become more venerable by her identification with that of the saints from the beginning, and richer for the inheritance of all the promises from Abraham down.
This is assuredly the transformation that has taken place, and that began so early that we have but few traces of the manner of its accomplishment, or its agents either. We open the page of uninspired history, and the terrible transformation has been already achieved. In fact, so fully, that it presents the only difficulty in the application of the address before us to the period of heathen persecution. One would hardly suppose from the Lord's words here that (as it would appear) the witnesses for Him, faithful to death as they were, were nevertheless thoroughly implicated in this descent from Christianity to Judaism. It would hardly seem as if the "blasphemy" or slander of this Jewish party had been directed against them, or that the Lord could ignore their reception of these satanic doctrines.
The real question is, how far could we expect the history, meagre in proportion to its earliness, and which has come down to us through centuries of darkness and hostility to the truth, to reveal to us the struggle with these Jewish teachers, so generally successful as they were? I do not think we could expect it. An age which would forge the names of those in repute to spurious documents, often with the express design of giving authority to some favourite doctrine, would hardly hesitate to remove the too suspicious traces of opposition to prevalent views and practices from the history of the early church. That there should have been no such struggle is scarcely to be credited. And the words of our Lord here may well be taken as an encouragement rather to believe that there were even many who were doubly faithful in this time of trial; faithful amid the outside persecution, and faithful also against what could and did soon develop into no less bitter persecution within the professing church.
Of one thing we may be sure, that the true history of the Church remains to be written, or is written only before God. That which fills men's histories is hardly, save in responsibility, the Church at all. Solemn it is to realize the completeness of the ruin, almost from the first; and yet this has been the case in every dispensation. How long did our first parents live in paradise? Of the generation before the flood, what was the record? and what of Noah's sons? Of Israel in the wilderness, but two of all that as men left Egypt got into the land. In the land, how soon does Bochim succeed Gilgal! The priesthood fail on the day of their consecration. The first king falls on the battle-field, an apostate. The hands that have built the temple to the true God build the shrines of idols. The remnant, brought back from Babylon , murder one of their latest prophets (Matt. xxiii. and the awful history of the chosen people closes with the crucifixion of the Son of God.
What hope, then, for the Church? And here the blessing bestowed only makes the ruin the more awful: the corruption of the best becomes the worst corruption. "The annals of the Church," says the Romish historian, "are the annals of hell." How solemn a witness to the application of the words here, "who say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan"!
Not that we must brand with this name the masses who fell into the snare prepared for them, still less the generations afterward succeeding to the fatal heritage. It is applied, as we may easily see, to the earnest and active propagators of the heresy rather than to those whom they seduced to follow them. The Word of God, while teaching us to be open-eyed as to the character of things around us, teaches us carefully the need of making a difference as to those who may profess the very same principles. Indeed, as to persons, love will ever hope the best that it is possible to hope. It will not be blinded into putting good for evil, or sweet for bitter; and for evil principles it never can have even the smallest toleration: can it tolerate poison in that which is men's food? But it is another thing when the question of what is in the heart is raised. We are never really called to judge what is in the heart, while we are called to judge what is manifest in the life and ways. "I wot that through ignorance ye did it" was said to those who had had part in crucifying Christ; and it was but the echo of the Lord's own plea for them.
But whatever our judgment may be as to persons, the evil abides, and its effects are in the present day all around us. The Judaizing of the Church means the vail replaced before God, souls at a distance, in uncertainty and darkness, the Church and the world confounded, the children of God deprived of their place and privileges, the world made Christian in form, the Church more and more degraded to its level. The development we shall see at length in the after-addresses.
Nicolaitism - or The Rise and Growth of the Clerisy
"But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate."
"So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate" - (Rev 2:6,15)
The address to Pergamos follows that to Smyrna. This next stage of the Church's journey in its departure (alas!) from truth may easily be recognized historically. It applies to the time when, after having passed through the heathen persecution, and the faithfulness of many an Antipas being brought out by it, it got publicly recognized and established in the world. The characteristic of this epistle is, the Church dwelling where Satan's throne is. "Throne" it should be, not "seat." Now Satan has his throne, not in hell, which is his prison, and where he never reigns at all, but in the world, he is expressly called the "prince of this world." To dwell where Satan's throne is, is to settle down in the world, under Satan's government, so to speak, and protection. That is what people call the establishment of the Church. It took place in Constantine 's time. Although amalgamation with the world had been growing for a long time more and more decided, yet it was then that the Church stepped into the seats of the old heathen idolatry. It was what people call the triumph of Christianity, but the result was that the Church had the things of the world now as never before, in secure possession: the chief place in the world was hers, and the principles of the world everywhere pervaded her.
The very name of "Pergamos" intimates that. It is a word (without the particle attached to it, which is itself significant,) - really meaning "marriage," and the Church's marriage before Christ comes to receive her to Himself is necessarily unfaithfulness to Him to whom she is espoused. It is the marriage of the Church and the world which the epistle to Pergamos speaks of - the end of a courtship which had been going on long before.
There is something, however, which is preliminary to this, and mentioned in the very first address; but there it is evidently incidental, and does not characterize the state of things. In the first address, to the Ephesians, the Lord says, "But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate" (2:6). Here it is more than the "deeds" of the Nicolaitanes. There are now not merely "deeds," but "doctrine." And the Church, instead of repudiating it, was holding with it. In the Ephesian days, they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitanes; but in Pergamos, they "had," and did not reprobate, those who held the doctrine.
The question now before us is, How shall we interpret this? and we shall find that the word "Nicolaitanes" is the only thing really which we have to interpret it by. People have tried very hard to show that there was a sect of the Nicolaitanes, but it is owned by writers now almost on all sides to be very doubtful. Nor can we conceive why, in epistles of the character which we have seen these to have, there should be such repeated and emphatic mention of a mere obscure sect, about which people can tell us little or nothing, and that seems manufactured to suit the passage before us. The Lord solemnly denounces it: "Which thing I hate." It must have a special importance with Him, and be of moment in the Church's history, little apprehended as it may have been. And another thing which we have to remember is, that it is not the way of Scripture to send us to church histories, or to any history at all, in order to interpret its sayings. God's Word is its own interpreter, and we have not to go elsewhere in order to find out what is there; otherwise it becomes a question of learned men searching and finding out for those who have not the same means or abilities, applications which must be taken on their authority alone. This He would not leave His people to. Besides, it is the ordinary way in Scripture, and especially in passages of a symbolical character, such as is the part before us, for the names to be significant. I need not remind you how abundantly in the Old Testament this is the case; and in the New Testament, although less noticed, I cannot doubt but that there is the same significance throughout.
Here, if we are left simply to the name, it is one sufficiently startling and instructive. Of course, to those who spoke the language used, the meaning would be no hidden or recondite thing, but as apparent as those of Bunyan's allegories. It means, then, "Conquering the people." The last part of the word (" Laos ") is the word used in Greek for "the people," and it is the word from which the commonly used term "Laity" is derived. The Nicolaitanes were just those "subjecting - putting down the laity" the mass of Christian people, in order unduly to lord it over them.
What makes this clearer is, that, - side by side with the Nicolaitanes in the epistle to Pergamos, - we have those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, a name whose similarity in meaning has been observed by many. "Balaam" is a Hebrew word, as the other is a Greek; but its meaning is, "Destoryer of the people," a very significant one in view of his history; and as we read of the "doctrine of the Nicolaitanes," so we read of a "doctrine of Balaam."
You have pointed out what he "taught" Balak. Balaam's doctrine was, "to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel , to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication." For this purpose he enticed them to mixture with the nations, from which God had carefully separated them. That needful separation broken down was their destruction, so far as it prevailed. In like manner we have seen the Church to be called out from the world, and it is only too easy to apply the divine type in this case. But here we have a confessedly typical people, with a corresponding significant name, and in such close connection as naturally to confirm the reading of the similar word, "Nicolaitanes," as similarly significant. I shall have to speak more of this at another time, if the Lord will. Let us notice now the development of Nicolaitanism. It is, first of all, certain people who have this character, and who (I am merely translating the word.) first take the place of superiors over the people. Their "deeds" show what they are. There is no "doctrine" yet; but it ends in Pergamos, with the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes. The place is assumed now to be theirs by right. There is a doctrine - a teaching about it, received at least by some, and to which the Church at large - nay, on the whole true souls, have become indifferent.
Now what has come in between these two things, - the "deeds" and the "doctrine"? What we were looking at last time - the rise of a party whom the Lord marks out as those who said they were Jews and were not, but who were the synagogue of Satan: the adversary's attempt (alas! too successful) to Judaize the Church.
We were looking but a little while since at what the characteristics of Judaism are. It was a probationary system, a system of trial, in which it was to be seen if man could produce a righteousness for God. We know the end of the trial, and that God pronounced "none righteous - no, not one." And then alone it was that God could manifest His grace. As long as He was putting man under trial, He could not possibly open the way to His own presence and justify the sinner there. He had, as long as this trial went on, to shut him out; for on that ground, nobody could see God and live. Now the very essence of Christianity is that all are welcomed in. There is an open door, and ready access, where the blood of Christ entitles every one, however much a sinner, to draw near to God, and to find, in the first place, at His hand, justification as ungodly. To see God in Christ is not to die, but live. And what, further, is the consequence of this? The people who have come this way to Him, - the people who have found the way of access through the peace-speaking blood into His presence, learned what He is in Christ, and been justified before God, are able to take, and taught to take, a place distinct from all others, as now His, children of the Father, members of Christ - His body. That is the Church, a body called out, separate from the world.
Judaism, on the other hand, necessarily mixed all together. Nobody there could take such a place with God: nobody could cry, "Abba, Father," really; therefore there could not be any separation. This had been then a necessity, and of God, no doubt; but now, Judaism being set up again, after God had abolished it, it was no use, it is no use, to urge that it was once of Him; its setting up was the too successful work of the enemy against His gospel and against His Church. He brands these Judaizers as the "synagogue of Satan."
Now we can understand at once, when the Church in its true character was practically lost sight of, when Church-members meant people baptized by water instead of by the Holy Ghost, or when the baptism of water and of the Holy Ghost were reckoned one, (and this very early became accepted doctrine,) how of course the Jewish synagogue was practically again set up. It became more and more impossible to speak of Christians being at peace with God, or saved. They were hoping to be, and sacraments and ordinances became means of grace to insure, as far as might be, a far-off salvation.
Let us see how far this would help on the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes. It is plain that when and as the Church sank into the synagogue, the Christian people became practically what of old the Jewish had been. Now, what was that position? As I have said, there was no real drawing near to God at all. Even the high-priest, who (as a type of Christ,) entered into the holiest once a year, on the day of atonement, had to cover the mercy-seat with a cloud of incense that he might not die. But the ordinary priests could not enter there at all, but only into the outer holy place; while the people in general could not come in even there. And this was expressly designed as a witness of their condition. It was the result of failure on their part; for God's offer to them, which you may find in the nineteenth chapter of Exodus, was this: "Now, therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine; and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation."
They were thus conditionally offered equal nearness of access to God, - they should be all priests. But this was rescinded, for they broke the covenant; and then a special family is put into the place of priests, the rest of the people being put into the background, and only able to draw near to God through these.
Thus a separate and intermediate priesthood characterized Judaism, as on the other hand, for the same reason, what we should call now missionary-work there was none. There was no going out to the world in this way, no provision, no command, to preach the law at all. What, in fact, could they say? that God was in the thick darkness? that no one could see Him and live? It is surely evident there was no "good news" there. Judaism had no true gospel. The absence of the evangelist and the presence of the intermediate priesthood told the same sorrowful story, and were in perfect keeping with each other.
Such was Judaism; how different, then, is Christianity! No sooner had the death of Christ rent the vail, and opened a way of access into the presence of God, than at once there was a gospel, and the new order is, "Go out into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." God is making Himself known, and "is He the God of the Jews only?" Can you confine that within the bounds of a nation? No; the fermentation of the new wine would burst the bottles.
The intermediate priesthood was, on the other hand, done away; for all the Christian people are priests now to God. What was conditionally offered to Israel is now an accomplished fact in Christianity. We are a kingdom of priests; and it is, in the wisdom of God, Peter, ordained of man the great head of ritualism, who in his first epistle announces the two things which destroy ritualism root and branch for those who believe him. First, that we are "born again," not of baptism, but "by the word of God, that liveth and abideth forever;" and this, "the word which by the gospel is preached unto you." Secondly, instead of a set of priests, he says to all Christians, "Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ." (2:5). The sacrifices are spiritual, praise and thanksgiving, and our lives and bodies also (Heb. 13:15, 16; Rom. 12:1); but this is to be with us true priestly work, and thus do our lives get their proper character: they are the thank-offering service of those able to draw nigh to God.
In Judaism, let me repeat, no one drew really nigh; but the people - the laity (for it is only a Greek word made English,) - the people not even as the priest could. The priestly caste, wherever it is found, means the same thing. There is no drawing nigh of the whole body of the people at all. It means distance from God, and darkness, - God shut out.
Let us see now what is the meaning of a clergy. It is, in our day, and has been for many generations, the word which specially marks out a class distinguished from the "laity," and distinguished by being given up to sacred things, and having a place of privilege in connection with them which the laity have not. No doubt in the present day this special place is being more and more infringed on, and for two reasons. One is, that God has been giving light, and, among Protestants at least, Scripture is opposing itself to tradition, - modifying where it does not destroy this. The other is a merely human one - that the day is democratic, and class-privileges are breaking down.
But what means this class? It is evident that as thus distinguished from the laity, and privileged beyond them, it is real and open Nicolaitanism, if Scripture does not make good their claim. For then the laity has been subjected to them, and that is the exact meaning of the term. Does Scripture, then, use such terms? It is plain it does not. They are, as regards the New Testament, an invention of later date, although, it may be admitted, as imported really from what is older than the New, - the Judaism with which the Church (as we have seen,) was quickly permeated.
But we must see the important principles involved, to see how the Lord has (as He must have) cause to say of the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, "Which I also hate." We too, if we would be in communion with the Lord in this must hate what He hates.
I am not speaking of people (God forbid!): I am speaking of a thing. Our unhappiness is, that we are at the end of a long series of departures from God, and as a consequence, we grow up in the midst of many things which come down to us as "tradition of the elders," associated with names which we all revere and love, upon whose authority in reality we have accepted them, without ever having looked at them really in the light of God's presence. And there are many thus whom we gladly recognize as truly men of God and servants of God in a false position. It is of that position I am speaking. I am speaking of a thing, as the Lord does: "Which thing I hate." He does not say, Which people I hate. Although in those days evil of this kind was not an inheritance, as now, and the first propagators of it, of course, had a responsibility, self- deceived as they may have been, peculiarly their own. Still, in this matter as in all others, we need not be ashamed or afraid to be where the Lord is; - nay, we cannot be with Him in this unless we are; and He says of Nicolaitanism, "Which thing I hate."
Because what does it mean? It means a spiritual caste, or class, - a set of people having officially a right to leadership in spiritual things; a nearness to God, derived from official place, not spiritual power: in fact, the revival, under other names, and with various modifications, of that very intermediate priesthood which distinguished Judaism, and which Christianity emphatically disclaims. That is what a clergy means; and in contradiction to these, the rest of Christians are but the laity, the seculars, necessarily put back into more or less of the old distance, which the cross of Christ has done away.
We see, then, why it needed that the Church should be Judaized before the deeds of the Nicolaitanes could ripen into a "doctrine." The Lord even had authorized obedience to scribes and Pharisees sitting in Moses' seat; and to make this text apply, as people apply it now, Moses' seat had of course to be set up in the Christian Church: this done, and the mass of Christians degraded from the priesthood Peter spoke of, into mere "lay members," the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes was at once established.
Understand me fully, that I am in no wise questioning the divine institution of the Christian ministry. God forbid! for ministry in the fullest sense is characteristic of Christianity, as I have already in fact maintained. Nor do I, while believing that all true Christians are ministers also by the very fact, deny a special and distinctive ministry of the Word, as what God has given to some and not to all - though for the use of all. No one truly taught of God can deny that some, not all, among Christians have the place of evangelist, pastor, teacher. Scripture makes more of this than current views do; for it teaches that every true minister is a gift from Christ, in His care, as Head of the Church, for His people, and one who has his place from God alone, and is responsible in that character to God, and God alone. The miserable system which I see around degrades him from this blessed place, and makes him in fact little more than the manufacture and the servant of men. While giving, it is true, a place of lordship over people which gratifies a carnal mind, still it fetters the spiritual man, and puts him in chains; every where giving him an artificial conscience toward man, hindering in fact his conscience being properly before God.
Let me briefly state what the Scripture-doctrine of the ministry is - it is a very simple one. The Assembly of God is Christ's body; all the members are members of Christ. There is no other membership in Scripture than this - the membership of Christ's body, to which all true Christians belong: not many bodies of Christ, but one body; not many Churches, but one Church.
There is of course a different place for each member of the body by the very fact that he is such. All members have not the same office: there is the eye, the ear, and so on, but they are all necessary, and all necessarily ministering, in some way or sense, to one another.
Every member has its place, not merely locally, and for the benefit of certain other members, but for the benefit of the whole body.
Each member has its gift, as the apostle teaches distinctly. "For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office; so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, etc. ( Rom. 12:4-6.)
In the twelfth chapter of first Corinthians, the apostle speaks at large of these gifts; and he calls them by a significant name - "manifestations of the Spirit." They are gifts of the Spirit, of course; but more, they are "manifestations of the Spirit;" they manifest themselves where they are found, - where (I need scarcely add that I mean,) there is spiritual discernment, - where souls are before God.
For instance, if you take the gospel of God, whence does it derive its authority and power? From any sanction of men? any human credentials of any kind? or from its own inherent power? I dare maintain, that the common attempt to authenticate the messenger takes away from instead of adding to the power of the Word. God's Word must be received as such: he that receives it sets to his seal that God is true. Its ability to meet the needs of heart and conscience is derived from the fact that it is "God's good news," who knows perfectly what man's need is, and has provided for it accordingly. He who has felt its power knows well from whom it comes. The work and witness of the Spirit of God in the soul need no witness of man to supplement them.
Even the Lord's appeal in His own case was to the truth He uttered: "If I say the truth, why do ye not believe Me?" When He stood forth in the Jewish synagogue, or elsewhere, He was but in men's eyes a poor carpenter's son, accredited by no school or set of men at all. All the weight of authority was ever against Him. He disclaimed even "receiving testimony from men." God's Word alone should speak for God. "My doctrine is not Mine, but His that sent Me." And how did it approve itself? By the fact of its being truth. "If I speak the truth, why do you not believe Me?" It was the truth that was to make its way with the true. "He that will do God's will shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of Myself." He says, "I speak the truth, I bring it to you from God; and if it is truth, and if you are seeking to do God's will, you will learn to recognize it as the truth." God will not leave people in ignorance and darkness, if they are seek-ing to be doers of His will. Can you suppose that God will allow true hearts to be deceived by whatever plausible deceptions may be abroad? He is able to make His voice known by those who seek to hear His voice. And so the Lord says to Pilate, "Every one that is of the truth heareth My voice." (John 18:37.) "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me;" and again, "A stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him; for they know not the voice of strangers." (John 10:27,5.)
Such is the nature of truth, then, that to pretend to authenticate it to those who are themselves true is to dishonour it, as if it were not capable of self- evidence, and so dishonour God, as if He could be wanting to souls, or to what He Himself has given.
Nay, the apostle speaks of "by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4:2): and the Lord, of its being the condemnation of the world, that "light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19). There was no lack of evidence: light was there, and men owned its power to their own condemnation, when they sought escape from it.
Even so in the gift was there "the manifestation of the Spirit," and it was "given to every man to profit withal." By the very fact that he had it, he was responsible to use it - responsible to Him who had not given it in vain. In the gift itself lay the ability to minister, and title too; for I am bound to help and serve with what I have. And if souls are helped, they need scarcely ask if I had commission to do it.
This is the simple character of ministry - the service of love, according to the ability which God gives, mutual service of each to each and each to all, without jostling or exclusion of one another. Each gift was thrown into the common treasury, and all were the richer by it. God's blessing and the manifestation of the Spirit were all the sanction needed. All were not teachers, still less public teachers, of the Word; still in these cases, the same principles exactly applied. That was but one department of a service which had many, and which was rendered by each to each according to his sphere.
Was there nothing else than that? Was there no ordained class at all, then? That is another thing altogether. There were, without doubt, in the primitive Church, two classes of officials, regularly appointed, or (if you like) ordained. The deacons were those who, having charge of the fund for the poor and other purposes, were chosen by the saints first for this place of trust in their behalf, and then appointed authoritatively by apostles mediately or immediately. Elders were a second class, - elderly men, as the word imports, - who were appointed in the local assemblies as "bishops," or "overseers," to take cognizance of their state. That the elders were the same as bishops may be seen in Paul's words to the elders of Ephesus , where he exhorts them to "take heed to . . . . all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers." There they have translated the word, "bishops," but in Titus they have left it - "that thou shouldest ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee; if any be blameless . .for a bishop must be blameless."(Acts 20:28 Tit.1:5,7.)
Their work was to "oversee," and although for that purpose their being "apt to teach" was a much-needed qualification, in view of errors already rife, yet no one could suppose that teaching was confined to those who were "elders," "husbands of one wife, having their children in subjection with all gravity." This was a needed test for one who was to be a bishop; "for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the Church of God ?" (1 Tim. 3:1-7.)
Whatever gifts they had they used, as all did, and thus the apostle directs - "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the Word and doctrine (5:17). But they might rule, and rule well, without this.
The meaning of their ordination was just this, that here it was not a question of "gift," but of authority. It was a question of title to take up and look into, often difficult and delicate matters, among people too very likely in no state to submit to what was merely spiritual. The ministration of gift was another thing, and free, under God, to all.
Thus much, very briefly, as to Scripture-doctrine. Our painful duty is now to put in contrast with it the system I am deprecating, according to which a distinct class are devoted formally to spiritual things, and the people - the laity - are in the same ratio excluded from such occupation. This is true Nicolaitanism, - the "subjection of the people."
Again I say, not only that ministry of the Word is entirely right, but that there are those who have special gift and responsibility (though still not exclusive) to minister it. But priesthood is another thing, and a thing sufficiently distinct to be easily recognized where it is claimed or in fact exists. I am, of course, aware that Protestants in general disclaim any priestly powers for their ministers. I have no wish nor thought of disputing their perfect honesty in this disavowal. They mean that they have no thought of the minister having any authoritative power of absolution; and that they do not make the Lord's table an altar, whereon afresh day after day the perfection of Christ's one offering is denied by countless repetitions. They are right in both respects, but it is scarcely the whole matter. If we look more deeply, we shall find that much of a priestly character may attach where neither of these have the least place.
Priesthood and ministry may be distinguished in this way: Ministry (in the sense we are now considering) is to men; priesthood is to God. The minister brings God's message to the people, - he speaks for Him to them: the priest goes to God for the people, - he speaks in the reverse way, for them to Him. It is surely easy to distinguish these two attitudes.
"Praise and thanksgiving" are spiritual "sacrifices:" they are part of our offering as priests. Put a special class into a place where regularly and officially they act thus for the rest, they are at once in the rank of an intermediate priesthood, - mediators with God for those who are not so near.
The Lord's supper is the most prominent and fullest expression of Christian thankfulness and adoration publicly and statedly; but what Protestant minister does not look upon it as his official right to administer this? What "layman" would not shrink from the profanation of administering it? And this is one of the terrible evils of the system, that the mass of Christian people are thus distinctly secularized. Occupied with worldly things, they cannot be expected to be spiritually what the clergy are. And to this they are given over, as it were. They are released from spiritual occupations, to which they are not equal, and to which others give themselves entirely.
But this must evidently go much further. "The priest's lips should keep knowledge." The laity, who have become that by abdicating their priesthood, how should they retain the knowledge belonging to a priestly class? The unspirituality to which they have given themselves up pursues them here. The class whose business it is, become the authorized interpreters of the Word also, for how should the secular man know so well what Scripture means? Thus the clergy become spiritual eyes and ears and mouth for the laity, and are in the fair way of becoming the whole body too.
But it suits people well. Do not mistake me as if I meant that this is all come in as the assumption of a class merely. It is that, no doubt ; but never could this miserable and unscriptural distinction of clergy and laity have obtained so rapidly as it did, and so universally, if every where it had not been found well adapted to the tastes of those even whom it really displaced and degraded. Not alone in Israel , but in christendom also, has it been fulfilled: "The prophets prophecy falsely, and the priests bear rule through their means, and My people love to have it so!" Alas! they did, and they do. As spiritual decline sets in, the heart that is turning to the world barters readily, Esau- like, its spiritual birthright for a mess of pottage. It exchanges thankfully its need of caring too much for spiritual things, with those who will accept the responsibility of this. Worldliness is well covered with a layman's cloak; and as the Church at large dropped out of first love, (as it did rapidly, and then the world began to come in through the loosely guarded gates,) it became more and more impossible for the rank and file of christendom to take the blessed and wonderful place which belonged to Christians. The step taken downward, instead of being retrieved, only made succeeding steps each one easier; until, in less than three hundred years from the beginning, a Jewish priesthood and a ritualistic religion were every-where installed. Only so much the worse, as the precious things of Christianity left their names at least as spoils to the invader, and the shadow became for most the substance itself.
But I must return to look more particularly at one feature in this clerisy. I have noted the confounding of ministry and priesthood; the assumption of an official title in spiritual things, of title to administer the Lord's supper, and I might have added also, to baptize. For none of these things can scripture be found at all. But I must dwell a little more on the emphasis that is laid on ordination.
I want you to see a little more what ordination means. In the first place, if you look through the New Testament, you will find nothing about ordination to teach or to preach. You find people going about every where freely exercising whatever gift they had; the whole Church was scattered abroad from Jerusalem except the apostles, and they went every where preaching (literally, evangelizing) the Word. The persecution did not ordain them, I suppose. So with Apollos: so with Philip the deacon. There is, in fact, no trace of any thing else. Timothy received a gift of prophecy, by the laying on of Paul's hands with those of the elders; but that was gift, not authorization to use it. So he is bidden to communicate his own knowledge to faithful men, who should be able to teach others also; but there is not a word about ordaining them. The case of elders I have already noticed. That of Paul and Barnabas at Antioch is the most unhappy that can be for the purpose people use it for; for prophets and teachers are made to ordain an apostle, and one who totally disclaims being that. "of men or by man." And there the Holy Ghost (not confers power of ordaining any, but) says, "Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereto I have called them," - a special missionary journey, which it is shown afterward they had fulfilled. (See Acts 8, 11, 13, 18; 1 Tim., etc.)
Now, what means this "ordination"? It means much, you may be sure, or it would not be so zealously contended for as it is. There are, no doubt, two phases of it. In the most extreme, as among Romanists and ritualists, there is claimed for it in the fullest way that it is the conveyance, not merely of authority, but of spiritual power. They assume with all the power of apostles to give the Holy Ghost by the laying on of their hands, and here for priesthood in the fullest way. The people of God as such are rejected from the priesthood He has given them, and a special class are put into their place to mediate for them in a way which sets aside the fruit of Christ's work, and ties them to the Church as the channel of all grace. Among Protestants, you think perhaps I need not dwell on this; but it is done among some of these also, in words which to a certain class of them seem strangely to mean nothing, while another class find in them the abundant sanction of their highest pretensions.
Those, on the other hand, who rightly and consistently reject these unchristian assumptions do not pretend indeed to confer any gift in ordination, but only to "recognize" the gift which God has given. But then, after all, this recognition is considered necessary before the person can baptize or administer the Lord's supper, - things which really require no peculiar gift at all. And as to the ministry of the Word, God's gift is made to require human sanction, and is "recognized" on behalf of His people by those who are considered to have a discernment which the people as such have not. Blind themselves or not, these men are to become "leaders of the blind;" else why need others to be eyes for them, while their own souls are taken out of the place of immediate responsibility to God, and made responsible unduly to man? An artificial conscience is manufactured for them, and conditions are constantly imposed, to which they have to conform in order to obtain the needful recognition. It is well if they are not under the control of their ordainers as to their path of service also, as they generally are.
In principle, this is unfaithfulness to God; for if He has given me gift to use for Him, I am surely unfaithful if I go to any man or body of men to ask their leave to use it. The gift itself carries with it the responsibility of using it, as we have seen. If they say, "But people may make mistakes," I own it thoroughly; but who is to assume my responsibility if I am mistaken? And again, the mistakes of an ordaining body are infinitely more serious than those of one who merely runs unsent. Their mistakes are consecrated and perpetuated by the ordination they bestow; and the man who, if he stood simply upon his own merits, would soon find his true level, has a character conferred upon him by it which the whole weight of the system must sustain. Mistake or not, he is none the less one of the clerical body, - a minister, if he has nothing really to minister. He must be provided for, if only with some less conspicuous place, where souls, dear to God as any, are put under his care, and must be unfed if he cannot feed them.
Do not accuse me of sarcasm; it is the system I am speaking of which is a sarcasm, - a swathing of the body of Christ in bands which hinder the free circulation of the vitalizing blood which should be permeating unrestrictedly the whole of it. Nature itself should rebuke the folly - the enormous inference from such scriptural premises as that apostles and apostolic men "ordained elders"! They must prove that they are either, and (granting them that,) that the Scripture "elder" might be no elder at all, but a young unmarried man just out of his teens, and on the other hand was evangelist, pastor, teacher - all God's various gifts rolled into one. This is the minister (according to the system, indeed, the minister,) - the all in all to the fifty or five hundred souls who are committed to him as "his flock," with which no other has title to interfere! Surely, surely, the brand of "Nicolaitanism" is upon the forefront of such a system as this!
Take it at its best, the man, if gifted at all, is scarcely likely to have every gift. Suppose he is an evangelist, and souls are happily converted; he is no teacher, and cannot build them up. Or he is a teacher, sent to a place where there are but a few Christians, and the mass of his congregation unconverted men. There are no conversions, and his presence there (according to the system) keeps away the evangelist who is needed there. Thank God! He is ever breaking up these systems, and in some irregular way the need may be supplied. But the supply is schismatical and a confusion: the new wine breaks the poor human bottles.
For all this the system is responsible. The exclusive ministry of one man or of a number of men in a congregation has no shred of Scripture to support it; while the ordination, as we have seen is the attempt to confine all ministry to a certain class, and make it rest on human authorization rather than on divine gift, the people, Christ's sheep, being denied their competency to hear His voice. The inevitable tendency is, to fix upon the man the attention which should be devoted to the word he brings. The question is, Is he accredited? If he speak truly is subordinated to the question, Is he ordained? or, perhaps I should say; his orthodoxy is settled already for them by the fact of his ordination.
Paul, an apostle, not of men, nor by man, could not have been, upon this plan, received. There were apostles before him, and he neither went up to them nor got any thing from them. If there were a succession, he was a break in the succession. And what he did he did designedly, to show that his gospel was not after man (Gal. 1:11), and that it might not rest upon the authority of man. Nay, if he himself preached a different gospel from that he had preached, (for there was not another,) - yea, or an angel from heaven (where the authority, if that were in question, might seem conclusive), his solemn decision is, "Let him be accursed."
Authority, then, is nothing if it be not the authority of the Word of God. That is the test - Is it according to the Scriptures? "If the blind lead the blind, shall they not both fall into the ditch?" To say, "I could not, of course, know: I trusted another," will not save you from the ditch.
But the unspiritual and unlearned layman, how can he pretend to equal knowledge with the educated and accredited minister devoted to spiritual things? In point of fact, in general he does not. He yields to the one who should know better; and practically the minister's teaching largely supplants the authority of the Word of God. Not that certainty, indeed, is thus attained. He cannot conceal it from himself that people differ - wise and good and learned and accredited as they may be. But here the devil steps in, and, if God has allowed men's "authorities" to get into a Babel of confusion, as they have, suggests to the unwary soul that the confusion must be the result of the obscurity of Scripture, whereas they have got into it by disregarding Scripture.
But this is every where! Opinion, not faith; - opinion to which you are welcome and have a right, of course; and you must allow others a right to theirs. You may say, "I believe," as long as you do not mean by that, "I know." To claim "knowledge" is to claim that you are wiser, more learned, better, than whole generations before you, who thought opposite to you.
Need I show you how infidelity thrives upon this? how Satan rejoices when for the simple and emphatic "Yea" of the divine voice he succeeds in substituting the Yea and Nay of a host of jarring commentators? Think you can fight the Lord's battles with the rush of human opinion instead of "the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God"? Think you "Thus saith John Calvin, or John Wesley," will meet Satan as satisfactorily as "Thus saith the Lord"?
Who can deny that such thoughts are abroad, and in no wise confined to papists or ritualists? The tendency, alas! is, in the heart of unbelief ever departing from the living God, - as near to His own to-day as at any time through the centuries His Church has travelled on, as competent to instruct as ever, as ready to fulfill the word, "He that will do His will shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God." The "eyes are of the heart," and not the head. He has hidden from wise and prudent what He reveals to babes. The school of God is more effectual than all colleges combined, and here layman and cleric are equal: "he that is spiritual discerneth all things," and he alone. Substitute for spirituality there is none: unspirituality the Spirit of God alone can remedy. Ordination, such as practiced, is rather a sanction put upon it, - an attempt to manifest what is the manifestation of the Spirit, or not His work at all, and to provide leaders for the blind, whom with all their care they cannot insure not being blind also.
Before I close, I must say a few words about "succession." An ordination which pretends to be derived from the apostles must needs be (to be consistent,) a successional one. Who can confer authority (and in the least and lowest theories of ordination authority is conferred, as to baptize, and to administer the Lord's supper,) but one himself authorized for this very purpose? You must, therefore, have a chain of ordained men, lineally succeeding one another. Apostolic succession is as necessary on the presbyterian as on the episcopalian plan. John Wesley, as his warrant for ordaining, fell back upon the essential oneness of bishop and presbyter. Nay, presbyterians will urge against episcopalians the ease of maintaining succession in this way. I have nothing to do with this: I only insist that succession is needed.
But then, mark the result. It is a thing apart alike from spirituality and from truth even. A Romish priest may have it as well as any; and indeed through the gutter of Rome most of that we have around us must necessarily have come down. Impiety and impurity do not in the least invalidate Christ's commission. The teacher of false doctrine may be as well His messenger as the teacher of truth. Nay, the possession of the truth, with gift to minister it and godliness combined, are actually no part of the credentials of the true ambassador. He may have all these and be none; he may want them all and be truly one nevertheless.
Who can believe such doctrine? Can He who is truth accredit error? - the righteous One unrighteousness? It is impossible. This ecclesiasticism violates every principle of morality, and hardens the conscience that has to do with it. For why need we be careful for truth if He is not? and how can He send messengers that He would not have to be believed? His own test of a true witness fails; for "he that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory; but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him." His own test of credibility fails, for "If I speak the truth, why do ye not believe Me?" was His own appeal.
No: to state this principle is to condemn it. He who foresaw and predicted the failure of what should have been the bright and evident witness of His truth and grace, could not ordain a succession of teachers for it who should carry His commission unforfeitable by whatever failure! Before apostles had left the earth, the house of God had become as a "great house," and it was necessary to separate from vessels to dishonour in it, He who bade His apostle to instruct another to "follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart," could not possibly tell us to listen to men who are alien from all this, as His ministers, and having His commission in spite of all. And thus notably, in the second epistle to Timothy, in which this is said, there is no longer, as in the first, any talk of elders or of ordained men. It is "faithful men" "who are wanted, not for ordination, but for the deposit of the truth committed to Timothy: "The things which thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also."
Thus God's holy Word vindicates itself to the heart and conscience ever. The effort to attach His sanction to a Romish priesthood or a Protestant hierarchy fails alike upon the same ground, for as to this they are upon the same ground. Alas! Nicolaitanism is no past thing - no obscure doctrine of past ages, but a widespread and gigantic system of error, fruitful in evil results. Error is long-lived, though mortal. Reverence it not for its gray hairs, and follow not with a multitude to do evil. With cause does the Lord say in this case, "Which thing I hate." If He does, shall we be afraid to have fellowship with Him? That there are good men entangled in it, all must admit. There are godly men, and true ministers, ignorantly wearing the livery of men. May God deliver them! may they cast aside their fetters and be free! May they rise up to the true dignity of their calling, responsible to God, and walking before Him alone!
On the other hand, beloved brethren, it is of immense importance that all His people, however diverse their places in the body of Christ may be, should realize that they are all as really ministers as they are all priests. We need to recognize that every Christian has spiritual duties flowing from spiritual relationship to every other Christian. It is the privilege of each one to contribute his share to the common treasury of gift, with which Christ has endowed His Church. Nay, he who does not contribute is actually holding back what is his debt to the whole family of God. No possessor of one talent is entitled to wrap it in a napkin upon that account: it would be mere unfaithfulness and unbelief.
"It is more blessed to give than to receive." Brethren in Christ, when shall we awake to the reality of our Lord's words there? Ours is a never- failing spring of perpetual joy and blessing, which if we but come to when we thirst, out of our bellies shall flow rivers of living water. The spring is not limited by the vessel which receives it: it is divine, and yet ours fully, - fully as can be! Oh to know more this abundance, and the responsibility of the possession of it, in a dry and weary scene like this! Oh to know better the infinite grace which has taken us up as channels of its outflow among men! When shall we rise up to the sense of our common dignity, - to the sweet reality of fellowship with Him who "came not to be ministered unto, but to minister"? Oh for unofficial ministry - the overflowing of full hearts into empty ones, so many as there are around us! How we should rejoice, in a scene of want and misery and sin, to find perpetual opportunity to show the competency of Christ's fullness to meet and minister to every form of it.
Official ministry is practical independence of the Spirit of God. It is to decide that such a vessel shall overflow though at the time, it may be, practically empty; and, on the other hand, that such another shall not overflow, however full He may have filled it up. It proposes, in the face of Him who has come down in Christ's absence to be the Guardian of His people, to provide for order and for edification, not by spiritual power, but by legislation. It would provide for failure on the part of Christ's sheep to hear His voice, by making it as far as possible unnecessary for them to do so. It thus sanctions and perpetuates unspirituality, instead of condemning or avoiding it.
It is quite true that in God's mode of treating it the failure in man's part may become more evident externally; for He cares little for a correct outside when the heart is nevertheless not right with Him, and He knows well that ability to maintain a correct outside may in fact prevent a truthful judgment of what is our real condition before Him. Men would have upbraided Peter with his attempt to walk upon those waves which made his little faith so manifest. The Lord would only rebuke the littleness of the faith which made him fail. And man still and ever would propose the boat as the remedy for failure, instead of the strength of the Lord's support, which He made Peter prove. Yet, after all, the boat confessedly may fail, - winds and waves may overthrow it: but "the Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters - yea, than the mighty waves of the sea." Through these many centuries of failure, have we proved Him untrustworthy? Beloved, is it your honest conviction that it is absolutely safe to trust the living God? Then let us make no provision for His failure, however much we may have to own that we have failed! Let us act as if we really trusted Him.
Pergamos: The Church United with the World
We have seen, then, two main steps in the Church's outward decline, after the loss of first love had made any departure possible. First of all, the divine idea of the Church was lost. Instead of its being a body of people having, in the full and proper sense, eternal life and salvation, children of God, members of Christ, and called out of the world as not belonging to it, it became a mere "gathering together" of those for whom, indeed, the old names might in part remain, but who were, in fact, the world itself with true Christian people scattered through it. Children of God, no doubt, they might be by baptism, and by it have forgiveness of sins also, but that was no settlement for eternity at all. They were confessedly under trial, uncertain as to how things would finally turn out, - a ground which all the world could understand and adopt, with sacraments and means of grace to help them on, and prevent them realizing the awfulness of their position.
Of course this immense change from Church to synagogue was not at once effected. Yet the church, historically known to us outside of the New Testament, is but in fact essentially the synagogue. The fire of persecution combined with the fidelity of a remnant to prevent for awhile the extreme result, and to separate mere professors from the confessors of Christ. Still, through it all, the leaven of Judaism did its deadly work; and no sooner was the persecution stopped than the world's overtures for peace and alliance were eagerly listened to, and with Constantine, for many, the millennium seemed to have arrived. Could the Church of the apostles have fallen into the world's arms so? Their voice would have rebuked the thought as of Satan, as indeed it was. "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?"
The second step we saw in the rise of a clergy, a special priestly class, replacing the true Christian ministry, the free exercise of the various gifts resulting from the various position of the members in the body of Christ. The clerical assumption displaced the body of Christian people, - now a true laity, - as at least less spiritual and near to God: a place, alas! easily accepted where Christ had lost what the world had gained in value with His own. As Judaism prevailed, and the world came in through the wider-opening door, the distance between the two classes increased, and more and more the clergy became the channels of all blessing to all the rest. Practically, and in the end almost openly, they became the church; and the Church became, from a company of those already saved, a channel for conveying a sacramental and hypothetical salvation.
We now come to look at the issue of all this when circumstances favored. In Pergamos, the change in the Lord's position is noteworthy and characteristic. He presents Himself no longer in the tender and compassionate way which He exhibits toward His suffering ones in Smyrna . It is "These things saith He which hath the sharp sword with two edges." His word is a word of penetrating and decisive judgment. It is with this two-edged sword that He by and by smites the nattions (chap. xix.), so that there can be no question to its meaning. And while it is of course true it is not His own at Pergamos who are smitten with it, yet it is those whom He charges them with having in their midst (v. i6).
The characteristic thing in Pergamos is that they are dwelling where Satan's throne is. "Throne," not merely "seat," is the true word, though our translators, as it would seem, because of the strength the expression, shrank from using it. To what is referred in the actual city, no commentator can tell us. Trench remarks, "Why it should have thus deserved the name of Satan's throne,' so emphatically repeated a second time at the end of this verse - "where Satan dwelleth," must remain one of the unsolved riddles of these epistles." But did the Lord bid him that hath an ear to hear what must remain an unsolved riddle? Assuredly not. It is one of the characteristics of the prophetic view in these epistles, that it delivers one from the necessity of waiting until some archeologist shall be found who can explain such things, and gives us one for our profit both clear and satisfactory, derived from Scripture itself. But not only so. The actual worth of the archeologic rendering would very likely little, if it could be gained. Of what value would it be if we believed with Grotius that is expression had reference to the worship of Aescu1apius, whose symbol was a serpent? Surely very little. Whereas the prophetic view flashes light upon the whole condition.
Satan reigns in hell, according to the popular belief; and Milton 's picture, while it reflects this, has done much to confirm and make it vivid. But hell is a place of punishment, and Scripture is quite plain that he is not confined there. Then he must have broken loose, is the idea. God's prison was not strong enough! One might ask, How do we know, then, it will ever be? Think of the government which allows the chief malefactor to reign in his prison over those less evil than himself, and to break prison, and roam freely where he will! God's government is not chargeable with this. In hell, Satan will be, not king, but lowest and most miserable there; and once committed to it, no escape will be permitted. But this will not be till after the millennium, as Rev. xx. assures us.
But this idea permits people to escape from the thought - an appalling one, no doubt, - that he is still what the Lord designates him - "prince of this world:" "the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in Me."
True, He does speak so, some one may suggest; but does He not also say, when predicting the effect of His cross, "Now shall the prince of this world be cast out"? has he not, then, been cast out of his kingdom? and are we not "translated into the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ"? The latter is true; but as to the former, the Lord only predicts the certain effect of the cross, and the "now" simply declares it to be the effect. Here one startling expression of the apostle Paul, going beyond even that which the Lord uses, is decisive as to the matter; he calls the devil - long after the cross - "the god of this world" (2 Cor. iv. 4).
And indeed the expression is stronger even than this. For the margin of the Revised Version is assuredly right, and it is the word "age," not world," which the apostle uses. "The god of this age" is surely a very solemn title to be given to Satan after the Christian dispensation, as we call it, had already begun. Yet there it stands; and scripture cannot be broken."
Yes, it is over the world, and in these Christian times, that Satan exercises this terrible sway, and this is what makes the expression here, "dwelling here Satan's throne is," so sadly significant.
For "dwelling in the world" is another thing than being in it. We are in the world perforce, and no wise responsible for that, but to be a dweller it is a moral state: it is to be a citizen of it, the condition which the apostle speaks of in Philippians obtaining among professing Christians: "For many walk, of whom I have told you before, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ; whose god is their belly, whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things: for our citizenship is in heaven, from whence we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ."
Their characteristic is that they are enemies, not Christ personally, but of the cross - that cross by which we are crucified to the world and the world us. Their hearts were on earthly things, which, not satisfying them, as earthly things cannot, made their god to be their belly; their inward craving came their master, and made them drudge in its service. The Christian's citizenship is in heaven. That delivers him from the unsatisfying pursuit of earthly things. But little indeed is this understood now. Even where people can talk and sing of the world being a wilderness, you will find that in general the idea is rather of the sorrows and trials of which the world is full, and which Christians are exposed to like the men of the world themselves. "Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward;" and pilgrimage in their minds is a thing perforce. The world passes away, and they cannot keep it; so they are glad to think that heaven is at the end. In the meanwhile, they go on trying (honestly, no doubt, if you can call such a thing honest in a Christian,) to get as much of it as they can, or at least as much as will make them comfortable in it. But a pilgrim is not one whom the world is leaving, but who is leaving it. Otherwise the whole world would be pilgrims, as indeed they talk about the "pilgrimage of life." But this is the abuse of the term, and not its use. We can be pilgrims in this sense, and find all the world companions; and such, in fact, had got to be the idea of pilgrimage in the Pergamos state of the Church. They talked of it, no doubt, and built their houses the more solidly to stand the rough weather. God said they were dwelling where Satan's throne was.
It was the history of old Babel repeating itself. You may find the vivid type of it in Gen. xi., where men "journeyed," indeed, but not as pilgrims, or only as that till they could find some smooth spot to settle down in. They "journeyed," as colonists or immigrants on the look-out for land; from the rough hills beyond the flood, where human life began; "from the east " - with their backs, that is, toward the blessed dawn; "and they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there." Such was, alas! the Church's progress - from the rough heights of martyrdom down to the level plain where there were no difficulties to deter the most timid souls. There the Church multiplied, ~nd there they began to "build a city, and a tower whose top should reach to heaven." But "a city" was not Jerusalem , but Jerusalem 's constant enemy; not the "possession of peace," but a city of "confusion" - Babel . Yet it prospered: they built well. True, they were away from the quarries of the hills, and could not build with the "stone" they had there been used to. They did what they could with the clay which was native in that lower land. "They had bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar." We seen some of this work already. It looks well, and lasts in the fine climate of these regions quite a long time: human material, not divine, - " bricks," man's manufacture, "for stones," God's material. They cannot build great Babylon with the "living stones" of God's producing. Man-made Christians, compacted together, not by the cementing of the Spirit for eternity, but by the human motives and influences whereby the masses are affected, but which the fire of God will one day try. So is great Babylon built.
Now it is remarkable that the word "Pergamos" has a double significance. In the plural form, it is used for the "citadel of a town," while it is at least near akin to purgos, "a tower." Again, divide it into the two words into which it naturally separates, and you have per, "although," a particle which "usually serves to call attention to something which is objected to" (Liddell & Scott), and garnos, "marriage." Pergamos, - " a marriage though." It was indeed by the marriage of the Church and the world that the "city and tower" of Babylon the Great was raised; and such are the times we are now to contemplate.
Before we proceed, however, let us to this double proof unite another, that the threefold cord may not be broken. The parallel between the first addresses to the churches and the first four parables of the kingdom in Matthew xiii. I have referred to before, The first parable gives the partial failure of the good seed, as Ephesus gives the initial failure of the true Church. The second parable gives the direct work of the enemy - the tares sown among the wheat, as the address to Smyrna does the "synagogue of Satan." But the tares and wheat are separate, and the view is, in the first two parables, an individual one; the third parable is entirely different in this respect. One seed stands here for the whole sowing, and what is seen is now the aspect of the whole together. The little mustard-seed produces, strange to say, a tree, in which the birds of the heaven lodge, and the tree is a type of worldly power. Turn to the fourth chapter of Daniel, and you will find in Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon , such a tree. Surely it is significant that in every direction in which we look from here there is a finger-post which points to Babylon ! And here in Pergamos, as in the mustard-tree, it is the Church as a whole which is spoken of. It is established, as men triumphantly say: it is fallen is the lament from heaven.
For this is not the Church's establishment upon its Rock-foundation, where the gates of hades cannot prevail against it, but in the world's favour; and Satan be the prince of this world, what must be the price of this?
As a consequence, we find not only Nicolaitanism fully accepted, but the doctrine of Balaam also. They are still what is called "orthodox." "Thou holdest fast My name, and hast not denied My faith, in in those days wherein Antipas was My faithfull witness, who was slain among you where Satan dwelleth." For these are the Nicene times, the time of the first Christian council called (at Nicea) a Roman emperor, and which maintained the deity of Christ against Arianism. It was a sight, they said, to see at the council the marks of the confession of Christ in those who had endured the late persecutions. The Nicene period was that of two, at least, of the creeds substantially acknowledged by the faith of Christians every where since. But theirs was an orthodoxy which, while maintaining (thank God!) the doctrine of the Trinity, could be and was very far astray as to the application of Christ's blessed work to the salvation of men. Orthodox as to Christ, it was yet most unorthodox as to the gospel.
Where in the Apostles' Creed, so called, do you find the gospel. "The forgiveness of sins" is an article of belief, no doubt, but how and when? In the Nicene creed is acknowledged "one baptism for be remission of sins," but there is entire silence as any other. In the Athanasian, it is owned Christ suffered for our salvation," but how we are to obtain the salvation for which He suffered is again omitted. Practidally, the belief of the times was in be efficacy of baptism, and so painful and uncertain ras the way of forgiveness for sins committed afterward, that multitudes deferred baptism to a dying bed, that the sins of a lifetime might be more easily washed away together.
The Lord goes on to say, "But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them which hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a trap before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication."
Balaam, the destroyer of the people, is a new graft upon Nicolaitanism. A prophet, in outward nearness to the Lord, while his heart went after its own covetousness, - a man having no personal grudge against the people, but whose god was his belly, and so would curse them if his god bade: - one whose doctrine was to seduce Israel from their separateness into guilty mixture with the nations and their idolatry round about. The type is easily read, and the examples of it distressingly numerous. When the Church and the world become on good terms with one another, and the Church has the things of the world with which to attract the natural heart, the hireling prophet is a matter of course, who for his own ends will seek to destroy whatever remains of godly separateness.
It is one step only in the general, persistent departure from God never retraced and never repented of. Solemn to say, however much individuals may be delivered, such decline is never recovered from by the body as such. At every step downward, the progress down is only accelerated. "Have ye offered Me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness? Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which ye made to worship them; and I will carry you away beyond Babylon . There were many reformations afterward, more or less partial, but no fresh start.
So with the Church. Men talk of another Pentecost. There never was another. And the first lasted for how brief a season! "Unto thee, goodness, if thou continue in His goodness; otherwise thou also shalt be cut off."
From Constantine 's day to the present, world and Church have been united in christendom at large; and wherever this is found, there in truth is Babylon , though Rome be the head of Babylon , as indeed she is.
Let us look about us with the lamp the Lord has given us, and see whereabouts we are with regard to these things. How far are we individually keeping the Church and the world separate? How far are we really refusing that yoke with unbelievers which the passage in 2 Cor. vi. so emphatically condemns? Our associations are judged of God as surely as any other part of our practical conduct; and "Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers" is His word. He cannot, He declares, be to us a Father as He would, except we come out and be separate! Solemn, solemn words in the midst of the multiplicity of such confederacies in the present day! Can we bear to be ourselves searched out by them, beloved brethren? Oh, if we value our true place as sons with God, shall we not beonly glad to see things as they are?
Now this "yoke" forbidden has various applications. It applies to any thing in which we voluntarily unite with others to attain a common object. Among social relations, marriage is such a yoke; in business relations, partnerships and such like; and in the foremost rank of all would come ecclesiastical associations.
To take these latter, now: There are certain systems which, as we have already seen, mix up the Church and the world in the most thorough way possible. All forms of ritualism do: - forms wherein a person is made by baptism "a member of Christ and a child of God." Where that is asserted, separation is impossible; for no amount of charity, and no extravagance of theological fiction, can make the mass of these baptized people other than the world. All national churches in the same way mix them up by the very fact that they are national churches. You cannot by the force of will or act of parliament make a nation Christian. You can give them a name to live, while they are dead. You can make them formalists and hypocrites, but nothing more. You can do your best to hide from them their true condition, and leave them under an awful delusion, from which eternity alone may wake them up. That is much to do indeed, and it is all in this way possible.
All systems Jewish in character mix them up of necessity. Where all are probationers together, it is not possible to do otherwise. All systems in which the church is made a means to salvation, instead of the company of the saved, necessarily do so. When people join churches in order to be saved, as is the terrible fashion of the day, these churches become of course the common receptacle of sinners and saints alike. And wherever assurance of salvation is not maintained, the same thing must needs result. Systems such as these naturally acquire, and rapidly, adherents, money, and worldly influence; and among such, the doctrine of Balaam does its deadly work. The world, not even disguised in the garb of Christianity, is sought, for the sake of material support. Men that have not given themselves to the Lord are taught that they can give their money. It is openly proclaimed that God is not sufficient as His people's portion. His cause requires help, and that so much, that He will accept it from the hands of His very enemies. There is an idolatry of means abroad. Money will help the destitute; money will aid to circulate the Scripture; money will send missionaries to foreign parts; money will supply a hundred wants, and get over a host of difficulties. We are going to put it to so good a use, we must not be over-scrupulous as to the mode of getting it. The church has to be maintained, the minister to be paid. They do not like the principles that "the end sanctifies the means" - but still, what are they to do? God is in theory of course sufficient, but they must use the means, and the nineteenth century no longer expects miracles.
But why go over the dreary round of such godless and faithless arguments? Is it a wonder that infidelity bursts out into a triumphant laugh as Christians maintain the impotence of their God, and violate His precepts to save His cause from ruin? Nay, do you not in fact proclaim it ruined - irredeemably, irrecoverably ruined, when His ear is already too dull to hear, and His arm shortened that it cannot save?
Money will build churches, will buy Bibles, will Support ministers, - true. Will it buy a new Pentecost? or bring in the millennium? Will you bribe the blessed Spirit to work for you thus? or make sheer will and animal energy do without Him? Alas! you pray for power, and dishonour Him who is the only source of power!
But what is the result of this solicitation of the world? Can you go to it with the Bibles you have bought with its own money, and tell it the truth as to its own condition? Can you tell them that "the whole world lieth in wickedness "? - that "all that is in the world - the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life - is not of the Father, but is of the world"? Can you maintain the separate place that God has given you, and the sharp edge of the truth that "they that are in the flesh cannot please God"? Of course you cannot. They will turn round upon you and say, "Why, then, do you come to us for our money? You ask us to give, and tell us it will not please Him our giving! It is not reasonable: we do not believe it, and you cannot believe it yourselves!"
No: the world does not believe in giving something for nothing. Whatever the Word of God may say, whatever you may think of it in your heart, you must compromise in some way. You must not maintain the rigid line of separation. Balaam must be your prophet. You must mix with the world, and let it mix with you; how else will you do it good? You must cushion your church-seats, and invite it in. You must make your building and your services attractive: you must not frighten people away, but allure them in. You must be all things to all men; and as you cannot expect to get them up to your standard, you must get down to theirs. Do I speak too strongly? Oh, words can hardly exaggerate the state of things that may be everywhere found, not in some far-off land, but here all around us in the present day. I would not dare to tell you what deeds are done in name of Christ by His professing people. They will hire singers to sing His praises for admiration, and to draw a crowd. They will provide worldly entertainments, and sit down and be entertained company. And as more and more they sink down to the world's level, they persuade themselves the world is rising up to theirs; while God saying, as of His people of old, "Ephraim, he hath mixed himself among the people: Ephraim is cake not turned. Strangers have devoured his strength, and he knoweth it not, - yea, gray hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knoweth it not. And the pride of Israel testifieth to his face; and they do not return to the Lord their God, nor seek Him for all this" (Hos. vii. 8 - 10).
It is a downward course, and being trod at an ever-increasing pace. Competition is aroused, and is who can be the most successful candidate for the world's favours. The example of one emboldens another. Emulation, envy, ambition, and a host of unholy motives are aroused; and Scripture, the honour of Christ, the jealous eyes of a holy, holy God - ah, you are antiquated and pharisaic if you think of these. There is one feature in this melancholy picture I cannot pass by briefly thus. The ministry, or what stands before men's eyes as such, how is it affected by all this? I have already said that scripture does not recognize the thought of a minister and his people. Upon this I do not intend to dwell again. But what, after all, in the present day has got to be the strength of the tie between a church and its ministry? Who that looks around can question that money has here a controlling influence? The seal of the compact is the salary. A rich church with an ample purse, can it not make reasonably sure of attracting the man it wants? The poor church, however rich in piety, is it not conscious of its deficiency? People naturally do not like to own it. They persuade themselves, successfully enough, no doubt, that it is a wider and more promising field of labour that attracts them. But the world notoriously does not believe this; and it has but too good reason for its unbelief. The contract is ordinarily for so much money. If the money is not forthcoming, the contract is dissolved. But more, the money consideration decides in another way the character of man they wish to secure. It is ordinarily a successful man that is wanted, after the fashionable idea of what is success. They want a man who will fill the church, perhaps help to pay off the debt upon it. Very likely the payment of his own salary depends upon this. He will not be likely most to please who is not influenced by suck motives; and thus it will be only God's mercy if Balaam's doctrine does not secure a Balaam to carry it out. But even if a godly man is obtained, he is put under the influence of the strongest personal temptation to soften down the truth, which, if fully preached, may deprive him of not only influence, but perhaps even subsistence.
Will the most godly man be the most popular man? No; for godliness is not what the world seeks. It can appreciate genius, no doubt, and eloquence, and amiability, and benevolence, and utilitarianism; but godliness is something different from union of even all of these. If the world can appreciate godliness, I will own indeed it is no longer the world. But as long as the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life characterize it, it is not of the Father, nor the Father of it. And then, why in that passage does apostle say "the Father"? Is it not because in thinking of the Father's relation to the world, we must needs think of the Son? As he says again in another place, "Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son God.?" And why? Because it is the Son of God the world has crucified and cast out; and that cross, which was the world's judgment of the son of God, is, for faith, God's judgment of the world.
Was Christ popular, beloved friends? Could He, with divine power in His hands and ministering it freely for the manifold need appealing to Him on every side, - could He commend Himself to men, His creatures? No, assuredly. But you think perhaps those peculiarly evil times: they understand Him better now, you think. Take, then, His dear name with you to men's places of business and to their homes today, to the workshop and the counting-houses, and the public places - do you doubt what response you would get?
"In the churches?" Oh, yes, they have agreed to tolerate Him there. The churches have been carefully arranged to please the world. Comfortable, fashionable, the poor packed in convenient corners, eye and ear and intellect provided for: that is a different thing. And then it helps to quiet conscience when it will sometimes stir. But oh, beloved, is there much sign of His presence whose own sign was, "To the poor the gospel is preached"? Enough of this, however; it will be neither pleasure nor profit to pursue it further. But to those with whom the love of Christ is more than a profession, and the honour of Christ a reality to be maintained, I would solemnly put it how they can go on with what systematically tramples His honour underfoot, yea, under the world's foot, - falsifies His gospel, and helps to deceive to their own destruction the souls for whom He died. The doctrine of Balaam is everywhere: its end is judgment upon the world, and judgment too upon the people of God. If ministers cannot be supported, if churches cannot be kept up without this, the honestest, manliest, only Christian course is, let the thing go down! If Christians cannot get on without the world, they will find at least that the world can get on without them. They cannot persuade it that disobedience is such a serious thing when they see the light-hearted, flippant disobedience of which it is so easy to convict the great mass of professors, while it is so utterly impossible to deter them from it. "Money" is the cry; "well, but we want the money." Aye, though Christ's honour is betrayed by it, and infidels sneer, and souls perish. Brethren, the very Pharisees of old were wiser! "We may not put it into the treasury," they whispered, "because it is the price of blood."
It will be a relief to turn to Scripture, and to examine what we have there upon this subject. It is very simple. There was no organized machinery for supporting churches; none for paying ministers; no promise, no contract upon the people's part, as to any sum they were to receive at all. There were necessities, of course, many, to be provided for, and it was understood that there was to be provision. The saints themselves had to meet all. They had not taken up with a cheap religion. Having often to lay down their lives for it, they did not think much of their goods. The principle was this: "Every man as he is disposed in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity; for God loveth a cheerful giver." It was to be to God, and before God. There was to be no blazoning it out to brethren, still less before the world. He that gave was not to let his left thand know what his right hand was doing.
It is true there were solemn motives to enforce it. On the one side, "he that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly, and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully;" but on the other side, most powerful, most influential of all, was this "Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, though He was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, that ye through His poverty might become rich."
Such was the principle, such was to be the motive. There was no compulsory method of extraction if this failed. If there was not heart to give, it was no use to extract. So as to the labourer in the Word, - it was very clearly announced, and that as what God had ordained, that "they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel," and that "the labourer is worthy of his hire." But although here also God used the willing hands of His people, it was not understood that they "hired" him, or that he was their labourer. What they gave, it was to God they gave it, and his privilege was to be Christ's servant. His responsibility was to the Lord, and theirs also. They did not understand that they were to get so much work for so much money. They did not pay, but "offered." There is a wonderful difference; for you cannot "pay" God, and you do not "offer" (in this sense of offering,) to man. The moment you pay, God is out of the question. Do you think this is perhaps a little unfair on both sides? that it is right that there should be something more of an equivalent for the labour he bestows, - for the money you give? That is good law, bad gospel. What better than simony is it to suppose after this fashion - " that the gift of God can be purchased with money"? Would you rather make your own bargain than trust Christ's grace to minister to your need? or is it hard for him that he who ministers the Word should show his practical trust in the Word by looking to the Lord for his support? Ah, to whom could he look so well? and how much better off would he be for losing the sweet experience of His care?
No; it is all unbelief in divine power and love, and machinery brought in to make up for the want of it. And yet if there is not this, what profit is there of keeping up the empty profession of it? If God can fail, let the whole thing go together; if He cannot, then your skillful contrivances are only the exhibition of rank unbelief. And what do you accomplish by it? You bring in the Canaanite (the merchantman) into the house of the Lord. You offer a premium to the trader in divine things, - the man who most values your money and least cares for your souls. You cannot but be aware how naturally those two extremes associate together, and you cannot but own that if you took the Lord's plan, and left His labourers to to Him for their support, you would do more weed out such traffickers than by all your careful labour otherwise. Stop the hire, and you will banish the hirelings, and the blessed ministry of brist will be freed from an incubus and a reproach which your contracts and bargainings are largely responsible for. And if Christ's servants cannot after all trust tim, let them seek out some honest occupation where they may gain their bread without scandal. The fifteenth century before Christ, God brought a whole nation out of Egypt , and maintained them forty years in the wilderness. Did He? or did He not? Is He as competent as ever? Alas! you dare to say those were the days of His and these of His decrepitude?
So serious are these questions. But the unbelief that exists now existed then. Do you remember what the people did when they had lost Moses on mount awhile and lacked a leader? They made God of the gold which they had brought out of Egypt took them, and fell down and worshipped the work of own hands. History repeats itself. Who can deny that we have been looking on the counterpart of that?
Is there any measure, it may be well to ask here, of the Christian's giving, for one who would be right with God about it?
The notion of the tithe or tenth has been revived, or with some two tithes, as that which was the measure of an Israelite's giving. Jacob has been propounded to us as an example, as he stood before God in the morning after that wonderful night at Bethel , when God had engaged to be with him and be his God, and to multiply his seed, and bring him again into the land from which he was departing. "If God will be with me," he says, "and will keep me in the way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father's house in peace; then the Lord shall be my God; and this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house, and of all that Thou shalt give me, I will surely give the tenth unto Thee."
God's ways are so little like our ways, His thoughts so little like our thoughts, it is not very wonderful man does not understand them. But surely Jacob does not here enter into the blessedness of God's thoughts.
I need not dwell now upon his case, but only notice it to say that for a Christian at least the whole principle is a mistake. You are not to ransom nine-tenths from God by giving one. You are bought with a price - you and yours. In a double way, by creation and redemption too, you belong, with all you have, to God. Many people are acting upon the perfectly wrong idea that whether as to time, money, or whatever else, God is to have His share, and the rest is their own. They misunderstand the legal types, and do not realize the immense difference that accomplished redemption has brought in with it.
Before "Ye are bought with a price" could yet be said, it was impossible to deduce the consequences that result from this. Grace goes beyond law, which made nothing, and could make nothing, perfect. The very essence of the surrender of the life to God is that it must be a voluntary one. Like the vow of the Nazarite, which was a vow of separation to the Lord, and which reads, "When one will vow the vow of a Nazarite," that surrender must be of the heart, or it is none. Nor is it a contradiction to this that there were born Nazarites - Nazarites from the womb, as Samson and the Baptist. We are all born (new-born) to Nazariteship, which is implied and necessitated (in a true ense) by the life which we receive from God. But the necessity is not one externally impressed upon - it is an internal one "A new heart will I give you," says the Lord; but the new heart given is a heart which chooses freely the service of its Master. A legal requirement of the whole then would have been unavailing, and a mere bondage "Not grudgingly, or of necessity," is, as we have seen, Scripture rule. But that does not at all mean that people characterize as "cheap religion" It does not mean that God will accept the "mites" of a niggard as the Lord did those of the woman in the Gospels. Christ does not say now, Give as much or as little as you please: it is all one. No: He expects intelligent, free surrender of all to as on the part of one who recognizes that all is really His.
If you will look at the sixteenth chapter of Luke, you will find the Lord announcing very distinctly us principle. The unjust steward is our picture here,- the picture of those who are (as we all are as to the old creation) under sentence of dismissal from the place they were originally put in, on account of unrighteous dealing in it. Grace has not recalled the sentence, "Thou mayest be no longer steward." It has given us far more, but it has not reinstalled us in the place we have thus lost. Death, in fact, is our removal from our stewardship, although it be the entrance, for us as Christians, into something which must be confessed "far better."
But grace has delayed the execution of the sentence, and meanwhile our Master's goods are in our hand. All that we have here are His things, and not ours. And now God looks for us to be faithful in what is, alas! to men as such (creature of God as indeed it is,) "the mammon of unrighteousness," - the miserable deity of unrighteous man. Moreover, grace counts this faithfulness to us. We are permitted to "make friends of this mammon of unrighteousness" by our godly use of it, whereas it is naturally, through our fault, our enemy and our accuser. It must not be imagined that the "unjust steward" is to be our character literally all through. The Lord shows us that this is not so when He speaks of "faithfulness" being looked for. No doubt the unjust steward in the parable acts unjustly with his master's goods, and it must not be imagined that God commends him, it is "his lord "that does so, - man as man admiring the shrewdness which he displayed. Yet only so could be imaged that conduct which in us is not injustice but faithfulness to our Master, - grace entitling us to use what we have received, for our own true and eternal interests, which in this case are one with His own due and glory. But then there are things also which we may speak of as "our own." What are these? Ah, they are what the Lord speaks of as, after all, "the true riches." "If ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is Another's, [not another man's,' but of course God's,] who will give you that which is your own?
Thus our own things are distinct altogether; and I must not tell Christians what they are. I need only remind you that if you have in your thoughts as men down here, a quantity of things, your own possessions, to be liberal with or to hoard up, - in both cases you misapprehend the matter. You have as to things here your Master's goods, which if you hoard up here, you surely lose hereafter, and turn into accusers. On the other hand, you are graciously permitted to transfer them really to your own account, by laying them up amid your treasure, where your treasure is - "in heaven."
The rich man in the solemn illustration at the end of the chapter was one who had made his Lord's "good things " his own after another fashion, and in eternity they were not friends, but enemies and accusers. "Son," says Abraham to him, "remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things." That was all, but what a solemn memory it was! How once again the purple and fine linen and sumptuous fare met the eyes they had once gratified and now appalled! Lazarus had been at his gate, but it was not Lazarus that accused. And oh, beware of having things your own down here! There was a man who had "his good things" here, and in eternity what were they to him?
I know this is not the gospel. No, but it is what, as the principle of God's holy government, the gospel should prepare us to understand and to enter into. Have you observed that the most beautiful and affecting story of gospel grace, the story of the lost son received, is what precedes the story of the unjust steward? The Pharisees who in the fifteenth chapter stand for the picture of the elder son are here rebuked in the person of the rich man. Will not the prodigal received back to a Father's arms be the very one who will understand that he owes his all to a Father's love? Is not "Ye are bought with a price" the gospel? But then "ye are bought. ye are not your own."
Put it in another way. You remember that when God would bring His people out of Egypt , Pharaoh wanted to compromise, - of course by that compromise to keep the people as his slaves. Three separate offers he makes to Moses, each of which would have prevented salvation being, according to God's thought of it, salvation at all. The first compromise was, "Worship in the land."
"And Pharaoh called for Moses and for Aaron, and said, Go ye, sacrifice to your God in the land."
And still the world asks, "Why need you go outside it? You are entitled to your opinions, but why be so extreme? Why three days' journey into the wilderness? Why separate from what you were brought up in, and from people as good as you?" Ah, they do not know what that three days' journey implies, and that the death and resurrection of Christ place you where you are no more of the world than He is! Egypt , - luxurious, civilized, self-satisfied, idolatrous Egypt , - and the wilderness! what a contrast! Yet only in the wilderness can you sacrifice to God.
Then he tries another stratagem : - "And he said unto them, Go, serve the Lord your God; but who are they that shall go?' "And Moses said, We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds we will go; for we must hold a feast unto the Lord."
"And he said unto them, Let the Lord be so with you, as I will let you go and your little ones: 1ook to it, for evil is before you. Not so: go now ye that are men, and serve the Lord; for that ye did desire."
By their little ones he had them safe, of course, - a perfectly good security that they would not go far away. And so it is still. How many are brought back into the world by the children they not bring with them out of the world!
One last hope remains for Pharaoh "And Pharaoh called unto Moses, and said, Go serve the Lord; only let your flocks and your herds be stayed: let your little ones also go with you"
"Leave your possessions," he says; and how many leave their possessions! Themselves are saved: but their business, their occupation, these are still not sacred things, they are secular; what have these things to do with the salvation of the soul? But God says, No: bring them all out of Egypt : yourselves, your families, your property, - all are kept to be Mine.
And in point of fact, His it must be if we would ourselves keep it, for we cannot keep it of ourselves. The man out of whom the devil went is our Lord's Own illustration of the fact that an empty house will never lack a tenant. The sweeping and gardishing and all that, will not keep out the devil, but perhaps only make him more earnest after occupation. Nothing will save from it but the positive possession of it by another, who will not and need not give it up. So we must bring Christ into every thing, or by that in which He is not we shall find we have but made room for another, - Christ's opposite. The parable has application in many ways and in many degrees to those who are Christ's people, as well as to those who are not. Our really idle hours are not idle. Our useless occupations have a use, if not for Christ, then against Him. Our so-called recreations may be but the frittering away of energy, as well as time, and not only distraction, but the seed of worse distraction.
We are in a world where on every side we are exposed to influences of the most subtle character; where corruption and decay are natural; and where all thus is not permeated by divine life, it becomes the necessary and speedy subject of decay and death. To a beleaguered garrison, a holiday may be fatal. We cannot ever here ungird our loins or unbuckle our armor. It is not enough to withstand in the evil day; but having done all, still you must stand. So if you leave Christ at the door of the counting-house, you will have to contend alone with (or give place to) the devil within the counting-house.
Does this startle you? does it seem to require too much? It requires that you should be with Christ in constant companionship, at all times and on all occasions. Is that narrow, - a rigid, an uncomfortable view of matters? Does it distress you to think of giving Him such a place as that? There are those who believe that he is the picture of a converted man, who complains he never got a kid to make merry with his friends. Do you realize that? Do you sympathize with such a view? Have you friends that you would like to run away to for a while out of Christ's scrutiny or company? Beloved, when you think of heaven, is it of a long monotony of being "ever with the Lord"? You startle at that suggestion; and no wonder. But if you will find eternal joy then, and now can think of it as that, to be ever with Him there, is it less happy to think of being always with Him here?
At any rate, you cannot alter the reality by all your thoughts about it. None of our thoughts can change the nature of things. You cannot find in all this world a clean corner in which you can be apart from Christ and yet apart from evil. And if you could, the very idea of being so would of itself pollute it with evil. No; Christ must be a constant Saviour as to every detail of our walk and ways. Communion with Him is the only alternative of communion with evil. The wisdom that has not Him in it, will be "earthly, sensual, devilish;" if it come not from above, come it will from below.
Thus you see how important it is to be right here. It is not a mere question of points of detail; it is a question of truth of heart to Him, which affects every detail, - the whole character and complexion of our lives indeed. So you must not wonder at a question of cattle being concerned with a deeper question of "salvation" itself; looking at salvation as not merely being from wrath and condemnation, but of salvation from the sin also which brings in these. God gives it us thus in the typical picture here, and it is not a blot or deformity in the picture, but rather an essential part. Be persuaded of it, beloved friends, that only thus can we find, in the full power of it, what salvation is.
We have been looking at this from the side of responsibility. Surely it is good to look at it also from the side of salvation. Until you are clean delivered in these three respects, you cannot be happily with God, nor even safe. Of course I am not talking about reaching heaven; you may be safe in that respect. But whatever you have that is not Christ's, that is the world's still, and it will drag you back into the world. You are keeping it back from Him; you have a divided interest; how can this but affect all your intercourse, all your happiness (or what you ought to have) with Him? Can you go to your business and shut the door upon Him and He not feel it, and you not feel it? Can you say to Him, "Lord, Sunday is Yours and Monday is mine," or "Lord, there is Your tenth, and these nine are mine," and feel perfectly satisfied that all is right with Him?
And practically, it gets to be much less. He gets a part of our superfluity, and that is all. We must dress like our neighbours, live up to our rank of life, put a little by for a "rainy day," and something for our children. "We must be just before we are generous," we think. And then, with some reserve for recreation, and some for miscellaneous trifles, all the rest shall be the Lord's. It may be but a "mite," but did not He accept a mite? So the very narrowness of our dole to the Lord who has saved us links us with her who had His special commendation.
Better keep it all back than give it in that fashion. For the amount given just hinders from realizing where we are. We give it ungrudgingly, perhaps: we think it has the Lord's approval therefore. We do not think how much it is that we can give ungrudgingly.
Ungrudgingly it must be. Love it must be. Though I give all my goods to feed the poor, except it be love that does it, it will be utterly contemned. But if our love is measured by what we give to Him, how serious is the question raised!
In this great world of sorrow and of evil, Christ has interests dear to His heart, - how dear, no one of us has perhaps a notion of. Souls lie in darkness to whom His Word would give light, and in bondage to whom it would bring deliverance. He says to us, "I count upon My people to do this." How can we answer to Him for this confidence He has placed in us? Shall we say, "Lord, I have had to keep up with my neighbours, to provide for the future, to do a great many things, which I thought of more importance"? or shall we say, "Lord, Thou art so great, so high, so powerful, Thou surely canst not want my help in a matter like this!" or, again, "Lord, Thou art so gracious, I am sure Thou wilt accept anything I may bring: I would not suppose Thee a hard Master, to want me to bring Thee much"? Alas, what shall we say? Shall we not rather own with broken hearts how little we have valued Him?
The "doctrine of Balaam" thrives upon the restlessness of God's own people. Do not let us imagine, because we denounce the mercenary character of what is current all around, that we can have no share in upholding what we denounce. It is far otherwise. If we have given cause, are giving cause, to those who sneer at the advocates of "cheap religion," we are giving it the most effectual possible support. In words, you denounce; in deeds, you justify. You tell them that it is vain to trust to the power of Christ's love in Christians, - that your own barn is practically dearer to you than all God's house; and they can point to you triumphantly as proof of the necessity of all that they contend for.
Beloved, I have done. I have spoken out my heart, and I must pray you bear with me. Who that looks around with a heart for Christ upon all the abominations practiced in His name but must be led to ask, Did not all this evil spring out of the failure of His own people - of those who at heart loved Him? And further, how far are we perhaps now unsuspectingly helping on the very evils we deplore? Do we not pray for Him to search out our hearts? and shall we shrink from having them searched out? If the search detects nothing, we need not fear it: if it shows us unanticipated evil, it is well to realize that the truthful judgment of the evil is ever the truest blessing for our souls. It will cost us something, no doubt, to walk in what is ever a narrow way. A race, a warfare, call for energy and self-denial. But ah, beloved, it will cost us more, much more, to have Christ walk as a stranger to us because our paths and His do not agree. How few, when they speak of cost, put this into their balance-sheet! Yet, if I wash thee not, He says, thou hast no part with Me. Are there not many trying to keep up appearances, when that is the inward trouble of their souls?
But the door is open, beloved, to came back. He has never shut it. The one thing so greatly lacking now is whole- hearted integrity; so few without some secret corner in their hearts that they would not like to have searched out by Him. That corner must be searched out, for He must be a Saviour after His own fashion; and if we would not have it, we can have little apprehended the fullness and reality of His salvation. Not alone does He save from wrath: He saves from sin. It is in subjection to His yoke that we find rest. From our own will and ways and thoughts, in His blessed will, His thoughts, His love. God grant it to us for His name's sake, even now.
Pergamos: The Promise to the Overcomer
(Rev. ii:12- 17.)
The promise to the overcomer in Pergamos claims our deepest attention. As always in these epistles, it emphasizes the condition of those to whom it is addressed; and we have seen that this is not merely a past condition, but a stage in the development of what is all around us today; so that the exhortations and warnings suited to it have for us no less force than ever. In fact they should have more, as we stand face to face with that development, - as the fruit, ripe and multiplied, is before our eyes. But the promise to the overcomer, while reminding us of the departure and decay already so far gone, is not shrouded with the gloom of this. On the contrary, it is bright with hope, and full of the joy which for the Christian can spring out of whatever sorrow. It breathes the spirit of what the apostle speaks of as our portion ever, "not the spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind." It is Christ's word of encouragement for those who in the strife of the battle-field look to the Captain of their salvation; and it carries us beyond the scene of strife to the inheritance already sure to us, although through trial and suffering is the path by which it is ordained to reach it.
The promise has two parts, which are in beautiful relation to one another. The manna, as is evident, speaks of Christ Himself, and of our apprehension of Him, the white stone is a sign, on the other hand, of His appreciation of us. How blessed is the interchange of affection thus expressed! How touching the appeal to it where the heart of His beloved is so manifestly wandering away from Him! The manna is wilderness food: it fell only there, in Egypt it was not yet known; arrived within the borders of the land, it ceased. It was divine provision for those to whom God was an absolute necessity, whom He had brought into a place where was no natural provision, where they were wholly cast upon Him. It was this necessity which was their claim upon the tender compassion of their great Deliverer. He had, indeed, made Himself responsible to answer to it, and all their varied need was thus to draw out new witness of divine resources, - riches of glory - power and love alike.
The wilderness does not speak of any natural condition. Egypt is the natural condition, and Egypt is a very fruitful land. There were many drawbacks there, no doubt, which would in general be freely acknowledged. Plagues smote there as elsewhere, and an oppressive tyranny brooded over it: but the one, they might hope individually to escape; the other, they bore in company with a multitude. But the productiveness of the soil no one could question: "We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic: and now our soul is dried away, there is nothing at all but this manna before our eyes."
The promise of the manna is, then, for the wilderness, but it is the overcomer in Pergamos who alone knows the need of the wilderness. Those who have settled down in the world proclaim by the fact how little they find the world such; and this character of the overcomer confirms our view of the state spiritually of Pergamos itself. Here it was no longer the state of individuals merely, but of the mass; and not even a secret state, but avowed openly in deed if not in word. Thus, then, the Lord speaks to him who, true to his calling, finds in Himself his one necessity and satisfaction. "Bread shall be given him, his water shall be sure." Yea, "meat which endureth unto everlasting life," and water which shall "be in him a spring of water, springing up to everlasting life."
And this may remind us that the manna, of which the Lord speaks in the promise here, although it be the manna of the wilderness, is not, nevertheless, what was partaken of in the wilderness. The "hidden manna" was that put by command of God into the ark, and carried into the land, that aftergenerations might see the bread wherewith He had fed them in the wilderness." In this case it was, of course, not eaten; but the Lord promises to the overcomer here that he shall eat it; clearly in the blessed place which for us has in the highest degree the character attributed to the land of Canaan, - a place "where the eyes of the Lord are continually:" the wilderness food is still to be enjoyed when the wilderness is passed forever. The hidden manna was the memorial sample of what had fallen long before: it is typically the abiding remembrance of what we once tasted, - the fresh taste in eternity of Christ as enjoyed by faith down here.
We may thus see (and it is good to see,) how closely connected the life to come is with the present. Do we not miss much by separating them as widely as we sometimes do? and by supposing that, apart from all experiences and attainments here, all elements of blessing will be found in equal degree in the cup of eternal joy, when our lips are once at its brim? by imagining that if "when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away," then all present effects of lack of communion, or of that knowledge which results in and implies communion, will be necessarily passed also; not allowed to abate in any wise the eternal portion? Is this what the words of the apostle indeed assure us of?
For each one of us, no doubt, the state will be perfect, the partial condition will be done away. That is surely so. When the bud is ripened into the flower, the perfect condition is reached; it is a bud no longer. Does it follow from this at all that the flower is in no wise dependent upon that bud which is passed away? We know it is dependent. So when it is no longer a condition of faith, but of sight, - no longer seeing through a glass, darkly, but face to face, the present knowing not the knowledge itself, but the manner of it - will have passed. We "shall know," not as afar off any longer, but in the presence of the things known. That is, "as we are known," as He to whom all things are present knows us. It does not speak of the measure of knowledge, but of the manner of it; for who could suppose the measure of it to be God's omniscience? And it is of the manner of it, face..to..face knowledge - the apostle speaks.
Rather will the limits of our knowledge there be defined, and we shall be conscious of them, - spared - thus the strain of searching into the unsearchable, and delivered from the temptation of aspiring to what is beyond our sphere. There will be, of course, complete satisfaction with the limits whatever they may be. But this, then, removes the thought of any necessary equality of knowledge among the redeemed themselves. The "new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it" is a proof of this in the words before us. And the hidden manna is another proof. For the partaking of that which fell in the wilderness is only possible as a recalling of experience once known. It is not a fresh experience, but a past experience enjoyed afresh. Christ is no more there the humbled One of which the manna speaks; and the hidden manna was carried into Canaan , not belonged there. It was strictly a memorial of the past, and as this, has its significance. The experience which we gain here is gained forever; the joy is not for a moment, the meat endures unto eternal life: the fruit of the Sorrow we pass through is not reaped all amid the sorrow, but reaped above all, there where the harvest is an abiding one. Blessed be God, it is so.
Some imagine a common height of blessing to which grace lifts in result all partakers of it, which leaves no practical issue for eternity of whatever is difference in the life and ways on earth. Others would cut off, as contrary to the grace which remembers our sins and iniquities no more, the very memory of them within us, as if it would spoil the eternal blessedness. Others, again, - and this is a most common mistake, - would confound the fruits of grace, which we enjoy in common, with the rewards of grace, which have respect to responsibilities fulfilled. All these are alike errors, and lead to practical consequences which are of grave importance.
Sonship, heirship, membership in the body of Christ, are alike pure gifts of divine grace, and in no wise of work. They are ours once for all, and never withdrawn from us. How blessed to realize that these are, after all, our very chiefest blessings, which we have in common! How much less, comparatively, must the reward of our work be, and the reward of Christ's work, which they all are! How precious to know that every child of the Father's love shall be clasped to the Father's heart alike, - that there shall be no more distance for one than for another! Yet it is not every one who is clear as to salvation who is clear as to this, But were it otherwise, who could, without presumption, anticipate any nearness at all? But the many mansions of the Father's house have room for all, and the Father's heart has surely no less room. "What manner of love hath He" indeed "bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God!" But it is His love, and let us enjoy it to the full without a remnant of fear. Let not one shadow of legality darken the joy of it. And this love shall be justified in its fullest expression also, for "we shall be" - one as much as another, - "like Christ, for we shall see Him as He is."
It is not, perhaps, wonderful that as we contemplate such blessings as these we should be tempted to think that there surely cannot be left room for any difference whatever. To be like Christ! - all altogether like Him! Think of it, ye His beloved, the fruit of His work, the purchase of His precious blood! Who could imagine, indeed, that the fruit of our work could make any difference here! For whom could it be but in the most absolute wonderful love, with power to accomplish its desires in us? Shall any thing hinder that accomplishment, then? No, nothing! What is stronger than what manifested itself in the cross? What can rob it of its glorious reward?
Yet unspeakably great as all this is, still he that has an ear to receive the Scripture testimony will surely find that, beside the common blessing which every one of Christ's own shall get, there are distinctive and individual blessings, which are not, therefore, the same for all. "To reward every one according as his work shall be." - " Rule thou over ten . . . rule thou over five cities." - " Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown." These passages, and such as these, are unmistakably clear also. Nor can it be urged that it is only in temporary not in eternal awards that such distinctions can have place. The hidden manna and the white stone are not of this character, and they both speak of what is the result of the earthly walk.
And again, it is in no wise true that the very sins of which God says, "I will remember them no more" shall not come up before the judgment-seat of Christ. They surely shall. "God," says the Preacher, "shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil." "We must all be manifested before the judgment-seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body, whether it be good or whether it be evil." Are these things contradictory? They are equally parts of God's perfect and eternal Word. Nor is there the slightest difficulty even as to their reconciliation, if we may speak of reconciliation as needful. God will indeed remember our sins no more; but does any one imagine that His memory will fail in the least as to one of them? Against us He will not remember them. No displeasure on their account shall ever darken His glorious face. Never will He upbraid us with them. It is we who shall "give account of ourselves to Him." Shall it be only of whatever good, little or much as it may be? Shall we present ourselves as sinless ones, who have had no need of redeeming blood? Standing in the glory and perfection of Christ's likeness as we then shall be, our memories shall be fully alive with all the past, so as to give a faithful record of it before the throne of truth. All mists, all uncertainties, all errors, will be gone forever. How blessed to be clear of them! Then how bright will God's grace appear! how perfect His wisdom! Not, surely, with reference to an angel's course, but to that of a fallen, erring, yet redeemed man. And the memories of our sins, would we be then without them, when without them the whole world would be an impenetrable darkness still, and the very song of redemption could not itself be sung!
And it is declared of some who build upon God's foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, the day shall declare it, for it shall be revealed with fire, and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he has built thereon, he shall receive a reward; if any man's work be burned up, he shall suffer loss; yet he himself shall be saved, yet so as through the fire. No matter of what class of believers this speaks, the principle announced is - reward to some, to others loss, while yet both alike are saved ones. Thus the promise of the hidden manna appeals solemnly, while most encouragingly, to us. Our life is not cut off by so broad a division the eternal one as some would have it; while there is a division as plain as it is serious. The days of human responsibility end with the life here. It is for the things done in the body that they are judged or rewarded, and for these only. Thus these days exercise an irreversible influence over the life to come: the hidden manna and the white stone are eternal recompenses of the present time.
In another sense, as to the hidden manna, it is but that "the meat" that faith lives on now is but the "meat that endureth to everlasting life." So that the spiritual experiences of the present pass on as memories into the eternal joy beyond. But as memories with none of the dullness which attaches to such things now; for then is the day of manifestation and of recompense, and the memory then will far outdo the experience now.
We pass through trial and adversity, through a world in truth a wilderness, a place of utter dependence, in which faith feels, amid the darkness, for the strength of the everlasting arms. And here we learn, as no where else could we learn, the grace that is come down to us. We are like those that go down to the sea in ships, and that have their business in the deep waters, - men that see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep. "A brother is born for adversity," and in adversity we learn the touch of a brother's hand; yea, "there is a Friend that sticketh closer than a brother," and how blessed to realize in Him who sticks so close the very Lord of glory Himself! Not a kindly and gracious Protector merely, from His own sphere of unchanging blessedness, but One hand in hand, travelling the same road, ministering of His own cup of consolation, displaying sympathies which have been developed in the self-same path, but of sorrows voluntarily endured that He might so minister to us.
Precious humiliation, upon which the heavens once looked down in wonder! but of which none can know in truth the deepest meaning, save those who have drunk of the cup of the pilgrim, and in actual poverty been enriched by a greater poverty of Him for our sakes come into it. It is this which makes the hidden manna so impossible to be tasted except by one who has tasted the manna in that wilderness where alone it fell. After-generations in Israel might indeed see the food wherewith the Lord fed them in the wilderness, but that was all. He who had been in the wilderness alone could say of it, "I know its taste." When the people were despising it as light food, in touching appeal to us the Lord through the historian describes its taste. We can little indeed describe a taste; only at all by comparing it to some other familiar one, and so here: "its taste was as the taste of fresh oil," - the ministry of the Holy Ghost; but in another place, "it was like wafers made with honey:" that speaks of Him whom the Holy Ghost declares to us.
The land promised to Israel was described in its riches as a "land flowing with milk and honey." It is the figure of natural sweetness; very sweet, but not to be partaken of too freely, nor allowed to be put into that which was offered to God. But the manna was not honey, and though having the sweetness of it, could be fed upon continually. All the sweetness of human affection and intimacy is found in the "Son of Man," but with no element of corruptibility in it. Honey easily ferments and sours, but in this sweet intimacy there is absolute stability: it is a love which can be relied on at all times, where the human has become one with the divine, - the divine makes itself realized in what we can apprehend and enter into as most truly human.
This is the taste; but to know it, you must taste it. No description will convey it rightly to you; and to know the grace of Christ's humiliation, you must have been in the wilderness, and there learned to say, "All my fresh springs are in Thee." If "a brother is born for adversity," it is only adversity that can rightly make you know that "brother." In the land, amid all its glories, the manna was "the hidden manna." In the wilderness it was not hidden; and to those who had gone the journey through the wilderness, the manna, even in the land, was not really hidden. In the glory of heaven we shall know in the Man, Christ Jesus, some steps (and surely wonderful ones) of His surpassing condescension; nay, a "Lamb, as it had been slain," it will call forth the unceasing homage of all there; but the manna gives the personal application of this grace to a need which in heaven will no longer exist: it must be enjoyed there as knowledge gained in quite other circumstances. And here the wilderness will at last yield its harvests to us, the desert left behind will blossom as the rose.
For how will those spiritual experiences so full of joy to us here bloom in the sunlight of eternity into glorious recollections, when all that hinders shall be forever removed; when the divine ways. shall be seen in all their holiness, all their wisdom, all their grace! Our senses are here at the best so dull, the power of the Spirit so little known, Christ is after all so little in His transcendent beauty enjoyed! Then, face to face with His glory, seeing Him as He is, and able to measure somewhat truly the depths of His descent from the heights before us, how will the King in His beauty, our blest Lord and Saviour, be revealed!
But it is time to turn round upon ourselves, is it not? and to ask of ourselves, How much material for this joy hereafter are we gathering here? And this suggests another question: How much need have we of Christ day by day? how much hunger and thirst have we after Him? These are very strong terms, as they are evidently also the terms of Scripture. All the labour of man is for the mouth. Hunger and thirst are controlling things. Yet says the Lord, "Labour not for the meat that perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life." Do we indeed by comparison not labour for the one as we labour for the other? and which one is it - in calm, sober, reality - that we labour for?
We have life, perhaps, - eternal life, - salvation. Blessed to have these. With the rest thus gained, have we started for the goal outside the world? or are we practically living much as others in it, - the days filled up with a routine of things imposed by the various masters (customs, men's thoughts of us, the claims of society, and what not) which rule there? It is one thing or other; outside the world, and in opposition to it, or in it, and floating with its stream.
In this last case, there will either be no felt need, or none that Christ can be counted on to meet. Much may be pleaded as to duties, which are merely artificial, and untruly covered with so fair a name. But whatever may be the plea, the daily need and ministry of Christ is a thing unknown. Great needs may demand Him, but life is not made up of these.
Briefly to consider now, however, the second part of the promise - the "white stone": - The two parts of the promise are inseparably connected with one another. The appreciation of Christ by the soul is the necessary basis of His answering approbation. The white stone speaks, as has been said, of this approbation. It was the token of approval, dropped by voters into the urn of old, with the name of the candidate approved upon it. But the name here is a new name, known only by Him who gives and by him who receives it. The name, in Scripture, is always significant and descriptive of the one who bears it. To know God's name is just to know what He is, to know His character; and the new name here speaks of the character for Christ of him upon whom it is conferred, some character which He approves. It is a peculiar link between the Lord and the one approved, a peculiar something that we are for Him. It implies some trial, as the former part of the promise, and speaks of His estimate of how it has been endured, - of something especially noted as pleasing to Himself. It is not publicly noted or rewarded, however. Such rewards, of course, there are; but this is another and a deeper thing. Still more than the hidden manna is it an individual joy, not shared by the general company of the redeemed, - the one secret link, as it would seem, between the Lord and the individual saint. Is it worth seeking, this approbation of His? Is any thing else in comparison? Is it not marvellous that we can barter the priceless eternal joys for things which perish in the using, even if they did not also entail upon the soul a feebleness from which oftentimes there is here no recovery. We pity the inebriate, possessed by his passion for what rivets upon the ever-increasing load which will at last destroy him; but oh what sorrow should we have for the Nazarites of God, endowed with the limitless possession of the Spirit of God, to know the things that are freely given to us of God, yet drunk with the spirit of the world, His enemy, and squandering the precious gifts of God for the husks of the swineherd! We have no words that are worthy or of power to rebuke it; but let us hear the apostle : - "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Wherefore, whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God."
"Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. . . . For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever." "Wherefore awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and CHRIST shall give thee light."
"For ye are all the children of the light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night, and they that are drunken are drunken in the night; but let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not appointed us unto wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him."
Yes, and that life is now begun with us; the eternal life has for us begun. May the words ring in our ears at least until they lay hold completely of our hearts and lives: "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he who receiveth it." "Overcometh"- not in the world merely, but now in the church; not in circumstances in which he is not, but in the precise circumstances in which he is; - "overcometh:" do you, do I, know well, and from quite familiar experience, what it is to overcome?
Thyatira: The Reign of the World-Church
(Rev. ii. 18 - 29.)
Our course has been hitherto continually downward. The church to which we have now come forms no exception to this rule, and in a certain sense it is the end of the course that we reach in it. In Thyatira, our eyes are no more toward the past, but toward the future - the coming of the Lord: there is no more the call to repentance and doing the first works; the word is now, "I gave her space to repent, and she did not repent." The opportunity of repentance is therefore over: henceforth there can only be judgment - judgment which has accumulated terribly during the long delay: "I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of her works; and I will kill her children with death."
But on this account we find a remnant in Thyatira distinguished from that upon which judgment is to fall; a remnant guilty indeed for their toleration of what the Lord has devoted to destruction, but which He cannot for a moment confound, nevertheless, with it. This remnant is exhorted to hold fast until He comes. "And to him that overcometh, and keepeth My works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations, and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to pieces, even as I received of My Father; and I will give him the morning star."
We have reached, then, in this line, the final development, as I have said. Thyatira goes on, substantially, unchanged until the coming of the Lord.
What, then, is the character of Thyatira? It is characterized by the suffering of one who calls herself a prophetess, - that is, claims for herself divine inspiration, - and who by her name, Jezebel, carries us back to the idolatry of the worst days of IsraeL and the bitter persecution of the saints and servants of God by her who, stranger as she was, exercised royal authority in the midst of the professed people of the Lord. "And she teacheth and seduceth My servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols."
We have already compared the opening parables of the thirteenth of Matthew with the first three of these addresses to the Asiatic churches, and we cannot but be here most powerfully impressed with the appearance of the "woman" alike in the fourth parable of this series and the fourth address to which we have come. It is a new figure in each case. When we come to examine it, we are made to realize without any doubt that the two women are in fact but one. And that in spite of various and discordant interpretations which have been given to these passages. Let us look, then, first at the parable, and then compare it with our Revelation chapter. They are both the words of our Lord Himself.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened."
The common interpretation of this we are all familiar with. It is applied to the universal spread and final triumph of the gospel, which, diffusive as leaven in its nature, is thus to make its way among the nations of the earth, and subject them to its beneficent influence. And at first sight there is much plausibility in this view. It may be urged for it that if the kingdom of heaven be like unto leaven, this settles the juestion of the leaven itself as to be taken in a good sense, and then undoubtedly it is the kingdom which spreads throughout the world. But a brief examination will assuredly remove all the appearance of truth in this, and force upon us an entirely different conclusion from the common one.
In the first place, to meet the strongest point of the argument: - is the kingdom of heaven here intended to find its symbol in the leaven itself? At first sight, it may be granted that it seems so, but if we compare the style of similar parables, we shall more than hesitate to assert this. To take the second parable of the same chapter, is the kingdom of heaven meant to find its likeness in the Sower of the good seed? or rather, is it not in the whole story of the different seed, and of the issue? Again, in the fifth, if the treasure hid in the field be the kingdom, and not the man who finds it, - yet in the sixth it would be not the pearl itself, but the man who finds it.
The truth is, it is the whole parable that is the likeness, and not any one point in it; and then also this does not decide that the meaning shall be good rather than bad: for the kingdom is not as it will be - set up in power and in the hands of Him whose right it is, but as now with the King absent, intrusted to the hands of others. Thus, while men sleep, the enemy can sow his tares among the wheat, and the proof is conclusive that in the first three parables there is a progressive growth of evil: the first showing the partial failure of the good seed; the second, the success of the bad seed, the enemy's work; the third, the tree-like worldly power which results from the sowing of the least of all seeds; and the fowls of the air, the evil powers of the first parable, securely lodged within it. If, then, the fourth parable shows the universal spread of the gospel, the whole course of things is changed, and the most perplexing contradiction arises, not only to the view presented in what goes before, but also to the view given by Scripture as a whole.
On the other hand, simply interpret Scripture by Scripture, and not only is there consistency throughout, but there is found a definiteness and precision of meaning which is itself a convincing proof of its truth. Every part of the parable becomes full of light. We have not, as before, to omit or interpret at hazard essential features of it, (as the three measures of meal, for instance,) and to claim in defence of it that "no parable goes on all fours," though this may be really true, instinct as it is with a life higher than bestial, as with a spirit more than human.
There should be no question that the key of the parable has been rightly found in the second chapter of Leviticus. The "three measures of meal" refer to the "fine flour" of the meal-offering, as the Revised Version very well styles it, into which the leaven was never to be put (Lev. ii. ii). The essential point is, that the woman is doing what was expressly forbidden to be done. This at once brings the similitude of the kingdom here into harmony with what has gone before. The process of deterioration which we see going on in the first three only assumes in the fourth a character of more decided evil. For the meal-offering is Christ the bread of life, the food of the priestly people of God, and the mixture of the leaven means the adulteration of Christ as this at the hands of the woman, the professing church. We must, for its importance, look at this more closely, however. And here the feast of unleavened bread, so peremptorily insisted on in connection with the passover-feast, shows at once the perfect familiarity of the figure to the mind of the Jews whom our Lord was here addressing, and the way in which it could scarcely fail to be apprehended by them. Leaven in meal was to them undoubtedly a thing of evil significance and not of good. The positive word, "For whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel " (Ex. xii. is), was well known and rigidly held by the mass of the people in our Lord's day. The ordinance as to the meal-offering was scarcely less familiar to them, and the prohibition of leaven in any offering to the Lord made with fire was very clear in attaching to leaven as a type the thought of evil abhorrent to the Holy One.
The general use of leaven in Scripture, it is allowed, perfectly corresponds with this. There is no exception, if it be not found in the passage bebefore us; and here, the connection of the parable with what precedes necessitates an evil significance.
But there is a specific application of the figure by the Lord Himself, and in this gospel which defines it in a way completely in agreement with the parable before us: He applies it to "the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (chap. xvi. 12).
Now Christ as the food of our souls is ministered to us in the way of doctrine. The Word is constantly, in Scripture, spoken of as food to be eaten, or appropriated by faith to the personal need. Christ is the "Truth," and in the truth we apprehend Him. The doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees is error presented in its common types of an external and self-righteous formalism, or of an unbelieving rationalism. The leaven in either case is the rejection of Christ as God presents Him and as faith enjoys Him. If to these we add what in the gospel of Mark (viii. i1) is added - " the leaven of Herod," or the court-party, then we have fully the great triumvirate of evil - the flesh, the devil, and the world - as corrupting influences of the truth of Christ.
But why "three measures" of meal? Upon any other interpretation of the meal, I know not. We find the same thing in the provision made by Abram for his heavenly guests; and both there and here, if we see Christ before us, it is not hard to realize the meaning. It is the Son of Man who gives us the "meat which endureth unto everlasting life;" as man, He becomes our necessary food: but what is the measure of the" Man, Christ Jesus"? Three is the divine measure, the number of the Trinity - of the fullness of God; and "in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." Lesser or lower measure would not fit the truth presented to us here. Into these "three measures of meal" the woman, then, is putting leaven. But who is the woman? Undoubtedly the Church is in Scripture symbolized by a woman, and this whether it be the true or the nominal professing body, which so readily passes into the shape of the woman " Babylon ," the false church of this book of Revelation. Between these two,in view of the other features of the parable, there is not the least difficulty in deciding as to which is before us. In the preceding parable, we have already found the Babylonish character, - the kingdom of heaven, becoming in its earthly administration of the pattern of the kingdoms of the world, the figure of the tree corresponding specifically, moreover, to that under which the power of Nebuchadnezzar is depicted. Thus here it is the reigning world-church, which as possessing empire must make its laws and promulge its doctrines. Necessarily the leaven comes then into the meal. All features cohere in a picture startling in its vividness.
The woman has in her hands the doctrine of Christ - the Christian doctrine; she has authority over it; she can knead and mould it at her will; she can add her traditions, her unwritten law, equal in authority to the written Word; she can interpret and fix its meanings. Here is the leaven: it is the leaven of Church-teaching, the essential error which wherever found, in whatever modified forms, quenches the Spirit of God, deforms and mutilates the Word of God, gives the conscience another master than the Lord Jesus Christ, and does all this cunningly in His name and by His authority, so that the souls of His people even bow to the forged decrees and shudder at the thought of resistance. For this is "Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of harlots and abominations of the earth;" and her merchants are the great men of the earth, and by her sorceries are all nations deceived.
Turn we now to this other picture that we have in the address to Thyatira, - a picture by the same master-hand, - and put side by side the woman of the fourth parable and the woman Jezebel of the fourth Asiatic church. Who will deny that they are one? This Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and teaches and seduces Christ's servants to commit fornication and eat things sacrificed to idols, is she any other than the leaven-hiding woman of the parable "writ large"? or than the woman Babylon of the later character? But we will take up the address in its due order; we will listen to Christ's words as the Spirit of truth has given them to us; we would not miss the least detail, or the impression that the "due order" should make upon us. "And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write, These things saith the Son of God, who hath His eyes like unto a flame of fire, and His feet are like fine brass." It is no longer, as in Pergamos, "He that hath the sharp sword with two edges." That sword is the Word of God as the word of penetrating judgment; for "the word that I have spoken," says the Lord, "the same shall judge (receiveth them not,) at the last day" (Jno. xii.)
And so, in the nineteenth chapter of this book, are slain with the sword proceeding out of His mouth.
But in the meanwhile the Word precedes and anticipates this judgment, and in Pergamos it is still there to appeal to, to warn of coming wrath, to separate between joints and marrow, and soul and spirit, and bring men into the presence of Him with whom we have to do, before whom all things are naked and opened. Plenty of perverters of the Word there are too in Pergamos, as we have seen; but the Word is also there witnessing for itself against them. In Thyatira it remains no longer: we hear of Jezebel's doctrine, and the word of the living prophets, clearer and more decisive, as her followers claim, has superseded practically the Scriptures. With the Church's word men may be more safely trusted than with the word of God.
Thus it is no more "He that hath the sharp sword with two edges," but the "Son of God," who has to assert His authority as a divine Being over the Church, rising into a sphere where she dare not pretend to be. With Him alone are the "eyes as a flame of fire," the really infallible and holy insight, which the "feet like fine brass" accompany with irresistible judgment. And He needs to assert His claim, for she who claims to be His bride, in her own self-assertion, is doing what she can to lower it. She has taken the grace of His incarnation to subject Him to His human mother; or if she remember His divine title, it is to raise Mary into the "Mother of God." Systematically Rome degrades Him amid a crowd of saintly mediators and intercessors with God, all more accessible than Himself, foremost of whom is this "queen of heaven" with her woman's heart, more tender than His!
Here, then, He speaks as Son of God to those who would confound the Church's authority with His. Has she His eyes of fire? Has she His feet of brass? That which she binds on earth is bound in heaven, will she bind with her decrees the throne of God itself? Will His all-conscious wisdom stutter in her infant's speech or His holiness attach itself to error and frailty and sin?
It is well known, and shortly to come before us, how Rome escapes from such perplexity; and it is safe to assert there is no other way. But to all assertors of Church-authority alike, the Lord here maintains His distinctive place. He alone is the "Son of God," in a place unapproachable by His people, and His glory will He not give to another. He alone is the governing head; the Church His body, in wondrous relationship to Him as that, but perfectly distinct and wholly subject.
As "Son of God," also, He now sits upon the throne - His Father's throne, - that of pure deity, vhich no creature could possibly share. His words to Laodicea afterward bring out the force of the ssertion here, - " To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne" (chap. iii. 21). As Son of man the postle has seen Him in the vision with which he book commences; as Son of man He will presently take a throne which He can share with men, His redeemed. Till then, they are in the field of conflict, to overcome as He overcame, nd this is the manifest answer to the dream of authority in the world which in Thyatita possesses he false church. Rome would reign before Christ eigns, or reign upon the throne of God with Him. Thus His claim to be the Son of God is here of the greatest possible significance.
This is as to authority over the world, and in this way, of course, "whatsoever ye shall bind on earth hall be bound in heaven" cannot possibly apply. The passage in Matthew connects it with the maintenance of discipline among the saints, with care of the holiness which His people are to exhibit.
This not founded on relationship to Him, save as disciples to a Master, and then of obedience to tim which they are under responsibility to enforce. In the fulfillment of this responsibility He surely with them: what they bind He binds; it apart from His word they bind nothing, nor re they even the authorized exponents of it.
Themselves subject to that Word, He is for them in all true subjection. It is the Word that has authority, not they; and let it be shown that the Word has not guided them, then Christ cannot bind upon His people insubjection to the Word: it would be to be a party to His own dishonour. And all claim of ecclesiastical authority other than this is real rebellion against Christ Himself. Here as elsewhere, "no man can serve two masters." The conscience is to be before God alone, and this is a first principle of all holiness, all morality. Swerve from it by a hair's breadth, right is no longer right, nor wrong wrong; all lines are blurred; the unsteady tremulousness of the soul warns but too surely of the approach of spiritual paralysis. Yes, the "eyes of fire" are still with the "Son of God" alone. Let us take heed how we hear and what! But clear and holy as they are, they are the eyes of the priestly Son of Man, full of an infinite pity and tenderness nne can fathom. How blessed to have to do with Him! How full of joy to stand before Him! And even in Thyatira - amid the awful corruption of that "mystery of iniquity," Rome , - still His words to His own recognize all He can: - "1 know thy works and love and faith and service, and thy patience, and thy last works to be more than the first." We must remember that a remnant is distinctly separated in Thyatira, and that neither Jezebel nor her children are included here. Then it will not be hard to realize this testimony on the Lord's part to what He has seen in them. Little, too, do we know of the hidden lives of those who amid the assumption and pride of the days of tyranny walked humbly and in secret with God. Comforting it is to realize how fully He could appreciate and how openly He will yet acknowledge them. Like the devil-coats put upon their victims by the Inquisition of old, how many falsehoods have besmirched the memories often of those who in the day of manifestation will receive their crown of righteousness from the Lord the righteous Judge! Of how many Naboths has Jezebel suborned her witnesses that they have "blasphemed God and the king," because they would not surrender their inheritance for a price! Here is the record, that they are not forgotten, those nameless ones, or of dishonoured names: "works and love and faith," how tested! "and service," amid what discouragement! "and thy patience," marked and emphasized in the language used, - that long endurance!
And then comes, last of all, that sweet witness of real divine energy, which does not flag as what is merely human does, - "and thy last works to be more than the first." Not simply the same as the first, - that would be much to say, as it should seem, amid all the opposition, continuous, unrelenting, of all that held power on earth But here it is "more than the first," for the works recorded are fruits of the life eternal, which, implanted within us, is a growth, a living energy, which, thank God! can burst all bands and defy all imprisonment. We have all remarked how the might of a living tree will break up and burst through the stones around its roots, as it forces its way up into the light of heaven. How much more will the energy of that eternal life whose nature is spirit, and which the Spirit of God sustains, develop itself in the face of whatever hindrances. "They go from strength to strength" is said of God's pilgrims through the valley of Baca ; for it is Christ's strength perfected in human weakness.
If we study the record which we have of those dark days also, we shall be inclined too to believe that there was in the line of those patient witnesses, looked at as a whole, a growth in vigour as the days went on. They come more into the light; they take bolder place; the coming Reformation has its precursors; the torch of truth, as it drops from one hand, is taken up by another. Above all, separation becomes more decided, - a great point, one of the greatest; for we see that what the Lord has against these saints of His is declared to be their tolerance of the woman Jezebel. The evil, it is true, was rampant, and might seem supreme; none the less, but the more, became the duty of open testimony against it. It was by such a testimony, in the face of overwhelming odds naturally, the Reformation established itself; and where it was the Word openly preached, God rallied round it defenders of it.
"Notwithstanding I have against thee, that thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess; and she teaches and seduces My servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she will not repent."
Here is the distinctive evil of Thyatira, - an evil so frightful that the Lord calls it further on "the depths of Satan." Beyond it we do not get in this direction. It closes the development of the Church's departure from God in true succession from its germ in the beginning.
Afterward, we find a fresh work of God has commenced, although it too is shortly, and indeed when first it comes before us, declined and passing. But as the woman closes the first series of the parables of Matt. xiii., so does the woman close the first series of the Asiatic churches. We shall speedily find, as has been already stated, that these two women are in fact one and the same, - the woman, " Babylon the Great, the Mother of harlots and abominations of the earth." Her name is at once significant, and is a striking exemplification of the pregnant speech of Scripture, which with a single word will illuminate a subject with. a flood of light. The name, with its attached history, adds features to the picture which carry us far beyond the mere assembly in Asia to which first the Lord spoke, and identically the "woman" in question in the plainest way possible.
Thus she is described here simply as one that calls herself a prophetess, and the effect of her false prophecy is given as seducing to fornication and idolatry; but the history referred to by no means gives us Jezebel as a prophetess. She is a queen, and an idolatrous queen, but this the Jezebel of Thyatira was surely not. Yet in the promise to the overcomer we have evident allusion to a reign over men on earth, which helps us easily to understand that the thought of queenly power is really meant to be implied in the name as used. For the promise, as we see in all these cases, has reference to the state of things in which the overcoming is to be. Here he who overcomes waits in fruitful patience, till he shall reign with Christ. How significant if in that scene which is the full realization of what is in the Lord's mind here, the false church is reigning! Babylon , too, in the after-churches reigns a queen, and thus these two passages are linked together.
Babylon also is red with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus; and here again is a character of the woman which we could not expect to find in the Thyatiran assembly. But the name "Jezebel," interjected in the address, recalls at once to our minds the persecutor. And we need all this to bring out the full meaning of the address. On the other hand, the fourth parable of Matthew says nothing of the queen or of the persecutor, while it speaks clearly of the self-assumed prophetess. Thus the address to Thyatira binds together these two other prophesies, and the three throw their concentrated light upon the solemn reality which is presented to us.
Rome it surely is, drawn with the few bold strokes of a master-pencil, - Rome as the Lord Himself sees and judges it. Good it is, and necessary, to take our estimate of her from the Word of God itself rather than from the judgments of men, shifting and unstable as they have ever proved. The judgment of God abides, and the day that is coming will only affirm its decisions, unutterably solemn as indeed they are. How dare we indulge the false liberality so common in this day in presence of the awful threatenings of the passage before us? "And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she repented not. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am He that searcheth the reins and hearts; and I will give to every one of you according to your works." Thus the pitiless persecutor of God's people shall find sure doom from His hand at last; and with that judgment all heaven will be in sympathy: "I heard as 1t were the voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, Halleluiah! Salvation and glory and power unto the Lord our God, for true and righteous are His judgments; for He bath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication, and hath avenged the blood of His servants at her hand.' And again they said, Halleluiah!' And her smoke riseth up forever and ever."
No true charity can possibly soften down the terms of divine judgment here pronounced, but will rather echo the call of mercy in the meantime: "Come out of her, My people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues."
Yet it is quite possible to judge Rome without hesitation, and to partake, nevertheless, in what are the works of Rome . We must remember, therefore, that Rome is the "mother of harlots and abominations of the earth." Principles can be received and followed which are essentially Romish, while we reject the full development of them in the canons of the Council of Trent or the creed of Pope Pius IV. The features of popery, if carefully noted here, will often be found under the guise of Protestantism. And there is a tendency in them to reproduce themselves together. Take Irvingism, in which, in the most startling manner, all the doctrines of popery (without the pope) have sprung up into a precocious maturity: and here, even the claim of infallibility is found, though the pope is not: there is the voice of the woman calling herself a prophetess, whether the woman's name be "Jezebel" or not.
But in modified forms, the features of Rome may be found where there is no pretension to infallibility, and none at all to worldly supremacy for the Church as such. Wherever the teaching of the Church is maintained as authoritative, though it be over a body of Christians who make no claims to catholicity, or to succession after the Romish manner, and who do not propose to add to the Word of God, but to be guided by it, - still, even here the voice of the woman is heard, although the woman's name be certainly not "Jezebel." Yet here, not only the churches of the Reformation, but all churches almost, stand. Nay, it is considered even that there is no sure guarantee for orthodoxy where this is not so. And indeed it cannot be denied that the abolition of creeds has been very often loudly urged by those who desired latitude as to the most positive doctrines of the Word itself. The deniers of eternal punishment have contended for it; the men who put the inspiration of Scripture on the same footing with the inspiration of Shakespeare; the people who to retain Christianity must leave out Christ. All these, in their various pleas against the stiffness of a creed that they refused, have furnished the most convincing arguments for its necessity.
Nor do I now propose to deal with these arguments; they will come before us properly elsewhere. It is nevertheless true that, according to Scripture, the Church never teaches. God teaches by His Spirit, and the one authoritative teaching is that of the inspired Word, - truly authoritative, because absolute truth itself. This much is true in Jezebel's false claim, that infallible teaching alone can demand obedience, as alone it can implicit faith. Allow that the guide may lead astray, and how can you require men to follow her? "If the blind lead the blind, shall they not both fall into the ditch?"
But the creeds are to be submitted to because they may be proved by Scripture, "by most certain arguments," it is said. Well, if Scripture be so certain and so authoritative, what need of any thing else? I believe indeed that it is certain and all-sufficient, and thus the argument proves too much. Why seek to make certain what is already so, or give authority to what is already and only authoritative? In so doing, Scripture is dishonoured in the very method by which you would honour it. Its own testimony is, that it is "given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, for correction, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." But the authoritatively imposed creed actually takes away the appeal to Scripture, becoming itself the only permissible appeal. If there be error in the creed, it will have to be maintained as carefully as the truth in it. If there be defect in the creed, the Scripture cannot be allowed even to supplement it. It is, in short, completely displaced from its rightful supremacy over men. The conscience is not allowed to be before God, and the most godly are just those who will be forced most into opposition against the human rule thus substituted for the divine. This we shall have to look at further at another time, however. But it is evident that Jezebel is right thus far, in that she connects her right of rule over the people of God with the infallibility of the prophetess. She displays, however, the falsity of her pretension by her refusal to submit her claims in this respect to be judged by that which she owns herself to be the Word of God. Her infallibility must not be tested, but received: whereas Scripture itself, with a claim no less absolute, on that very account submits to every possible test, assured that the more complete the test, the more will this claim be manifested and made good. The true coin fears not the test which would at once expose the counterfeit. Faith in Rome is credulity and superstition only: faith in Scripture is intelligent, reasonable, and open-eyed.
In Scripture, the Church does not teach at all. The prophets speak, and the rest "judge." The Word itself is the rule by which all is judged, and the conscience is kept directly in the presence of God Himself. All are exercised as to what is spoken: they are to take heed what they hear, as well as how they hear. This exercise is necessary to maintain the soul in vigor and in dependence. Vigilance, the constant habit of reference to God, and walking before Him are to be ever emphasized and insisted on. We tend continually to follow human authorities and traditional teachings, which God has continually to break through for us, sending us afresh to His Word, that our faith may not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. Thus alone true spiritual health is realized and preserved.
Church teaching is one mark, then, of what in Rome has only come to full maturity. The seed is scattered widely, and found in the most diverse places. Another thing often to be met with independently is yet, quite similarly to this, the germ of what is fully developed only in Rome . This is the claim for the Church of rightful supremacy over the world.
In Rome , it is outspoken and defiant. Jezebel reigns as a queen, and is no widow, and shall see no sorrow. With her foot upon the necks of kings, she can apply to herself the words which belong to Christ- "Thou shalt tread upon the lion and the adder; the young lion and the dragon Thou shalt trample underfoot." This needs, of course, no comment; but how many are there, on the other hand, who sincerely believe that Christians should have their place in the government of the world, - nay, should control it! Who, in fact, so fitted? and what could be so desirable for the world itself?
They do not see that the world is never to be subject to Christ until He take possession of it with the rod of iron; that Satan is its prince and god, never to be cast out until the Lord comes Himself from heaven; that the world remains, therefore, in steadfast opposition to what is of God, and Christianity, if it root itself in it, only becomes corrupted by it, and not its purifier. The yoke with unbelievers, which these principles of neces. sity bring about, is what at the start forfeits for the child of God the enjoyment of the child's proper place. "For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? or what communion hath light with darkness? or what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an unbeliever? and what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God, as God bath said, I will dwell in them and walk in them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be separate; and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you, and will be a Father to you; and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty."
In Jezebel, the full maturity of these principles is reached, and the Church attains its rule over the world; but in so doing, it has entirely changed its character. It is no longer the true Church, but the false, although in historical succession with the true. The world's principles have leavened it; it shelters the unclean "birds of the air," the followers of the "prince of the power of the air;" the true followers of Christ are hunted down and destroyed; and their only hope is here the coming of the Lord Himself, which now for the first time in these addresses becomes the Star of promise. "But unto you I say, even unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden: but that which ye have already hold fast till I come. And he that overcometh, and keepeth My works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers; even as I received of My Father. And I will give him the morning star."
Here is, plainly, the attitude of faith declared in contrast with Jezebel's claim of rule. Rule! yes, we are to have it when the Lord comes, - not before. The reign of the saints is to be with Christ, and although it is true that He now reigns, it is upon the Father's throne - a throne which cannot be shared with men. It is impossible, therefore, that Christians can reign now. When as Son of Man He takes His own throne, then indeed they shall be associated with Him. This is in the promise to the overcomer in Laodicea : "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne."
In that day the rod of iron will be in His hands, which as we see here, He promises to share with His people. This is a direct reference to the second psalm, where Christ is seen, as in the purpose of God, set upon the "holy hill of Zion." It is not a heavenly, but an earthly throne. And thereupon Christ's voice is heard declaring the decree which establishes Him in possession of the earth:"I will declare the decree; the Lord hath said unto Me, Thou art My Son, this day have I begotten Thee. Ask Me, and I will give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance, the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession" This is often quoted to show the gradual spread of the gospel over the earth, but how, in fact, is Christ's claim upon the nations to be made good? "Thou shalt rule them with a rod of iron; Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel."
This is plainly not the grace of the gospel. It is as plainly the exercise of the power in which He associates the saints with Himself. It is again referred to, when in the nineteenth chapter of this book the white-horsed Rider, whose name is called the Word of God, comes forth from heaven, attended by His armies, to the judgment of the nations banded still, as in the second psalm, "against the Lord and against His Christ." "And out of His mouth goeth a sharp, two-edged sword, that with it He should smite the nations, and He shall rule them with a rod of iron, and He treadeth the wine-press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God." Thus the time of this rule is fixed definitely, and its character it would seem impossible to mistake. Till then, "overcoming" is in patience and long-suffering, keeping Christ's works unto the end.
But the promise of the morning-star goes beyond this, even; and we must look at it with corresponding attention. We have here the Lord's own interpretation, and in the same book. When the whole roll of prophecy has been unfolded and come to an end, He returns to explain to us this significant word. "I Jesus have sent Mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright and Morning-Star." The Revelation, and thus the New-Testament as a whole, closes with this announcement. It is striking, therefore, to find the Old Testament closing, in Malachi, with a contrasted announcement, which yet applies to the same glorious Speaker, who thus takes His place in connection with the promises of both parts of the Word. The Old Testament, with its earthly promises, closes with this: "Unto you that fear My name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in His wings." The New Testament, with its heavenly promises, speaks, not of the Sun of Righteousness, but of the Morning-Star.
The Old-Testament promise may seem the fuller thing. It is more to have the sun rise, surely, one would say, than the morning-star, - to have the day than the promise of the day. And this is true from the Old-Testament point of view: the star shines out of heaven, does not brighten the earth at all; but in its own sphere it is bright nevertheless. And this is the key to its New-Testament use. The Star shines its welcome for us out of those heavenly places in which our blessings as Christians are. Christ is coming to bring the day to the whole earth. The glory of the Lord, like the solar radiance, is going to cover it, as the waters cover the sea. It shall rise upon Israel , and the Gentiles come to the light, and kings to the brightness of its rising. But before this, our eyes shall have beheld Him; and when this comes, our higher, better place shall be already with Him. For His promise to us is, "I will come again, and receive you unto Myself, that where I AM," - in His own eternal home, - "there ye may be also."
How beautiful this reminder, then, here, where the glitter of earthly rule and dignity seeks to attract and insnare the saints of God! Like the Lord's words to the seventy when they returned to Him again with joy, saying, "Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through Thy name!" With His face toward the very scenes of which we have been speaking, He replies, "I saw Satan as lightning fall from heaven! Behold, I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Notwithstanding," - and here is the parallel so complete, - "in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you, but rather rejoice because, your names are written in heaven."
Though our reign be over the earth, and when He appears we shall appear with Him in glory, yet our "mansions" - our abiding-places, as the word means, - are not on earth, but in the Father's house, of which the temple, with its "patterns of things in the heavenlies," was the type and presentation upon earth. "My Father's house" was Christ's name for the temple. This had its temporary apartments for the priests, as they came up in their courses to fulfill their service at Jerusalem . And is it not in designed contrast that our Lord designates our places in the Father's house above, not as temporary, but abiding-places? To "abide," "continue," is one of the characteristic words in John's gospel, and it is in perfect harmony with the gospel of Christ's deity that it should be so; all that belongs to Deity abides; and here, in the place of the presence of God, are our not temporary but eternal abodes.
But "the Morning-Star "is more than our abode. The abode we shall have, to enjoy it, but Himself it is we are called to enjoy. "I am the bright and Morning-Star." "Father, I will also that those whom Thou hast given Me be with Me where I am; that they may behold My glory, which Thou hast given Me; for Thou lovedst Me before the foundation of the world."
How blessed to be forever where this glory is displayed, and where the eye will be perfect to let in the light! "We know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." And in order to see Him as He is, we must be like Him. The passage is often read the reverse way; as if it were the sight of Him that would change us into His likeness: but I do not believe that to be the thought. The truth is, that as we must have the divine nature to know God, so we must be in Christ's moral image to apprehend Him. Man knows man by reason of the common nature; here, where all obstruction is at last removed, and we enter into life as our abiding and exclusive condition, - the "body of death" .gone forever, - here we shall be at last face to face with Christ indeed. And this will seal and perfect the blessedness of a life always in us essentially dependent. We shall still and ever, now with no inner obstruction to prevent its realization, be "complete (or "filled full' ) "in Him The Morning Star anticipates the day, and we shall be gathered up to Christ before He appears k for the judgment yet deliverance of the earth.
Then, those who have suffered will reign with Him. When judgment shall return to righteousness, - the rod, no longer a serpent, returns to the hand of that great Shepherd of whom Moses was but the fore-shadow,- we shall be with Him, to take joyful part in that "restitution of all things" which He comes to effect. When the Sun of Righteousness arises, " then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun, in the kingdom of their Father." The rod will then be the irresistible "rod of iron," but how beneficent shall be its sway! "Then, judgment shall dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field; and the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever. And My people shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting-places." For now, as never yet, "a King shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment. And a Man shall be as a hiding-place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."
The word, then, to the overcomer is, "Hold fast till I come. The night watch is not over, nor will the failed Church recover itself. The watchword of comfort is, "Until I come." The true are but a remnant, and Rome 's catholicity is but a decisive proof of the general departure. Revivals there may be, but no return. Good it is for those who accept humbly the lesson, which stains forever the glory of man. "The corruption of the best thing is the worst corruption." We have had God's "best thing" nearly two thousand years in hand: what have we done with it? Shall we do better now? It is easy to judge Rome; to judge, in Rome, our own utter and ruinous failure, is that to which God calls, and in which alone blessing is. Then, blessed be God, the Morning-Star rises in the darkened sky: "At midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the Bridegroom! go ye out to meet Him."
"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches!"
Sardis: Sleeping Among the Dead
(Rev. iii. 1 - 6.)
In the address to the Church at Thyatira, we have found the Lord announcing His coming, and bidding His saints wait to share with Him then the authority which the false church was assuming to have already. Thyatira presents us thus with a phase of things which goes on at least till the Lord comes for His saints; not, indeed, till the rising of the Sun of Righteousness upon the world, but until He comes as the Morning-Star, the herald of the day before the day appears.
In Sardis , we have, therefore, not a development of the Thyatira condition, but in many respects, as it is easy to see, what is in entire opposition to it.
Thyatira, or popery, is the last phase of the church in its Jewish hierarchic and ritualistic growth; and although there has been all through a remnant different in spirit, and becoming finally more or less distinctly separate, even outwardly, as among the Waldensian and kindred bodies, yet up to this point there has been in fact a certain unity: it could claim to be, before the eyes of men at least, the Catholic church.
True, there had been already a separation; not now of others from it, but of this latest development itself from others. Rome had separated herself from the churches of the east - the Greek and Syrian churches, which remained in the condition we have traced at Pergamos. The Catholic church of the west had become the Roman Catholic. Yet, in character, the system was the same throughout; here more, there less, developed - that was all. But now we come to a new thing, - a breach and a new beginning. There is now in Sardis , not the claim of infallibility, not (as what is prominent) corruption of doctrine, not persecution of the saints, - not the exercise of authority in the same sense, - none of these things characterize Sardis . What characterizes is sufficiently definite in the Lord's charge here: it is lack of spiritual power, - nay, in the body as such, of life itself. "Thou hast a name to live, and thou art dead."
Yet they had "received and heard," and are bidden to "hold fast" this, "and repent." Just as Ephesus had been, at the commencement of decline, called back to remember their first state, so here there has been a fresh beginning in God's grace, a recovery of His word and truth, a new beginning, from which (alas!) already there is decline. Again, they have not answered to His grace, and those things which remained among them from this revival were languishing and ready to die. And no wonder, when the charge against them is considered. The body addressed is a professing but unconverted one: with a name to live, it is dead.
There is but too little difficulty in applying this. A breach with Rome, a restoration of the Word of God, a fresh revival of truth, ending, however, in a system or systems characterized by a fatal defect of spiritual power, and churches with an unconverted membership, God's saints being scattered through the mass, - living themselves, but unable to vitalize it: such are the characteristics, easily to be read, of the national churches which sprang out of the Protestant Reformation.
Let it be well understood: it is not the Reformation itself that is depicted here. So far as it was this, the Reformation was the blessed work of God, and the Lord does not judge, and can never need to judge, His own work. He refers to what His grace had done for them - to what they had received and heard. Their responsibility was, to take heed to it, and hold it fast; and already they had failed in doing so. This was therefore the ground of judgment.
Notice how Christ is represented here. He has "the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars." There is no failure in the fullness of spiritual energy on His part, no possibility of failure in His love and care for His people. Yet this power is not found practically in that which has sprung out of the seed sown by the Reformation. With more pretension than before, for they have now a name to live - a name assumed to be in the book of life, SARDIS the actual condition of the mass is that of death: not feebleness merely, but death.
Yet there are exceptions: not simply those alive, but still more - that have not defiled their garments; and of these the Lord speaks in the warmest terms of praise. "They shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy." Indeed, these are only "a few names." Others may be alive, but in a scene of death (and the defilement which results from contact with the dead is emphasized in the symbols of the Old Testament) the many of those alive even are defiled. But the mass are dead altogether - dead, with a name to live.
In His promise to the overcomer, the Lord further refers to this: "He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life." The book of life is understood by the majority of people to be only in the Lord's hands, and all the names written in it to be written by Himself. Hence, those ignorant of the gospel stumble over this blotting out of the book of life, as supposing it is the blotting out of the names of those once saved. But there is no such thought here. There is not the slightest hint that those mentioned ever had life at all: they had a "name to live " - only a name.
On the contrary, you find in Rev. xiii. 8 the very opposite thought as to those "written," as we ought to read it, with the margin of the Revised Version, "from the foundation of the world in the book of the Lamb slain." There, this fact of their being written in the book from the foundation of the world is given as their security from being deceived by and worshipping the beast. Sovereign grace, that is, is their only and sufficient security.
Here, on the other hand, the book has got into man's hand, and he writes names in it as he pleases. It is a figure, of course, all through. The Lord, in His own time, corrects the book, and then He blots out the names of those to whom only the name belongs.
Now the "name to live" has a very special meaning in connection with Reformation times. The putting people's names into the book of life (while here on earth) is in no way characteristic of popery. Saints, for them, are only the dead, and not the living. The living she warns that "no man knows whether he is worthy of favour or hatred," and that it is not safe to be too sure. Her pardons, indulgences, sacraments, only show by their very multiplicity how difficult a thing she believes salvation is. Darkness is the essence of her system, and she thrives upon it.
On the other hand, the Reformation recovered the blessed gospel, and the word of reconciliation was preached with no uncertain sound. The doctrine of assurance was maintained with the utmost energy, and was stigmatized by the Council of Trent as "the vain confidence of the heretics." They even pushed it to an extreme, asserting (at least, some of the most prominent reformers did,) that assurance was of the very essence of saving faith itself, and that unless a man knew himself to be forgiven, he might be sure that he was not forgiven.
It is plain, then, that Protestantism put a man's name in the book of life in a way that popery did not at all.
Two immense things the Reformation gave us, which have never since been wholly lost, - an open Bible, in a language to be understood; and on the other hand, the gospel, at least in some of its most essential features. These are inestimable blessings, which would that we had hearts to value more.
Of the men, too, who were the dear and honoured instruments in handing them down to us we cannot speak with enough affection and esteem. God honoured them - how many! - taking them to Himself in fiery chariots, from which their voices come, thrilling us with the accents of the heaven opening to receive them. Those who disparage them will have to hear, one day, their names confessed and honoured by Him they served, as those of whom the world was not worthy. But on the other hand, we must not make, as many are doing, the Reformation the measure of divine truth. They are not loyal to the Reformation really who accept any thing beside Scripture as the measure and test of this. The broken and conflicting voices which are heard the moment it is a question no longer of the gospel but of the church and its government, assure us that if here Scripture has spoken, the churches of the Reformation do not in the same sense convey to us its utterances. Lutherism is not Calvinism, the Church of England is not the Church of Geneva here. We must needs, whether we will or not, take Scripture to decide amid claims so conflicting; and when we do so, we find, with no great difficulty, that no one of these takes us back to the Church as it was at the beginning - the body of Christ, or the house of living stones - at all.
Instead of this, as is well known, the churches of the Reformation were essentially national churches. Not in every country, of course, able to attain the full ideal, - as in France , where Rome retained its ascendency by such cruel means, - but always of that pattern. Rome had herself prepared the way for this. The nations of Europe were already professedly Christian nations, and it was not to be expected that those who escaped from Jezebel's tyranny would give up their long hereditary claim to Christianity. The adoption of an evangelical creed did not and could not change the reality of what they were. They learned the formula, put their names upon the church-books as Protestants, learned to battle fiercely for the gospel of peace, and how could you deny their title to be Christians? Yet, as to the many, it was but the "name to live."
We must learn to distinguish two elements in the ecclesiastical revolution of those times. There was, first of all, a most mighty and most manifest work of God. The Scriptures, released from their imprisonment in a foreign tongue, began to speak to responsive human hearts with the decision and persuasiveness that the Word of God alone can have. Christ began once more to teach as one having authority, and not as the scribes. The blessed doctrine of justification by faith every where brought souls held fast in bondage into liberty and the knowledge of a Saviour-God. The ecclesiastical yoke could not hold any longer those whom the truth had freed; and where Christ had become thus the soul's rightful Lord, the yoke of Rome was but the tyranny of Antichrist.
This was the first and most powerful element in Protestantism; not a political movement, but a movement of faith. Luther, solitary at Worms , in the presence of the mightiest political power in Europe , was the testimony that the work was of Him. His strength was manifest in human weakness. Had that place of weakness been retained all through, - had but God been allowed to show that power was of Him alone, how different would have been the result! And it is due to the foremost name of Protestantism to acknowledge that, as far as carnal weapons were concerned, Luther would have rightly refused them a place in a warfare which was God's. At any rate, to think of Protestantism as essentially a political movement is to do it glaring injustice, and to contradict the plainest facts.
On the other hand, we cannot ignore the political element which so soon entered into it. Rome had made the nations every where feel the iron hand of her despotism, and the national reaction against her was the natural result of her intolerable and insolent oppression. The notorious wickedness of her chiefs had long destroyed all real respect. Her power stood now in an excessive and degrading superstition She lived upon men's vices and their fears, and where the light fell and removed the darkness, the fears were removed also, where the vices were not. Men learned to look upon the power they had cringed to with contrary feelings, deep in proportion to their depth before. Their interests, political and otherwise, coincided with the spiritual movement which divine power had produced. Soldiers, politicians, governments, made common cause with the men of faith. It was hard not to welcome such apparently God-sent allies, when on every side persecution raged. The movement increased in external power and importance, but its character was in just that proportion lowered and perverted.
And now there was need of defined principles to give cohesion to elements which the Spirit of God no longer sufficed to bind together. Outside, there was the pressure of Rome , a compact and immensely powerful body, armed, drilled, and intensely hostile. Organization was soon a necessity; but of what or whom? To proclaim the true Church would have been to cast off their allies, to insure the continuance of persecution and reproach, to leave Rome unchecked, triumphant. I do not say that the true thought of the Church ever dawned upon them; but I do say that their alliance with the world was a sure means of hindering their seeing it. There were formed instead national churches, with evangelical creeds, used as pieces of state-craft, and political power to back them, not divine.
It is simple enough, that if a creed had been a necessity for His Church, the wisdom of God could easily have given us an infallible one, and His love could not have failed to do so. On the contrary, He has given us that which He testifies to as able to furnish the man of God thoroughly unto all good works, but which people feel at once to be as different from a creed as can be.
Why do people want a creed? As something more plainly and easily read than Scripture. Scripture is infinite: the creed must be definite. Of Scripture, every one makes what he likes; what is wanted is something different - something that shall not be capable of two meanings, plain to all - spiritual and unspiritual, Church and world alike.
It has been before contended that Scripture is clearer, plainer really, than any word of man; and so indeed it is; beside being, in divine wisdom, written so as to meet, as nothing else can meet, with perfect foresight of the future, all the thoughts of men. It is thus the only sufficient guard and protection against heresy to the end of time. And yet it is no contradiction to this to own that there is some truth from the point of view taken by those who contend for this, between the creed and Scripture. From their point of view. For the apostle's words limit us somewhat when we speak of the intelligibility of Scripture. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness," - but for what? - "that the MAN OF GOD may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works."
So that Scripture, profitable for doctrine as it is, does need a certain state of soul for its proper apprehension. It needs not indeed great attainments, human learning, deep research, - although all these have their use, and are not despised by it; but it absolutely requires (what may be found in the lowest and poorest just as well,) devotedness - that we be God's men: what by possession and profession all Christians are, but alas! not what all, even of true Christians, always practically are. This is the single eye, which we must have for the body Ito be full of light. But this being so, we can easily see that the Bible is not just the book for a court of law, and it is not the suited thing for a national creed. The truth is not meant to be accessible to the merely natural mind. Nay, "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." The Bible is not crystalized for us into doctrines, but its truths are exhibited and only known as living realities to those who are in the true sense alive. It is so essentially unlike a creed, that we may be assured that nothing like a creed was in God's design. He did not mean to give what might serve as a motto for political partizanship, or a banner for any other than spiritual warfare.
Nationalism, then, - the union of the living and the dead - was never in His mind. He meant spirituality to be a first necessity, and an absolute one, for the discernment of His thoughts: and men, when they substitute in this respect the blessed word of God for their plainer creed, show really that herein they are at cross purposes with Him.
"Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead," is the exact moral description, as it is the plain condemnation of nationalism. Of more this, no doubt, but still of this. It is not the idea of the Church of God at all, but a Christianized world, with Christians scattered through it: a place so defiling, that but few indeed can keep their garments undefiled. Connected with the truth, as popery is not, such a system betrays the truth which it professedly upholds. The character of the last days is developed by it: "Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, proud, blas. phemers," the retaining all that is natural to them under the garb of Christianity; "having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof." The direct command is, "From such, turn away."
This is the effect of popularized truth, - popularized as God never meant His truth to be. Of course this is to be distinguished from the preaching of His truth, than which nothing assuredly is more in accordance with His mind. His gospel is to go forth to every creature, and the blessings of an open Bible we could scarcely exaggerate. But by "popularized truth" is meant, what we have already been speaking of, truth made into a party badge, so as to be accepted by those with whom Christ is not; for He was never really popular, and still is not.
Popularized truth means, truth that has lost its power. It may be that for which martyrs died, and which when first given of God, or when afresh given, was full of quickening power. Popularized, it is so far lifeless. No exercise of soul in receiving it; no cross in professing it; men have got from their fathers what their fathers got from God: to their fathers it was shame, to them it is honour. There is nothing to test conscience, nothing to make them ask, Dare I take this without human sanction to commend - nay, in the face of all human discountenance? Yet only thus have we got it truly from God. The martyrs they talk of took it thus and suffered for it: they take it from their fathers - a principle which would have condemned the martyrs; and they take it without the slightest thought of being martyrs.
Truth is proclaimed as powerless by the unholy lives of its professors, while unholiness is recommended by the practice of those who are orthodox as to truth. And thus truth tends to die out of itself, as valueless, remaining all the while in the national creed, embalmed as a memorial of the past. "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, which are ready to die; for I have not found thy works perfect before God." This has been long experienced with regard to all national systems too manifestly to need more than a bare allusion.
It is a system designedly adapted to worldly minds, and to be worked by political machinery. The Word of God is no necessity to it, except, it may be, to furnish a table of lessons; for the authoritative standard is the creed. The Spirit of God is not necessary to it; for colleges can manufacture preachers, and ecclesiastics ordain and send them forth apart from this. Christians are not necessary to it; they are too uncertain as a constituent part of a nation or its government to be capable of being reckoned on; nor is there any means of certainly determining who they are. A sacrament, - baptism or the Lord's supper, - takes here the place of less manageable tests.
And the grieved and insulted Spirit may be besought to breathe upon the lifeless mass, and fill the sails of the ship of state. But He must keep within the bounds prescribed by ritual, hierarchy, and parliament, or He will be treated as schismatical. And it must be remarked how often in this case a schism springs out of a large and manifest revival. Souls brought near to God, and made to feel the value of His Word, are not made thereby the more docile servants of a state-religion. The new wine will not be held in the old bottles. Statesmen are not thus favourable to such fresh enthusiasm, and no wonder: it divides the house which it is to their interest to keep as one.
But is not here the history of the churches of the Reformation - of Protestantism, in fact, - during the three centuries of its existence? Is not this the true account of its divisions, for which it is reproached? The Spirit of God is not, indeed, the author of confusion, but of peace, - of unity, and not disunion. But when people talk of schism, they should remember to what that term applies. As found in Scripture, it is "schism in the body" that is reprobated, and the body of Christ is not a national church. When men have joined together the living and the dead, - when they have subjugated consciences to formularies instead of Scripture, - to hierarchies instead of God, or to hierarchies in the name of God, what have they forced the blessed Spirit to do but to draw afresh the line they have obliterated between the living and the dead, between man's word and God's, between human authority and divine?
And His mode of doing this has been constantly to bring out of the inexhaustible treasure of His Word some fresh or forgotten truth, which would I do that which the popularized truth in the creed had almost ceased to do - would test the souls of His people as to whether they were indeed the descendants of those who confessed Him of old, whose tombs they built, and whose memories they had in honour. The fresh truth calls for fresh confession; costs, and is meant to cost, something; brings its confessors into opposition to the course around them, and separates them at once from those whose only desire is to go with the stream, and with whom the profession of Christ and the cross are widely separate.
Doubtless the division may separate between true Christians themselves; and this is in itself an evil, that true Christians should be separated; but the responsibility rests with those who are not quick-eared enough to hear God's call when it comes, - not single-eyed enough to discern the path in which the Lord is leading His own. We are bound, by the honour we owe to Him, to maintain that He cannot possibly be leading His own in contradictory paths - cannot possibly refuse the needed light to walk aright, however simple or ignorant the soul may be. No one strays and no one stumbles because God denies him light. But "the light of the body" practically is the eye the inlet of it, and there the hinderance is. Thus a severance, sorrowfully enough, is made between real Christians; but the sin of it is not with those who separate from that which God has shown them to be evil, but with those who remain associated with the evil which is forcing out the true in heart. Separation from evil, so far from being a principle of division, would, if honestly followed, make for unity and peace, as leading upon a path where God's Spirit, ungrieved, could really unite and strengthen His people. With evil He cannot unite; and this, indeed, therefore, wherever admitted, is a principle of division.
I am not, therefore, upholding or making light of schism. The divisions of Protestantism are its shame, and to glory in them is to glory in one's shame. Error is manifold, contradictory, schismatic. Truth, however many-sided, is but one. Sects, in their multiplicity, may accommodate, no doubt, the religious tastes of man; but that only would show how purely human they are, how little divine.
The unity of the Spirit may be maintained, and allow indeed for growth in knowledge, and in unity of judgment as to many things. The Church of God has room for all that are God's, of whatever stature - fathers, young men, and babes. It can allow of - nay, insists upon - the largest charity for those who differ from us in aught that would not link the name of Christ with His dishonour. But that is a very different thing from what is implied in a creed, and indeed I may say, is its fundamental opposite. For the creed defines, in a way that, if rigidly adhered to, shuts out toleration as to points of confessedly minor importance, where the Spirit of God would teach, not indifference, indeed, but the largest charity, - forcing its definitions upon all in a way most felt by the most conscientious. It is as necessary, as far as the creed goes, to believe in a child's being regenerate when baptized as it is to believe in the Son of God Himself. I grant there may be practical laxity, but for a soul before God that does not do. For such an one, with his eyes open, the subjection to human institutions in the things of God is just what he cannot and dare not yield.
"Schism in the body," then, is always wrong. Separation from evil, at all costs, is a necessity, and always right. And from this have been gathered the freshness and power which have plainly characterized so many movements of this kind at the beginning. They began in self-judgment and devotedness. The evil at least they saw, and were exercised about, and the measure of truth they had was held in power. It was soon systematized, and in that proportion its power began to fail. The founders, if you look at their lives, were men of faith and power, suffering and enduring. The manners of the adherents were chastened, simple, primitive. Organized, popularized, with a large following, the freshness waned; and in the third or fourth generation, another sect had taken its place among the many, boasting of a history which it did not discern to be a satire upon its present condition.
The organization, the creed, are to preserve the truth. But did these give them the truth they are anxious to preserve? Surely not, as they must own. God in His love, God in His power, has given what man had proved his incompetency to retain. They cannot trust Him to retain it for them, after He has given it. He has used His Word to minister it; they turn round and use, for that blessed Word of His, a creed of their own manufacture to preserve it. The generations after follow their fathers' creed, and not the Word. The truth popularized is gone as "Spirit and Life." God has to work afresh and outside of what a little while ago He had Himself produced.
And the spiritual life of the time has come more and more to manifest itself in "revivals," which, so far as they are really such, are the protests of the Spirit of God against prevailing death continually creeping over every thing; and oftentimes connected with fresh statements of truth, when the old have lost their power. The Lord's warning to Sardis points out this constant tendency to death. "Be watchful, and strengthen the things that remain, which are ready to die." "Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast and repent." It is scarcely too much to say that every true revival, whatever the blessing for individuals, - nay, I might even say, in proportion to the blessing for individuals, - weakens the national system; and this for reasons we have been considering. The Spirit of God must needs work in opposition to the death produced by the system, and therefore against the system which produces the death. Souls quickened by the Spirit of God cannot go on contentedly under deadly and unchristian teaching, comforting themselves with the assurance of the article that "the evil" who sometimes "have chief authority in the ministration of the Word and sacraments" do yet "minister by Christ's commission and authority;" nor will they always be able to accept the ecclesiastical "yoke with unbelievers," because the system requires "every parishioner" to communicate, irrespective of any other security as to his conversion than his baptism and confirmation may imply.
It will be no marvel, then, to find, what any one with spiritual understanding must own, that at least the large proportion of those who could be said to "have not defiled their garments" in the history of Protestantism have been in some way or other dissenters from the national system. The first generation of English reformers were dissenters from Rome , and Rome did her best to keep them pure, in the fires she kindled for them. In the second and third generation from these, a people began to be separated, who from their honest endeavor to be right with God were nick-named "Puritans." I need not tell you what great names, which after-generations have learnt to love and honour, are found among this class, - a class with whom fine and pillory and imprisonment were familiar things. Every body knows that Bedford gaol was the "den" in which John Bunyan dreamed his memorable dream. In Scotland, the attempted enforcement of prelacy gave a succession of martyrs and confessors to the Presbyterian name, with whom, as elsewhere, their time of persecution was their time of real blessing, while the Episcopalianism which was riding rough-shod over them had gone already more than half way back to Rome.
With the movement under Wesley and Whitefield, nearer to our own times, we are naturally still more familiar; and that which issued in the Free Church of Scotland is still within the memory of a generation not yet passed away. All these, and many others, will exemplify the truth of what I have been saying; until, in our own days, the national systems are showing evident signs of decrepitude and breaking up; and Romanists and infidels are beginning their peons on the downfall of Protestantism. We who are able to see it all in the light of Scripture can easily understand why all this is, and see only the truth of God's Word more and more manifested in it. Christianity flung as a cloak over a corpse can surely not warm it into life. Corruption will go on underneath, eating away the form of life, the only thing it ever had, until at last the cloak will more or less fall off, and what was all along true become apparent. When the Protestant churches shall be gone altogether, or gone as such, their protest will not be gone, but only transferred to another court. Heaven will take up what they have dropped. Babylon the Great will fall under divine judgment; and apostles and prophets, and God's people every where, will rejoice at her fall.
A few words now about another thing. If the Church reigns in the absence of Christ, what then? Why, then there must be something representing Him down here; - He must have a vicar. He is not present (even the world cannot mistake that), except spiritually. He is at God's right hand. That is the common faith of Christianity, and it is the faith even of Rome . Although, in spite of that, her altars are continually proclaiming Him corporally present, the faith of Christianity is that Christ is away.
But a visible kingdom requires a visible head; and I need not tell you that such they have given it. The pope is, for Rome , Christ's vicar; and this is only the natural development of the thought of church-government which historically preceded and led on to it, and which extends far beyond Rome . Presbyterianism, prelacy, popery, are but three steps in the same direction. Apostles are no more; and the Church is orphaned, if not governed in a visible manner. Hierarchial government in some form is a necessity to it. Now the Lord has indeed a Vicar during His absence - a perfect, infallible Guide for His people, as well as a guide-book absolutely perfect. The Church has not only a perfect body of discipline, but One also who is the Interpreter and Administrator of it. It is the characteristic of God's people that "as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God." So distinctive and so wonderful a blessing is the presence of the Holy Ghost with us now, that, although the disciples in our Lord's day ~were blessed, by the fact of His presence with them, beyond all the generations previous, yet He could say to them, "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you."
His presence in the believer makes even his body the temple of the Holy Ghost. So His presence in the church makes it also "the temple of the living God." Looking at the Church, again, as the body of Christ, He is the one Spirit animating the body. As all the members move under the control of the spirit in the natural body, so in the body of Christ also: if the members do not understand and move in harmonious subjection to the spirct, we speak of it as disease; and it is not less, but more truly, so in the body of Christ.
If we open the Acts, we shall find every where His presence - greater than apostles, higher than the highest there. From the day of His descent at Pentecost, He is supreme over all; and that supremacy becomes the harmony of action, the unity of spirit in the lower sense. Sovereignly, He calls instruments as He will, and as sovereignly uses whom He calls. "Separate Me Barnabas and Saul," He says to the prophets and teachers at Antioch , "to the work whereunto I have called them. .
And they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed into Seleucia ." How strange to read as power conferred on man to convey office what is really the naming of individuals by the Spirit Himself, as called and sent forth by Him: one of them being the man who asserts his own apostleship to be, "not of men, nor by man"!
"Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia , and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the Word in Asia , . . they assayed to go into Bithynia , but the Spirit suffered them not." "And finding disciples, we tarried there seven days; who said to Paul by the Spirit that he should not go up to Jerusalem ." Not ordinarily, indeed, perhaps not often, was the bidding of the Spirit expressed as audibly; but the manner of communication was but circumstantial, and not of the essence of the matter. He was present, Comforter, Guide, Teacher, Witness; Spirit of the body, "dividing to every man severally as He will;" a divine Person, with divine power and divine authority.
Yet unseen! I grant the fatal flaw in all this for most. The Bible they can see, but it is not definite enough. The Spirit of God they cannot see, and, alas! cannot believe in, in a practical way. "Whom the world cannot receive," says the Lord Himself, of the Holy Ghost, "because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him." And when the line between the Church and the world is gone, who can wonder that this unbelief should be permeating the mass of what is professedly Christ's? It is not only Rome that refuses to the blessed Spirit the place He has come to fill. The unbelief which has denied the sufficiency of Scripture, and supplemented it by creeds which come soon to supplant it, has denied in the same way the sufficiency of the Holy Ghost, and supplemented His authority with hierarchical governments to which (whatever the theory) He is practically unnecessary. If you ask people what they mean by "church-government," you will get various answers, no doubt; but they will all agree substantially in one thing. That one thing is, in an omission of what is, indeed, the key-stone of the arch. They will tell you, some, that they believe in an episcopal form of government, some a presbyterian, some a congregational. And if you ask them further, Where do they put the Holy Ghost? you will find the mass of people even denying any special presence of the Holy Ghost as characterizing this dispensation. They will tell you (so far, truly,) that the Spirit of God has always been acting in the world, from the creation of it; that the new birth has always been His work, from Abel, or from Adam, to this time. They believe, too, in certain special gifts at the day of Pentecost, and for some time thereafter. A distinctive "coming" in the place of Christ, a coming so important in character that it was expedient for Christ to go away that we might have it, they do not understand and do not believe in. One well-known man, an evangelical divine, Dr. Hugh McNeile, of Liverpool, when he had to admit that a personal "coming" of the Holy Ghost after the ascension of Christ was taught in the Word, could only account for it by the supposition that during the Lord's lifetime upon earth all the operation of the Spirit was limited to Himself alone, so that the three and thirty years of our Lord's presence were years in which no conversions could take place at all, - a barren time in the world's history, a unique and utter desolation otherwise of spiritual influences!
And thus you will find that the practical faith in the Holy Ghost's presence now is scarcely faith in a Person. It is "influence," like rain, or dew, or gentle breeze, - and these are true and scriptural figures so far, but quite impersonal. They talk of a "measure of the Spirit," and every fresh stirring of heart they find is a fresh "baptism" of the Spirit. The evident and necessary result is that they lose the first requisite for faith in Him as One come down to take charge for Christ on earth, to dwell as God in the house of God, to animate and govern the body of Christ, as the spirit in man guides and governs the natural body.
Hence church-government, in people's minds, has nothing to do really with His presence here. Bishops, priests, and deacons may need, and of course do need, His influences. So, in theory, does the pope. But practically the ordering of things is (within certain limits, whether of church-tradition or of Scripture, so far as Scripture is supposed to serve,) in human hands, and subject to human wills. "The Church has power to decree rites and ceremonies, and authority in controversies of faith." "And those [ministers] we ought to judge lawfully called and sent which be chosen and called to this work BY MEN who have public authority given unto them in the congregation to call and send ministers into the Lord's vineyard." But the Holy Ghost may not have "called or sent" them! Well, that, of course; and that is provided for: for "although in the visible church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the ministration of the Word and sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and DO MINISTER BY His COMMISSION AND AUTHORITY, we may use their ministry both in hearing of the Word of God and receiving of the sacraments"!!
Thus they may have Christ's commission although the Holy Ghost hath not "called or sent" them: Christ and the Holy Ghost are made to be at issue, and the Church can go on ordering and ordaining in despite of the Spirit Himself!
And this is order; while those who desire to yield subjection to the Word and Spirit of God alone are convicted of being rebels against proper authority, and sure to end in confusion and (as some have said,) in "atoms"! Yet faith will follow where God leads, owning indeed that in His path all will be confusion that is not subjection; and that, leave Him out, we at least have no resource. Let it be so: we will abide the issue. But let us contemplate a little while now the other side of things. We have had before us what is intensely sorrowful, more provocative of tears than Jezebel's corruption. There, the very malignity of the evil roused the whole soul against it: here, there is the fruit of what was in the beginning a movement of God. He can speak of what they had seen and heard, and exhort to hold it fast. There are still "things that remain," although "ready to die." And how can we but sorrow intensely over what was so fair in its earliest promise, and received its baptism in the blood of martyrs?
Yet the word to the overcomer, once again recurring here, comforts us with its recurrence. It links us, if we have ears to hear, with the same little remnant that has ever been finding its way, through storm and flood, to Him from whose love neither tribulation, nor distress, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril, nor sword can separate, and in which they have approved themselves, through Him, more than conquerors. The overcoming may be now in a new sphere, and separation may have to be from brethren, in some sense, of a common faith, heirs of great names in faith's records. Yet, in the overcoming, only overcorners are their true successors. Not those who, in our Lord's days, built the sepulchres of the prophets, represented them, or were linked with them, in His account, but those whom He sent forth to be persecuted by these same admirers of antiquity.
And God must teach us independence, even of one another, - that rightful independence which springs from real and lowly dependence upon Him. In His presence, what were even the greatest of His followers? How can I say to another, "Rabbi, Rabbi," when I must take the honour from Him that I deck another with? If I had not Him, it were lowliness; if I have Him, it is dishonour to Him.
It is not schism, this separate path, when not my own will leads me, but His Word and Spirit! It is not separation in heart from brethren, if Christ be dearer to me still than they. Nay, love to them approves itself only thus, as the apostle teaches us, "when we love God and keep His commandments." (i Jno. v. 2.)
Faith's victories are not in applause wrung from a multitude, but in the path of One, true Joseph, separated from His brethren; and God has overruled the presence of evil (which, I need not say, He has not caused) to the giving us a path, at least in its circumstances, the more Christlike. We are not left to the subjection to evil: He calls us to rise above it. The difficulties of the path are only to carry us through them all. Every encouragement throughout these epistles is held out simply to the overcomer. The Lord give us only the needed energy. The time is short: the end is at hand. The grace that is now sufficient for all daily need will soon be manifested in the crowning of the conquerors. Then those that are poor shall have the kingdom; the mourners shall be comforted; the meek shall have the inheritance; the hungerers and thirsters after righteousness shall be filled; above all, the pure in heart shall see God - the God whom sin for the time has banished from the earth He made.
Philadelphia : The Revival of the Word of Christ, and the Brotherhood of Christians
(Rev. iii. 7 - 13.)
We come now to a phase of the Church's history of the deepest interest and of the greatest possible importance to us. How great it must be to realize a condition which the Lord can commend and only commend! For in this address to Philadelphia there is no word of reproof throughout. Warning there is, and of this we shall have to take special note; but reproof there is none! How blessed a condition to be in, when the "Holy" and the "True" can smile upon us thus with not a cloud to obscure His love! It should be, of course, the condition of Christians always; and sweet it is to remember that thus, all through the ages of its course, when as a phase of its history Philadelphia yet was not, the Church had its Philadelphians nevertheless. Manifestly it had when John was instructed to write this epistle; and if the general character of things around, even in an apostle's days, did not answer to this, only the greater would be the Lord's approbation of the few who were thus faithful. Overcomers they are whom He is commending; and the adverse condition of things around can never, let us mark it well, be really adverse to the overcoming. They furnish, rather, some of the conditions of it. If we have but the spirit of the overcomer, all the evil, whether in the world or in the Church itself, will only make us this the more.
Before we take up the details of the address before us, let us seek to get hold of the character of the church in Philadelphia . And for this we must remember in the first place what we have seen to be represented by that in Sardis . Sardis undoubtedly stands for the national churches of the Reformation, in which masses of peoples, Christianized externally, not truly, possessed a "name to live," and yet were "dead." Among these, indeed, though few comparatively, were those not only living, but faithful, - men who walked in spirit apart, and did not defile their garments; - men of whom their Lord says, "They shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy." Yet their presence did not alter the general character of that in which they were - in it, but not of it.
Sardis , then, is the world, Christianized as far as possible to be still the world, with Christians scattered through it. Philadelphia stands with its principle of "brotherly love," in essential contrast with it as that in which the brotherhood of saints is found and recognized. It represents the movement of the Spirit, therefore, to recover the true Church, lost amid the confusion of Sardis , uniting the members of Christ together in one, outside the mere profession. This, if once fairly considered, will be evident. It is not meant, however, by this that this movement has any proportionate success as might seem thus assured. It is one of our strange and sorrowful yet familiar experiences, that Christians can grieve, limit, quench, the Spirit in its action, and all the history of the Church that we have been examining is the reiterated assurance of this. Moreover, in the address to Philadelphia itself we have a very impressive warning to the same effect.
It has been already said, and is plain enough in it, that the Lord's message in this case contains no rebuke, but the sweetest possible sanction and encouragement. Not that there is Pentecostal energy or blessing indeed. "Thou hast a little strength" negatives such a thought, if we were disposed to entertain it. Still this is commendation, and not blame, and blame there is none. On this very account there seems a difficulty, which presses for solution. For the final blessing is assured, in this as every other of these epistles, to the overcomer: "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go no more out." And here the reference is plainly to such pillars as Jachin ("He shall establish") and Boaz ("In which is strength") in the temple of old, and on the other hand to the "little strength" before ascribed to Philadelphia . He who has little strength becomes in the end a pillar of strength, and the true Philadelphian (it is inferred here,) is in fact the overcomer. Philadelphia is but the company of such.
But then it returns upon us with double force, what can be this overcoming? For in every case beside, but one, throughout these churches, it is plain that the overcoming is of things inside the church: in Ephesus , the failure of first love; in Pergamos, the settling in the world; in Thyatira, the doctrines and deeds of Jezebel; in Sardis , defilement with the dead; in Laodicea , the lukewarm condition. In Smyrna, indeed, though there is a Judaizing party there, yet the direct promise seems to refer more to the threatening of death from without, although it cannot be denied that the Judaized Christianity found easier escape from this, and Satan's open violence might therefore well drive many (it can hardly be doubted, did,) into his secret snare. But in Philadelphia , rich with the Lord's approval, yet with no such front of persecution to endure, it does require answer, - Where, then, the overcoming? By which, moreover, every true Philadelphian seems as much to be characterized as every Smyrnean was. Not every Ephesian was this, still less every one at Pergamos, or Thyatira, or Sardis , or Laodicea . The Philadelphian was such, as he overcame. But what peril then, or difficulty, or opposition? The answer is only one; the question admits no other.
There is nothing but commendation in the address, - that is, no blame. But there is warning, and in this warning is pointed out the danger that threatens. It is the only danger pointed out, and therefore clearly makes known to us what is to be overcome. The warning word is, "Hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown." Here, then, must be the overcoming. The danger is, of letting slip the Philadelphian character. And it is a real and pressing danger, - so pressing, that upon the mastery of it all blessing is suspended. It is the point of peril.
Philadelphia represents the Spirit of God working in living energy to deliver from that which is engulfing the people of God in a flood of worldliness. Alliance with the world is the forfeiture of Christian position practically, and of enjoyed privilege. So the Word of God definitely declares. The unequal yoke, - the yoke with unbelievers, - must be refused, or the unclean thing forbids the Lord Almighty to be to His people the Father that He is (2 Cor. vi. 17, i 8). Separation from the world is not any the more schism because this has been falsely called the Church; nor will "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life," its moral characteristics, be purged out by the adoption of the Christian name. Thus the state religions are directly accountable for the divisions which have always marked them from the beginning of their history. Every revival tends to break them up. Where there is none, there we find continual gravitation to a lower level, which no orthodoxy of the creed can really avert.
The work of the Spirit, then, will necessarily bring about dissent from the national church. And it will be found that, at their beginnings at least, such movements have been very largely marked by a new fervency of spirit, a zeal and earnestness which have made their first generations men of power. The movement, purified by the opposition it has necessarily to endure, discovers and brings together the most spiritual. Consciences are exercised, the Word is felt and opened, Christ's presence becomes more necessary and more real, the fellowship of saints is valued. In a word, the character of the movement manifests itself as Philadelphian. It is the voice and person of Christ which are here controlling, and he who is thus controlled is upon a path of unlimited progress and unspeakable blessing. The clue-line is in his hand which will lead him out of all entanglements, from truth to truth, from strength to strength. There is but one condition here, and that is, manifestly, that he "holds fast" the clue-line. If he drops this, progress is at an end, his path becomes devious. Alas! is it a rare thing for those who have begun in the Spirit to be made perfect by the flesh?
Asshur went out from Babylon , - so far, well; but only to found Nineveh , Babylon 's rival and counterpart. And this is the history of much that was spiritual in its beginning, and since has grown great. At first there was simplicity and faith, and Christ the Leader of true pilgrims. Now they are but conservators of a tradition of the past, and their glory is a golden age gone from them. They are often in this case earnest in holding fast, but not to a living Leader: they have dropped the clue of progress, and lost their crown to others. No wonder, then, at the emphasis laid upon this warning in the epistle.
This, then, is, in brief, what Philadelphia is. The application in particular may and will be differently made according to what we are and where we are ourselves; and we have special need of care to test ourselves truly by it. For to test ourselves is surely the use that we are called to make of so solemn and yet so blessed a word as this is. We are bound to ask, Are we such as keep Christ's word and do not deny His name, and who keep also the word of His patience? Blessed, thrice blessed for us if we are!
Let us look, then, with something like suited care, into the details of the Saviour's message. It has been often observed, and is evidently true, that the person of the Lord is more prominent in this address than in any of the others. It is a beautiful testimony that He is being Himself sought after with a new earnestness, to which He with a full heart responds. And the character in which He displays Himself is that of holiness and truth; for there is no way of nearness to Him but by separation from the evil that He hates, and being formed by the truth which He reveals. The Word is separative and formative. The mark of its reception is, the abandonment of all iniquity, marked as such, not by the common conscience of men, but by the Word itself. This is the sign of entrance into the sanctuary - of the presence of the Lord realized, when in His light we see light.
Absolute truthfulness is rare indeed. The penalties attending it are so many, often to be escaped by so slight a swerving from the strict path, - a path often so lonely and without sympathy, and so barren as it might seem in its isolation. Even to Christians, Christ often appears to have deserted it. And then after all to break down there! and what so likely as to break down? In this way we may connive at self-deception; for what do all these reasonings amount to, but that the path is to be a path of faith to us now as it ever was, and difficulties are to be as ever the test of faith?
Here, then, is conscience challenged as we enter on this address to Philadelphia . Have we indeed the "courage of our convictions"? or, perhaps, have we the courage to expose ourselves to possible conviction?
And note that the " holy" goes before the "true." There may be "truth," or "genuineness," as the word means, where after all holiness is not maintained. Satan succeeds by some puzzle for the mind in diverting many from a true issue. Authority may be pressed and bowed to as from God, and the soul awed into subjection to what it dares not approach near enough to recognize in its true character. Conscience may act, but blindfold, at the bidding of another than its "one Master." With Him, on the other hand, the "holiness" it is that guarantees the "truth." He who thus declares Himself invites after all to no path of uselessness: He has the key of David, is Ruler over the kingdom absolutely, opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens; and to those whom He addresses, pledges an open door, plainly for service, as the whole tenor here implies, and as the apostle three times over uses the expression (i Cor.xvi.9; 2 Cor.ii. 12; Col.iv.3). Who could be in Christ's company without finding on the one hand His rejection, on the other how human hearts recognize their Lord? Here is no contradiction, but what every page of the gospels bears witness of to us.
Assuredly faith will still be necessary, and a judgment by results will be often much mistaken. If we wait for these to authenticate our course to us, we must in the meanwhile walk doubtfully, and not in faith. These words are an assurance rather to those who may be pursuing what to sense seems doubtful enough as to its issue. He affirms it to them. If they have the character here, - if they are with the Holy and the True, - holy with the Holy, true with the True, - then precisely because of this assurance, they need not ask, Will this be fulfilled - is it being fulfilled to us? Our eyes must be upon the path and the Leader. Success, where it seems fullest, must yet be tested rather by the future than the present - rather by eternity than time; and he who follows it most will be most distracted by other voices than His who speaks here. What tempter lures indeed the servants of Christ like this? For how many does success, rather than the Word of God, sanction their measures, while alluring them into direct opposition to the Word! If even gained in true obedience, how often does the flattery of great achievement unbalance a soul which adversity could only school to more endurance! These things are but common-places O! experience; and in view of them, we need not wonder if God has, in general, been sparing in measuring out to His people great success.
And yet finally the success is great indeed, as it is certain to those who conform to the rule laid down as of old to Joshua: "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written there. in: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then shalt thou have good success." Alas! how much oftener is this thought to be insured by a supple and worldly wisdom than by a close and undeviating adherence to the Word of God!
The Lord now gives here, as elsewhere, what He approves in them: "For thou hast a little strength, and hast kept My word, and hast not denied My name."
A little strength He marks and approves; yet it is but a little. No Pentecostal energy revived, no faith that can move mountains, shall we find here. The "day of small things," in the Christian as in the Jewish history, is not at its beginning, but at its close. It is a great mistake to confound the day of Ezra with the day of David. And although it may be said, and truly, that eternal life and the power of the Spirit know no decrepitude, yet our day and generation leave their imprint on us. They should not; we are not blameless in it; yet they do. Still "a little strength" is here approval.
And how is this marked? Surely in what follows, - "Thou hast kept My word, and not denied My name." It is not in gifts restored to the Church, as some claim now; it is not in ecclesiastical position, nor in numbers, nor in place among men ; - in none of these things is there strength before God, but in obedience and devotedness. We have seen in Thyatira Jezebel's word claimed as inspired and authoritative; we have seen, too, in Sardis , a separation from and refusal of such claim: yet the Church, though no longer inspired, teaches still. There is, as men say, an open Bible, (blessed be God for it!) and with this, a certain necessary diffusion of light. The Reformation creeds insist upon the fundamental truths of the gospel, and these have been sealed by the lives and deaths of the martyrs. At the first, also, these creeds are in harmony with the convictions of those who subscribe them, although very soon dissent has to be embodied in a separate creed. Then a strife of creeds begins which has shamed and reproached Protestantism,- which has added schism to schism and sect to sect.
For the creed in Protestantism, - the pretension to catholicity, as in Rome , being gone, - means sectarianism. Who that has the thought of Christ's Church would undertake to frame a confession or constitution for it? Hence all such things now are local, and professedly for a part only. It is a fencing off of a greater or less number from the rest. If you cannot agree, you are at best dismissed to go elsewhere, and find or make a party for yourself.
But he who will keep Christ's word can bind himself to none, - must preserve his individuality of conscience, subject to one Master only; as much so as if there were no other Christians but himself on earth: and in a true walk with God, the knowledge of Himself, acquaintance with His Word increases with each step of the way. The light brightens to the perfect day, and in this brightening light we are called to walk, true to it, and to Him whose light it is. An immense thing it is, in a day like this, to be keeping, with an exercised heart, the word of Christ! Not a word here and there; not following it until the cost may be too much; but through honour and dishonour, through evil report and good report. For is there right obedience any where, when there is not in our purpose obedience every where? Can He whom we serve accept a compromise to His own dishonour, when we really tell Him we will do this, but not that, at His bidding? Solemn questions these, which may His grace keep ringing in our ears, until they wake up only harmonies of joy and peace within our souls, and not self-accusation.
Let us understand that keeping Christ's word means, if it mean any thing, honest subjection to the whole of it: to that of which we may not even perceive the importance, as if we did; calling nothing little which He enjoins - of what has equal authority with the weightiest to emphasize it for us. Herein is often the truest test of a right spirit in us, when we obey not in uncertainty, but in darkness; and go out upon His leading, not knowing where.
We have need to remember, too, that our own contrary wills are often the most effectual hinderances to receiving what is really Christ's word. How solemn it is to think that of the mass of things in which we differ from each other as Christians, this contrariety must needs account for very much the larger part. The Lord's words are plain enough, and universally applicable, that "if any one will do God's will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God." It is due to Him to own that as the blessed Spirit of God could not lead into contradictory beliefs, these differences must be of us, and not of Him. But then, found as they are in so many whom we must esteem as godly men, what a warning they give us of how much that is not of God, - of real insubjection - may be found even in such. So far as we have indeed whole-heartedly followed Him, who can doubt that He has led us right? But then how little really unreserved following of Him there must be after all!
And who can measure the loss even now? and who then can measure the eternal loss, when we thus let slip communion with Himself? And how many are trying to win it back, or make up for its absence by filling their hands with work for Him, as if they were almost persuaded that "to obey" is not "better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." How plainly perceptible it is when a soul reaches the barrier line beyond which he will not go! Activities may go on, and the whole outward man be no other than it was, yet there is something gone from the soul which at once one with God will discern as hindering fellowship. How sorrowful to lose one another's company this way, while yet perhaps the feet go on together! But if we lose Christ's companionship, what shall replace it?
Naturally and necessarily connected, then, with "Thou hast kept My word," is this: "and hast not denied My name." Christ's name expresses what He is. "They shall call His name Emmanuel,' which being interpreted is, God with us." And to fulfill this, He is named "Jesus" - "Jehovah saving;" for save He must, that God may dwell among us. Thus, again, He is "Christ," the Anointed One, to fill the Mediator's place, - with God for us, with us for God. Who that knows it would deny this blessed name?
What does it express, what does it emphasize for us but communion with God? He hath come out after us, left His place and glory, to let the light of that glory in upon our hearts. It is in Him, this glory, in -
"The person of the Christ,
Enfolding every grace."
Justified we must be, to be able to draw nigh; and without sanctification "no man shall see the Lord;" but the Lord Himself is thus the end and sum of all. "Christ is all," says one whose life spake with his lips; and "I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in Him." (Phil. 3:8)
It is, as often said, what gives the peculiar glow to the picture of Philadelphia here, that it is Christ personally who fills the scene of their vision, and who associates them with Himself. This is what gives them their name, surely, in its spiritual power and value; for never was Christ welcomed into a heart but He made room in it for all His people. This is true linking with one another when we are united by the Centre, - when our association is first of all with Christ, and this determines the measure and character of all other associations. For indeed there is much, even among the people of God, that is not Philadelphian, but only a corrupt and evil counterfeit. If our "part" is first of all to be with Christ, let us hear Him say, "Except I wash thee, thou hast no part with Me." And this is not spoken of the first general "washing" when we are born anew, which the Lord expressly distinguishes from this washing of the feet, the cleansing from all defilement by the way. If He washes, there can be no compromise with defilement; our feet must be in His hand; there must be surrender to Him at all points, so that He may be able to show us all that is evil in His sight. Thus alone can we have part with Him; and therefore in this way only can we have rightly part with one another.
To this such union as can be obtained by compromise is in essential contradiction. It is mere confederacy, whatever may be the end proposed. God has one method for us by which we may walk together according to His mind, and only one. We are to "follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart." By taking the same road, we are necessarily brought together. The road is guaranteed to us by its four decisive marks; and here there can be no compromise, we must not give up any one of these. Moreover, it is thus by a path in the strictest sense individual that we find our company; yet it is wide enough to contain "all that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart." Its characters are, first of all, "righteousness," and this must be maintained before we can properly speak of "faith" at all. But then "faith" marks the conscience in the presence of a living Lord, as well as a heart confiding in Him; and so it is only that we can have this restful, practical confidence, as we walk in conscious recognition of and obedience to His will. Here "love" then comes in due place, - we can now let our hearts out; and in this atmosphere love will develop itself. While lastly, "peace" characterizes it in view of opposition and conflict and trouble: the Lord is over all the uprising of the waterfloods. In all this, it may be said, there is nothing but the most complete individualism; yet here it is we find the divine law of association. There is no confederation, no agreement, no prescription of terms to one another. One Master prescribes to every one his place, and in accepting that place we find the true law of co-operation with one another. United to Him as members of His body, we are, to begin with, "members one of another." This is not a question submitted to us, whether we shall be one; and to form other unions, while it may be ignorance, is none the less complete opposition to His will. Alas! in our day it is not "union is obedience" that is the motto, but "union is strength ;" and for whatever purpose men may have, they combine. Strength of a certain sort is found, no doubt; but it is not where he found it who says, "When I am weak, then am I strong;" "I can do all things through Christ, who strengtheneth me."
Individuality is thus lost, a majority decides for the remainder; for the advantage gained, certain things which we do not approve must be acquiesced in. Conscience, at first uneasy, becomes more tolerant. More demands made upon it find less and less the power of resistance. Christ's word is given up, and what is due to His name forgotten. How many have thus lost in their souls the sensitiveness to sin they once had; yet the apostle insists, "Let him that nameth the name of the Lord depart from iniquity." Blessed, thrice blessed are they who, if they have but a little strength, yet have kept His word, and do not deny His name.
The next verse seems somewhat strangely to connect Philadelphia with Smyrna : "Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee." Here again comes before us that class through which Satan had wrought the downfall of the already declining Church. Judaism, set aside by God, is now one of Satan's best weapons and most subtle snares. Great Babylon has built her superstructure upon this foundation, and displaced with the ritualism, the sacerdotalism, and the legalism of an earlier time, the simplicity and open speech, the equal priesthood and completed sacrifice, the free grace and full salvation, of Christianity. It is not after all so strange, therefore, that if in Philadelphia we find the heart fresh awakened after Christ, His Word preached with fresh energy and held with more appreciation, on the other hand Satan's old attempt should be renewed. And this the words here seem to indicate. They assure us also, no doubt, that for the true Philadelphian it will end only in defeat, and the acknowledgment of their enemies that they are objects of Christ's special love, yet this does not assume that the onset will have no success. God permits these things for the trial of His own, and there was only One who could say, "The prince of this world cometh, and bath nothing in Me."
In fact, if we look at the history of the movement which has been for years going on, we shall find that along with revived study of the Word, and energetic evangelizing, and the drawing of Christians to one another, there has been an undoubted revival of ritualism also, and that not in Rome where it never had slept, but in Protestantism. The Puseyite or Tractarian movement, as it used to be called, had all the freshness and energy of a revival, and its success was marked. At the present time, it is less noted only because its influence is become a thing of course; and Protestant Episcopalianism is largely leavened with it.
This may be thought outside Philadelphia , according to our definition of it, but it is one of the things it is called to meet. Nearer home, however, in less developed forms, the same spirit is manifesting itself. The fruits of many a revival and separation from the church-establishments of Protestantism have been blighted by a spirit of conformity to that which had been left. The chapels have become churches, the ministry a priesthood, the congregations multitudinous and indiscriminate under this influence; and the desire for Christian union has been perverted into a desire for denominational union, a more or less ignoring of differences which were once matters of conscience for the soul, but have become rather matters of dispute left to the champions of conflicting creeds.
Even for those most widely removed (as it might seem) from all this, the same influences are at work, and should be no less dreaded. Ecclesiasticism, clerisy, the substitution of corporate for individual conscience, - these are all elements of a returnmovement, the ebb of the tide which once seemed as if it could not so soon fail. But they are elements also of that Judaism with which man's mind, if it slip away from God, so readily assimilates. In fact it is all that is natural to man, and of himself he never gets beyond it.
Let us take heed, then, that we be true Philadelphians. Tested we shall be assuredly all round, and in different forms if the spirit be not different. The Word here is the assurance, is it not? for the faith that might quail and question as the results of the trial become apparent. Not now, but by and by, things shall be manifested, and where Christ's heart is shall come out openly.
Meanwhile there is another promise: "Because thou hast kept the word of My patience, I also will keep thee out of the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth."
Here is still the keeping of Christ's word: all blessing lies in the track of obedience; but it is now a peculiar character of that Word, and as manifesting a character of Christ Himself, - His patience, or endurance. It was of course a character of His on earth; it is also a character that He is manifesting where He sits now, upon the throne of heaven. He has but to ask, and the rod of iron shall be His to dash to pieces all opposition, like a potter's vessel. Yet He waits; not unobservant of the trials of His saints, not surely as unsympathetic with them. But He waits, that God's purpose may be fully wrought and the discipline of His people fully accomplished. It seems to me another mark of Philadelphia herself being tested by that of which the previous verse has spoken. They have needed patience: they have learnt it in the apprehension of that patience of His who Himself exercises it, with power in His hands which could change the face of things as in a moment. They have kept that word of His patience, - feeling the trial, but learn. ing the consolation. Then, when the hour of trial for the dwellers upon earth shall come, they shall be out of it! Suited all this is, surely. And that word even, "dwellers upon earth," suits exactly the Judaized synagogue of Satan of which the Lord has spoken. For the expression has a moral force, like that where Pergamos is described as "dwelling where Satan's throne is." The hour is the hour of terrible tribulation, which, involving Israel first (Matt. xxiv. 21), will extend also to the Gentiles (Rev. vii. 14, R. V.), and reap with its scythe of destruction the tarefield of Christendom; God's wheat having been removed from it.
Into this time of judgment no saint, indeed, of the present time can come. And this has been with some an objection to such an interpretation of the words before us. But it would only be that, if they were to be confined to Philadelphia , which is not the case. The promise to Smyrna is equally such to every child of God that ever was. Will any of these be hurt of the second death? Assuredly not; and yet not the less suited to the sufferers in Smyrna was that word of comfort. So here: doubtless God's people have all been in various ways made to apprehend the word of Christ's patience, and will be kept out of the hour of trial for apostate Christendom.
But the word is suited especially here, because that which separates the saints from it, and from the possibility of sharing its judgments, is at hand. More decisively now He announces, "I come quickly." The day of grace is running out with the day of patience. Soon it shall be Christ's presence and glory. The centuries of delay have come to years, the years are soon to be months, the months days, the days moments. "I come quickly:" this is to be shown in its power for the soul by its keeping the exhortation, "Hold that fast which thou kast, that no man take thy crown." But all shows it to be a time of drift, - a time of declensions as well as revivals: overcomer is he only who holds fast. The Spirit of God moving, the Word manifesting its power, conscience responding; yet every where the ebb after the flow, the trial which sifts, separates, individualizes. By and by comes the terrible back-flow of Laodicea . Think not Philadelphia is a haven of refuge where we may lie at anchor and never feel it. Not so, - oh, not so: this is the fatal delusion of Laodicea itself: "Hold that fast which thou hast!" The tug, if it has not come, is coming: hold thou fast!
But to what? - hold what fast? The word, and the name, and the patience of Christ. Not the word of even the leaders of God's raising up. The truth must ever commend the man, never the man the truth. One great danger is, lest, having begun with the former principle, we slip into the latter. Even the truth they teach is not truth received till it has been gotten at the Master's feet and in communion with Himself, - till you can hold it, not with the eyes shut, but with eyes open, - till you can maintain it for truth against the very instrument used of God to give it you, if need be. "If WE, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed."
Then, HOLD FAST! When it is no longer a question if it be the truth, but only of its consequences. Hold fast: though those who have held it with you, or before you, give it up; though it separate you from all else whomsoever; though it be worse dishonored by the evil of those who profess it; though it seem utterly useless to hope of any good from it: in the face of the world, in the face of the devil, in the face of the saints, - " hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown!"
For many a crown has been lost, and many a crown will be lost, if the Lord should tarry. Yet he who will hold fast shall find Christ's arms underneath him, Christ's hands upon his hands. He shall not only keep, he shall be kept; in the might of Christ's victory he shall stand, and the crown given he shall cast before the Giver of it as a trophy of His own conquest, and the fruit of His grace.
"Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of My God; and he shall go no more out. And I will write upon him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, which is New Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from My God, and I will write upon him My new name." A fixed eternal place in the sanctuary of God; identification with the display of God as revealed in Christ forever; identification with the abiding-place of His affections, in which heaven and earth shall meet at last in an eternal embrace of love; identification with the manifestation of Christ in His new eternal relationship to this whole scene this is what seems to be expressed in the promise here. But who shall give it proper utterance? What an end for the weak one who under trial still holds fast to Christ and His word! How blessed the stability of this scene by which He would establish our hearts amid the perpetual flux by which we are surrounded. How sweet the identification with Himself of the feeble one who has but owned on earth the authority of Him whom heaven and earth will own in joy in but a moment! It is a text to be expounded by the Holy Ghost to the heart of the overcomer, rather than to be spread out upon the page here. It is a sanctuary word, and the ear receives but a little thereof.
Laodicea : What Brings the Time of Christ's Patience to an End
(Rev. iii. 14-22.)
We come now to the solemn close of these addresses, the Lord's last word to the churches; and it is very striking that we come to that close here, just after that epistle to Philadelphia , in which we have seen recognized a certain real return of heart to Christ, and a true revival by His Word and Spirit. Now, there are, on the contrary, prostration and collapse: and the most serious thing is that these are the infallible signs of the failure on the part of Philadelphia itself. Laodicea springs out of Philadelphia . The blessing there leads to the judgment here. In the states of the professing church which these addresses have already pictured, there is not only historical succession, but development. Even Protestantism sprang out of the bosom of Romanism, as Philadelphia out of Protestantism. In neither case is the one absorbed into the other, however. Romanism continues, outside the Reformation. The signs of a remnant are unmistakable in Philadelphia . Moreover, "overcomers" are implied in each case until the coming of the Lord. In Thyatira, thus, they are exhorted to "hold fast till I come; and he that overcometh, and keepeth My works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations." In Sardis , If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come upon thee as a thief." In Philadelphia , "I come quickly." In this way, Protestantism, springing out of Romanism, runs henceforth side by side with it to the end. Philadelphia springs out of Protestantism, and similarly accompanies it. And so Laodicca, we may conclude, springs out of Philadelphia , and runs its course parallel with the rest.
But there is more positive proof. For if in Sardis there has been the absolute coldness of death, in Philadelphia, the glow of revival, in Laodicea there is the fatal lukewarmness which shows at once the effect (and the limited effect) of one upon another. And this is why the cold of Sardis itself is preferable to the lukewarmness of Laodicea . All God's grace has been spent in vain upon it.
Laodicea gives us, then, the failure of Protestantism, as Thyatira of that which assumes to be the Catholic Church. It is the complete failure of Christendom the second time; and now, in the full light of an open Bible, and after repeated intervention of God in wide-spread and protracted revival and blessing. The full end of patience has at last been reached, and the time to display also the results of the divine work, which no failure or opposition of man can in any wise hinder.
But before entering upon the details of this address to Laodicea , let us inquire as to the name itself. It was given to the city by Antiochus 11., after his enlargement of it, in honour of his wife Laodice, and is a compound of two words - laos , "people," and dike. "Dike" is given by the dictionaries as having the three meanings, closely connected together, (i) of "manner, custom, usage;" (2) of "right;" (3) of "requirement," and so "vengeance," punitive justice. We have thus three possible meanings: "custom of the people," "people's right," "judgment of the people." And these three things have equally plain and solemn connection with one another. For it is indeed the "people's custom" that is here unfolded. If under popery it is rather the usurpation of the leaders that is the question, in Protestantism, with its open Bible, the people are tested as never before. The earliest ages of Christianity, dependent upon the toilsome labour of copyists for the multiplication of copies of the Word, had in no wise the privileges of which the Reformation, with its providentially furnished printing press, at once came into possession. Hence, also, responsibilities as great, and brought home to the door of every man. People may still be ignorant, but it is now assuredly a willing ignorance. They may still seek to cast responsibility upon others, and blindly follow still leaders as blind, but this has necessarily now another character from what it had before. Hence it is the people who are now being manifested,- their way which is being made apparent; and judgment, however delayed, must at last follow with proportional energy. Thus two significant applications of this word " Laodicea " are made evident.
But again, and connected with this, there is a feature of the last days which Scripture puts prominently forward, - the self-assertion which indeed on man's part has never been lacking, but which NOW pervades, in a manner not before seen, the masses of the population. That Protestantism has favoured this, is one of the reproaches of the Romanists. And it is undeniably true that in one sense it has favoured it. The breaking of ecclesiastical yokes, - the yoke of a tyranny more prostrating than any other, - with that awaking of the mind of man which is ever found where the light of the Word of God has penetrated, - has produced a state of things in which, if Christ's yoke be not accepted, man's will will assuredly assert itself as never before. And so it has proved; and so Scripture long before declared that it would be. " Laodicea ," in its third sense, as "people's right," has become, morally, spiritually, and politically also, the watchword of the times. On the one hand, there is an immense march of civilization, a predicted running to and fro, and increase of knowledge; on the other, an uprise of what threatens civilization, and is ominous of an approaching end of the whole state.
"People's right!" The rights of the masses! and which the masses themselves mean to define and pronounce upon. Here is that condition of things which Hobbes, more than two centuries since, declared to be the natural condition, and which he rightly said meant universal war. For who is to judge as to these conflicting interests? and who is to enforce the judgment? Class will disagree with class, - nay, individual with individual: every man's hand will be against his brother; might will make right upon a scale the world has never seen, until out of this surging sea a power rises strong enough to command once more. Then they that will be lords shall have a lord, and they that will not receive Christ shall have Antichrist.
So the Word of God declares. For this ominous watchword, "people's rights," in the end of centuries of divine long suffering, is a terrible claim in the ears of a God, strong, if yet so patient, and who is provoked every day. It is a claim which denies the fall, and the sentence confirmed by countless individual sins, - the claim of a world which has refused and crucified the Son of God come into it in simplest loving mercy; - which would take the earth out of its Maker's hand, and enrich itself at His cost and to His dishonour. What wonder if they should quarrel over the spoils of victory, and the nations be quaking, as they are, over the success of their policy of liberty and equal rights? When democracy meant only the curbing of the despotic power of rulers, when it meant still respect for wealth and rank, and law and order, they could rejoice over it, and cite it as the evidence of morally improved times. Arbitrary power only was to be restrained: there was to be equal justice, and quietness and assurance as the effect of righteousness. Certainly the abuse of power had been great enough to provoke reprisals, and make the downfall of absolutism an apparent real advancement. But man was and is the same; and the mistake has been ever to suppose that alterations of this kind could really heal or touch a moral state which was the essence of the trouble. The leprosy, skinned over here, would only break out elsewhere, for it was deeper than the surface, - in the blood, in the vitals of humanity itself.
Who can say where the movement for men's rights shall stop? If they be rights, must it not be unrighteousness to stop any where? Who can say to the restless, resistless, surge of the sea, Come no further! here shall thy waves be stayed? There were, there are, most real and gigantic evils, - tyrannies which no form of government yet devised has taken into account, or probably can take. What does every man's right to his own imply? What is "his own"? How can you take from wealth the power which wealth implies? or allow power without allowing the abuse of it? Settle all inequalities, make one general plain of all the mountains upon earth, you have stopped the fertilizing rivers also which the mountains roll over the plains and in the valleys which you deprecate, but for whose benefit, spite of all, they rise.
Rights! what scale have you of rights? Listen to the voices from a lower level than you desire, which will interpret for you, and enforce their interpretation, - socialism, communism, nihilism, - dread names, not merely for the monarch, but for the man of property also, and for the law-abiding citizen. People's rights are already in terrible conflict with one another, and in their name how many wrongs may be inflicted yet! This Laodicea of politics is destined to be the rock upon which all governmental reform will end in anarchy and chaos. He who can read the great typical book of nature may read the scriptural presages upon a scroll written with lamentation and mourning and woe: "And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth, distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming upon the earth: for the powers of the heavens shall be shaken" (Luke xxi. 25, 26).
But the removal of the things that can be shaken will only make way for a kingdom, not such as they anticipate, absolute beyond all the tyrannies of old, a "rod of iron," which shall break as potsherds all the opposing powers of man, yet be the shepherd's rod under which the poor of the flock will lie down at last in peace, and none shall make them afraid. How refreshing to turn from what has been engaging us to contemplate such a rule as the world has never seen! "He shall judge Thy people with righteousness, and Thy poor with judgment. The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills by righteousness. He shall judge the poor of the people; He shall save the children of the needy, and break in pieces the oppressor. . . In His days shall the righteous flourish, and abundance of peace as long as the moon endureth. He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth. All kings shall fall down before Him; all nations shall serve Him" (Ps. lxxii. 2 - 4, 7, 8, ii). But, it may be objected, this is altogether political: what has this to do with Laodicea as a condition of the churches? It would have little indeed to do with it if only the Church realized its separation from the world. As it is, it has very much indeed to do, - so much, that in Christendom a political Laodicea involves, as a matter of course, an ecclesiastical one. The world and the Church are so allied, so mingled, so permeate each other now, that ideally alone will they endure separation. And as a matter of fact, "people's rights" has become scarcely less an ecclesiastical than a political watchword. In this sphere, the masses are rising up against the long rule of their spiritual leaders, and claiming their rights at their hands. The oldest and best established oligarchies are accepting popular methods and forms upon all sides. The few must yield to the many. They choose their pastors as they choose their lawyer or their doctor, and insist upon having what they pay for. What can be a better "right" than that? Thus, however, it is clear, they "heap to themselves teachers," if you must not assume that they have "itching ears." But, in truth, the ear it is that is largely consulted; and necessarily so, where the very idea at the bottom is a commercial equivalent, and popular majorities rule, as quantity instead of quality. Even in the Church, and at its best, the most spiritual have never been the larger number. How much less in churches demoralized by heterogeneous mixture, competing for power and popularity!
Think of it, however, as we may, there is no doubt that, in church as well as state, "liberal" thoughts are prevailing, - democratic forms are succeeding to the old aristocratic ones. And here certainly Philadelphia has prepared the way for Laodicea . Distinctive priesthood, and the vested rights of clerisy, have in measure yielded to the free evangelization going on, and the equality of Christian brotherhood, and it is impossible not to rejoice that this should be so. But yet who can doubt that the overthrow, such as it is, of these ecclesiastical superstitions has favored claims that are no more of God than they? The laity may dispossess the clergy, and dominion pass from one class to another without reverting to the hands to which it really belongs. Christ is alone Master, not clergy, and not people. Ministers are indeed servants, as the very name imports, yet not servants of men, - a thing against which the apostle so vehemently contends. "Ye are bought with a price; be ye not the servants of men: if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ." Thus these two things are in essential opposition. Christ needs to be in His true place, - a thing which so marks Philadelphia , but from which Laodicea excludes Him as does Thyatira. Bring Christ in, and the ministers are His servants. Bring Christ in, and the people are His people. His service, on the part of all alike, is true and equal freedom at once to all.
But the spiritual phase of Laodicea we are now to follow. May we do it honestly, with hearts open to receive rebuke; remembering that, not ecclesiastical place, but spirit, is in question. It is an old deceit to pride one's self on possession of the truth, while yet the sanctification by the truth is unknown. And this indeed makes a large part of the character of what is before us.
The Lord presents Himself here as the One who amid the general failure is "the Amen, the faithful and true witness:" He has not failed.
He is the Amen: "For the Son of God, Jesus Christ," says the apostle, "who was preached among you by us, even by me and Sylvanus and Timotheus, was not yea and nay, but in Him was yea. For all the promises of God in Him are yea, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God by us" (2 Cor. i. 19, 20). No uncertainty, no doubtfulness, is there in Christ or His Word. He is always simple, positive "Yea," speaking one thing, absolutely to be depended on. If we have but a word of His, it is a blessed reality, given us in God's infinite love, which we may rest our souls on for eternity, and which can never fail us. This is a resource which the denial of verbal inspiration would completely take from us; but His own assurance is, "Scripture cannot be broken" (Jno. x. 35). If it be a question, as in the case which the Lord is speaking of here, of but a title applied by an inspired writer to a certain class of men, there must be perfect suitability and divine wisdom in the application. "If he called them gods to whom the word of God came, and Scripture cannot be broken." How precious is this assurance! Coming where it does, is it not itself a significant warning, this claim of His as "the Amen, the faithful and true Witness" to such a generation as the present? Does He not in it challenge the unbelief so common all around us?
But this presentation of Himself as a true and faithful Witness is in contrast with the failure of the Church, which has been any thing but that. He is just about to remove the candlestick because it has been unfaithful and untrue. But His people's shortcoming is not His own. Infidelity may seek to justify itself by the failure of Christians; and even Christians, alas! are almost capable of taking it as in some sort a reflection upon Himself. But "if we are unfaithful, he abideth faithful," as the R. V. rightly puts it now (2 Tim. ii. 13). And He is just ready to rise up and bring in that day in which, with the revelation of all things, this faithfulness of His will appear abundantly. In the general wreck, this only now remains to Him.
He proclaims Himself with this: "The Beginning of the creation of God." The old creation, spoiled by sin, is passing away; its history is nearly completed; its judgment has been long since pronounced in the cross, and in Christ risen from the dead is begun all that God owns as really His, - first and always in His thought, and for which the ruin of the old only prepared the way.
When the Psalmist lifted up his eyes to heaven, and in view of God's glorious handiwork there exclaims, "What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that Thou visitest him?" the answer is, "Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels; thou hast crowned him with glory and honour; Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet." But of whom is he speaking? As the apostle in the second of Hebrews assures us, not of the first, but of the Second Man. "We see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour." It is Christ in whom the true ideal of man is realized, and of whom the first Adam was but the fleeting image, and in many respects the contrast Now in Laodicea , with Christ outside, it cannot be the new creation in which their riches are. Yet they say they are rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing. Thus there are things which are gain to them which they have not counted loss for Christ.
It is an exceedingly solemn thing that the very truth which with all its grace judges and sets aside man most thoroughly is the very truth which he is prone to take and use for the purpose of self-gratulation. Take the law: God gave it "that every mouth might be stopped, and all the world become 220 PRESENT THINGS, ETC. guilty before God" (Rom. iii. 19). But how has man used, and how is he using it? Always to establish his own righteousness by it. The large part of the Christian world, so called, to-day is taking the "strength of sin" (i Cor. xv. 16) to accomplish holiness by it, and are taking salvation itself to be, "not" indeed "by the merit of works, but" yet "by works as a condition."
So, exactly, with Christianity: God has brought in the truth of new creation, the world before Him lying under death and judgment. Yet man takes the blessed truth of Christianity to patch up the world with it, and make it better if he can. And in the very presence of the ruin and break-up of things on every side, men are vaunting the success of the effort. On the eve of judgment, they are fulfilling the Scripture-portents of such a time by their smooth auguries of prosperity and peace.
No doubt God's Spirit is really and largely working; but His end and man's thought are diverse, in that, while He is converting souls to "deliver them out of this present evil world," man's thought is an improved world, a Christian world: the effect of which is, to amalgamate Christians and the world, and spoil the scriptural character of Christianity altogether.
But in these last days God has given many to recognize the truth of the Word as to this. He has revived the truth of new creation, and revealed to us the practical and fruitful consequences which result from a place in Christ, where He is, in the heavens. But the question for us is, What are we doing, then, with the truth we recognize? Shall we talk of being in Christ a new creation, old things passed away, and all things become new, and yet cling to what has in it all the moral elements that make up the world - " the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life"? Is it theory with us, or practical reality, to have "put on the new man, who is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him: where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free; but Christ is ALL, and in all"? Has the Lord need to appeal to us as the One who is "the Beginning of the creation of God"? If so, is not Laodiceanism with us in that proportion?
To Laodicea , as to the rest, He says, "I know thy works." Here is the test, - the only true one. "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would that thou wert cold or hot. So, then, because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of My mouth." This is the certain and near end of professing Christendom. Of course He will not spew His own beloved people out of His mouth. He must take these first of all to Himself before He can reject the whole mass as nauseous. And we have already seen, in the address to Philadelphia, that the Lord tells them He will keep them out of the hour of temptation which shall couie upon all the world : - not merely out of the temptation; He might hide them in the desert so, but out of the hour of it. For this, He must take them out of the world altogether. And that is what the "I come quickly" connected with this also intimates.
Here, then, we have the brief, solemn pause before the Lord takes His people to Himself. He must do this before the professing body can be spewed out of His mouth. He cannot so reject even the poorest, weakest, most wayward of His own. And it is important to insist upon this, because there is abroad a view according to which only a class of better than ordinary Christians will be taken up when the Lord comes, while the rest will be left upon earth to go through the tribulation which follows this, when the earth is enduring the vials of His wrath. They point to the promise to Philadelphia as in this way the promise to a special class; and the ten virgins of our Lord's parable they maintain to be all Christians, as they bring forward the fact of their being "virgins" to prove; - only foolish ones, unwatchful and unready, with indeed the oil of the Spirit in their lamps, but no extra supply in their "vessels." Thus their lamps, which had been burning, cease to burn at last, and the fresh supply of oil they get is obtained too late for admission to the marriage. The Lord rejects them only as the bride: they lose their place in this, and are shut out to be purified by tribulation, and made ready for the kingdom afterward.
But how many precious realities must be denied in order to hold this view! Is it our faithfulness, then, that gives us a place among those who are admitted to the dignity of the bride of Christ? Is the Lord when He comes indeed going to discriminate in this way between less and more faithfulness? - between ordinary and extraordinary Christians? What an engine is this for turning the blessed and purifying hope into a means of self-occupation and despair! If things are so, where is the line of acceptance to be drawn? and on what side of it are we? Is my joyful expectation of this blessed time to be based on the belief in my own superiority to many of my brethren? What comfortable Pharisaism, or what legal distress must such a view involve!
If true, why should such a discrimination be made between the living saints alone? Why should it not equally affect the dead? And then, is there to be a purgatory to purify these? As to Scripture, the support it gives to any such view is only apparent, and results from an interpretation of single passages, which is at issue with its whole doctrinal teaching. The coming of the Lord to remove His saints is not in Scripture ever connected even with our responsibilities and their adjudication, but with the fulfillment of the hope with which grace has inspired us. Our responsibilities and the reward of our works are connected with that which is called the "appearing" or "manifestation" or "revelation of Christ," - His coming with His saints, not for them. At the door of the Father's house to which He welcomes us when He comes, no sentry stands, no challenge is required. We go into it as purged by the precious blood of Christ, and in Christ. Already are we not only entitled, but "meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light."
When He comes to the world, and His people take their places with Him as associated with Him in government, then dignities, honours, rewards of work, will find their place. It will be "Have thou authority over ten" - "be thou also over five cities." But salvation, righteousness, the child's place with the Father, membership of the body of Christ, our relationship to Christ as His bride, - nay, even our being kings and priests unto His God and Father, are things which, as they are not gained, so they are not lost by any work of ours at all. Christ has procured them for us, and grace bestows them, - grace, and grace alone. When, therefore, the Lord descends from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and the trump of God, is there discrimination among those in Christ? - of the dead who shall be raised? of the living who shall be changed? Nay, but the "dead in Christ shall rise first, then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; so shall we be ever with the Lord." Blessed words! how they pierce and scatter the chilling fogs of legalism, and make the "blessed hope," not a means of sorest perplexity and doubt, but hope indeed!
Nor are the passages which these writers build upon in contradiction with this at all. The promise to the overcomer at Philadelphia is one of a class which, as the eye runs over them throughout these apocalyptic addresses, show plainly that they apply more or less to every true believer. Take the promise to him at Ephesus , and ask, Will any believer not "eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God"? Take that to Smyrna , and ask, Will any "be hurt of the second death"? And so on through the remainder. Their special significance in relation to the overcomer in the cases there pointed out is not in the least diminished by their general application to all believers.
Again, as to the ten virgins, it is a mistake to suppose that in that character (according to the parable,) Christians are represented as espoused to Christ at all. Those who go forth to meet the bridegroom are not the bride; and to make them this, disjoints the parable. According to the whole tenor of the prophecy in these chapters, the Jewish people and the earth are in the foreground, and the parable of the virgins only parenthetically brings in the connection of Christians with these. According to the common language of the Old-Testament prophets, the Lord is coming to take His bride; and on His way to do this, His people of the present time are called up to meet Him and return with Him. So much is implied in the expression in the Greek. It is thus when He is come to earth that the foolish virgins are rejected, and cast out of His kingdom altogether. The parable is a parable of the kingdom; and the kingdom, in all the parables, speaks of earth, not heaven, and of the whole field of profession. "Virgins," "servants," and the like titles, merely intimate responsible profession, not necessarily the truth of it. He was a servant who had laid up his lord's money in a napkin, and never really served at all. He was a servant, but a wicked one; and so with these "foolish" virgins.
Oil they are explicitly stated not to have; and though their lamps are only represented as "going out," when the cry is raised, "Behold, the bridegroom!" This is the constant style of these parables, in which the inner thoughts of the soul are mirrored and exposed, not dogmatic truth taught. In their own imaginations, the Pharisees were the "ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance;" not in dogmatic reality. Moreover, the Lord's words of rejection, "I know you not," are decisive from One who "knoweth them that are His," and can never disown them.
No, He cannot spew His own out of His mouth, but must have them with Him out of the world before the first drops of the storm of judgment fall. Even then it will be made manifest, before He rejects the public professing body, that they have on their part rejected Him. Christendom ends in open apostasy. The day of the Lord will not come except there come a falling away first, and the man of sin be revealed. Popery, evil as it is, and anti-christian too, is not the last evil, nor the worst. It is the sinful woman, not the man. It has been revealed over three hundred years as this, and the day of the Lord is not yet come. The Antichrist will deny the Father and the Son alike.
How solemn to contemplate the last end of what began so differently! How above all solemn to consider that both at the beginning and the end, the sin and failure of the true people of God it is which initiates and completes the ruin! Who can doubt that Christians themselves are largely taking up this self-complacent assumption - "rich, and increased with goods, and in need of nothing"?
Even by some who deem the time of harvest drawing near we are invited to consider the fact that if the tares are ripening for it, yet the wheat must be ripening too, and that this means that the present generation of Christians is spiritually in advance of every other! We are bidden observe the great awakening of the missionary spirit, the restoration of gifts of healing to the Church, and so on. Surely we are rich, and increased with goods, if this be our condition! And is there not a creed, connected very much with the latter claim, and largely professed among those who naturally take their place as the very leaders of the Christianity of the day, which comes very near indeed to Laodicean profession? How could the claim to be rich and increased with goods be more really made than by those who profess what they will not indeed call "sinless" and yet do assert for it what ought to be a still loftier title, - that of "Christian perfection."
Christian perfection is of course the very summit - the ne plus ultra of Christianity. Higher than this no one can hope to go: with such a condition God Himself must be completely satisfied. As Christ is, (so they apply it,) so are they in this world. Perfect knowledge, perfect wisdom, they do not suppose they have, but "perfect love" is the term which exactly fits and describes their condition. They perfectly obey the divine law, and for a large class there remains in them no corruption of nature even, although many would not go as far as that. There are many grades of the doctrine, and correspondingly it affects very distinct classes of Christian profession. Its wide acceptance is a very noticeable thing in these days, an unmistakable sign of the times.
For the term "perfection," and that as applied to Christians, there is scripture, of course. The devil, in deceiving the people of God, will always, if he can, use scripture to accomplish his object. But the term there does not mean what in the dialect of the "higher life" it is made to mean. Take one of the strongest texts used, "Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" - the context shows decisively what is meant. We speak of a thing as perfect which has all its parts, without at all regarding the finish of its parts. So the Lord tells us that as children we must resemble our Father, and for this exhibit all the features of our Father's character. We must not only love those who love us, but as He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends His rain on the just and on the unjust, we must exhibit this feature of His character also: "Love your enemies, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven." (Matt. V. 45.)
"Perfection" is also used for the mature Christian condition, as a glance at the margin of Heb. v. 14 will show. The term there - "of full age" - is in the margin rendered "perfect," just as in I Cor. xiv. 20, "be men" is in the margin rendered "be perfect," or "of a ripe age." It is used thus with two applications: in Hebrews, Christianity itself is perfection, or maturity, in contrast with Judaism, which was a state of childhood. But again, among Christians there are those perfect, or mature, in contrast with being babes; and the apostle Paul, in the third of Philippians, in which he disclaims having attained, or being already perfect, as a consummation which he would not reach 'til with Christ in glory, classes himself immediately after among those who had in another sense "attained:" "Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded."
There are many texts which I cannot now go through; but this should prevent the catching at a word, as people are prone to do. Plenty about perfection there is, no doubt, in Scripture; but if we set up any standard short of walking as Christ walked, we are really lowering it. If, on the other hand, we can measure ourselves with Christ, and yet feel no rebuke, we must be indeed inordinately, if not incredibly, self-complacent. Mischief is wrought in two ways by the idea.
In the first place, sin must be palliated, excused, covered by misleading names. Lust is called temptation, and sometimes even daring dishonour done to Christ Himself by the insinuation that He too was in like manner tempted. So people quote, "He was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin," as if it meant that He had such inward desires, only restrained them, so that there was no positive outbreak. This, the actual blasphemy of Irving and Thomas, in milder and less pronounced forms infects many in the present day. The text they quote in the common version favours these views too much. And the Revised Version unhappily perpetuates the error. There is properly, as any one may see by the italics (Heb. v. 15), no word in the original representing "yet." "He was tempted in all points, like as we are, apart from sin" is the true rendering. You must not imply sin in any way in the Holy One of God. Sin it is that produces lust, as the seventh of Romans decisively teaches, as on the other hand lust, again, brings forth the positive outward sin. He had neither; no inward incitement as no sin in act, and herein was our total opposite, who, as Scripture assures us, "in many things offend, all." (Jas.iii.2.)
But again, the character of holiness is sadly spoiled by this perfectionism. in the lips of many, "holiness" means "perfection," and nothing else, and so does "sanctification." And yet in fact holiness itself is marred and perverted by this claim as made. It becomes self-occupation, self-assertion. "Seraphic" men are held up to admiration. And how much of Christ really do you find in the experience so largely boasted of by those who advocate the doctrine? It may be in words - is it in reality, "not I, but Christ liveth in me"? or is it in fact a glorified, transfigured, but very self-conscious I, that lives and reigns throughout them? They do not see that, as the natural life in a state of health does not engross or claim the attention, - as the heart's pulsation, or the lung's work is not furthered, but disturbed, by thinking of it, - as the man in hospital it is who talks of his good days, because they are scarce, and as the dyspeptic it is who "feels" his stomach, - so this aim at a self-conscious holiness produces but a poor, degenerate, sickly Christianity at best. Is it far off from that which says, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knows not that it is wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked?
"I counsel thee," says the Lord to Laodicea here - " I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness may not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see."
Three things are here which they are exhorted to "buy." So wealthy are they, the Lord will not talk of giving to them. And indeed it would be a happy thing for them to exchange their riches for them, - false glitter for true gold. This is the first thing: gold. A frequent symbol this is, we know, in Scripture, and pure gold (as here, "tried in the fire,") for what is divine. In the ark of the testimony, and in the furniture of the holy places generally, gold covered all. The apostle, I believe, gives us the exact meaning, when he speaks of the golden cherubim as the "cherubim of glory, shadowing the mercy-seat. This "glory" is the display of what God is. God glorifies Himself when He shines out in the blessed reality of what He is; and Christ is the true ark in which two materials are found together - gold and shittimwood. The radiance of divine glory is the gold; the shittim-wood, the precious verity of manhood.
Can we not see why to Laodicea "gold tried in the fire" is the first requisite? Their riches were but paper money, manufactured out of the rags of self-righteousness, and of merely conventional, not intrinsic value. Christ was what they lacked: divine glory in the only face in which it shines un-dimmed. This is the power of Christianity, its essence and its power alike, and this is what their false, pretentious Christianity lacked so terribly: occupation with Christ, - discernment of what and where all that is true and valuable in Christianity is to be found. To know where this is, is to have it. Faith that finds this treasure is welcome to its enjoyment. To be without it, is to be poor indeed.
The next thing is, "white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear." This is, no doubt, practical righteousness of life and walk. There is a connection between this and the former, which when we have their meaning becomes evident enough. Unless you have the divine glory in the face of Jesus shining for your soul, you will find no ability to live and walk aright. The "white" is the full, undivided ray of light; and God is light. How is our life to be the reflection of this, except as "God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness," is shining in our hearts,"to give out the light of the knowledge of the glory of Christ in the face of Jesus Christ" Leviticus must precede Numbers ever. We must go in to see God in the sanctuary before we can possibly come out and walk with Him in the world.
Finally, we have here, "and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see." Thus there was utter blindness, - the condition of the Pharisees over again. They did not realize it. They said, "We see," and thus their "sin remained." For the consciously blind, there is with Christ effectual healing; but they, alas! needed not the physician.
These characters, taken in their full extent, reveal a state which is assuredly not Christian. We must not, however, on this account suppose, as some have done, that Laodicea thus represents merely the unbelievers among the Christian profession. Of Sardis it is distinctly said, "Thou hast a name to live, and thou art dead," and yet there are owned among them those who are not only alive, but "have not defiled their garments." This shows that we must beware of ascribing the characteristics of the mass to all the individuals in it. It is a state of things as to which all found in association with it have the gravest responsibility; but to say it is only to be applied to the unconverted is to deprive the warning given of all its power. It is to enable every consciously converted man to wash his hands of the responsibility. Whereas all around us, not only are the signs of Laodiceanism growing continually more manifest, but the infection also of Christians with its spirit. And here again also it is apparent how Philadelphia may open the way to Laodicea itself.
Philadelphia proclaims the brotherhood of Christians, seeks the true Church, insists upon the evil of division, and the mainten.ince of individual conscience in consistency with the recognition of the one body of Christ in all its members. Laodicea - Satan's counterfeit - proclaims also that the church is one, that union is strength, in order to bring about a grand confederacy in which truth shall be sacrificed for company's sake, and the power conferred by numbers. To the eyes of men, Laodicea becomes thus only the true carrying out of the Philadelphian idea, - itself a better and grander Philadelphia . Here Christ may in the very name of Christ be put outside. the door, - a development of principles which are far and wide leavening men's minds, and preparing the way for the dark and dread apostasy in which the dispensation is announced of God to end.
Confederacy is, politically and socially, a character of the times. In mercantile affairs of every kind, companies are getting to be more and more every where the rule. The strength realized by union is here well recognized. In the rise of the popular element, combination is not merely an advantage; it is an imperative necessity. By its means alone can the poor man make his voice be heard upon nearer equality of terms with the capitalist, the labourer with his employer. Yet here the true individuality which God would have, - the individuality of conscience with which alone real uprightness of conduct can be maintained, - has to be lost and give way to the will of the majority.
No power can be attained by the body at large thus except by ruinous self-sacrifice on the part of its members. It must have unity, the unity of a machine, or nothing can be effected; but for this, heart and conscience must be leveled down to wood and iron. It is essential that freedom of individual action there should be none; and thus there is no tyranny so great as the tyranny often here exercised, - no more ruthless treading down of the most sacred and personal rights than with those in whose mouths the cry of "People's rights!" is oftenest and loudest.
Religious associations may seem often in their laxity as opposite to this as can be, and yet the laxity itself be as contrary to God, and bind me as much to His dishonour. What seems the largest liberality may thus be the very spirit of disobedience, and to this it is that every thing in the present day is tending. Satan can press upon us the evil of division just there where division is not an evil, but a right and godly separation from evil; and he can point out good to be accomplished, to make us little careful as to the means by which it is proposed to accomplish it. A united Christian church which should become so by making it a matter of indifference whether Christ were God or only the highest kind of man would certainly be his greatest achievement. The startling thing today is, that men considered evangelical can accept associations of this kind; and the platform upon which they stand widens continually: what would have been liberality a short time since is now narrowness. The world moves; but the unbending word of God which moves not, against this it will dash itself only to its destruction.
Amid this concourse and confederacy of men, communion with God becomes continually more restricted: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." This door is plainly individual, - not of the church, but of the heart. But then it is as plain that the church-door is shut against Him; not that He has shut it, or Himself spewed the church out of His mouth. He is still lingering in His love, - still saying, "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous, therefore, and repent." But they do not repent. He is as when at Nazareth in the days of His earthly ministry (rejected by those who should have known Him best,) it is written of Him, "And He could there do no mighty work, save that He laid His hand upon a few sick folk, and healed them." He could not do what He would; He would do what He could: "And He marveled at their unbelief; and He went round about the villages, teaching." So here, rejected by the body at large, He tries one door after another, in this solemn pause before the end. He would not judge in the mass; so He tries in detail. And if any heart responds, - for all seem to have shut Him out, but He will not take it yet as final, - then He will come in there, and sup: that soul shall yet to its everlasting joy entertain its Lord.
But the time hastens, and the nearness of the end is shown by the closing promise to the overcomer:
"To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me on My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father on His throne." He speaks, as He appears to the apostle, as Son of Man here. It is His kingdom as Son of Man He is about to take: that special throne from which as with a rod of iron He will break in pieces all opposition, and bring every thing into subjection to God. For it is His to do this. He has laid the foundation in the work of the cross: His hands shall finish it. All judgment is His, because He is the Son of Man. And judgment itself now is the only work left for mercy to accomplish. So there comes - most terrible of all wrath, the wrath of the Lamb, - the wrath of love itself: the wrath of Him who has been watching all these patient centuries the oppression of the meek, in whose ears have been the cries of the fallen in the terrible strife; He of whom the wicked hath said in his heart, He will not require it; yet who beholdeth mischief and spite to requite it with His hand; to whom the poor committeth himself, who is the Helper of the fatherless. HE now riseth up. "For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the Lord: I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him."
In a word, the present day of grace is in this promise marked as just at its end. And with this the Church, as the vessel of the testimony of that grace, is being removed from the earth. The "present things" at which we have been looking are just over. The Christian dispensation has run its course. The saints removed to heaven, the rest that are left are but reprobate, and fall soon into utter apostasy. Then comes the earth's great trial-time, the time of Jacob's trouble, out of which yet he shall be delivered; the heading up of unbelief in gigantic forms of evil, dimly (and but dimly) now looming up amid the shadows of the horizon. Beyond it yet the glory of a brighter day, when the redeemed of the Lord shall come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their head; when a King shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment; and a MAN shall be as a hiding-place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. And the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Sweeter than all and brighter the joy above, when in the mansions of the Father's house that promise shall be fulfilled, "I will come again, and receive you unto Myself; that where I am, there ye may be also."