by John Angell James, 1848
Remarks on the Epistles to the Seven
I do not propose here to go into any minute exposition of these addresses—but only to make some general remarks upon them, tending to show the nature and necessity of earnest piety, and to stir up the churches to seek after it.
1.Unlike the other inspired apostolic epistles, these letters are all delivered by the Lord Jesus Christ in person, through the medium of the apostle, and are therefore analogous in that particular to the messages which, under the Jewish dispensation, the prophets delivered to the people, with a "Thus says the Lord." This indicates the deep interest which Jesus Christ takes in the spiritual welfare of all and each of his churches. His regard to these seven communities was by no means exclusive or special—all others which then existed were as dear to his heart, because as much the purchase of his blood, as they—and so are all that now exist, even the least company of believers in the most obscure village. How exquisitely beautiful is the description given of Him, as "He who walks amidst the seven golden candlesticks," and how impressive a symbol is that of the design of each church, that it should be a fountain of the purest light to the place in which it exists. Can anything more emphatically remind us of the devoutness, the zeal, the spiritual knowledge, which each church should possess, since it is formed to illuminate a dark world, is under the personal superintendence of the Lord Jesus, and is an object of his solicitous care? How earnest is he on behalf of every community of the faithful as a whole, and every member of it in particular!
2. The address to each church commences with the same solemn assurance of his intimate acquaintance with its spiritual condition—"I know your works." He thus declares that he is ever looking upon his churches, not as we look, from a distance—but with an eye immediately fixed upon each, not with a cursory or general glance—but with a close and minute inspection into the state of every heart; so that his knowledge of each member is as perfect as his knowledge of the entire church, and is derived from its proper source; the real facts of every case being subjected to that all-searching eye which is represented by a flame of fire. This is expressed with still more explicitness in his address to the church at Thyatira, to which he says, "All the churches," not the world merely—but "the churches shall know that I am he which searches the reins and hearts; and I will give unto everyone of you according to your works." This asserts not only his power, or his right—but his occupation; he is ever thus engaged; his eyes are always running to and fro through every church. His attention is minute and specific; it is not the church collectively—but the church in its individual members, that is the subject of his scrutiny.
How anxiously and how inquisitively should each church say, What does he see in us? and each member say, What does he see in me? Can anything be a stronger incitement to diligence, to earnestness, to entire self-consecration, than the thought that we are "ever in the great master's eye?" Over each one of us continually rolls the thrilling and solemn announcement, "I know your works." Could we but set the Lord always before us; could we but realize him as at our right hand; could we but even look up to him as present, though invisible, saying to him, "You God see me!" should we need anything more to stir us up to the most intense devotedness?
3. Christ always begins his addresses to these churches with the language of commendation, where there is anything to commend. How condescending, kind, and gracious is this, and what a lesson does it furnish to us for regulating our conduct towards each other! How encouraging is this in all our attempts to please him, and what an incentive to labor more abundantly for him! He is not a hard taskmaster, nor an ungracious one, turning away with indifference and disdain from the services of his people. The efforts of his feeblest disciple, when made with sincerity, are accepted by him; the wish, the sigh, the tear, the inarticulate and unuttered, because unutterable, groaning—are all noticed by him, and received with a most condescending, "well done." O Christians, shall such a Master be served with a slack hand, tardy foot, or cold heart? Shall stinted, grudged, or lukewarm services be offered to Him? Shall less than the best, or the utmost, be done for Him? "You bring stolen, lame, or sick animals. You bring this as an offering! Am I to accept that from your hands? The deceiver is cursed who has an acceptable male in his flock and makes a vow but sacrifices a defective animal to the Lord. For I am a great King," says the Lord Almighty, "and My name will be feared among the nations." (Malachi 1:13-14)
4.At the same time, Christ, in the exercise of righteous severity, rebuked each church for what was wrong, where he found anything worthy of reproof. His love is not a blind and doating affection, which sees no fault in its object; but is a wise and judicious regard, which searches out failings—not so much to expose and punish—as to correct and remove them. Even to the most corrupt of the seven churches, he said, after a severe reprehension, "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten." Inconsistent and negligent professors! you who know your worldliness; your evil dispositions; your breaches of truth, honor, and justice; your neglects of prayer in the closet and the family; your general declensions and decay of piety; your gross irregularities and manifest inconsistencies! Hearken to his reproving voice; look at his frowning countenance; dread his continued rebukes. Amend your doings. Put away the evil that is in you. He will not tolerate sin in you; nor should you in yourselves.
5. Each address closes with a promise of reward to those who are victorious in the Christian conflict."To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God—he shall not be hurt by the second death—I will give to him to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knows but he who receives it—I will give him power over the nations—he shall be clothed with white clothing; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life—but I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels; I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out; and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God—and I will write upon him my new name, and he shall sit with me on my throne, even as I also overcame, and sit down with my Father on his throne."
Such are the exceeding great and precious promises which are made to those who, in the fight of faith, "come off more than conquerors through him who has loved them;" and which, though distributed among the churches, will all be fulfilled in every individual victor.
Though some of the expressions have a meaning which can never be fully developed in this world, that very difficulty seems to add to their value, since it exhibits in vague and general outline an object too vast to be comprehended, and too bright to be seen by our present limited and feeble vision. Christians, look up at these stupendous objects of hope, floating in obscure grandeur behind the dim and mysterious transparency of Holy Scripture; and then imagine—and you can only faintly imagine it—the reward of your successful diligence. You are engaged in a conflict of immense difficulty, and of tremendous importance. See what consequences hang upon it; and for what a stake you are contending. You are fighting for a throne in heaven, and defeat will not only subject you to this immense loss—but to eternal infamy. You are running a race for an incorruptible crown, and it is a race against time, and not a moment can be spared from its toilsome and earnest prosecution. An archangel coming direct from the throne of God, with all the scenes of eternity and heavenly glory fresh in his recollection, could not make you comprehend the weight, brilliancy, and worth, of that crown which is held forth by the hand of infinite love, to engage your ardor in the contest against sin, Satan, and the world.
Earnestness! Where, for what, and in whom should it be expected, if not in him who is contending upon earth for glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life? Is he a mere statue, or a living man, who can see such objects placed before him, and not feel every ambitious desire influenced, and all his energies engaged for their possession? It was on this the mind of the apostle was fixed when he uttered that heart-exciting, soul-inspiring language, "Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God's heavenly call in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:12-14) If an apostle felt such earnestness indispensable, inevitable, and necessary—how much more should we!
Let us now take up each epistle separately, and learn the
one great lesson which each seems adapted and designed to teach.
"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: "The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands says: I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. You also possess endurance and have tolerated many things because of My name, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. Yet you do have this: you hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, (that is, a sect of practical Antinomians,) which I also hate." (Revelation 2:1-6)
We are ready to exclaim, what a church, and what a character! They worked, yes labored, for Christ; they were called to suffer persecution, and instead of apostatizing, endured their sufferings with patience; they maintained a strict and holy discipline, and cast out from among them impostors and evil characters! Is anything lacking here? They seem to have attained almost to perfection. Will the Lord Jesus find any fault with them? Yes, he did. He commended them for their good—but, "Nevertheless," said he, "I have this against you: you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent." I know of nothing more alarming and impressive than such a rebuke to such a church—nothing more calculated to awaken solicitude, and compel us to say—if such a church was rebuked for deficiency, how shall we abide the day of his coming?
Now the lesson taught us here is, that no measure of attainment in churches or individual members will satisfy Christ, while any palpable defect in other things is observable. We cannot, we must not, attempt to make up for the neglect of some things, by attention to other things. Here was a church that excelled in so many arduous duties, that one should have almost expected to hear nothing but the language of unmixed commendation; and are ready to say, if such a community was rebuked for deficiency, what shall be said of us? How we ought to tremble!
Their sin was a leaving of first love; their religious affections had abated, the spirituality of their minds had declined, their joy was not so lively, nor their love so ardent, as it once was; and notwithstanding their labor, and patience, and external holiness, the Lord Jesus rebuked them even with threatenings. How fearfully common is this declension! How many are there who are saying—
Where is the blessedness I knew
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
This is so common that many are almost ready to excuse it as a state to be looked for in the natural course of things, as what everybody experiences, and therefore what nobody need care much about—but Christ treats it as a sin, and calls upon the party to repent of it; and threatens, if they do not, to remove the candlestick out of its place.
I ask, then, if anything less than the most intense earnestness can prevent this declension, or recover us from it when we have fallen into it. The language of Christ to us all is, "Go on unto perfection." Which of our modern churches can compare with this at Ephesus, and which of them therefore, should not hear the words of Christ addressed to them, "Repent, repent?"
To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: "The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life, says: I know your tribulation and poverty, yet you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Don't be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will have tribulation for 10 days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." (Revelation 2:8-10)
It is observable that this is one of the two churches against which nothing is alleged in the way of blame, and to which no language of rebuke is addressed—and it is evident at the same time that it was much and sorely tried by persecution. This persecution had reduced them to great poverty. "We see here of what little account worldly wealth is in the estimation of Christ. We hear much of respectable congregations and churches, where little else is meant by that—but that they are numerous or opulent; but the estimation of Christ goes on quite another principle. What a contrast there is between this church and that at Laodicea. They were rich in this world's goods—but poor towards God; these were poor in this world—but rich towards God."
The lesson to be learned from this church is, that persecution, if it reduces the numbers of professors, is favorable to eminent piety.
In times of unrestricted liberty, external prosperity, and unmolested ease, such as ours, especially in an age when evangelical sentiment is to a certain extent fashionable, professors of religion multiply fast; but like the luxuriant produce of tropical regions, they lack the strength and solidity which colder climates and more frosty atmospheres give to the plants and trees which grow under their influence. Persecution, which withers and destroys the profession of multitudes of these effeminate and feeble followers of Christ—leaves the deeply rooted plants of God's own right hand planting still growing strong and fair. What strange and awful havoc in our churches would one year of bitter and oppressive intolerance make! In what numbers would the soft, luxurious, and self-indulgent members drop off from the fellowship of the faithful—and on the other hand, in what majestic grandeur and heroism would the cross-bearers stand forth, and revive the martyr age of suffering and glory! As skillful and fearless seamen are formed by the tempest; as heroes are made in the battlefield; and as gold is purified in the furnace; so eminent Christians are raised up, and called forth, by the force of persecution.
Let us all consider what kind of religion that must be which makes a man a martyr; what depth of conviction, what strength of faith, what ardor of love, what liveliness of hope. Let us think what a view and impression of eternity; what an assurance of heaven; what a conquest of the world; what an emancipation from the fear of death there must be, to make a man press forward in his religions profession, not only at the hazard—but with the certainty of bonds, imprisonments, and death. Is ours such a religion? Do we know the power of principle which the prospect of the scaffold could not overcome; and the ardor of an attachment which the agonies of the stake could not extinguish? Have we a self-denial, a habit of mortification and crucifixion as regards our sinful desires, which is itself the source of the martyr-spirit, and which makes it clearly intelligible how we could die for it?
Is there, when we are looking around upon a quiet and happy home, and upon a circle of endeared relations, such a state of mind as this, "I feel as if, by God's grace, I could give up all this, rather than deny my Lord." This is required in all who would be Christ's disciples. He will accept no man on any other terms. It is his own declaration, which we would do well to study, "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple." (Luke 14:26-27)
This single passage seems enough to circulate alarm
through all Christendom, and to excite apprehension in the minds of
nine-tenths of the professed disciples of the Lamb, about the sincerity of
their religion. We are involuntarily led, in consternation, to say, "Who
then can be saved? What diligence and devotedness, what solicitude and
intense earnestness, are necessary to justify and sustain our pretensions to
such a religion as this? Who has enough of the pure gold, or is free enough
from the dross of sin—to stand the test of such a fire?"
To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: "The One who has the sharp, two-edged sword says: I know where you live—where Satan's throne is! And you are holding on to My name and did not deny your faith in Me, even in the days of Antipas, My faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. But I have a few things against you. You have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to place a stumbling block in front of the sons of Israel: to eat meat sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality. In the same way, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent! Otherwise, I will come to you quickly and fight against them with the sword of My mouth." (Revelation 2:12-16)
Pergamos was the capital of the province, the seat of government, and the residence of a race of monarchs whose ambition it was to make it rival Rome and Alexandria in wealth, grandeur, and elegance. It abounded with idol temples, in which the most impure and lascivious orgies were celebrated; it was addicted to excessive luxury, lust, and corruption, and was infamous in Roman history for the polluting influence which, in its subjugation by that people, it exercised over their conduct. So that very emphatically might it have been said, "Satan's seat was there," and that there he dwelt as in his beloved abode. Yet amidst these abominations was planted a Christian church. It was not to be wondered at that in such a place persecution should be kindled, and should rage against those whose doctrines and practices were a constant and severe rebuke upon the religion and works of the whole city. In the persecution, Antipas, perhaps a faithful pastor, was crowned with martyrdom, and probably others with him. The great bulk of the church continued steadfast amidst surrounding opposition, and pure amidst surrounding vice. It requires a stretch of imagination to conceive of the earnestness which must have been cherished and exhibited by those who remained faithful.
Yet even here there were some who were exceptions to the rest; some that held the doctrines of Balaam, who had instructed Balak to seduce the Israelites by the lascivious rites of the Moabitish idolatry. By this we are to understand that some of the members of that church, while professing the doctrines of the gospel, gave tacit consent in some way or other, to the flagitious idolatry of their city; and, in addition, there were some of the antinomian Nicolaitans there also. For this the church was called to repentance, which they were to exercise and manifest by bearing testimony against such sins, and by separating the transgressors from their communion.
The lessons to be learned from the history of this church are two; the danger of professors of religion imitating the manners of the age and country in which they live; and the sinfulness in the sight of God of retaining ungodly people in communion. In every age and country, the church has been exposed to peculiar trials of its constancy, consistency, and fidelity, by the prevalence of surrounding evils, ever varying with the circumstances of the times—but always existing in some form or other. These it is its wisdom to know, and its duty to avoid. In them lie its chief danger, and in avoiding them its chief difficulty.
It is far more easy to reconcile ourselves to common and prevailing sins, than to such as are rare and infrequent; to follow the multitude to do evil, than to pursue a solitary or almost deserted path of sin. Custom abates the dread, and in the estimation of some, almost annihilates the criminality, of transgression. "That cannot be wrong which so many and such reputable people do without scruple"—is the false and fatal but common logic by which Satan deludes not only the world—but also the church. Hence it is the duty of professors to study well the circumstances, habits, customs, and tendencies, of the times in which they live, in order to ascertain what evils have obtained credit under the veil of custom and fashion. God's laws do not change with the times, nor does he lower his requirements to meet the relaxed and degenerate morality of a lukewarm generation. We are not to be carried about by divers and strange practices, any more than by divers and strange doctrines—the morals of Christianity are as fixed and unalterable as its truths. To resist the tyranny of custom, and the seductions of fashion; to wade against the stream of prevailing example; to be singular, when that singularity is an emphatic protest and severe rebuke which are sure to irritate the many who feel themselves condemned by it; to draw down the reproach of 'ostentatious puritanism', and the imputation of 'pretended sanctimoniousness'—this is no easy task! Yet it is demanded of us all—but can be achieved only by an earnestness of mind which amounts to moral heroism.
Vices condemned by all, improprieties which are disgraceful and involve the loss of reputation, are easily avoided; and virtues which are in universal repute, as easily practiced. But the sins which are attended with no disgrace—but on the contrary have changed their names into virtues, are committed under the plea of necessity; and virtues which have acquired the character of a morose and proud asceticism, are shunned with aversion and disgust. Christian professors! the downward progress of the church of Christ has commenced in our age—the deteriorating process is in operation. Awake! Open your eyes—look around you!
But this is not the only lesson taught by the warning to the church at Pergamos—we learn also from it, how highly displeasing it is in the eyes of Christ, when wicked men are allowed to remain in the communion of the church. Every church is intended to be a light of the world, not only by its creed—but by its conduct. Holiness is light, as well as truth. God is said to be light, and by this it is intended that he is holy. Creeds, confessions, and articles of faith, except as they exert a practical influence in producing the fruits of righteousness, do little good. They may be as the flame which is to illuminate a dark world—but the misconduct of those by whom they are professed so beclouds the glass of the lamp with smoke and impurity, that no light comes forth, and the lamp itself is unsightly and offensive. To receive or retain unholy men as members of our churches, is a fearful corruption of the church of Christ, which was ever intended to be a "congregation of faithful men," a communion of saints.
How severely did the apostle rebuke the Corinthian church for retaining its incestuous member, and how peremptorily did he command his excision. To retain notorious sinners in the fellowship of the church is the most awful connivance at sin which can be practiced in our world, for it is employing the authority of that body to defend the transgressor and to apologize for his offence. There is a strong repugnance in some people to proceed, almost in every case, to the act of excluding an unworthy member, just as there is in cases of disease, to give up a mortified limb to amputation—but it must be done; the safety as well as the comfort of the body requires it. In the case of sudden falls, and single sins, where there is a deep sense and ingenuous confession of sin, much leniency should be observed. But where the sin is public and aggravated, and the conscience hardened, to show mercy in such a case is high treason against Christ, by retaining enemies and rebels in his kingdom, who are virtually seeking its overthrow.
The church is a band of witnesses to the necessity and excellence of holiness, and anything which can enfeeble or corrupt that testimony is infinitely mischievous to the cause of Christian morality, and therefore grossly insulting to him who died "to purify to himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works." Whenever the church ceases to bear testimony for holiness, it abandons its commission, and is no longer a witness for Christ. If it leans to either side, it should be to the side of severity of discipline, rather than of laxness; since it is far better that an offending member should have this addition to the burden of his punishment, than that the character of the church, as a witness for holiness, should be impaired.
What a horrid caricature, what a monstrous perversion,
what a profanation of the very idea of a Christian church, has been given to
the world by the so-called church of Rome; that sty of beastly sensuality,
that slaughter-house of horrid murder, that emporium of notorious crime, and
the commerce of iniquity, which the Vatican presented in some past ages to
the eyes of the astonished, disgusted, and loathing world! And even now,
what a sphere of Jesuit craftiness and odious immorality, are most of the
countries which are subject to the Roman Pontiff, and within the membership
of the Roman church. How summarily and truly is the whole described by that
one comprehensive and expressive phrase "The mystery of iniquity." The true
church must be, and is, in direct opposition to this; it bears upon its
lofty front, this inscription, "Holiness to the Lord;" and it stands out,
adorned with the beauties of holiness, a living witness for him, who in the
seraphs' song is lauded as the "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty."
To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: "The Son of God, the One whose eyes are like a fiery flame, and whose feet are like fine bronze says: I know your works—your love, faithfulness, service, and endurance. Your last works are greater than the first. But I have this against you: you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and teaches and deceives My servants to commit sexual immorality and to eat meat sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she does not want to repent of her sexual immorality. Look! I will throw her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her practices. I will kill her children with the plague. Then all the churches will know that I am the One who examines minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you according to your works. I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who haven't known the deep things of Satan—as they say—I do not put any other burden on you." (Revelation 2:18-24)
Thyatira was a city of Macedonia, of some celebrity in its day, and is still a considerable place, under the Turks. In the church at this place our Lord saw much to commend. His eulogy of it is very strong. There were faith, charity, patience, service, works, and (what was the reverse of the state of the church in Ephesus, which had left its first love,) the last works of the church in Thyatira were more than the first. Of how few churches can this be said! How many are rather declining in piety than advancing; but here was growth, progress. Here last love was stronger than first. Yet even in this church there was something to condemn; nor would it do to weigh the good against the bad.
What is meant by the woman Jezebel, whether it is to be interpreted literally of some female of rank and influence set forth under this name, who exerted a pernicious influence in corrupting the church by false doctrine and practices arising out of it, or whether it is to be understood mystically as importing a corrupt faction, who, though united to God's people as Jezebel was, by marrying an Israelitish prince, yet were attached to idolatry, and labored to seduce others into it, is not easy to determine; nor is it important to our present purpose that it should be so determined. Probably the allusion is to some false teachers who were assiduous in corrupting the minds of the church. Against these wicked men God denounced the most awful threatenings, if they repented not.
The lesson for the churches to learn from this epistle is, that it is our duty to set our face against the teachers of false doctrine, especially such doctrine as relaxes the bonds of moral obligation, and is opposed to the purity of God's law.
When our Lord prayed in behalf of his people that they might be sanctified by the truth; and when the apostle described the doctrines of the gospel as "the truth according to godliness," this great sentiment was taught us—that error is essentially polluting; for if truth sanctifies, error must corrupt; unless two causes so diametrically opposite to each other, as truth and falsehood, can produce the same effects. The germ of holiness lies hid in every truth—and of sin in every error; and therefore much does it become the church to hold fast the truth. It is a notion with many that there is no sin in error. The adage of Pope has been adopted by multitudes in these free-thinking, latitudinarian days,
"For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight,
This is true in the letter—but false in the spirit, since there can be no right life, in the scriptural sense of the word "right," but what comes from a right mode of faith, so that if the former be correct, so must be the latter. The intention of the poet, however, was to annihilate the importance of distinctive sentiments of religion, and by insinuating that all were equally valuable, or equally valueless, to subvert the very throne of truth, and thus to do away the authority and obligation of the Bible. This hacknied couplet is a dreadful dogma of scepticism, soaked and drenched with infidelity to its very core. This offspring of infidelity has been foisted upon the church, and profanely baptized by the name of charity—depend upon it, it knows nothing of charity but the name, and if the father of it had not renounced the Bible, he would have known that errors of doctrine, to whatever extent they go, show a mind not yet brought into subjection to Christ.
If a man may renounce one truth of revelation, and yet be sinless, he may renounce two; if two, four; if four, eight; if eight, half the Bible; if half, the whole—and yet be innocent. What, then, becomes of those threatenings which are denounced against all unbelievers; and of those numerous passages which make our salvation depend upon the reception of the truth as it is in Jesus? John 3:18, 36; 2 Cor. 4:3, 4; Gal. 1:8, 9; 1 John 5:10; 2 John 9, 11. It may be difficult and altogether impossible for us to draw the line between those doctrines which are essential to salvation, and such as are not, and to fix upon the kind and that measure of error which is incompatible with true religion—and we had better not make the attempt—but leave those who hold false doctrines to the justice or mercy of God. There is, in this respect, the same difficulty in practical as in speculative error. Who shall undertake to declare what measure of sinful conduct is incompatible with personal safety as regards eternity?
Still we may hold, and should hold, the importance of truth, and the sinfulness of error, as well as of practice, and on this ground should "earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints." It should be one object, and no inconsiderable one either, of an earnest church, to stand up for the great fundamental truths of salvation. We have arrived at a latitudinarian age—a spurious philosophy is creeping over us—an unconcealed hostility to those truths which we had thought were settled as the faith of the universal church, is now extensively manifested, and we must not shrink from opposition to it under the cowardly dread of being classed with the bigots of a by-gone age. Our theology is our glory; not indeed in the form of a stiff, cold, statue-like symmetry of dogmatic system—but as the warm life-blood flowing through our practical religion.
There are those who would persuade us to give up and abandon our creeds; instead of this, our object should be to give them life, vigor, power, and beauty in holy actions, spiritual affections, and heavenly aspirations. The aim of many is to philosophize our faith into metaphysical speculation—ours should be to infuse faith into philosophy. Give up our theology! Then farewell to our piety. Give up our theology! Then dissolve our churches, for our churches are founded upon truth. Give up our theology! Then next vote our Bibles to be myths—and the aim of some is clearly the destruction of all these together—our piety, our churches, our Bibles. What is it that has given us our martyrs—but our theology? What is the inscription emblazoned on the banners of the noble army of martyrs, and that has formed the song to which those heroes marched to battle, victory, and death, what but the apostle's injunction, "Contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints!"
Give up our theology! Then what have we, as the children of God, begotten by the incorruptible seed of the Word, and taught to feed upon the unadulterated milk of the Word, to live upon? Give up our theology! Then with what armor and with what weapons shall we carry on the missionary war against the powers of darkness in the fields of Paganism? Give up our theology! And what are we to receive in return? What is offered to us for that which has founded our churches, been the theme of our ministers, the life of our souls, the means of all the religion we have possessed? What has worldly philosophy ever yet done, what can she do, or is she fitted to do, for our lost world, and ruined race; for groaning, bleeding, dying humanity? No, in abandoning our theology, we give up God's most glorious revelation, and man's last hope!
Let an earnest church therefore put forth its noblest and most determined energies in holding fast the form of sound words. Let there be no dallying, on the part of our theological literature, with unsanctified genius in the form of infidel poetry and skeptical philosophy; no eulogy on writers and their productions avowedly hostile to Christianity—unless accompanied with firm, calm, yet indignant protests against their enmity to revealed truth. Let there be no attempts to catch a compliment from men who hate our religion, for the candor with which their unbelief is treated. Painful instances of this kind have occurred of late, in which periodicals avowedly devoted, not only to Christianity—but to evangelical doctrines, have spoken of infidel writers and their works in a style of compliment, not to say flattery, which has greatly astonished, and sorely grieved the friends of truth. I do not desire that the just tribute to genius should be withheld, much less do I ask that virulent infidels should be assailed with a virulence equal to their own. Our religion teaches us to be courteous, meek, and forbearing; but it teaches us at the same time, "not to bear those who do evil," but to withstand them to the uttermost.
Infidelity is never so dangerous as when associated with
poetry and philosophy; and to beguile the young to the dreadful snare, by
lavishing compliments on the authors of the mischief, without corresponding
warnings against the poison, is strange work for a Christian essayist or
reviewer. What is it but to furnish gilding to cover the pill, and honey to
conceal the poison? Never, never, was there an era in the history of
religion, when it more became the master minds on the side of evangelical
truth, to summon their energies to the great conflict now going on between
truth and error, and to manifest intense earnestness in upholding the Divine
authority and momentous importance of evangelical truth.
To the angel of the church in Sardis write: "The One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars says: I know your works; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead. Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die, for I have not found your works complete before My God. Remember therefore what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. But if you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come against you. But you have a few people in Sardis who have not defiled their clothes, and they will walk with Me in white, because they are worthy." (Revelation 3:1-4)
Sardis had been the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, and the seat of government of Croesus, whose wealth is still commemorated by a proverb; while history records no greater illustration of the instability of human greatness as the fate which marked his end.
The description of the state of this church is not very creditable to its religious character. It had "a name to live," by which we are to understand it was held in repute by surrounding churches as in a flourishing condition. Its members, perhaps, were considerable, their circumstances respectable, their orthodoxy undoubted, and their general conduct reputable. They were neither immoral nor heretical—but all the while, though thus esteemed, the church was dead; not in the fullest sense of the term—but comparatively so, for in the next clause it is said, there were some remains of life, though ready to expire. The charges brought against it were very serious, as to its spiritual, though perhaps not as to its moral, condition. Christ tells the members he had not found their works perfect before God (implying that his churches ought to go on to perfection). He represents their piety as in the lowest state of declension—which was the more sinful, as at one time the church appears to have been in a far better state, from which its present members had degenerated. Many, if not most of them, had defiled their garments, had soiled their profession and affections by worldly conformity, though perhaps not by vice. In short, its condition was such as to be an illustration of the Savior's metaphor of the salt that had lost its savor. It is bad for the world to be dead; but for a church to be so, is far worse! It is bad when many individuals are so—but when the great bulk of a Christian community is so—it is deplorable indeed! Yet this was not the case with the whole body, for our Lord says, "There were a few people even in Sardis, who had not defiled their garments," whom he would not involve in indiscriminate censure. For their sakes, for the sake of their reputation and their comfort, he excepted them from his general charge against the body.
The lessons to be learned from the epistle to this church are two. First, In the midst of general declension it is possible to keep up the power of vital godliness, and in most cases there are some who do so. There are few churches in which, however prevalent may be the corruption of the whole church, there are none who are exceptions to the general rule; none who are "faithful found among the faithless;" none who mourn in secret for the declension of their brethren, and who by their examples and reproofs endeavor to arrest the progress of decay. Even in the most degenerate days of Israel's apostacy, when Elijah knew not where to look for a second worshiper of the living and true God, there were seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal. What honor encircles those members, how precious are they in the eyes of God, who are not carried away by the swelling stream of corruption—but stand firmly by the doctrines and piety of the gospel! Their conduct shows what can be done to make progress against prevalent declension.
It is a beautiful spectacle to see a few consistent spiritually-minded professors holding on the even tenor of their way, when the greater part of the church is gradually sinking into worldly conformity; bearing high the standard of the cross, and becoming a rallying point for all the piety that remains in the church; laboring by prayer, example, and persuasion, to save the walls of their Zion from bearing the inscription of "Ichabod;" and amidst the indignation, contempt, or reproach of men whose consciences are wounded by their testimony, pursuing their holy and blameless career. Happy few! Your Master knows your works, your trials, and your difficulties, and will reward them all. Be not disheartened therefore or discouraged by the frowns and imputations of worldly-minded professors, who will be quick to ascribe your conduct to spiritual pride, or pretended singularity, or sanctimonious hypocrisy.
Men who withstand the corruptions of the church can expect no better treatment than those who reform the evils of the world. No—often a resentment more bitter, an exasperation more angry, and a malignity more envenomed, will be nourished, by inconsistent and hypocritical professors of religion, towards those who rebuke their conduct, than by men of the world, just because they feel a deeper wound inflicted in their conscience. Let us covet to be among the few who are counted worthy to stand in the gap when a breach has been made in the wall, and to keep out the enemy. The prevalence of evil is no excuse for committing it. God can, and will, assist all who are anxious to be kept. He will inspire them, if they seek it, with the courage of heroes, and the constancy of martyrs. He will be a wall of fire round about them for defense, and guide them through every difficulty as by a pillar of cloud. Amidst envious eyes that watch them, spiteful tongues that love to speak ill of them, and hearts that wish and wait for their stumbling—he will preserve them blameless, and assist them to hold on their way. Let no one fear he cannot be a reformer, or even a martyr. God can nerve the most timid with courage, and make the most faltering fluent in his cause, when anxious to maintain the purity of the church, and to uphold, amidst trying circumstances, the consistency of the Christian profession.
But another and a most impressive lesson which is taught by this epistle, is, that churches may have a reputation for being in a flourishing condition, and yet be all the while in a state of progressive decay.
It was an affecting description which the prophet gave of the kingdom of Israel, when he said, "Strangers have devoured his strength—and he knows it not! Yes, grey hairs are upon his head—yet he knows it not!" Decay is always gradual, and in the case of bodily consumption singularly concealed from the subject of it. Equally deceptive is the spiritual consumption of the soul; and he who is on the very verge of death, in some cases knows not his danger. As it is with individuals, so it is also with churches—the appearances of health to an unpracticed eye, may be associated with the insidious progress of dissolution. How many individuals, and churches too, are not only flattering themselves that they are in a flourishing condition—but are imposing the same delusion upon others! The place of worship may be commodious, elegant, and free from debt; the minister popular, and approved by his flock; the congregation large, respectable, and influential; the communicants numerous and harmonious; the finances good, and even prosperous; the collections for public institutions liberal and regular; in short, there may be every mark of external prosperity, until the church flatters itself, and is flattered by others, into the idea of its being in a high state of spiritual health. It has "a name to live." But examine its internal state; inquire into its condition as viewed by God; inspect the private conduct of its members, and enquire as to accessions of such as shall be saved—and what a different aspect of things is seen then! How low is the spirit of devotion as evinced by the neglect of the meetings for social prayer; by the omission in many households of family prayer, and by the heartless, perfunctory, and irregular manner in which it is maintained in others; and by the giving up in numerous cases of private prayer! How feeble is the attachment to evangelical doctrine, and how little relish is there for that truth which is the bread of life to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness!
Talent, talent, is the demand; "we want eloquence, genius, oratory," is the cry. Nothing will do without this, and almost anything will do with it. How prevalent is the spirit of the world in their social fellowship! Games and parties, differing scarcely anything from the fashionable circles of the worldly and the mirthful, are kept up at much expense, and with every accompaniment of frivolity and levity. Let a stranger of devotional taste, spiritual affections, and tenderness of conscience, enter into the families, and frequent the parties, of such a congregation, and what a destitution would he find of the vitality of piety.
Under the deceptive appearance of a large and flourishing
assembly, an eloquent preacher, and an air of general respectability and
satisfaction in the sanctuary, what a deadness of the heart would he find;
what a prevailing worldliness in the houses of professors! Alas! how many
modern churches answer to the condition of that of Sardis! Here is the
precise danger to which above most others, we of this age are exposed,
especially the large and externally flourishing churches in the metropolis,
and the principal provincial towns. O, let us all, and especially those who
are most in danger of coming into, or are already in, this deceptive
condition, examine ourselves before God. Let us look beneath the illusive
covering of external prosperity, and examine whether disease and decay are
To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: "The Holy One, the True One, the One who has the key of David, who opens and no one will close, and closes and no one opens says: I know your works. Because you have limited strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name, look, I have placed before you an open door that no one is able to close. Take note! I will make those from the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying—note this—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and they will know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to endure, I will also keep you from the hour of testing that is going to come over the whole world to test those who live on the earth." (Revelation 3:7-10)
This is one of the seven churches to which no language of censure is addressed. It is probable they were not distinguished by opulence—but by piety. They were tried by severe persecution—but they kept the word of Christ with patience, and though but feeble as to all that constituted worldly power, and not very strong in numbers, they still maintained their steadfastness, and kept their hold upon the truth with a martyr's grasp. It would seem they had been much tried by the seed of Abraham, who having rejected the true Messiah, were no longer worthy the name of Jews. Amidst all opposition and discouragement they were exhorted still to persevere, by the assurance that they would be aided by Divine help in their religious profession, and that even their persecutors would be compelled to do them honor.
The lesson to be gathered from the history of this church is, that eminent piety and especially immoveable steadfastness in the face of opposition and persecution, is the way to honor.
There are many intimations scattered through the word of God, that the church is destined to high distinction in the earth, and to receive a tribute of respect and honor from the nations. The prophecies are full of the most glowing descriptions of this kind—and why has she not yet received this promised distinction? Just because she has not fulfilled the condition on which it is to be granted, and that is, eminent and consistent piety. When she is beheld as the tabernacle of God with men, and as having the glory of God; when rising from the dust, she puts on her beautiful garments; then radiant with the light of heaven, and adorned with all the beauties of holiness, she shall be as a "crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of her God." "Their seed shall be known among the Gentiles, and their offspring among the people; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which the Lord has blessed."
As yet the church, so far from gaining the honor and esteem so often foreshadowed in the divine promise, has been an object of contempt and derision—not that God has failed in his promise—but that she has failed in the terms upon which alone she could expect to be esteemed. Religion has not yet generally appeared in that sublime majesty, that heavenly glory, that spotless purity, and that effective beneficence, which alone can command the reverence of mankind. Let her be only seen as a seraph from the skies, pure, benevolent, and consistent, an image of God, and then, though she may be too holy for the carnal heart to love, she will still command respect and admiration. Men will not turn from her with disgust and aversion, as from a spirit of falsehood and mischief; they will not insult and despise her—but will consider it profanity to treat her with rudeness and scorn. It is the feeble, distorted, and crippled form in which she has too generally appeared. There is often a strange contrast between the 'heavenliness' which a church professes--and the 'worldliness' of her conduct; between the loftiness of her pretensions, and the lowness of her practice; between the extent of her claims, and the insignificance of her deserts—that have brought upon her the revilement and derision which it has been hitherto her lot to receive.
Whoever saw or heard of a Christian, who united in his
character all the beneficent, righteous, and gentle virtues of the gospel
profession; whose very name was a guarantee for whatever things are pure,
just, honest, true, lovely, and of good report; who added to his faith
virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly-kindness, and
charity; whoever saw such a character, or one at all approaching to that
standard, fail to receive the respect even of his enemies? God will compel
men to do him homage. He will bring his foes to his feet, and make them feel
how he is honored of God, and "how solemn goodness is." Yes, the greatest
persecutors have sometimes paid involuntary homage to eminent and consistent
piety, and in every age, and every country, exalted goodness has extorted
confessions of respect—even where it has not conciliated affection. It is
the exhibition of this eminent piety which, when presented to the world,
will soften prejudice, disarm opposition, abate malignity, and render
mankind more fully and generally prepared for the reception of the truth of
God than they have ever yet been.
To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: "The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Originator of God's creation says: I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I'm rich; I have become wealthy, and need nothing,' and you don't know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, and white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see." (Revelation 3:14-18)
Of this city, frequent mention is made in the New Testament, as the seat of a Christian church of some renown among the communities of the primitive believers. It is very evident from the epistle, that it was considerable for the number and wealth of its members. Piety rarely thrives amidst much worldly prosperity. Our Lord's words contain a truth which observation and experience unite to confirm; "How hard it is for those who have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." Exceptions doubtless there are—but they are only exceptions. I have known professors of religion the better for adversity—but whoever knew one the better for prosperity? If such a case ever occurs, is it not regarded as a prodigy of grace? On the contrary, how many have we seen, whose piety has declined as their wealth increased—and even where religion has not totally disappeared, amidst accumulating opulence, it has retained only the form or shadow of what it once was.
Multitudes will in eternity regard their money as having brought upon them their curse—so says the apostle; "those who will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition." Yes, it is their bags of gold that drag down the soul of rich men into the pit! The love of money is the cause of more souls being lost, than any other in all Christendom. Hence rich churches are rarely eminent for vital godliness. The spiritual state of the church at Laodicea verifies this remark. They were as poor in religion—as they were affluent in worldly wealth. They boasted of their prosperity, saying, "I am rich!" It was their matter of glorying; they boasted and were puffed up, for wealth generates pride, and fosters vanity, beyond anything else. There is more of 'purse-pride' in existence than of any other kind of pride, because nothing gives a man more importance in general society, than wealth.
And what all the while was the spiritual state of this church? There is not a syllable said in the way of commendation of them—they had not grace enough to furnish the Savior—desirous as he was for something to praise—with matter for one note of approbation.
The specific charge which he brought against them was lukewarmness, that middle state between heat and cold. Some professors are ardent almost to an enthusiasm of zeal; others cold to the absolute extinction of all vital heat—either all religion, or with no religion at all. But the Laodiceans were neither the one nor the other—they had no fire, yet they were not ice—they had no decided piety, yet would not leave religion alone—they would not throw off the profession and forms of godliness, yet knew nothing of its power. This state of mind was peculiarly offensive to Christ. To halt between God and the world, truth and error, holiness and sin, is worse, in some respects, and in some people—than to be openly irreligious. 'Corrupt Christianity' is more offensive to God than open infidelity. No man thinks the worse of religion for what he sees in the openly profane—but it is far otherwise with respect to religious professors. If he who names the name of Christ does not depart from iniquity, the honor of Christ is affected by his conduct. Therefore Christ seems to say, "Be one thing or the other. Have more religion or less; act more consistently, or let religion alone altogether."
Yet the church, though in this deplorable state, was not aware of its condition—but thought all was going on well with it; it did not know that it was "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." This is surprising and affecting, and gives us in an alarming view, how far self-deception may be carried, especially in the case of those, who like the members of the church at Laodicea, are much taken up with the enjoyment of worldly prosperity. Let a professor of religion have his mind much occupied with the cares of business, and his affections much engrossed with the objects of sense—and it is astonishing how ignorant and mistaken he may remain as to the real state of his soul. Prosperity is the smoothest, easiest, and most unsuspected road to the bottomless pit!
The lesson to be learned from the condition of this church is too obvious to be mistaken or doubted, and too impressive to be unfelt or unheeded. It is this—lukewarmness in a Christian church is a state peculiarly offensive to Christ; a state which may exist without being properly known or seriously suspected; and which is very likely to be produced by worldly prosperity. This corrupt church stands, and will stand to the end of time, an solemn beacon, warning all the churches of God against a state as ruinous to themselves as it is displeasing, yes disgusting, to him. It is a record which every community of Christians should frequently read with most solemn awe; and it is a record which it especially behooves the churches of our age and country to peruse, since in these days and in this country of liberty, commerce, wealth, and ease—the danger of sinking into this condition is most imminent. Sardis and Laodicea, it may be feared, furnish the types of many of the churches of these times.
I can conceive, and perhaps describe one of these Laodicean professors. By some means or other, either by an alarming illness, the death of a near relative, or an impressive sermon, his mind had become a little interested in the subject of religion—but his knowledge of its nature was never very clear, nor his conviction of sin very deep, nor his sense of need of a Savior ever very pungent. But still his views were sufficiently correct, sustained as they were by a good moral character, to gain him access to the fellowship of the church, and the table of the Lord. The object of his solicitude having been gained, he soon loses what little real concern he once possessed, and though he does not abandon the forms of godliness, is evidently a stranger to its power. He is perhaps engaged in a prosperous trade, the profits of which accumulate, and enable him to command the elegances and luxuries of fashionable life, or at any rate, substantial comforts. He is now taken up almost exclusively with business and worldly enjoyment. All spirituality has evaporated from his mind—religion has ceased to be to him the source of personal enjoyment, the fount of real bliss, an object of experimental interest with him. Private prayer is given up, or confined to a few hurried and heartless expressions uttered on his retiring to rest, or rising hastily from it. As to communion with God, if he ever knew it, he has lost it. His family prayers are irregular, formal, or totally relinquished. His children are brought up almost without any care or concern for the formation of their spiritual character, for he has married a woman without decided piety, and who is one with him in all his worldly habits. There is taste, elegance, fashion, amusement, in his house—but the stranger who visits him, neither sees nor hears anything of true religion. His parties and entertainments are very mirthful. On the Sabbath he goes regularly once, perhaps twice, to public worship; that is, his body is there, for his thoughts are on his business, his wealth, or his pleasure. The prayers do not kindle devotion, the sermon yields him no pious enjoyment. To ordinary religious truth, however rich and full the exhibition of fundamental gospel doctrine, he is quite insensible, though upon an extraordinary display of pulpit eloquence, by some gifted preacher, he bestows both attention and eulogy. He is an admirer of talent, and is gratified by its displays. He is found also at the Lord's table—but though Jesus Christ is there evidently set forth, crucified before him, his heart never melts with penitence, nor glows with love, nor experiences the peace of believing. As to the weekly meetings for prayer or preaching, they have been entirely given up; nor does he take any interest in the affairs of the church, or the usefulness and comfort of the pastor. His love of the world, unsubdued by faith, makes him in his business, sharp, eager, over-reaching, so as to compel others to complain of him, suspect him, and reproach him. In his temper, he is perhaps passionate, implacable, and litigious. Yet all this while he is a professor of religion, a member of a Christian church, and known to be such. He does not cast off his religion, or rather his profession of it—but he retains it only to dishonor it.
Now this is lukewarmness, and it is a representation which, in various degrees, suits thousands and thousands of the members of all denominations in the present day. Such members are to be found in all our churches, corrupting their neighbors, grieving the pastor, discrediting religion, deceiving themselves, and offending Christ. There may not be in them any foul blots, great scandals, or grievous falls, calling for excommunication; such but rarely occur, and are not after all the chief source of discredit to religion, and of hindrance to its extension. But it is lukewarmness, that sloth-like vice, which deteriorates its nature, degrades its dignity, renders it a low and reptile thing, and by its extensive prevalence, not only destroys the souls of those who are subject to it—but spreads the odious infection far and wide.
And what renders it the more alarming is, that the lukewarm are not sufficiently, or not at all, aware of their own destitute and miserable condition. Having dwelt on this in considering the state of the church at Sardis, which very nearly resembles that of Laodicea, it is unnecessary to enlarge upon it here.
Having thus briefly commented on these instructive and impressive addresses, I would once more, before I proceed in the task which I have undertaken, with all the earnestness I can express, commend the perusal of them to the churches of our day. In no part of Scripture shall we find a clearer statement of what, as regards the spiritual condition of a church, Christ requires of his people. Nowhere shall we find a more correct standard by which to examine our condition, or a more intelligible rule by which to guide our conduct. If in the epistles of Paul, Peter, and James, and in the other epistles of John, we find a more expanded view of Christian doctrine and morality, we find here, more than in almost any other part of the Word of God, of that which turns our attention inward upon the state of spiritual life in the church. Here are disclosed to us those heart-diseases, so to speak, which may be impairing the health, and imperilling the very life of a Christian church, and carrying on the work of destruction almost without being suspected. No part of the Word of God deserves more of the attention of the pastorate of this day, than this which we have been now considering. No minister can do a better service to his church, and to his age, than by an able, faithful, and practical exposition of these important addresses. By God's blessing upon such a service, the church must be the better for it, when well and diligently performed.
Nor should it be felt as an objection to such a labor, that the other parts of this mysterious book are not yet clearly understood, and that an exposition of this part of it alone would be only fragmentary. It may be answered, that these letters are each complete in itself, as much so as Paul's epistles, and that each furnishes lessons distinct, separate, and important. They contain instructions of momentous consequence, which may be understood—though the seals, vials, and trumpets, now covered with a cloud of hieroglyphics which perhaps nothing but futurity will ever disclose, should remain unintelligible to the most sagacious expositor. To explore this rich vein of divine truth requires no great skill in spiritual mining. No surer or better method can be taken to obtain an earnest church, than a general disposition in ministers to endeavor to fix the attention of their flocks upon these epistles to the seven congregations which were in Asia Minor.