Present Things

The Seven Churches - or four of them, anyway
From "Present Things"


The ebb-tide of ruin can be stemmed by no hand of ours, and this feebleness of ours may seem an available plea to withdraw us from responsibility as to it. But not so teaches the word of the Lord. Our associations are here distinctly recognized as part of our general condition. We are to "depart from evil," not be unequally yoked with unbelievers, purge ourselves from vessels to dishonour, and follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart. For association with evil we are therefore ever responsible. It may be said that such principles, carried fully out, would involve a very narrow path and a wholesale giving up of spheres of usefulness. But be it so or be it not so, it is not ours to choose. Our path is defined for us. "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams; for rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness as iniquity and idolatry." Yes, "rebellion"! How gladly would we call an obedience limited by our own wills by some lighter name than that! Yet what else, in truth, was that which brought out Saul's true character, and lost the kingdom to him and to his seed forever? What he left undone was a mere trifle to what he did. And the sheep and oxen had been spared to sacrifice to the Lord. What fairer excuse have people now to offer for much disobedience - evil plausibly intended to bring forth good? And how hard is it to understand that which we may obey in much that in fact costs us little, the true test of obedience is just in that in which we are called to renounce our wills and our wisdom, perhaps to forfeit the esteem and companionship of others, by doing what has only the Word of God to justify it and must wait for eternity to find right appreciation! Patience, too, is apt to degenerate into a toleration, more or less, of evil. Finding it on every hand, and no where perfection, the very contact with it is apt to dull the spiritual sense. Charity would fain put also the mildest construction upon every thing. We are bidden to "take forth the precious from the vile," but we learn to tolerate the vile because of the precious. We become liberal where we have no right.

The decline of the Church opens the way for the power of the enemy to display itself; and the assault is a double one - from without and within at the same moment. The result is, however - very different in the two cases. The outside assault is failure, for it is impossible that the Lord should leave His saints to be subdued by power beyond their own; while the defeat of Satan's wiles is another matter. Here they must put on the whole armour of God, that they may be able to stand in the evil day.

The fresh truth calls for fresh confession; costs, and is meant to cost, something; brings its confessors into opposition to the course around them and separates at once from those whose only desire is to go with the stream, and with whom the profession of Christ and the cross are widely separate.

Doubtless the division may separate between true Christians themselves; and this is in itself an evil, that true Christians should be separated; but the responsibility rests with those who are not quick-eared enough to hear God's call when it comes, - not single eyed enough to discern the path in which the Lord is leading his own. We are bound, by the honour we owe to Him, to maintain that His own in contradictory paths - cannot possibly refuse the needed light to walk aright, however simple or ignorant the soul may be. No one strays and no one stumbles because God denies him light. But "the light of the body" practically "is the eye" - the inlet of it, and there the hinderance is. Thus a severance, sorrowfully enough, is made between real Christians; but the sin of it is not with those who separate from that which God has shown them to be evil, but that with those who remain associated with the evil which is forcing out the true in heart. Separation from evil, so far from being a principle of division, would, if honestly followed, make for unity and peace, as leading upon a path where God's Spirit, ungrieved, could really unite and strengthen His people. With evil He cannot unite; and this, indeed, therefore, wherever admitted, is a principle of division.

It is not schism, this separate path, when not my own will leads me, but His Word and Spirit! It is not separation in heart from brethren, if Christ be dearer to me still than they. Nay, love to them approves itself only thus, as the apostle teaches us, "when we love God and keep His commandments." (I Jno. v. 2.)

Faith's victories are not in applause wrung from a multitude, but in the path of One, true Joseph, separated from His brethren; and God has overruled the presence of evil (which, I need not say, He has not caused) to the giving us a path at least in its circumstances, the more Christlike. We are not left to the subjection to evil: He calls us to rise above it. The difficulties of the path are only to carry us through them all. Every encouragement throughout these epistles is held out simply to the overcomer. The Lord gives us only the needed energy. The time is short: the end is at hand.

It is the voice and Person of Christ, which are here controlling, and he who is thus controlled is upon a path of unlimited progress and unspeakable blessing. The clue-line is in his hand, which will lead him out of all entanglements, from truth to truth, from strength to strength. There is but one condition here, and that Is, manifestly, that he "holds fast" the clue-line. If he drops this, progress is at an end, his path becomes devious. Alas, it is a rare thing for those who have begun in the Spirit to be made perfect by the flesh?

And the character in which he displays Himself is that of holiness and truth; for there is no way of nearness to Him but by separation from the evil that He hates, and being formed by the truth which He reveals. The Word is separative and formative. The mark of its reception is, the abandonment of all iniquity, marked as such, not by the common conscience of men, but by the Word itself. This is the sign of entrance into the sanctuary - of the presence of the Lord realized, when in His light we see light.

Absolute truthfulness is rare indeed. The penalties attending it are so many, often to be escaped by so slight a swerving from the strict path, - a path often so lonely and without sympathy, and so barren as it might seem in its isolation. Even to Christians, Christ often appears to have deserted it. And then after all to break down there! and what so likely as to break down? In this way we may connive at self-deception; for what do all these reasonings amount to, but that the path is to be a path of faith to us now as it ever was, and difficulties are to be as ever the test of faith?

Our eyes must be upon the path and the Leader. Success, where it seems fullest, must be tested rather by the future than the present - rather by eternity than time; and he who follows it most will be most distracted by other voices than His who speaks here. What tempter lures indeed the servants of Christ like this? For how many does success, rather than the Word of God, sanction their measures, while alluring them into direct opposition to the Word! If even gained in true obedience, how often does the flattery of great achievement unbalance a soul which adversity could only school to more endurance! These things are but common-places of experience; and in view of them, we need not wonder if God has, in general, been sparing in measuring out to His people great success.

A little strength He marks and approves; yet it is but a little. No Pentecostal energy revived, no faith that can move mountains, shall we find here. The "day of small things," in the Christian as in the Jewish history, is not at its beginning, but at its close. It is a great mistake to confound the day of Ezra with the day of David. And although it may be said, and truly, that eternal life and the power of the Spirit know no decrepitude, yet our day and generation leave their imprint on us. They should not; we are not blameless in it; yet they do. Still "a little strength" is here approval.

And how is this marked? Surely in what follows, -- "Thou hast kept My word, and not denied My name." It is not in gifts restored to the Church, as some claim now; it is not in ecclesiastical position, nor in numbers, nor in place among men; -- In none of these things is there strength before God, but in obedience and devotedness.

An immense thing it is, in a day like this, to be keeping, with an exercised heart, the word of Christ! Not a word here and there; not following it until the cost may be too much; but through honour and dishonour, through evil report and good report. For is there right obedience any where, when there is not in our purpose obedience every where? Can He whom we serve accept a compromise to His own dishonour, when we really tell Him we will do this, but not that, at His bidding? Solemn questions these, which may His grace keep ringing in our ears, until they wake up only harmonies of joy and peace within our souls, and not self-accusation.

Let us understand that keeping Christ's word means, if it means any thing, honest subjection to the whole of it: to that of which we may not even perceive the importance, as if we did; calling nothing little which He enjoins - of what has equal authority with the weightiest to emphasize it for us. Herein is often the truest test of a right spirit in us, when we obey not in uncertainty, but in darkness; and go out upon His leading, not knowing where.

We have need to remember, too, that our own contrary wills are often the most effectual hinderances to receiving what is really Christ's word. How solemn it is to think that of the mass of things in which we differ from each other as Christians, this contrariety must needs account for very much the larger part. The Lord's words are plain enough, and universally applicable, that "if any one will do God's will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God." It is due to Him to own that as the blessed Spirit of God could not lead into contradictory beliefs, these differences must be of us, and not of Him. But then, found as they are in so many whom we must esteem as godly men, what a warning they give us of how much that is not of God, - of real insubjection - may be found even in such. So far as we have indeed whole-heartedly followed Him, who can doubt that He has led us right? But then how little really unreserved following of Him there must be after all!

And who can measure the loss even now and who then can measure the eternal loss, when we thus let slip communion with Himself? And how many are trying to win it back, or make up for its absence by filling their hands with work for Him, as if they were almost persuaded that "to obey is" not "better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams."

How plainly perceptible it is when a soul reaches the barrier line beyond which he will not go! Activities may go on, and the whole outward man be no other than it was, yet there is something gone from the soul which at once one with God will discern as hindering fellowship. How sorrowful to lose one another's company this way, while yet perhaps the feet go on together! But if we lose Christ's companionship, what shall replace it?

Alas! in our day it is not "union is obedience" that is the motto, but "union is strength;" and for whatever purpose men may have, they combine. Strength of a certain sort is found, no doubt; but it is not where he found it who says, "When I am weak, then am I strong;" "I can do all things through Christ, who strengtheneth me."

Let us take heed, then, that we be true Philadelphians. Tested we shall be assuredly all round, and in different forms if the spirit be not different. The Word here is the assurance, is it not? For the faith that might quail and question as the results of the trial become apparent. Not now, but by and by, things shall be manifested, and where Christ's heart is shall come out openly.

More decisively now He announces, "I come quickly." The day of grace is running out with the day of patience. Soon it shall be Christ's presence and glory. The centuries of delay have come to years, the years are soon to be months, the months days, the days moments. "I come quickly:" this is to be shown in its power for the soul by its keeping the exhortation, "hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown."

But all shows it to be a time of drift, - a time of declensions as well as revivals: overcomer is he only who holds fast. The Spirit of God moving, the Word manifesting its power, conscience responding; yet every where the ebb after the flow, the trial which sifts, separates, individualizes. By and by comes the terrible back-flow of Laodicea. Think not Philadelphia is a haven of refuge where we may lie at anchor and never feel it. Not so, - oh, not so: this is the fatal delusion of Laodicea itself: "Hold that fast which thou hast!" The tug, if it has not come, is coming: hold thou fast!

But to what? - hold what fast? The word, and the name, and the patience of Christ. Not the word of even the leaders of God's raising up. The truth must ever commend the man, never the man the truth. One great danger is, lest, having begun with the former principle, we slip into the latter. Even the truth they teach is not truth received till it has been gotten at the Master's feet and in communion with Himself, - till you can hold it, not with the eyes shut, but with eyes open, - till you can maintain it for truth against the very instrument used of God to give it to you. if need be. "If WE, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed."

Then, HOLD FAST! When it is no longer a question if it be the truth, but only of its consequences. Hold fast: though those who have held it with you, or before you give it up; though it separate you from all else whomsoever; though it be worse dishonoured by the evil of those who profess it; though it seem utterly useless to hope of any good from it: in the face of the world, in the face of the devil, in the face of the saints, -"hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown!