The Times of the Gentiles
The Things Which Are
Rev. 2 and 3
Sardis, A Picture Of Protestantism
When we reach this point we feel that we have gotten to modern times and to responsibilities for today. Because what is now before us is the judgment of the Lord on what we call the Reformation. The Lord presents Himself as having plenitude of spiritual power first of all. We know of course that there is only one personal Holy Spirit, but in this prophetic book full of symbols, we may expect things to be presented in a manner of its own. Seven Spirits simply means the one Spirit in the fullness of power and wisdom. Seven stars is probably an allusion to the fact that as the Spirit of God works and manifests Himself in and through human vessels, He produces certain results and these vessels in whom He has wrought are the seven stars, the angels or unseen representatives of the seven churches.
We must remember here that what the Lord judges is not His own work (for that would be judging Himself), but the result of His work when committed to men to maintain. He did not judge man in innocency, because there was nothing to judge, but when man became unfaithful and left the place of innocency in disobedience, then of course God must judge. So with the Church. Our Lord did not begin to judge the Church until it had fallen, as He describes its condition in the first letter, that to Ephesus. So with the mighty revival generally called the Reformation. He does not judge what He wrought in that great movement, but He does judge the response that men made to that wonderful forth-putting of His power. This is, we conceive, the difference between the thought of the Seven Spirits and the seven stars (the seven Spirits speaking of the infinite energy of God and the seven stars of the result of that energy in the human vessels in whom He wrought).
With this principle before us, let us think first of the blessed work of the Spirit of God at that wonderful time. It is said that the word “Sardis” means “those escaping,” and if this be its meaning it is most suitable, for the snare of Satan in Thyatira had held them captive in a dreadful way. And indeed only God would open up a way of escape. How did He do it? In other words, what was that great work we speak of as the Reformation? We know that its net result was to put into the hands of the people again the blessed Word of God, the Bible. We must not dwell on all of the many combinations of circumstances that, in the providence of God, were used to bring about this notable result, but it is almost necessary to refer to some of them.
For centuries before, the Bible was to all intents and purposes an unknown Book among those who called themselves Christians. Neither the clergy nor the laity knew its contents, although it was claimed to be the foundation of all their doctrines and practices. This period is generally referred to as the Dark Ages, and well it is so named. Few people could be easily imposed on. The circle of those who were educated was a very limited one and reading matter was of the meagrest for every bit of literature had to be laboriously copied out by hand and there were few who could afford those precious manuscripts. But the time came when movable type was invented and the art of printing came to the fore, and naturally this led to the multiplication of books and with it arose a passionate desire to read them on the part of nearly all classes. God had said again, “Let there be light,” and there was light. No longer could people be imposed on in the wholesale manner in which it had been done for centuries, for knowledge was now increased and this constituted at once a menace to the power of the Papacy.
But all these things were merely the outward circumstances that in the Providence of God contributed to the emancipation of many from Rome and its tyranny. There was going on in souls at the same time a work that stirred the whole being of those affected by it. Men were agitated over the most profound and moving question that can stir a human soul, and that was, “What must I do to be saved?” And just as in the early days of the history of the Church as recounted in the Book of the Acts, the Lord, when He needed a man for a special work, picked out a strong character like Saul of Tarsus, so now He laid hold of men of great natural ability and dauntless courage. Among those whom He called to Himself at this time was a brave and honest man who lived in Germany, a devoted son of the Church. His name was Martin Luther, and with him the Spirit of God dealt in a very real way, arousing him to a keen sense of his responsibility to God and his own sin and weakness. With the most brilliant prospects before him he turned away from everything of worldly honour and immured himself in a monastery that he might secure the salvation of his soul. We need not follow him through all the mazes of darkness and superstition from which he at last emerged into the sunlight of Divine grace, as he learned the value and meaning of the cross of Christ. It was a terrible struggle, and yet every phase of it was just so much training for the place God meant him to occupy as His most prominent witness in this new movement back to the Word of God — back from tradition, superstition, the councils of the Church, the writings of the early fathers, back to the blessed and incorruptible Word of the living God, the Bible.
But he was only one of many, although probably the foremost figure in the eyes of men in this great work. Not only in Germany, but all over Christendom, men — Farel in France, Zwingli in Switzerland, Knox in Scotland — were raised up and these and other men blazed the way out of Rome. To us today who have never known anything but this freedom of conscience from the yoke of Rome, it seems a little thing to challenge the authority or supremacy of the Pope, but at that time it demanded men of unwavering bravery and deep convictions to do so. But let us thank God, such men were found by the Lord and called by Him to the work and fitted for that work which they did. To sum up what they did in a few words, these men found in the Bible the answers to all questions of conscience and what they found for themselves they determined with rare courage and faithfulness to share with the whole of Christendom. Who that knows the history of that glorious time but will easily understand why the Lord should introduce Himself as having the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars? He moved on the hearts of men in a marvelously powerful way and the men He moved were mighty men, defying the power of Satan with sublime courage and wisdom. Fire and sword and every device calculated to cow men into submission were resorted to by the eccelesiastical authorities but in vain, for they went on with their glorious mission until it was accomplished.
Now what they accomplished as we have already pointed out was the restoration to the masses in their own tongue of that priceless heritage, the Bible — this was the outstanding feature of the Reformation. Not only was it printed and circulated but men were raised up who went through the length and breadth of Christendom, proclaiming with the living voice what they had found in that Book of Books, the Bible. And this it was that broke the hold of Rome, and liberated men from the seduction of the siren voice of that foul female, who by her sorceries deceived the world.
But all this that we have spoken of is the Divine side of this great movement, this letter is the judgment of the Lord upon the result of this work when left to the responsibility of men to maintain. What will this mass of people who have been set free from superstition and tradition do with that Book which at such a cost has been restored to them? This letter tells us in no uncertain terms exactly what they did. There is a word in this one which occurs in only one other of this series, that is the word “remember.” In the letter to Ephesus He says, “Remember therefore, from whence thou art fallen,” to Sardis, it is “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard.” This is striking and when weighed seen to be most suitable. In the case of Ephesus, it is the first stage of the departure of the Church from its original standing in which this word is found and in the case of Sardis it is the new start so to speak, given to the Church in the Reformation that He has in mind. The word “Remember” would be quite out of place in any of the other letters, for there was no fresh start except at those two points, Pentecost and Reformation times. But let us ask, What was it that Sardis had received and heard? Was it not, as we have been pointing out, the Blessed Word of God and the voice of the Lord Himself in it, that adorable Saviour and Shepherd of the sheep, Whose voice had been drowned out for centuries by the blatant boastings of the woman Jezebel who called herself a prophetess? Unquestionably so.