The failure of man, of the church, even, does not touch the source of divine grace—the goodness of God. From Adam downwards everything placed in the hand of man has failed; but this very failure and evil of man has been made the opportunity by God of shewing our more and richer grace.
He judges the failure, and then presents an object of hope. When Adam sinned, “the seed of the woman “was promised. When the law was broken and Israel failed, prophetic testimony came in and all the promises of the Messiah. Promise is that on which faith can rest when everything else fails.
Times of declension and unfaithfulness in the body give occasion for brighter manifestations of grace in individuals, who under such circumstances are brought into the enjoyment of close and blessed communion with God. See Elijah, Moses, etc. Moses had to leave the camp (Exod. 33), because the golden calf was there, and to go outside: but in so doing he got into a place of greater nearness to God than he had ever known before— “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.”
At the beginning of the gospel dispensation the energy of the Holy Ghost was so plainly manifested in the church, that man was nothing, God everything. This is of course true to faith all through the dispensation. But then, even after these epistles to the churches were given, things had become sadly changed. The Lord, in this and the following chapter, turns His eye to that which should have been “the place of righteousness,” and behold “iniquity is there”; therefore it is necessary that judgment begin at the house of God, as it is said, “the Lord shall judge his people.” At first this is in the way of testimony against the evil; for the Lord ever warns before He executes judgment, and in judgment He remembers mercy.
The Lord takes notice of every circumstance, every shade of difference, in these churches, as also in individuals in them; thus shewing that He is not indifferent as to the state of His people by the way—their daily steps, because He has secured blessing to them at the end. His love is not a careless love. We have all, more or less, lost sight of the judgment exercised by the Lord in “his own house,” and if. is too frequently supposed that, because the salvation of the saint is a sure thing, God is indifferent about character here. But to love this is impossible. A child would be sure eventually to inherit his father’s property, but then what parent would be satisfied (if he loved his child) without knowing that? Would he not anxiously train him up, watching every development of his mind and faculties, and ordering all things in his education, so as best to fit him for his future destination? How much more is this the way of the Lord’s love with His children! This is for our comfort and blessing—there is wonderful comfort in seeing it to be the spring of all God’s dealings with us; but at the same time it is intended to act strongly on our conscience in the way of warning.
We have to remember that the church, and indeed every individual saint, is set in the place of direct conflict with Satan, the more so because of the high standing and privilege given us in Christ. Now it may be in triumphant victory, as it is said, “the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly.” To effect the purpose of God’s glory, coming in as it will by-and-by when He shall establish His kingdom, we know that Satan must be really fully dethroned; but in order, even now (ere that time comes), that we realise our blessings in heavenly places (Eph. 1:3), it is needful he should be practically dethroned from the heart through the power of the Holy Ghost. Although it is quite certain that he shall be bruised under our feet “shortly “(there is no doubt, of course, about the power of the Lord Jesus to do it), yet the certainty of Christ’s final victory with the church should not lessen our sense of the power of the enemy in the meantime. This is so great as to make constant watchfulness necessary, for without it we shall be giving him a direct handle against ourselves. The flesh, by which Satan works, is still present, and it needs to be “mortified.” Perhaps we have often been surprised at grievous falls in ourselves or others; but if we fail to watch against the flesh, it is not really at all surprising such should be the result. Habitual faithfulness in judging the flesh in little things is the secret of not falling.
The promise at the close of each of these messages to the churches is addressed to “him that overcometh.” As stated above, it has ever been in times of general failure that the promises of God have been most graciously brought out, and that His faithful ones have had increased communion, being thrown thereby more entirely upon Himself. If, through any measure of faithfulness, we find ourselves in trial and exercise of soul because of corporate general declension, that is just the very time we should look for more intimate revelation of the grace of God and of His love to our hearts. And this will be not only in giving us clear and firm apprehension of the promises of God, but also in a fuller knowledge of all that in Christ which is suited to be drawn upon by our need. He that is faithful may ever count on this. The principle is clearly seen in these epistles, both in the promises, and also in the different character in which the Lord Jesus presents Himself according to the circumstances of each “church.” It is very sad to see man (whether it be in Israel, the church, or any other place) always failing; but still the faithful ones in the midst of failure find a fuller, deeper revelation of the grace of God, even through it, than when all is going on well. This is most blessed!
From the message to “the church of Ephesus” (v. 1-7), we see that there had already been failure there—failure in its “first love.” And therefore, instead of being spoken to (as Paul’s Epistle to the same church) of the high and holy things connected with the church at large, or of being addressed as occupying the place of witness and testimony to others, the eye has to be turned inward to its own state, a clear proof how far it had declined. When a church or an individual Christian is walking in the light, and not grieving the Spirit, there can then be entrance into the privileges belonging to the whole church of God; but when the Spirit is grieved, there can no longer be this revelation: each is shut up in its own particular state and judged. The message is from Him “that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, and that walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks” (v. i), the Lord taking the place of examination and judgment.
The overcoming spoken of (v. 7), and indeed throughout the chapter, is not so much the overcoming of the world and that which was without, as of all the evil discovered to be within. There had been a leaving of the “first love”; and when there is diminution of this in the smallest degree, the Lord says, “I have somewhat against thee” (v. 4). He takes notice of the least failure. Whenever it has begun He speaks of excision, and inflicts it too unless there be repentance. We always find that in judging God goes back to the original sin. When Stephen charges the Jews (Acts 7), although they had crucified the Lord Jesus, that which he goes back to is their first sin, of making the golden calf.
And thus with an individual Christian. There is often failure when the first glow of zeal is gone off. At such a time, we have not only to see where the failure is manifested, but when it was we first went away from the Lord, and we shall very generally find it to have been in getting out of communion, this leaving of the “first love.” Well, this should not be and is not necessary; but even when it is the case, the grace of the Lord will still be found greater than all the evil that is discovered to be within.
We see peculiarity of blessing (v. 7). It is to the eye and ear of faith that the Lord brings out the promise of “the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” He sees the church failing in fellowship with God, and therefore sets before it “the tree of life,” and “the paradise of God.” It is God’s paradise: blessed security! there can be no declension there. It was man’s paradise first; failure came in, and lest he should take of the fruit of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever, “God drove out the man”: but now the promise to “him that overcometh” is to eat of the tree of life freely, and in security in “the paradise of God.”
Whilst we feed on the fruit of it, “the leaves of the tree “will be” for the healing of the nations,” Rev. 22:2. When the church is in glory, it will not lose the character of grace. God gives us now to feed on the bread of life; our first delight must be in God, but then, secondarily, we have the joy of love in being made ministers of blessing unto others. Well, so also in glory our portion will be grace, but we shall be able likewise to minister in grace to others.
In the case of “the church in Smyrna” (v. 8-11), they had begun the downward course; but the Lord had come in most graciously, and arrested the decay by tribulation. I say most graciously, for one goes wonderfully quickly down hill unless a strong hand stop us.
The souls were in tribulation, poverty, and persecution, and how does the Lord reveal Himself? As the One whom nothing can touch, not all the clouds and storms, the difficulties and trials affect (like the sun, bright before the storm and bright after it) “the First and the Last” (v. 8). “Yes,” it may be said, “this is true of Him; but then the storm rolls over us, and threatens to overwhelm: we have no power against it.” But He reveals Himself not only as “the First and the Last” —the One therefore on whom we may lean for eternal strength—but also as “He who was dead, and is alive.” He says, as it were, I have gone through it all, I have entered into the weakness of man, and undergone all the power that could come against it, all the trials even unto death—I have entered into everything, for 1 have died, and yet I am alive.
There is nothing that the Lord has not gone through: death is the last effort of Satan’s power; it ends there for the sinner, as well as for the saint. The unconverted even are out of Satan’s power when they die: if they die in their sins, of course they come under the judgment of God, but Satan has no power in hell. He may have pre-eminence in misery, but no power there (his reigning is some poet’s dream, it is here he reigns, and that by means of the pride and vanity, the evil passions and idleness, of men); he is “the ruler of the darkness of this world,” not of the next.
But whatever may be the extent of power which he seeks now to exercise against the children of God, the Lord says, I have been under it—I have been dead. Therefore, it is impossible for us to be in any circumstance of difficulty or of trial through which Jesus has not been. He has met the power of Satan there; and yet He is alive. And now He “is alive for evermore,” not only to sustain us while passing through the storm, but to feel for, to sympathise, as having experienced more than all the heaviness of the circumstances in which we are. He can pity with the utmost tenderness, for He came into the very centre of our misery. But the weakness of God is stronger than man, and though Christ was dead, yet he is alive.
“I know thy works “(v. 9). The Lord recognises all that He can in us. We may say our works are not what we could desire them to be: and it is very true they are not, but then the Lord knows them. Though it is a right and useful thing for us to judge ourselves in order to detect the evil and correct it, yet it is very bad and unhealthy to be always occupied in considering whether our works will be approved of by God. The answer to all our thoughts and estimate about ourselves is, “I know your works”: your business is to know Me. He presents Himself as our object, not our own works. “And thy poverty.” Certainly riches never entered into the church of God without producing more trial and difficulty. You may see rich men giving their riches to relieve the poverty of others, and this is very blessed; but wherever the character of riches continues it enfeebles the energies of the church of God.
There were all sorts of opposition to the faithful in this church, but what does the Lord say to them? “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer” (v. 10) It is the constant effort of Satan to produce in us fear and discouragement when passing through trial; but the Lord says, “fear none of those things.” In like manner the Philippians are told to be “in nothing terrified by their adversaries”; again in Peter we read, “be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled.” Our wisdom is ever to rest confidently in Him who is “the First and the Last,” who rises up-in as great power at the end as at the beginning. The Lord does not say to this church, “I will save you from suffering,” for suffering was needful in order to prevent it from tumbling headlong into decay; just as Israel was obliged in consequence of its sin to go a long way round the desert, and yet the Lord says, as it were, to some among them who were faithful, Do not be the least uneasy. So here His word is “fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer.”
In the beginning of the failure in “the churches” the promise to the “overcomer” in the midst of the decay was, that he should eat, in security and peace, of the “tree of life”; so again here, in a time of especial suffering and trial, there is held out, as a stimulus (to the new man of course), a recompense of reward. If they lost everything, they should gain everything. The Lord’s own voice encourages— “be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; he that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” He may be hurt of the first death, but not of the second—the only real exclusion from the presence of God.
In the message to “the church in Pergamos” (v. 12-17) the Lord is seen exercising a special form of judicial power, as “He which hath the sharp sword with two edges” (v. 12). We read (Heb. 4) “the word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart”: and the Lord is here presented as having this thoroughly piercing power, which judges and discerns the secret workings of the heart and conscience.
“I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is” (v. 13). That is where the church now found itself, “where Satan’s throne is” (for he is the prince of it)— in the world. And the faithful may find themselves there too, if the church be there (Caleb and Joshua had to go the whole round of the wilderness with the rest, though not sharers in their unbelief); we have to separate ourselves from the evil around, though we may not be separate from its results. We may find ourselves to be in feebleness and weakness, as the faithful in this church did; but our comfort like theirs is that the Lord says, “I know thy works, and where thou dwellest.”
God in His grace takes full knowledge of all that concerns us; not only of our conduct, our ways and condition, but also of the circumstances in which we are, saying as it were, I know that you are where Satan’s seat is, and this, even when He may still have “somewhat against us.” There is great comfort in knowing this. We might be placed, by means over which we had no control, in a very trying position, but in one which it might not be at all the mind of the Lord that we should quit, where Christian conduct would be very difficult; as, for instance, a converted child in an ungodly worldly family, where there is nothing of the Spirit of Christ. The Lord would not merely in such a case judge His child’s Conduct, as to those things in which she might have failed. He would do that indeed, but He would also take the most thorough knowledge and notice of the circumstances in which she was, yes, of every little circumstance that rendered it trying. He just as well knew the power of Pharaoh, and the detail of his tyranny, as He did the crying and groans of the Israelites. “I know,” He says, “that he will not let you go.” There is indeed great comfort in thus seeing the Lord’s perfect knowledge as to where we dwell, because it may not be always His will to take us out of the place, nor yet to change the circumstances in which we are. He may choose to have us glorify Him there, and learn through them what, perhaps, we could not learn elsewhere.
We are too apt to think we must do great works in the Lord’s name, in order to glorify Him; there may not always be opportunity for this (there does not appear to have been opportunity for great works in service without to this church). He takes notice if we do but hold fast His name amidst circumstances which make even that measure of faithfulness difficult— “Thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith,” etc. (v. 13).
The Lord gives His people all this encouragement, and yet says, “I have a few things against thee” (v. 14, 15). In the first place, they were slipping back into the world, some of them, having already fallen into the habits of it, “eating and drinking with the drunken.” And secondarily, they were beginning to allow of evil in the church, through pretence of liberty. He therefore warns— “Repent: or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (v. 16). Worldliness characterised the danger of this church, and it required the sword with two edges to cut between their evil and the circumstances in which they were; if this were not effected, it is “I will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”
But at the same time that He thus warns, there is plenty of encouragement given—promises suited to counteract their temptations (v. 17). Were they tempted “to eat of things sacrificed unto idols” with the world? the promise to “him that overcometh” is, “I will give him to eat of the hidden manna.” If they had grace to separate themselves from the open evil, He would reward them with the unseen blessing of the heavenly places, there should be this feeding on “the hidden manna.” Again: were they tempted to deny the name and faith of Christ? the promise given is “a white stone, and in the stone a new name written which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it”: to keep them from slipping back into the world, to strengthen them in incurring, as must needs be, in separation, the disapprobation of so many, He promises them inward blessings to cheer their hearts.
The “white stone” seems to mark the individual approbation of Christ; the “new name,” peculiar intercourse between Christ and the individual, different from that which all shall share alike, different from the public joy. There is a public joy. There is a public joy. All saints will together enjoy the comforts of Christ’s love, will enter into the “joy of their Lord,” and with one heart and one voice will sound His praise. There will also be joy in seeing the fruits of our labours, as it is said, “What is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?”
And again there will be another joy in seeing the company of the redeemed, all according to Christ’s heart in holiness and glory. But besides this public joy, there will be Christ’s peculiar private individual recognition and approval—the “white stone,” and the “new name which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it.”
Christ speaks elsewhere of His own new name as Head of the new creation. There are old names belonging to the Lord Jesus, but His new name is connected with that into which His Father brings Him, when all things which have failed in the hands of man will be established and developed in Him; and having thus Himself a new name He gives us also a promise of a new name. We are not only to know Jesus and be known if Him according to present circumstances, but to have a special knowledge of Him in glory according to the glory.
Our souls must value this personal approval of Christ, as well as think of the public approval. The latter will be great blessedness; but there is no peculiar affection in it, nothing that stamps peculiar love on the individual. Glory will be common to all, but glory is not affection. This “new name” is a different thing; it is the proof of Christ’s value for a person who had been faithful in difficult and trying circumstances, for one who has acted on the knowledge of His mind and overcome through communion with Him. This will be met by special individual approbation. There is the public joy and approval in various ways, and the manifestation of our being loved by the Father as Jesus is loved. But this is not all that is given for our encouragement in individual conduct through trial, failure, and difficulty; there is also this special private joy of love.
When the common course of the church is not straight, not in the full energy of the Holy Ghost, though there may be a great deal of faithfulness, yet there is danger of disorder. We find that the Lord then applies Himself more to the walk of individual saints, and suits His promises to the peculiar state in which they are. There is a peculiar value in this. It takes out of all fancied walking (the especial danger which belongs to such a state of things)—each according to his own will, chalking out a path for himself because of the unfaithfulness and disobedient walk of the professing body. What faith has to do in such circumstances is to lay hold intelligently, soberly, and solemnly on the Lord’s mind, and to walk according to it, strengthened by the promises which He has attached to such a path as He can own.
This at once refers the heart and conscience to Jesus, whilst full of encouragement to the feeblest saint. And it is very precious to have thus the guidance of the Lord, and the promise of His own peculiar approbation! so peculiar, that it is known only to him who receives it, when the course of the church is such that one is thrown greatly on individual responsibility of conduct. But then, whilt it gives us strength for walk, it puts the soul in direct responsibility to the Lord and breaks down human will. When the professing church has become mingled with the world, “eating and drinking with the drunken,” those who seek to be faithful must often have to walk alone, incurring the charge of folly and self-will (and that too even from their brethren), because they refuse to follow the beaten path. And indeed it is quite a real danger, a natural consequence that, when the common course is broken up, individual will should work. The natural tendency would ever be towards self-will. Our only safety is in having the soul brought under the sense of direct responsibility to the Lord by such warnings and promises as these, which both guide and supply strength to stand free from all around, whilst the consciousness that Christ marks and owns our ways will sanctify as well as encourage our hearts. For it must be joy to any one who loves the Lord Jesus, to think of having His individual peculiar approbation and love, to find that He has approved of our conduct in such and such circumstances, though none know this but ourselves who receive the approval. But, beloved, are we really content to have an approval which Christ only knows? Let us try ourselves a little. Are we not too desirous of man’s commendation of our conduct? or, at least, that he should know and give us credit for the motives which actuate it? Are we content, so long as good is done, that nobody should know anything about us?—even in the church to be thought nothing of?—that Christ alone should give us the “white stone” of His approval, and the “new name which no man knoweth save only he that receiveth it?” Are we content, I say, to seek nothing else? Oh, think what the terrible evil and treachery of that heart must be that is not satisfied with Christ’s special favour but seeks honour (as we do) one of another instead! I ask you, beloved, which would be most precious to you, which would you prefer—the Lord’s public owning of you are a good and faithful servant, or the private individual love of Christ resting upon you, the secret knowledge of His love and approval? He whose heart is specially attached to Christ will respond—the latter. Both will be ours, if faithful, but we shall value this most, and there is nothing that will carry us so straight on our course as the anticipation of it.
In the address to the following church, “the church in Thyatira” (v. 18-29), it is more the external glory which is brought before us, as the portion of “him that overcometh” (v. 26-28). It is a public testimony of His approval, and so far it must be precious to us; but after all, the great blessing and joy of the promise is, that it identifies us with Christ— “even as I have received of my Father.” Poor, wretched, and feeble as we are now, the Lord will put us in the very same glory with Himself. We never shall have right thoughts about our privileges and blessings, until we see our union with the Lord Jesus in everything. The way to judge of ourselves, is to look directly at Him. It is not only seeing that we have been cleansed by His blood from our sins, and thus have peace with God: the thing that gives the true character to our hopes is living union (not a mystical union, though there is truth in this, for we have been crucified with Christ, etc.) with the Lord Jesus.
We thus come in hope and practice into identity of circumstances with Him. Being united to Him, everything that belongs to Him belongs to us, as it is said, “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” All our conduct should flow from this. Whatever glorifies the Lord Jesus becomes us, we have to do with. This is the proper measure of our conduct, whatever does not savour of it is wrong conduct in a Christian. We are united to One who is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens,” and we therefore are so too. Most sublime truth! Yet how simple and practical! When realised it must tell in every way and detail of life. How could one made higher than the heavens be seeking earthly things? how could he, for instance, desire riches here? As another has said, If an angel were to come down here, he would be just as willing to sweep the streets as to be a king; much more then one who has this personal, intimate consciousness of union with Christ. Nay, the more of a servant, the happier he will be. Love necessarily made Jesus a servant when here below.
But in acting thus, we must remember there is much of difficulty. We have Satan always to resist us. We have to overcome him in a variety of circumstances and trials; not only to contend with, but to overcome; and this too with a flesh, that, if not mortified, will always be ready to lend a hand to him. So that it is not all joy, although we are set in so blessed a place.
This keeping the flesh mortified is the great thing, the secret of all strength in practical difficulties; and nothing will do it but living in communion and fellowship with the Lord. We must watch against its first strivings and desires, or, before we are aware, it will be giving a handle to the temptations of Satan. If we are holding fast (as the faithful ones in Thyatira were commanded) that which we have in the Lord, we shall gain the victory over Satan, he will lose his power, and then all is joy; even suffering (for we shall suffer in consequence of our union with Christ, for His name’s sake), all will be joy. But if there is not the every-day common-place diligence to break the power of the every-day difficulties and keep down everyday evil, we shall have to contend with the flesh instead of Satan (with whom our conflict ought to be), while it will give him power to come in when we are not ready to meet him; we shall have to get the armour in order, at the time the fight should begin.
I pray you take heed to what I say, beloved friends, for if we fail in this daily judging and keeping down the flesh, we lose the power of victory over Satan; in conflict he will gain the advantage over us, or at least we shall only stand our ground, instead of gaining ground on him, and triumphing in victory over him. If it be so, we are unfaithful to Christ; we owe it to Him to gain ground upon the world where Satan reigns—to stand in such a position as to be able to go forward and deliver individual souls from his power in every shape. There is not the looking to His grace, and the holding fast His name, if it is not so.
I ask you, in the name of the Lord’s love to you, and because of the privileges that are yours, to judge yourselves, and see whether you are ready for the battle, or whether Satan would not find that in you, the flesh—so alive—which would serve as a handle he might use. But whilst thus judging yourselves remember that your souls, in the midst of whatever failure and humiliation, are to rest on the joy of Christ’s perfect righteousness, though to have overcome will add to our joy in the day of His appearing, and bring more glory to Him now.
The Lord enable us so to walk in the Spirit, that we may discover and know more and more the grace and suitability which is in Him for our every necessity, and understand in our own souls the fitness and power of His promises.