"And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars." There is an evident allusion to the manner in which the Lord presented Himself to the church in Ephesus, but with a marked difference. Ephesus was the first presentation of the general public state. Sardis gives the rise of the new state of things, not strictly ecclesiastical - the Lord acting in the way of testimony rather than in that precise order. Hence it is not said here that He held in His right hand the seven stars and walked in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: this was ecclesiastical strictly. But here He "has" the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. He changes not, but does not describe Himself as before. Yet all power, all governing energy, is in His hands, and the seven stars, that is to say, all the instrumental lights by which He acts on souls here below. Let them not look to the world - to the powers that be. "I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead." Such was Protestantism after the impulse of the Reformation passed. How sad but true! The decline was sure if slow. They did lean on the world; and what can the issue of this be for those who are not of the world, as Christ is not?
"Be watchful, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die: for I have not found thy works completed before my God" Hence what judges the actual state is this, that they have the testimony of God's word much more fully shall those who had sunk into the mere ecclesiastical formalism of the middle ages. There the word of God had been overlaid and kept away, because the priests and the gospel can never go together in unison. It is, and always must be, the effect of the clerical principle to substitute the authority of man (more or less) for that of the Lord, and to weaken and hinder the immediate action of the Spirit by the word of God on the conscience. One speaks not of individual clergymen, but of clericalism wherever found, Catholic or denominational, nationalist or dissenting. Earthly priests are its extreme expression.
But the Protestant principle is a different one. People may not be true to their principles, and often are not. Has not every one, say they, the right of private judgment? God's rights were thus easily forgotten. Yet one of the grandest points fought for at the Reformation, and gained for Protestantism, whatever might be its defects, was this; - that man has fairly, freely, and openly the Bible. God's word is there to deal with human conscience. Men often speak of justification by faith; but even Luther himself hardly got thoroughly clear as to the truth of it. If, on the one hand, Romanists are miserably deluded, Protestants, on the other, do not understand the righteousness of God to this day. They have the truth in a measure, but not so as to clear souls from bondage, or bring them distinctly into liberty, peace, and the power of the Spirit. Had Luther settled peace in his soul, as the state in which he walked, We have many of us heard what conflicts he had, not merely at the beginning of his career, but to the end. Nor do we mean conflicts about the church or its leaders, but about his soul. It is needless here to cite passages from his extant writings, which prove how sorely he was tried by inward conflicts of unbelief. These amply prove how far he was from the calm enjoyment of the holy deliverance of the gospel; but it is an error to impute them to any other cause than a lack of clear knowledge of grace. In such a state all sorts of things may trouble the man, however able or honoured he may be, who cannot without a question rest on the Lord. Assuredly Luther is one from whom we may all learn much; whose courage, faithfulness, self-renunciation, and endurance are edifying and instructive. At the same time it is useless to blink the fact: energetic as he was and used of God largely, he was behind in the understanding both of the church and of the gospel.
In spite of drawbacks, an open Bible was won for God's children in particular, and for man also. This very thing condemned the state of Protestantism in result; because, while the Bible was freely read, scarce any one thought of forming all upon it or of being regulated by it only. Nothing is more common among Protestants than to admit a thing to be certain and true because it is in the word of God, without any serious intention or thought of acting upon it. Is not this a humbling fact? Romanists are in general too ignorant to know what is or is not in the Bible; for except the common-places of controversy with Protestants, they know little of its contents. Tell them that this or that, however momentous, is found there, and they look amazed. They rarely know it as a whole, having never read it save (?) under the eye of the directing priest, their confessor. The Protestant can read the Bible at liberty, which is a real and precious boon; but for this very reason the Protestant incurs no light responsibility.
"I have not found thy works completed before my God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heardest, and keep [it], and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come [on thee] as a thief." It is a sweeping intimation of the same way in which the Lord threatens to come on the world. Now if there be in the state of Protestantism one thing more marked than another, it is that they fall back on the world to deliver themselves from the power of the pope or the ecclesiastic. This has ever been the chief snare, as it is now. If even what belongs to the world be touched, they are in no small agitation about it. The church in danger because the tithes are assailed! Why, such wealth is real poverty, and the evident shame of an early lapse into Judaism. What would the apostles have thought of a claim so earthly and opposed to the true and heavenly separateness of Christ's body!
Let none infer that in saying, this one feels little for saints. Nor is it doubted that it is a great Sin to wipe off all public recognition of God in the world. But leaning on the world has let in the world; and if the godly complain of accrediting unbelievers as the faithful, their leaders are quick to stifle conscience with the cry, We must not judge! But this is not a true judgment of charity which spares no pains to own every saint and to warn that we may win to God sinners. The false start has led to far worse than in earlier days. Impossible to believe that the unblushing worldliness one sees in the modern combination of Dissenters with Papists and sceptics springs from just, holy, or unselfish motives. It is rather to be imputed to the latitudinarian spirit of infidelity, which admits also of a buckling to superstition. Doubtless the infidels hope to gain the day, as the superstitious are no less confident in their hopes. The truth is that the devil will have the upper hand to the destruction of them both, and then find that the Lord will appear in His day for personal judgment of all adversaries, and the rebuke of all unbelief.
The angel of the church in Sardis is warned that if he should not watch, the Lord will come on him unexpectedly as a thief. It is not at all so that His coming is spoken of for His own. These wait for Him in bright hope, without fear for themselves of His thief-like surprise. How can it be such for those who in faith and love look and long for Him? His coming is their joy; and they watch more than watchman for the dawn. The figure of the thief is therefore employed for the sleeping world or worldly-minded souls. Compare 1 Thessalonians 5 with 1 Thessalonians 4; also Mat_24:43 and Rev_16:15. If people walk with the worldly in divine things, it is not only that the unrenewed are in danger of being deceived, but that believers lose the joy of their own relationship. The world is attracted by the good words and fair speeches which deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. So solemnly does this language suppose that the assembly at Sardis had passed out of the practical attitude of waiting for the Lord who waits for them. It is an easy transition to pass into great dread of Him as a judge. They had slipped into the world, and share its fears and anxieties. They little knew or had lost the sense of Christ's peace left with them. Such souls lack the joy of His coming for them to receive to Himself those whom He loves. The unwelcome visitation of a thief would be incongruous if they were enjoying the blessed hope according to His own word, that He comes quickly.
"Thou hast a few names in Sardis which defiled not their garments, and they shall walk with me in white, because they are worthy." This is said without the enfeebling "even" of the common text, and they are cheered before the promise repeats it. Where the scriptures are read freely, we may look for some real good even in untoward associations. This has been always the case. Precious souls are there, and our happy service is to help them, if we can, to a better knowledge of His grace, - not, of course, to make light of their worldly ways, yet in love to feel for them as the Lord fully does. "He that overcometh, he* shall be clothed in white garments; and I will not blot his name out of the book of life, and will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches."
* The οὕτως ("thus") of some very ancient MSS. and versions has needlessly perplexed critics and expositors. No error is more common than the confusion of o and w in the old copies, as here for οὕτος ("he"). It is emphasised for good reason.
In the next place stands a great contrast. "And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no one shall shut; and shutteth, and no one shall open." Every word of Christ's presentation of Himself differs from that given in Rev. 1. This marks generally the change in the chapter, and especially the part before us. The address to Sardis also, although allusive to that of Ephesus, is nevertheless clearly meant to stand distinguished from it. It is a recommencement, and so far analogous with that to Ephesus; but the manner in which the Lord is presented is not the same. His having the seven Spirits of God is distinct from the first and normal picture. But where is anything here similar to the description of the Lord Jesus given before? It is a new state of things; and in the details of Philadelphia there is far more evidence of it.
The descriptions of the second chapter generally repeat what was found in the vision John had at first seen. The one exception is in Thyatira, where He is described as the Son of God; and this marks the fact of a transition, the beginning of a changed condition. It is a church state in responsibility though not in true power, being an ecclesiastical body which presents horrors to the Lord's eyes, but not without a remnant dear to Him. This at the same time goes down to the end, and brings in distinctly the Lord's coming. For, be it observed, the personal coming of the Lord is not introduced in any of the first three; from Thyatira it is, because the condition sketched out goes on till then. It was not so with Ephesus, with Smyrna, or with Pergamum: the only semblance of it is in threats of present visitation. To Thyatira, or at least the remnant there, it is given personally, and to Sardis judicially. But Philadelphia has it in all grace, as a bright and proximate hope.
Indeed to the angel of the church in Philadelphia is prominently brought out the Lord in His moral glory, what He is, not merely what He has. It is now Christ Himself, and this as One that faith discovers in the beauty of holiness, not dependent on the vision of glory seen before, but Christ as He genuinely is in Himself, "he that is holy, he that is true." But He is also seen according to the largeness of His glory. Absorbed with Him and resting in His love, the heart delights in all that is His. Faith sees that the Holy and the True is the same that has the key of David. Old Testament prophecy, or dispensational truth, can be freely introduced now. It is "he that openeth and no one shall shut; and shutteth, and no one shall open." His control is guaranteed. "I know thy works: behold I have set before thee an opened door, and none can shut it: for thou hast little strength." There is perfect liberty now, liberty for worship and service, for every one that would serve the Lord. They are supposed not to be marked by such mighty doings as were before. If Sardis did great exploits, Philadelphia knew nothing of the sort. Are we content to be littler to be of no esteem in the world? never to set up for anything that men wonder at or admire?
Notoriety is not true of Philadelphia, which is rather formed by faith of a rejected Christ. We know of what small account He was to the world; so it is with the saints in Philadelphia. Has this fellowship with Him no price in His eyes? "Thou hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name" Jesus was marked by valuing His Father's word and loving His Father's name, the only One that could also truly say to Satan as true of Himself, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." So here the Philadelphian saints are distinguished by the same living in the dependence of faith. In their measure each could say with the apostle, "For me to live is Christ." To some it might appear a small thing not to deny Christ's name; but is anything more precious to the Lord? Once it was a question of not denying His faith, as was found in Pergamum; but here it is Himself as revealed. What He is is the main point. Orthodoxy, if ever so real, does not suffice, but His person, though absent on high, and the glory due to Him in our souls.
"Behold, I make [or, give] of the synagogue of Satan, that say they are Jews, and they are not, but lie." Is not this the revival of that dreadful scourge that had afflicted the early church (as in Smyrna)? Have we not heard of it? And have we not seen it ourselves? How comes it, that for so many hundreds of years only a part of what the Fathers had laboured at sank into the minds of men, a considerable portion being rejected by Protestantism; but now, when God brings out this fresh witnessing, there rises a counter-testimony? Satan revives the old Judaising spirit, at the very time that God reasserts the true principle of Christian brotherhood, and, above all, makes Christ Himself to be all to His own. Here we have for our instruction the fact, that the synagogue of Satan, those who say they are Jews, and are not, revives. How stand the facts, How are they even in this country? What is commonly called Puseyism has this character; and the system is in no way confined to this country but holds equally abroad, as in Germany, America, and elsewhere. In fact it is a fair show in the flesh wherever Protestantism is found; and, above all, wherever this is provoked either by scepticism on the one hand, or on the other by truth that condemns both with any real measure of heavenly light. In order to defend themselves on a religious footing, men fall back on a system of ordinances and of the law. This seems meant by the synagogue of Satan here. They claim sacerdotalism and practise ritualism, both irreconcilable with Christianity.
But the Lord will compel the recognition of His own testimony and witnesses. We do not say when, where, or how; but as surely as He lives will the Lord vindicate the truth He has given as it were back again for His name. Only let us bear in mind that the favour and power vanish when the witnesses lose sight of Christ and preach themselves. May we have grace to merge ourselves truly in Him! "Behold, I will cause them to come and do homage before thy feet, and to know that I loved thee."
Nor is this all. As we know, there is a perilous time awaiting the world, the hour not exactly of tribulation but "of temptation." This hour of trial, it seems, falls within the Apocalyptic future, or "the things which are about to be after these things." It is not merely the time of horrors when Satan in a rage is expelled from on high, and when the Beast, energised by him, rises to his full height of persecuting power, but the previous period of trouble and seduction. "The hour of temptation" is a term larger than the "great tribulation" of Revelation 7, and still more so than the unparalleled tribulation which is to befall the land of Israel (Dan. 12, Matt. 24, Mark 13). If so, how rich and full is the promise, "Because thou didst keep the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of the trial (or, temptation) which is about to come on all the habitable world, to try them that dwell on the earth"? In vain men try to escape. The hour of temptation must come on all the inhabited world. Perhaps some remember when people used to flee to Canada, in order to escape "the great tribulation," which they expected to fall on the old empire of the Beast revived. But the scheme was a mistake, their flight foolish. The hour of temptation will catch men, no matter where they may hide; for it is about to come on the whole habitable world, "to try them that dwell on the earth." How blessed to be here a sojourner, whose living associations are with Christ in heaven!
Who then can escape? Those who at Christ's call are to be caught up to heaven. They will not be in that hour. It is not merely that they will not be in the mace but they will he kept "out of the hour," of the coming temptation. What a full and bright exemption! Such is the strength of the promise and its blessedness, that the Lord promises His own to be kept even out of its time. The simple and sure way to keep any from the hour is to take them altogether out of the scene. The Irvingites used to talk about the Lord having a little Zoar. How poor and earthly its comparison! It is not, however, a question of geography, or of a distant and secret place of shelter, but of complete removal from the period filled by the temptation coming on all the habitable world. This is worthily secured by translating them to heaven before the time of the world-trial arrives; and this the promise before us imports. The godly remnant of Jews, on the other hand, having to do with a special and fiery but circumscribed tribulation in Jerusalem, have only to flee to the mountains in order to escape, till Jesus appears in glory to the confusion of their foes. It is quite another thing for Christians. How readily errors for the church tale a Jewish shape!
"*I come quickly!" There is not a word about His coming as a thief now, but with joy. The Lord will have revived the true hope of His return; there are those who now wait thus for Christ, and this epistle seems emphatically to apply to such. "I come quickly!" In principle it is true for all that are really faithful. Happy they for whom Christ is all! What association with Himself in glory He promises! Lot it be ours now in faith and patience, yea keeping the word of Christ's patience. "Hold fast what thou hast, that no one take thy crown." It is a great grace never to go back from known truth; and none can be so exposed as those who have received much, and of a high order. Watch and pray. "He that overcometh, him 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, the new Jerusalem, that cometh down out of the heaven from my God, and my new name. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches." He will be as much marked by power in the day of glory, as by contentedly dependent weakness in God's present ways of grace. He suffers with Christ and waits for Him, if not with Him. To be a pillar in the temple of My God is as truly a figure for the day of glory as the synagogue of Satan is a figure now. For literally there is no temple in the new Jerusalem. It is the one of little strength now made manifestly strong in that day and in God's blessed presence. And thus it is with each promise associating us with Christ in all the scenes of bliss.
* "Behold" is not warranted by the best authorities.
There remains the last epistle to the angel of the church in Laodicea; and on this but a few words may suffice. "And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God." The church in its responsibility on earth was to be set aside, most of all at the last, for being an unfaithful witness. The Laodicean picture is, of course, most distinct, but seems to be largely the result of dislike and contempt for the testimony that the Lord had previously raised up. If people despise the grace and truth valued by those who truly wait for the Lord, they are in danger of falling into the awful condition here set forth. Certainly here Christ is no longer the loved and satisfying object of the heart; nor is there any such sense of His person as leads into waiting for Him; still less can there be glorying in weakness that the power of Christ may rest on one. There is the desire to be great, to be esteemed of men, "rich, and increased in goods, and in need of nothing." We find here a state therefore, that leaves ample room for man's thoughts and ways.
Hence the Lord introduces Himself to them as the Amen; all security lies in the Christ of God. He only is "the faithful and true witness." This is exactly what the church ought to have been but was not; and therefore He has to take that place Himself. It was so before when He was here below in grace; now He must resume it in judicial power rend glory, than which one can hardly conceive a greater rebuke for the condition of those whose obligation was to be faithful and true witnesses Besides He is "the beginning of the creation of God." This sets aside the first man altogether, and most justly, for Laodicea is the glorification of man and of his resources in the church. He begins that new work, which God delights in as according to His nature.
"I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would that thou wert cold or hot. Thus, because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spue thee out of my mouth." Being neutral in principle and practice, they were half-hearted toward Christ. Nor is any place more likely to generate neutrality than an outwardly true position, if self-judgment be not maintained with godly sincerity. The more one stands in the forefront of the battle, with the responsible testimony of God, the more His grace and truth are in letter brought out before others, if there be not also walk according to the light, sooner or later comes a lapse back into neutrality, if not active enmity. For heart and conscience are not animated and governed by the power of God's Spirit through living faith in Christ. Indifference to all that is good must follow; and the only kind of zeal, if zeal can so exist, will be for what is of the first man, worldly, and bad.
This is Laodiceanism. So repulsive does the Master declare it to be, that one need not wonder that most are unwilling for it to be their lot, or that it can be, as it is, the last recorded phase before the church is traced no more on earth. People vainly dream of progress, and flatter themselves. "Thus because thou art neither cold nor hot, I am about to spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and am grown rich, and have need of nothing, and knowest not that thou art the wretched one and the miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked; I counsel thee to buy of me gold purified by fire." They wanted everything that was characteristic of Christianity: "gold" or divine righteousness in Christ, "that thou mayest be rich"; "and white garments," or the righteousnesses of saints, "that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness may not be manifested; and eyesalve to anoint shine eyes, that thou mayest see." They had lost the perception of what God values. All was dark as to truth, and uncertain as to moral judgment. Holy separateness and savour were gone. "As many as I dearly love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and am knocking: if any one hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." The Lord presents Himself even there in His pitiful way to meet their every want
"He that overcometh, I will give him to sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father in his throne. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches."
The utmost promised in the word that closes the epistle goes not beyond reigning with Him. It is not anything special. For every one that has part in the first resurrection reigns with Christ, as even shall the Jewish sufferers under earlier enemies, or later under the Beast. It is a mistake therefore to suppose that it is a singular distinction. For all amounts to this, that the Lord will hold, after all, to His own truth in spite of unfaithfulness. There may be individual reality, even where the surroundings are miserably untoward. But all that are born of God and are Christ's share the kingdom.
Such is the bearing of the seven churches to which the Lord was pleased to send the letters contained in the second and third chapters. We have found substantial reason and ample evidence in their own contents, as well as in the character of the book itself, to look for a meaning far more comprehensive than only the historical notice of the Asiatic churches then primarily addressed. That John wrote to these seven churches is indisputable; but that no more was meant ought not to be assumed. "The things that are" is an unusual and suggestive expression. The septenary number in itself is significant, and its division into three and four. Again, the order of their contents, as well as their nature severally, points to a continuative inference. There are depicted successive phases of strikingly varied ecclesiastical states, as objects of the Lord's judgment from the threat on the first till the spuing out of the last. Further it is plain, if certain phases do not abide, that at a given point in their course the language implies that the latter ones continue up to Christ's coming. From Thyatira inclusively those also that follow, as they successively arise, go on together till then.
Thus one gathers from the internal evidence that the three earlier churches are severed in character from the rest; for though all are alike typical and successive from the apostle's day, only the last four are used as fore-shadows of the successive states to continue up to the Lord's advent. The promises to the overcomers in Thyatira, the threat to the worldly-minded in Sardis, the comforting assurance to those that keep the word of Christ's patience in Philadelphia, and the closing sentence to the angel of the church in Laodicea are clear enough to indicate far more than any past application. "The things that are" in other words are not yet closed; they have not become the things that were Who is bold enough to suppose that the predicted hour of universal temptation is past, or that faithful souls have been somehow kept out of it? Will it be said that the last stage is reached for the church on earth? that Christ has already and definitely spued its final representative out of His mouth? If it be so, ought not every saint on earth to sit in sackcloth and ashes deploring the irreparable ruin? Not a hint is given of restoration when this pass is reached. The next chapter discloses what follows. It is worthy of all heed on our part, if indeed we believe the crisis in Laodicea as well as the promise to him that overcomes in Philadelphia. There was enough in the then existing state of Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea to call forth the Lord's words; but who believes that each of the epistles to them left no room for a much more exhaustive fulfilment?
From this point we have the Spirit of God leading the prophet into the understanding of (not the church state, but) that which must follow when churches are no longer to exist. Thus it becomes a question of dealing with the world, not without testimonies from God in the midst of gradually swelling troubles; but His witnesses henceforward are of Jewish or Gentile character, never thenceforth of the church on earth. Believers we do see, of course, some of the chosen people, others of the nations; but we hear of no real church condition after the second and third chapters. The Jewish saints are expressly distinct from the Gentile: a state quite incompatible with the church, seeing that it is the essence of its nature that such distinctions within are wholly abolished. For Christ has broken down the middle wall of enclosure, having annulled the enmity in His flesh, that He might form the two in Himself into one new man, making peace, and might reconcile both in one body to God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby. Can there be a more striking proof of the way in which the patent facts of the word of God are habitually passed over than that a change so immense has been so constantly overlooked?