That God should have chosen John to be His channel for the closing volume of the New Testament is worthy of our consideration, and need surprise none. His heart, filled with the love of Christ and with a deep sense of His personal glory, made him a suited vessel for the Holy Spirit’s communication of his Gospel, his Epistles, and the Revelation of Jesus Christ. No doubt many Johns were on earth, not a few of them in the church of God, yet none but one was entitled to introduce himself as he does in Revelation 1:1, 4, 9; Revelation 22:8. It was not only the John who was in Patmos, but who could say, “I came to be” (
ἐγενόμην) there for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. The emperor who exiled him dreamt ma of the divine purpose. But could it apply to any John but one? The foundation was laid in his Gospel; and there he only appears as the disciple whom Jesus loved. It was enough: who could dispute the hand that wrote it? The Epistles suppose his Gospel already written; the fuller one allows no name but the Name above every name; yet is the tone throughout that of the beloved disciple unmistakably. To the shorter pair he prefixes “the elder” respectively to the elect lady and her children, and to Gauis the beloved. Do we need more to discern the writer? But it was due to a prophetic book, above all one so profound and lofty and far-reaching, that the name of him that wrote it should be given, yet with a simplicity and a dignity all his own, a wondrous reflex of the Lord Jesus in His servant.
Nor is it a new thing for God to set out the strongest contrasts by the same inspired writer The apostle Peter, who opened the door of the kingdom for the Jews, was chosen to open it for the Gentiles also (Acts 2, 10). Again, he who was the apostle of the uncircumcision called the Jewish believers at length to go forth to Jesus without the camp bearing His reproach. So too the devoted witness of the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ was, in God’s mind if not in man’s, the most fitting medium for revealing the judgments of God coming on the earth. In this lay the moral reason; that Christ, if rejected as the gift of God’s grace and hence the object of faith, is His executor of judgment (John 5:21-29). If men despise the fourfold testimony (there also pointed out) which God gave to His Son, what can be so imperative? The decline, the corruption, and the apostasy of Christendom only make the judicial intervention of God indispensable, in order to clear away rebellious lawlessness, and to establish His kingdom in righteousness, power, and glory. Now that the truth was about to be set at naught as the law had been before in Israel, John was, more than any other, the one left on earth, a suffering exile, to make known the solemn vision of God avenging the injured rights of His own Son, the Son of Man; and this, first by providential inflictions, and at last by Jesus, the Word of God, Himself coming in the personal execution of judgment.
Hence, although there are striking contrasts in form, subject, and issues between the Gospel of John and the Revelation, the person of the Lord Jesus is pre-eminently kept before us in both as the object of God’s care and honour. Therefore, even those who could little cuter into the scope of its prophetic visions have gathered unspeakable comfort from the various displays of Christ Himself furnished by this book, especially in times of trial, rejection, and persecution. Who that knows ecclesiastical history, who that has present acquaintance with souls, is not aware that the faithful, with ever so little light but under hardship, have found exceeding nourishment and help in the Apocalypse? Men of mere learning too often have made it as dry as an old almanac.
It is not the Father made known in and by the Son, but the “revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him.” Even in that Gospel, which is so fragrant with His divine love, we have the frequent, not to say constant, admonition of the remarkable position which Christ takes. He is carefully regarded as the sent One who lived on account of the Father, as in the Gospel man on earth, so in the Revelation man most truly wherever He may be seen, whether in heaven or on earth, yet in both as truly God, the Eternal. The book is Jesus Christ’s revelation, “which God gave to him.”
In the Gospel (John 5:26) it is said the Father gave the Son to have life in Himself. Nothing can more demonstrate how loyally He accepts, and will not speak inconsistently with, the place of man to which He stooped. For in Him was life: yea, He was the eternal life which was with the Father before the worlds were. Nevertheless, having become man in divine grace, He speaks according to the lowly position which He entered here. In glory it is just the same, as we see in the book before us. “Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him to show to his bondmen.” The terms “show” here and “signified” in the clause that succeeds are used with striking propriety, when we consider the visions on the one hand and the signs and symbols on the other which characterise the book. The aim is not to bring them out of that position, or to entitle them to the dignity of children of God. This characterises the Gospel, which distinctively is the revelation of grace and truth in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son. Here it is what God was going to do for His glory as the rejected One, who, therefore, shows it to His “bondmen” — a term that suits those who might be in another relationship, after the church closes its history on earth, during a brief crisis of exceptional judgments.
Hence the comprehensive term is clearly employed with divine wisdom, “to show to his bondmen the things which must shortly come to pass” Remark that it is not “the things which are about to come to pass,” which is exactly right in ver. 19, where, after the past vision, the present and the future are distinguished. Here it is to show His bondmen “the things which must come to pass shortly.” If Jonah was sent with a warning of minatory character to arouse Nineveh to repent and thus escape their threatened ruin, John was to show the things which, as the guilt was intolerable, must (
δεῖ) come to pass shortly. The apostasy of Christendom entails not conditional threats, but necessary and inevitable judgments. The critical facts are disclosed in which we see the church condition set aside because of its final and utter failure to shed the light of the sanctuary, till its last phase becomes so nauseous that the. Lord spues it out of His mouth. Then follow judgments on the world with strokes of ever-increasing severity, in which God was about to maintain the glory of the firstborn, whom He at length introduces personally into the world to reign.
“And he sent and signified (it) through his angel to his bondman John.” Sons of God are not contemplated as such, but bondmen of Jesus. Again, “angel” is not without the best reason named with the revelation which God here gives. In the Gospel we read of eternal life in the Son, and this by the grace of God given to the believer; as the Holy Ghost was the only One competent to minister and effectuate such grace according to the counsels of God, and in the ordering of His love. The judicial character of the Revelation calls for a quite different style of communication, and reserve replaces the intimacy of grace. The intervention of “His angel” is therefore to be thus accounted for, as in itself it was fitting.
Here we have visions in display of God’s judicial ways, visions of judgment which He would inflict on the ever-growing iniquity of man when ripe. In the Gospel John may speak, but he speaks as one who had seen, and above all heard, the Lord — one who could bear his own testimony for whatever he utters. He may speak but seldom of himself, and efface himself otherwise so effectually, that there are not wanting those who question whether after all the writer could be “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The doubt is quite unfounded certainly; but none can charge John with putting himself forward by the manner in which he writes. So too in his Epistles, which contemplate the Christian company, or a family, or a friend, the one aim is to place the children of God in immediate communion with the Father and the Son. The inspired apostle wrote them all, no doubt, and the various members of God’s family, as well as the servants of the Lord, are owned in their place. But therein He who is God our Father manifestly instructs, comforts, and admonishes His own.
But here we meet intervention on every side. God gives a revelation of Jesus to show to His bondmen the things which must shortly come to pass; and Jesus passes it on through His angel to His bondman John; and John testifies accordingly. Thus we have all sorts of links in the chain, and we may ask why. For it is novel, especially in the New Testament. How comes this remarkable introduction of the revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to Him, and from Him through an angel to one bondman to show the future to His other bondmen? How is it that we here miss the direct dealing with us, the immediateness of address which is our portion elsewhere? The reason, as solemn as it is instructive, is implied indeed in the analogy of the Old Testament; for God did not always address His people there. Yet habitually God’s messengers were sent to Israel, even when prophets were raised up. At first all addressed the people in His name. The word of Jehovah was sent to Jehovah’s people. But what an affecting change took place when the message became indirect? See the book of Daniel as the fullest proof of it. And no doubt it was really meant for the people; but God gave it to Daniel, and only so.
This opens the true meaning of the remarkable change in the Apocalypse as compared with the rest of the New Testament. When the children of Israel had hopelessly betrayed the Lord, and their departure was complete before His eyes, not only in the first rent-off portion or the ten tribes of Israel but in the remaining two, when not only Judah apostatised but even the house of David, the anointed king, the last regular link; between Jehovah and His people, then He addressed His people no more but only a chosen faithful servant as His witness. It was a sure token that all was over for the present as to immediateness of communion between God and His people. God could no longer recognise them as His own: they were Lo-Ammi, not My-people, as He had warned before through Hosea. Applying this to the church and to our own circumstances, is it not most grave?
It is not in the least doubted that God proves Himself faithful in the worst of times. No deduction could be more false than that Daniel, his three companions, and possibly others also, were not personally as pleasant to Him as David was. Did He not look with exceeding satisfaction in His grace upon the servant who felt and answered to His own feelings about His people? It was precisely because of this that Daniel received so exceptional an honour. In a certain sense it was better to be a Daniel in the midst of ruin than to have had the best position when times were prosperous. When all was out of course to stand faithful was a greater proof of fidelity, than to be so when things were regular. Thus grace is equal to every difficulty, and a time of ruin gives occasion for more grace.
But the solemn fact faces us that such a crisis even then came: the church of God is no longer directly addressed in the book. John stands in a position analogous to Daniel; he, not that which still bore the name of the Lord here below, becomes now the object of communications from the Lord Jesus. However the grace of the Lord might act, however He might animate as well as warn, still the address is made directly to His servant John, and not to the church. Even where we have addresses, as we find in chapters 2 and 3, they are not immediately to the churches, but to their “angels.” It is manifest that all accentuates the same serious conclusion, the ruin of the Christian testimony in its responsibility. This does not touch the stability of grace, or of God’s faithfulness; but it tells the old and humbling story of what man is, however blessed.
Hence and thus John “testified the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” It seems here restricted, not meaning the truth in general, nor the gospel in particular, though we cannot doubt that John did preach the gospel, and did nourish the church of God in all His revealed truth. This however is not the subject of the Apocalypse, nor the sense of our text. All is here limited to that which “he saw”; which is of importance to apprehend the force of the passage, as also the character of the book. The word “and” must vanish, if we respect the best authorities; for a third description is not meant, but rather an explanation restricting the other two. But how are we to understand the word of God and the testimony of Jesus here? The answer is given by the last clause when “and” is taken away. It consists of the visions recorded in this book, “whatsoever [or all] things that he saw.” John receives a new character of word and testimony, his visions; but it is none the less God’s word and Christ’s witness.
Accordingly the Apocalypse can be slighted only by unbelief; for it, no less than the Gospels or the Epistles, is here styled “the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” They revealed grace; it announces judgments. What a rebuke to proud scholars and prejudiced theologians, too unspiritual to appreciate the book, and too self-complacent to learn! It is thus carefully ushered in, but in the prophetic method morally fitting for the series of visions which John saw. This is of so much the greater emphasis, as it is apparently designed in an express manner to counteract the tendency (but too common notwithstanding) to treat the Apocalypse as of less, if not doubtful, value, and of precarious authority. But no: it is stamped to John by our Lord Jesus as the word of God and His own testimony. We know that too many disputers of this age have in their folly dared to insult the book. The Judge of quick and dead more carefully authenticates it than any other in the canon of scripture. If it consists not of that which directly edifies the Christian in the privileges of grace, it urgently announces the doom of such as despise God and prefer their own ideas and will to His revelation.
Be it remarked too, that a special blessing is prefixed to the prophecy. Was it not expressly and graciously to encourage His bondmen, as well as to foreclose the cavils of unbelief? “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of the prophecy, and keep the things which are written therein.” It is even for those to hear and keep who could not read; and blessed are such. What can one think of those who all but exclude it from their liturgies? What of those who boast of their freedom from these forms, and are no less disrespectful and unbelieving? Doubt not its practical power. No one ever decried the book whom it did not morally condemn; none read or hear, and keep it without rich blessing.
The stated reason given is much to be weighed; for it is not, as men often assume, because we are to be in the predicted circumstances. As a matter of fact, the Christian, the church, does not pass through the special troubles here described. Not a word to this effect is implied, but quite a different reason is given. As the book itself lets us know that the church will be on high outside the scene of earth’s exceeding troubles and inflicted judgments, so the motive assigned in the preface is of a strikingly holy nature, adapted to all those who walk by faith, not by sight, and free from all selfish considerations: “for the fit time [is] at hand.” It is not that the time is actually come, so that we must go through all or any of the strictly future part; but the fit time is near. God therefore writes for our comfort, admonition, and general blessing in whatever way it may be wanted; He takes for granted that we are interested in whatever He has to say to us. “For the fit time is at hand.” It is a false principle therefore that we can only be profited by that which concerns ourselves, or supposes us to be in the actual circumstances described. The words are to be heard, the things written in the book to be kept; not the seven Epistles only, but all its contents to the end of all things. Prophecy edifies those who believe God before it comes to pass. It is a proof against unbelievers when fulfilled; but its true aim and best blessing is for those who heed it before.
Then comes the salutation. Here too all is as peculiar in itself as suitable to the book on which we enter: “John to the seven churches which [are] in Asia.” The First Epistle of John is essentially for all saints in its nature and contents, as the absence of local address implies. It treats of what never passes, of eternal life not in Christ only but possessed by all the faithful, “which thing is true in him and in you.” But here local churches were no less requisite, for reasons to appear, in full variety, and so as to account for judicial extinction. This could not have been if the saints were viewed as the object of sovereign grace, as in the Epistle to the Ephesians. With solemn responsibility, as here, it is easy and plain.
Again on no other occasion do we find anything akin to this. Hitherto we read of the saints receiving an epistle in one place or another. A particular assembly, or the assemblies of a wide district like Galatia, may be addressed. Never but here is an address given to a distinct number of assemblies, particularly one so definite and significant symbolically as “seven.” Surely something is meant outside the ordinary course of things, where so unexampled a style is adopted. The spiritual usage of “seven” in prophetic scripture cannot be questioned. Nor is it confined to prophecy, for the same force holds good wherever symbol is employed. In typical scripture also seven is the regular sign of spiritual completeness.
Who then but uninstructed or prejudiced minds can question that the Lord meant more than the actual assemblies in the province of Asia? That the letters were written and sent to literal congregations from Ephesus to Laodicea admits of no dispute. But can one doubt that these were chosen, and the addresses shaped to them, so as to bring before those who have ears to hear the complete circle of the Lord’s testimony here below, as long as there should be anything possessed (responsibly, if not fully) of a church character? The state of things might be one of ruin, for the first church had to fear its lamp removed; it might become even gross and false, as much was in several: still an ecclesiastical profession subsisted if only for His dealing in judgment. This never appears after chap. 4. No such condition exists afterwards; thenceforth the ecclesiastical footing disappears for man’s allegiance. In short, as long as church responsibility exists here below, these addresses apply as such, and no longer. Low as we are, and bound to humble ourselves for the actual state of ruin and scattering of the church as a divine institution, who is bold enough to deny that the Lord still owns and deals judicially at least, though this be far from all, with a church status on earth? Revelation 4 tells us much more in confirmation; but this in its own time and due place.
“To the seven churches which [are] in Asia: Grace [be] to you, and peace, from him that is, and that was, and that is to come.” It is not “from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” or any other form found in the apostolic Epistles. The salutation is from God in His own being, the ever-existing One, He who is, and who was, and who is to come. It asserts the continuity of His present being emphatically with the past and with the future. It is not “He who was, and is, and is to come,” as in Rev. 4:8, but “He who is, and who was, and who is to come.” His essential being is set in the first place, and not only that He is the God of ages or Jehovah, the name: revealed to the sons of Israel. “And from the seven Spirits that [are] before his throne.” Here again we find a description of the Holy Ghost expressly in government, and with decided difference from what meets us in the New Testament generally. The allusion is clear to Isaiah 11:2, where the sevenfold power of the Holy Ghost in government is connected with the person and for the kingdom of the Messiah. “And the Spirit of Jehovah shall rest,” etc. This is taken up here, and applied in a far larger way for purposes suitable to the Apocalyptic prophecy, which contemplates the ruin of Christendom.
Indeed the same remark will be found true of all the use that is made of Old Testament citations and allusions in the Apocalypse. Constant reference is made to the Law, Psalms, and Prophets; but it is never a mere repetition of what was found there. This would be in effect to deprive ourselves of the Apocalypse, instead of apprehending its peculiar profit. If one identifies the Jerusalem of Isaiah with the New Jerusalem of the Revelation, or sets the Babylon of Jeremiah to exhaust the Apocalyptic Babylon, it is clear that this is just to lose the special instruction God is here giving us. Doubtless it is a main source of confusion on the scope of the Apocalypse to this day. Yet if we do not take into account the Old Testament oracles as to Babylon or Jerusalem, if we slight the instruction derived from the prophets generally, we are hardly prepared for appreciating or even understanding the Apocalypse as a whole. Thus, either to dislocate the New absolutely from the Old, or to see no more than a rehearsal of the Old in the New, is an almost equal error. There is a divine link in all, as the Spirit’s mind had an unmistakable reference; but the Apocalypse gives an incomparably wider range, and a more profound character, and none the less because the present things are shown to be out of course, and demand to be set aside. The Apocalypse looks on things after the Holy Ghost had taken His place in the Christian and in the church on earth; above all it was after the Son had appeared, manifested God the Father, and accomplished redemption here below. Hence all the fulness of divine light which had come out in Christ’s person and work, as well as by the Spirit for the church of God, is necessary to remember in order to seize the just bearing of the Apocalypse.
The seven Spirits then refer, beyond fair doubt, to the Holy Ghost acting with all variety in the way of government (“before his throne”). How different from the truth of the same Spirit sent forth from heaven, and baptising the saints into the one body of Christ here below! But there is no just ground for thinking of created spirits or angels in this connection any more than in Rev. 5:6. Never do the seven Spirits pay worship to God; and the reason is, that they mean God’s Spirit. It is only in Christianity and the church that we know God as He is — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In government, whether of Old or in Apocalyptic scenes, He is not so revealed. But it is an offence against truth to mix up Creator and creature. It is the completeness of the Holy Ghost’s energy as an overruling power. What the application of this may be depends on the context where it is used. It is in relation to Christ dealing ecclesiastically in Revelation 3, and again in His relation to the earth in Revelation 5; but it is always the Spirit in full variety of governmental power, rather than the same Spirit viewed in His unity as forming the church into one body. This we have had already in the Pauline Epistles, where the proper sphere of the Christian as a member of Christ’s body is treated especially, and indeed only there.
God as such is thus introduced in Old Testament style and character, but applied to New Testament subjects in a far larger way; the Holy Ghost also is similarly brought before us; and so too with our Lord. “And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the prince [or, ruler] of the kings of the earth.” Indeed there is nothing more remarkable, especially when we bear in mind who the writer is, than the absence here of Christ’s proper relationship to the children of God. Revelation of grace is precisely what is not found in this book, if one search into the character of its visions generally. “Jesus Christ” appears as the Faithful Witness. This clearly He was on the earth when man wholly failed. In a very different tone it was John’s topic everywhere. We may look on the Lord as gone up to heaven, where Paul loved to contemplate Him glorified; but John habitually points to Christ the eternal Word and Son as He was here below. If he speaks of Him as the Lamb above, the description is founded on His having been the rejected sufferer on earth. Next He is “the firstborn of the dead.” This too He was on earth. Satan, who had the power of death, had nothing in Him; but by the grace and for the glory of God He died, and rose victorious, the Firstborn of the dead. Again, as “the prince of the kings of the earth,” He waits to be displayed when He comes by-and-by to earth. But what He is now for us in God’s presence and does in heaven in activity of grace is exactly what we have not given us here. There is the most careful exclusion from the book of His heavenly position as Head or even our High Priest. Even the present grace which livingly connects Him with the Christian is left out.
Thus the Lord Jesus is here brought before us as Man on earth, required specially for the purpose of this prophetic book. God was announced in His own eternal being; the Holy Ghost in His varied fulness of governmental power; the Lord Jesus in that which connected Him not with heaven but with the earth, even if risen from the dead, and the coming King of kings. He is for this and perhaps other reasons put in the last place.
But when Christ is named, the voice of Christians is at once heard. This is so much the more remarkable, because it is one of the sweet exceptional ripples which cross the ordinary current of the book at the end as well as at the beginning. It is not so when the course of the visions is fairly entered on. Before these begin Christians are heard, as the bride is after the visions close. The name of Jesus is enough to stir the heart, for those who know Him as we do, in a suited doxology. He may not be described in His relationships peculiar to us, but He who is described is the One that loves us and that we love. So we say, “To him that loveth us” (for this is the true reading and rendering, not merely that “loved” us) — “to him that loveth us, and washed us from our sins in his blood; and he made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father; to him [be] the glory and the might unto the ages of the ages.” What was a condition to Israel, and a condition they broke forthwith by their rebellion against Jehovah in idolatry, is to us an accomplished fact, and an abiding gift of grace through redemption, not the place of priests only but of kings. Even here, or anywhere else in the book, it is not said “to our Father,” however true this be in itself. All is in keeping with the aim of the Revelation “to his God and Father.” We are regarded not in the nearness of God’s children, but in conferred dignity and office. “To him be the glory and the might for ever and ever.” He is worthy.
As this is the heart’s outpouring of its own delight in Jesus, so the next verse gives a warning testimony suitable to the book, lest there should be any weakening of what Jesus will be to those who stand in no such relation to Him. “Behold, he cometh with the clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they which [
οἵτινες] pierced him, and all kindreds of the earth [or, land] shall wail [or, beat their breasts] at him.” This clearly is judicial, and has nothing to do with His presence or coming for us. But after our own delight and thanksgiving have gone forth toward Jesus, the solemn testimony to others quite suitably follows the song of praise, which had (if one may say, involuntarily, certainly of the Holy Spirit in our hearts) burst forth at His name. It is Christ coming in judgment. He shall be seen by every soul — if there be any difference, to the sorest anguish above all — by those that pierced Him (i.e. the Jews). “Yea, Amen.” We have learnt to bow and bless God.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, saith [the] Lord God, that is, and that was, and that is to come, the Almighty.” He who is the Source and Doer of all, who communicates everything that can be made known to man, He it is who here speaks, the Lord God, the Eternal, and the Almighty putting His voucher on the book from the beginning. The words, as often elsewhere in John’s writings, purposely mix up God and Christ. But here it is the divine sanction of every word, whether in vetting aside the guilty present or in establishing the future down to the eternal state. None but the true God could speak to it; and John expressly says that Jesus is the true God. For the prophecy embraces God’s judgment of the world, of living and dead, in a regular order beyond all other books, till time melts into eternity, and all things are made new.
Then John describes himself in a manner adapted to the testimony he is called to render: “I John, your brother and fellow-partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and patience in Jesus, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus.” There is to be ample employment of symbol; but literal fact is carefully stated: the place, a bare and stern isle of the Sporades, where the apostle was banished for the truth’s sake; and also the very day when he saw the vision. How all here said harmonises with what afterwards comes out! The whole book supposes saints in tribulation, with their spiritual experience formed into the associations of the kingdom rather than those of Christ’s body the church, as yet surely suffering on account of the word of God and of the testimony of Jesus. Particular care is taken to show this to us.
Not that the full church relationship was lacking to John; but he stands here as prophet rather than apostle, a representative man for others as well as ourselves. While therefore he had all that is properly Christian, he also had special communications of another sort for saints who follow us at the end of this age, when “the tribulation” will be emphatically verified. Thus he introduces himself here as a joint partaker, not of God’s promise in Christ by the gospel, but in His kingdom and patience. It is true for us all, but in special harmony with the latter-day sufferers, and not specifically with the church. The place here presented is of course a Christian’s; but that is put forward which belonged to others, who should not have the same corporate standing as ourselves. Yet there is a careful guard against any supposition that he was not in the full enjoyment of his due place in Christ.
This seems to be one reason why it pleased God to give the visions of the book on the Lord’s day. “I became in Spirit on the Lord’s day.” It is not “the day of the Lord,” as has been strangely fancied, but expressed by a wholly different phrase, which guards from any such thought (
ἐν τῃ κυριακῃ ἡμέρᾳ). It is the characteristic day of the Christian, the birthday of his distinctive blessing, as it assuredly ought to be an especial joy of his heart, because it is the resurrection day of grace and new creation, not the seventh day of old creation rest and law. In the day of the Lord no churches are recognised on earth, nor is the Lord in any such relation as here appears. It opens in Revelation 19:11. The Greek phrase in the two cases wholly differs. “The Lord’s day,” like “the Lord’s Supper,” is unique; “the day of the Lord” is always expressed differently, often as it occurs in both Old Testament and New.
On that day the inspired writer John came under the power of the Holy Spirit to take in and give out the visions he was to see. “And I heard behind me a great voice as of a trumpet.” It was significant, no doubt, that the voice was “behind” him. The main object of all prophecy tended rather to have thrown him forward. But before the Spirit of God could fitly launch into the visions of the future, there must be a retrospective glance. Therefore in these preliminary chapters our Lord is seen as Son of Man judging in the midst of the seven lamps. God only discloses the distinct future when the existing object of His care is done with. In the Spirit John must be, both to shut out every impression from external objects, and to give him an entrance into all that God was about to reveal. Yet first of all we should recognise the fact that it was on the Lord’s day; and next that, before he was shown what lay before, he must turn to the voice behind him and learn what the Lord judged of that which bore His name on the earth. But how new to John “a great voice as of a trumpet” from the Lord Jesus! How different from the good Shepherd’s voice he and the other sheep heard and knew! A loud voice as of a trumpet summoned attention imperatively: compare Exodus 19:19. So it will for another end in that day (Isa. 27:13; Matt. 24:31). In the normal state of the church it would have been incongruous.
Omit the spurious opening clause, and read after it, “saying, What thou seest, write.” The reference of the voice behind is exclusively to the seven assemblies. When the proper prophecy is about to begin, the first voice which he heard as of a trumpet says, “Come up hither.” There is no question then of a voice behind: he goes upward, given to look into the future. But there must first be a retrospective notice, in which the Lord pronounces His judgment on that which bore the name of Christendom here below. “What thou seest, write in a book, and send [it] to the seven churches; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamum, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea. And I turned to see the voice which was speaking with me. And having turned, I saw seven golden lamps [or, lampstands].” These were responsible light-bearers, not the stands alone of course but their lamps, viewed according to God’s mind about them constituted in divine righteousness. Therefore were they “golden.” It is a great principle, and remarkably characterises John’s writings So the standard for the Christian is not in anywise the law (it was so for the Jew); for us it is Christ Himself, and cannot without the utmost loss be anything else. “He that saith he abideth in him, ought himself also so to walk” — how? Like an Israelite? Not so; for the Christian ought to remember that he is a heavenly man (1 Cor. 15:48), not a man of dust like Adam. He “ought himself also so to walk even as he (Christ) walked.” The Christian is not under law but under grace; and this, not for salvation only, but for present walk (Rom. 6). If he have the blessing in faith, he cannot evade the responsibility in practice.
Thus it is with the seven golden lamps. All must be and was measured according to God’s mind, and the place in which He set the assemblies. Consistency with Him as God revealed in Christ is their rule. Hence it is they appear as “golden” damps. They had from God divine righteousness as their character; but they come under moral judgment as to their ways. How many saints there are who in their personal walk are pious and vigilant, and yet entirely overlook that their corporate responsibility to the Lord is no less obligatory! Here the question is about that public testimony to His word and name. For John saw “in the midst of the [seven] lamps one son-of-man like, clothed with a garment down to the foot.” The one seen was like a son of man. Christ was not like, but truly, “the Son of Man.” Yet this phrase says more than the inspired text. Like “the” Son of Man might enfeeble or deny the truth. One like a son of man was seen at a glance. That He was the Son of Man became soon plain enough; but here as everywhere we must adhere to scripture.
There is not now the sign of activity; the robe was not tucked up for gracious service with girded loins. The Son of Man is seen clad in the flowing garb of dignity reaching to the feet, and He is “girt about the breasts with a golden girdle.” Divine righteousness girds Him at the breasts in dignity as judge, not at the loins for strenuous work of grace. But He is Ancient of days as well as Son of Man. “And his head and his hairs [were] white as white wool, as snow; and his eyes as a flame of fire; and his feet like fine brass, as if they glowed in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters, and having in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth a sharp two-edged sword going forth; and his countenance as the sun shineth in its power.” His eyes indicated scathing and consuming judgment; His feet, inflexible and unsparing firmness in it; His voice bespoke resistless majesty. Subordinate rulers ecclesiastical were in His right hand of power; out of His mouth went forth the word that judged with unerring decision on both sides, and His countenance with supreme authority and might shine forth as the great light that rules the day.
Do even the children of God believe that these are the characteristics of Christ walking in the midst of the churches? How many a saint, jealous and self-judging as to his personal ways before God, excuses his ecclesiastical associations as of no real living moment! He might know with entire assurance that the worship, the ministry, and the general state are wholly at issue with God’s word; but he has been taught to regard all these as necessary evils, which he has to bear. How opposed to this laxity is the responsibility which the Lord here enforces! For what means His eyes as a flame of fire? What His feet as if they glowed in a furnace? What a sharp two-edged sword going forth out of His mouth? Is He not at war with the loose or latitudinarian?
Hence we have to remark that Christ is seen, not as Head, nor as Priest, nor Advocate, but in a judicial point of view. He is spoken of as Son of Man; and, as we know, this is the aspect in which it is given Him to execute every kind of judgment, as is expressly so taught in John’s own Gospel. He is judging the lamps set to shed light in a world of darkness, and this at the very time the light grew dim and precarious, if not at first expiring. Yet with this another feature betrays John, suiting him as the writer strikingly. He that is seen as Son of Man is described with those marks which belong distinctively to the “Ancient of days.” Daniel sees the “Ancient of days” in one way, and the Son of Man in another, though even there the Ancient of days came, indicating their oneness (7). John sees the Son of Man with the qualities of the Ancient of days. He is man; but the man seen then and thus is a divine person, the eternal God Himself. Let me ask, Whose style does this identification of nature fall in with but the writer’s that we are now reading? Does it not convince more than ever, not so much similarity of phrase which might be imitated? Morally speaking Jesus must execute judgment; but John does not lose sight of His divine glory, even where the subject is not grace; but judgment, with the kingdom to follow everywhere anticipated.
A threefold glory of Christ appears: what is personal in the robe, girdle, and hair; what is relative in His eyes, feet, and voice; and finally, what is official in His right hand, mouth, and countenance. But there is more also. For it is said, “And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying, Fear not; I am the first and the last.” It was no similitude of mere man, but the Lord. Such terms alone become One who is divine. He who is first is necessarily God; and He who is first, being God, must certainly be last. Jesus declares Himself to be all this; yea, more than this, “the living one, and I became dead.” He deigned not only to become man, but as willingly to die, cost what it might, as His death did everything to blot out the evil and prepare for all blessing. The phrase is the strongest way of putting the matter. It is not merely that He died: this is not quite what He says here, though it is said elsewhere, and very truly. He says that He “became” dead. This forcibly implies His own willingness to die, as indeed He became what did not belong to Him personally, and what seemed extraordinarily incongruous with the glorious person as already described. Is it not conveyed in the peculiarity of the phrase? So careful is the Holy Ghost to watch over the dignity of Christ even in that which told out the depths of His humiliation. “And, behold, I am living unto the ages of the ages.” He is the vanquisher of death, and of him who had its power. We must leave out the word “Amen,” which here, being spurious, only and evidently mars the sense.
Let it suffice once for all to say that the text adopted rests on the basis of the ancient and best authorities. There is positive evidence of a convincing and satisfactory kind for the insertions, omissions, or changes throughout. Do not imagine that in this there is arbitrary innovation. The real innovators were those who departed by slip or by will from the very words of the Spirit. Arbitrariness now would be in maintaining what has insufficient authority against that which is as certain as can be. Error surely is not in seeking the oldest and best supported text, but in allowing tradition to tie us to comparatively modern and certainly to mistaken, if not corrupted, readings. We are bound in everything to yield to the highest authority, with the context to help us in deciding where the best manuscripts differ as they do. So in the next words our Lord really says, “And I have the keys of death and of hades”; and who but He could say them? Not so runs the common text; but that is the true order. No one goes to Hades before he dies, Death being in relation to the body, Hades to the separate spirit. How truly Christ died and lived, that He might be Lord of both dead and living!
“Write therefore [improperly omitted] the things which thou sawest, and the things which are, and what is1 about to take place after these.” This gives us, as is familiar to most Christian readers, the general threefold division of the book of Revelation. The things that he saw were the glory of Christ in relation to this book, as described in the first chapter, on which we have already touched. Short as the account is, one can hardly exaggerate its importance in itself and for all that follows; for it is the Lord revealed as assuming formally a judicial character. “The things which are” express not merely the then present, but the prolonged condition set forth in the addresses to the seven churches. The expression is striking; because, while applying to the existing seven assemblies, it naturally conveys (when the epistles to them are adequately understood) that the churches were somehow to exist continuously. A formal prophecy would have falsified the church’s hope as a constant and vital reality. Divine wisdom gave such an extension to “the things which are” as should bear on the successive states of the church as long as it should be here on earth. We can see now why it was. Possibly, when the epistles were sent out in the days of John, no particular emphasis might be laid on “the things that are”; the saints would naturally be absorbed in the call on themselves. But inasmuch as analogous states have since gone on to the present, the immense force such a phrase when duly weighed carries in itself becomes evident. Nothing would then be allowed to weaken waiting for Christ as our proximate hope; but if He tarried, it is an abiding appeal as long as the church abides here below.
Singular to say, an effort has been revived which never ought to have been made to explain its force, especially in the light of what goes before and of what follows. The Greek, except in very careless style, cannot bear “and what they signify”; for this would require
ἅτία) instead of
ἅ, thus giving a different force to the second
ἃ from the first and third. N.T. phraseology allows no such laxity; and the context, being dislocated thereby, totally forbids it. Others seek to attain the same result by the plea that
εἰσὶν may practically mean “signify” here, as sometimes elsewhere. But there is no analogy here with any such cases; and for the plain and conclusive reason, that in none of them is there a distinction compared with the past and the future. The only sound and satisfactory rendering, therefore, is that adopted in the A. and R. versions, and indeed in almost all others, modern as well as ancient. There is necessarily a closer connection with “the things which thou hast seen,” in which was the vision of the Son of Man judging in the midst of the golden lamps; but to “the things that are” belongs its own distinct importance as conveyed in the seven epistles, and by its peculiarity lending itself to the continuous existence of the present state.
“What is about to take place after these” is the exact translation of the next phrase. Even “afterward” would be here equivocal. “After these things” gives the true sense required, as it is the closely literal rendering. Not another instance in the Revelation can bear the vague “hereafter,” or even “afterward” which is meant in John 13:7. Here again the context fixes the precision of its general usage, and forbids the looser application, which might be, where no line of distinction is drawn between past and present. The beginning of Rev. 4 confirms fully the exact rendering “after these things.” The strictly future division of the book cannot begin whilst a church condition exists.
A little more follows. “The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest on my right hand, and the seven golden lamps: the seven stars are angels of the seven churches; and the seven lamps are seven churches.” As the lamps symbolise churches, so do the stars their angels. Surely “the mystery” prepares us for views of the subordinate lights or angels, and of the lamps or churches far beyond the letter of then existing facts. What “mystery” was there in the historical facts of these seven churches in proconsular Asia? It seems inconceivable that such a word should be employed here if no more had been intended than the actual circumstances. But if these “seven” were selected for this prophetic book to represent in divine wisdom successive phases of the existing church state, however protracted, the propriety of the term becomes apparent Thus, too, is explained the application of “the stars,” well known in the ancient prophecy of Daniel, but due here to the extraordinary and abnormal state of the Christian testimony and a state of decline and approaching ruin; for the last of them indicates no revival or recovery, but the Lord spueing it out of His mouth.
In each letter the Lord addresses “the angel.” Who and what is he? The regular charges of elder) and deacons are passed over in silence; nor are the gifts of the ascended Christ in evidence. But a new title at issue with the sanctioned order hitherto would be a strange thing on our Lord’s part, when on man’s a decline had set in. We never hear of “angel” as an official title in the ordinary arrangements of the New Testament. “The angel” is a term for the leader that suits chaps. 2 and 3 of such a prophetic book as the Revelation, just as literal angels are in keeping with the book of Daniel. Does it mean what we commonly call an angelic being? Not here surely, where “angels of the churches” are spoken of. If we hear of the angel of fire, and even of the angel of Jesus Christ, as of Jehovah elsewhere, there is no difficulty, though all these be outside the thoughts and language of the Epistles. But it is very new to hear of the angel of this or that assembly. Again, we can understand an angel employed, a spiritual messenger from on high, as the means of communication between the Lord and His servant John; but how harsh to suppose that His servant John writes a letter from Christ to a literal angel! This is one of the clear difficulties in which those are involved who suppose angelic beings to be here meant. The nature of the case precludes it.
As “angel” is used in the sense of a representative, so in reference to the assemblies the Lord here avails Himself of this general idea. A messenger or moral representative of each assembly is implied. “Angel” was used of a human representative. For instance, when John the Baptist sent two of his disciples, there was a representation of his mind by these men when they gave the message of him who sent them (Luke 7:24). The representative force appears also in Acts 12:15 (only here it was of a spiritual character); and so in Matthew 18:10. But it assumes a different shape when it was a question of assemblies. They were His chief lights, representing each the assembly, and so became His medium in judging its state according to the divine standard.
If therefore we look at the abstract nature of the angel of the church, what is taught by the term? Presumably this, that the Lord had in view not necessarily an elder, nor a teacher, but one who might be either or both; but before His mind he truly represented, and was in a special way bound up with the responsibility of, the state of the assembly. Whoever that might be was meant by the angel of the church. The state of Christianity, or rather of the churches, made this reserve suitable morally. The Lord adopts it in judging, rather than the ordinary medium of either the gifts or the local charges. It is the prophetic character of the book, the critical condition of the churches, which accounts not only for the angel representatives, but for the separate view of the churches. For the unity of the body of Christ is a wholly distinct truth, and stands on the basis of divine counsels now and for ever made good by and in Christ the Head. “The seven churches” have their own moral bearing as introducing God’s future dealings with the world when they vanish from the scene. All effort, from this special aim, to set aside unity, and to supplant it by independency, is as unintelligent as it is vain and evil. To deduce from the stars and the candlesticks new officials and congregational independency would be to overthrow the nature of ministry and the unity of the church, as already taught wherever the Holy Spirit reveals either truth. But what does man’s will not essay? “The things that are” abide still, though going on from danger at the beginning to utter rejection at the last: a strange time and state to organise the church anew, and an unheard of function.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, he that walketh in the midst of the seven golden lamps.” Here we are on broad ground. The characteristics are general. The first epistle, the message to the angel of the church in Ephesus, looks at the state of the Christian testimony on the earth in its most comprehensive form, and, as one may suppose, from the days of the apostle John himself. The Lord accordingly presents Himself with similar latitude, “He that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, he that walketh in the midst of the seven golden lamps.” The position, both ministerial and ecclesiastical, is ruled by His relationship to the angels (i.e. those that morally represented the assemblies to His eye), and to the churches in view. The “star” is that which acted on the assembly — the vessel of light from the Lord to bear on the condition of the assembly. If that light were ineffectual, if evil mixed with it, the state of the assembly would partake of it; if bright, the assembly would be elevated morally thereby. In Him who held the seven stars in His right hand, and walked in the midst of the seven golden lamps, we have Christ not merely holding fast those ideal representatives, but also judicially interested in the assemblies themselves. In short, it is Christ in His fullest but most general ministerial and ecclesiastical aspect according to the governmental tenor of the book.
The state of the church in Ephesus has the same generality. “I know thy works, and [thy] labour, and patience (or, endurance), and that thou canst not bear evil [men]; and thou didst try those that call themselves apostles, and they are not, and thou didst find them liars.” There was some faithfulness, and this particularly in dealing with the wickedness which Satan sought to bring in at that time. The apostles were disappearing, and perhaps had all disappeared save John. One can understand that then naturally Satan would endeavour to furnish instruments nothing loath to claim succession. The church in Ephesus tried these pretended apostles, specially the angel, as one that helped them much by grace from the Lord. The “star” so far acted upon the church for good. When such assumption was essayed, they were one in trying and refusing those who set up to be what they were not.
But much more is here. Persistent faithfulness and devotedness still characterised them at Ephesus. “And thou hast patience, and didst bear for my name, and hast not wearied. But I have against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love.” This is the Lords complaint against them. It is plain that here as ever is the first departure, the general but sure symptom of declension. What injures, and finally ruins, is invariably from within, not from without. In vain does Satan seek to cast down those who, resting on Christ’s love, have Him as the cherished object of their soul and life. Was it not thus when the Epistle to the Ephesians was written by Paul? Had they now left their first love? Was it with them as once when Christ was all, and flesh only evil in their eyes? Alas! the failure in this respect. They had here relaxed, not in their works: these went on diligently. There were works, and labour, and endurance. But where now the work of faith? Where the labour of love? Where the endurance of hope? The power that had produced the mighty results was no longer active, nor could be. The effect continued; the spring was gone. They had relaxed in their first love. It was all over with them, unless they judged themselves, and in the power of the Holy Ghost gave to Christ His place.
“Remember therefore whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I am coming to thee,2 and will remove thy lamp out of its place, except thou repent.” Whether it be Christ as He is represented or the description of the church’s state, whether the fault that is charged home or the remedy proposed, whether the judgment threatened or the promise held out, — all is of the most general description. So thoroughly does the Lord adhere to topics of the largest and most common import in the letter to the angel of the assembly in Ephesus. Yet how solemn to hear the gracious Lord, as His present judgment of the actual state of the assembly in Ephesus, threaten this choice church which Paul planted with the removal of its lamp! Such a sentence does not mean that individual saints lose the portion of grace, but that the assembly forfeits its public place of light-bearer, because of its unjudged condition. Even then the Lord, however grieved, does not fail to note its hatred, shared with Himself, of allowing and glossing over iniquity, as the next words show. “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans,3 which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches: to him that overcometh, to him will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of [my] God.” Here again all is large and comprehensive. What can be wider than this promise?
In the letter to the angel of the church in Smyrna, a totally different state of things appears. It is essentially a special case instead of the general one first seen. After declension from apostolic purity, above all from first love, the Lord was pleased to afflict; He allowed all sorts of trial to befall His people by letting loose the power of Satan working by Gentile persecutors. “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things saith the First and the Last, who became dead and lived: I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty (but thou art rich), and the blasphemy of those that call themselves Jews, and they are not, but a synagogue of Satan.” It is not now a trial by false claimants. A new evil appears. As long as true apostles were on earth, Satan was never able to get Judaism recognised in the church of God. The council in Jerusalem expressly exempted the Gentiles from being put under the yoke of law. And the apostle of uncircumcision showed on his own ground that it was really to annul Christ, and to fall from grace, if the law, introduced either for justification or for a rule of life, were imposed on the Christian. For justification this is manifest; but for a rule of life it is not so apparent, yet it is just as real a denial of the gospel. If Christ be the rule of life for the Christian, and the law be the rule of death as Jews ought to know (though they do not), it is evident that for a Christian to abandon that for this tends to apostasy. The early fathers thus Judaised; and the leaven has gone on working ever since. To take the position of a Jew virtually is to be one of those that say they are such and are not, but are, alas! Satan’s synagogue.
The Lord here contemplates these evil workers (which is what crying up of works comes to) forming a distinct party. It is not merely Satan struggling to get in Judaism by individuals, but, as He says here, “the blasphemy” (railing or calumny) “of those that say they are Jews, and are not, but a synagogue of Satan.” They have now a compact character, and can be spoken of as a synagogue. It was not merely the tendency of individuals. Individuals there were before, but this is much more. It is a formed and known party of the highest possible pretension. They set up to be more righteous and holy than the rest, whom they denounced as antinomian because these stood in the true grace of God. They were themselves corrupters of the gospel and destroyers of living Christianity without knowing it. Deceived by Satan, they were his zealous instruments, so much the more actively deceiving others, because perhaps earnest and honest after the flesh.
The patristic party, those commonly called “the Fathers,” seem the leaders in the evil here referred to. They had the awful ignominy of systematically Judaising the church. They also exercised this influence in all ages, and even over the Puritans. Here, if one mistake not, their formation as a system is stigmatised by the Lord Jesus. Sometimes offensive against Himself, always ignorant of His work and heavenly relations, they were blindly opposed to faith in God’s sovereign grace. Their character is plain. They dragged down the Christian from his true heavenly associations to that of a spurious Jew. What is still more the significant point for John, they lost even the truth of a real life given to us in Christ. Thus whether it be the depraving of souls or forming a catholic body after an earthly mould, or whether it be depriving them of known life in Christ (at least as far as false doctrine could go), and hence failing to walk as He walked, to pat them under Jewish ordinances, the Fathers, as a class, fully earned the distinction here assigned by the Lord.
When things were regulated after the Jewish pattern, the whole beauty and aim of the church of God was ruined in principle. But the point of interest here is, that succession and ordinances became defined as a system about this time. Such is the great fact found among the ante-Nicene Fathers. Here the Lord seems to notice its working at the same time that God was in a measure using for good those faithful during the heathen persecutions. Even then Satan was not idle in forming his synagogue “of those that say they are Jews, and are not.” On the other hand, Christ said in view of the sufferer, “Fear not the things which thou art about to suffer: behold, the devil is about to cast of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have a tribulation of ten days.” The trial was not unlimited: the Lord defined the term of their endurance. “Become faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches; he that overcometh shall in no wise be hurt of the second death.” They might experience the first; they should be untouched by that death which follows and is final. It is a question of faith in God. Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God.
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum” comes a very different message. This too is special. “These things saith he which hath the sharp two-edged sword; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest.” It may be a very serious thing where our position is. They were dwelling “where Satan’s throne [is].” How came this? One can understand their passing through the sense of his wiles; but to dwell where he reigns is fearfully significant. Did they like to be near a throne, although it were the throne of Satan — to have a standing there? Did they love the glitter of the world’s power, and relish its favour, alien from God as it is?
The condition supposed comes out clearly in such a writer of that day as Eusebius, who regarded the change brought in by Constantine as the fulfilment of the glowing vision of the Kingdom in the prophets. Thenceforth it was the church reigning on earth. They claimed the delusion of which the Corinthians were disabused. The church now taking the place of the world made it to be worldliness sanctioned in principle. So he says in his Life of Constantine (iii. 15), “It looked like the very image of the kingdom of Christ, and was altogether more like a dream than a reality.” Yes, this at least is true. It was the dream of that day and since; it had no reality for the mind of Christ.
Yet the Lord owns whatever is good. “And thou holdest fast my name, and didst not deny my faith.” It is notable, and was no small mercy, that, after the great persecutions, when Christendom and even Christians had been seduced into accepting the patronage of the world, there remained faithfulness in refusing all efforts to deny the deity of Christ. Under the same Constantine, who cast the world’s shield over Christianity, was the battle fought and won against the Arian foe. It was under his authority, and indeed by his call, that the famous council sat at Nicaea, and the faith of the Trinity was publicly established. Christians needed no such bulwark, but Christendom did. Thus the creed commonly called Nicene,4 which had for its object the assertion of Christ’s consubstantial deity, was then published. Is it not fair to believe that this state of things is referred to here? “Even in those days wherein [was] Antipas my faithful witness, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.” What a solemn conjunction, that there should be close proximity to Satan’s throne without, yet withal the mercy of God still maintaining the fundamental faith of Christ’s own personal glory!
“But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there [men] holding the doctrine of Balaam.” Clericalism came in rapidly after this. The world’s authority brought in worldly objects; and now the ministry became a clergy, a proud and perhaps profitable profession. The framers of this were such as held the doctrine of Balaam. Simultaneously with this of course was the introduction of all kinds of compromise with the world. The clergy encouraged by a misuse of scripture every sort of commerce with the world’s ways; as it is said here, “who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication.” No one doubts that all this is figuratively expressed; but the drift is plain enough where the conscience is not blunted. If the same evils exist, and that which would keep the church as a chaste virgin espoused to Christ is gone, no wonder that these warnings are misunderstood. Worldliness had got in, as it still remains, and, alas! is palliated most by those who owe their professional status to its corrupt and corrupting influence. The unbelief which let in the mischief keeps it in, decrying the true application of the two edged sword now as then. Christians were dazzled by the world’s power and glory, which was put forth doubtless in protecting, not themselves only, but the public faith of Christendom in that day. But none the less did they fatally compromise Christ by alliance with the world, followed by practical return to the circle, out of which grace had taken the saints in order to union with Christ in glory.
“So hast thou also [men] holding the doctrine of Nicolaitans in like manner.” To the angel of the church in Ephesus the Lord had denounced “the deeds of the Nicolaitans”; but now the iniquity in question (antinomianism, we conceive) had become a. doctrine; so that it seems compared with the iniquitous doctrine of the Balaamites. “Repent therefore; or else I am coming to thee quickly, and will war against them with the sword of my mouth.” Thus the Lord was no longer fighting in defence of
His own people, nor was He employing the enemy’s hatred and persecution to nip in the bud or prune evil excrescences. We have seen this just before: a greater trial now appears. Alas! the state of those that bore His own name was such that He was obliged to deal thus sternly with them. Enemies were within. But His coming here as to the Ephesian angel does not mean His personal presence, but His judicial visitation while unseen.
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches: to him that overcometh, to him will I give to eat of the hidden manna.” When the church was snared by the bait of public glory, the encouragement to faith was the hidden manna. Let there be at least individual, even if here unvalued, faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. Some saints might be true to His name, though it was not the time when they were led or forced into the position of a remnant. There was not yet the fidelity that came out from the public body, corrupt as it was. Energy of faith failed for, this; but individual fidelity to Christ was not lacking; where this was, “to him,” says the Lord, “will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and upon the stone a new name written, which none knoweth save the receiver.” To the true heart His approval is enough, nearer and dearer than any triumph before the universe.
Then follows the last of these four churches, but the first where the call to hear is changed. “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write.” One cannot doubt that this letter contains an apt adumbration, as far as could be there in present facts, of what was found in mediaeval times. “These things saith the Son of God, he that hath his eyes as a flame of fire, and his feet [are] like fine brass.” Christ is revealed now, not only in the all-discerning power of moral judgment, but also judicially prepared to act against evil: “His feet are like fine brass.” “I know thy works, and the love, and the faith, and the service, and thy patience, and thy last works [to be] more than the first.” There was here and there devotedness in the middle ages, spite of the darkness and ignorance that prevailed in point of doctrine. But those who loved the Lord showed their love then, not so much by intelligence in His ways as by unsparing and habitual self-denial. One does not surely speak of superstition, either as to Mary or the church when each was made a sort of bona Dea, but of the fruit of looking to Christ however simply.
“But I have against thee, that thou sufferest the woman (perhaps ‘thy wife’) Jezebel.” This was a new kind of evil altogether. It is not clericalism now, nor persons holding the doctrine of Nicolaitans or that of Balaam, but a formed state as the symbol of a woman regularly represents. Examine the use of woman symbolically, and this will be found true. The man is the agent who goes forward; the woman is the state of things (here most evil) produced. Hence Jezebel is the appropriate symbol now, as Balaam was just before. The activity was in the clergy, who brought in base compromise with the world, and sold the honour of Christ for silver and gold, for ease and dignity. The worst, Jezebel, came later. Such was the public state of things produced in the middle ages, and tolerated under the shelter of the Lord’s name, the corruption of former things, and the beginning of new which should go on till the Lord come in person.
“She that calleth herself a prophetess.” It is precisely the claim of the so-called church, the assumption of permanent infallibility, the setting up to be a sort of inspired authority to enunciate doctrine, and to direct discipline beyond error. Is not this exactly what Romanism professes” Does it not then stand in the place of Jezebel? “And teachest and seducest my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols.” All was the fruit of falling from grace long before; but far greater is the maturity now. “And I gave her space that she should repent; and she will not repent of her fornication. Behold, I cast her into a bed, and those that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of her works. And I will kill her children with death.” Jezebel was a mother indeed: a holy mother, said the deceivers and deceived. What judged the Lord? what said those who preferred to die rather than commit adultery with her? This flagrant church-world corruption became now a settled institution. It was no mere transient cloud of error, but a body in the highest worldly position, a queen who also pretended to the highest spiritual power as a prophetess so-called, now permanently settled in Christendom, giving birth to a distinct progeny of profane lawlessness — “her children.” Yet remark the distinction drawn between “my servants,” however misled, and Jezebel’s children. The Lord does not confound the pious who groaned and suffered and the proud that were exalted and persecuted. But sit a queen as she may, the Lord knows how to deal with her and her lovers, and will not spare. “And all the churches shall know that I am he that searcheth reins and hearts: and I will give to you, each one, according to your works.”
“But to you I say, the rest (or, remnant) in Thyatira.” The new fact is here plain. For thus we must read the text and render it, leaving out “and unto.” The common text which gives rise to the current versions spoils the sense. It is to “the rest,” or the remnant, in Thyatira, “as many as have not this doctrine,” that the Lord thus turns. Here we have for the first time the formal recognition of saints not included in the public state of the assembly, yet not so openly separate as was found at a later day. There and then they are a witnessing body more or less in spirit, apart from that which set up in grievous pretension but in profoundly wicked communion with Jezebel; so the Lord judged and stigmatised what man called “our mother, the holy catholic church.” To this remnant He says, “As many as have not known this doctrine, which knew not the depths of Satan, as they say, I cast upon you none other burden but that which ye have hold fast till I come.” Thus the Lord speaks with exceeding tenderness of those that were true to His name. He did not expect great things from them. Can one reasonably doubt that those commonly called the Waldenses and Albigenses, and others perhaps of similar character, are in view here? They were simple and ardent, but with no considerable amount of knowledge, if measured by a fuller and richer testimony which the Lord afterwards raised up. None can judge fairly of them by the abuse and misrepresentation of their enemies.
The Lord at the close gives a promise suited to the condition. “He that overcometh, and he that keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give authority over the nations.” This wicked Jezebel not only persecuted the true saints of God, but sought universal supremacy — a world-wide dominion over soul and body and all things. The Lord bids them in effect to have nothing to do with her, and He will give the true authority when He takes it Himself. Let them abide in the place of patience, even though tribulation arise, as there must be if any are content to endure for Christ’s sake now. “And he shall rule them with iron rod, as the vessels of the potter are broken to shivers; as I also received of my Father. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.” The faithful will share Christ’s authority at His coming, and be associated with Himself in His kingdom. But even this is not enough for grace. “And I will give him the morning star.” This means, not association with Christ in His reign over the earth, but yet more in that which is proper to Him above the world altogether. The heavenly hope of being with Christ before the day breaks is promised, as well as part in His world-kingdom. Only those who watch for Him shall see the Morning Star. All the world must see the Sun of righteousness when He shines forth in His day.
Here the notable change takes place. The call to hear begins to follow the promise, instead of being before it. The reason is that a remnant is here formed. The public state of the church now requires the change. The Lord thenceforth puts the promise first, and this because it is vain to expect the church as a whole to receive it. The address is to the overcomer, who is therefore put before the call to hear. In the three previous churches, as all may notice, the call to hear is first, because the Lord is still dealing with the general conscience of the church. This is given up now. A remnant only overcome, and the promise is for them. The Lord henceforth takes notice of these in His call; as for others, it is all over with their fidelity.
Accordingly, if Thyatira were not made the beginning, as perhaps in strictness might have been best, the division of the next chapter (3) seems not to be unhappy at this point. For there is a marked turning-point with the last three churches. The ground of such a thought lies in the fact that the introduction to Sardis indicates the Lord beginning a new state of things. The ancient ecclesiastical or catholic phase of the church terminates with Thyatira: nevertheless Thyatira has also the peculiar trait that, though the close of the public state of the church, it is the beginning of those conditions which go on till the Lord’s coming. It is therefore transitional. Thyatira, it is hard to doubt, contains within it the mystic representative of Romanism. This can scarce be denied to Jezebel; whilst “the remnant” represents those who, without being Protestants, form a witnessing company apart from Popery before the Reformation. The beginning of the third chapter introduces formally what may be called the Protestant phase of things, after the film stand for God’s word.
Thus we have had the general condition of declension; next the early persecution from the heathen; then the power of the world patronising the church; finally, besides the remnant which in simplicity resisted the evil, we have Romanism, which alone, by the mention of Christ’s personal coming, is supposed to go on to the end. The churches before do not continue. But Thyatira first represents that which abides. This applies also to the churches which follow.
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars.” There is an evident allusion to the manner in which the Lord presented Himself to the church in Ephesus, but with a marked difference. Ephesus was the first presentation of the general public state. Sardis gives the rise of the new state of things, not strictly ecclesiastical — the Lord acting in the way of testimony rather than in that precise order. Hence it is not said here that He held in His right hand the seven stars and walked in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: this was ecclesiastical strictly. But here He “has” the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. He changes not, but does not describe Himself as before. Yet all power, all governing energy, is in His hands, and the seven stars, that is to say, all the instrumental lights by which He acts on souls here below. Let them not look to the world — to the powers that be. “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” Such was Protestantism after the impulse of the Reformation passed. How sad but true! The decline was sure if slow. They did lean on the world; and what can the issue of this be for those who are not of the world, as Christ is not?
“Be watchful, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die: for I have not found thy works completed before my God” Hence what judges the actual state is this, that they have the testimony of God’s word much more fully shall those who had sunk into the mere ecclesiastical formalism of the middle ages. There the word of God had been overlaid and kept away, because the priests and the gospel can never go together in unison. It is, and always must be, the effect of the clerical principle to substitute the authority of man (more or less) for that of the Lord, and to weaken and hinder the immediate action of the Spirit by the word of God on the conscience. One speaks not of individual clergymen, but of clericalism wherever found, Catholic or denominational, nationalist or dissenting. Earthly priests are its extreme expression.
But the Protestant principle is a different one. People may not be true to their principles, and often are not. Has not every one, say they, the right of private judgment? God’s rights were thus easily forgotten. Yet one of the grandest points fought for at the Reformation, and gained for Protestantism, whatever might be its defects, was this; — that man has fairly, freely, and openly the Bible. God’s word is there to deal with human conscience. Men often speak of justification by faith; but even Luther himself hardly got thoroughly clear as to the truth of it. If, on the one hand, Romanists are miserably deluded, Protestants, on the other, do not understand the righteousness of God to this day. They have the truth in a measure, but not so as to clear souls from bondage, or bring them distinctly into liberty, peace, and the power of the Spirit. Had Luther settled peace in his soul, as the state in which he walked, We have many of us heard what conflicts he had, not merely at the beginning of his career, but to the end. Nor do we mean conflicts about the church or its leaders, but about his soul. It is needless here to cite passages from his extant writings, which prove how sorely he was tried by inward conflicts of unbelief. These amply prove how far he was from the calm enjoyment of the holy deliverance of the gospel; but it is an error to impute them to any other cause than a lack of clear knowledge of grace. In such a state all sorts of things may trouble the man, however able or honoured he may be, who cannot without a question rest on the Lord. Assuredly Luther is one from whom we may all learn much; whose courage, faithfulness, self-renunciation, and endurance are edifying and instructive. At the same time it is useless to blink the fact: energetic as he was and used of God largely, he was behind in the understanding both of the church and of the gospel.
In spite of drawbacks, an open Bible was won for God’s children in particular, and for man also. This very thing condemned the state of Protestantism in result; because, while the Bible was freely read, scarce any one thought of forming all upon it or of being regulated by it only. Nothing is more common among Protestants than to admit a thing to be certain and true because it is in the word of God, without any serious intention or thought of acting upon it. Is not this a humbling fact? Romanists are in general too ignorant to know what is or is not in the Bible; for except the common-places of controversy with Protestants, they know little of its contents. Tell them that this or that, however momentous, is found there, and they look amazed. They rarely know it as a whole, having never read it save (?) under the eye of the directing priest, their confessor. The Protestant can read the Bible at liberty, which is a real and precious boon; but for this very reason the Protestant incurs no light responsibility.
“I have not found thy works completed before my God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heardest, and keep [it], and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come [on thee] as a thief.” It is a sweeping intimation of the same way in which the Lord threatens to come on the world. Now if there be in the state of Protestantism one thing more marked than another, it is that they fall back on the world to deliver themselves from the power of the pope or the ecclesiastic. This has ever been the chief snare, as it is now. If even what belongs to the world be touched, they are in no small agitation about it. The church in danger because the tithes are assailed! Why, such wealth is real poverty, and the evident shame of an early lapse into Judaism. What would the apostles have thought of a claim so earthly and opposed to the true and heavenly separateness of Christ’s body!
Let none infer that in saying, this one feels little for saints. Nor is it doubted that it is a great Sin to wipe off all public recognition of God in the world. But leaning on the world has let in the world; and if the godly complain of accrediting unbelievers as the faithful, their leaders are quick to stifle conscience with the cry, We must not judge! But this is not a true judgment of charity which spares no pains to own every saint and to warn that we may win to God sinners. The false start has led to far worse than in earlier days. Impossible to believe that the unblushing worldliness one sees in the modern combination of Dissenters with Papists and sceptics springs from just, holy, or unselfish motives. It is rather to be imputed to the latitudinarian spirit of infidelity, which admits also of a buckling to superstition. Doubtless the infidels hope to gain the day, as the superstitious are no less confident in their hopes. The truth is that the devil will have the upper hand to the destruction of them both, and then find that the Lord will appear in His day for personal judgment of all adversaries, and the rebuke of all unbelief.
The angel of the church in Sardis is warned that if he should not watch, the Lord will come on him unexpectedly as a thief. It is not at all so that His coming is spoken of for His own. These wait for Him in bright hope, without fear for themselves of His thief-like surprise. How can it be such for those who in faith and love look and long for Him? His coming is their joy; and they watch more than watchman for the dawn. The figure of the thief is therefore employed for the sleeping world or worldly-minded souls. Compare 1 Thessalonians 5 with 1 Thessalonians 4; also Matthew 24:43 and Revelation 16:15. If people walk with the worldly in divine things, it is not only that the unrenewed are in danger of being deceived, but that believers lose the joy of their own relationship. The world is attracted by the good words and fair speeches which deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. So solemnly does this language suppose that the assembly at Sardis had passed out of the practical attitude of waiting for the Lord who waits for them. It is an easy transition to pass into great dread of Him as a judge. They had slipped into the world, and share its fears and anxieties. They little knew or had lost the sense of Christ’s peace left with them. Such souls lack the joy of His coming for them to receive to Himself those whom He loves. The unwelcome visitation of a thief would be incongruous if they were enjoying the blessed hope according to His own word, that He comes quickly.
“Thou hast a few names in Sardis which defiled not their garments, and they shall walk with me in white, because they are worthy.” This is said without the enfeebling “even” of the common text, and they are cheered before the promise repeats it. Where the scriptures are read freely, we may look for some real good even in untoward associations. This has been always the case. Precious souls are there, and our happy service is to help them, if we can, to a better knowledge of His grace, — not, of course, to make light of their worldly ways, yet in love to feel for them as the Lord fully does. “He that overcometh, he5 shall be clothed in white garments; and I will not blot his name out of the book of life, and will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.”
In the next place stands a great contrast. “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no one shall shut; and shutteth, and no one shall open.” Every word of Christ’s presentation of Himself differs from that given in Rev. 1. This marks generally the change in the chapter, and especially the part before us. The address to Sardis also, although allusive to that of Ephesus, is nevertheless clearly meant to stand distinguished from it. It is a recommencement, and so far analogous with that to Ephesus; but the manner in which the Lord is presented is not the same. His having the seven Spirits of God is distinct from the first and normal picture. But where is anything here similar to the description of the Lord Jesus given before? It is a new state of things; and in the details of Philadelphia there is far more evidence of it.
The descriptions of the second chapter generally repeat what was found in the vision John had at first seen. The one exception is in Thyatira, where He is described as the Son of God; and this marks the fact of a transition, the beginning of a changed condition. It is a church state in responsibility though not in true power, being an ecclesiastical body which presents horrors to the Lord’s eyes, but not without a remnant dear to Him. This at the same time goes down to the end, and brings in distinctly the Lord’s coming. For, be it observed, the personal coming of the Lord is not introduced in any of the first three; from Thyatira it is, because the condition sketched out goes on till then. It was not so with Ephesus, with Smyrna, or with Pergamum: the only semblance of it is in threats of present visitation. To Thyatira, or at least the remnant there, it is given personally, and to Sardis judicially. But Philadelphia has it in all grace, as a bright and proximate hope.
Indeed to the angel of the church in Philadelphia is prominently brought out the Lord in His moral glory, what He is, not merely what He has. It is now Christ Himself, and this as One that faith discovers in the beauty of holiness, not dependent on the vision of glory seen before, but Christ as He genuinely is in Himself, “he that is holy, he that is true.” But He is also seen according to the largeness of His glory. Absorbed with Him and resting in His love, the heart delights in all that is His. Faith sees that the Holy and the True is the same that has the key of David. Old Testament prophecy, or dispensational truth, can be freely introduced now. It is “he that openeth and no one shall shut; and shutteth, and no one shall open.” His control is guaranteed. “I know thy works: behold I have set before thee an opened door, and none can shut it: for thou hast little strength.” There is perfect liberty now, liberty for worship and service, for every one that would serve the Lord. They are supposed not to be marked by such mighty doings as were before. If Sardis did great exploits, Philadelphia knew nothing of the sort. Are we content to be littler to be of no esteem in the world? never to set up for anything that men wonder at or admire?
Notoriety is not true of Philadelphia, which is rather formed by faith of a rejected Christ. We know of what small account He was to the world; so it is with the saints in Philadelphia. Has this fellowship with Him no price in His eyes? “Thou hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name” Jesus was marked by valuing His Father’s word and loving His Father’s name, the only One that could also truly say to Satan as true of Himself, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” So here the Philadelphian saints are distinguished by the same living in the dependence of faith. In their measure each could say with the apostle, “For me to live is Christ.” To some it might appear a small thing not to deny Christ’s name; but is anything more precious to the Lord? Once it was a question of not denying His faith, as was found in Pergamum; but here it is Himself as revealed. What He is is the main point. Orthodoxy, if ever so real, does not suffice, but His person, though absent on high, and the glory due to Him in our souls.
“Behold, I make [or, give] of the synagogue of Satan, that say they are Jews, and they are not, but lie.” Is not this the revival of that dreadful scourge that had afflicted the early church (as in Smyrna)? Have we not heard of it? And have we not seen it ourselves? How comes it, that for so many hundreds of years only a part of what the Fathers had laboured at sank into the minds of men, a considerable portion being rejected by Protestantism; but now, when God brings out this fresh witnessing, there rises a counter-testimony? Satan revives the old Judaising spirit, at the very time that God reasserts the true principle of Christian brotherhood, and, above all, makes Christ Himself to be all to His own. Here we have for our instruction the fact, that the synagogue of Satan, those who say they are Jews, and are not, revives. How stand the facts, How are they even in this country? What is commonly called Puseyism has this character; and the system is in no way confined to this country but holds equally abroad, as in Germany, America, and elsewhere. In fact it is a fair show in the flesh wherever Protestantism is found; and, above all, wherever this is provoked either by scepticism on the one hand, or on the other by truth that condemns both with any real measure of heavenly light. In order to defend themselves on a religious footing, men fall back on a system of ordinances and of the law. This seems meant by the synagogue of Satan here. They claim sacerdotalism and practise ritualism, both irreconcilable with Christianity.
But the Lord will compel the recognition of His own testimony and witnesses. We do not say when, where, or how; but as surely as He lives will the Lord vindicate the truth He has given as it were back again for His name. Only let us bear in mind that the favour and power vanish when the witnesses lose sight of Christ and preach themselves. May we have grace to merge ourselves truly in Him! “Behold, I will cause them to come and do homage before thy feet, and to know that I loved thee.”
Nor is this all. As we know, there is a perilous time awaiting the world, the hour not exactly of tribulation but “of temptation.” This hour of trial, it seems, falls within the Apocalyptic future, or “the things which are about to be after these things.” It is not merely the time of horrors when Satan in a rage is expelled from on high, and when the Beast, energised by him, rises to his full height of persecuting power, but the previous period of trouble and seduction. “The hour of temptation” is a term larger than the “great tribulation” of Revelation 7, and still more so than the unparalleled tribulation which is to befall the land of Israel (Dan. 12, Matt. 24, Mark 13). If so, how rich and full is the promise, “Because thou didst keep the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of the trial (or, temptation) which is about to come on all the habitable world, to try them that dwell on the earth”? In vain men try to escape. The hour of temptation must come on all the inhabited world. Perhaps some remember when people used to flee to Canada, in order to escape “the great tribulation,” which they expected to fall on the old empire of the Beast revived. But the scheme was a mistake, their flight foolish. The hour of temptation will catch men, no matter where they may hide; for it is about to come on the whole habitable world, “to try them that dwell on the earth.” How blessed to be here a sojourner, whose living associations are with Christ in heaven!
Who then can escape? Those who at Christ’s call are to be caught up to heaven. They will not be in that hour. It is not merely that they will not be in the mace but they will he kept “out of the hour,” of the coming temptation. What a full and bright exemption! Such is the strength of the promise and its blessedness, that the Lord promises His own to be kept even out of its time. The simple and sure way to keep any from the hour is to take them altogether out of the scene. The Irvingites used to talk about the Lord having a little Zoar. How poor and earthly its comparison! It is not, however, a question of geography, or of a distant and secret place of shelter, but of complete removal from the period filled by the temptation coming on all the habitable world. This is worthily secured by translating them to heaven before the time of the world-trial arrives; and this the promise before us imports. The godly remnant of Jews, on the other hand, having to do with a special and fiery but circumscribed tribulation in Jerusalem, have only to flee to the mountains in order to escape, till Jesus appears in glory to the confusion of their foes. It is quite another thing for Christians. How readily errors for the church tale a Jewish shape!
“6I come quickly!” There is not a word about His coming as a thief now, but with joy. The Lord will have revived the true hope of His return; there are those who now wait thus for Christ, and this epistle seems emphatically to apply to such. “I come quickly!” In principle it is true for all that are really faithful. Happy they for whom Christ is all! What association with Himself in glory He promises! Lot it be ours now in faith and patience, yea keeping the word of Christ’s patience. “Hold fast what thou hast, that no one take thy crown.” It is a great grace never to go back from known truth; and none can be so exposed as those who have received much, and of a high order. Watch and pray. “He that overcometh, him 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, that cometh down out of the heaven from my God, and my new name. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.” He will be as much marked by power in the day of glory, as by contentedly dependent weakness in God’s present ways of grace. He suffers with Christ and waits for Him, if not with Him. To be a pillar in the temple of My God is as truly a figure for the day of glory as the synagogue of Satan is a figure now. For literally there is no temple in the new Jerusalem. It is the one of little strength now made manifestly strong in that day and in God’s blessed presence. And thus it is with each promise associating us with Christ in all the scenes of bliss.
There remains the last epistle to the angel of the church in Laodicea; and on this but a few words may suffice. “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.” The church in its responsibility on earth was to be set aside, most of all at the last, for being an unfaithful witness. The Laodicean picture is, of course, most distinct, but seems to be largely the result of dislike and contempt for the testimony that the Lord had previously raised up. If people despise the grace and truth valued by those who truly wait for the Lord, they are in danger of falling into the awful condition here set forth. Certainly here Christ is no longer the loved and satisfying object of the heart; nor is there any such sense of His person as leads into waiting for Him; still less can there be glorying in weakness that the power of Christ may rest on one. There is the desire to be great, to be esteemed of men, “rich, and increased in goods, and in need of nothing.” We find here a state therefore, that leaves ample room for man’s thoughts and ways.
Hence the Lord introduces Himself to them as the Amen; all security lies in the Christ of God. He only is “the faithful and true witness.” This is exactly what the church ought to have been but was not; and therefore He has to take that place Himself. It was so before when He was here below in grace; now He must resume it in judicial power rend glory, than which one can hardly conceive a greater rebuke for the condition of those whose obligation was to be faithful and true witnesses Besides He is “the beginning of the creation of God.” This sets aside the first man altogether, and most justly, for Laodicea is the glorification of man and of his resources in the church. He begins that new work, which God delights in as according to His nature.
“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would that thou wert cold or hot. Thus, because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spue thee out of my mouth.” Being neutral in principle and practice, they were half-hearted toward Christ. Nor is any place more likely to generate neutrality than an outwardly true position, if self-judgment be not maintained with godly sincerity. The more one stands in the forefront of the battle, with the responsible testimony of God, the more His grace and truth are in letter brought out before others, if there be not also walk according to the light, sooner or later comes a lapse back into neutrality, if not active enmity. For heart and conscience are not animated and governed by the power of God’s Spirit through living faith in Christ. Indifference to all that is good must follow; and the only kind of zeal, if zeal can so exist, will be for what is of the first man, worldly, and bad.
This is Laodiceanism. So repulsive does the Master declare it to be, that one need not wonder that most are unwilling for it to be their lot, or that it can be, as it is, the last recorded phase before the church is traced no more on earth. People vainly dream of progress, and flatter themselves. “Thus because thou art neither cold nor hot, I am about to spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and am grown rich, and have need of nothing, and knowest not that thou art the wretched one and the miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked; I counsel thee to buy of me gold purified by fire.” They wanted everything that was characteristic of Christianity: “gold” or divine righteousness in Christ, “that thou mayest be rich”; “and white garments,” or the righteousnesses of saints, “that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness may not be manifested; and eyesalve to anoint shine eyes, that thou mayest see.” They had lost the perception of what God values. All was dark as to truth, and uncertain as to moral judgment. Holy separateness and savour were gone. “As many as I dearly love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and am knocking: if any one hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” The Lord presents Himself even there in His pitiful way to meet their every want
“He that overcometh, I will give him to sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father in his throne. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.”
The utmost promised in the word that closes the epistle goes not beyond reigning with Him. It is not anything special. For every one that has part in the first resurrection reigns with Christ, as even shall the Jewish sufferers under earlier enemies, or later under the Beast. It is a mistake therefore to suppose that it is a singular distinction. For all amounts to this, that the Lord will hold, after all, to His own truth in spite of unfaithfulness. There may be individual reality, even where the surroundings are miserably untoward. But all that are born of God and are Christ’s share the kingdom.
Such is the bearing of the seven churches to which the Lord was pleased to send the letters contained in the second and third chapters. We have found substantial reason and ample evidence in their own contents, as well as in the character of the book itself, to look for a meaning far more comprehensive than only the historical notice of the Asiatic churches then primarily addressed. That John wrote to these seven churches is indisputable; but that no more was meant ought not to be assumed. “The things that are” is an unusual and suggestive expression. The septenary number in itself is significant, and its division into three and four. Again, the order of their contents, as well as their nature severally, points to a continuative inference. There are depicted successive phases of strikingly varied ecclesiastical states, as objects of the Lord’s judgment from the threat on the first till the spuing out of the last. Further it is plain, if certain phases do not abide, that at a given point in their course the language implies that the latter ones continue up to Christ’s coming. From Thyatira inclusively those also that follow, as they successively arise, go on together till then.
Thus one gathers from the internal evidence that the three earlier churches are severed in character from the rest; for though all are alike typical and successive from the apostle’s day, only the last four are used as fore-shadows of the successive states to continue up to the Lord’s advent. The promises to the overcomers in Thyatira, the threat to the worldly-minded in Sardis, the comforting assurance to those that keep the word of Christ’s patience in Philadelphia, and the closing sentence to the angel of the church in Laodicea are clear enough to indicate far more than any past application. “The things that are” in other words are not yet closed; they have not become the things that were Who is bold enough to suppose that the predicted hour of universal temptation is past, or that faithful souls have been somehow kept out of it? Will it be said that the last stage is reached for the church on earth? that Christ has already and definitely spued its final representative out of His mouth? If it be so, ought not every saint on earth to sit in sackcloth and ashes deploring the irreparable ruin? Not a hint is given of restoration when this pass is reached. The next chapter discloses what follows. It is worthy of all heed on our part, if indeed we believe the crisis in Laodicea as well as the promise to him that overcomes in Philadelphia. There was enough in the then existing state of Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea to call forth the Lord’s words; but who believes that each of the epistles to them left no room for a much more exhaustive fulfilment?
From this point we have the Spirit of God leading the prophet into the understanding of (not the church state, but) that which must follow when churches are no longer to exist. Thus it becomes a question of dealing with the world, not without testimonies from God in the midst of gradually swelling troubles; but His witnesses henceforward are of Jewish or Gentile character, never thenceforth of the church on earth. Believers we do see, of course, some of the chosen people, others of the nations; but we hear of no real church condition after the second and third chapters. The Jewish saints are expressly distinct from the Gentile: a state quite incompatible with the church, seeing that it is the essence of its nature that such distinctions within are wholly abolished. For Christ has broken down the middle wall of enclosure, having annulled the enmity in His flesh, that He might form the two in Himself into one new man, making peace, and might reconcile both in one body to God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby. Can there be a more striking proof of the way in which the patent facts of the word of God are habitually passed over than that a change so immense has been so constantly overlooked?
When John sent the epistles to the seven Asiatic churches, what, one may well ask, was there to fulfil the introductory chaps. 4 and 5? Those who look at the seven churches as only past have nothing to say that explains it: all is vague and jejune. Historical authorities are equally at fault. It is the grand and impressive opening of “the things which must take place after these,” that is, “after the things which are” (the sevenfold course of things ecclesiastical). The new things cannot begin till the existing things, however protracted, come to an end. The future is in contrast with the present state of things; but the world-kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ is not even announced till long after in Revelation 11:15, and even then much has to be done before it is established here below as in Revelation 20:4.
Chapters 4 and 5 therefore introduce an interval of the deepest interest, and of all importance to discriminate. From Revelation 6 preparatory dealings of God with men generally (whether Israel or the nations), and with remnants out of both, follow the existing church period, and fill the transition that intervenes before the kingdom comes for the earth in power and glory. Hence we shall find conspicuous among other dates the well-known prophetic term of Daniel under its three forms of a time, times, and a half, of forty-two months, and of twelve hundred and sixty days. But what came to pass, after the letters were despatched to the seven churches in Asia, which accounts for this glorious preliminary vision in heaven which the prophet was caught up to behold? Does it not suppose the total passing away of that church state, which we all believe still to subsist? Does it not reveal, “after these things,” the action of God’s throne by judgments on the world, to put the Lord Jesus in possession of His long-promised inheritance of all things?
The church condition indeed is not, strictly speaking, the subject of prophecy, which deals with the world, and shows us divine judgments coming on its evil, when God is about to make room for glory according to His own mind. Such is the great theme of the book of Revelation. But inasmuch as there were Christian assemblies then, the Spirit of God is pleased to preface it with a most remarkable panoramic view of the church condition, as long as it should subsist before the Lord on the earth. We have seen this given with the most striking wisdom, so as to suit at the time of John, yet also as long as Christianity goes on, always applying and increasingly, not every part at once, but with sufficient light to give children of God full satisfaction as to the mind of the Lord. The churches delineated in these seven epistles are “the things that are,” a phrase which naturally lends itself to continuance. It is not prophecy; yet the letters of Christ afford, as time passes, divine light on the succeeding states Christendom assumes. Nevertheless the coming of the Lord remains thus in God’s wisdom the ever-present and constant hope of the Christian. So indeed the Lord took care to guard against misuse of His parabolic instruction.
Thus the change is immense as a whole, and the revealed details only the more disclose its true nature. There is no vision henceforth of the Son of Man in the midst of churches. No more are churches recognised when “the things which are about to take place after these” begin. Revelation 22:16 is no exception; for this applies only in John’s day, or at most as long as the existing condition abides. It is only in the conclusory appeals of the book, and has nothing to do with the predicted things to succeed the present. Chapter 4 lets us see a quite new sight in heaven after the existing things terminate on earth.
“After these things I saw, and, behold, a door opened in the heaven, and the first voice which I heard as of a trumpet speaking with me, saying, Come up hither, and I will show thee the things which must take place after these things. Immediately I became in Spirit; and, behold, a throne was set in the heaven, and upon the throne one sitting, and the sitter [was] in appearance like a stone jasper and sardius; and a rainbow round the throne in appearance like an emerald. And round the throne [were] twenty-four thrones, and upon the thrones [I saw] twenty-four elders sitting, clothed with white garments, and upon their heads golden crowns. And out of the throne proceed lightnings and voices and thunders; and seven torches of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God; and before the throne as a sea of glass like crystal. And in the midst of the throne and around the throne [were] four living creatures full of eyes before and behind; and the first living creature like a lion, and the second living creature like a young ox, and the third living creature having the face as of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, having each one of them respectively six wings, are full of eyes round and within; and they have no intermission day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy Lord, the Almighty God, that was and that is, and that is to come. And when the living creatures shall give glory and honour and thanksgiving to him that sitteth upon the throne, that liveth unto the ages of the ages, the twenty-four elders shall fall before him that sitteth upon the throne, and shall do homage to him that liveth unto the ages of the ages, and shall cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honour and the power; because thou didst create all things, and for thy will they were, and were created.”
At the epoch where the chapter first applies, the day of the Lord is not come; but a vast change previous to it has taken place, and brought strange sights before the Seer. The scene is shifted from earth to heaven. It is no longer a question of the churches: they are over, and disappear. “After these things” the prophet saw; “and, behold, a door opened in the heaven,” and the first voice which he heard trumpet-like says, “Come up hither, and I will show thee the things which must take place after these things” — a phrase which nowhere in the N.T. admits of the vague sense of “hereafter,” least of all in this part of the Revelation, where it is in manifest contrast with “the things which are.” A brief interval there may be, followed by the things which are about to take place, and must, “after these things” or the existing church status.
For such a sight immediately John became in Spirit; and, behold, a throne was set in the heaven, and upon the throne One sitting in appearance like stone of jasper and sardius. The same stones figure, especially the first, in the glories of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21), where we are helped by its crystallising character. This has induced some to imagine the diamond against all usage of the word. There is no room for such a fancy; for the aim is to show that the jasper here, like the gold — not only pure, but “like pure glass” — is above all nature in its symbolical application. If jasper be naturally semi-opaque, gold is so wholly. Here they are emphatically translucent. As the sardius is fiery red, jasper was not to oppose but strengthen the judicial appearance of His glory who sat the central object of the scene, not on the propitiatory or mercy-seat but upon the throne. He is about to judge the world in the way of providential chastisements with increasing severity, before He sends the Firstborn Heir of all things to bring in the kingdom.
God would judge; but a rainbow round the throne, in appearance like an emerald, indicated that though about to judge unsparingly, He remembered His covenant, not with Israel yet, still less His grace to the saints, but to creation on which many blows must soon fall. For as the issue creation was about to be delivered from the thraldom under which it-as yet groans, and shall be set free from corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. The kingdom of Christ will have it in full joy and peace, before the eternal day when all things are made new in the deepest sense.
Another notable object meets his eye: round the throne are twenty-four thrones, and upon the thrones twenty-four elders7 sitting, arrayed in white garments, and upon their heads crowns of gold. Isaiah saw no such company in Isa. 6; nor did Ezekiel in his opening chapter: Ezek. 1 or at any other time; nor does Stephen hint it in Acts 7; nor Paul in 2 Corinthians 12. Daniel indeed saw thrones set up (not “cast down”); but they were empty. John here and now saw them filled with four-and-twenty elders, the chiefs of the twenty-four courses of priesthood. They exercised priestly functions in Rev. 5:8. But they are a royal priesthood also; they wear crowns of gold and sit on thrones; and their garb is in accord. Can there be a doubt that they are the glorified saints?
Scripture, be it observed, never speaks thus of disembodied souls any more than of angels. The symbolic heads of the heavenly and royal priesthood are complete. From Revelation 4 to 19, when the kingdom comes in power and the enemies are made Christ’s footstool, the number stands unchanged. From first to last are twenty-four elders: there is no addition; whereas, if the souls of saints separate from the body were meant, how many must have, from the day John saw them, been adding continually? The elders therefore represent not the unclothed who depart to be with Christ, but the full complement of those whose mortal was swallowed up by life, the saints of both O. and N. Tests. changed at Christ’s coming and caught up to be with Him in the Father’s house. His coming between Revelation 3 and 4 falls in precisely with the existing facts and the vision of what follows. What else accounts for the disappearance of churches? What else explains the sight of the symbolic representatives in full of the saints destined to heavenly glory, who shall accompany Christ when He comes with His holy myriads to execute judgment against all the ungodly? (See Rev. 19:14.)
Some no doubt wonder that there is no vision of the translation of the saints to heaven, save perhaps mystically in Revelation 12, as we shall see. John 14 had clearly spoken of it; 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 had revealed the different characters of the Lord’s coming and of His day; and 2 Thessalonians 2 had shown their true correlation, in correction of false teachers who sought to alarm by the rumour that the day was come, and in recall of the saints to the hope of His coming and gathering to Him above before that day of terror and judgment for the earth. Hence the sight of the twenty-four elders enthroned and crowned above must convey the clearest proof that Christ had come and taken His own to heaven ere this vision could be given.
Another consideration of no small force in confirming this remark is, that the judicial character of the Revelation excludes that wondrous act, which is one of sovereign grace, and entirely apart from vision of judgments, with parenthetic disclosures here and there of mercy in the midst of judgment. Here we find it not described but presupposed in the plainest way, and so strongly confirmed that any other hypothesis is fairly untenable.
It is not here the Father’s throne, nor the throne of the God of grace. Out of it proceed lightnings and voices and thunders. This is in no way its expression while God is occupied with the gospel of His grace, or now making known to the principalities and authorities in the heavenlies through the church His all-various wisdom according to an eternal purpose which He made in Christ Jesus our Lord. It precisely suits the transition after the saints are caught up, and the world comes under God’s strokes, before the Lord shall be revealed from heaven with angels of His power in flaming fire, taking vengeance on those that know not God, and on those that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus, on Gentiles and on Jews, no church being mentioned on earth (compare 1 Cor. 10:32).
Again the symbol of the Spirit’s action agrees with the change. It is not parted tongues as of fire sitting upon each one, in testimony to all mankind of a Saviour Lord and His work of redemption, but seven torches of fire burning before the throne, the fulness of consuming light and judgment on evil. Still less was it the Spirit descending as a dove and coming on the Lord Jesus here below. Each appearance was perfectly appropriate. So it is here for the judicial dealings of God about to take place in an apostate world.
“We have an altar,” says Hebrews 13:10 to the Christian Jews, “whereof they have no right to eat that serve the tabernacle.” But no altar is in this scene. It was no more needed by those who kind it fully, when the Jews lost it save in form: the saints were in heaven. It is made all the more striking, because the prophet did see before the throne as it were a glass sea like crystal (which glass at that time was far from like). Some have tried hard to divert this emblem from the molten sea for the priests to wash in, but in vain. For it is an allusive contrast of marked significance. Those taken to heaven and glorified wanted “the washing of water by the word” no more. It is a sea, not of water, but of glass (not the material of the vessel, but its contents). This declares that it is not purifying but fixed purity, which never could be true till the saints were all changed at Christ’s coming, as the symbol attests.
Next is seen a more difficult sign to read aright. “And in the midst of the throne and around the throne four living creatures full of eyes before and behind.” The chief creatures of earth and air (not of the sea), which were saved in Noah’s ark, furnished the forms; the lion, the young ox, the man, and the eagle. They were emblems of power, firmness, intelligence, and rapidity, though indeed Each one had six wings, that is, only short of perfection in movement. They were the cherubim, but distinguished strikingly from the manifestations to Ezekiel, and incorporating also the seraphic qualities seen by Isaiah. They were full of eyes, not only before and bellied but round and within; their perception was complete and intrinsic; and they have no cessation day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy Lord, the Almighty God, that was and that is and that is to come. Thus do they celebrate the Holy One, and in His O.T. names of the Lord, the Almighty God, and Jehovah; for here it is so in all strictness, rather than as we read in Rev. 1:4 and 8. “Our” God and Father is wholly absent; as even in chap. 1 the utmost approach was to Christ’s God and Father. For the three preliminary chapters (however full of divine profit, yet occupied with the judgment of the churches) are but the avenue, through the things seen and the things that are, to what was about to take place after these, the proper and strict prophecy of the book.
It is to be remarked that there is dead silence as to angels in our chapter, whereas they distinctly appear in Rev. 5:2, 11, 12. This suggests what solves the difficulty often and largely felt. For the living creatures in themselves present the attributes of providential power in the execution of judgment; but the comparison of the chapters points to change in its administration from the angels who are now the agents to the redeemed who are to be. Hence in Rev. 4 the angels are merged as it were in the living creatures; in Rev. 5 they are distinguished in view of Christ’s co-heirs, to whom and not to angels God will subject the inhabited earth to come (Heb. 2). The rendering of “beasts” in this case is still more unhappy than the belittling of “thrones” into “seats.” It is quite a different word in Rev. 6:8 literally, and elsewhere symbolically.
And beautiful it is to see that, as often observed, the elders sat unmoved on their thrones before the judicial display of God’s glory, and the signs of His displeasure in the lightnings and voices and thunders which went forth from His throne, with all other solemn tokens of coming judgment. But when the living creatures give glory and honour and thanksgiving to Him that sits on the throne, that lives for ever and ever, the elders fall and pay homage, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honour and the power; because thou didst create all the things, and for (or, on account of) thy will they were and were created. It was not only worship, but in full spiritual intelligence. Those that are a new creation in Christ enter into God’s rights as Creator; which earth’s inhabitants, and especially apostate Christians, are about to dispute and deny. Their zeal is in due season and character. For God’s will the whole was in being, as it was also created.
1 It is not without interest to note the singular, which puts together as a mass the future “after these things” “The things which are” we find in the plural, each of them being distinctive in a way not so applicable to the judgments on the world in the Seals, Trumpets, and Vials, which series differ not so much in kind as in growing severity, which is morally just.
2 Erasmus edited
τάχει from his faulty MS.
ταχεῖ, but the Complutensian editors, Colinaeus, and others read
ταχύ, which is as right in ver. 16, as it is here inappropriate. For there is no “quickly” in the Lord’s coming to remove the lamp, though He does come quickly to fight with the corruption of the church.
3 In the lately discovered work (at first wrongly imputed to Origen) of Hippolytus on Heresies, vii. 36, their leader is said to have taught indifference of actions and of meats. But the Bishop of Portus Romanus, like others, may draw only from what scripture implies.
4 Yet that very creed testifies to the mischief already wrought in making the church a ground of faith, instead of scripture only. For the Nicene Creed asserts, not believing in the church, but believing the church — a very different thing. Faith believes God. The church is not infallible, as it ought to be if to be believed. How true it is that “evil communications corrupt good manners”! People might own the divinity of Christ, yet set up the church in a false position.
οὕτως (“thus”) of some very ancient MSS. and versions has needlessly perplexed critics and expositors. No error is more common than the confusion of o and w in the old copies, as here for
οὕτος (“he”). It is emphasised for good reason.
6 “Behold” is not warranted by the best authorities.
7 “Elders” seems a descriptive term eminently in keeping with the heavenly redeemed. For it is appropriated already in Hebrews 11 to the O.T. saints, who though they obtained witness through faith, did not receive the promise, God having foreseen, or provided, some better thing for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Here they are seen together made perfect; and assuredly, if the term is one of dignity, due to those who eschewed the wisdom of the age for the wisdom that comes from above, those who now have the mind of Christ by the Spirit may well be so called too. They are both elders in the sense of firstfruits of Christ before the great harvest that is to follow in a day to come.