We come now to the vision which introduces the messages to the seven assemblies which with it constitute the first part of the book. The second part is similarly introduced by the vision of the fourth and fifth chapters. There is a very evident and characteristic difference between the standpoints of the two. In the one case it is John, companion with the saints in tribulation and endurance, and the scene is on earth; in the other case he is called up to heaven, and the scene is there.
The apostle writes, not as such, but as one in the common fellowship of the martyrs of Jesus, with whom testimony and suffering were linked necessarily together, the kingdom to be reached through tribulation. He being in Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ, the word of God is afresh communicated to him, and the testimony of Christ anew committed into his hands. Is it not the abiding principle, only in a more than usually eminent example, that "to him that bath shall more be given"? Did ever any one find himself so in Patmos without learning something of the revelations of Patmos? Surely it could not be. Joseph becomes in his prison the "revealer of secrets;" Moses in his wilderness banishment sees the burning bush; David in his affliction develops the sweet singer of Israel; Paul gives out the mystery of the Church from the place of his captivity; John follows only in the footsteps of these; and those who have followed him, though at a humbler distance, and with no fresh revelations because the Word of God is complete, have they no unfoldings of the Word, no nearer views of its Subject and Revealer, to more than compensate for the sorrow of the way - rhapsodies though they may seem to those of days of less demand and less enthusiasm? Yet when the apostle puts himself down thus simply as "partaker with you in the tribulation and kingdom and patience in Jesus," does he not expect us also, and invite us, as it were, into this fellowship? and must we not in some true sense be there in order to profit aright by this communication? If we will be friends with the world, can we expect to understand or be in sympathy with the prophet of Patmos? And if it be a Christian world we think of, the words have nothing but an evil significance, if we take the significance from Scripture. But among the many tongues with which for our sins we are afflicted, how few are content to speak simply the language of Scripture!
"I became in the Spirit on the Lord’s day," it should be. It was not simply in the right and normal Christian state in which John found himself, as so many think, but carried out of himself by the power of the Spirit; his senses closed to other things, his spirit awake to behold the things presented to him, and hear the voice that speaks to us also in him. The expression is found again in the beginning of the fourth chapter, at the opening of the vision there.
"On the Lord’s day" does not mean, as some suppose, the prophetic "day of the Lord," for which there is a different expression, and which would not really apply at all to this first vision and what follows it. It is the Lord’s day, the day of Christian privilege, in which in the joy of His resurrection we look back upon His death. Yet this does not surely shut out the looking forward to His coming: "ye do show forth the Lord’s death till He come." This is the only right attitude for the Christian to be in, as one that expects his Lord. And this is indeed why, as it would seem, the voice that John hears speaks behind him, and he has to turn to see the One who speaks to him. His attention is to be directed to the present state of the Church; turned back, therefore, from the contemplation of the coming glory, to what to one so engrossed is a thing behind.
He turns, and sees seven golden candlesticks, or "lampstands," as the word is. They answer in number to the seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, the significance of which we have already seen. They represent, as we are told, the seven assemblies (v. 20), and, plainly, as responsible to exhibit the light of the Spirit, during the night of the Lord’s absence. The reference to the golden candlestick of the sanctuary is evident, and the contrast with it is as much intended for our notice, and should be as evident. The candlestick of the sanctuary was one only, its six branches set into the central stem, and it speaks of Christ, not the Church. The seven candlesticks are for lights, not in the sanctuary, where Christ alone is that, but in the world. And while there is a certain unity, as representing doubtless the whole Church, yet it is the Church seen, not in its dependent connection with Christ, but historically and externally, as "churches." Each lampstand is set upon its own base, stands in its own responsibility, as is manifest. To speak of the Son of Man in the midst as the - visible bond of union is surely a mistake. He is judging, not uniting.
Moreover, it is the Church in the larger, not the narrower sense here. Sardis as a whole is dead, and not alive. Christ is outside of Laodicea. Individually, they are local assemblies, which, as we shall see, stand each for the professing church of a certain epoch, or what in it characterizes the epoch. To see in them but Ephesus and its contemporary churches, as a large mass of interpreters still do, is indeed to be blind, and not see afar off; but the proof as to this comes naturally later. They are golden candlesticks, as set for the display of the glory of God (of which the gold speaks); but this is not what of necessity is displayed by them; they have the privilege and responsibility of it, but the candlestick may be, and in fact is, removed.
But the vision here is not simply, nor mainly, of the candlesticks - the churches; it is of One rather from whom alone they receive all their importance, - - "One like unto the Son of man, clothed with a .garment down to the foot, and girt about at the breasts with a golden girdle." The attire is that of a priest, but not in service, for the girdle is not .about the loins, and the dress hangs loosely to the feet. As Priest, He is therefore a son of man, but He is more; and this the words, "One like unto the Son of man," indicate. Why "like unto" this, if He were indeed only this? The precise expression, moreover, is from Daniel, as what follows unites with it the features of the Ancient of days as pictured there. Thus it is the divine-human Priest, the true Mediator between God and men, as God and Man.
Yet He is not interceding. The characters which follow show Him as when He comes to judge the world, and these are applied, in the third and fourth addresses, to the judgment of the churches. "His. head and His hair were white as white wool, as. snow;" this marks Him as the Ancient of days, the perfection of holy wisdom; "and His eyes were like a flame of fire" - with the same absolute holiness searching all things; "and His feet like unto white brass, as glowing in a furnace" judgment following, as inexorable against evil; "and His voice as the voice of many waters," - the sound of that ocean which reduces man so easily to his. native littleness and impotence.
Such is He who in grace has become the Son of man, but whose holiness is as unchangeable as His love is perfect. All judgment is committed unto Him, because He is the Son of man. The Church and the world alike are in His hand whose glorious uprising will bring, in a short time, summer to the earth. "And He had in His right hand seven. stars; and out of His mouth goeth a sharp two-edged sword; and His countenance was as the sun shineth in its strength." All this exhibits the Lord as just ready to come forth and take the kingdom; it is as if He had left the sanctuary, and were clothing Himself in the cloud with which He returns. And so Scripture, when urging our responsibility upon us, carries us constantly on to the day of His appearing, when the result of conduct will be brought out and manifested to all. There is a wide distinction always recognized between this and His coming to receive us to Himself, with which nothing but grace is associated. This is the time when we receive the fruit of His work; and beautiful it is to see, and unspeakably comforting it is to realize, that first of all - before any thing else, His heart must have its way, and the sufficiency of His cross be shown to set the believer in full, unchallengeable possession of eternal blessedness, before ever a note of judgment has sounded, or a question as to his work been made. And this is plain from the fact of what the resurrection of the saint is stated to be. "It is sown in corruption " - the body of the dead saint; - "it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power." And we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, we shall be changed like them into the image of the heavenly, and caught up together with them, to meet the Lord in the air. Thus incorruption, glory, power, are ours before ever we see the face of the Lord or are manifested before His judgment-seat.
But with His appearing is associated the recompense of works; and thus all exhortations, warnings, encouragements, contemplate this. And so the Lord is seen in the vision here, though among the churches. In this way all is simple, and we cannot confound His being "in the midst of the assembly" with His being in the midst of the assemblies, or seek for principles of gathering in what is of a totally different nature. "Who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks" is the Lord’s own word to the church in Ephesus. How different is the thought of His walking in the midst from His being in the midst as the centre of gathering! Principles of church-order and discipline are not to be sought in the book of Revelation. It is most important to realize that God’s Word, if it be beyond our systems, has a system of its own; and that He has so arranged His truth that His people may know where to look for it, and find it with more simplicity than in fact we do. Each book has its line of truth, distinct from, however much connected with, every other one. The first of Corinthians is the book of church-order and discipline. Revelation is the book of the throne, and divine judgment. And the simplest view of the vision before us agrees with this, which will only be more manifest the deeper we look.
The vision of glory overpowers the apostle: "And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, ‘Fear not.’" How the Christ of the gospel comes out here! What words more characteristic of Him than this, "Fear not"? "Perfect love casteth out fear," and such love is His who speaks, not alone to John in this, but to all who, realizing more His majesty than His grace, would put Him back into the distance and darkness from which He has come out to us. What we are is no more in question; the cross has manifested that fully: all for us lies now in what He is; and the cross has revealed that too. Word and deed witness for Him and unto us, and His right hand of power acts with His word: "Fear not; I am the First and the Last, and the Living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and have the keys of death and of hades."
Here again divine and human characters are mingled. The First is Cause of all; the Last, the end of all. "All things were created by Him and for Him " no expression of divinity could be clearer or fuller than this. Then the Living One is necessarily also the Source of life, - living and life-giving. But this Living One has died, gone into death to become its Conqueror Alive for evermore, He has the keys of death and of hades, - that is, of that which holds the body and that which holds the soul of the dead. Thus man’s condition is plumbed to the bottom, for death is the seal of that condition. Only that which meets the condition can break the seal of it. He, then, who has been in death for us has turned its awful shadow into morning, not to bring back indeed out of its grasp the first creation, but to open for us the door into infinitely higher blessing. The gates of strength have yielded to our Samson, and more: out of the eater comes forth meat, and out of the strong sweetness. How beyond measure is this love of One who, though the Living One, has been in death for us! How rich have we become through this voluntary poverty! And "He who descended is the same also who ascended up, far above all heavens, that He might fill all things."
He goes on: - "Write, then" - with this assurance, - " the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be after these; the mysteryof the seven stars which thou sawest in My right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven candlesticks are the seven churches."
These words give us the division of the book. "The things which are" must needs apply to the seven assemblies and their state. "The things which shall be after these " - not "hereafter," which is too vague, - to the things which follow from the fourth chapter on. This is evident, whatever view we take of the interpretation of these sections. With the first of them only have we to do here, - "the things which are," or present things.
Present, then, in what sense? present at that time merely, and now long past? or, as many now consider, present still? Do the addresses to the churches give only such lessons for us here today as must necessarily be found in what is said to Christian gatherings of by-gone days by One who with perfect wisdom, knowledge, holiness, and love speaks to just such as we are? Or is there, beside all this, as many believe, a more precise, designed correspondence between these seven Asiatic assemblies and as many successive periods in the history of the Church at large - a prophetic teaching for all time, until the Lord come, and our path here is ended? Let us look briefly at what has been urged as to this latter view.
Against, it has been urged that the addresses are not given as a prophecy of the future, but simply as to churches then existing, now long passed away. This is undoubtedly the most forcible objection that has been made; for imagination is unholy license in the things of God, and the addresses have not the general style of prophecy, as must be admitted. We do right, then, to be watchful here.
But answer has been made to this: in the first place, that at the very beginning of the book, we have the whole of it called a prophecy: "Blessed is be that readeth and they that hear the words of the book of this prophecy, and keep the things that are written therein." It seems, therefore, that we have distinct warrant for holding the addresses to be prophetic, and that we should rather require it for refusing them this place.
Beside this, the disguise which confessedly they assume may be accounted for. The Christian’s privilege and duty are, to be always expecting his Lord. He who says in his heart, "My Lord delayeth His coming", is a "wicked servant." There was to be room for this expectancy, as the best help against discouragement, the most effectual remedy against settling down in the world, the best means of fixing the eyes upon Christ and things above. This was not to beget false hope or encourage mistake, for the time of the Lord’s return they were assured they did not know: "Watch, for ye know not when the time is." But thus to put before men - a prophecy of a long earthly history for the Church - would be to destroy what was to be a main characteristic of Christians, to take out of their hands the lamp of testimony to the world itself, the virgin’s :lamp lighted to go forth to meet her Lord.
And it is blessed to see that now, if, in the end of the days, the full meaning is being revealed, and we are shown how much of the road we have actually traveled, the effect is, after all the long delay, to encourage expectation, not to damp it. That we are nearing the end is sure; that any part of the road remains before us to be trodden, we have no assurance. The very thing which to past generations would have been an evil too fully to disclose is now for us as great and manifest again.
For the prophetic view is further urged the constant emphatic appeal to our attention with which every one of these addresses ends. Was it only for men of that day and place that it is written, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches"? No part of Scripture is so emphasized beside. Again, are there no candlesticks amid which Christ walks except those of these Asiatic churches? The very number 7 is characteristic of this book, as it is significant of completeness also. As the seven Spirits speak of the complete energy of the one blessed Spirit, do not the seven churches stand for the varied aspects of the one Church of God on earth?
And to them as representatives of this one Church is the whole book committed, - not for their own use merely, but for ours. As John is. the representative servant, so the churches are representatives of the Church.
But the great proof of the correctness of the prophetic view is (what as yet it would be premature at any length to enter on,) the real correspondence between the picture given of the seven churches and the well-known history of the professing church. We have the successive steps of its decline - first hidden, then external; the judaizing process by which it was transformed from a company of saved and heavenly people into a mixed multitude uncertain of heaven, clinging to the certainties of earth; away from God, and committing the sacred things, for which they are too unclean, to an official class of go-betweens. Then open union with the world, once persecuting, now Balaam-teachers for hire promoting and rating it. Then the reign of Jezebel, inspired - and infallible, her cup full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication. Then Protestantism, soon forgetting the things which it had heard, sunk into its grave of nationalism, though with a separate remnant as ever, dear to God. Then an era of revival and blessing, the Spirit of God working freely, outside of sectarian boundary-lines, uniting to Christ and to one another. Then, alas! collapse and threat of removal, Christ rejected and outside, the lukewarmness of water ready tq be spued out of I-us mouth. Such is the picture: does it appeal to us? In the midst of all this, in the central church, the centre of the darkness, at midnight surely, there begins a cry, faint though at first, but gathering strength as the time goes on, "Go ye out to meet Him!" In Thyatira first, "Hold fast till I come!" To Sardis, "I will come on thee as a thief." To Philadelphia, - more as in haste now, - " I come quickly." Then - Laodicea, and the end!
Does this appeal to us? What follows then? Briefly: a scene in heaven, and a redemption-song before the throne; a Lamb slain, who as Judah’s Lion unseals the seven-sealed book; churches no more on earth, but once more Jews and Gentiles; and out of these, a multitude who come out of the great tribulation; until, after the marriage of the Lamb has taken place in heaven, its gates unclose, and the white-horsed Rider and His armies come Out to the judgment of the earth. This to many even yet may read as strange as any fiction. I cannot of course enter on it now. But there are those who object that by this view the relative importance of events is quite inverted. Two chapters give us the whole course of christendom; the largest part of the book by far is taken up with the details of some seven years after the Church is removed to heaven: why so rapid a survey of what so immediately concerns us ? - so lengthy a relation of what will not take place till after the saints of the present time have passed from the scene?
But how often are we mistaken in the relative importance of things! God seeth not as man seeth; and the common view which appropriates seal after seal to the succession of Roman emperors, trumpet after trumpet to the inroads of Goths and Vandals, vial after vial to the French revolution and Napoleonic wars, has surely missed His estimate of importance. But more: the events which fill so many chapters have indeed for us the very greatest significance. The time is that "end of the age" which is the harvest of the world; it is the judgment for which all around is ripening, and in which every thing comes out as He who judges sees it. Is it not for us of the greatest possible moment to see that final, conclusive end of what is now often so pretentious and delusive? Here we may surely gather, if we will, lessons of sanctification of the most practical nature. Indeed we are sanctified by the truth; and whatever is of the truth will sanctify.