(Extracted from Precious Things 1927, pp. 183-189, 205-210.)
In reading these verses I had one definite thought before me. The question is often asked why are we where we are as standing apart from the various bodies in Christendom; and while various answers are given, my thought is to look into it a little and endeavour to answer the question, why we are where we are. This may necessitate speaking more directly to a certain class, but we shall endeavour to look at things in a way that will be helpful to all.
The verses read are a distinct address to the saints of God to-day. To see this clearly we must glance at the other churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3. This will help us in connection with the history and be useful as bringing out the position in which we find ourselves to-day. The letters were addressed to seven actual churches in Asia Minor to give the Lord's mind about their state. This was done in such a way as to give a seven-fold view of the assembly's outward history upon the earth from the day of the Apostle till the removal of the saints to heaven, and the lifeless body of corrupt profession left for judgment.
You will see then that we have here a prophetic outline of the history of the professing church. Many of us are more or less acquainted with the history of the testimony since the beginning of the revival of the early part of the last century, but beyond that all seems to be in a kind of haze. In the fewest possible words let us refer to this chain of seven links that we may get an intelligent glimpse of the place of Philadelphia, and the state and position which the letter has in view. Before going on let us take particular note, however, that the professing body is viewed here as the light-bearer, and all is treated on the side of responsibility. This will explain much that is otherwise difficult as to the Lord in the attitude of a Judge.
Ephesus is the beginning. There you have a link of connection with the highest point of the service of Apostle Paul. The highest point is reached in the New Testament doctrine in his epistle to the Ephesians. When that Epistle was written the company were evidently in a different moral condition from what they were as addressed in the letter in chapter 2 of Revelation. There the Spirit was free to bring out the highest and richest parts of the truth, and to show us the counsel of eternity; here there is distance. Though there is much that the Lord can and does commend in Ephesus it is seen that the spring of all is gone in the fact that they had left their first love.
This was the general state of things in the church before the last of the Apostles left the scene, and it continued getting worse till the character of things described in Smyrna gradually took its place.
Historically we reach the sub-Apostolic church in Smyrna, and in few words hear the Spirit's comment on the suffering and sorrow of that time. The worldliness of the time brought down the hand of the Lord in discipline, and the persecution of that time was the result. Here there was tribulation and poverty, but says the Lord, "Thou art rich". It is one of the two out of all the seven in which there is nothing to condemn, and these words contrast vividly with the words of the Lord in the letter to Laodicea where moral poverty was so much in evidence. This leads to Pergamos, the third assembly addressed, here referring doubtless to what is known in history as the church of the fathers. The professing body had long become a recognised concern on the earth, and at that time had come to terms with the world. The clerical system had grown up, and the general worldliness was of such a nature that the way was made for the corruption of the papacy.
This, it is well known, is what is seen here in the letter to Thyatira. In this way we may trace in these Epistles the gradual descent from the Apostolic Age down through the persecutions of the second and third centuries, thence to the Pergamos state when the church shook hands, so to speak, with the world, and from that till the dark ages of the papacy.
Here we reach the darkest point of all, and for the first time the Lord singles out a remnant from the body and puts before them the hope of His coming. It should be remembered, in tracing this solemn descent, that there were many faithful witnesses to the truth and that many witnessed to it, even to death. Many whose names stand out prominently, shone with a lustre that became all the brighter because of the deepening darkness. There has sometimes been a tendency to belittle the men of those days, and doubtless there is much we can see that was failure, but we should remember that they are not to be judged by our standard. If each be viewed in the light of his day it will enable us to form a just estimate, and save us from condemning those we are to meet in heaven and spend an eternity with; fruit of boundless grace given by Him to whom we all owe so much. Scripture leads us to view every one in relation to the testimony in his day, and this enables us to form a right judgment. The Book of Judges shows us servants who represent various standards of morals, and it is note-worthy how the Spirit can recall some of these that we might not have judged worthy of such a place, (see Hebrews 11). It would be easy to mention many names which stand out prominently in connection with each of the four phases, names which have come down to us to-day, and indeed, to see moments in the history of some of them when one individual, as it were, stood in the breach and was maintained of the Lord in relation to the whole truth for all the saints.
Sardis represents a new work of God. The corruptions of the papacy had become so bad that something was called for, and the Lord began to work in the hearts of His people in view of recovery. This had gone on for a long time when Luther appeared, and he became the vessel in the hands of the Spirit for a great movement all over Christendom. This man became the leader of a band of faithful men, through whom God wrought for the recovery of His blessed Gospel for the blessing of many ten thousands of souls. We that are here can scarcely appreciate the deliverance which was then wrought, but we can unfeignedly bless God for it, and for the men He wrought through for the benefit of His church at that time, and until the end.
In treating of the testimony of God one feels sorry that we are not able to say that these honoured men went the whole length. They had the fresh light of the Gospel, but they stopped there and did not go on to the truth of the church, and the counsel of God concerning her place with Christ for His glory. It was near that time that national churches, as we see them to-day, became a necessity; facts which compel us to admit that these beloved men did not go far enough, and failed to give the Holy Ghost His place.
Anyone acquainted with the history of God's testimony in these lands during the intervening time between the Reformation and the fresh work of the Spirit, which I wish to speak to you about at this time, will recall, that, while declension set in, faithful men were raised up again and again to carry forward the work of the Gospel. Here again it were easy to mention many honoured names of men, who, in the Lord's hands were made the means of blessing to many.
While all this was going on, the general condition of things in Sardis, or as we would say, Protestant Christendom, was getting very low. In His unfailing goodness, the Lord began to work again, and this brings us to the verses we have read, the church of Philadelphia. Just as He had been working before the Reformation, in view of all His own, so it was again; the work of preparation went on. This time, however, the work was to be greater in scope. Its bearing on the earth was, of course, the same; it was to affect the whole church of God. But from the moral point of view the whole scope of the truth was to be brought out. How far have we understood this, and taken account of it? The Reformation had brought out the Gospel, but the time had come when saints were to be brought under the influence of the Apostolic doctrine. The former, though bringing blessing to men, did not necessarily take them outside the world; this did. It brought the saints to the truth of a new creation, and that on account of giving place to the Holy Ghost.
It began by certain godly souls coming together to partake of the Lord's Supper apart, and in that way little companies of saints sprang up here and there all over the land. The Lord marked out the vessel through whom He would work, just as in the case of Luther in a previous time. What the Lord had in view for His people was the revival of the heavenly calling.
To that vessel was made known the truth that Christ is the head of the church. This was at the beginning, and showed what the Spirit of God had in view to bring about. The place of Christ in the counsel of God, and the range of truth connected with the new creation began to be spoken of, and we here can bless God for having had these things ministered to us.
Immediately, however, the opposition began. Looking back we can see that this took a double form. Not only was there opposition from outside the company gathered out, but in the very bosom of the separated ones there arose a determined opposition that went far to dishonour the Lord, and which had eventually to be separated from. The ritualistic movement was from the outside, and the return to Rome which has come to such an extent in our day; the school of prophetic study went on among those separated till, as we have said, the Person of Christ was attacked, and it became necessary to separate.
What the servant to whom the Lord had revealed His thought endured at that time no one can tell, but he tells us in his letters that for what is called peace things were borne with till it became necessary to separate. It is needless to speak further on that here, only we can bear witness to the Lord's goodness in a further way, in that He made the very sorrow of that time a means of bringing to His saints fresh light and blessing. The very trials of the time made room for the Lord to give His people fresh light concerning the House of God.
Surely all this turns us to the One who is holy and pure. He has the key of David and opens and no one can shut, and shuts and no one can open. Is it not most remarkable that both in Smyrna and Philidalphia, the two letters where there is nothing to condemn, the opposition is mentioned as coming from those claiming hereditary rights? That class was in evidence as opposers in the early days, and they are seen again at the close. But the word of Christ rang out in Holy Ghost power, and tens of thousands of souls were richly blest all over the land. The Lord was working, and the grand truth of the hour was made known in ways altogether unheard of before. The Headship, Lordship and Priesthood of Christ; reconciliation; the truth of the new man and the body of Christ, all was coming out in freshness and divine power.
Passing on to the closing decade of the last century we come to another time of sifting. The Lord had taken His servant home, the general state was low, the truth which had been given was in books, but few had entered into it. The Lord in faithfulness raised up certain servants to carry on the work, and to recall His saints to what He had given. The state was low; some were not prepared to accept the truth, and more sorrow and scattering was the result. We are not justifying or condemning individuals; what we see is that the Lord had a controversy with His people, and had to permit another scattering before the truth could have place. Much truth was held in an objective way that made people proud, and the subjective side which always humbles was refused.
The Lord was raising the question with us, many refused and were turned aside, those who were preserved were greatly blessed, and for many years after the scattering God gave much fresh help through His servants. It is here that many of us who could not avail ourselves of the ministry of J.N.D. were helped, so that we were enabled to read it and take it in for ourselves. Before his departure that servant had called attention to the writings of John. The Spirit of God turned the saints to these writings, and much blessing was the result. And within the memory of many there remains the heavenly light and blessing that was ministered in the last years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. We know this, and many of us will bless our God for it for evermore.
Now if we have followed thus far it will easily be seen that the movement of the Spirit of God was not merely in connection with the fresh study of prophecy. It was not even an evangelic movement, although both the Gospel and the prophetic word have been encouraged by it. The time had come when Paul's gospel was to be brought to the front, whereby man in the flesh was removed from the ground of divine testimony, and a new Man and His race were to hold the ground for God. The Glory of Christ as the Centre of divine counsel; the place of the assembly as His body and bride; the new creation with all its range of holy and heavenly things: these were the things that God was seeking to put before His saints, and we know the result.
What have we done with all the rich ministry showered upon us? Have we answered to the desire of our God towards us? Surely we have to bow our heads and own our failure in it all. So keenly was this felt by one of the Lord's servants that in his closing message to the brethren he pointed out what the Lord had given at the beginning of the movement, and showed briefly how it had been opposed, and pressed upon each one his responsibility to maintain it. After tracing the history briefly he ended by saying: "The Lord give grace to His saints, to awaken them to their immense loss in not making more of the great truth which He has revived among us. I see every one's power is in proportion as he approaches it." (J. B. Stoney) This was written in 1896, and we all know what has taken place since then.
It is in Philadelphia then, dear brethren, that the administrative supremacy of Christ is seen and insisted upon, and it is there we see the value of His word. Can we not see the connection of these things with the state of the world and the apostasy of Christendom at the close? There is not a shadow of a doubt that the Lord has been giving light and help to His saints in view of the closing apostasy of the ages, so that they might be fitted to stand intelligently in the presence of the force of evil. Philadelphia means brotherly love, and thank God that has been seen, and in spite of the power of the enemy in scattering, it is still in evidence to-day. Nothing else can meet the power of evil than the energy of life. The blessed Lord can see amidst all the confusion many hearts that beat true to Himself.
One point here let us note for the sake of its importance. We often fail to see that Philadelphia represents the whole church, and the result is confusion. We can clearly see that the whole church is before the Lord in verse 10, for all will be taken out of the great tribulation, but while that is so, what is specially in view is individuals that hold fast the word of Christ.
Having traced the history so far, I would call your attention to the position of the present moment. In the break-up that is going on there is no doubt that the only way to be saved from sectarianism is by holding the truth. The Lord grant that we may have a better appreciation of the truth, and a higher valuation of it.
But we have not yet given a clear answer to the question why we are where we are, and to that I would now turn, seeking with the Lord's help to make clear to you the favour of the moment. Were ever saints favoured as we are to-day? I am sure we are bound to admit that we live, not only in the time when God is fully revealed, but in the best part of that time. But is there not a reason for this? Has it not been said that the ministry the Lord was giving had in view the preparing of His saints for the dark times of the closing apostasy of the ages? The time had come when God would allow the forces of evil to rise up in all their power in the very way He had foretold, and in view of that uprising He, blessed be His name, would prepare His beloved people by making known to them the full Apostolic testimony.
But where are we in relation to all this? Are we together intelligently in the appreciation of what our God has given? I ask, dear brethren, are we in the enjoyment of what God has given? Is it not clear that we are in danger of being a mere mission with a breaking of bread? We have been entrusted with a great legacy. What are we doing with it? It is this that delivers from the system of judaised Christianity that is around us, and nothing else. I am firmly convinced that the Gospel as given to Paul, if taken in, will deliver from anything and everything that opposes. How could it be possible for anyone to link himself with any kind of organisation if he knew deliverance from the flesh by the death of Christ, and found himself in a new order of life with a new status altogether? The thing could not be done. Paul's Gospel shows how God has established His righteousness in the removal of man in the flesh from the platform of testimony that His blessed Man and His race might occupy the ground. Being delivered from the flesh, we are freed from all its associations, and in Christ on the other side of death, we have all the blessed associations of that heavenly life of His, so that we can be together for His pleasure. This then, dear brethren, is the reason we are where we are; and I would affectionately press it upon you so that we may be there intelligently with God. No mere being in the right company will do, nor because that company have the truth as we say. If we are not with God about things the very favour of the position will be our condemnation. I need not say that the actual position is often very trying.
But now look at the words to the overcomer here. It is remarkable that though there is no fault to find, yet there is a call to overcome. "Him that overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go no more out". This should be read in the light of the circumstances of the moment. We must remember that Laodicea is concurrent, and that means that the Philadelphian is face to face with modernism, higher criticism, and many other things which go to make up the rebellious system of the day. The overcomer, like his Blessed Master, is outside. This is a solemn consideration. Christ is outside, and when He was here and the man of John 9 was cast out for his faithfulness, he met his Lord in that outside place. To be faithful to Christ to-day involves that one is outside all that is accredited in religious circles, but he can be there in company with his Lord. The moment is near when such an one shall have a place of importance — a pillar, and shall go no more out. It is a most blessed position to be with the Lord to-day with the sense in the soul that you have to please but One.
"And I will write upon him the name of My God". It is not only that He will bring one into honour, but He tells us how it will be done. He will stamp upon him the character of His own God. Who will tell us what this means? To be brought into an honoured place by the Lord of glory in that scene of glory, and that in relation to the time of His rejection, is a very wonderful thing. The rejected One will then take His place. He is to-day rejected and refused His rights by the world, and, worst of all, at the close He is shut out of His place by that which calls itself the church. Soon He will take His rightful place, and then those who have shared rejection in any little measure with Him will be brought forward as identified with Him in the glory of God. Then will be seen the full expression of what God is in a way never seen before because it is the consummation of His purpose in glory.
This leads by an easy transition of thought to divine administration, "And the name of the city of My God". This is the city where God is known. She is beautiful for situation and God is known in her palaces. There are towers, battleworks and palaces beyond compare. Even now we are made fellow citizens of that city and of the household of God, but all this is to faith. Then faith will not be needed, and the faithful ones will be linked up with the glory and the administration of it in such a way as to give the divine answer to the place of reproach to-day.
The city is said to be new Jerusalem, which is so fully described at the close of the book. There the thought of the temple is made good, for the growing temple of Ephesians 2:21, will then be complete. It is there that every blessed thought of God is linked and set forth in glory in answer to all that has taken place in the past ages, and God is glorified in relation to it all. But after all this there would remain something incomplete if Christ and His new Name were lacking. It is this which binds the whole together for He was the rejected One. In His rejection He wrought for the glory of God in such a way as to cover the Name and throne of God with fresh glory. He has a new Name which is connected with the new creation, and this new Name He puts upon others.
In the scene of millennial glory and blessing it is well to remember that all hangs upon Christ. The Kingdom, City and Temple are mentioned, and all is brought about by Him. "I will write upon him My new Name". In plain words it is complete acknowledged identification, both in heaven and earth. His new Name is that which He takes up in virtue of the cross. It is something He had not before, or it could not be new. It therefore alludes to all that glory acquired by Him in His stoop down into this world, and the descent to Calvary, for the glory of God and the blessing of the creation.
Having run over this chain of seven links there is, of necessity, much left out one would have liked to touch. It may be said that one important part of the movement of the 19th century has not been spoken of, namely the way the Lord's coming was used to the awakening and blessing of souls. That indeed was used by the Lord for the blessing of His people, and the awakening of many slumbering ones, and we can be thankful that the truth of His coming has been used far and wide. But what we had before us was the evident way the Lord has given to His people that which will separate them from the world in His absence, and make them stand in the bright hope of His coming.
It is this indeed that has led us to seek to look afresh at the truth in its great fundamental points as the incarnation, atonement, resurrection, ascension, and the coming of the Holy Ghost. Then the Gospel as given to Paul, from which it is an easy transition to the place of the church as the body and bride of Christ. May we all be kept in the sense of the greatness of the favour of the moment, that as darkness deepens — for things have not yet reached their worst — we may be in the testimony in a very real sense, and that a clear witness may be maintained till He comes for His name sake.