The Times of the Gentiles
In our previous studies we were told about Nehemiah who became after Ezra an outstanding figure at this time. In the first chapter of the book that bears his name we are told that when he heard of the sad state of this remnant he fell down before God in this same spirit of self-judgment and confession, saying, “We have sinned against Thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against Thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which Thou commandest Thy servant Moses.” This was the spirit that God could approve of, so He took Nehemiah up and sent him to Jerusalem to help the feeble few who were there. Not only so but we find that when he had built the wall and gotten things into some order he gathered the people together and had the book of the law read in their hearing. Then he led them into the presence of God in sackcloth and with fasting that they might confess their sins and the sins of their fathers. In other words he sought to imbue them with the same spirit that had actuated him and filled their mouths with words of confession and self-judgment before the Lord. Read this in its details in the ninth of Nehemiah. As long as this spirit prevailed among the people God could find some measure of delight in them. Long before God had said to the people through His prophet, Isaiah,”To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit and that trembleth at My word” (Isa. 66:2).
But alas! this spirit soon departed from them and was succeeded by pride and independence and even insolence toward God. This is fully developed in Malachi and one has simply to read the book to see the terrible lack of confession and self-judgment. Take for instance one passage. “Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from Mine ordinances, and have not kept them. Return unto Me and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?” One can hardly measure the distance in a moral way that has been travelled since the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, when he reads these words. Again in the same chapter He complains, “Your words have been stout against Me.” What a contrast to the time of Nehemiah when they wept as they listened to the Word of the Lord? And when later on the Lord Jesus came to this remnant He found this spirit of pride and self-sufficiency at its height. Their past history they seemed to have forgotten entirely and unblushingly said to Him, “We were never in bondage to any man,” although at that very time they were the subjects of the Roman empire, ground under its iron heel. The spirit that led Daniel and Ezra and Nehemiah to bow in lowly confession before Jehovah had departed and in its place was a spirit of pride and hyprocrisy.
Shall we carry the analogy between Israel and the Church to its end? Why not? When the saints of God at the beginning of last century began to meet in the Name of the Lord alone there was with them the deepest consciousness of the failure of the Church in its testimony. One has only to read the writings of those days to see this. There was no cutting of themselves off from its past history as if it were no concern of theirs. They believed the Church of God was one in the truest sense of the word and therefore the sins of past generations they felt to be truly their own and so confession accompanied their separation from what they found themselves linked with that was contrary to the mind of the Lord. Indeed it is recorded by one that on one occasion so strong was the sense of the condition of the Church of God that when they met their tears flowed so freely as to wet the very floor of the room where they were assembled. And it was this condition that the Lord met in His grace and responded to with such abundance of grace as to overwhelm them with the treasures of His Word as He opened their understanding. But alas! when this spirit of confession and self-judgment left and was replaced with pride over the possession of so much truth, then surely the beginning of Laodicea had come. Intellectual knowledge of truth took the place of communion with the Lord and learning the truth from Him. We have said, “possession of truth,” but in reality was it possessed? It might be in the writings of the men to whom God gave so much in those days and it might be in the libraries of the saints to whom it was ministered, but if it did not lead to more humility and more confession and more trembling at the Word of the Lord, then it was not really possessed at all. To fancy one’s self in possession of more truth than others and boast of it is a delusion. The truth of God really apprehended would ever lead to more humility, more real confession, in fact more manifestation of every grace in those who held the truth thus. It is the truth apart from communion with Himself that seems to us to be the character of Laodicea.
From such a state there seems to be no recovery. The threat to spew this church out of His mouth is unconditional, although there is a call to repentance. So we may say that the end of all efforts to bring back the Church to its original state is disappointing and means at last complete repudiation of the whole thing as a testimony for Him. This does not mean that there will be any failure of the promises of the Lord to His own. It does not mean an abrogation of those sweet promises that have cheered the hearts of His people so long. “The Lord Himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and the trump of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” The repudiation of the Church as a witness for Him on the earth has no bearing on such assurances. They abide in all their fulness and force even if the Church as a body has failed to maintain its place. In fact the two thoughts are quite distinct. What is before the Lord all through this series of letters is the Church in public testimony and in this it has been a complete failure. It is simply one more witness to man and his untrustworthiness wherever he is placed.
One more word should be said. We have all through tried to link in a sort of parallelism the series of parables in Matthew 13 with the seven letters before us and we must not forget to do so in this case. The parable that would be put alongside of the letter to Laodicea is the one that speaks of the net cast into the nations of the world bringing ashore in its meshes a great harvest of fish, good and bad. How can this in any way be shown to be related to the letter to Laodicea? Let us think for a moment on the extraordinary efforts in the gospel that have been made in the last few years, and we think the connection will be apparent. Never in the history of the world were so many gospel tracts printed, never were there so many missionaries, never was the Bible translated into so many different languages and dialects as in the last few years. Men may rest in this as a proof of the progress of the gospel and the triumph of the Church, but it is only the mark of the end of this dispensation. And it in no wise conflicts with what the letter to Laodicea presents. for one may have little heart for the Lord and ease his conscience at the same time by giving large sums of money to missionary enterprises and other efforts to spread the gospel. Indeed there may be an apparent interest of the deepest kind in the work of missions with worldliness of a marked character. This has often been seen. And surely we all have witnessed what seemed like enthusiasm in what is called the work of the Lord without any heart for His word or conscience about walking in His ways. Some have even gone as far as to slight all He has said as to His Church and subordinate everything to the reaching of souls with the gospel. God forbid that we should speak or write a word that would lessen the zeal of any one in the gospel, but when zeal for souls takes the place of love for Him, then it is not meeting with His approval.
He would be the guest of the heart and so He calls for individual response to His appeal for an open door into which He may enter. When He is in reality the object of the affections all is well and in place. Without this all is out of joint and no delight to Him. How like to the remnant of Israel, the house swept and garnished, but alas! empty, for He is outside and knocking for admittance. What is the Church if Christ be not the very centre of all its activities? The man to whom the Lord entrusted the administration of the truth as to the Church was the apostle Paul. What was his language as to the Lord? His epsitles breathe nothing but love of the deepest character for His Saviour and Lord. Listen to his language in the letter to the Philippians. “For to me to live is Christ,” not even to preach the gospel but Christ Himself was his object in life. And he sought to imbue the Church with this spirit wherever he went. But here we have it in its final stage, the Lord outside and little if any heart to let Him in. It is a sad story and humiliating to us but surely it enhances His glory Whose love never fails but shines out all the more brightly against the dark background of man’s ingratitude and unfaithfulness.