The Times of the Gentiles
We are now come to what we cannot but regard as a very important period in the history of the church. Let us note, to begin with, that in only two of these seven letters is the call to repentance omitted. The one is Smyrna and the other is this one now before us. The reason for the omission in the case of Smyrna is right on the surface, — under the mighty hand of God stretched forth in severe discipline they were repenting and returning to the Lord. The reason for its being omitted in this letter we believe is just as plain, they too are repenting under the moving of the mighty Spirit of God and returning in whole-heartedness to His ways and to Himself. This comes out very plainly in the letter itself.
Perhaps it is just as well to call attention again to the parallel parable in Matthew 8. It is the sixth one, the parable of the merchantman seeking goodly pearls and finding one, for which he sold all that he had that he might have the wherewithal to purchase it. In this story the leading character is the man whose desire for the priceless gem led him to give up all to obtain it. We are aware that there is a hymn that says, “I’ve found the pearl of greatest price,” but that is not the form of sound words, for it puts the sinner in the place of the purchaser and surely if we think of any one giving all that he had we have to think only of one, the Lord Himself, Who, we are told, ‘Loved the church and gave Himself for it.” We cannot for a moment doubt that what is brought before us here is the revival in power of the real character of the church of God as given to us in the Word. In the previous letter we have the time of the Reformation depicted for us when there was the recovery of the gospel and alas! a settling down with that as if it were the full measure of the mind of God for His people. Here there is a going on to ascertain all His thoughts and by grace an entering into them that calls forth His approval in no uncertain terms.
In the Old Testament we have, we believe, a time in the history of the people of Israel that answers to this and it will be for edification to look at it. The real history of Israel closes with the book of Chronicles. There we read of their complete overthrow. Never is the Kingdom restored as we have seen earlier in our studies. But God in His mercy to His people moved on the heart of their over-lord, the King of Persia, to issue a proclamation allowing them to return to Jerusalem to build again the house of God there. He not only allows them, He encourages them to do so. This is found in the first chapter of the Book of Ezra. Quite a large number take advantage of the king’s clemency to return to Palestine and settle again in the land of their fathers.
The first thing that they did when they got back to Jerusalem was to build the altar of the God of Israel. Now every altar raised by direction of God in the Old Testament brings before us the cross of our Blessed Lord where He offered Himself to God. So what is here taught us is that the first thing that was settled in this time of revival was the way of access to God. We cannot but feel that this tells us in picture of the time of what is called the Reformation. Then this much was seen and re-established, namely, the ground on which a sinner can find acceptance before God. It is added in the chapter where this is told out (Ezra 3:6), “But the foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid.”
This is a remarkably accurate picture of what took place at the Reformation. The gospel establishes the soul in peace before God, but the gospel says nothing about the house of God. Let us very patiently look at this. The Epistle to the Romans gives a good foundation for a human soul to rest on for Eternity, but the Epistle to the Romans says nothing about conduct in the house of God or indeed the house of God at all. It is purely individual in character, and all truth as to the house of God is collective in character necessarily. In the passage we have been looking at the people of Israel simply put things on a solid foundation for their safety, for it is added in connection with their building the altar, “for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries.” Their own safety then is secured but that is all.
In the Reformation the truth that secures the safety of the soul was brought out in remarkable plainness and simplicity, but “the foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid.” As we have already pointed out, there was no attempt to put anything else on a Scriptural basis, at least not generally. Everything outside of this was simply make-shift. Nor for centuries afterwards was there any real effort made to put the whole Christian position in all its phases on a Biblical basis. In the days of Wesley there was nothing more than a revival of what is called “Vital religion” and when there was no room for this in the Established systems of religion, he went off and set up a body of his own without in the least degree attempting to act on the ground of the church of God. And indeed this characterized many of the revivals of those days. They were forced out of the great National systems but they did not get back to the foundation of the church of God. So it was everywhere — the great body established by law and a great number of sects and parties of all kinds and various degrees of orthodoxy. But the church of God, where was it in all this confusion?
About a hundred years ago or more God began to move among His people again in a very definite way as we have already noticed. The form of the movement at first was intensive study of the Word. Saints from the many parties of Christendom would gather in an informal way to read the Word and minister to each other any light that any one might have that the others did not possess and it was all welcomed. None had any thought of anything further than feeding their own souls and ministering to the sheep of Christ what they themselves were learning. Separation from the systems of men was not dreamed of in the beginning of those meetings.
But one of the first things that this, study of the Word led to was the ascertainment of the special place of Israel in the counsels of God. Some who were most hearty in these efforts rested content with this increase of knowledge and went no further.
Others, however, not satisfied with this, sought to learn what this meant for them in the way of obedience to the Lord. Because in learning the place of Israel in the Word, necessarily the special calling and privileges and functions of the church of God stood out and the tender and exercised consciences of many would not permit them to merely know these things. One of those whose hearts were stirred at this time was a curate in the Episcopal system in Ireland. A most devoted clergyman he was, laboring among the poorer classes in the neglected parts of the country, and seeking to bring them into the knowledge of the truth as he knew it. He attended some of those Bible Readings and his whole being was enlisted in the cause of acquiring the mind of God, not only that he might teach it but that first of all he might do it. An event occurred at this time that seemed so utterly out of keeping with what he had been learning from the Word of God that he was deeply moved and courageously spoke out in protest against what was being done by those whom he regarded as his superiors in the church. What was being done was this. Roman Catholics were being converted from that awful system in large numbers and the Episcopal church was receiving them into its fold. But one high in the hierarchy of that system, the Archbishop of Dublin insisted on these converts taking an oath when they were received which bound them to acknowledge the King of England as head of the church. There was also at the same time a petition signed by most of the clergy of the Episcopal church addressed to the Parliament of Great Britain asking protection from the attacks that were being made on them by the Catholics because of this work of God that was going on. These things stopped the further spread of the work and the young curate was stirred by the circumstances in such a way as to write a paper and send it to the Archbishop and clergymen, remonstrating with them for their turning to the world for help of any kind. Many years afterwards the paper was published and the writer of it says concerning its contents, “It was the first germing of the truth” which has since developed in the church of God.”
Watch next number for this important paper.