Section 1 of: The Revelation of Jesus Christ
by T. B. Baines.
The Purport of the Book
The Vision of Christ
Addresses to the Seven Churches
Historical Character of the Churches
"The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto Him, to show His servants things which must shortly come to pass; and He sent and signified it by His angel unto His servant John, who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, [and of] all things that he saw. Blessed is he that reads, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand." (Rev. 1:1-3.) Such is the preface to this book, which is entitled, "The revelation of Jesus Christ." These words, however, do not mean His predicted revelation or manifestation to the world, but a revelation or prophetic communication which He receives from God and transmits to His servants. This shows the character in which the different persons, divine and human, are here presented. God is not looked at as the Father of believers, or even of Jesus Christ, but as sovereign Creator and Judge, communicating to Christ His own counsels. Jesus Christ, again, is not seen as "the only-begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father," and acquainted with all that is there hidden, but as the servant, who knows and does nothing of himself, the dependent man to whom God's purposes concerning the judgment of the earth and the coming kingdom are entrusted. He is thus seen in Mark's gospel, where He says, "Of that day and hour knows no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father." (Mark 13:32.)
To His disciples also He does not here show himself as Head of the body, nor even as the Friend opening to them His heart, but as the Lord giving directions to his servants concerning "the things which must shortly come to pass." This "He sent and signified by his angel unto his servant John." Now angels were God's medium of communication with Israel. Stephen says they "received the law by the disposition of angels" (Acts 7:53); and in Hebrews, "the word spoken by angels" is contrasted with God speaking by the Son. (Heb. 1:2; 2:2.) There is, then, a return to Jewish modes of communication perfectly suitable to the character of a book which unfolds God's dealings with the world when He restores to favour His earthly people; a book which regards the Church, not in its privileges, but in its responsibilities as a witness for Christ, a branch grafted into the good olive tree, which must either bear fruit or be broken off.
It is said the things "must shortly come to pass;" for the Church period is always left indefinite; and though the Lord, "not willing that any should perish," has hitherto mercifully postponed His coming, still His word is, "Behold, I come quickly," and His disciples are to have their "loins girded about, and their lamps burning," and to be "like unto men that wait for their Lord." (Luke 12:35-36).
The angel gives the message to John, "who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, — all things that he saw." There is no "and" before the last clause. He does not bear witness to something that he saw in addition to the word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ, but to all that he saw of them. Here again Christ is not the Son revealing the Father, but the faithful witness testifying God's word. And this word is earnestly commended to our study. "Blessed is he that reads, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand." Of such value is the book in God's eyes. There is a blessing both upon reading and hearing; for the truth is practical, and must be held fast because its accomplishment is near.
The introduction comprises — first the greeting (vv. 4-6); next, the general purport of the book, the coming of Jesus Christ in power and glory (vv. 7, 8); and lastly, the vision of Jesus as the Son of man in His judicial vesture, walking amidst the golden candlesticks. (vv. 9-20.)
"John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from Him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before His throne; and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first-begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth." (vv. 4, 5.)
Here is the usual salutation, "Grace be unto you, and peace;" but not, as in Paul's epistles, "from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ." On the contrary, God is here named the One "which is, and which was, and which is to come." This is the New Testament equivalent for Jehovah. He is the "I am," the self-existent One, and therefore the expression "which is" stands first. But as the "I am" He was from eternity, and will be to eternity; so it is added, "And which was, and which is to come." This phrase, "is to come," does not refer to His future coming in judgment, but to His eternal existence as the One who always is, always was, and always will be. This is not the way in which God elsewhere reveals Himself in the New Testament; it is a return to the character in which He shows Himself when declaring His ways concerning the world in the Old Testament. It harmonizes therefore with the general scope and object of the book, which unfolds God's actings in government towards the world, and towards the Church, as a professing system in the world.
Again, the Holy Ghost is described as "the seven Spirits which are before His throne." Afterwards He is spoken of under the figure of "seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God" (Rev. 4:5), alluding to the seven lamps of the golden candlestick in the sanctuary. The number seven, so often used in this book, is a well-known Scripture symbol of heavenly perfection. The Spirit therefore is here looked at in reference rather to the complete circle of His activities than to the oneness of his person, which is so strongly insisted upon in connection with the Church considered as the body of Christ. The place of the seven Spirits, moreover, "before the throne," shows them to be connected with God's ways in the government of the world, not in the formation of the Church.
Further, in this salutation the name of Jesus Christ does not, as is usual elsewhere, follow that of God. He is looked at, not in his divinity, but as the Son of man. He is "the faithful witness," giving to His servants the revelation He has received from God — "What He has seen and heard, that He testifies." (John 3:32.) But as man He is now the risen One, "the first-begotten of the dead;" and in this character He receives dominion, and is made "the Prince of the kings of the earth," just as in Philippians 2:8-10, because He went down into death, "therefore God also has highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow." These three characters, which Jesus bears throughout this book — the faithful witness, the One who was dead, but is alive again, and the rightful ruler and judge — none of them relate exclusively to His connection with the Church; while the last clearly shows Him as the Messiah, the man of God's purposes for earthly government.
In all these titles and attributes, whether of God, of the Spirit, or of Jesus Christ, we see a departure from the Church position maintained in the New Testament, and a return to the principles, symbols, and associations of the Old. We are taken from the heavenly dispensation entrusted to Paul, and brought back to the earthly counsels and purposes unfolded in the Psalms and the prophets. All this, as before remarked, is in perfect. harmony with the scope and character of this book.
But here a beautiful interruption comes in. Though in the style of the Old Testament, the salutation is to the seven churches, and the Church must respond to the name of Jesus. Suddenly therefore a chorus of praise bursts out — "Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests unto God and His Father [or, more correctly, "a kingdom, priests unto His God and Father"]; to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen." (vv. 5, 6.).
The Church is built on Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God." (Matt. 16:16-18.) The word Father, which in this book is never applied to God's relationship with believers, is only used five times of his relationship with Christ. And in none of these passages is Christ regarded as Judge, but as connected with the Church or an elect people. Here it is the Church's joyous response to the mention of His name and titles. In the next three instances it occurs in promises to the overcomers in the different churches. It is used once again in connection with the saved remnant who stand with the Lamb on mount Zion, "having His Father's name written in their foreheads." (Rev. 14:1.) There He is seen as God's anointed King seated in Zion, and declaring the decree, "Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee."
It is beautiful to observe how believers cannot think of Jesus even as Judge without exulting joy. For them the judgment has no terrors; for they know Him as the One "that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood." This gives peace to the conscience, and confidence to the heart. They can add, too, "And has made us a kingdom — priests unto his God and Father." Peter calls believers "a royal priesthood." They are entitled to reign with Christ, and are priests "to offer up spiritual sacrifices." (1 Peter 2:5, 9.) They are also the depositaries of God's counsels concerning Christ, and can, even during His rejection, ascribe to Him "glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen."
The Purport of the Book.
(Verses 7, 8.)
The salutation is followed by a statement of the grand purpose toward which the whole book is directed: "Behold, He comes with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Hun: and all the kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him. Even so, Amen." (v. 7.) This is not the Lord's coming for His saints; for then He will appear only "unto them that look for Him." (Heb. 9:28.) Nor is it His coming at the end of the world to judge the dead before the great white throne. The coming here spoken of is that which, as recorded later in this book, precedes His thousand years' reign over the earth.
This is clear from a comparison with other Scriptures. Jesus said to the Jews, "Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord." (Matt. 23:39.) In the passage before us however the Jews do see Him; for "every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him." Now this is a quotation from Zechariah, describing the effect of Christ's appearing on the faithful remnant of the Jews at the time of their national deliverance: "And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for his only son." (Zech. 12:9-10.) This quotation shows that the time here spoken of is when the godly remnant of the Jews, lamenting their sin in the rejection of the Messiah, own Him as the One "that comes in the name of the Lord." Then Jerusalem's deliverance and Judah's blessing will be accomplished, for God "will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem."
But though a day of repentance and deliverance for the godly Jews, it is a day of solemn judgment for others. "Behold, He comes with clouds," recalls the words spoken, certainly not as a promise, to Caiaphas and the Council, as representing the unbelieving mass of the people. "Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven." (Matt. 26:61) Nor is it only to the Jews that this appearing will be a solemn event. To unbelievers everywhere He will come "in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." (2 Thess. 1:13.)
"I am Alpha and Omega, [the beginning and the ending], says the Lord" [or rather "the Lord God "], "which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty." (v. 8.) Here it is not Christ that speaks, but the Lord God — Jehovah-Elohim — the Almighty. Now the names of God are not arbitrarily used, but are titles suited to the character in which He is acting. In human matters everyone knows how differently the same persons address each other according to the relationships they occupy at the moment. Take two brothers, both in Parliament, and one the mayor of some borough. In familiar intercourse, they call each other by their Christian names. In corporation business the one would address the other as "your worship." In the House of Commons they would speak of each other as the honourable member for so and so. Each title would be suited to its own place, and quite unsuited to the others, and everybody would understand from the name or title used whet her the one speaking was addressing his brother as a brother, a mayor, or a member of Parliament. Scripture is assuredly not less accurate in the use of the titles applied to God than men are in the use of the titles they give to one another.
It is important therefore to observe that many of the titles given to God in this book are never found elsewhere in the New Testament, while they are of constant occurrence in the Old. Thus the name "Almighty" is never used in any other book of the New Testament, except once in a quotation. So the name "Lord God," often used in revelation, is never found elsewhere in the New Testament (for 1 Peter 3:15 should read "the Lord Christ"), except in citations from the Old, or in prophecies like that of Zechariah relating to Israel, which bear throughout an Old Testament character, and are largely made up of Old Testament quotations.
What, then, is the import of this departure from the New Testament style of speaking about God, and this return to Old Testament titles? These titles have a significance. God said to Moses, "I am the Lord [Jehovah] and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name Jehovah was I not known unto them." (Exod. 6:2-3.) Thus "Almighty" was the title under which God entered into covenant with Abraham; Jehovah-Elohim, "Lord God," was the title under which He entered into covenant with Israel. Both these covenants are connected with the earth, and have their fulfilment in the earthly reign of the Messiah. The significance, then, of this return to the Old Testament titles is exceedingly great. It marks that God is now reverting to His purposes concerning the earth, and that the character in which He here reveals Himself is not that in which we now know Him, but that which He will take after the Church is caught up to heaven, and when He resumes his long-suspended dealings with Israel and the world in preparation for the Messiah's reign.
The Vision of Christ.
The third part of this introduction is the vision of Christ's glory. "I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ." (v. 9.) John was banished to Patmos for his faithfulness to the truth. Writing to believers, he styles himself their brother; but he was also their "companion in the tribulation, and kingdom, and patience of Jesus Christ." The words are singularly, but most expressively, grouped. First, there is the companionship of believers in Christ's sufferings. This suggests that "if we suffer we shall also reign with Him;" hence, after the "tribulation," comes the "kingdom." But the kingdom is not yet. Christ has not yet taken his throne, but is seated at God's right hand, waiting "till His enemies be made This footstool." Now they are triumphant, and His people are called upon to share His patience. That they had kept the word of His patience is one of His highest commendations to the church of Philadelphia. (Rev. 3:10.) In all these things, the tribulation, and the kingdom, and the patience, it is the servant's privilege to be associated with his Master. The tribulation and the patience are his present portion; the kingdom will come in God's time.
"I was [or became] in the Spirit on the Lord's-day, and heard behind me a great voice as of a trumpet." (v. 10.) This does not describe his usual spiritual condition, but a state in which he was, under the Spirit's power, receiving inspired communications from Christ. "The Lord's-day" is not "the day of the Lord," from which in the original it differs in form as widely as in meaning. The day of the Lord is the time of Christ's power and glory on earth. But the Lord's-day was a day which John spent in Patmos. In creation God appointed a day of rest, and in His covenant with Israel marked it specially as His own. The covenant is gone, and the rest of the old creation broken. God therefore, instead of calling us to share his rest from the old creation, calls upon us to share His joy in the new. The day on which this new creation began, by Christ's resurrection from the dead, is called "the Lord's-day." It is not a transfer of the sabbath from the last day of the week to the first, for this would destroy the meaning of both, but an entirely new thing, resting on an entirely new foundation.
Being thus "in the Spirit on the Lord's-day," he adds, I "heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, saying, [I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and,] What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches [which are in Asia]; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea." (vv. 10, 11.) The words in brackets are omitted here by the best authorities. The trumpet signifies God speaking with power and majesty. It was with the sound of a trumpet that He gave the law on mount Sinai; it is with the sound of a trumpet that Christ will summon the believing dead to meet Him in the air.
Looking round, John beholds the form from which this voice proceeds. "And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; and in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and His hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and His eyes were as a flame of fire; and His feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and His voice as the sound of many waters. And He had in His right hand seven stars: and out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and His countenance was as the sun shines in his strength." (vv. 12-16.)
Here Christ appears as Son of man, clothed in judicial robes. He is "in the midst of the seven candlesticks," which, as we afterwards learn, "are the seven churches" here addressed. (v. 20.) His majesty befits the One to whom all judgment is committed. The "garment down to the foot" is the judicial robe, as distinguished from the warrior "vesture dipped in blood," with which He afterwards comes forth to execute judgment (Rev. 19:13); since here judgment is only pronounced, and not executed. He is "girt about the paps with a golden girdle," the symbol of divine righteousness; for when he acts in judgment, "righteousness shall be the girdle of His loins." (Isa. 11:5.)
His person is as indicative of judgment as His robe, and shows His divine glory as well as His human exaltation. "His head and His hairs were white like wool, as white as snow." In Daniel's vision, when the judgment of the earth began, "the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head like the pure wool." (Dan. 7:9.) The glory therefore which in Daniel belongs to the Ancient of days, is here seen investing the "One like unto the Son of man."
"His eyes were as a flame of fire, and His feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace." Both figures signify judgment. Brass was the material of the altar on which the sacrifice was burnt to meet the claims of God's righteousness. The eyes like fire show searching, discriminating judgment; for fire is what tests, purifying the good, destroying the bad. Thus in Malachi, Christ comes "like a refiner's fire" (Mal. 3:2), and when Israel is restored, the Lord will purge "the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning." (Isa. 4:4.) Paul, too, says that "every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is." (1 Cor. 3; 13.)
"And His voice was as the sound of many waters." This figure is eminently expressive of majesty and power, and is so used by our own poets, as Wordsworth says of Milton: "Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea." In Ezekiel 1; 24 the sound made by the wings of the cherubim is compared to "the noise of great waters, as the voice of the Almighty;" and afterwards, "the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east, and His voice was like a noise of many waters" (Ezek. 43:2.) A voice like the sound of many waters is, therefore, a Scriptural figure of the glory and majesty of God, and it is in this glory that Christ, though man, now appears.
"And He had in His right hand seven stars." These are afterwards said to be "the angels of the seven churches." (v. 20.) Whatever the force of the expression, the power which Christ here holds in His right hand is clearly nothing less than complete authority, whether for ministry or government, over the churches.
"And out of His mouth went a sharp two edged sword." The word of God is likened to a sharp two-edged sword, and though this refers to its power on the conscience, it is no less sharp in judgment also. "He that rejects me," said our Lord, "and receives not my words, has one that judges him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day." (John 12:48.) He threatens the evil-doers in Pergamos to "fight against them with the sword of my mouth" (Rev. 2:16); and the followers of the beast are "slain with the sword of Him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of His mouth." (Rev. 19:21.) So Isaiah, foretelling His coming, says, He shall smite the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall He slay the wicked." (Isa. 11:4.)
"And His countenance was as the sun shines in his strength." Nothing can more strikingly picture His power and glory than this figure of the noonday sun. As the greatest of God's visible works, it is the symbol of supreme authority, "the greater light" which He has created "to rule the day." This was the glory in which John and his companions beheld him when He "was transfigured before them, and His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as the light." (Matt. 17:2.) The transfiguration was the testimony which God gave to chosen witnesses of "the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:16); and in this book, where his coming "with clouds" is the great climax to which everything tends, we behold Him clothed in the same glory.
Such are the judicial robes and majesty of Christ in connection with "the things which are," as walking "in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks." They are suited to Him as judging in the house of God, but are not the insignia either of "the prince of the kings of the earth," or the executor of God's counsels concerning His earthly people. When He appears in these characters, as connected with "the things which shall be after these," the vesture and titles we have been examining are changed for others of a totally different kind.
"And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead." (v. 17.) No wonder! Who can behold Christ judging the Church according to its responsibility, without feeling the dreadful failure? But His words dispel all dread. "And He laid His right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am He that lives [or, "the living One "]; and I was dead, and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hades and of death." (vv. 17, 18.) What reassuring words. True, Christ is judge, and is clothed in majesty befitting His office; but to John He says, "Fear not." And why? Because He, the first and the last, the living One, has become man, has died, and has risen. He "was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." (Rom. 4:25.) Thus "we may have boldness in the day of judgment, because as He is, so are we in this world." (1 John 4:17.) He has robbed Satan of his power, death of its sting, the grave of its victory, and He now has in His hands "the keys of hades and of death." This victory, wrought by His death and resurrection, sets the soul at rest, and dispels the fear of judgment.
The Lord then charges John: "Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter" [or, "after these"]. (v. 19.) "The things which thou hast seen" are those already related. There remain therefore "the things which are, and the things which shall be after these." In the fourth chapter (v. 1) John is bidden to come up into heaven, and behold the things which must be after these." "The things which are," therefore, comprise those named in the second and third chapters; "the things which shall be after these" comprise those named in the following chapters. The first were seen by John on earth, the second in heaven.
The symbols are then explained: "The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven candlesticks [which thou sawest] are the seven churches." (v. 20.) There has been much discussion as to what is meant by the angels. They are clearly not angels in the ordinary sense; for there is no Scripture showing angels to have charge of local churches; and who can suppose that Christ would speak to angels through the prophet? The angel, too, is here identified with the moral condition of the Church, and must therefore be a part of it, some person or persons holding towards it a place of special responsibility. Some have inferred that it means a clergyman or official minister, like those now found through nearly the whole of Christendom; but this is mere assumption, and an assumption which is contradicted by all other Scripture. Had God instituted such a ministry He would have revealed it plainly, not left it to be surmised from a passage whose mystical character appears upon its face. The word "angel" carries the idea of representation, and seems to be here used figuratively to describe those who are responsible, from their gift or influence, for the condition of the Church. These doubtless included teachers and rulers, but no information is given as to their appointment or functions. This must be gathered from other parts of the Word.
The seven golden candlesticks — a figure borrowed from the seven lamps of the tabernacle — symbolize the seven churches. They are "golden;" for the Church is founded on God's righteousness, and so bears the stamp of its divine origin. But they are candlesticks, not candles. The Church is not a source of light, and the claim to be so has been one of the most fruitful seeds of evil in Christendom. It is, however, responsible for holding forth the light; and if it fails in this, it is useless. Hence the threat that the candlestick will be removed out of its place.
Addresses to the Seven Churches.
Revelation 2, 3.
"The things which are" comprise the state of the seven churches in Asia, as shown in the following addresses or letters; but they probably also give a short prophetic outline of the whole history of the Church on earth. While in Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, however, the Church is looked upon as the body of Christ, which of course can never be judged, in the Revelation it is looked upon merely as a professing system, responsible to Christ, and destined to be judged according to its faithfulness. In these letters the judgment is pronounced, though not executed.
Two points claim notice before going into details. First, in the three earlier epistles the Lord's coming is not named, while in the others it holds a prominent place. Again, in the three earlier epistles the exhortation to hear is put before the promise to the overcomer, while in the four others it is put after. Even in a man's writing such a change could scarcely be an accident; but in the word of God the idea of accident is impossible, and some sufficient reason must therefore exist. The simplest explanation is that in the first three letters, the Church, though failing, is not yet looked upon as hopelessly bad, and therefore the whole body is still exhorted to "hear what the Spirit says unto the churches." But in the following letters the Church as a whole is regarded as reprobate, so that none can now be exhorted to hear the Spirit's words, except the overcomers, the true believers in the midst of the corrupt profession.
This explanation obviously favours the thought that in these epistles we have a prophetic outline of the history of Christendom from the decay of first love, as seen at Ephesus, till it is finally spued out of Christ's mouth as threatened at Laodicea. In the three earlier stages there is still a corporate conscience, so that the whole Church can be exhorted to hear; whereas in the four later all corporate conscience is gone, and the appeal can only be made to the true believer. The three earlier phases moreover pass away before the Lord's coming, so that this event is not named in addressing them. The four others, though arising in the order of the epistles, run side by side to the end, and in these therefore the Lord's coming, or its effect, is held out either in the shape of encouragement or of warning.
The idea of a prophetic character in these epistles is further supported by the mystical number of the churches, and by the remarkable agreement with historic fact. Why seven churches? The number seven is constantly used in this book to mark a complete cycle. Now what more probable or more gracious than that the Lord should under the figure of these seven churches give a sketch of the various phases of Christendom during the complete cycle of its history on earth in addressing a certain number of churches, each according to its own circumstances, the selection of a symbolic number would have had no meaning. But if, besides this immediate object, the addresses had a prophetic scope, the choice of the number seven is in perfect harmony with the symbolic character of the book.
The parallel between the state of things described in these letters, and the various phases of Church history from the earliest to the latest time, will come before us more clearly as we look at the letters in detail.
Each address contains four parts; first, the special character in which Christ presents himself; second, the judgment He pronounces, and the words of encouragement or warning which He utters; third, the reward promised to the overcomer; and fourth, the exhortation to "hear what the Spirit says unto the churches." This last is always in the name words, though, as already stated, not always in the same order. The others vary in the different epistles, and have always a more or less obvious connection with one another. We shall now examine the addresses individually.
"Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things says He that holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks." (v. 1.) The stars signify the angels or mystical representatives of the seven churches, those who are responsible for teaching and for government, as the stars give light and rule the course of time. The gift and authority for these purposes belong to Christ. Man may make rules for the government of the Church, or for the ordination of teachers and pastors, but this is really a usurpation, however undesigned, of Christ's authority. He holds the "stars in His right hand," and walks in discriminating judgment among the seven churches, or golden candlesticks.
He thus sums up the condition of the church of Ephesus: "I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted." (vv. 2, 3.) How the Lord loves to commend whatever He can in His people! As the apostle exhorts believers, "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report: if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things" (Phil. 4:8), so the blessed Lord Himself, even in His judicial office, delights first to recognize and approve whatever good His eye can discover. And here there was much outwardly good. Not only were there works, labour, and patience, but there was godly jealousy for holiness, godly judgment of falsehood, and earnest care for the Lord's name expressed in patient and unwearied endurance.
Yet there was a lack. In writing to the Thessalonians Paul speaks of their "work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Thess. 1. 3.) At Ephesus there is work, but it is not said to be the "work of faith;" there is labour, but it is not spoken of as the "labour of love;" there is patience, but it is not called the "patience of hope." Christ was ever before the Thessalonians, and so faith, hope, and love were all occupied with Himself. Some of this was still left at Ephesus, but it was on the ebb. One may be busy in works even where the power which once prompted them has largely declined. A church may manifest great outward zeal and activity, soundness of doctrine and discipline, even after the dry-rot of waning affection is secretly eating away its very life. So it was in this favoured Church of Ephesus, where the declension foretold by Paul (Acts 20:29) had already set in.
Hence the Lord goes on to say, "Nevertheless I have ["somewhat" is not in the original, and weakens the sense] against thee, that thou hast left thy first love." (v. 4.) To the world, perhaps to themselves, all seemed fair; no decay was suspected. But "He which searches the reins and hearts" saw the germs of evil as yet hidden from other eyes. What is it to the loving bridegroom that the bride be faultless in her behaviour, if her affections are growing cold? Will mere propriety of conduct, or diligence in duty, satisfy the heart that thirsts for love? Can a love like Christ's be contented with a cold, though active, attention to Christian work, or a barren, though scrupulous, orthodoxy of faith, while the heart is not aglow with affection for Himself? Love demands love, and no deference and diligence can atone for its absence. There was therefore here a deep wound inflicted on that blessed One whose love was so coldly met, and He warns them of what the result of their waning affections must be.
"Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent." (v. 5) This may seem harsh treatment for such an offence, but the Lord looks forward to ultimate consequences. The word "quickly" is doubtful, and hardly agrees with the long-suffering which marks the Lord's action. But however great the long-suffering, the end is certain, unless repentance comes in. The only safe place for the soul is near Christ. A church once taken up with work, but growing cold in its affections, may for a while escape scandalous evil and corruption, but it has lost its security. The only resource is repentance, a return to first works. If it does not repent, its fall, though possibly delayed, is sure. Its candlestick will be removed; it will cease to be a bearer of the light entrusted to it; God will openly disown it as unfit for His use.
But why urge a return to "first works," since its works at this time were commended? Because in God's eyes the work is judged by the motive. Suppose two children each brought their mother a present of equal value, but while the one showed its love to her in all its ways, the other proved by its manner that its love was poor and cold, which present would have the greater value in the mother's eyes? So with Christ. The work may be outwardly the same, but how different when springing from a heart burning with love to Himself, and when performed from a chill sense of duty, or in a lifeless spirit of routine.
Looking at the address historically, the failure and the warning are very solemn. Even in Paul's life the decline from first love was clearly seen. "All they which are in Asia be turned away from me" (2 Tim. 1:15); "at my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me (2 Tim. 4:16); such are the sorrowful statements of the apostle in one of his latest epistles. And the decline after his death was, as he forewarned the Ephesian elders, rapid and general. The epistles of John prove that grave evils, both of practice and doctrine, had already shown themselves in his days. The first downward step in the history of the Church had therefore been already taken when the book of Revelation was written. With the Church generally, as with single gatherings, the declension was the same. It began everywhere wish a decay of first love. The world, the flesh, and other things came in between Christ and the affections; and the result was speedily discerned by the heart-searching Judge.
The warning is still more solemn. The Church is summoned to repent and to do the first works. Who, alas does not know that it has turned a deaf ear to this call, that as a professing system it has grown more and more corrupt? The end, then, must be just what is here foretold. The Church will be judged, its candlestick removed, itself disowned as an instrument for holding forth God's light in the world.
We return, however, to this particular church. "But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate." (v. 6.) The Lord lingers over everything in his people's ways that can really please Him. The Nicolaitanes are described in the epistle to Pergamos as holding "the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication." (v. 14.) This shows the character of their deeds. Balaam, when he could not curse the children of Israel, counselled Balac to seduce them into idolatry, and an abandonment of that separate place which they were called upon to hold in the world. Such, whatever its special form, was the general tendency of the Nicolaitane doctrine. It was rather their deeds than their doctrines that were judged by the church at Ephesus, and in this the Lord owns their faithfulness.
Then comes the general exhortation: "He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches." (v. 7.) It is not said "to the church," but "to the churches;" so that he who has an ear is charged to weigh, not only what is said to his own church, but to all the others. The exhortation is therefore general, and addressed to all believers.
Then follows the promise: "To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God" (v. 7.) Man has lost, his own paradise, and is driven away from the tree of life, lest he "eat and live for ever" (Gen. 3:22.) Yet his heart is always seeking to make for himself a paradise down here, forgetting that the world is under God's judgment. It was this worldliness that was cooling the affections of the Ephesian saints towards Christ. How does He seek to recall them? He reminds them of their heavenly portion. This world was not their rest; for it is polluted. But "there remains a rest to the people of God," and where is it? Where is the believer to find his rest? where is the object of his affections now? "Where Christ sits on the right hand of God." The paradise of God is the place where Christ dwells, and the only true rest, the only tree of life, for the believer is there. It is, then, to this heavenly scene, into which Jesus has himself entered, to this scene in which His people are to enjoy their true portion that He recalls the wandering and waning affections of the Church. Alas! how little response His appeal has found! how soon the sense of the heavenly calling was lost and the Church, instead of seeking the things which are above, became immersed in worldliness and corruption.
If in Ephesus the Lord finds a decay of first love, in Smyrna we see Him overruling Satan's malice to restore sense of the former freshness. We have here a church under persecution, or, looking at the wider historical bearing of the epistles, the state of the Church after it had incurred the enmity of the world's ruling power.
The Lord graciously adapts Himself to these circumstances. "And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things says the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive." (v. 8) Judge as He is, He never forgets His people's wants, and in trial and suffering He is still with them. But his care is not shown now as in the Old Testament. Then He was not known as the Conqueror of death, and His way of intervening for His saints was to save them from death, delivering them out of the furnace, or shutting the mouths of the lions. Satan might try Job, but a limit was imposed "Behold, he is in thine hand; only save his life." (Job 2:6.) Here, however, is no such restriction; they were to be "faithful unto death." No deliverance on this side the grave is promised. And why? Because a believer now knows Christ, not only as able to save from death, but as having triumphed over death. He is "the first and the last," that is, God having all power in Himself; but He is also the One which was dead, and is alive;" for He, as man, has borne death in our stead, and been "raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father." (Rom. 6:4.) The believer is therefore secure. The death of the body is only a door leading into Christ's presence; and from the second death, the lake of fire, he is already delivered.
The Lord goes on "I know thy [works and] tribulation, and poverty (but thou art rich), and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan." (v. 9.) What a contrast between this and the church of Laodicea, which boasted, "I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing," while the Lord counts it "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." (Rev. 3:17.) How true it is that in the things of God "every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted." Especially in these days, what folly to be talking of greatness and prosperity amid the ruin and failure of all that is responsible for Christ's name here on earth.
But their tribulation and poverty did not tempt them into tolerating evil. They rejected the false pretension which claimed the position of Jews, but is here called the synagogue of Satan. Judaism is a religion fitted for this world, and for man after the flesh. Hence it put man under law, and had a worldly ritual and priesthood. This is just what Satan has brought into Christendom. From the first Paul withstood the judaising of Christianity, which sapped the very foundations of the gospel committed to his charge, and the heavenly truths of which he was the special minister. In Smyrna this doctrine, whatever form it took, was as busy as elsewhere; but the poor tried saints remained true, and "earnestly contended for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints," in opposition to this attempted corruption. The Lord notes and approves their fidelity.
He then speaks of what was before them, and gives them words of encouragement and comfort: "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." (v. 10.) He does not promise deliverance, but sustaining power. "In the world," Christ tells His disciples, "ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." (John 16:33.) So the apostle could say, "In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us." (Rom. 8:37.) In like manner here, they should suffer; but they were to look forward to their sufferings without fear, for Christ's power was above Satan's. True, God permitted the devil to try them, as he did Job, but it was only that they might come all the brighter out of the furnace. He was allowed to cast some of them into prison, and some were put to death, but his power was restrained even as to the duration of the evil. It was to be for "ten days," at all events a limited time. They are exhorted to be "faithful unto death," and they should receive a "crown of life."
Looking at this church as a picture of the second phase in the history of Christendom, it is a fact that the fiery persecutions which the Church suffered between the reigns of Trajan and Diocletian, if they did not restore purity of doctrine and discipline, called forth deep devotion and love to the Lord Himself, while many of the worst heresies which early invaded the Church were vigorously and faithfully withstood. It has been noted too that some of these persecutions, especially the great closing one in the reign of Diocletian, lasted for ten years, which may perhaps be shadowed forth in the "ten days" here spoken of.
"The crown of life" is again mentioned in James's epistle in connection with faithfulness in trial. "Blessed is the man that endures temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to them that love Him." (James 1:12.) Paul speaks of another crown: "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing." (2 Tim. 4:8.) And Peter tells the faithful elders that "when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fades not away." (1 Peter 5:4.) "The crown of life" suggests the complete triumph over all the foes ranged against the believer; "the crown of righteousness," the just apportionment of the rewards which "the righteous Judge" will dispense; "the crown of glory," the full recognition of the faithful service rendered, often in obscurity and with little appreciation from man, down here in the world.
The exhortation, "He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches (v. 11), is again addressed to all the assembly, instead of being confined to the overcomers. To the latter it is said, "He that overcomes shall not be hurt of the second death." (v. 11.) This falls short of the warmth of recognition bestowed upon the overcomers in some other churches, but the crown of life had already been promised to those bearing the overcomer's character — those who remained "faithful unto death." The suitability of such a promise to those who were threatened with the first death must be obvious to all.
In Smyrna we see a measure of devotion kindled by the fiery persecution which Satan directed against the church. But where violence fails, craft often meets with better success. Both resources are at Satan's command, and on the defeat of one he readily betakes himself to the other. Against the blessed Lord he tried both, exhausting all his wiles in the wilderness, and all his rage at the cross. How signally on both occasions to his own shame, and the glory of his adorable foe! With Paul at Philippi he first sought to damage the gospel by backing it up, and thus confounding it with Satanic energy. Baffled in this, he again tries to crush it by violence, once more sustaining an ignominious defeat.
So it was with these churches. In Smyrna he tried persecution, but this only aroused a greater spirit of earnestness and devotion. In Pergamos he tried his wiles, and his worldly snares lulled the church into carelessness and indifference. There is something sadly suggestive in the way the Lord presents Himself to this assembly: "And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write: These things says He which has the sharp sword with two edges." (v. 12.) What a change from the last epistle! There, to a people appointed to die, the Lord makes Himself known as "the first and the last, which was dead and is alive." Here it is as the Judge carrying the sharp two-edged sword. In Smyrna He reveals Himself as having the power of life; here, as having the power of death.
"I know [thy works, and] where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you where Satan dwells." (v. 13.) There was therefore much faithfulness still left; for He says, "Thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith," and this amidst severe persecution, in which one martyr named Antipas had suffered death. All this the Lord graciously owns. But still there was failure. "I know where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat [or throne] is." This is a figurative expression, nor do we know the exact reference in this particular church. But there can be little doubt as to its general meaning. What is Satan's throne? It is in contrast with God's throne, which is in heaven. Later in this book Satan gives to the beast, the great sovereign of the world, "his power, and his seat [or throne], and great authority." (Rev. 13:2.) Satan's throne then is that usurped worldly power which, in the temptation, he claimed as his own, and which Scripture repeatedly declares him to possess, styling him the "prince of this world" and the "god of this world," the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience."
The church of Pergamos then had settled down into the world, the scene of Satan's authority. This implies no outward or scandalous wickedness. Satan is quite content to see Christians becoming worldly. So long as they are untrue to Christ by admitting the world into their hearts, his object is gained quite as effectually as if he had betrayed them into the grossest sin. When the world, whether "the religions world" or any other, takes the place to which Christ is entitled, the ardent love for His person and the bright hope of his return disappear, and coldness, deadness, toleration of evil, indifference to His claims, are sure to come in. Open evil may follow, but the mischief is done whether this is the case or not.
In Pergamos the effect was the permission of evil which was most offensive to Christ. "But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes [which thing I hate]. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth." (vv. 14-16.) We have already seen the character of this evil. Just as Balaam taught Balac to seduce the Israelites into idolatry and commerce with his own people (that is, with the heathen world), so does Satan try to draw the believer into that which abandons Christ's claims, and gives the world supreme control over his heart. Such was the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes. What shape it took is a matter of indifference, but its moral character is plainly indicated by the comparison with Balaam.
Here then, as compared with Ephesus, is marked declension. In Ephesus "the deeds of the Nicolaitanes" had aroused hatred. In Pergamos "the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes" was tolerated, and we may be sure that the practice did not lag far behind. Indeed, as a general rule, the practice runs ahead of the doctrine, and evil is not formally sanctioned until it has long been tacitly allowed. Probably the poison was served up in a very attractive form as a philosophical and progressive element, for human nature is ever the same. In the vanity of his heart man always fancies that he can improve upon the word of God by adapting it to the greater enlightenment and liberality of his own times, and applying the wisdom which knew not God to modernize and refine the revelation which God has given. How few, alas! in our own days who can give God credit for a wisdom superior to modern thought, a wisdom into which any intrusion of man's opinions or philosophy is but presumptuous folly.
If we look at this church as foreshadowing the third stage of ecclesiastical history, it closely corresponds with the facts which the annals of Christendom bring before our view. For after the persecutions which the Church endured under the heathen emperors, the favour and worldly prosperity which awaited it under Constantine and his successors rapidly corrupted both its morals and its doctrines. In many cases the heathen were won over by the adoption of pagan rites and festivals as parts of Christian worship, or as holidays in the Christian calendar. Still worse was the open and shameless worldliness of that which called itself by Christ's name. It had settled down where Satan's throne was, and henceforth the history of Christendom for more than a thousand years was one of growing conformity to the world, and indifference to the claims of its absent Lord. All heavenly truth was dropped, and even real Christians lost sight of the Scripture teaching that the believer is already united with Christ in heaven, and is called upon to wait for His return as a "blessed hope."
But the Lord does not yet treat the church as hopelessly ruined. The evil is viewed as local rather than general; a mortified limb needing excision, rather than a mortified body for which there is nothing but death. The whole church was indeed responsible, and is therefore called to repentance under the threat of speedy visitation; but the objects of judgment are only those who themselves hold the evil doctrine. "Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them [not thee] with the sword of my mouth." Evil may grow till the whole church is corrupted, and the faithful ones are looked upon as a detached remnant. So it is with the churches addressed alter this, or at least with the phases of Christendom which these churches represent. But here matters have not yet reached this stage, and hence the church as a whole, though threatened, is still acknowledged, while judgment is confined to the evil-doers.
The exhortation, therefore, "He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches" (v. 17), is once more addressed to the whole assembly. The promise to the overcomer is very beautiful: "To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knows saving he that receives it." (v. 17.) When the church had "in their hearts turned back again into Egypt," were eating things sacrificed unto idols, lusting after the leeks and onions, the good things of this world, Christ presents Himself as the "hidden manna," the "true bread from heaven" which, unseen by the world, can satisfy the heart of the hungering believer. Nor is it only that he feeds on Christ in humiliation, which is what the manna typifies, but he has a special link also with Christ in glory. True, he gives up the worldly position and dignity after which the Church is striving, but what are these compared with the white stone from Christ's own hand, as a mark of his approbation, and engraved with a secret name, a love token known only to Him who gives and to him who receives it? Who would not rejoice to have such a secret between his soul and Christ? It is the portion of the overcomer in the days of advancing worldliness and corruption. Alas! that we should know so little about it.
We now come to a different state of things. In Thyatira there is still much faithfulness and zeal, but the mass is corrupt and the exhortation to hear is no longer addressed to the whole church, but only to the faithful. Moreover, in this and the following epistles the Lord's coming is named, seeming to show that, in the historical view, we have now reached a phase in the annals of Christendom which will last till the end of the Church's history on earth.
"And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things says the Son of God, who has His eyes like unto a flame of lire, and His feet are like fine brass." (v. 18.) Here Christ appears as "the Son of God," but the Son of God in judgment. "His eyes, like unto a flame of fire," search into and try everything. "His feet like fine brass" symbolise the righteous judgment He has come to pronounce. All this is very solemn.
There is still much on which His eye delights to dwell. "I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last [or rather, "and thy last works "] to be more than the first." (v. 19.) These certainly were not the works of Jezebel, whose doings characterise the bulk of the church. They doubtless come from the remnant afterwards named. But before going into the solemn charges He is about to bring, He dwells upon these bright features, thrown up into all the stronger relief by the dark background against which they stand.
"Notwithstanding I have ["a few things" is omitted by the best authorities] against thee, because thou sufferest that woman [or "thy wife"] Jezebel, which calls herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols." (v. 20.) Jezebel was the heathen queen who, having decoyed her husband into idolatry, usurped the regulation of religious affairs in Israel, persecuting the worship of Jehovah, and introducing that of Baal. Balaam was a seducer outside, and represents the snare which the world became to the Church. Jezebel was a corrupter inside, and represents the shameless alliance of the Church with idolatry and with the world. The difference in guilt between Balaam and Jezebel may not have been great, but the difference in position was enormous, and the later figure shows far more complicity on the part of the Church than is pointed to by the figure of Balaam. In Pergamos there were individuals, probably numbers, guilty of the evil, but the church as a whole is looked at as free. In Thyatira there were individuals, probably numbers, free from the evil, but the church as a whole is looked at as guilty.
If we may accept the fairly supported reading, "thy wife Jezebel," the point is even stronger. Ahab stood for Israel, and was responsible for it morally, as the angel or mystical representative of the Church is responsible for it here. Ahab's guilt was, first, that he married the daughter of a heathen king, thus identifying himself with the worship of Baal; and next that he permitted her, an alien and an idolatress, to become a religious regulator, to "call herself a prophetess" in God's heritage. This is what the Church, historically looked at, did after the Pergamos stage, in the days of Rome's ecclesiastical supremacy. The state of things then was an alliance between the professing Church and the world, together with an introduction of all sorts of idolatrous practices, which, under the pretence of divine authority, the Roman hierarchy brought in. Indeed, in the historical view of the churches, the parallel is closer than in its application to the church of Thyatira; for Rome, like Jezebel, not only introduced heathen corruptions, but drenched the earth with the blood of those who refused to accept them.
Still the Lord's long-suffering grace lingers, even in the case of Jezebel, as He says, "And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she repented not;" or more correctly, "And I gave her space to repent, and she wills not to repent of her fornication." (v. 21.) How long that space was in the assembly of Thyatira we know not; but in the historical church which that assembly represents what long-suffering patience, what constant calls to repentance, what warnings in one form or another has not the Lord given, and all in vain! "She wills not to repent of her fornication." It is not mere blindness and ignorance, but will acting in opposition to God.
Judgment however, though tardy, comes at length: "Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery [or fornication] with her into great tribulation, except they repent of her [not "their"] deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am He which searches the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works." (vv. 22, 23.) The dreadful state of things is here manifest, and the judgment sharp and sure. Not only has first love to Christ declined, but adulterous love to the world and idolatry, or spiritual fornication, have taken its place. Jezebel is to be cast into a bed, given up to her own abandoned ways; while those who hold intercourse with her are to be brought into "great tribulation," and her children are to be killed with death. The figure is borrowed from the fate of Jezebel's followers and children in the Old Testament — the former were pursued and destroyed; the latter put to death. The fate of Jezebel herself, historically considered, we shall trace later in the book when we come to the judgment of the great harlot, whose flesh is eaten like that of the wicked Israelitish queen. (Rev. 17:16.) The churches see this judgment, and recognize Christ as the One who tries the reins and hearts. But there are degrees of guilt even among the followers of Jezebel, and the judgment is therefore discriminating: "I will give unto every one of you according to your works." Such was the Lord's righteous mode of dealing with the church of Thyatira, or with the great mass of it which had become permeated with this corruption. Such will be His righteous judgment of the worldly system which this Asiatic church represents.
It is a relief to turn from this dark picture to the remnant to which the Lord now addresses Himself: "But unto you I say [the word "and" should be omitted], the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan (as they speak), I will put upon you none other burden. But that which ye have already hold fast till I come." (vv. 24, 25.) There were in Thyatira simple believers who did not hold the doctrine that had wrought such mischief, and were ignorant of Satan's devices. On them no judgment should fall; but surrounded as they were with evil, they are counselled to hold fast what they had "till I come." The Lord's coming is now held out before the faithful as the object of their hope. This is ever the point to which He directs the eyes of His people. When He is put aside, and the world takes the place to which He alone is entitled in the Church's affections, He reminds those whose hearts are still true to Himself that He is corning, and bids them wait patiently for this blessed hope.
Then follows the promise: "And he that overcomes, and keeps my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father. And I will give him the morning star. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches." (vv. 26-29.) "My works" is a peculiar expression, recalling Paul's language. "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus." The believer should be in his walk the reproduction, as it were, of Christ. He is quickened together with Christ, has by the Spirit the same life, and the life He thus possesses is to show itself in his daily conduct and ways. The blessed Lord was, amidst all the trials and sorrows of His earthly path, the spotlessly pure, the unswervingly faithful, the absolutely obedient One; and amidst all the corruptions and unfaithfulness of Christendom, believers are in this respect called upon to exhibit the life of Christ in their own walk and conversation. There is a contrast, too, between the works of Christ and those of Jezebel. While those seduced by Jezebel are threatened with judgment unless they repent "of her works," those faithful to Christ are promised reward if they keep "His works."
And what is this reward? "If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him." Here, while Jezebel and her followers were taking their pleasure, and lording it over the world, those who stool aloof from her iniquities must give up worldly advantages and distinctions. They share Christ's rejection here, and they are promised that when He reigns they shall reign with Him. They may well afford to let go the authority and influence now usurped by Jezebel; for to them will be given "power over the nations." Christ will come to reign, and the first act will be judgment. Even in this believers will come forth with Him as "the armies of heaven" when He appears to rule the nations with a rod of iron. They must therefore have been previously taken to heaven at Christ's coming for his saints. Hence the hope of His coming immediately follows: "I will give him the morning star." Christ is the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star." (Rev. 22:16.) As "the root and the offspring of David" He will take the kingdoms of the earth for His own; as "the bright and morning star" He is His people's hope, the herald of the coming dawn amidst the darkness which broods over the world. The two things therefore presented for the encouragement of the wayworn saints, amidst all the wickedness and persecution that Jezebel had brought into the house of God, are the prospect of reigning with Him, and the hope of His return to take them to be with Himself. The exhortation to hear follows, addressed for the first time, not to the Church as a whole, but only to the overcomers.
"And unto the angel of the church of Sardis write; These things says He that has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead." (v. 1.) The Holy Ghost is seen in this book in the diversity of His action as "the seven Spirits of God" in connection with the throne, and not in His unity as forming the body of Christ. He is here the One through whom Christ as Lord administers His government of the churches. Christ has also the seven stars. They are His, though no longer said, as at Ephesus, to be in His right hand; for man has actually usurped them in practice.
But how sad the state of the assembly at Sardis. There is not, indeed, the gross evil and corruption seen in Thyatira, but here for the first time the Lord finds nothing to commend. The censure begins at once, and the state is described in a single word — soulless profession, a name to a live, but dead. It was not scandalous wickedness, but decent death; the form retained, the heart gone; Christ owned in word, ignored in deed; creeds correct, conduct respectable, life departed. How does it please the Lord, who is looking for love from the Church, that it should have sound doctrine or outward propriety, if the affections are not only waning, but gone, His name held, His word read, His truth owned, Himself forgotten? Such was the state of the assembly at Sardis. It had become just a part of the world, as barren and lifeless towards God as any other portion.
No doubt there were exceptions, and in these a little glimmer of life still remains. He says therefore, "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God." (v. 2.) What a picture! For the most part dead, the small remnant ready to die. It does not say their works were bad, but that they were not "perfect," not complete; they had stopped short. After aiming at something good they had grown careless and never reached it. The Lord calls them therefore to awake out of their listless state, to be watchful, and to fan the dying embers of spiritual life once more into heat and flame, Moreover He assumes that they have the knowledge of the truth, at least intellectually, which, of course, so far increases their responsibility. "Remember therefore," He says, "how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent." (v. 3.) These words are important. It is not a call upon the Church to reform itself, but a reference to the one standard which God owns when the Church has utterly and hopelessly failed. When man's word and man's authority have brought in nothing but confusion and ruin, God's word and God's authority still remain unmoved, the firm rock which nothing can shake amidst all the contending waves and currents of human opinion.
Surely every one must recognize the resemblance between this church and Protestant Christendom. No doubt a mighty stream of spiritual power and blessing issued forth at the time of the Reformation; but this warm current as it spread quickly cooled, and after no long interval froze into a dreary and lifeless sea. The faith which had animated preachers in the pulpit and martyrs at the stake dwindled from its divine proportions till it became little more than the badge of a political party. The Protestants sought and accepted worldly patronage, and recognized temporal sovereigns as heads of the several churches. Thus the Protestant Church, instead of an ambitious hierarchy ruling over the kings of the world, became the pliant tool of worldly princes, and speedily sank into spiritual torpor and death. It was free from the scandals and idolatry of Romanism, but lacked all life and godly power. It had the word of God, the diffusion of which was the most blessed result of the Reformation, and it had a certain amount of newly-recovered truth; but its works were "not perfect." It got hold of truths and let them lie powerless, never seeking to recover more, and settling down into a dry traditionalism less fertile in evil, but hardly less barren in good, than the worst type of Romanism. Still it had the Scriptures, and here, as everywhere, its privilege measures its responsibility. Hence there is a peculiar significance in the exhortation to remember and hold fast that which "thou hast received and heard." It is on the truth of God, delivered by the apostles and contained in the Scriptures, not on any Church traditions or authority, that the faithful are always cast back in times of weakness and difficulty.
The words that follow are solemn. "If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come [on thee] as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee." (v. 3.) This coming "as a thief" is not the Lord's coming for His saints. Paul writes, "Yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction comes upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day." (1 Thess. 5:2-5.) The event therefore which overtakes the world as a thief in the night is not the coming of the Lord for His saints, but the coming of "the day of the Lord," which is always spoken of, not as a "blessed hope," but as a time of fearful retribution and judgment. Believers of this dispensation will not be in the night which then broods over the world, but, as "the children of the day," will be with Christ; and will afterwards, when He comes to execute judgment, appear with Him in His own glory, as promised to the overcomer in Thyatira. This "sudden destruction" therefore falls upon no true member of the body of Christ, but only upon the world, including those false professors who are left behind when the Lord comes for His saints. The bulk of Sardis was in this state; and the bulk of those belonging to that condition of the Church which Sardis represents will be found in this state also. Real believers will be taken out of it to meet the Lord, but on the whole it will continue slumbering in fancied security until Christ comes upon it as a thief in the night, and it is overwhelmed with sudden destruction.
There is indeed a remnant, though small and feeble. "Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy." (v. 4.) The believer's place is "to keep himself unspotted from the world." (James. 1:27.) The Church of Sardis, however, had so sunk to the world's level that it is even threatened with the world's judgment. The few that had been worthy, and kept their garments undefiled, shall walk with Christ in white. The blamelessness and holiness of their lives shall be publicly manifested.
This suggests the promise to the overcomer. "He that overcomes, the same shall be clothed in white raiment, and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before His angels. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches." (vv. 5, 6.) The church of Sardis had become thoroughly worldly, professing to have life while really dead, and thus virtually denying Christ. The overcomer is contrasted with the assembly in these particulars. While it had become a worldly mass, he had kept himself "unspotted from the world;" and therefore the promise is that he "shall be clothed in white raiment." While the assembly had a name to live, but was dead, the overcomer was actually entitled to a place in "the book of life;" and hence the promise is that his name shall not be blotted out. Again, while the mere professors at Sardis had a form of godliness, but denied the power thereof, the overcomer had truly confessed Christ in the midst of the general apathy; and therefore the promise is given, "I will confess his name before my Father, and before His angels."
Some have gathered from the words, "I will not blot out his name out of the book of life," that a person once saved may afterwards be lost; others, that all persons originally have life, but some forfeit it by sin. Both deductions are at once destroyed by a glance at the connection. Sardis is a mass of lifeless profession. But the very fact of profession is a claim to know Jesus as a Saviour, or, in other words, a claim to have life. Now with regard to the professing believers in Sardis this claim was unfounded; they had a name to live, but were dead. Hence the Lord, according to the natural but significant figure, strikes their names out of the book. But the overcomer has a claim which the Lord admits, and therefore his name stands while the others are blotted out. One may compare it with the drawing up of a list of burgesses. Every dweller in the town may claim to be enrolled; all are entered in a book until the revisor sits, when the true claims are allowed to stand, while the fictitious or unsupported ones are struck off the roll. The former alone have the hearing ear, and to them alone the exhortation is addressed.
"And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things says He that is holy, He that is true, He that has the key of David, He that opens and no man shuts; and shuts and no man opens." (v. 7). The Lord does not present Himself here in the same judicial character as in former epistles. He is the holy and the true, also the Messiah with the key of David. It would seem as if the question were not so much how far the church had met His requirements as a judge, but how far it corresponded with the demands of His own heart and nature. Now the believer is called upon to "put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and holiness of truth." (Eph. 5:24.) Holiness and truth therefore are the things which answer to the Lord's own heart; and hence He here reveals Himself as "He that is holy, He that is true."
But there is another character in which He shows Himself, suited to the weakness in which the church is here seen. He is the One to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth, "He that has the key of David, He that opens, and no man shuts; and shuts, and no man opens." He is not indeed yet exercising this power in worldly government, but having been "made both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36), He now uses His lordship on behalf of the feeble saints at Philadelphia to remove obstacles out of their way. "I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name." (v. 8.)
Here we have great feebleness, but the Lord himself sets before them an open door, so that there shall be no hindrance to the little strength they have. Still it is a day of small things. Philadelphia has little outwardly to show; but it has this, Thou "hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name." Of Pergamos it is said, "Thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith." As to the name of Christ therefore, both were true. In the other matter the resemblance is not so close. Pergamos had not denied the faith of Christ. This is something, but far less than what is said of Philadelphia, that it had kept His word. Not to deny Christ's faith is to remain on Christian ground; but to keep Christ's word is his own test of love and condition of communion: "If a man love me, he will keep my words, and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him." (John 14:23.) The word, too, is that which cleanses and sanctifies: "Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you" (John 15:3); and again, "Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth." (John 17:17.) This fidelity to his word therefore suited the qualities for which Christ was looking as "He that is holy, He that is true."
Philadelphia, then, is distinguished as not denying Christ's name, and also for that obedience to His word which springs from love and ensures fellowship. This is the contrast between Philadelphia and Ephesus. In all outward things Ephesus excelled; it lacked love, but abounded in works. In. all outward things Philadelphia was wanting; it lacked works, but abounded in love. This is what commends it to the Lord, who delights, not in the works, but in the affections of His people. No doubt where there is love there will also be, as at Thessalonica, the "labour of love;" but what the Lord values is the motive, not the result. So while the great works of the Ephesians are lowered in His estimation by the growing coolness of their love, the poor works of the Philadelphians are endeared to His heart by the truth of affection out of which they flowed. Only among them does He appear as One who shares their labours, holding before them an open door because of their little strength.
There is another feature in this church. In Ephesus and Smyrna we see an energy which judges evil, but in the next three churches this disappears. Pergamos endures evil; Thyatira adopts it; Sardis is dead to it. But in Philadelphia, with little power, there is at least a moral repudiation of evil, which the Lord owns. "Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not but do lie: behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee." (v. 9.) The synagogue of Satan, as already said, is the return to Jewish principles, putting men under law, and restoring the hierarchy and ceremonial suited to an earthly religion like Judaism, but totally out of place in a heavenly religion like Christianity. This attempt to put the new wine into old bottles is denounced by Paul as destructive to the truth committed to his keeping. The danger from idolatry, seen in Pergamos and Thyatira is not found here; for in spiritual churches like Smyrna and Philadelphia such snares were too obvious, and Satan tries a subtler device. This spurious Judaism was more specious and equally fatal, and has always proved a formidable danger to Christendom. This, then, was what he attempted to introduce here, but the evil was clearly discerned by the faithful Philadelphian believers.
They not only saw it, however, but withstood it. At the time it would seem to have been too strong for them; but they are assured that soon all will be changed, the despised upholders of Christ's word vindicated, and the victorious corrupters of the truth humbled. "At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow," and when He comes His people will come with Him. Then the oppressors of the truth will be compelled to bend before those who have faithfully held it in the teeth of their opposition, and to own that Christ has loved them.
This last expression is very beautiful here. It harmonizes with this epistle just as much as it contrasts with the others. There Christ is seen as Judge, and the expression of His affections would not be suitable; for what has a judge to do with love? Here, however, we see Him laying aside His judicial robes, and identifying Himself with His feeble people, dealing with them in His personal, not in His official, attributes, holding before them an open door, strengthening their faith by the assurance of victory, and finally telling them, and promising to display to their adversaries, how much He loves them. If the general character of the book is judicial, surely there is something most refreshing in this green spot in the midst of the wilderness.
"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." (v. 10.) This is a special promise made to the Church of Philadelphia. What, then, is the word of Christ's patience? Paul prays, "The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patience of Christ." (2 Thess. 3:5.) The patience of Christ is contrasted with His power. He will reign, but His reign has not yet begun. Till now He is waiting for the kingdom. The believer is called upon to wait with him, and so to share His patience. This is what the Philadelphians were doing, and for this they receive commendation.
Their reward was exemption "from the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth." Scripture foretells a period in which there "shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be." (Matt. 24:21.) At that time Daniel's people, the Jews, "shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book." (Dan. 12:1.) So Jeremiah says, "Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob's trouble; but he shall be saved out of it." (Jer. 30:7.) The woes and trials of that day however are not confined to Jacob, for the Lord adds, that He will "make a full end of all nations whither I have scattered thee." (v. 11.) Besides the period too, when the misery reaches its dreadful climax, there are preliminary troubles, called the beginning of sorrows, in which "nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in diverse places." (Matt. 24:7.) All these events are included in the hour of temptation. This time will be marked also with a peculiar energy of evil — Satan working, through his agents, "with all power, and signs, and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness." (2 Thess. 2:9-10.) Such then is "the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world."
There are two classes whose deliverance is named in connection with this hour. Daniel's people, who are "found written in the book," are "saved out of it." Those who keep the word of Christ's patience are saved from it. The godly remnant of the Jews will pass through "the furnace of affliction," and will there be "refined" and "chosen" (Isa. 48:10), being finally saved by "the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." (Matt. 24:30.) But the believer under the present dispensation will never enter this "hour of temptation." He looks not for "the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory," but to be caught up "to meet the Lord in the air." (1 Thess. 4:17.) When Christ comes to deliver His earthly people the heavenly saints will be with Him. This is at the close of the "hour of temptation:" but they will have been taken up to be with the Lord before the hour begins, and thus be delivered from its nameless woes and horrors.
Hence follows the promise of the Lord's speedy return. Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown." (v. 11.) This text troubles some anxious souls, because it is supposed to show that a man may lose his place in Christ. But the crown is a reward, and there is surely a great difference between losing a reward and losing eternal life. Moreover, this book does not deal with the question of life, but of profession, and Scripture never assumes a man to be safe because he has made a profession. The end alone must prove it, because there may be profession, and even consistency of outward walk, where there is no life at all. Such expressions as these therefore in no way weaken the believer's safety in Christ, though they furnish a solemn warning against the abuse of this doctrine to let in carelessness of walk.
"Him that overcomes 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 comes down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon Him my new name. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches," (vv. 12, 13.) The frequent repetition of the words "my God" in this promise brings Christ's relationship with the believer into special prominence. When Christ in resurrection would give His brethren the same place with Himself, He sent to tell them, "I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God" (John 20:17.) And Paul quotes Christ's words, "I will put my trust in Him" (that is God), as showing that "both He that sanctifies and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, … I will put my trust in Him." (Heb. 2:11-13.) So, when asking that the believer may know God's power in quickening him together with Christ, he prays to "the God of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Eph. 1:17.) The peculiar emphasis here given therefore to the words "my God" marks Christ's manhood, and His identification with these believers, showing that "He is not ashamed to call them brethren."
The promise is most full and blessed. The believer, despised and weak here, will have a place as a pillar a symbol of strength, in the temple of God. Holiness and truth have characterized him down here, and he shall therefore dwell in the place which "holiness becomes" (Ps. 93:5), and "shall go no more out." Again, there is peculiar nearness and consecration to God signified in the name of God being written on him. And he is specially identified with the heavenly things, the New Jerusalem, whose name he also bears. In the days of Christ's rule over the earth it will be the peculiar distinction of some to have been born in His city. "Of Zion it shall be said, This and that man was born in her." (Ps. 87:5.) The overcomer in Philadelphia will bear about him, not the name, however exalted, of the earthly Zion, but the name of the New Jerusalem, "the city of my God," which comes down out of heaven. "And I will write upon him my new name." To write one's name on a person is a figure implying appropriation or adoption, and the idea therefore here conveyed is the special interest which Christ and His God have in the faithful believers at Philadelphia who have kept Christ's word, and not denied His name.
"And unto the angel of the church in Laodicea write; These things says the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God." (v. 14.) here again the Lord presents Himself, not in His judicial, but in His moral attributes. He is "the Amen," "for all the promises of God in Him are yea, and in Him Amen" (2 Cor. 1:20.) He is also "the faithful and true witness," for though the Church has failed as God's witness on earth, Christ still abides unchangeably faithful and true. Moreover, He is "the beginning of the creation of God," the head of that new creation of which the Church ought to have been the manifestation down here. The Church has utterly departed from God's thoughts in this as in all other respects, but Christ is still the same.
"I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot. I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked, I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich, and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see." (vv. 15-18.) Such was the sad state of the church of Laodicea, such the sad picture of the professing Church in one of its last phases. There is not the gross corruption of Thyatira, nor the hopeless deadness of Sardis, but what is even more offensive to Christ, whose name is turned into a means of self-exaltation, instead of being an object of love. There is activity in the name of Christ, abundant works, abundant self-complacency, but heartless indifference to his person.
This grieves Him more than anything else, and it is against this that His sternest denunciations are directed. Only here does He speak of casting the Church out as too nauseous to be endured: "Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot I will spue thee out of my mouth." What solemn words! addressed not to a scandalously corrupt or languidly torpid church, but to a church where there was clearly much work done in Christ's name, together with large outward results. So satisfactory were these in its own estimation that it became blind to the truth, and was boasting of its wonderful success at the very moment when, in Christ's estimation, it lacked everything of real value.
It is counselled, therefore, to turn to Christ Himself, and to buy of Him "gold tried in the fire that thou mayest be rich." Gold is the figure of God's righteousness, and the term "tried in the fire" refers to its perfect purity, rather than to any judgment by which it is refined, as the Psalmist says of the Lord's words, that they are "as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times." (Ps. 12:6.) White raiment is the clothing in which the believer is fitted to stand before God, instead of appearing in the filthy rags of his own righteousness. Man wishes to clothe himself in robes suitable to God's presence. Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together that the shame of their nakedness might not appear; and yet how useless they found them when called to stand before God. He gave them a garment by which their nakedness was really covered. So this church at Laodicea was clothing itself with works, and boasting of its success, while the Lord sees it to be naked, and endeavours to rouse its conscience to the fact, so that it might receive from Him the garments it really required. But its eyes were blinded with self-conceit, and it could not discern its need of such clothing. He therefore adds, "Anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see." These self-satisfied professors lacked the very germs of spiritual life. Their eyes had never been opened to see their true condition as lost sinners. Consequently they did not know that they needed to be justified according to God's righteousness, and to stand before Him in the only clothing suited to His presence — "in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption." (1 Cor. 1:30.)
But amid all this lukewarmness, the Lord still has a few of his own people. For their sakes He deals sharply in discipline, and He calls on them for earnest repentance. "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent." (v. 19.) The church as a whole is not called upon to repent. On it the sentence is not conditional, but absolute: "I will spue thee out of my mouth." But grace is always open to individuals, and to His own people the Lord never ceases to be faithful, however far they may have sunk into the coldness or carelessness of the religious profession around them. Here the saints, though true, had become infected with the lukewarmness which was so nauseous to Christ, and discipline was needed to awaken their consciences to the sad condition into which they were fallen.
And now comes a melancholy fact, accompanied by a blessed promise. From the church as a whole Christ is, so to speak, shut out. "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." (v. 20.) Christ is still the same. Though shut out, figuratively speaking, of the church, He still seeks a place in individual hearts. It has come now to be a matter of persons, not of churches, and "if any man hear my voice, and open the door," there is still rich blessing — the blessing of soul communion; the blessing of having Christ to dwell in the heart, in the closest fellowship of daily intercourse. "I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." This is a blessed promise suited to the circumstances of the faithful. What distinguishes this Church is heartless indifference to Christ. What distinguishes the overcomer is just the reverse; for in him is found love, expressed in obedience, which is the condition of Christ taking His abode in the heart.
"To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in His throne. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches." (vv. 21, 22.) Such is the promise to the overcomer in Laodicea. Some have supposed that it shows a peculiarly rich order of blessing. But this is a mistake. There is no special reward in this, for it is the common portion of all believers. Still there is here, as in other cases, a marked appropriateness. What distinguishes the faithful in this church is, their individual association with Christ, and this character is retained in the promise to the overcomer. He had admitted Christ into his heart, and known Him in secret fellowship down here. His recompense is to be admitted to the portion of Christ in the kingdom and glory up there. Christ, as the overcomer, had been received up to sit or the Father's throne, the mark of the Father's approbation and love. The believer who has let Christ into his heart will, as an overcomer, be received up to sit on Christ's throne, the mark of Christ's approbation and love. To such, to the overcomers in the midst of the general lukewarmness, goes forth once more the gracious appeal: "He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches."
Historical Character of the Churches.
And now let us pause to trace the remarkable coincidence between the history of Christendom, and the state of the churches in the order in which it is unfolded in these epistles. As Paul had predicted, failure soon began; and at the time this book was written first love had already cooled, and the germs of serious evil, both doctrinal and moral, were already sown. Still for a time evil teaching and practice were withstood, and there was much activity and zeal in labour. This is the state of things described in Ephesus.
Then came an era of bloody and cruel persecutions, breaking out at intervals through two centuries, during which period love and devotion were kindled, and noble instances of suffering for Christ's sake are recorded. Such is the phase of ecclesiastical history depicted in the church of Smyrna.
After this a disastrous change took place. The world no longer persecuted the Church, but patronized it. The Church, not suspecting the danger, settled down under its protection, "where Satan's seat is;" and then corruption and deadness rapidly set in. Devoted men, like Athanasius, still rose as champions of the truth; but the Church generally became worldly and careless, tolerating false doctrine and evil practices, like those here ascribed to the Nicolaitanes. This third stage in Church history is set forth in the epistle to the assembly at PERGAMOS.
Up to this time the Church, though already corrupted, retained at least so much truth and faithfulness that it could yet be owned of God, and therefore the exhortation to hear is still addressed to the whole professing body. But henceforth this is no longer possible; for the next stage shows the Church in western Christendom, now wholly given up to worldliness and idolatry, beginning to claim supreme power over the kings of the earth. The pretensions and crimes of Rome, the mystical Jezebel, knew no bounds: There were still indeed devoted men, earnest missionaries, but the Church as a system was rotten to the core, false to Christ, entirely abandoned to worldly ambition and idolatrous practices. Amidst the general ruin however there were always individuals and small communities faithful to Christ, often unobserved by the world; and, when seen, generally brought into notice by the cruel persecutions they endured. But the Lord had his eye upon them, sustaining and encouraging them amidst their sufferings. These are "the rest in Thyatira." The evil condition of the Church as a whole lasted from the usurpation of temporal power by the Roman see down to the Reformation; and though since somewhat modified by events, is in principle the same yet. This is the phase in the Church's annals foreshadowed in the epistle to Thyatira.
Such is the main stream of ecclesiastical history from the decay of first love as seen at Ephesus to the last days of the Church on earth. But besides the main stream there are side channels diverging from it, and running along parallel with it to the end, the most important of which are treated of in the three following epistles. As these four phases all last to the coming of the Lord, this event is named in these epistles, but not in the first three. After the corruptions of Rome had become intolerable the Protestant Reformation arose to clear away, at least in part, the more scandalous evils, and to establish greater purity of doctrine and worship. Unhappily, after the first outburst of zeal, it soon degenerated into worldliness and torpor; and though not outwardly scandalous, it became heartless and dead. Of this state of things we have only too faithful a portrait in the epistle to the church at Sardis.
Still from time to time, amidst this hopeless apathy, the Lord has raised up a feeble few whose hearts sought to walk in obedience and faithfulness. These find their representatives in the church at Philadelphia.
But side by side with this is the self-satisfied religious activity which, while boasting of large results, is cold and indifferent towards Christ. This last phase is pictured in the church of Laodicea.
This is a solemn picture; but not more solemn than true. It is surely a deeply momentous question to ask ourselves, To which of these last four phases of the professing Church do we belong?