Thoughts on the Epistles to the Seven Churches Viewed Practically.

1873 222 There are three lights in which we may examine the epistles to the seven churches; namely, literal, prophetical, and practical.

Viewed literally, we learn what was the condition of these seven assemblies in the days of St. John the evangelist, and the special features which characterized each of them. The Nicolaitans had troubled both the assembly at Ephesus and that at Pergamos. Those falsely called Jews, that is, God's people on earth, but here declared by the Spirit to be of the synagogue of Satan, were met with at Smyrna and at Philadelphia. Persecution had raged at Pergamos, during which Antipas, Christ's faithful martyr, had sealed his testimony with his blood; and the devil by similar means was about to try the faithful in Smyrna. Doctrinal evil had gained a footing in the assembly in Pergamos, and was rampant in that in Thyatira; whilst deadness had crept over the assembly in Sardis, and lukewarmness characterized that in Laodicea. How soon had the light begun to burn dim, and how great was the triumph of the enemy, even before the last of the apostles had been removed from the earth! In Thyatira the bulk of the assembly, the angel included, had been seduced by the teaching of one called (symbolically one may believe) Jezebel; in Sardis a few only had kept their garments undefiled; and in Laodicea it was a question to which their subsequent conduct would furnish the answer whether any in that assembly had spiritual life in their soul.

Viewed prophetically, we trace in these epistles an outline, and the only one we have, of the church's history from the close of the apostolic ago to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ into the air for His saints. For, though we do meet in them with notices of things which will happen after that epoch (Rev. ii. 20, 27; Rev. iii. 3, 10), yet the history of such events must be sought for elsewhere; the epistles really closing with the time when (the saints having been caught up) Christendom will be left like a house without a tenant, a body without a soul, to be spued out of Christ's mouth as a worthless, nauseous thing. Thus, what these epistles viewed prophetically are to the church, namely, the outline of its history to the close of its earthly sojourn, the parables of the kingdom are to the kingdom of God or of heaven, namely, the prophetic outline of the history of the kingdom during the absence on high of the King. But, whereas in the parables we learn what was to be from man's failure in, as well as God's thoughts about, the kingdom; in these epistles, whilst we behold the failure of that which has been entrusted to men, we learn also what the faithful are to do in the different conditions of failure which are portrayed, and hence their practical utility in a twofold way is brought out to us.

For prophecy it must be remembered, if rightly used, is most practical. Peter tells us of the practical value of the Old Testament predictions about the kingdom (2 Peter i. 19-21), and the Lord Himself has illustrated in the prophetic parable of the servants (Matt. xxiv. 45-51) the danger to any teacher, who fails to remember what scripture tells us of His return. Again in the discourse with his disciples about the future of Jerusalem (Luke xxi.), by acquainting them with circumstances attending the city's downfall by the Romans, and His return in power, the disciples alive at either epoch would know bow to act in the first case, and how to feel as the predicted signs shall come to pass, and which must herald His approach. (Ver. 8-28.)

But, besides this use of prophecy, we may view these seven epistles in another, a practical light, as affording instruction and profit for God's saints throughout the whole period between John's day and the Lord's return in the air. For, though addressed each one to the angel of the local assembly designated in the letter, the whole seven were to be made acquainted with the message sent to each. (Rev. i. 11.) Thus, whilst each assembly was acknowledged to be distinct from the other six, it was to be concerned with the letters written by the Lord's commands to the rest. Distinct assemblies indeed they were, each one responsible to him, yet all parts of the one assembly on earth of which He is the living and glorified Head. So the address to be sent to each was to be communicated to them all. Nor were they to be confined to themselves in their day. People in Greece and Syria, as well as in Egypt and Italy, were to take heed to the things here declared, as we learn from the one exhortation common to them all, which applies as much to us as it did to every listener and reader in John's day, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches."

To get then the full meaning of these epistles we must view them in all these lights, just as we view the rainbow as a whole if we want to have a clear conception of what it is like, though we can, if we wish it, direct our attention to any one of the seven different colours which the bow contains, if we desire to examine them separately. Did we then only study these epistles prophetically, we should not see the force of the personal allusions they contain, nor learn how soon corruption had pervaded the most of them, and whilst perhaps attempting to fix their application so viewed to the day in which we live, we should be in danger of passing over the first three as not applicable to the time in which our lot is cast. Again, if we regarded them only in their literal aspect, the references to the coming of the Lord (Rev. ii. 25, Rev. iii. 3, 9, 10) would be difficult of explanation, whilst the order in which they are addressed, and the evident fact that the last four churches are regarded as in some degree synchronizing (that is, continuing together till the Lord come) would be a problem incapable of solution. The exhortation "To him that hath an ear/' etc., and the promise in each epistle addressed to the overcomer, witness of their individual and practical application, whilst the remembrance that they are to be viewed as well both literally and prophetically explains the reason of allusions to things then existing, as well as of the order in which these seven epistles are arranged. Accepting, then, the prophetical bearing of these epistles, so often pointed out, as correct, the object of the present paper is to view them practically in accordance with the exhortation quoted above, to "hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." For though addressed by the Lord to the angels, the Spirit by these epistles speaks to the churches.

The first things which meet us are the description of the One from whom the letters were sent, as well as the designation of those to whom they are addressed. The epistles of Peter, James, and Jude and those of Paul and John for the most part, bear on their title pages the name or description of the inspired writer. A man, a servant of God, and an apostle of Christ, addresses his fellows, brethren in the faith. But these seven epistles bear no such designation, though written by the apostle John; for he is here seen only as the amanuensis of one greater than himself, even the Son of man, the Lord Jesus Christ. These are epistles from Him, whom John had known upon earth, and the only epistles in the New Testament thus characterized. Paul and the rest wrote under the immediate guidance of the Holy Ghost, and their writings form part of the canon of scripture (2 Peter iii. 16), the epistles being termed prophetic writings (Rom. xvi. 26, Greek); but here we have the Son of man, risen from the dead, addressing the angels of the seven churches, "These things saith he," etc., being the formula met with in them all. And, as the sacred penmen described themselves in their epistles as servants of God, apostles of' Christ, or simply as the elder (2 and 3 John), so does the Lord Jesus, in the beginning of each address appropriately designate Himself, using either terms which express His relation to the churches (Rev. ii. 1, 12, 18; Rev. iii. 1), or terms personally descriptive of Himself. (Rev. ii. 8; Rev. iii. 7, 14.)

As we mark this feature, a characteristic met with in no other epistle of divine authority, namely, that the Lord Jesus here speaks directly, so must we acknowledge that the designation of the one to whom each is addressed is peculiar likewise, for the angel of the church is a term unknown elsewhere in the whole inspired volume. With epistles general, particular, and personal, we are familiar. These also are personal, but are addressed to one characterized by his work in the assembly, not by his official name. To the bishops and deacons at Philippi, as well as to all saints there, did Paul write from his prison in Rome. (Phil. i. 1.) The twelve tribes are addressed by James, the strangers of the dispersion were specially cared for by Peter, whilst the saints and faithful in Christ were taught by Paul and John and Jude. But in these seven epistles we have the angel always addressed, as responsible for what went on in the assembly. Elders, bishops, or deacons, are not once mentioned in them; and the term apostle is only introduced when speaking of those who had falsely arrogated to themselves that distinctive appellation. (Rev. ii. 2.) Remembering the prophetical bearing of these epistles we can understand this; for the Lord's care for His people is here displayed, in view of a time when apostles, and those appointed to any office by them, would cease to exist upon earth. Ministry never will cease as long as the church is on earth, nor surely will the supply fail of those fitted to perform the services allotted in apostolic days to elders and deacons. Hence the Lord here writes to those called angels, the mystical representatives of the assemblies, and, as we learn from the epistles themselves, those, whether an individual or individuals, whom the Lord held responsible for the condition of that assembly with which the angel was locally connected.

Looking through these epistles we meet with nothing of church order, nor have we any fresh doctrinal revelation. The circumstances and form in which they were written would preclude both. For, as the church is built on the foundation of apostles and prophets, when church order has to be treated of, an apostle is selected to be the mouthpiece of the Holy Ghost by virtue of his apostolate. And since to Paul, not to John, was it given to fulfil the word of God (Col. i. 25), it is from the former's writings alone that we learn anything about church order. Again, had fresh doctrinal revelations been made in these epistles, since they were written after the decease of Paul, Peter, James, and others of the apostles and prophets, it would have proved that all the truth needful for the edifying of the body had not been communicated in their day, in which case Paul could not have declared all the counsel of God (Acts xx. 27), nor could Peter surely have written in the terms he did. (2 Peter i. 3.) In fact these epistles endorse the language of both Peter and Paul, as they call on those by them addressed to be faithful to the truth already received, not to expect anything more. (Rev. ii. 25; Rev. iii. 3.) Faithfulness in the time of declension and persecution is what the Lord hero enjoins, and individual faithfulness He desires, if the majority around them have got wrong. And this is to be attained by keeping fast hold of what they have, or returning to that from which they have departed; whereas the reverse of faithfulness would be indicated by refusing to conform, whether in doctrine or practice, to that which had once been accepted amongst them. But though we meet not with rules for church order, we learn that when apostles, and elders, and deacons appointed by them, should cease to exist upon earth, there would be always in the different assemblies those, whom the Lord would hold responsible to care for the due order and welfare of His saints: a solemn fact surely. And though none can now lay claim to be obeyed on the ground of appointment to office, there were, there are, and there will be, those who should care for the local assemblies throughout the world, this responsibility never terminating till the Lord's rejection of Christendom by spueing it out of His mouth.

Of the eagle eye of an apostle, which could discern evil in the bud, and warn the saints against dangers by ordinary observers undetected, the church was soon to be bereft. Deprived of their personal superintendence the assemblies were not left to themselves; there was, and there is, One who walks in their midst. He did this in the days of John the apostle; He does so still. The Holy Ghost dwells in God's habitation on earth to direct and further the work among men, and the Son of man walks in the midst of the assemblies fully cognisant of all that goes on. How deeply interested must He be in the affairs of the church to walk in the midst of the golden candlesticks! How solemn for us to remember that it is the Son of man who thus walks! Golden candlesticks, or lampstands, He owns them to be the recognized vessels for the diffusion of light from God in the midst of the darkness around, though there was much in them of which He disapproved. But, as the church is the pillar and ground of the truth, so local assemblies are the divinely appointed vessels, from which in their different places the light should radiate. And the angels are called by the Lord Himself stars, to give light and to rule in the night-season the lampstands, the stars indicating the position and service of each, whilst both speak of the absence of the sun, and by consequence announce that the day has not yet dawned on this benighted, weary, sin-defiled world.

As a rule no promises are made to the angels; but Smyrna and Philadelphia are exceptions to this. To the representatives of these two assemblies promises are made. In the case of Smyrna it is the crown of life if faithful unto death; a mark of approval to be bestowed on those who endure temptation. (Rev. ii. 10; James i. 12.) In the case of Philadelphia the promise speaks of homage to be paid by those who have disowned them, and preservation from the hour of trial about to come upon all the world to try them that dwell on the earth. Another feature in common have these two letters, being the only ones in which no failure of the angel had to be noticed. In the rest the Lord finds something, in the most a great deal, to blame: in these there was only that which needed encouragement. How intimately then is He acquainted with all that goes on in the different assemblies, as He warns and rebukes those who have failed, or encourages (for they were men in the flesh) those, who in spite of active persecution, or conscious weakness, were through grace holding on their way!

The fact of failure being noticed as the chronic state of most of the assemblies witnesses of the change that had crept over that which had been set up by the Lord Jesus on earth. But the fact that He shows it up, without at once rejecting that which bore His name down here, speaks to us of the long-suffering goodness and love of Him with whom we have to do. At first in all the freshness of spiritual youth, and by the Holy Ghost acting in and through Peter, the thin end of the wedge of corruption, inserted by the malice of the enemy, was effectually driven out (Acts 5); and, even as late as the time alluded to in Revelation ii. 2 the angel at Ephesus had unmasked the hollow pretensions of those calling themselves apostles, and had proved them liars. But now failure had manifested itself very generally, till it had become the characteristic feature of the assemblies in which it had gained a footing. Of this the Lord speaks, to warn if they would be warned, and so be wise in time.

Reading these letters as descriptive of assemblies then established, we see how different conditions spiritually might co-exist. We learn too how varied can be the attempts of the enemy to corrupt assemblies with the view of effacing the testimony for God and for Christ from the world, as well as the Lord's discrimination evidenced in His dealings with each of them. To this let us now turn.

In His message to the angel of the assembly in Ephesus the Lord has to notice symptoms of decline, such as by ordinary eyes would not be observed. His position in relation to the seven stars, and His place in the seven golden candlesticks, tell of His concern with all that went on. The former He held in His right hand, and amongst the latter He walked. To all that there was of value in His eyes He gave full credit (ver. 2, 3) and there was a great deal. Works, labour, patience, refusal to bear with those who were evil, and the detection of false apostles — these tell us of the manifestations of the divine life which had been witnessed in that assembly. Endurance too unwearied, and that for Christ's sake, He speaks of. And, as real disciples of the Master, they hated the works of the Nicolaitanes. What then was wrong with them? What fault could be found with them? Men probably discerned none, but He who walked in the midst of the golden candlesticks puts His finger on the blot, and characterizes it in terms which might sound strange to others. "I have against thee that thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore, whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works." Restoration to the former condition, and not anything new, was that which He asked of the angel. The activity of the assembly could not deceive the Son of man, nor could a continuance in their present course satisfy Him; so He bids the angel to remember whence he had fallen, and to repent. If not, the opportunity for testimony would be taken away from them, the lamp be removed out of its place. One may have to own, in reading this epistle, how far one has come short in estimating aright the evil of which the Lord complains, but we have it here written for our instruction. For whilst the angel is addressed, the responsibility of individuals is clearly set forth in the promise given to the overcomer, a promise just suited to the circumstances of the case. Vigour of spiritual life had characterized them once. He desired that it should do so again, and promises to the overcomer (i.e., the one who should exhibit it afresh), for ever and ever to enjoy it by eating of the tree of life which would surely continually sustain it. This was the Lord's way of lifting souls out of their declining spiritual condition. To the overcomer He offers nothing for the present, for the principle of the walk of faith is to look forward to what will be enjoyed; but not in the circumstances in which we at present are. This acted on the worthies of old, and must act on those who would be overcomers. So the Lord speaks of "the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God."

This way of dealing with souls demands further consideration. What might have been passed over as a light matter was in His eyes a very grievous one. By leaving his first love the angel had fallen. "Remember from whence thou art fallen," the Lord said to him. Every word here is important. He had fallen, and how great was the fall! This he was to call to remembrance, and repent and do the first works. If not, the Lord would visit them governmentally. Then to help souls in that condition He points them on to the future, and tells them what, if overcomers, He will give them. To point out only what is wrong will not help people to get right. The Lord here aimed at two things, the opening of the eye to see what needed correction, and the acting on the heart to make them overcomers. The former is done by pointing out the failure, the latter by occupying souls with His grace.

Turning to the epistle to the angel in Smyrna we learn that the Lord is fully acquainted with His people's condition. In the letters to the angels of the assemblies in Ephesus, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea He commences with the words, "I know thy works." In the epistles to the angels of the assemblies in Smyrna and in Pergamos these words should be emitted. The activity of the assembly in Ephesus we have seen that He knew: with the condition of that in Smyrna we learn that He was well acquainted. Tribulation and poverty had characterized them, tribulation would still be their lot. No change for the better does the Lord hold out, but their eyes are directed to another quarter, one beyond the horizon of this world. Death might await them for His sake, but the crown of life would be theirs, and whosoever overcame (i.e., by not loving his life) should not be hurt of the second death. Death is not the Christian's hope; but if called for Christ's sake to enter it, they were not to fear, for it was the First and the Last who thus addressed them, who became dead, and lived. Poor, despised, persecuted, and perhaps slain here, then to be decked with the crown of life for ever and ever. Rich indeed would they be, distinguished in eternity for this, that life on earth had been esteemed as nothing in comparison with faithfulness to Him, who became dead and lived. How graciously does He minister to His suffering people as He reminds them of His path, and foretells for them their future!

But not only does He speak of the condition. He notices also the position, as He tells the angel of the assembly at Pergamos, I know where thou dwellest, where Satan's seat is." But, as the condition of the assembly in Smyrna was not to be altered, so neither was the position of that in Pergamos to be changed. How often are souls tempted to think, 'If only my condition was improved, or my position amended, I should do better.' The Lord however wants us to glorify Him in the condition in which we are, and to be faithful in the position in which His providence has placed us, both of which He knows, as we learn from these two epistles. And here a fresh point comes out. Whilst personal soundness in the faith is essential, that can be no excuse for the allowance of evil within the assembly. Personally the angel was sound. "Thou boldest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in the days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth." This was commendation, both of what had been done, and of what was still done. The Lord's faith had not been denied in the days of persecution, His name the angel still held fast. But, through carelessness it may have been, holders of false doctrine were suffered among them, which led to immorality of walk, a connection, as of cause and effect, much closer than many, it may be, are apt to imagine. What might seem of little moment to the angel was a grievous matter in the eyes of Christ, and the orthodoxy of the angel could not shield him from blame, if such people were allowed to continue unchecked.

Is the teaching we here get commonly understood and accepted in our day? To be sound himself was not sufficient; he ought to have allowed no compromise with evil. Personal soundness, whilst allowing evil to be rife amongst them, was a state of matters with which the Lord could not rest satisfied; so the sharp two-edged sword out of His mouth (Rev. i. 16), by and by to be used in judgment against the nations (Rev. xix. 15), must be wielded by Him against the evildoers, unless the angel repented. The effect of repentance would be the expulsion of the evil from amongst them. This is what the Lord desired, thus owning what God had set up on earth, the assembly qualified to deal with the evil. Authority to act they had, and, if they had exercised it, they would have found they had the power also; but failing to act themselves, the Lord must fight against the corrupters with the sword of His mouth. What a place then the assembly occupies, and what responsibility rests on it, as the witness for Christ, and the maintainer of His glory and truth upon earth! And observe, He did not tell the angel at Pergamos to assemble a general council, or even a provincial synod, before taking action in this matter.

Abetters of the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to cat things sacrificed to idols and to commit fornication, had a footing in this assembly, as well as those who held the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes. The former we meet with here for the first time, the latter had been mentioned in the epistle to the angel at Ephesus. There the angel had been of one mind with the Lord about their deeds, here the angel permitted the presence of those who held their doctrines. What attempts of the enemy to corrupt God's people do these charges against the angel attest! To destroy God's people Israel by drawing them into idolatry and its concomitant ways of uncleanness, had been Balaam's wicked device communicated to Balak. Here in Pergamos a similar plan was being pursued; but the Lord unmasked it. To eat things sacrificed to idols might seem to some a small matter. Believers at Corinth had been deceived in this way, till the apostle showed clearly what such conduct and association implied. Here the evil appears to have run to greater lengths, for the natural fruits of it had been developed. To meet this twofold evil the Lord then addresses the overcomer, and promises to give to him to eat of the hidden manna, and a white stone, and on the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it.

The unfaithful were seeking to satisfy themselves on earth from unhallowed sources, the overcomers shall be fed in heaven by Christ Himself. The hidden manna, Christ, now on high, of which the golden pot of manna laid up in the sanctuary was typical, shall be their portion for ever to feed on, who overcome the seduction of error akin to what Balaam introduced amongst Israel. Thus a portion, better than Israel on earth enjoyed, they shall have forever; even the hidden manna, the gift of Christ Himself. With this the Lord couples the white stone, the mark of acquittal or approval, on which shall be written a new name, a secret of delight between the giver and receiver. What could Satan offer to compare with these blessings, all future, it is true, but the assured portion of each one who would stem the tide of such evils as were corrupting the assembly at Pergamos? To eat of things which God abhorred, and to give the rein to their fleshly lusts, were the snares by which Satan was at Pergamos ruining souls. To eat of that which is precious to God, and to have the sure token of Christ's approval forever, are what the Lord here offers to the overcomer. What desires for their everlasting welfare does the Lord's ministry here disclose!

In the assembly at Thyatira things were worse, and the faithful were accounted by the majority as familiar with the depths of Satan. All right thoughts of order were subverted. The doctrines of Balaam were bearing fruit; and what was worse, one who styled herself a prophetess, but is here called by the Lord Jezebel (a name indicative of her purpose as akin to that of Ahab's queen, who used her power and influence to corrupt God's saints), was in the height of her career, seduced His servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Nor did she stand alone in her wickedness. She had followers, called her children, who disseminated the corruption which she had introduced. Her influence and the extent of the corruption were seen in the fact of the angel being led away, as well as the majority of those who professed to be Christians. The Lord's estimate of matters appears from His address to the angel. Works, charity, service, faith, patience, all these He saw and owned; but the suffering Jezebel to teach was a very grievous thing. Hence, whilst He said to the angel at Pergamos, "I have a few things against thee," here He says, "I have against thee," for thus we should read the passage, omitting "a few things." The omission is significant, as is that of any command to the angel to repent, a feature this epistle has in common only with those to the angels at Smyrna and Philadelphia, but for a very different reason.

The door of repentance was not indeed closed, as verse 22 bears witness, but the angel had become a vessel unfit for the master's use. (2 Tim. ii. 20, 21.) What then was to be done? Were godly souls to acquiesce in the evil because it was general and widespread? Was constituted authority, as men speak, to be obeyed, and leaders followed, if they walked in a path which the Lord abhorred? Clearly not. What, then, were the faithful to do? The Lord tells them Himself. "That which ye have already, hold fast till I come." Ceasing to address the angel He speaks direct to those still faithful, "the rest." "Unto you I say, the rest who are in Thyatira," for so it should be read. The sheep deserted by those who ought to have cared for them, the great Shepherd manifests afresh His care for the flock, and acts as the Bishop of their souls. In this way the proper action of individuals is indicated even when the leaders are perverted; and if it be but a remnant, "the rest," they must be stedfast and hold fast what they have till the Lord come, for till then, as is elsewhere taught (1 Tim. vi. 14), the servants are not relieved from their responsibility.

Their proper position pointed out, the Lord gives promises to them if they overcome, for nothing short of that will satisfy His heart. Characterizing things in the assembly at Thyatira by a true name, that one word Jezebel must have struck the faithful as shedding a full light on the real character of the evil from which they stood aloof. Who, that had a spark of right feeling about God's honour and His truth, could become a partaker of the sins and ways of one whom the Lord thus designates? The depths of Satan their enemies in the church accused "the rest" of being acquainted with; the teachings of a Jezebel, the Lord declared their enemies had listened to and imbibed. For the faithful it was as the day of small things, disowned and evil spoken of by those who professed to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ; for the majority at Thyatira had been perverted, and only a remnant remained stedfast. But by and by the Lord will publicly vindicate His own, and make all see who those are who could remain faithful and stedfast in the midst of such widespread corruption and such successful seduction. What no person on earth could offer, and what none but He can give, He here tells them shall be theirs. "He that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations, and he shall shepherd them with a rod of iron: as vessels of a potter shall they be broken to pieces, even as I received of my Father." The difference of walking by faith or by sight is here very plainly illustrated. Worldly power might be brought in to corrupt the church and ensnare many; but power over the nations in government shall be the future portion of those faithful to Christ, to be received direct from His hand. For "I will give," are His words in each of the first four epistles as well as in the last. (Rev. ii. 7, 10, 17, 26, 28; Rev. iii. 21.) But in this, the fourth epistle the Lord appears as the giver in a very solemn way. To His own will He give power over the nations, but to every one of them in Thyatira He will give according to their works. Jezebel, her children, the angel, and all seduced by her, as well as "the rest" must then have to do with Him. The power He received from His Father He will give of to His people, and He will not, He tells them, begin His reign until they are with Him. Of this the promise of the gift of the morning star assures them. But, just as the mention of the name of Jezebel must have thrown the light of divine illumination on the real character of things in Thyatira, so the mention of the morning star must have reminded them that the darkness of night still enwraps this world.

A question may here arise. Does this epistle sanction the continuance of God's people in that which is wrong, for there is no hint for them to leave the assembly? Other scriptures point out what the action of God's people should be with reference to evil in doctrine and practice (1 Cor. 5; Titus iii. 10; 2 John.) Here however we have the whole local assembly addressed, from which according to God's thoughts we can never get free, as long as we are in the place where it exists. For the assembly at Thyatira comprehended every soul in that city which professed to be a disciple of Christ. To separate from the church there would have been to unchristianize themselves, which they could not do, though separation from evil is a positive christian duty. This those termed by the Lord "the rest" had clearly done. They were apart from the evil, and because they kept aloof from participation in it, they received this token of His approval, whilst enduring the odium of those from whose ways and doctrines they dissented. A new church they did not attempt to form, nor could they, for there was but one in the place, however many might have been the houses in which the members of it met. To have attempted to form one would have manifested their want of intelligence about the church of God. To have acquiesced in the evil, because there was but one church which God owned, would have indicated ignorance as to the nature of God, and of that which should characterize His children.

Another state of things in John's day the epistle to the angel of the assembly at Sardis discloses. The blinding influence of a Jezebel on the church, and the extent to which it could lead to departure from the faith, Thyatira exhibited, whilst the danger of resting in profession Sardis exemplified. How often have souls taken comfort to themselves from their connection with some body, as men speak, in their public profession of Christianity! To make a profession of Christianity, where it is real, is right — Christians should openly show themselves as such. The candle is not meant to be put under a bed or a bushel, but to give light. Our light ought to shine. But mere profession is not life, and man's estimate of us is not always in accord with Christ's; for, whilst man can see the actions, the Lord reads the heart. So He tells the angel "I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead." A correct estimate He had formed, and here expresses what it was. How startling probably this must have been to some, yet how gracious, telling the angel what He discerned whilst there was time to repent, instead of waiting to manifest it when the day of grace should be past. All that men could see, He saw and noticed; but, what man perceived not, He beheld. As the Son of God possessing judicial power He addressed the angel at Thyatira, as having the seven spirits of God and the seven stars He speaks to the angel at Sardis, and exhorts him to be watchful, lest the slumber of spiritual death should only be broken in upon by the execution of divine judgment. (Rev. iii. 3.) "Be watchful and strengthen the things which remain that are about to die," was the work to which the angel should address himself; for the Lord adds, "I have not found thy works perfect [or complete] before my God."

As man then He here comes before us, just as afterwards in the epistle to the angel at Philadelphia He speaks in the same strain — "My God." Here the mention of such a term would serve as a reminder that the Lord has known what is man's responsibility in connection with God. There the saints would be encouraged by the remembrance, that He, who addressed them, had learnt what it was to be in the place of dependence upon earth. But, if He could speak of Himself as a man, all power and resources for men belonged to Him. He has the seven stars and the seven Spirits of God. The stars should shine in the darkness, and rule in the night, whilst all that the angel wanted for this the Lord could supply, for the seven Spirits of God are His as well as the seven stars. Thus presenting Himself He could tell what was lacking, and point out the remedy. This is of immense importance to us, whether viewed collectively or individually. The remedy was within their reach. No development of truth was required, nor was any further revelation vouchsafed. "Remember therefore how thou hast received, and beard, and hold fast, and repent." The remembrance of what they had received and heard would open their eyes to the condition of deadness, which insensibly perhaps had crept over them; to bold fast would remind them of the standard they had once accepted, and then repentance, self-judgment with the action corresponding to it, would openly follow. How simple then was the remedy, and how blessed though humbling the result!

Have we not at times need to be reminded of this, the divine way of dealing with souls? Is there not often a restlessness when first the consciousness of deadness comes home to us, and the thought rises up, that activity in some way or other should be aimed at and fostered? Yet here the Lord speaks not of fresh activity in works, but of repentance; for the state of the heart is that at which He looks, and this His people are to remember. The works of Sardis were not complete, because what they had received and heard had been forgotten. To this He recalls them, and obedience or the opposite to the admonition would be the test of the reality of their profession. Instructive then is the admonition, nor less so is the order in which it is conveyed. Repentance was to follow the remembrance of what had been received and heard, for the grace bestowed, and the truths taught, being remembered, their present state would be discerned, and this would lead them by grace to repentance. Thus does the Lord affirm the sufficiency of what had been once enjoyed and revealed, to recover their souls from the deadness into which they had fallen. But how graciously does He enter into their condition as He points them to the means by which to get out of it.

Then, before passing on to give promises to the overcomers, He notices those who had remained faithful amid such general unfaithfulness. "But thou hast a few names in Sardis, which have not defiled their garments, and they shall walk with me in white for they are worthy." Did the angel know who these were? The Lord certainly did, an evidence that truly He is the Shepherd. In the epistle to the angel of the church at Pergamos, and again to that at Thyatira, He had noticed classes (Rev. ii. 14, 15, 24); here He speaks of individuals, a few names. When He entered the fold of Israel as the Shepherd, He called His own sheep by name; here after His resurrection and ascension we learn that He knows by name each one, who on earth is faithful to Him. How comforting to His people to remember this! Little known, as probably these few were, and less thought of, where spiritual slumber prevailed so generally, the Lord tells the angel, and through him us, how He regards such, and of what in His eyes they are worthy. Thus the defilement connected with mere profession is marked. For apart from any connection with the evil deeds of the Nicolaitans, or the uncleanness resulting from the doctrines of Balaam and the seductions of Jezebel, garments could and had been defiled, where a mere orthodox profession prevailed. But not only should those be in white who had kept their garments undefiled, but all who would now overcome should thus be clothed. Their names too (here individuality is again to be noticed) He will not blot out of the book of life, the register of all who profess to be Christians, but will confess them before His Father and before His angels. How suited was this promise to the condition of things in that assembly! The assembly at Sardis had a name as professors before men, the overcomers amongst them should have their names confessed by Christ openly before God.

In the assembly at Philadelphia both doctrine and practice had been cherished. "Thou hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name." Here we see what faithfulness can effect. A little strength they had, their capability for service was not great; but the absence of greater power was not allowed to be a plea for deadness, such as was in Sardis nor for the sufferance of a false teacher like Jezebel at Thyatira. Such being their state, the Lord introduces Himself, not as One clothed with judicial power as in the letters to the angels at Pergamos and Thyatira, but as the Holy One and the True, who possesses the key of David to open and to shut. To what He is those at Philadelphia had in measure been conformed. So faithful in the maintenance of doctrine, and exhibiting the fruits of it in their ways, the door of opportunity for service He here tells them that He will keep open for them, and no man shall shut it. Through grace having been faithful, God's ways in government they should prove. "What a man soweth that shall he also reap," announces to us the unfailing principle of God's government. These had been faithful in their measure: so opportunity for further service should be secured to them. How often do believers prove the unfailing principles of God's government by suffering consequences, perhaps enduring, of some wrong action in past times! Here the converse, less often proved, is illustrated for our instruction by the keeping open the door for further service, for and by the Lord, which no man should shut.

The opportunity then to do service for Christ is something to be prized. The knowledge of forgiveness is not the end of man's salvation, for "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained, that we should walk in them." Into this the Philadelphian Christians entered, and showed that they understood of what use, as alive in Christ, they were to be upon earth, and hence were to experience, as here expressed in a three-fold way, the rich grace of Christ; in the door being kept open by Him, in His vindication of their title to be God's people before those who would deny it, and in their being kept by Christ out of the hour of tribulation, which shall come upon all the habitable world to try them that dwell upon the earth.

This last promise, based as it is on their having kept the word of Christ's patience, shows that saints in early days net only were taught about the hope of the church, but really held it fast. Paul's wish for the assembly at Thessalonica (2 Thess. iii. 5) was fulfilled in that of Philadelphia. (Ver. 10.) Commended then as they were so highly by the Lord, and enriched with such promises, might they relax their efforts, and abate their zeal? Man's evil heart led by Satan might say, Yes; the Lord however warns them against such a delusion. He could and did commend them; but, knowing man's heart and Satan's artifices, He adds the significant admonition; "I come quickly, hold fast that which thou hast, that no one take thy crown." Then He ends the letter to the angel by acquainting him with the future position of the overcomer. "He that overcometh [for their service was still unfinished], will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out; and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which cometh down out of heaven from my God, and my new name."

Possessed of little strength, but faithful to Christ's word and name, their service He does indeed prize, and their faithfulness He will reward. Pillars in the temple of His God they shall be, monuments of divine workmanship for all to behold, ever remaining where God dwells. And though disowned as God's people on earth, Christ will display them as God's, with the mark of heavenly citizenship written upon them, as well as His new name written by Himself in token that they belong to Him. What delight in the faithfulness of His people does the Lord take, since He will mark those who exhibit it as belonging to God and to Himself!

In the epistle to the angel of the assembly in Laodicea we have as dark a picture as that of the assembly at Philadelphia was bright. All in Philadelphia were faithful; of none in Laodicea could the Lord speak with approval, though He was fully acquainted with their works. At Philadelphia the saints were in some measure conformed to what He is, holy and true; what He is stood out in direct contrast to the assembly at Laodicea. "These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God," is the Lord's description of Himself, reminding the angel of His life of faithfulness as a man upon earth, and that He is the Head of a new race. The assembly at Laodicea had forgotten the one, and ignored the other. Lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, is the estimate He had formed of them, for indifference to Christ characterized them. What that is in His sight His rebuke shows us. "I would thou wert either cold or hot;" for something positive is better than indifference allied with profession. The assembly took the ground of Christianity before the world, but imagined they could get on without Christ, being rich as they said, having grown rich, and wanting nothing. Self-contained, as they thought, they had need of nothing, thereby belying their whole profession, for why should we profess Christianity, if we can get on without Christ? For the world to go on without Him seems intelligible enough, but for those, who outwardly bear His name, to blind their eyes to their true interests seems almost incredible; and so far had these gone, that the only place the Lord could occupy was one outside of them, standing at the door and knocking, if perchance any would open to Him, in whom is all fulness for His people.

The angel at Laodicea knew not the real condition of the assembly, and in this all there seem to have agreed with him. Unanimity there was amongst them. None there by their life protested against the fatal security in which they had enwrapped themselves, nor was the estimate of their state challenged, it would appear, by one uneasy soul. In this condition of matters, which had existed we learn not for how long, the Lord interposes. Sight, clothing, riches, all these they wanted; but all these He could give them. Apart from Him they had nothing, but from Him they could buy everything. To warn them of their danger, the Lord tells the angel what must take place if he did not repent; "I will spue thee out of my mouth;" but at the same time tells him what should be done to avert such dreadful and irreversible consequences. "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 eye salve to anoint [as we should here read] thine eyes that thou mayest see." Gracious was all this both to warn and to counsel, but the Lord did not stop there; for explaining that the severity of His address was the effect of true love in Him (ver. 19), He acquainted them with His attitude and action, standing at the door and knocking, willing to bless even an individual, if only one would open to Him. What pains does He take to arouse souls.

When Israel rejected the Lord Jehovah, God declared His intention of returning to His place till they should acknowledge their offence, and seek His face, adding, "in their affliction they will seek me early." (Hosea 5:15.) Reaping the fruit of their ways, they would be brought to seek Him, from whom they had departed. None could charge God with injustice in thus dealing with them, for they had clearly deserved it. Indeed the opportunity to repent being afforded them witnesses of His grace to Israel. But the Lord acts in Laodicea in a different manner; seeking to impress them with this, that, however indifferent they had been to Him, He was not indifferent to their welfare. He wanted their hearts, He wanted to be with them if they would allow Him, and to have them with Him, if this could righteously be effected. His attitude, standing at the door, told of their indifference, but told also of His long-suffering towards them. His action, knocking at the door, spoke of His desire to be with them. To have yielded to their entreaty would have been gracious, but to be the Intreater, and (may we not with reverence add) . . . . importunate entreaties, was wonderfully gracious. This is the position He there took up, and immediate blessing was to be enjoyed by anyone who would yield to His entreaty.

"If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with me.'' How significant is the little word "if "here; for the previous conduct of souls at Laodicea, for which the Lord rebukes them, afforded no ground for the conclusion that anyone would open the door. But what a way to gain hearts, if they could be gained! What a manner of overcoming indifference to Christ have we here set before us! To sup with Christ is surely a blessing to be highly prized. But what He puts in the foreground is His entrance to sup with anyone who would admit Him. For, by telling of His longing after them, and His desiring intercourse with any who would hearken and open to Him, He would, if there was life in any one soul in Laodicea, gain its confidence, and effectually dispel its indifference. In the Epistles to the first five churches we have no promise made to be fulfilled on earth; in that to Philadelphia there is a promise to be fulfilled as they are being caught up from earth; but in this last a promise is made to be enjoyed whilst here below, the presence of Christ in familiar blessed intercourse, He supping with anyone who would open the door, and such an one with Him. Add to this the promise here made to the overcomer of being with Christ on His throne; and we have set out before us a divine plan for attracting hearts to Christ, namely, by telling them of his desires after them, and wishes for them.

What response there was to this appeal, or indeed to any of his directions in these Epistles, we do not learn, for the object surely was, not to be enabled to record results, but to portray what Christ was in John's day, and what He is still. His presence among the golden candlesticks is declared, and His ministry, by which He would act upon souls in the different circumstances with which they were surrounded, has been recorded for our instruction by the Holy Ghost. Thus the Lord's way of dealing with saints we are here made acquainted with, as well as His earnest desire and unwearied service for the true welfare of all who are called by His name. But, if we cannot learn the effect of this ministry on the souls addressed by the Spirit when John penned the letters, any placed now in similar circumstances, or whose spiritual condition corresponds to that of these described, may show by their own example how such ministry on Christ's part can effect the object desired. So "Wisdom may afresh be justified of her children.