"The things which are."

"Write therefore what thou hast seen, and the things that are, and the things that are about to be after these. The mystery of the seven stars which thou hast seen on my right hand, and the seven golden lamps. The seven stars are angels of the seven assemblies; and the seven lamps are seven assemblies." - Rev. 1:19-20. (New Translation.)

The Spirit of God has been pleased by one expression, "the things which are," to mark off and separate from the already-given vision of the glory of the Son of man, on the one hand, and the future purposes and ways of God with Israel and the nations, on the other hand, that remarkable delineation of the Church of God in its history on the earth which fills the two intermediate chapters; viz., 2 and 3. The fact that John, to whom this Revelation was "sent and signified," lived in the Church period (at its beginning) as we do (at its close), shows that the term employed is applicable now as well as then.

But there is another fact we shall do well to remember - not only is the Church of God presumably depicted throughout its whole course in the chapters indicated, but first of all there is ostensibly a picture given, by characteristic moral features, of seven local assemblies in the province of Asia. And we may fittingly conclude that these churches were chosen from amongst others because their character and condition rendered necessary their respective epistles, and also made them suitable, when arranged in the consecutiveness in which we find them in the Word, to express, without necessarily indicating that they did, the continuous history of the professing body on the earth. These churches are symbolized by seven golden candlesticks in chapter 1, and the Lord is there seen in the midst of them, as Son of man in judicial aspect, attitude, and attire. Moreover, He has in His right hand seven stars, the mystery of which He Himself explains as the angels of the seven churches.

Now consistency demands that we recognize the force of the terms used equally in each of the cases. The local assembly at Pergamos, for instance, is reckoned as one of the churches as much as is Smyrna, and Laodicea as much as is Philadelphia. Positionally they are alike as to this, and each is symbolized by a golden candlestick, and the Lord is seen in chap. 1 as equally amidst them all. The varied conditions of the local assemblies come out after, and the suitably different mien in which the Lord presents Himself to each, as well as the equally dissimilar messages conveyed. But these things, it may be submitted, do not weaken or annul what is found in the first chapter, where each of the seven is termed a church by the Spirit of God, and is addressed in its responsibility as such, being the assembly of God where it was. Each has its angel symbolized by a star, a heavenly thing of divine creation, and each of these, is upborne on the Lord's right hand. And if consistency requires the recognition of this principle. as to the seven local assemblies which the Lord had chosen to address, it equally demands its application to the seven in their prophetico-historic character. That is to say, the principle is as sound and as suitable when applied to the differing and successive phases of the professing, body, as its history unfolds down to the end, as when applied to Asiatic assemblies locally existent in closing apostolic days.

Further, the same consistency requires that whatever was true in its characteristic and salient features as a real and substantive thing of the local assembly, equally obtains as such in that which it represents in the historical series. And if these local assemblies were undeniably churches of God, in reality as well as in responsibility, and were so addressed, in like manner the prophetico-historic church is, in reality as well as in responsibility, the Church of God all throughout, and so addressed.

We can scarcely fail to see in the angels the bearers of divine light (whether one or many in each case), conveying His mind and will from the Lord, the Head of the Church, to that which stands as His responsible witness on the earth. In this they are upheld by Him upon His own right hand; but in their failure (Philadelphia a bright exception) they become identified with the moral condition of their respective assemblies, and for this are held accountable to Him, whether as having formed that which He condemns, or having been formed by it. Too deeply grieved to address her personally, as similarly with Israel in the day of her deep declension, He communicates His message through the angel, whom, however, alas! He finds so practically identified with them to whom he is sent, rather than with Himself, whose messenger he is, that he is personally exposed to all the reproof which these words of his mouth ought to have conveyed only to them.

Applying then these principles, we have (1) Ephesus - declension from first love; (2) Smyrna - persecution; (3) Pergamos - alliance with the world; all illustrated with exactitude in the condition and experience of three local assemblies, setting forth that which took place historically in the early centuries of the Christian era, and precisely in this consecutive order, as everyone knows. Agreeably with what is not unusual, but may be said to be the rule in Scripture, the seven is divided; here into three and four, as in other cases into four and three. The last four churches present aspects or phases of the assembly which arose as distinctly in the consecutive order in which they are presented as did the former three; but while the first of the seven lost itself in the second, the second in the third, and the third in the fourth, and cannot be traced as running on concurrently (though wherever you find decline of first love, it is Ephesus; wherever persecution, it is Smyrna; and wherever alliance with the world, it is Pergamos), these remaining four, while arising in consecutive order, and each characteristic in its features of an epoch in the Church's history, yet do not terminate in anything which immediately succeeds, but have a common terminus. They have thus a remarkably additional character, significance, and value, which it is well we should tenaciously grasp; for while we have no less than in the preceding three their historical features consecutively presented, we have this further - a fourfold view of the spiritual character of the whole ecclesiastical state of things now existing. Nor can it fairly be alleged that this interpretation of the last four churches is in any way inconsistent with what has been advanced respecting the former three. From the first to the seventh each arises in succession; thus the consecutive order obtains throughout. The only difference in the last four is that instead of each overlapping its successor for a while, and then merging into it, its distinct character continues alongside of the other three, and they collaterally descend to the close of church testimony. A difference to this extent falsifies no principle of interpretation, and is more than warranted by the fact that the division of the last four from the first three has been divinely made; for while in the first three the call to hear is given to the whole assembly, in the last four it comes after the promise, and thus appears to be restricted to the overcomers. And again, the last four are respectively warned or comforted, as the case may be, by the return of the Lord, and this is not found in the first three. Hence the Spirit of God requires, by these two considerations, that we should recognize a measure of difference between the three and four, without calling, however, for any departure from that principle of interpretation which holds good throughout.

Thus therefore (1) in the seven Asiatic churches we have what is local. (2) In the order in which they are consecutively presented, from the first to the last, we have a full-length picture of the whole history of the Church as God's witness on earth, as each successive phase arose one after the other, which is the historical. And (3) in the last four, arising as consecutively as the other, but differing in this, that they simultaneously exist and run on in parallel lines to the end, we have a spiritual projection of the whole Church, as now existing in its leading features, together presenting it in its entirety. These four we may distinguish as follows: (1) Sacerdotalism or priestly domination, embracing all its phases and wherever they are found, whether in the mother of harlots or her many daughters, which, rampant in the middle ages, has her votaries as numerous as ever, and her principles of haughty intolerance unchanged, speaking lies in hypocrisy, and the conscience seared as with a hot iron. (2) Evangelical orthodoxy, which, priding itself on having escaped Roman priestcraft and heresy, holds jealously to a form of godliness but denies its power, having a name to live while dead. (3) A testimony to Christ and His word outside of organized human religiousness, characterized by separation from evil, and adhesion to the interests of Christ, and to the glory of His person, but despicable in the eyes and insupportable to the tastes of believers generally. (4) A self-glorious latitudinarianism, brooking no restraint, and confined within no bounds, embracing every form of loose principles and neutrality, and that scepticism and radicalism which, whether found in Broad Church, Dissent, or Neology, turns away its ears from the truth, and is turned unto fables, Christ being practically without rather than within.

Surely none can deny that these four things are, whether depicted in the four churches or not, contemporaneous in our day. And while we cannot doubt that every really divine element in Laodicea will sooner or later respond to the Lord's appeal, and doing so will experience His delivering grace from thence before the rapture, so that when the judgment begins it will be only a mass of false and proud pretentiousness, yet would not the saying that every believer now is a Philadelphian, and that every Laodicean, including the angel of that assembly, is now unconverted, be to efface the true character of this Scripture, and thus rob us of its special value in this day? None would affirm that Laodicea as a local church, which Paul (Col. 2:1, and 4:16), John, and the Lord Himself, each had to do with ministerially, was not an assembly of the saints in that place, however great their declension or low their spiritual state. How then, without doing violence to sound principles of interpretation, can what is said to a converted angel to be communicated to a saved company be taken to represent only a phase or epoch of the professing body when Godless and Christless, not even allowing for any individual faith and reality? That she sets forth the lowest and most demoralised condition that could be ecclesiastically expressed, and that the mass is utterly corrupt and obnoxious to Christ, to be vomited from His mouth when judgment begins at the house of God, is as undeniable as it is solemn; and that this last phase of the historical church, if we may so speak, will doubtless subsist as a shell without its kernel after all the redeemed are caught up to be for ever with the Lord, presents no difficulty. But can it be soberly affirmed, that neither angel nor saint of the local Asiatic assembly was converted? and if not, where is the analogy we should expect? And is it not incompatible with scriptural precedent, that the Lord Jesus should address the Godless and the Christless in His character as the faithful and true Witness, with the words: "As many as I love I rebuke and chasten; be zealous therefore and repent "? Surely if living in the present epoch or period of church history constitutes us Philadelphians per se, then the force of the epistle to Philadelphia, in its precious comfort and in its soul-searching and heart-exercising character, vanishes; for we impute to the Lord that closing His eyes to declension and incipient apostasy He addresses His whole assembly on earth in terms of distinct commendation without one word of censure or rebuke! And further, if we either make Laodicea to be the world or relegate it to a post-rapture period, we equally make Philadelphia to be the whole Church in its present character, and thus, denying that it has utterly failed (as everything else committed to man's responsibility), are in no little danger of self-exaltation in priding ourselves that Roman Catholicism has given place to Protestantism, and Protestantism has been eclipsed in its meridian height by a higher and brighter testimony still, constituting the culmination of the Church!

In an equal degree these conflicting interpretations involve the anomaly that the Lord addresses as a Christian assembly that which has no title to be so addressed; for they alike deny to it any element whatever of a divine character. The relegation, too, of Laodicea to a post-rapture epoch has the further anomaly of an ecclesiastical thing (owned as such by the Lord Himself) arising after the Church period has altogether closed, and, what is more, included nevertheless in "the things which are." How much more simple and consistent is the thought, that though Laodicea after the rapture may swallow up all that is left upon the earth that is prostituting the Christian name, and continue too its arrogant vaunts and ecclesiastical pretensions to be at length engulfed in Babylon, yet its recognition in the eyes of God in a Church character finally ceases when the body of Christ passes into the glory, just as in a kindred way "the powers that be" will continue unchecked, though no longer then entitled to claim that they are "ordained of God."

I only add that we are told, on the one hand, that the overcomer is nothing special, being simply a believer; and, on the other, that it is everything (as it surely is, to stand for the Lord in an evil day against prevailing declension and approaching apostasy) to be this overcomer; but if to be an overcomer in Philadelphia is simply not to let slip a testimony which is so generally and widely characteristic as to embrace all believers in this period of the Church's history, the overcoming by either of these interpretations is attenuated to a degree that practically disposes of it. The Lord give us to be overcomers in His own sense of the word, and to hold fast what we have in these Scriptures - incomparable in their character and significance in these closing days, taking good heed that no man take our crown. W. R.