The Times of the Gentiles
We have purposely dwelt on the similarity of these two epochs in history because they help us to understand more fully the meaning of this series of letters. We have pointed out that they run parallel with the whole history of man as unfolded in the Old Testament. Ephesus begins with the Paradise of God and the Tree of Life and Laodicea ends with the condition of things into which the Lord Himself came, to begin something wholly new. But man, whether in the Old or the New Testament, is a failure, whether under law or grace indeed whatever his privileges or responsibilities, he is ever the same, a complete failure Of course this in no way touches the question of salvation by grace. God will triumph in the accomplishment of His purposes in spite of all that may oppose, but the question raised in these letters is, will man maintain a testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ in its pristine power and glory when he is called on to do it? The answer to this is an emphatic No. It is well to keep these two principles distinct in our minds, that is, the purposes of God which must succeed, whatever man may do, and the responsibility of man when God has called him to a certain place of testimony, which has always ended in failure.
This, we believe, is emphasized in this letter by the manner in which the Lord introduces Himself. He says, “These things saith the Amen, the Faithful and true Witness, the beginning of the creation of God.” Every word here is significant. Let us notice them in detail. The first one is “the Amen.” This is a word frequently used in the Word and its meaning seems to be that the Lord Jesus is the real guarantor of the accomplishment of all God’s promises. Whatever has been entrusted to man has been basely given up by him and so He turns back to Himself, so to speak, and finds relief in the thought that nothing will fail of being carried out, for He has underwritten them all and will see to their complete fulfillment. Then in close connection with this is the expression, “the True and Faithful Witness.” How full of meaning this is in this place!
Israel was a witness for God in the midst of a heathen world but instead of testifying to the living God against the abominations of the heathen, they were themselves perverted to idolatry and “the name of God was blasphemed among the Gentiles through them” (Horn. 2:24). The Church of God was called to be a witness, not only to a living God but to a Saviour God, but, alas! its testimony was no better than the testimony of Israel. This is disclosed in this portion of the Word. So the Lord thinks of Himself and finds relief for His own heart and surely gives relief to ours when He speaks of Himself as the “true and faithful Witness.” Never did He fail in one particular but shone more brightly, the more the trial called for faithfulness. And last of all, “the beginning of the creation of God.” Surely this, too, is in contrast with what is before Him in this, the last phase of the Church as His lampstand. Everything up to this time had, so to speak, a measure of responsibility resting on the first man. It is true that the Church is a new creation, but this does not touch the question of its responsibility to be a witness to the Lord. And its witness was to a new creation and the hopelessness of the first man. But, alas! it soon departed from that testimony and began to glorify the old creation, thinking of grace only as an aid to man, not the complete setting of him aside and the substitution of Christ, and a new creation. Christ became largely an aid to the rehabilitation of the old creation and so of course men would and do value what will help things in the world. But the testimony committed to the Church is one that sets the first man aside wholly and brings forward a new Man in the glory. This does not suit man, however, and, alas! the Church to placate the world and obtain its favor would tone down the truth as to this and instead of a new creation, would speak of what might be done to help the old one. And it has to be admitted, too, that much has been done for the world by the Church in this way. It has introduced new ideals into the world in presenting the Lord Jesus Christ and these ideals demand the homage of men and indeed receive their approbation at least. Hospitals for the sick, homes for the aged and indigent, and indeed every form of practical benevolence found in the world today are found only where the Name of the Lord has been preached. But to make this the chief object of its testimony is to falsify it, for these things are merely secondary and the paramount purpose may be easily forgotten or neglected in the pursuit of these secondary aims. The church of Rome may point to its institutions for the relief of suffering humanity and hide under these things its betrayal of the Lord Himself, and there is ever this danger in any period of testimony, but here the Lord reminds the church of the Laodiceans that He is the beginning of the creation of God. Nothing will take the place of testimony to Him first of all and we feel that this title He gives Himself is a very suggestive one at this time.
It may be that in the letters of chapter three of Revelation there is not the same development of evil as is to be found in the letters of chapter two. This is what the Old Testament would teach us to look for. We have already called attention to it. In order to be clear as to this, let us remind ourselves again that Israel had a remnant history, and the evils that were rampant in the people in their history before the captivity are not found in those who were restored from Babylon. But the underlying principles of sin are the same and so we find in the remnant no heart for God, in spite of the fact that idolatry seems to have completely disappeared from their midst. So in the Church. While in Rome which we regard as the height of departure from God’s path there is a deliberate substitution of the Virgin Mary and the saints for the Lord Himself, we would not look for this gross condition in the remnant that came out from this system. What we might look for would be the same want of heart for the Lord but not the outward turning away from Him found in Rome. And this is exactly what we do find. The Laodiceans are self-satisfied and the Lord is vainly knocking for admittance among them. Apparently they do not miss Him at all and seem quite content without Him.
Shall we try to identify this state of affairs, or shall we say that it has not yet arrived in such finished form as to be perceived? Gladly would we take the latter course if we could, but alas! we feel that we must not rest in the pleasing illusion that we are Philadelphians if perchance that illusion may be the very mark that shows us to be really Laodicea. Let us reflect a little at this point, and ask ourselves a few questions that may help to clear the matter up in our minds. The first question then we would put to ourselves is this, if the condition of things depicted in Philadelphia should fall into decay, what features would it display? Another question is, how many generations does it take to bring about decay in a testimony? Let us try to answer the last question first. For an answer to this we must turn to two passages that we think will throw light on the subject. The first one is the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God took up Abraham and committed to him a testimony, which he maintained with more or less faithfulness to the end. In the course of nature that testimony fell to Isaac, who maintained it too with a measure of faithfulness but with far less vigor than his father, Abraham. Then followed Jacob, and we may safely say that had it not been for a direct intervention on the part of God, the testimony would have been utterly lost. But that it might be continued in power God took up Jacob and put him through various experiences that fitted him to be the vessel of testimony when his father, Isaac, had finished his course. Again we are told that when the people of Israel went into the land of Canaan they “served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua who had seen all the great works of the Lord that He did for Israel.” Then it is added, “And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which He had done for Israel. And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served Baalim: and they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods” (Judges 2:7-12). So it took but three generations to develop apostasy. And this is the history of man.
Our object in noticing this in such detail is to use it in a suggestive way in considering the change from Philadelphia to Laodicea. How many generations would it take to develop Laodicea from Philadelphia? Let us take it for granted that Philadelphia is the Lord’s own picture of a movement which took form about one hundred years ago and then ask, in the light of all we have read from the Word as to man’s failure, what should we expect to find its condition to be with the lapse of this period? Are we going farther than we are warranted when we say that Laodicea is exactly what Philadelphia would become if departure should go on to its end? For ourselves we are persuaded that this is the exact meaning of Laodicea. It is idle to think because we maintain the form that the truth in Philadelphia gave to activities among saints, that we are entitled to claim the Lord’s approval of our state. Not for a moment would we write or speak slightingly of the Lord’s ordinances such as baptism or the breaking of the bread, but if these become mere forms without any exercise of heart that the Lord should have His place in our affections, then it is of little value to Him. If the knowledge of the truth that has been recovered in the last century leads only to self-satisfaction with a supercilious attitude towards those who do not know as much as we think we know, then Laodicea in principle has come. In fact we do not know how Laodicea could originate save in the decadence of Philadelphia.
Let us turn to the Old Testament again for help. When the people of Israel were in Babylon, Daniel bowed before God in prayer for restoration. In his prayer there was a complete confession of the sin that had led to their captivity. He did not exempt himself from the general guilt but in the fullest way identified himself with his people as one of them. Read the prayer in the ninth of Daniel. He says, “We have sinned,” not “they have sinned,” And it was this prayer that was answered when God moved on the heart of the King of Persia to let them go back to Palestine to build the house of God. And this spirit of confession and humiliation before God marked every one who was a leader in this movement. For instance, when Ezra reached Jerusalem and found that things were going badly, he immediately cast himself down before God in confession and self-judgment of the deepest kind. Not only so but his example was infectious and we are told that the people gathered around him and joined in the exercise of self-judgment and confession. Read for all this the ninth and tenth chapters of Ezra.