Section 1 — Present Things as foreshown in Revelation 1 — 3.
The Addresses to the Churches
Sardis: Sleeping Among the Dead (Rev. 3:1-7.)
In the address to the Church at Thyatira, we have found the Lord announcing His coming, and bidding His saints wait to share with Him then the authority which the false church was assuming to have already. Thyatira presents us thus with a phase of things which goes on at least till the Lord comes for His saints; not, indeed, till the rising of the Sun of Righteousness upon the world, but until He comes as the Morning-Star, the herald of the day before the day appears.
In Sardis, we have, therefore, not a development of the Thyatira condition, but in many respects, as it is easy to see, what is in entire opposition to it. Thyatira, or popery, is the last phase of the church in its Jewish hierarchic and ritualistic growth; and although there has been all through a remnant different in spirit, and becoming finally more or less distinctly separate, even outwardly, as among the Waldensian and kindred bodies, yet up to this point there has been in fact a certain unity: it could claim to be, before the eyes of men at least, the Catholic church.
True, there had been already a separation; not now of others from it, but of this latest development itself from others. Rome had separated herself from the churches of the east — the Greek and Syrian churches, which remained in the condition we have traced at Pergamos. The Catholic church of the west had become the Roman Catholic. Yet, in character, the system was the same throughout; here more, there less, developed — that was all. But now we come to a new thing, — a breach and a new beginning. There is now in Sardis, not the claim of infallibility, not (as what is prominent) corruption of doctrine, not persecution of the saints, not the exercise of authority in the same sense, — none of these things characterize Sardis. What characterizes is sufficiently definite in the Lord's charge here: it is lack of spiritual power, — nay, in the body as such, of life itself. "Thou hast a name to live, and thou art dead."
Yet they had "received and heard," and are bidden to "hold fast" this, "and repent." Just as Ephesus had been, at the commencement of decline, called back to remember their first state, so here there has been a fresh beginning in God's grace, a recovery of His word and truth, a new beginning, from which (alas!) already there is decline. Again, they have not answered to His grace, and those things which remained among them from this revival were languishing and ready to die. And no wonder, when the charge against them is considered. The body addressed is a professing but unconverted one with a name to live, it is dead.
There is but too little difficulty in applying this. A breach with Rome, a restoration of the Word of God, a fresh revival of truth, ending, however, in a system or systems characterized by a fatal defect of spiritual power, and churches with an unconverted membership, God's saints being scattered through the mass, — living themselves, but unable to vitalize it: such are the characteristics, easily to be read, of the national churches which sprang out of the Protestant Reformation.
Let it be well understood it is not the Reformation itself that is depicted here. So far as it was this, the Reformation was the blessed work of God, and the Lord does not judge, and can never need to judge, His own work. He refers to what His grace had done for them — to what they had received and heard. Their responsibility was, to take heed to it, and hold it fast; and already they had failed in doing so. This was therefore the ground of judgment.
Notice how Christ is represented here. He has "the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars." There is no failure in the fullness of spiritual energy on His part, no possibility of failure in His love and care for His people. Yet this power is not found practically in that which has sprung out of the seed sown by the Reformation. With more pretension than before, for they have now a name to live — a name assumed to be in the book of life, the actual condition of the mass is that of death: not feebleness merely, but death.
Yet there are exceptions: not simply those alive, but still more — that have not defiled their garments; and of these the Lord speaks in the warmest terms of praise. "They shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy." Indeed, these are only "a few names." Others may be alive, but in a scene of death (and the defilement which results from contact with the dead is emphasized in the symbols of the Old Testament) the many of those alive even are defiled. But the mass are dead altogether — dead, with a name to live.
In His promise to the overcomer, the Lord further refers to this: "He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life." The book of life is understood by the majority of people to be only in the Lord's hands, and all the names written in it to be written by Himself. Hence, those ignorant of the gospel stumble over this blotting out of the book of life, as supposing it is the blotting out of the names of those once saved. But there is no such thought here. There is not the slightest hint that those mentioned ever had life at all: they had a "name to live" — only a name.
On the contrary, you find in Rev. 13:8 the very opposite thought as to those "written," as we ought to read it, with the margin of the Revised Version, "from the foundation of the world in the book of the Lamb slain." There, this fact of their being written in the book from the foundation of the world is given as their security from being deceived by and worshiping the beast. Sovereign grace, that is, is their only and sufficient security. Here, on the other hand, the book has got into man's hand, and he writes names in it as he pleases. It is a figure, of course, all through. The Lord, in His own time, corrects the book, and then He blots out the names of those to whom only the name belongs.
Now the "name to live" has a very special meaning in connection with Reformation times. The putting people's names into the book of life (while here on earth) is in no way characteristic of popery. Saints, for them, are only the dead, and not the living. The living she warns that "no man knows whether he is worthy of favor or hatred," and that it is not safe to be too sure. Her pardons, indulgences, sacraments, only show by their very multiplicity how difficult a thing she believes salvation is. Darkness is the essence of her system, and she thrives upon it.
On the other hand, the Reformation recovered the blessed gospel, and the word of reconciliation was preached with no uncertain sound. The doctrine of assurance was maintained with the utmost energy, and was stigmatized by the Council of Trent as "the vain confidence of the heretics." They even pushed it to an extreme, asserting (at least, some of the most prominent reformers did,) that assurance was of the very essence of saving faith itself, and that unless a man knew himself to be forgiven, he might be sure that he was not forgiven.
It is plain, then, that Protestantism put a man's name in the book of life in a way that popery did not at all.
Two immense things the Reformation gave us, which have never since been wholly lost, — an open Bible, in a language to be understood; and on the other hand, the gospel, at least in some of its most essential features. These are inestimable blessings, which would that we had hearts to value more.
Of the men, too, who were the dear and honored instruments in handing them down to us we cannot speak with enough affection and esteem. God honored them how many! — taking them to Himself in fiery chariots, from which their voices come, thrilling us with the accents of the heaven opening to receive them. Those who disparage them will have to hear, one day, their names confessed and honored by Him they served, as those of whom the world was not worthy.
But on the other hand, we must not make, as many are doing, the Reformation the measure of divine truth. They are not loyal to the Reformation really who accept any thing beside Scripture as the measure and test of this. The broken and conflicting voices which are heard the moment it is a question no longer of the gospel but of the church and its government, assure us that if here Scripture has spoken, the churches of the Reformation do not in the same sense convey to us its utterances. Lutherism is not Calvinism, the Church of England is not the Church of Geneva here. We must needs, whether we will or not, take Scripture to decide amid claims so conflicting; and when we do so, we find, with no great difficulty, that no one of these takes us back to the Church as it was at the beginning — the body of Christ, or the house of living stones — at all.
Instead of this, as is well known, the churches of the Reformation were essentially national churches. Not in every country, of course, able to attain the full ideal, — as in France, where Rome retained its ascendancy by such cruel means, but always of that pattern. Rome had herself prepared the way for this. The nations of Europe were already professedly Christian nations, and it was not to be expected that those who escaped from Jezebel's tyranny would give up their long hereditary claim to Christianity. The adoption of an evangelical creed did not and could not change the reality of what they were. They learned the formula, put their names upon the church-books as Protestants, learned to battle fiercely for the gospel of peace, and how could you deny their title to be Christians? Yet, as to the many, it was but the "name to live."
We must learn to distinguish two elements in the ecclesiastical revolution of those times. There was, first of all, a most mighty and most manifest work of God. The Scriptures, released from their imprisonment in a foreign tongue, began to speak to responsive human hearts with the decision and persuasiveness that the Word of God alone can have. Christ began once more to teach as one having authority, and not as the scribes. The blessed doctrine of justification by faith every where brought souls held fast in bondage into liberty and the knowledge of a Saviour-God. The ecclesiastical yoke could not hold any longer those whom the truth had freed; and where Christ had become thus the soul's rightful Lord, the yoke of Rome was but the tyranny of Antichrist.
This was the first and most powerful element in Protestantism; not a political movement, but a movement of faith. Luther, solitary at Worms, in the presence of the mightiest political power in Europe, was the testimony that the work was of Him. His strength was manifest in human weakness. Had that place of weakness been retained all through, — had but God been allowed to show that power was of Him alone, how different would have been the result! And it is due to the foremost name of Protestantism to acknowledge that, as far as carnal weapons were concerned, Luther would have rightly refused them a place in a warfare which was God's. At any rate, to think of Protestantism as essentially a political movement is to do it glaring injustice, and to contradict the plainest facts.
On the other hand, we cannot ignore the political element which so soon entered into it. Rome had made the nations every where feel the iron hand of her despotism, and the national reaction against her was the natural result of her intolerable and insolent oppression. The notorious wickedness of her chiefs had long destroyed all real respect. Her power stood now in an excessive and degrading superstition. She lived upon men's vices and their fears; and where the light fell and removed the darkness, the fears were removed also, where the vices were not. Men learned to look upon the power they had cringed to with contrary feelings, deep in proportion to their depth before. Their interests, political and otherwise, coincided with the spiritual movement which divine power had produced. Soldiers, politicians, governments, made common cause with the men of faith. It was hard not to welcome such apparently God-sent allies, when on every side persecution raged. The movement increased in external power and importance, but its character was in just that proportion lowered and perverted.
And now there was need of defined principles to give cohesion to elements which the Spirit of God no longer sufficed to bind together. Outside, there was the pressure of Rome, a compact and immensely powerful body, armed, drilled, and intensely hostile. Organization was soon a necessity; but of what or whom? To proclaim the true Church would have been to cast off their allies, to insure the continuance of persecution and reproach, to leave Rome unchecked, triumphant. I do not say that the true thought of the Church ever dawned upon them; but I do say that their alliance with the world was a sure means of hindering their seeing it. There were formed instead national churches, with evangelical creeds, used as pieces of state-craft, and political power to back them, not divine.
It is simple enough, that if a creed had been a necessity for His Church, the wisdom of God could easily have given us an infallible one, and His love could not have failed to do so. On the contrary, He has given us that which He testifies to as able to furnish the man of God thoroughly unto all good works, but which people feel at once to be as different from a creed as can be.
Why do people want a creed? As something more plainly and easily read than Scripture. Scripture is infinite: the creed must be definite. Of Scripture, every one makes what he likes; what is wanted is something different — something that shall not be capable of two meanings, plain to all — spiritual and unspiritual, Church and world alike.
It has been before contended that Scripture is clearer, plainer really, than any word of man; and so indeed it is; beside being, in divine wisdom, written so as to meet, as nothing else can meet, with perfect foresight of the future, all the thoughts of men. It is thus the only sufficient guard and protection against heresy to the end of time. And yet it is no contradiction to this to own that there is some truth from the point of view taken by those who contend for this, between the creed and Scripture.
From their point of view. For the apostle's words limit us somewhat when we speak of the intelligibility of Scripture. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness," — but for what? — "that the MAN OF GOD may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works."
So that Scripture, profitable for doctrine as it is, does need a certain state of soul for its proper apprehension. It needs not indeed great attainments, human learning, deep research, — although all these have their use, and are not despised by it; but it absolutely requires (what may be found in the lowest and poorest just as well,) devotedness — that we be God's men what by possession and profession all Christians are, but alas! not what all, even of true Christians, always practically are. This is the single eye, which we must have for the body to be full of light.
But this being so, we can easily see that the Bible is not just the book for a court of law, and it is not the suited thing for a national creed. The truth is not meant to be accessible to the merely natural mind. Nay, "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." The Bible is not crystallized for us into doctrines, but its truths are exhibited and only known as living realities to those who are in the true sense alive. It is so essentially unlike a creed, that we may be assured that nothing like a creed was in God's design. He did not mean to give what might serve as a motto for political partisanship, or a banner for any other than spiritual warfare.
Nationalism, then, — the union of the living and the dead — was never in His mind. He meant spirituality to be a first necessity, and an absolute one, for the discernment of His thoughts: and men, when they substitute in this respect the blessed word of God for their plainer creed, show really that herein they are at cross purposes with Him.
"Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead," is the exact moral description, as it is the plain condemnation of nationalism. Of more this, no doubt, but still of this. It is not the idea of the Church of God at all, but a Christianized world, with Christians scattered through it: a place so defiling, that but few indeed can keep their garments undefiled. Connected with the truth, as popery is not, such a system betrays the truth which it professedly upholds. The character of the last days is developed by it: "Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, proud, blasphemers," the retaining all that is natural to them under the garb of Christianity; "having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof." The direct command is, "From such, turn away."
This is the effect of popularized truth, — popularized as God never meant His truth to be. Of course this is to be distinguished from the preaching of His truth, than which nothing assuredly is more in accordance with His mind. His gospel is to go forth to every creature, and the blessings of an open Bible we could scarcely exaggerate. But by "popularized truth" is meant, what we have already been speaking of, truth made into a party badge, so as to be accepted by those with whom Christ is not; for He was never really popular, and still is not.
Popularized truth means, truth that has lost its power. It may be that for which martyrs died, and which when first given of God, or when afresh given, was full of quickening power. Popularized, it is so far lifeless. No exercise of soul in receiving it; no cross in professing it; men have got from their fathers what their fathers got from God: to their fathers it was shame, to them it is honor. There is nothing to test conscience, nothing to make them ask, Dare I take this without human sanction to commend — nay, in the face of all human discountenance? Yet only thus have we got it truly from God. The martyrs they talk of took it thus and suffered for it: they take it from their fathers — a principle which would have condemned the martyrs; and they take it without the slightest thought of being martyrs.
Truth is proclaimed as powerless by the unholy lives of its professors, while unholiness is recommended by the practice of those who are orthodox as to truth. And thus truth tends to die out of itself, as valueless, remaining all the while in the national creed, embalmed as a memorial of the past. "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, which are ready to die; for I have not found thy works perfect before God." This has been long experienced with regard to all national systems too manifestly to need more than a bare allusion.
It is a system designedly adapted to worldly minds, and to be worked by political machinery. The Word of God is no necessity to it, except, it may be, to furnish a table of lessons; for the authoritative standard is the creed. The Spirit of God is not necessary to it; for colleges can manufacture preachers, and ecclesiastics ordain and send them forth apart from this. Christians are not necessary to it; they are too uncertain as a constituent part of a nation or its government to be capable of being reckoned on; nor is there any means of certainly determining who they are. A sacrament, — baptism or the Lord's supper, — takes here the place of less manageable tests.
And the grieved and insulted Spirit may be besought to breathe upon the lifeless mass, and fill the sails of the ship of state. But He must keep within the bounds prescribed by ritual, hierarchy, and parliament, or He will be treated as schismatical. And it must be remarked how often in this case a schism springs out of a large and manifest revival. Souls brought near to God, and made to feel the value of His Word, are not made thereby the more docile servants of a state-religion. The new wine will not be held in the old bottles. Statesmen are not thus favorable to such fresh enthusiasm, and no wonder: it divides the house which it is to their interest to keep as one.
But is not here the history of the churches of the Reformation of Protestantism, in fact, — during the three centuries of its existence? Is not this the true account of its divisions, for which it is reproached? The Spirit of God is not, indeed, the author of confusion, but of peace, — of unity, and not disunion. But when people talk of schism, they should remember to what that term applies. As found in Scripture, it is "schism in the body" that is reprobated, and the body of Christ is not a national church. When men have joined together the living and the dead, — when they have subjugated consciences to formularies instead of Scripture, — to hierarchies instead of God, or to hierarchies in the name of God, what have they forced the blessed Spirit to do but to draw afresh the line they have obliterated between the living and the dead, between man's word and God's, between human authority and divine?
And His mode of doing this has been constantly to bring out of the inexhaustible treasure of His Word some fresh or forgotten truth, which would do that which the popularized truth in the creed had almost ceased to do — would test the souls of His people as to whether they were indeed the descendants of those who confessed Him of old, whose tombs they built, and whose memories they had in honor. The fresh truth calls for fresh confession; costs, and is meant to cost, something; brings its confessors into opposition to the course around them, and separates them at once from those whose only desire is to go with the stream, and with whom the profession of Christ and the cross are widely separate.
Doubtless the division may separate between true Christians themselves; and this is in itself an evil, that true Christians should be separated; but the responsibility rests with those who are not quick-eared enough to hear God's call when it comes, not single-eyed enough to discern the path in which the Lord is leading His own. We are bound, by the honor we owe to Him, to maintain that He cannot possibly be leading His own in contradictory paths — cannot possibly refuse the needed light to walk aright, however simple or ignorant the soul may be. No one strays and no one stumbles because God denies him light. But "the light of the body" practically "is the eye" — the inlet of it, and there the hindrance is. Thus a severance, sorrowfully enough, is made between real Christians; but the sin of it is not with those who separate from that which God has shown them to be evil, but with those who remain associated with the evil which is forcing out the true in heart. Separation from evil, so far from being a principle of division, would, if honestly followed, make for unity and peace, as leading upon a path where God's Spirit, ungrieved, could really unite and strengthen His people. With evil He cannot unite; and this, indeed, therefore, wherever admitted, is a principle of division.
I am not, therefore, upholding or making light of schism. The divisions of Protestantism are its shame, and to glory in them is to glory in one's shame. Error is manifold, contradictory, schismatic. Truth, however many-sided, is but one. Sects, in their multiplicity, may accommodate, no doubt, the religious tastes of man; but that only would show how purely human they are, how little divine.
The unity of the Spirit may be maintained, and allow indeed for growth in knowledge, and in unity of judgment as to many things. The Church of God has room for all that are God's, of whatever stature — fathers, young men, and babes. It can allow of — nay, insists upon the largest charity for those who differ from us in aught that would not link the name of Christ with His dishonor. But that is a very different thing from what is implied in a creed, and indeed I may say, is its fundamental opposite. For the creed defines, in a way that, if rigidly adhered to, shuts out toleration as to points of confessedly minor importance, where the Spirit of God would teach, not indifference, indeed, but the largest charity, — forcing its definitions upon all in a way most felt by the most conscientious. It is as necessary, as far as the creed goes, to believe in a child's being regenerate when baptized as it is to believe in the Son of God Himself. I grant there may be practical laxity, but for a soul before God that does not do. For such an one, with his eyes open, the subjection to human institutions in the things of God is just what he cannot and dare not yield.
"Schism in the body," then, is always wrong. Separation from evil, at all costs, is a necessity, and always right. And from this have been gathered the freshness and power which have plainly characterized so many movements of this kind at the beginning. They began in self-judgment and devotedness. The evil at least they saw, and were exercised about, and the measure of truth they had was held in power. It was soon systematized, and in that proportion its power began to fail. The founders, if you look at their lives, were men of faith and power, suffering and enduring. The manners of the adherents were chastened, simple, primitive. Organized, popularized, with a large following, the freshness waned; and in the third or fourth generation, another sect had taken its place among the many, boasting of a history which it did not discern to be a satire upon its present condition.
The organization, the creed, are to preserve the truth. But did these give them the truth they are anxious to preserve? Surely not, as they must own. God in His love, God in His power, has given what man had proved his incompetency to retain. They cannot trust Him to retain it for them, after He has given it. He has used His Word to minister it; they turn round and use, for that blessed Word of His, a creed of their own manufacture to preserve it. The generations after follow their fathers' creed, and not the Word. The truth popularized is gone as "Spirit and Life." God has to work afresh and outside of what a little while ago He had Himself produced.
And the spiritual life of the time has come more and more to manifest itself in "revivals," which, so far as they are really such, are the protests of the Spirit of God against prevailing death continually creeping over every thing; and oftentimes connected with fresh statements of truth, when the old have lost their power. The Lord's warning to Sardis points out this constant tendency to death. "Be watchful, and strengthen the things that remain, which are ready to die." "Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast and repent."
It is scarcely too much to say that every true revival, whatever the blessing for individuals, — nay, I might even say, in proportion to the blessing for individuals, — weakens the national system; and this for reasons we have been considering. The Spirit of God must needs work in opposition to the death produced by the system, and therefore against the system which produces the death. Souls quickened by the Spirit of God cannot go on contentedly under deadly and unchristian teaching, comforting themselves with the assurance of the article that "the evil" who sometimes "have chief authority in the ministration of the Word and sacraments" do yet "minister by Christ's commission and authority;" nor will they always be able to accept the ecclesiastical "yoke with unbelievers," because the system requires "every parishioner" to communicate, irrespective of any other security as to his conversion than his baptism and confirmation may imply.
It will be no marvel, then, to find, what any one with spiritual understanding must own, that at least the large proportion of those who could be said to "have not defiled their garments" in the history of Protestantism have been in some way or other dissenters from the national system. The first generation of English reformers were dissenters from Rome, and Rome did her best to keep them pure, in the fires she kindled for them. In the second and third generation from these, a people began to be separated, who from their honest endeavor to be right with God were nick-named "Puritans." I need not tell you what great names, which after-generations have learnt to love and honor, are found among this class, — a class with whom fine and pillory and imprisonment were familiar things. Every body knows that Bedford gaol was the "den" in which John Bunyan dreamed his memorable dream. In Scotland, the attempted enforcement of prelacy gave a succession of martyrs and confessors to the Presbyterian name, with whom, as elsewhere, their time of persecution was their time of real blessing, while the Episcopalianism which was riding rough-shod over them had gone already more than half way back to Rome.
With the movement under Wesley and Whitefield, nearer to our own times, we are naturally still more familiar; and that which issued in the Free Church of Scotland is still within the memory of a generation not yet passed away. All these, and many others, will exemplify the truth of what I have been saying; until, in our own days, the national systems are showing evident signs of decrepitude and breaking up; and Romanists and infidels are beginning their paeans on the downfall of Protestantism. We who are able to see it all in the light of Scripture can easily understand why all this is, and see only the truth of God's Word more and more manifested in it. Christianity flung as a cloak over a corpse can surely not warm it into life. Corruption will go on underneath, eating away the form of life, the only thing it ever had, until at last the cloak will more or less fall off, and what was all along true become apparent.
When the Protestant churches shall be gone altogether, or gone as such, their protest will not be gone, but only transferred to another court. Heaven will take up what they have dropped. Babylon the Great will fall under divine judgment; and apostles and prophets, and God's people every where, will rejoice at her fall.
A few words now about another thing.
If the Church reigns in the absence of Christ, what then? Why, then there must be something representing Him down here; — He must have a vicar. He is not present (even the world cannot mistake that), except spiritually. He is at God's right hand. That is the common faith of Christianity, and it is the faith even of Rome. Although, in spite of that, her altars are continually proclaiming Him corporally present, the faith of Christianity is that Christ is away.
But a visible kingdom requires a visible head; and I need not tell you that such they have given it. The pope is, for Rome, Christ's vicar; and this is only the natural development of the thought of church-government which historically preceded and led on to it, and which extends far beyond Rome. Presbyterianism, prelacy, popery, are but three steps in the same direction. Apostles are no more; and the Church is orphaned, if not governed in a visible manner. Hierarchial government in some form is a necessity to it.
Now the Lord has indeed a Vicar during His absence — a perfect, infallible Guide for His people, as well as a guide-book absolutely perfect. The Church has not only a perfect body of discipline, but One also who is the Interpreter and Administrator of it. It is the characteristic of God's people that "as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God." So distinctive and so wonderful a blessing is the presence of the Holy Ghost with us now, that, although the disciples in our Lord's day were blessed, by the fact of His presence with them, beyond all the generations previous, yet He could say to them, "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you."
His presence in the believer makes even his body the temple of the Holy Ghost. So His presence in the church makes it also "the temple of the living God." Looking at the Church, again, as the body of Christ, He is the one Spirit animating the body. As all the members move under the control of the spirit in the natural body, so in the body of Christ also: if the members do not understand and move in harmonious subjection to the spirit, we speak of it as disease; and it is not less, but more truly, so in the body of Christ.
If we open the Acts, we shall find every where His presence — greater than apostles, higher than the highest there. From the day of His descent at Pentecost, He is supreme over all; and that supremacy becomes the harmony of action, the unity of spirit in the lower sense. Sovereignly, He calls instruments as He will, and as sovereignly uses whom He calls. "Separate Me Barnabas and Saul," He says to the prophets and teachers at Antioch, "to the work whereunto I have called them. . . . And they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed into Seleucia." How strange to read as power conferred on man to convey office what is really the naming of individuals by the Spirit Himself, as called and sent forth by Him: one of them being the man who asserts his own apostleship to be, not of men, nor by man"!
"Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the Word in Asia, . . . they assayed to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit suffered them not." "And finding disciples, we tarried there seven days; who said to Paul by the Spirit that he should not go up to Jerusalem." Not ordinarily, indeed, perhaps not often, was the bidding of the Spirit expressed as audibly; but the manner of communication was but circumstantial, and not of the essence of the matter. He was present, Comforter, Guide, Teacher, Witness; Spirit of the body, "dividing to every man severally as He will;" a divine Person, with divine power and divine authority.
Yet unseen! I grant the fatal flaw in all this for most. The Bible they can see, but it is not definite enough. The Spirit of God they cannot see, and, alas! cannot believe in, in a practical way. "Whom the world cannot receive," says the Lord Himself, of the Holy Ghost, "because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him." And when the line between the Church and the world is gone, who can wonder that this unbelief should be permeating the mass of what is professedly Christ's? It is not only Rome that refuses to the blessed Spirit the place He has come to fill. The unbelief which has denied the sufficiency of Scripture, and supplemented it by creeds which come soon to supplant it, has denied in the same way the sufficiency of the Holy Ghost, and supplemented His authority with hierarchical governments to which (whatever the theory) He is practically unnecessary.
If you ask people what they mean by "church-government," you will get various answers, no doubt; but they will all agree substantially in one thing. That one thing is, in an omission of what is, indeed, the key-stone of the arch. They will tell you, some, that they believe in an episcopal form of government, some a presbyterian, some a congregational. And if you ask them further, Where do they put the Holy Ghost? you will find the mass of people even denying any special presence of the Holy Ghost as characterizing this dispensation. They will tell you (so far, truly) that the Spirit of God has always been acting in the world, from the creation of it; that the new birth has always been His work, from Abel, or from Adam, to this time. They believe, too, in certain special gifts at the day of Pentecost, and for some time thereafter. A distinctive "coming" in the place of Christ, a coming so important in character that it was expedient for Christ to go away that we might have it, they do not understand and do not believe in. One well-known man, an evangelical divine, Dr. Hugh McNeile, of Liverpool, when he had to admit that a personal "coming" of the Holy Ghost after the ascension of Christ was taught in the Word, could only account for it by the supposition that during the Lord's lifetime upon earth all the operation of the Spirit was limited to Himself alone, so that the three and thirty years of our Lord's presence were years in which no conversions could take place at all, — a barren time in the world's history, a unique and utter desolation otherwise of spiritual influences!
And thus you will find that the practical faith in the Holy Ghost's presence now is scarcely faith in a Person. It is "influence," like rain, or dew, or gentle breeze, — and these are true and scriptural figures so far, but quite impersonal. They talk of a "measure of the Spirit," and every fresh stirring of heart they find is a fresh "baptism" of the Spirit. The evident and necessary result is that they lose the first requisite for faith in Him as One come down to take charge for Christ on earth, to dwell as God in the house of God, to animate and govern the body of Christ, as the spirit in man guides and governs the natural body.
Hence church-government, in people's minds, has nothing to do really with His presence here. Bishops, priests, and deacons may need, and of course do need, His influences. So, in theory, does the pope. But practically the ordering of things is (within certain limits, whether of church-tradition or of Scripture, so far as Scripture is supposed to serve,) in human hands, and subject to human wills. "The Church has power to decree rites and ceremonies, and authority in controversies of faith." "And those [ministers] we ought to judge lawfully called and sent which be chosen and called to this work BY MEN who have public authority given unto them in the congregation to call and send ministers into the Lord's vineyard." But the Holy Ghost may not have "called or sent" them! Well, that, of course; and that is provided for: for "although in the visible church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the ministration of the Word and sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and DO MINISTER BY HIS COMMISSION AND AUTHORITY, we may use their ministry both in hearing of the Word of God and receiving of the sacraments"!!
Thus they may have Christ's commission although the Holy Ghost hath not "called or sent" them: Christ and the Holy Ghost are made to be at issue, and the Church can go on ordering and ordaining in despite of the Spirit Himself!
And this is order; while those who desire to yield subjection to the Word and Spirit of God alone are convicted of being rebels against proper authority, and sure to end in confusion and (as some have said,) in "atoms"! Yet faith will follow where God leads, owning indeed that in His path all will be confusion that is not subjection; and that, leave Him out, we at least have no resource. Let it be so: we will abide the issue.
But let us contemplate a little while now the other side of things. We have had before us what is intensely sorrowful, more provocative of tears than Jezebel's corruption. There, the very malignity of the evil roused the whole soul against it: here, there is the fruit of what was in the beginning a movement of God. He can speak of what they had seen and heard, and exhort to hold it fast. There are still "things that remain," although "ready to die." And how can we but sorrow intensely over what was so fair in its earliest promise, and received its baptism in the blood of martyrs?
Yet the word to the overcomer, once again recurring here, comforts us with its recurrence. It links us, if we have ears to hear, with the same little remnant that has ever been finding its way, through storm and flood, to Him from whose love neither tribulation, nor distress, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril, nor sword can separate, and in which they have approved themselves, through Him, more than conquerors. The overcoming may be now in a new sphere, and separation may have to be from brethren, in some sense, of a common faith, heirs of great names in faith's records. Yet, in the overcoming, only over-comers are their true successors. Not those who, in our Lord's days, built the sepulchres of the prophets, represented them, or were linked with them, in His account, but those whom He sent forth to be persecuted by these same admirers of antiquity.
And God must teach us independence, even of one another, — that rightful independence which springs from real and lowly dependence upon Him. In His presence, what were even the greatest of His followers? How can I say to another, "Rabbi, Rabbi," when I must take the honor from Him that I deck another with? If I had not Him, it were lowliness; if I have Him, it is dishonor to Him.
It is not schism, this separate path, when not my own will leads me, but His Word and Spirit! It is not separation in heart from brethren, if Christ be dearer to me still than they. Nay, love to them approves itself only thus, as the apostle teaches us, "when we love God and keep His commandments." (1 John 5:2.)
Faith's victories are not in applause wrung from a multitude, but in the path of One, true Joseph, separated from His brethren; and God has over-ruled the presence of evil (which, I need not say, He has not caused) to the giving us a path, at least in its circumstances, the more Christlike. We are not left to the subjection to evil: He calls us to rise above it. The difficulties of the path are only to carry us through them all. Every encouragement throughout these epistles is held out simply to the overcomer. The Lord give us only the needed energy. The time is short: the end is at hand. The grace that is now sufficient for all daily need will soon be manifested in the crowning of the conquerors. Then those that are poor shall have the kingdom; the mourners shall be comforted; the meek shall have the inheritance; the hungerers and thirsters after righteousness shall be filled; above all, the pure in heart shall see God — the God whom sin for the time has banished from the earth He made.