Christ's Word and His Name.
We have much before us tonight, which I shall do poor justice to in the short time before me. But there are some prominent characteristics of the state of things to which this epistle addresses itself which I wish to bring before you. I do not intend to go into many details, but merely to apply certain prominent points, in this address.
This epistle has a different character from any former one. The Lord speaks of Himself in a very distinct way from that in which He spoke of Himself before. It is not anything external, but what He is Himself, the Holy and True One. The way the Lord presents Himself in these epistles is always in accordance with the state of those to whom He speaks. It is for warning or encouragement, or perhaps both, as in the address to Smyrna: "He that liveth and was dead," enforced by the words, "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life." Here, "He that is holy, and he that is true" is a solemn admonition, and yet it surely has its blessed comfort too.
This personal title, in conjunction with the whole epistle, seems to show the final break-up of ecclesiasticism, and an individual walk becoming the whole matter. Holiness and truth have seldom been the attributes of bodies of men, even where professedly Christian. Not long was it even in the apostles' time before one of these could say, "All seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ." Pentecost has never returned. And now, having followed the development of Christendom at large from Ephesus to Thyatira, and having seen the truth given again of God dying out in the national systems of Protestantism, (in Sardis), in Philadelphia we find a strictly remnant testimony; the Holy and the True speaking of that which has seldom characterized more than individuals, and which challenges our response as individuals to it.
It is comparatively easy to point out Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, but who shall point out Philadelphia? Can you decide it in your favor by the fact that you belong to this or that company of people, — in this or that ecclesiastical relationship? Is this all that is intended by keeping Christ's word and not denying His name? I am not at all denying that the question of our associations is one of grave importance, and rightly finds a place in connection with these things. A place it must have, and a serious one, for he must purge himself from vessels to dishonor, who would himself be a vessel unto honor and Christ's word defines our Church-place, as all else. But to take a part for the whole would be a grave mistake, and even to give an undue place to such a part.
It is more than doubtful, then, if any body of Christians as a whole can possibly represent Philadelphia as a whole. It is quite certain that, in order to do so, it would have to be in a better condition far than was the Church already in the days when apostles were yet upon the earth. No: the more Philadelphia represents a condition which has in a remarkable way the Lord's own approval, the more does it become us to see well whether that condition is our own or not.
Let us look a little then at what we have here in its prominent features.
They have but a little power: no very great works characterize them. Three things however do, to which the Lord evidently attaches great importance.
First: "thou hast kept My word."
Secondly: "and hast not denied My name."
Thirdly: "thou hast kept the word of My patience."
And first, it is "My word," in opposition to all other. Everywhere through the epistle, as you cannot fail to see, this "My" is remarkably emphasized, and the Person of the Lord exceeding prominent. It may remind us how He has been bringing out in these latter days the truth as to Himself. Not alone the effect of His work, the power of His blood to cleanse and reconcile, but what He personally is who has done all for us. Especially has He been teaching us to look into the inner sanctuary into which He is gone, and to recognize Him more simply and really for what He is, true Man, as true a Man as ever, as well as God over all, blessed forever. I think none can doubt, who know what God has been doing for us in His grace for some time past, that the Lord Jesus has been fixing the eyes of His people more intently upon Himself, and inviting us to nearer intimacy. For how many the thought of Christ where He is now, was dimmed by the very glories of the Godhead into which He was thought to have gone back — scarcely any longer to be thought of as a Man at all! And to how many has the thought of a Man — true Man, in the very glory of God, and there as representative of His people, brought Christ into a distinctness and intimacy which is now the life of all their joy.
This vividly personal mode of address is no less strikingly appropriate to our day than it is in itself precious and inspiring. And is it not also a further mark of remnant limes? He whom men cast out of the synagogue because he could not but confess that Divine power had opened his eyes, and because he would not dishonor — little as he knew of Him — the One in whom that power had displayed itself, was but cast out to learn in Jesus' presence the glory of the Son of God, and to take his place among the sheep of the true Shepherd. And in proportion as we prove the breaking up of everything, — the ruin, not merely of the world as such, but the religious ruin — do we not find (if it be real) the presence of the Lord, all the more real, meeting all our need? And then, as we prove this, "His Word" has a place with us correspondingly. His Word, because it is His, — inherently sweet, no doubt, yet not only because it is sweet: His Word, in opposition to all else.
And, beloved friends, if we look around us at the present day, which of us can be ignorant that it is the word of God that is in special question everywhere. The two great parties of this day, the party of superstition on the one hand, and of infidelity on the other, however they may seem to be essentially opposed, yet unite in the attempt to lower and take away the authority of His Word as such. Will Rome allow consciences to be simply before God, and in subjection to Scripture? So far from that, you are to receive her infallible interpretation of it and not listen to it for yourself at all. And all ritualism, however diluted, runs in the same direction. The voice of the Church is substituted for Christ's voice, and the Church herself presses in between you and Him: there is to be distance, not intimacy. On the other hand, infidelity (which you will find, in a form still more variously diluted, where you least suspect it) will not allow God's voice to speak to you in any real way at all. Religion is an earth-born thing — not heaven born; an aspiration perhaps, but not an inspiration; a seeking after God, not God after you; and a seeking which they are now determining to be a fond vain thing, for God is the Unknowable, and even the conception of Theism is "unthinkable."
On the other side, God has been bringing out for us in the most wonderful way the fulness of His Word. I do not at all speak of external evidences, although in every self-chosen path by which man is seeking to escape from God, He has been meeting and confronting him with these. Stones have been crying out in Egypt, and bricks in Assyria. The disentombed memorials of the long dead past have proclaimed Him then living, who still and ever liveth. But I speak of that in which His Word has witnessed for itself, as the innermost shrine of His presence in which every voice speaks of His glory. That Word which to unbelief is so poor and common and gives no response, has never to faith been so revealing God, since apostles and prophets spoke it first. Christ, mute in the judgment-hall and before His accusers, has never so manifested Himself before in the midst of His own. Thus a true and faithful God has been providing for the need of His people in the days which are coming, which even now are come, when nothing else remains to us; when, if we cannot take His Word and rest in it, no other rest is possible at all.
You may understand then what an immense thing it is to be keepers of Christ's Word. Let us remark now also, that it is not merely words of His, but His Word, His Word as a whole. It has become a common fashion to say that Scripture contains God's word, not is it. Thus we are left to pick out, in the best manner we may, whatever is really His, from that which may be merely the mistake of the writer. Thus the Word ceases to have authority over us; instead of its judging us, we become its judges. We obey it when obedience coincides with our own inclinations and when we do not find it so, our excuse is at hand.
We can easily discern the folly and the sin of this; but we must remember, beloved friends, how we may really be acting secretly in such a way as this, without having any formal theory at all about it. Practically we may be making our Bible a mere collection of favorite texts, and ignoring those we have no fancy for, as if they were not inspired by the same authority. Are there none who have a very real disrelish for practical homely precepts, who get on excellently with the highest doctrines? Let us understand then clearly, that keeping Christ's Word means surely, if it means anything, honest subjection to the whole of it: to that of which even we may not perceive the importance, as if we did; calling nothing little of what He enjoins, — of what has equal authority to emphasize it.
We have need to remember, too, that our own contrary wills are often the most effectual hindrances 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, surely, to own that our differences are due to ourselves and not to Him. But then these differences, found in so many whom we must esteem as really godly men, what a warning they give us of how much that is not of God may be even in the godliest. 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 there must be!
And it is not hard to see that such is indeed the case, — that a mass of His own (ignorantly perhaps, but then self-blinded) are really following "words" of His, rather than as a whole His "Word." Nay, many seem to have come deliberately to a stand, where to go further would cost them (they think) too much. They do not realize that it costs them really more to proffer Him a compromise He cannot accept; that it costs the brightness and freshness of their lives now, and what hereafter He alone knows. How many are trying to make up for this by the excitement of work for Him, and almost persuading themselves that "to obey is" not "better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams."
I say again, do not decide it by ecclesiastical position; do not in fact draw the line anywhere; do not think it means you are this side of any line. Is your face — are our faces — still ever onward after Him, who rests not till He has us where His heart can rest with us? How plainly perceptible it is, when a soul thus stops! Though the working may go on, and the whole outside be no other than it was, there is something gone that one in fellowship with God will at once feel hindering fellowship. Beloved brethren, how sorrowful it is to lose one another's company in this way! But if we lose Christ's, what shall replace it?
And here, again, so many in judging themselves take up with what is far below the Christian standard. Their measure is merely by what is in itself right or wrong — a legal measure. They occupy themselves with what is good, perhaps the gospel, and fancy that must be devotedness, when perhaps it is all self-invented employment and will-worship, not in His plan for them, and meant, in fact, (so treacherous are our hearts) to buy them off from true obedience.
But I must pass on to the next thing here in the Lord's commendation of the Philadelphians. The first thing is, "thou hast kept My Word": they are exemplifying a spirit of true obedience; and now it is, "thou hast not denied My name."
Names in Scripture are significant things. They are not there as in the present day put upon people for their prettiness, or because they run in the family. God did not think it an unworthy thing often Himself to interfere and change or give a name, as we can all remember, and so the Lord with His disciples. There was a reason for the name. It was the expression of what the person was, most generally, or would be, as in Abraham, Israel, Peter, and such like; and so especially with the names of God or of Christ.
When God took the special name of Jehovah with Israel, it meant that He was going to approve Himself to them in that character, as the immutable God, the I AM, upon whom they could rely to keep the covenant. So Christ is Immanuel, "God with us," and in order that that prophecy may be, or shown to be fulfilled, He is called "Jesus," His people's Saviour from their sins. God could not be with us except our sins were met, and none but a Divine person could meet them, — salvation must be of God: and this is all expressed in that name "Jesus."
Again the name "Christ," which every one knows, is but the Greek form of the Hebrew "Messiah," speaks of Him as the One anointed of God to be the Deliverer in three necessary ways: a Prophet to bring out of error; a Priest to open the way to God; a King to govern for God.
Thus Christ's name is a remarkably explicit declaration of Himself. And this name of His, with the facts which it implies, is what is committed to His people to hold fast and maintain as His, in the midst of a world which has rejected Him. To confess His name involves thus the confession of His absolute deity; His true humanity; His salvation of His people; His being their only and sufficient Teacher, Intercessor and Lord. This we have not to "profess" of Him merely, but to "confess," for the world will not allow that He is really this. I do not forget that among us the world is even yet what is called a Christian world, but that does not alter it really. As soon as it sees that these names mean some thing for you, that they express truly what Christ is to you, then they will not suffer it. Their protest may be more or less polished according to the refinement of the age; it may be the protest of liberality itself against your narrowness: none the less you will have to suffer. Christ calls for confession ever. His people need never fear that they will have to give up the old path of suffering, consecrated by the prayers and tears of past generations of the long line of His witnesses. The world never really changes: our path through it, our struggle against it cannot change.
The name of Christ expresses then what He is: the truth of what He is, is what is committed to us, what we have to confess in the face of the world. Here is the great controversy between God and man in the present day. As in Israel the question was between Jehovah, the one true God, and the gods of the heathen; and Satan's effort then (alas, his too successful effort) was to lead the people of Jehovah into the surrounding idolatry, so now the question is as to the one Christ — for Satan's power has set up "many Antichrists."
People little realize how pre-eminently false doctrine is the work of Satan. Christ is the "Truth;" the Spirit of Christ, "the Spirit of truth;" Satan is the "liar from the beginning." By a lie of his, man was first seduced and fell. By the truth he is brought back to God, and sanctified. Satan's effort is therefore by counteracting lies to destroy the power of the truth, and his most successful method is not so much direct denial, as perversion of the truth. Knowing man's heart but too well by long experience, he knows how to combine truth and error so skillfully, that the truth shall give only the more speciousness to the error, while the error in the guise of truth shall appeal to the lusts and passion, and enlist them upon its side.
Thus Satan seduces as an angel of light, and Christendom, with its profession of Christ's Lordship, can worship many lords under that profession. Not denying His name, may in this way be given as a signal mark of approbation in the midst of Christendom, even more than in the midst of heathenism.
If we look further into Scripture for the association in which we find the name of Christ, we shall soon see that it is connected with the whole standing and walk of the individual believer, as well as with the practical gathering together of His people: things which, always of primary importance, have, as thus connected, come into special prominence in the present day. We are "justified in the name of the Lord Jesus;" our prayers are to be presented in His name; our every word and work are all to be done in His name; our gathering as Christians is to be "to His name." And these things may be otherwise stated, as our identification with Christ before God, His identification with us before the world; and the objective power of what He is for us, individually or collectively. That these are things very specially in question in these days, if we are intelligent observers, we shall surely see.
Our justification in His name involves the first of these truths. It is our identification with Him before God that alone permits, and necessitates our acquittal. We are justified, as Scripture assures us, "by His blood;" He having stood for us upon the cross and died under our just sentence. But thus also, if His death is ours, His coming up from the dead is also ours; if "He was delivered for our offences," He "was raised again for our justification." His death was ours as sinners before God: we passed away in that character entirely, "our old man," all that we we were as children of fallen Adam, being "crucified with Christ." His resurrection declares the fact of His acceptance in the offering of Himself for us, — declares therefore our acceptance. Our place is hence forth in Christ before God, identified completely with the One who as Man is entered into the heavens and set down in the presence of God for His people.
Hence the Lord could speak to His disciples, in view of the accomplishment of His work, and of His now imminent return to His Father, of prayer in His name as a new thing which would be now for the first time their privilege, when the Spirit of truth having come to lead them into all the blessed reality of the new position, they should know that He was in the Father, and He in them, and they in Him (John 14:20). Conscious of their gracious identification with Him on high, they were now for the first time to approach the Father as thus identified; and the answer to their prayers, however feeble these prayers, would be the testimony of Divine satisfaction with Christ and with His work.
But if His people are thus in Christ on high, He, on the other hand, is in them below; and, while identification is not the only thought in this, (for He is in us as life also and by His Spirit, and this is what empowers us for such a place), yet identification is none the less clear and certain too. If He represents us in heaven, we represent Him on earth, and this is as wonderful a privilege as it is an immense responsibility. We represent Him before the world: living His life, treading His path, learning His sorrows and tasting too His joys. Whatever we do in word or deed, we are to "do all in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Col. 3:17).
And are not these truths which God has been graciously restoring to us in these days afresh, (though from the beginning in Scripture, and which characterize in a measure the spiritual movement of the time) do not they give fresh meaning to the confession of His name? No doubt the revival of "justification by faith" is as old as the Reformation, and was then brought out with simplicity and power. We have cause to thank God for it abundantly. Yet even that had been again very much obscured by the substitution of experiences and fruits of the Spirit instead of Christ, as to be rested in. And this had deprived the doctrine itself of much of its power and blessedness. But there was one thing to which the Reformation did not attain, and of which the common evangelical doctrine, so-called, has fallen entirely short: it is this identification of the believer with Christ risen and gone in, as Man, to God.
Even the full manhood of the Lord, as a present thing in heaven, has become misty and indistinct, and the resurrection side of the gospel is nearly absent from the evangelical systems. They stop short with Christ's death for us, and use that to replace us upon earth as men in the flesh still. They count it mysticism to talk of not being in the flesh, of being dead with Christ, risen and seated in Him in the heavenly places. The righteousness they impute is obedience to the law merely, than which they say there can be nothing higher, and which, according to the system, Adam should have fulfilled.
The effect of this is, we are left in the world and of it, though forgiven and justified; we are to take our place in it and make it better, not walk outside of it. Pilgrims and strangers we are not, save in the perforce way that all the world is — time hurrying us on alike to death and an eternity beyond.
A signal proof of this is just the doctrine everywhere current, that the law is the rule of a Christian's life. To this doctrine they attach extreme importance. To deny it is, as they think, to open the flood-gates of iniquity, and preach license of the wildest sort. For they have settled it against the apostle's clear and emphatic statement, that the law is the strength of holiness, instead of being, as he affirms it, "the strength of sin" (2 Cor. 15:56). The law, they say, is the "transcript of the mind of God," and therefore the same as the gospel, only a good deal more. To speak of being "dead to" it, and "delivered from" it, they would deem profanity, if it were not that, these expressions being found in Scripture, they had decreed them to apply merely to the ceremonial law. But the "ceremonial law" is a theological fiction, not a Scriptural fact at all. It is not found in Scripture anywhere, but is an arbitrary invention, to escape from its plain meaning. In the very chapter from which the expressions just now cited are taken, and in direct connection with them, that law is represented as saying, "Thou shalt not covet" (Rom. 7:7). Was this the ceremonial law? Was the ceremonial law "the strength of sin"? But my point is simply now, that when they claim the law as the rule of a Christian's life, they thereby omit from the Christian standard all that is not found in the Jewish one. The higher position of the Christian is not admitted to have any corresponding practical effect. Long life on earth is set before him as an aim and object. The heavenly position is not contemplated and pilgrim and strangership are left out of the "rule;" for in the ten commandments, manifestly, these are not to be found.
How differently does the apostle set things before us in the last chapter of his epistle to the Galatians: "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature (or creation); and as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and on the Israel of God." The Christian rule is that he walk as one crucified to the world, in Christ a new creation — not a mending of the old.
Thus, as I have said, evangelicalism drops the resurrection side of the gospel, and the characteristic heavenly features of a Christian's life. God has however come in to recall them to our attention. He is lifting our eyes up to the heavens to which He is just ready to call us home; and oh, may our hearts answer to His appeal. Remember, this must be no mere theory with us. It will not do to take this place, and spare the flesh and cultivate worldliness after all. It will not do to talk about resurrection-life without some consistent endeavor to apprehend and exemplify it. Practical results will always follow real faith, and this is as true of faith in any special truth, as it is of faith as a whole. The holy and the true One seeks for holiness and truth.
There is another thing connected with the name of Christ, as we have already seen, and you must suffer me to go on to speak of this. It was Christ's name that once linked together all His people. No other name was known amongst them. And when other names did begin to appear, the apostle's voice rebuked the dishonor put upon the One to whom alone they were baptized, who was alone their Master. Now, alas, the name of Christ is no longer a sufficient bond of union for His people. No doubt they are ready, one and all, to claim the promise of His personal presence where two or three are gathered to His name; yet, if, instead of accepting this as a matter of course, they would try and prove their title, they would find it perhaps less easy to do so than they think. Would His name gather less than all His own? Could you plead being gathered to His name, and (apart from the question of scriptural discipline) exclude His people? If His name be the truth as to what He is, as we have seen, then this will exclude all falsehood as to Christ. But for the very same reason, it will unite all true confessors of Him. If what He is unites us, we shall have to put aside all separate and separating creeds and articles, and return to simple membership of the one body of Christ.
Alas, does it seem a bold thing now to claim His Church for Him? Well, if we may scarcely hope that she will answer to the claim, yet Christ has provided in His grace, from the very beginning, for the faith of two or three, if there were no more, who would refuse all bonds beside His name. If they have nought else they have the assurance that that faith shall not be in vain, — that He at least will be with them, whose presence is all needed sanction, and all joy.
You may perhaps turn round upon me here and ask, Do I mean to deny that Christ is with all His people, or that the Spirit of God does not work in the denominations of Christendom? And many will be ready to urge, nay, have urged again and again, that the way in which the Spirit of God works amongst these shows His sanction of them. But that is too large a conclusion. It would carry us on to the conviction that Romanism itself was sanctioned of Him. Who can deny that God worked by such an one as Martin Boos? He worked, and worked largely; and we can surely own it fully, and bless His name for it, without at all supposing that His love and pity shown to souls in the midst of popery sanctions the papal system! God is sovereign in His grace, bound and limited by no restrictions. We rejoice to know that in a world of sinners He has bought Himself title to come in anywhere and save. Sin is no barrier where the Lamb of God has suffered for it. Did He want to have things right before He came in, who would be saved?
If you urge that grace, where it comes in, will tend to set things right, I answer, Of course: every soul that knows God would agree to that. But here comes in the mystery (mystery it is, to believers and to unbelievers alike), the mystery of the human will, — which, even in God's people, dares to set limits to obedience to His Word, aye, and can cover these up with flowers, as necessary fences and safeguards to holiness.
I fully allow that every where God's Spirit works, and works for good; but everywhere, alas, man's will works too. Let us not confound these. None can "be as God's mouth" who do not learn, with Jeremiah, to "take forth the precious from the vile." The mingling of such things together is not of God; but much that is of God is yet so mingled.
Yes, the working of God's Spirit is like that to which the Lord compares it, "the wind" that "bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth." And God's grace is to the chief of sinners unrestricted grace. We must not take these as putting sanction on the circumstances amid which they work. We must not judge of the latter but by the Word which God has given us for perfect guidance. And we must not propose to follow Him in His workings necessarily, for this is beyond us, to do as He does; and, as has been truly said by others, "He is the Sovereign, and we are the servants," and the servant must only do what he is bidden.
Most fully then can we allow that God works among denominations, without in the least conceding that denominations are of Him, or that He is with them as such. I have already declared also my conviction, that in the beginning of many of these He was with — fully with — those whose consciences forced them into separation from some evil, which He had made them realize as such. But that proves nothing as to the denomination itself. Who indeed can read the apostle's challenge of the first entry of the thing at Corinth, and honestly maintain that God approves of it? Or that all that he forbade was their wrangling about it, but that when that wrangling had come to a division, then it would be all right? That would be to forbid a tree to have blossoms, whose fruit nevertheless might be acceptable enough.
We can fully maintain, then, God's universal grace. We can believe and rejoice in the unrestrained working of His blessed Spirit. We can do more than this: we can allow that Christ is with every individual Christian according to His promise: a promise realized indeed by these in proportion to the simplicity of their faith in Him, a faith whose fruit is found in the works which surely come of it. Our Lord's promise is clear, but in terms it is well to recall precisely, while we think of it. "He that hath My commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me and he that loveth Me shall be loved of My Father, and I will love him, and will manifest Myself unto him." And again: "If a man love Me, he will keep My words and My Father will love him, and we will come and make our abode with him" (John 14:21-23).
God forbid that we should deny these blessed words, or attempt in any wise to limit them arbitrarily, or indeed to limit them at all. The words apply to the individual, and to the individual alone: that is clear. And it should be clear that the Lord's promise to two or three gathered to His name is a promise additional to this, and outside of it. It is a sanction, not of individual state, as that in John is, but of a gathering as gathered to Him a sanction connected not only with the hearing of prayer, but with binding and loosing by the assembly — with assembly acts, which no individual merely, or mere set of individuals, have power for.
For the assembly, if practically but only two or three of those gathered to His name, is thereby prevented being a mere clique or private party, met to accomplish merely personal ends. Its door must be open for all that are Christ's, confessing truly His blessed name and then He can be there to give efficacy and authority to that which is not the aim of a faction or a self-isolated party, but of His own gathered as His own, — as far as their will and aim can accomplish it, in unity with all His that are in practical fellowship with Him.
We may see then the reason of this promise, and that it is no arbitrary thing. And in order that He may be able to be with us so, He has put the terms of it as low as He could put them for a gathering to be a gathering at all, — "two or three" — blessed be His name! How great the grace we have indeed cause to own, in a day of such feebleness and disunion as is the present, spite of its pretension. Nor need there be one bit of pretension on the part of those who thus gather to His name. They, above all, are called to recognize the ruin in which they themselves have had but too disastrous part, and to own (what is a continual warning against pretension) that aught but continuous lowly cleaving to the strength of Christ can keep in a path where failure from the very beginning has been found.
Thus much then as to the confession of the name of Christ. Let us mark here, before we go on to consider the third thing before us, the meaning of the name Philadelphia, a meaning which connects well with what we have had just now, both in the way of warning and of encouragement alike. Philadelphia means "brotherly love." Not association merely, even of brothers, but brotherly love. So is it to be with us: love, wherever there are "brothers," love to all the children of the Father as His children, but a love which consists, and only consists, with heedful maintenance of what is due to the Father. I am but repeating the apostle's words: "This commandment have we from Him, that he who loveth God love his brother also." Then the extent of this, and the argument for it, are given us: "Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God; and every one that loveth Him that begat, loveth Him also that is begotten of Him." And then the caution: "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments: for this is the
love of God that we keep His commandments; and His
commandments are not grievous" (1 John 4:21; 1 John 5:1, 2).
Many are making the mistake of supposing love to be the track, so to speak, in which we are to run; whereas it is the motive force by which we run in the track. The word of God lays down the rails; and these are rightly, and necessarily rigid and narrow too, in a true sense. The Word itself tells us that the way is a "narrow way." But love takes that road alone, and never another. The apostle will not allow that anything we may think love is such. He will not allow feeling to be the test at all. Of course we shall feel it — that is quite true, — but it is not the test; man's heart is too deceitful to allow it to be such, whether it be love to our brother, or to God our Father. Man is emotional, capable, of being worked upon, and of working himself up to almost any extent. And he is quite capable of perilous misjudgment of himself in that very way. I am not at all speaking of hypocrisy, (although I do not say there is not danger of that too), but of the way things may affect us powerfully, as it would seem, and yet superficially. This emotional feeling is no guarantee as to our true condition, any more than the waves driven by the wind against an ocean-current are a sign of the real obliteration of the current.
But love — most God-like, when true — is that which has most imitations which are not of God. The giving all one's goods to feed the poor, the giving one's body to be burned, the apostle supposes might be all without love; therefore not adequate tests of it. I may love a child of God, and very dearly, and yet love him for many another reason than because he is a child of God. My love may be merely social; what is most Christ-like in him may be what I like least. How little indeed, if we take the apostle's characteristics of it in that thirteenth of 1 Corinthians, shall we find often of what will stand examination: "love that seeketh not her own, that beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things"!
If you will turn to the first chapter of the second of Peter, you will find that in the order of divine growth, "brotherly love" comes in a very different place from what we should naturally imagine. From "faith," the beginning of everything in us, brotherly love is the sixth stage on towards perfection, and only short of the full maturity of "love" itself. We are first of all to add to our faith "virtue," in the Roman sense of it — courage, spiritually applied. For as faith's walk is against nature, and through a hostile world, the very first requisite for it, next to faith itself, is "courage."
At the start you have to make up your mind. There must be no indecision, no half-heartedness. The obedience, which the apostle John has given us as the test of love, comes at the very beginning. Have we all even reached this first point from which alone the Philadelphian position can be attained? Are we all by God's grace unreserved in self-surrender to Him who is indeed our Master and Lord? Only after this, not before, comes "knowledge" — true knowledge — only to be acquired practically by the road, and in the field in the face of the enemy; and knowledge which immediately becomes practice as "temperance," — government of ourselves; and "patience," in view of adverse circumstances; "endurance," holding on to that wherewith we began — not only I did "count all things but loss," but still I do.
Then "godliness" follows. The more positive fruits begin to appear. The truth is acting upon the one given up to follow it, self-ward, world-ward, God-ward, and now at last brother-ward. Think of how much it involves to be a Philadelphian, and you will see at once that no mere right position ecclesiastically will put you there. You must be devoted; you must be self-governed; you must be enduring; you must be with God: and then, these points reached, your love to your brethren will be in orderly development, and somewhat that we can trust.
We need not marvel, however much we may deplore it, how little of this spirit is indeed to be found. But there is no remedy in mere expectancy or in lament, still less in accusation of one another on this score. The doing of this betrays the doer. It shows that "seeking not her own" is not the quality of our love, at least. If we mourned it rightly, we should be more with God about it — intercessors, not accusers. And then also, remembering that only what we receive we have, we should be seeking for God to minister and manifest His love to the needy and unsatisfied hearts towards Him, which this coldness of heart toward each other implies.
On the other hand, let us notice for our encouragement that from faith as a root all these fruits develop. The apostle's words infer as much as this. They are, really," in your faith have also virtue, and in virtue, knowledge," and so on. This is as plants grow, each fresh bud developing out of the product of a former one. For faith, the root of all, lays hold on Him in whom all spiritual blessings are ours, and the spiritual growth is only by what we learn of Him. And so the apostle adds: "If these things be in you and abound, they make you that ye shall be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." The remedy is not in moody self-occupation, and not in endeavoring to get out of ourselves what is not found there, but in more real and earnest laying hold of what is ours in Him who is for us complete satisfaction and all-sufficient power. It is a great thing to be a Philadelphian, and you will not wonder that under this title the Lord should describe a people who, with all their weakness, have His special approbation.
But here, if we look a little around us, we shall find on the one hand a divine movement stirring the hearts of God's people towards a real, practical "brotherly love" springing out of "godliness." On the other it is easy to see an imitation of this which aims at a getting together of Christians, even at a sacrifice of that which is of God. In the world too, confederacy is the order of the day. "Union," they say, "is strength." And everywhere, societies, associations, companies, amalgamations of every kind, for all sorts of purposes, are found. They are naturally largely commercial, and for such selfish ends as the world that knows not Christ is full of. They are a banding of individuals who remain really in interest individuals, not seekers of each other's good, but their own. They are neither the expression of love nor do they promote it. On the contrary it is well known that the larger they are as corporations, the less heart there is in them. They intensify the self-seeking to which they minister, and for which they provide an ampler harvest field.
The bond here is in no wise brotherhood; yet who can deny that professing Christendom is largely permeated by the same spirit, and has adopted worldly means in a worldly spirit, for ends professedly Christian? Do not mistake; do not run into the thought that these ends being worthy ones must sanctify the means employed to reach them. These combinations to produce great results, is there no ensnarement in the very thought? Are not means apt to be mistaken for ends? Is not the consciousness of strength which union promotes, and is designed to promote, the very opposite of the weakness which has need of and brings in God? Does not the publicity of action put those engaged in it before men's eyes rather than God's, and make them little content with such words as the Lord addresses here to Philadelphia, "I know thy works?" Lastly, does not the apparent greatness of the result aimed at, induce a carelessness as to what are considered the smaller details of ways and means by which it is to be reached?
No one can deny that while the increase of sects goes on without apparent abatement, yet along with this there is a marked and decided tendency to union for all kinds of objects dear to the Christian. Missionary societies, Bible societies, Tract societies, Sunday-school Unions, Young Men's Christian Associations, and such like, ignore on the one hand what they recognize on the other, and aim to unite Christians as such, to accomplish results which the divisions of Protestantism have hindered. And in movements of this kind there is much that one can very heartily rejoice over. Who can doubt that there is working . a real desire for Christian fellowship, a longing for liberty beyond the artificial limits imposed by ecclesiasticism, and a yearning for greater and better fruitfulness than the strife of sects would allow? Who can doubt also that in this way the zeal of many earnest workers has been kindled, and that much has really been, and is being, accomplished? Intolerance has been softened down; sectarian rancor mitigated; and a busy activity in evangelistic efforts especially induced, which the Lord is using for blessing to numbers of souls.
We should be sadly wanting in discernment if we did not see, and in Christian spirit if we did not rejoice over, such things as these. Nor must it be thought a contradiction to point out on the other hand results which are to be deprecated, and tendencies which are rapidly developing as the years roll by, which must be a source of trouble, if not surprise, to every one to whom
— "Anworth is not heaven,
And preaching is not Christ;"
to whom the quality of a thing, as viewed by the "Holy and the True," is of more importance than its quantity.
Let us judge candidly and seriously of that which the coming day at least will reveal in its true character. Who that has that day before him dare rashly blame or carelessly pass over things which affect the glory and the heart of the Lord our Saviour that heart upon which rest (as the engraved jewels on the high priest's breast-plate), the names of His beloved people, not one of them forgotten? He who has before him, what we have here, the Son of Man in the midst of the candlesticks, will be delivered from the snare of acting before other eyes than His, and will have no motive to apply other than truthfully, and in love, "what the Spirit saith unto the churches."
We have glanced at the churches of the Reformation and scarcely need to have it repeated that nationalism everywhere gives "a name to live" where there is no real life. The discipline here is of the very loosest kind. Annihilationism, Universalism, Swedenborgianism, Rationalism of the extremest kind, are in some of these systems allowed openly to manifest themselves. "Tares and wheat," they urge, "are to grow together to the harvest." "Judas was at the table of the Lord." And thus they have scriptural ground, as they imagine, for not "putting away from among themselves a wicked person," or "purging themselves from vessels to dishonor."
What must be, what is, the effect of this and such like laxity? And what the effect of bringing a large number together where even the feeble bonds of such discipline are relaxed, and members of the loosest bodies are accepted thus far by those who in their own bodies are governed by stricter and more scriptural rules? What can the effect be but the deterioration of the whole, a leavening of worldly principles and of positive false doctrine also? Are the spiritual ordinarily in a majority in these large bodies, or in a minority? Do they lead the rest, or have they to find themselves forced to follow the lead of others, and to mix themselves up with that which they feel and own to be not as they would have it, but still tolerate for the sake of the connection with so large a machinery for good, as they esteem it?
Generally, a compromise as to the truth has to be made, which would forbid any one in these associations to do what Paul appealed to the Ephesians as having done amongst them: "I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God." They have to be (so far as these connections go) servants qualifying by omissions their Master's message, bound to refrain from delivering what He has put into their mouth to deliver. Oh that beloved brethren in the Lord would well consider for themselves how far this can go, without dishonor to the Lord who has bought them for His own, or without loss of real power through grieving the Spirit of power!
And are not means insensibly substituted for the end, — the registry of so many visits made, so many tracts distributed, so much ground covered, made to do duty oftentimes for that which these things are only handmaids to, if they mean anything at all? And if conversions are registered, the case is often still more sorrowful: conversions being expected as the result of so much machinery, and chronicled — oh how lightly and carelessly — to man's successful effort, rather than the praise of God!
Upon all this I do not desire to dwell longer. Examples to demonstrate the truth of it, will not be wanting to those who care to test what they do, by the one perfect standard to which we all appeal, and by which all will be exactly measured in a coming day.
With all this, I gladly own a greater seeking after communion among those that are the Lord's. Yet I press that co-operation apart from the truth is not God's mind, nor are human and voluntary associations His method either. God's Church — not a union of churches, but a union of members with their living Head — is His association, and in this He has provided as well for the maintenance of His truth as for the true liberty of His people. If we will not take this, how can we ask Him, because He is gracious, to bless the make-shifts substituted for it? Is it "love in the truth" and for the truth's sake," where truth is set aside or compromised, in order to be together?
Yet if you follow truth, instead of practically bringing you to unite with the many, it will separate you — isolate you — reduce practically to nothing much that now may seem great and valuable — and shut you up into a narrow path from which naturally you shrink. Does Scripture ever promise aught but a narrow path? Are weakness and nothingness hindrances or helps to trusting God? Is it any harm for faith to have exercise? and is not the power of God as competent to work by small means and individuals as by a multitude, and by machinery of the utmost power? If we do not think so, what does it show but how sadly a trust in means and machinery has displaced confidence in the living God?
Let us pass on now to consider one other thing in the attitude of these Philadelphian saints which the Lord singles out for special approbation. "Because thou hast kept the word of My patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth."
And what is connected with this?
"Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown." Remark, He says for the first time now, "quickly." We have not had that before. It is a sign here of how the time of His patience is coming to an end. It is now as the apostle says in the first chapter, "The kingdom and patience of the Lord Jesus Christ." By-and-by it will be His "kingdom and glory." Now it is the time in which, though already possessing "all authority in heaven and earth," He waits, not taking His power to put down evil, but exercising that long-suffering which is unto salvation, of which each one here saved by grace is an example and a proof.
Can it be a strange thing then for us to have to keep the word of His patience? to remember what holds back the wheels of judgment, and delays the fulfilment of our hope as Christians? Patience is not indifference as to that hope, but the very opposite. Were we indifferent we should not be able to speak of or to realize patience at all: "if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it."
Happy it is to need the exhortation to be patient thus, — because our desires laying hold of the exceeding great and precious promises, our souls are carried onwards in the current of them toward the haven which faith pictures close at hand! Need we wonder at an admonition to be "patient?" Should we not wonder if our souls could embrace that future blessedness, and have no such need? But the keeping the word of His patience is more, a good deal, than being patient ourselves. It separates the thought from repression of merely selfish longings, and elevates it into communion with Him whose waiting and whose coming forth alike are the necessary result and the display of what He is — the divine Lover and Saviour of men's souls. If He come, or if He wait, it is righteousness, love, and wisdom in Him that combine and manifest themselves.
Two things are now promised to those keeping the word of His patience: first, that He will keep them out of the hour — not out of the temptation merely, but out of the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth; — out of the judgment of the world ready to involve the lifeless professors of Christianity, whose hearts remain, spite of their profession, bound to earthly things; out of the trouble and sifting also which will precede the judgment at the Lord's hand when He appears.
But how shall they be kept out of a time of universal trial? That is intimated in the second promise, "I come quickly." His coming will gather His saints into safety far from every breath of the tempest to ensue. They shall be with Him, raised or changed, caught up to His blessed presence, before the trial comes; and when the world sees Him coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, no saint of the present time but shall be with Him there. "He shall come to be glorified in His saints, and admired in all them that believe, in that day" (2 Thess. 1:10).
And now let me ask: If this intimation of the speedy approach of the Lord marks Philadelphian times, who can for a moment doubt the coincidence with the cry which for half a century has been stirring the hearts of Christians everywhere? Nothing is more certain, be it right or be it wrong, than that there has been a widespread revival of the hope of the Lord's coming, together with an impression of its actually being very near. Even the dates which have time and again been confidently set for it, if, on the one side, they show the mistakes of prophetic interpreters, on the other, not less plainly do they show the prevailing expectation. While there have been all through a large and increasing number who have never given credit to any of these calculations, they have yet been as deeply convinced as any that the time is near at hand.
And what is this but itself a token of its actual nearness, according to the promise in this Philadelphian epistle? Has not the Lord been saying to them, "I come quickly?" It is easy, no doubt, to fasten upon mistakes made by warm hearts or excited minds, in order to bring discredit upon the truth; but Scripture, which disclaims for us the knowledge of times or seasons, assures the faith of those who would be "exhorting one another so much the more as they see the day approaching."
Let us hold it fast, and let us hold it pure: free from the errors with which Satan is seeking to degrade it by association, — free from the mistakes of ignorance and fanaticism, — but also from the coldness and indifference of hearts that give little response to our Lord's words here.
I must pause here, though there is much, much more in this epistle. I must leave to your own meditations the sweet encouragements and promises to the overcomer, which, as often noticed, so link the believer with the One who addresses him. May we be able to take hold of them. They are ours, for faith to realize and rejoice in: that faith which not only "overcometh the world," but now in the professing Church has also to overcome. "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."
"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches."