The Lord Jesus Christ has sketched in two prophetic outlines, the gradual decline and ultimate apostacy of the professing Church, which he left on earth to bear witness for Him during His absence. Of these sketches one is presented in parables (Matt., chap, 13), and the other in symbols (Rev. chaps, 2, 3). Over both, there is designedly thrown a veil. The Lord Himself tells us they are “mysteries” (Matth. 13:11-15; Rev. 1:20), in which some hidden instruction lies, that does not reach the careless ear: hence the urgency of the Spirit in seven times calling, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches.” The same Spirit promises a blessing to him that reads and keeps the sayings of the book in which these mysteries are (Rev. 1:3; 22:7). To this inspired Book of unveiling—this “Revelation” of Jesus Christ, this book of judgment, we therefore turn.
In verse 2, we are instructed as to the divisions of this Book. They are “the Word of God” as to the future of the present world, described in chapters 4 to 19: and “the testimony of Jesus Christ” in regard to the condition of the Churches that He left to witness for Him. The first three chapters give the Lord’s own judgment of these Churches, and portray their apostacy from Him: the following chapters tell of God’s righteous vengeance coming on apostate Christendom. In the former we have the cause—ecclesiastical abomination; in the latter, at least to chapter 20, the dire and eternal consequences.
In chapter 1 the Lord is seen walking in the midst of the churches, making a personal inspection of them. These seven churches represent, as we shall presently see, the entire decadence of the professing body, in seven panoramic stages, from its first decline in love, onward and downward to Laodicean lukewarmness and indifferentism, with the Lord’s final rejection with utter loathing of the whole thing in full apostacy and corruption The Lord’s attitude, as shewn in chapter 1, as walking in the midst of the seven churches, is significant. “In the midst” is His position in grace, and in relation to the Church as its sole Centre and Life. He, and He only, is the bond of union, the link that binds them in one. Thus His position becomes the test how far these churches have got away from Him, for thus the evil, the apostacy at its germ, in secret is measured. The more closely they cleave to Him, and to His Word, the more will they be as one: the further they get from Him, the more divided will they appear, and all attempts at affiliation and confederation, so long as they are at a distance from Him, is but as the fig-leaf covering of Adam, to hide their sin and shame. If we by any means get away from God, it is not by an organised hiding of our sin that we shall ever recover ourselves, but by a confession of our iniquity and a return to Him first: thus, and only thus, shall we be set right with each other. This, as the symbolic candlesticks shew, is God’s way.
John in Patmos, in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, sees a symbolic vision. Seven candlesticks of gold, and in their midst one like unto the Son of Man, clad in High Priest’s dress, radiant with Divine effulgence. A voice from behind says—“What thou seest write in a book and send it to the seven churches,” and, obedient to the voice, he records the result of that Omniscient inspection, as we have it in chapters 2 and 3. Here one cannot fail to observe a striking contrast to the types of old. In the tabernacle there was a single candlestick with its seven branches proceeding from a centre stem (Exod. 25:31, 32), the bond of their union being then visible. Now, the seer is called to behold seven several candlesticks, but their bond of union is invisible to sight—Jesus Himself. Clearly the seven lights are connected, so must the churches be, for independency is far from being the Divine order of these churches, but their union is through Him. To the eye of sense such various gatherings may appear isolated, because the Lord Himself is not seen as the living link between them, but to faith He is in the midst, not alone as the Centre, but as the Son of Man judging, and by that very position, dealing with the evil at its root, not as men see it, but as it appears before His searching eyes of fire.
The word “angel” is ominous here. It is generally taken to mean the “bishop” by modern Episcopacy, or the “pastor” by Dissent, but no such person is recognised in Scripture, as being in the position claimed. Peter, whose Epistles abound in contrasted allusions to the apostasy, tells us that believers were brought back to The Shepherd (or Pastor) and Bishop of their souls (1 Peter 2:28). There is only One, to whom the Spirit brings, and whose place is that of authority over His flock; all true under-shepherds are “in” (Acts 20:28, Greek) and “among” the sheep (1 Peter 5:2). This term, “angel,” used in the address to each church, reveals how far Christendom has got away from Himself. Paul does not write to an angel or messenger in each assembly: there is no need to employ a messenger to get the ear of one who is close to you. Thus does the Lord indicate the core of the apostasy, here at its very commencement, the stream becoming darker and deeper as it flows on through the centuries to the end.
But it may be asked by some, What evidence is there that these seven messages have a continuous and prophetic application, such as has been indicated above? In other words, that we have here, in these seven churches, a prophetic outline of the history of the church from its first to its last stages, from its early decline to its utter apostacy, and that here the judgment of the Lord is given in startling detail upon each of its downward steps.
First, it is freely admitted that these messages were sent to seven actually existing churches, Ephesus, Smyrna, &c, and solemn indeed it must have been to them to know that the Lord was so near to them searching their ways. But there were many other and far more important assemblies in existence than these seven. Others too which had evils within them, with godly souls contending therewith. Why then these seven? Were these seven churches so particularly sinful beyond all others in the world, both then and since, that they are thus singled out for blame? There is nothing to show that such was the cause of their being addressed as they are, and that such awful and abiding results should follow their departure from the Lord and His way. But the conviction will force itself upon the mind as the details of each message and its connection with that which precedes and follows it is studied, that these seven are chosen as being representative assemblies, and having in them that which would characterise the entire professing body in the seven stages of its decline. Of this the following half-dozen proofs are here given.
1. The number seven is significant: in this book of symbols we frequently encounter it: in connection with the seals, trumpets, vials, spirits, angels, its symbolic character is admitted. Why should it be meaningless in regard to the “candlesticks” or churches?
2. There is a “mystery” enshrined in these messages. If we see nothing but what concerns these seven assemblies alone, we miss the secret they contain for us. Any interpretation, therefore, which ignores this “mystery” cannot be the right one.
3. The symbolic language used in these messages, “Jezebel,” “Satan’s Seat,” “Synagogue of Satan,” “Key of David,” &c, further points to the fact that there is something beneath the surface.
4. Again; each of the seven epistles fits without any forcing into the very place it should fill in the panorama of the prophecy—with inimitable exactness to that period of decline, that very stage of the apostasy, which the case would require, advancing in continuous progress from the first epistle to the last. Can all this be accidental?
4. There is much found in these epistles which cannot be interpreted, and would be scarcely intelligible if their prophetic aspect is denied. Those who believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, and that there is nothing in it without design, whether it be the words chosen to express the mind of God, or whether it be the place these words occupy, will not pass lightly over any hint the Spirit gives. Now, in the first three messages the words, “He that hath an ear,” &c, precede the promise, while from the fourth to the seventh they are placed after the promise. Can this be without design? Archbishop Trench confesses his inability—as others have been compelled to do so before him—to solve this difficulty. Unless these epistles be viewed as suggested, it is insoluble; looked at thus all is plain, for in the fourth and succeeding Churches the mass of profession is regarded as utterly corrupt, and a special number known to the Lord are specially addressed, and His coming set before them.
5. The successive links in the chain of causes is here laid bare by the Lord, the mischief is seen by Him in heart and life, from love’s decline inwardly, and the bold assumption of Nicolaitainism outwardly. In these are the germs of all subsequent evils and ecclesiastical abominations, until at the other end of this prophetic chart there is the warning to the proud, boasting Laodicean, “I am about to vomit thee out of my mouth.” The translation of the Greek name of those seven Churches is in every case an index of the main thought in the message to each.
6. The promises in these epistles are connected and continuous in no less than three ways, and not only tell what awaits the overcomer, but when he comes into actual possession of what is promised. These seven promises form the fullest description found in the Word, of what the Lord has prepared for them that truly love Him and own His Word in the midst of empty profession and abounding corruption, to counterbalance the loss and suffering they must know here as the result of cleaving closely to Christ These promises glance at successive facts in Old Testament history. The tree of life and Paradise looks at what Adam enjoyed before he fell; not being hurt by the second death to the period after sin entered; the third to the wilderness days of erring Israel, and the pot of manna laid up before the Lord; the fourth to the times of the Judges; the fifth, priestly unspotted raiment to the time of Samuel; the sixth to the days of Solomon’s temple; and the last to the time when Israel lost the kingdom, and was overcome by Nebuchadnezar.
Second. In the first promise eternal life is imparted, in the second it is gained in the way of suffering. In the third there is the sense of the Lord’s secret favour, and of the victor’s full communion with Him: the fourth public glory before men: the fifth views the victor owned by Christ as the before angels and the Father: the sixth as a constitutional part of the glory itself:’ and the seventh as seated with the Lord upon His throne.
Third.—The fulfilment of the first promise is at death (Luke 23:43 with Rev. 2:7), the second at the Lord’s coming, the third at the judgment seat, the fourth of millennial rule, the fifth when the kingdom is delivered up, the sixth to the New Jerusalem in heavenly glory, the seventh to the eternal state. Thus alongside in these epistles the gloom of the religious world’s departure deepens into midnight, while the visions of glory ready to burst upon those who are true to Christ and on His side, encourage them to cleave the closer to Him.
All we have to do is to attentively watch the shifting scenes in this inspired panorama, as they pass one after another before our opened eye. In these two chapters we have then a picture of the church—(1) Ephesus, or John’s own day; (2) Smyrna—the times of heathen persecutions; (3) Pergamos—the union of the church and the world; (4) Thyatira—the church in Papal times; (5) Sardis—the era of Protestantism; (6) Philadelphia—our own time— shewing the bulk of professors settled on Jewish principles, a few keeping Christ’s Word and owning His Name; (7) Laodicea—the end,religious democracy.
Scene The First: Ephesus—“Desire.”
Here we have the first stage of the evil. First love is left. There is much diligence and outward zeal, but the heart is not right. The Lord alone can mark spiritual declension in its early stages, because He sees and reaches the heart. His own amazing love is too sensitive to allow this to pass unrebuked. Love can only be satisfied with love. He complains because He loves, and that love of His is unchanged. How long He may have marked this decline ere He spoke none can tell. But in His esteem love is everything. When love to Christ declines, love of the world, though probably covered with some religious pretext, must take its place. This is the root of all evil. The deeds of the Nicolaitanes are hated, for this the Lord commends them. This Nicolaitanism, or clerisy (as is hereafter shown to be), was the root of the evil outwardly, which however with disapprobation they regarded at first, yet continued to be increasingly practised within the church’s pale until it became a settled custom and was accepted as a “doctrine.” Thus early did men begin to pervert the ministry into clericalism and introduce a special caste of men who claimed to be above their fellows. Tin’s at first was highly disapproved of, but as love declined, the practice was less abhorred, until it became a custom and that custom became an accredited “doctrine” (chapter 2:15). The Lord’s presentation of Himself as holding the seven stars in His right hand tells that he has not delegated His authority in the supply or distribution of ministry in the church to any, so that, all clerical assumption is the usurpation of that which belongs to Him alone. The claim to be apostles was the fuller development of Nicolaitanism. In His eyes these two evils, even in their incipient stages allowed, constitutes a “fallen” church, and the call to repentance coupled with a solemn warning shows how the Lord views such a condition of things. The early pages of church history tell how fully these conditions were fulfilled. That Nicolaitanism, or clerisy, with its natural offspring Prelacy, did make progress speedily is shown in the letters of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. If ordinary readers of the New Testament had a full translation of the letters of this audacious man placed in their hands, they would be amazed how far this spirit of clerisy had reached even in that day.
Scene the Second: Smyrna—“Myrrh.”
Here Judaism or Judaised Christianity is seen to be spreading within the church, and the word of reproof—“Thou hast waxed rich,” point to a shirking of the cross and worldly ease. Here also, as effect follows cause, the Lord allowed the enemy to stir up persecution against His own, that they might once more understand His heavenly call. Everything here smells of the crucible and the furnace. Thus the word Smyrna, which means “myrrh,” was used for the dead. Satan’s object was to devour the church, but in this he failed, although he was permitted to raise and continue persecution as the Lord’s means of chastisement to keep His church which was rapidly increasing in numbers internally pure, for there is not so much danger of false professors joining themselves to the Lord’s disciples when the prison, the rack, and the stake are their portion. Here we have one reason assigned, why the wisdom of God acquiesed in that fierce storm of Pagan hatred which raged in the first few centuries of the church, during which Christians were fain to dwell in the Catacombs and worship in the forests and caves of the earth. For ten years commencingwith the decree of the emperor Dioclesian, a.d. 303, till the edict of Milan, a.d. 313, one great unparalleled effort was made by the devil to extinguish the Christian name. In view of this the Lord’s word —“Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee the crown of life,” is a word of cheer to those who in the midst of sore persecution were confessing His Name even unto blood. Judaism—which even in the apostles’ time had found an entrance within the church (Acts 15; Gal. 3.) and was vigorously withstood by them, had made great advances, and is here denounced as “blasphemy”—some saying they are Jews, while in reality they are but a “Synagogue of Satan,” seeking to establish an earthly religion, with a priesthood and hierarchy modelled after the Jewish pattern, as if Christianity were but an expansion of Jndaism.
Scene the Third: Pergamos—“A Tower.”
Persecution had failed to uproot Christianity. The martyrdom of so many of God’s true saints had been the means of overcoming some of the persecutors, and of bringing new bands of Christian converts into the church. As Stephen’s testimony and death had been followed by Saul’s conversion, so had the blood of these martyrs been the seed of the church. Thus as with the first grain of heavenly Wheat, so with those who sprung from it: by dying much fruit was brought forth (John 12:24). This prepares us for the third scene. He is an unpractised warrior who has only one arrow in his quiver. Not so Satan. If force had failed might not fraud succeed. Has Satan never better attained his ends, when robed as an angel of light than when as a roaring lion? If he had failed to annihilate the church, what if he could seduce her by prevailing on her to abandon the line of separation and so of witness for her Lord. What if the church could be induced to accept the overtures of the world and unite her lot with its own, dreaming all the while that she had won the world for Christ. This was what came to pass. It is not to be implied that the church had either retained its first standing or its purity. By this time the ecclesiastical miasma had spread much and had become most deleterous in its influence. By changing his tactics from cursing to seduction, Satan personally disappears, but acts through others, as we see in the Book of Job and in the parables of the wheat and tares. If he cannot uproot he may corrupt: if he cannot hinder he may neutralise the testimony. Here the doctrine of Balaam and of the Nicolaitanes appear, and between the two there is an affinity. The one word means, “Those who conquer the people,” or laity; the other, “Those who devour or destroy” them. After Balaam had failed to curse Israel, we learn from this Scripture that he it was who instigated Balak to tempt them to fornication, with no little success as we learn from Numbers (chapter 25.) Thus were the Nicolaitanes or clericals the instruments in leading the church into unholy alliance with the world, only let it be remembered that it is spiritual fornication in the antitype. The world and the church joining hands and becoming one—Christendom. So in the term Pergamos, there is the Greek word for marriage, and the term itself denotes a tower—Babel. The seduction of Israel by Midian finds its antitype in the church yielding to the overtures of the world. The Lord adjudges all such alliance to be fornication (Rev. 18:3, 9; Heb. 12:6) and adultery (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15). In very few words may be epitomised the ecclesiastical history of the epoch which succeeded that of pagan persecution. After Nero, Antonine and Dioclesian had endeavoured to uproot Christianity, and by means of torture and death to deter others from embracing the faith, Constantine came to the throne. One of his first acts after the defeat of Maxentius was to issue his memorable edict of Milan, ad. 313. Either for ambition or conscientious considerations he avowed himself a Christian. In several pitched battles he overcame the imperial persecutors and became the monarch of the Roman world. The consequences were marvellous. With the vast personal influence of the emperor, the removal of the ban and stigma from the confession of the faith, and the readiness of the great majority of his subjects to accept their monarch’s religion, multitudes began to invoke, the name of Christ and to desire to be regarded as Christians. Thus the world became willing to conform outwardly to the yoke of Christ, while the professing servants of Christ, were willing to meet them halfway and not allow anything like over-scrupulosity to hinder these crowds from being brought within the church’s pale. And so accomodating and anxious to please did the professing church become, that the doctrines of Christ were set aside and Christianity itself first slightly, then fully tinged with heathen notions to suit the teeming mob whose love of their pagan religion had not been extinguished. Although some of the grosser errors of paganism were renounced and the Christian name adopted, because such was the fashion of the court, this must not be regarded as an equivalent to the work of the Spirit of God. Those who are truly regenerated are so, not by the will of man but by the power of God. The church was dwelling “where Satan’s throne is.” The Lord speaks out more distinctly in the way of blame here than He had done before. “Thou thyself hast there (within thee), them that hold,” &c. Antipas—whose name means “against everyone”—represents those who, few in number, were true to Christ and who wept in secret places at the Church’s fatal mistake, and who suffered for their faithfulness. It would be no easy task to stand out steadfast for Christ, and for His Word and Name, in such circumstances.
Scene the Fourth: Thyatira—“Bruised Inscence.”
A glance at the message tells it refers to Papal times and ways. The “woman Jezebel” to the front and not the Man Christ: the apostate Church ruling the world in the Name of Christ. And the information afforded by the Lord as to the character and mode of life of this woman, clearly marks her out as the apostate Romish Church, the seducer of the servants of Christ and the haughty mistress of the world. And her fornication has become an accredited “doctrine;” false prophets are supported in hundreds from her table. And this mystic Jezebel is the mother of “children,” which, according to the law of homogenity, must be “churches” also. “National churches” multiplied, and what was done in the chief cities was eagerly followed elsewhere. The Lord’s true people, “the remnant in Thyatira,” were separate from all this, and as the word Thyatira— which means “bruised incense”—implies, were suffering for their separation and testimony. The Lord encourages such by the hope of His coming and the glory that awaits those who, rejecting the place of dominion in Satan’s world, bear the Cross and await the triumph of Christ’s future kingdom.
Scene the Fifth: Sardis—“Those Escaping.”
Protestantism is here in view. Nations, as such, had their eyes opened to the grossness of Rome’s corruptions, through the testimony of those who by the truth had been separated from her pale. The Gospel was widely and extensively proclaimed, for the Lord had to say “Remember how thou hast received.” Yet many had but a “name to live;” they were puffed up by their newly-acquired knowledge to think themselves better than others, as if the turning away from gross evils, without turning to the living God, availed aught. The Reformation was indeed a work of God, but Protestantism is largely infidel, and out of it will arise the Beast, who will sweep away every vestige of Christianity.
Scene the Sixth: Philadelphia—“Brotherly Love.”
Here, with the succeeding picture, we have our own day. Here the Judaised Christianity is still held fast by the multitude, but a further advance out from it is made by the godly. They are in complete separation from it, keeping Christ’s Word and not denying His Name. Their obedience evidently costs them something; obedience that costs nothing is worth nothing. But He to whose Name they thus bear testimony, sets before them an open door of ministry that no one shut, and cheers them on in their path by the promise that they shall soon be removed to the presence of their God, from which they will no more go out.
Scene the Seventh: Laodicea—“Justice for the People.”
The final rejection of the professing body, by the rapture of the true church to heaven. Things have reached the last stage, a perfect jumble of worldly and sacred things—lukewarmness. And this is not half-heartedness as it is often made to mean, but what is produced by pouring hot and cold water into the same vessel. Plenty of missionary zeal and boasting, religion and pious pretention, with Christ outside it all, with fierce democracy pervading everything. He stands at the door, counselling souls once more to get from Himself the true riches of grace, to be separate from evil, and to walk in the light. The promise is to His own, late as the hour may be, that He will “sup” with those who have a heart for Him. Then He snatches His saints away, marking out at last who are His and who are not. Then comes the Judgment.