"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, he that walketh in the midst of the seven golden lamps." Here we are on broad ground. The characteristics are general. The first epistle, the message to the angel of the church in Ephesus, looks at the state of the Christian testimony on the earth in its most comprehensive form, and, as one may suppose, from the days of the apostle John himself. The Lord accordingly presents Himself with similar latitude, "He that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, he that walketh in the midst of the seven golden lamps." The position, both ministerial and ecclesiastical, is ruled by His relationship to the angels (i.e. those that morally represented the assemblies to His eye), and to the churches in view. The "star" is that which acted on the assembly - the vessel of light from the Lord to bear on the condition of the assembly. If that light were ineffectual, if evil mixed with it, the state of the assembly would partake of it; if bright, the assembly would be elevated morally thereby. In Him who held the seven stars in His right hand, and walked in the midst of the seven golden lamps, we have Christ not merely holding fast those ideal representatives, but also judicially interested in the assemblies themselves. In short, it is Christ in His fullest but most general ministerial and ecclesiastical aspect according to the governmental tenor of the book.
The state of the church in Ephesus has the same generality. "I know thy works, and [thy] labour, and patience (or, endurance), and that thou canst not bear evil [men]; and thou didst try those that call themselves apostles, and they are not, and thou didst find them liars." There was some faithfulness, and this particularly in dealing with the wickedness which Satan sought to bring in at that time. The apostles were disappearing, and perhaps had all disappeared save John. One can understand that then naturally Satan would endeavour to furnish instruments nothing loath to claim succession. The church in Ephesus tried these pretended apostles, specially the angel, as one that helped them much by grace from the Lord. The "star" so far acted upon the church for good. When such assumption was essayed, they were one in trying and refusing those who set up to be what they were not.
But much more is here. Persistent faithfulness and devotedness still characterised them at Ephesus. "And thou hast patience, and didst bear for my name, and hast not wearied. But I have against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love." This is the Lords complaint against them. It is plain that here as ever is the first departure, the general but sure symptom of declension. What injures, and finally ruins, is invariably from within, not from without. In vain does Satan seek to cast down those who, resting on Christ's love, have Him as the cherished object of their soul and life. Was it not thus when the Epistle to the Ephesians was written by Paul? Had they now left their first love? Was it with them as once when Christ was all, and flesh only evil in their eyes? Alas! the failure in this respect. They had here relaxed, not in their works: these went on diligently. There were works, and labour, and endurance. But where now the work of faith? Where the labour of love? Where the endurance of hope? The power that had produced the mighty results was no longer active, nor could be. The effect continued; the spring was gone. They had relaxed in their first love. It was all over with them, unless they judged themselves, and in the power of the Holy Ghost gave to Christ His place.
"Remember therefore whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I am coming to thee,* and will remove thy lamp out of its place, except thou repent." Whether it be Christ as He is represented or the description of the church's state, whether the fault that is charged home or the remedy proposed, whether the judgment threatened or the promise held out, - all is of the most general description. So thoroughly does the Lord adhere to topics of the largest and most common import in the letter to the angel of the assembly in Ephesus. Yet how solemn to hear the gracious Lord, as His present judgment of the actual state of the assembly in Ephesus, threaten this choice church which Paul planted with the removal of its lamp! Such a sentence does not mean that individual saints lose the portion of grace, but that the assembly forfeits its public place of light-bearer, because of its unjudged condition. Even then the Lord, however grieved, does not fail to note its hatred, shared with Himself, of allowing and glossing over iniquity, as the next words show. "But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans,** which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches: to him that overcometh, to him will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of [my] God." Here again all is large and comprehensive. What can be wider than this promise?
* Erasmus edited τάχει from his faulty MS. ταχεῖ but the Complutensian editors, Colinaeus, and others read ταχύ which is as right in ver. 16, as it is here inappropriate. For there is no "quickly" in the Lord's coming to remove the lamp, though He does come quickly to fight with the corruption of the church.
** In the lately discovered work (at first wrongly imputed to Origen) of Hippolytus on Heresies, vii. 36, their leader is said to have taught indifference of actions and of meats. But the Bishop of Portus Romanus, like others, may draw only from what scripture implies.
In the letter to the angel of the church in Smyrna, a totally different state of things appears. It is essentially a special case instead of the general one first seen. After declension from apostolic purity, above all from first love, the Lord was pleased to afflict; He allowed all sorts of trial to befall His people by letting loose the power of Satan working by Gentile persecutors. "And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things saith the First and the Last, who became dead and lived: I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty (but thou art rich), and the blasphemy of those that call themselves Jews, and they are not, but a synagogue of Satan." It is not now a trial by false claimants. A new evil appears. As long as true apostles were on earth, Satan was never able to get Judaism recognised in the church of God. The council in Jerusalem expressly exempted the Gentiles from being put under the yoke of law. And the apostle of uncircumcision showed on his own ground that it was really to annul Christ, and to fall from grace, if the law, introduced either for justification or for a rule of life, were imposed on the Christian. For justification this is manifest; but for a rule of life it is not so apparent, yet it is just as real a denial of the gospel. If Christ be the rule of life for the Christian, and the law be the rule of death as Jews ought to know (though they do not), it is evident that for a Christian to abandon that for this tends to apostasy. The early fathers thus Judaised; and the leaven has gone on working ever since. To take the position of a Jew virtually is to be one of those that say they are such and are not, but are, alas! Satan's synagogue.
The Lord here contemplates these evil workers (which is what crying up of works comes to) forming a distinct party. It is not merely Satan struggling to get in Judaism by individuals, but, as He says here, "the blasphemy" (railing or calumny) "of those that say they are Jews, and are not, but a synagogue of Satan." They have now a compact character, and can be spoken of as a synagogue. It was not merely the tendency of individuals. Individuals there were before, but this is much more. It is a formed and known party of the highest possible pretension. They set up to be more righteous and holy than the rest, whom they denounced as antinomian because these stood in the true grace of God. They were themselves corrupters of the gospel and destroyers of living Christianity without knowing it. Deceived by Satan, they were his zealous instruments, so much the more actively deceiving others, because perhaps earnest and honest after the flesh.
The patristic party, those commonly called "the Fathers," seem the leaders in the evil here referred to. They had the awful ignominy of systematically Judaising the church. They also exercised this influence in all ages, and even over the Puritans. Here, if one mistake not, their formation as a system is stigmatised by the Lord Jesus. Sometimes offensive against Himself, always ignorant of His work and heavenly relations, they were blindly opposed to faith in God's sovereign grace. Their character is plain. They dragged down the Christian from his true heavenly associations to that of a spurious Jew. What is still more the significant point for John, they lost even the truth of a real life given to us in Christ. Thus whether it be the depraving of souls or forming a catholic body after an earthly mould, or whether it be depriving them of known life in Christ (at least as far as false doctrine could go), and hence failing to walk as He walked, to pat them under Jewish ordinances, the Fathers, as a class, fully earned the distinction here assigned by the Lord.
When things were regulated after the Jewish pattern, the whole beauty and aim of the church of God was ruined in principle. But the point of interest here is, that succession and ordinances became defined as a system about this time. Such is the great fact found among the ante-Nicene Fathers. Here the Lord seems to notice its working at the same time that God was in a measure using for good those faithful during the heathen persecutions. Even then Satan was not idle in forming his synagogue "of those that say they are Jews, and are not." On the other hand, Christ said in view of the sufferer, "Fear not the things which thou art about to suffer: behold, the devil is about to cast of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have a tribulation of ten days." The trial was not unlimited: the Lord defined the term of their endurance. "Become faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches; he that overcometh shall in no wise be hurt of the second death." They might experience the first; they should be untouched by that death which follows and is final. It is a question of faith in God. Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God.
"And to the angel of the church in Pergamum" comes a very different message. This too is special. "These things saith he which hath the sharp two-edged sword; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest." It may be a very serious thing where our position is. They were dwelling "where Satan's throne [is]." How came this? One can understand their passing through the sense of his wiles; but to dwell where he reigns is fearfully significant. Did they like to be near a throne, although it were the throne of Satan - to have a standing there? Did they love the glitter of the world's power, and relish its favour, alien from God as it is?
The condition supposed comes out clearly in such a writer of that day as Eusebius, who regarded the change brought in by Constantine as the fulfilment of the glowing vision of the Kingdom in the prophets. Thenceforth it was the church reigning on earth. They claimed the delusion of which the Corinthians were disabused. The church now taking the place of the world made it to be worldliness sanctioned in principle. So he says in his Life of Constantine (iii. 15), "It looked like the very image of the kingdom of Christ, and was altogether more like a dream than a reality." Yes, this at least is true. It was the dream of that day and since; it had no reality for the mind of Christ.
Yet the Lord owns whatever is good. "And thou holdest fast my name, and didst not deny my faith." It is notable, and was no small mercy, that, after the great persecutions, when Christendom and even Christians had been seduced into accepting the patronage of the world, there remained faithfulness in refusing all efforts to deny the deity of Christ. Under the same Constantine, who cast the world's shield over Christianity, was the battle fought and won against the Arian foe. It was under his authority, and indeed by his call, that the famous council sat at Nicaea, and the faith of the Trinity was publicly established. Christians needed no such bulwark, but Christendom did. Thus the creed commonly called Nicene,* which had for its object the assertion of Christ's consubstantial deity, was then published. Is it not fair to believe that this state of things is referred to here? "Even in those days wherein [was] Antipas my faithful witness, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth." What a solemn conjunction, that there should be close proximity to Satan's throne without, yet withal the mercy of God still maintaining the fundamental faith of Christ's own personal glory!
* Yet that very creed testifies to the mischief already wrought in making the church a ground of faith, instead of scripture only. For the Nicene Creed asserts, not believing in the church, but believing the church - a very different thing. Faith believes God. The church is not infallible, as it ought to be if to be believed. How true it is that "evil communications corrupt good manners"! People might own the divinity of Christ, yet set up the church in a false position.
"But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there [men] holding the doctrine of Balaam." Clericalism came in rapidly after this. The world's authority brought in worldly objects; and now the ministry became a clergy, a proud and perhaps profitable profession. The framers of this were such as held the doctrine of Balaam. Simultaneously with this of course was the introduction of all kinds of compromise with the world. The clergy encouraged by a misuse of scripture every sort of commerce with the world's ways; as it is said here, "who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication." No one doubts that all this is figuratively expressed; but the drift is plain enough where the conscience is not blunted. If the same evils exist, and that which would keep the church as a chaste virgin espoused to Christ is gone, no wonder that these warnings are misunderstood. Worldliness had got in, as it still remains, and, alas! is palliated most by those who owe their professional status to its corrupt and corrupting influence. The unbelief which let in the mischief keeps it in, decrying the true application of the two edged sword now as then. Christians were dazzled by the world's power and glory, which was put forth doubtless in protecting, not themselves only, but the public faith of Christendom in that day. But none the less did they fatally compromise Christ by alliance with the world, followed by practical return to the circle, out of which grace had taken the saints in order to union with Christ in glory.
"So hast thou also [men] holding the doctrine of Nicolaitans in like manner." To the angel of the church in Ephesus the Lord had denounced "the deeds of the Nicolaitans"; but now the iniquity in question (antinomianism, we conceive) had become a. doctrine; so that it seems compared with the iniquitous doctrine of the Balaamites. "Repent therefore; or else I am coming to thee quickly, and will war against them with the sword of my mouth." Thus the Lord was no longer fighting in defence of
His own people, nor was He employing the enemy's hatred and persecution to nip in the bud or prune evil excrescences. We have seen this just before: a greater trial now appears. Alas! the state of those that bore His own name was such that He was obliged to deal thus sternly with them. Enemies were within. But His coming here as to the Ephesian angel does not mean His personal presence, but His judicial visitation while unseen.
"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches: to him that overcometh, to him will I give to eat of the hidden manna." When the church was snared by the bait of public glory, the encouragement to faith was the hidden manna. Let there be at least individual, even if here unvalued, faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. Some saints might be true to His name, though it was not the time when they were led or forced into the position of a remnant. There was not yet the fidelity that came out from the public body, corrupt as it was. Energy of faith failed for, this; but individual fidelity to Christ was not lacking; where this was, "to him," says the Lord, "will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and upon the stone a new name written, which none knoweth save the receiver." To the true heart His approval is enough, nearer and dearer than any triumph before the universe.
Then follows the last of these four churches, but the first where the call to hear is changed. "And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write." One cannot doubt that this letter contains an apt adumbration, as far as could be there in present facts, of what was found in mediaeval times. "These things saith the Son of God, he that hath his eyes as a flame of fire, and his feet [are] like fine brass." Christ is revealed now, not only in the all-discerning power of moral judgment, but also judicially prepared to act against evil: "His feet are like fine brass." "I know thy works, and the love, and the faith, and the service, and thy patience, and thy last works [to be] more than the first." There was here and there devotedness in the middle ages, spite of the darkness and ignorance that prevailed in point of doctrine. But those who loved the Lord showed their love then, not so much by intelligence in His ways as by unsparing and habitual self-denial. One does not surely speak of superstition, either as to Mary or the church when each was made a sort of bona Dea, but of the fruit of looking to Christ however simply.
"But I have against thee, that thou sufferest the woman (perhaps 'thy wife') Jezebel." This was a new kind of evil altogether. It is not clericalism now, nor persons holding the doctrine of Nicolaitans or that of Balaam, but a formed state as the symbol of a woman regularly represents. Examine the use of woman symbolically, and this will be found true. The man is the agent who goes forward; the woman is the state of things (here most evil) produced. Hence Jezebel is the appropriate symbol now, as Balaam was just before. The activity was in the clergy, who brought in base compromise with the world, and sold the honour of Christ for silver and gold, for ease and dignity. The worst, Jezebel, came later. Such was the public state of things produced in the middle ages, and tolerated under the shelter of the Lord's name, the corruption of former things, and the beginning of new which should go on till the Lord come in person.
"She that calleth herself a prophetess." It is precisely the claim of the so-called church, the assumption of permanent infallibility, the setting up to be a sort of inspired authority to enunciate doctrine, and to direct discipline beyond error. Is not this exactly what Romanism professes" Does it not then stand in the place of Jezebel? "And teachest and seducest my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols." All was the fruit of falling from grace long before; but far greater is the maturity now. "And I gave her space that she should repent; and she will not repent of her fornication. Behold, I cast her into a bed, and those that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of her works. And I will kill her children with death." Jezebel was a mother indeed: a holy mother, said the deceivers and deceived. What judged the Lord? what said those who preferred to die rather than commit adultery with her? This flagrant church-world corruption became now a settled institution. It was no mere transient cloud of error, but a body in the highest worldly position, a queen who also pretended to the highest spiritual power as a prophetess so-called, now permanently settled in Christendom, giving birth to a distinct progeny of profane lawlessness - "her children." Yet remark the distinction drawn between "my servants," however misled, and Jezebel's children. The Lord does not confound the pious who groaned and suffered and the proud that were exalted and persecuted. But sit a queen as she may, the Lord knows how to deal with her and her lovers, and will not spare. "And all the churches shall know that I am he that searcheth reins and hearts: and I will give to you, each one, according to your works."
"But to you I say, the rest (or, remnant) in Thyatira." The new fact is here plain. For thus we must read the text and render it, leaving out "and unto." The common text which gives rise to the current versions spoils the sense. It is to "the rest," or the remnant, in Thyatira, "as many as have not this doctrine," that the Lord thus turns. Here we have for the first time the formal recognition of saints not included in the public state of the assembly, yet not so openly separate as was found at a later day. There and then they are a witnessing body more or less in spirit, apart from that which set up in grievous pretension but in profoundly wicked communion with Jezebel; so the Lord judged and stigmatised what man called "our mother, the holy catholic church." To this remnant He says, "As many as have not known this doctrine, which knew not the depths of Satan, as they say, I cast upon you none other burden but that which ye have hold fast till I come." Thus the Lord speaks with exceeding tenderness of those that were true to His name. He did not expect great things from them. Can one reasonably doubt that those commonly called the Waldenses and Albigenses, and others perhaps of similar character, are in view here? They were simple and ardent, but with no considerable amount of knowledge, if measured by a fuller and richer testimony which the Lord afterwards raised up. None can judge fairly of them by the abuse and misrepresentation of their enemies.
The Lord at the close gives a promise suited to the condition. "He that overcometh, and he that keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give authority over the nations." This wicked Jezebel not only persecuted the true saints of God, but sought universal supremacy - a world-wide dominion over soul and body and all things. The Lord bids them in effect to have nothing to do with her, and He will give the true authority when He takes it Himself. Let them abide in the place of patience, even though tribulation arise, as there must be if any are content to endure for Christ's sake now. "And he shall rule them with iron rod, as the vessels of the potter are broken to shivers; as I also received of my Father. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches." The faithful will share Christ's authority at His coming, and be associated with Himself in His kingdom. But even this is not enough for grace. "And I will give him the morning star." This means, not association with Christ in His reign over the earth, but yet more in that which is proper to Him above the world altogether. The heavenly hope of being with Christ before the day breaks is promised, as well as part in His world-kingdom. Only those who watch for Him shall see the Morning Star. All the world must see the Sun of righteousness when He shines forth in His day.
Here the notable change takes place. The call to hear begins to follow the promise, instead of being before it. The reason is that a remnant is here formed. The public state of the church now requires the change. The Lord thenceforth puts the promise first, and this because it is vain to expect the church as a whole to receive it. The address is to the overcomer, who is therefore put before the call to hear. In the three previous churches, as all may notice, the call to hear is first, because the Lord is still dealing with the general conscience of the church. This is given up now. A remnant only overcome, and the promise is for them. The Lord henceforth takes notice of these in His call; as for others, it is all over with their fidelity.
Accordingly, if Thyatira were not made the beginning, as perhaps in strictness might have been best, the division of the next chapter (3) seems not to be unhappy at this point. For there is a marked turning-point with the last three churches. The ground of such a thought lies in the fact that the introduction to Sardis indicates the Lord beginning a new state of things. The ancient ecclesiastical or catholic phase of the church terminates with Thyatira: nevertheless Thyatira has also the peculiar trait that, though the close of the public state of the church, it is the beginning of those conditions which go on till the Lord's coming. It is therefore transitional. Thyatira, it is hard to doubt, contains within it the mystic representative of Romanism. This can scarce be denied to Jezebel; whilst "the remnant" represents those who, without being Protestants, form a witnessing company apart from Popery before the Reformation. The beginning of the third chapter introduces formally what may be called the Protestant phase of things, after the film stand for God's word.
Thus we have had the general condition of declension; next the early persecution from the heathen; then the power of the world patronising the church; finally, besides the remnant which in simplicity resisted the evil, we have Romanism, which alone, by the mention of Christ's personal coming, is supposed to go on to the end. The churches before do not continue. But Thyatira first represents that which abides. This applies also to the churches which follow.