Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
Acts 18:19 and 19., is full of interest. It was the chief of the seven Churches to which St. John was bidden to write. We have previously spoken of the title which in this letter the Lord takes to himself, and will therefore come at once to the contents of the letter itself. Noting -
I. THE COMMENDATION SO GREAT AND HIGH THAT IS GIVEN TO THIS CHURCH. It is indeed a great thing to have such commendation bestowed on any Church or individual Christian. Happy they or he who deserves it. The Church at Ephesus is commended for:
1. Their works. "I know thy works." No idle, listless people were they, but active, alert, open eyed to note and enter where the kingdom of Christ might gain new subjects. The Lord locked down upon them with approval, and here tells them, "I know thy works."
2. Their labour. Twice is this mentioned (vers. 2, 3), and it denotes the Divine delight in the quality as well as the quantity of their works. It was strenuous, whole hearted, earnest. Too many who work for the Lord do so as if with but one hand, or even with one finger. It is the merest shred of their activity that they give to the Lord's work. But here it was as "with both hands earnestly." And they did this though it involved:
3. Their suffering. Thou "hast borne" (ver. 3). It means that they were not allowed to labour as they did unmolested. There would be plenty, as we know there were, from all manner of motives, to raise opposition and to resent what they so little liked, indeed hated. Cruel, fierce, relentless, unjust, the sufferings might be and were that their enemies inflicted, and which they had borne; but these did not daunt, dismay, or deter them from going right on. For next:
4. Their patience is commended. Generals in the armies of earth value highly what is called elan in their troops - the dash and rush and enthusiasm with which the brave fellows spring to the attack; but they value yet more "staying power" - that which depends more on dogged pertinacity and enduring courage than on aught beside. And there is the like of this in the spiritual warfare. High, eager courage at the outset, hearts filled with enthusiasm, - yes, these are good; but better still is what will ever be needed, and that is the grace of patience, the power to endure and not to faint. Thrice is this great and indispensable grace commended in this epistle, as if the Lord would show in how high esteem he held it. Oh for this power to labour on and not weary in well doing, to be patient and faint not! For one who has this there are many who will set out and set out well, but they soon get hindered and turn aside or stop altogether, and some even turn back to the world they had professed to leave. Blessed, then, is this grace of patience.
5. Their holy intolerance. There is an intolerance, and there is far too much of it, which is the fruit of conceit, of spiritual pride, of abject narrowness, of gross ignorance, and blind bigotry. They in whom it is found are perhaps amongst the very chiefest enemies of the Church of God, although they loudly boast to belong to its very elect. The intolerance of such is never holy. But, on the other hand, there is a tolerance which is a mere giving in to wickedness because we have not enough zeal for God and righteousness to withstand it. Such people boast of their broadness, but it is far too much of what Carlyle once called it when indignantly repudiating some of its teachings, "None of your heaven-and-hell amalgamation societies for me!" Of such people it could never have been said, as is here said of the Ephesian Church, "Thou canst not bear them which are evil." They would have palliated and explained and found some plausible pretext for even the most evil deeds. Now, in righteous contrast to these, the Ephesian Church would have no compromise with evil. That which is told in Acts 19. indicates this admirable quality in them. They brought their costly books of magic and burnt them - not selling them, or giving them away, or shutting them up, but getting right rid of them altogether, though so much might have been urged for milder measures. But these books, contaminated as they were with the foulness of idolatry, burning, they believed, was best for them, and burnt they were. It was a prelude to that after excellence of character which is here commended of the Lord. Under the ban of this righteous wrath two sets of persons deservedly came, both being generally described as "them that are evil."
(1) Pretended apostles. Renan and those who with him accentuate so strongly the undoubted differences that there were between Christians of the Pauline and the Petrine types, affirm that by "those who say they are apostles, and are not," John meant Paul. But they seem to forget that it is added that the Ephesian Church had "found these pretended apostles false." If, then, Paul was one, it is strange that, instead of finding him out as false, the Ephesian Church and its bishops - in the scene at Miletus - should have cherished the most tender affection and reverence for him; and that Polycarp, one of St. John's most distinguished disciples, should speak of Paul, as he does, as "the blessed and glorious Paul." No; it was not such as Paul that St. John meant, but wolves in sheep's clothing, base, bad men, lured by the bait of the influence and power which they saw the true apostles had, and pretended to be such in order that they might make gain for themselves. But it could not have been very difficult to detect such as these, and, being put to the test, they were cast out for what they were. Woe to the Church that tolerates, knowingly, impostors in her midst! that lets them remain amongst the true, though they be false!
(2) The Nicolaitans (see Exposition). They were practically antinomians. The sect flourishes still. Nicolaitans are everywhere, because everywhere there are men who will profess, believe, and do almost anything by which they think they may escape the hard necessity of obeying the moral laws of Christ. Well is it for the Church, well is it forevery one of us, to allow no pretence whatsoever to palliate evil deeds. Even the grace of God may be turned into lasciviousness, and it seems impossible to keep men back from presumptuous sins - sins, that is, for which they find, or think they find, encouragement in the doctrines of God's great mercy, and the all-atoning efficacy of our Saviour's death. But the Lord hates the deeds of such men, and may he help us to hate them too. The Church at Ephesus hated them, and are especially commended of the Lord for that they did so. But now the Lord says to them, "One thing thou lackest." Surely if ever there was a Church that seemed able to ask, without fear of an unfavourable reply, "What lack we yet?" this Church was such a one; but now, behold, the Lord turns from commendation to -
II. THE CENSURE. "I have... because thou hast left thy first love" (ver. 4). And this censure is very grave. It speaks of the conduct it condemns as:
1. A grievous fall. "Remember... whence thou art fallen." That which they had left and lost had lifted them high in the Divine love, had made them exceeding precious in his sight. But now all was changed. The Lord looked not on them now as he once did; they had "with shame to take a lower place."
2. A calling for prompt and practical repent. once. They were to "repent" and "do" their "first works."
3. Terrible in its consequences if there were not this repentance (ver. 5). Let Gibbon tell how, after more than a thousand years had passed - such was the Lord's long suffering - the dreadful threat was fulfilled, and the light of the lamp of gold that represented Ephesus was, with all the rest, faithful Smyrna and Philadelphia alone excepted, finally quenched. Then "the captivity or ruin of the seven Churches of Asia was consummated; and the barbarous lords of Ionia and Lydia still trample on the monuments of classic and Christian antiquity. In the loss of Ephesus, the Christians deplored the fall of the first angel, the extinction of the first candlestick of the Revelation; the desolation is complete; and the temple of Diana or the church of Mary will equally elude the search of the curious traveller. The circus and three stately theatres of Laodicea are now peopled with wolves and foxes; Sardis is reduced to a miserable village; the god of Mahomet, without a rival or a son, is invoked in the mosques of Thyatira and Pergamos; and the populousness of Smyrna is supported by a foreign trade of the Franks and Armenians. Philadelphia alone has been saved by prophecy or courage. At a distance from the sea, forgotten by the emperors, encompassed on all sides by the Turks, her valiant citizens defended their religion and freedom above four score years; and at length capitulated with the proudest of the Ottomans. Among the Greek colonies and Churches of Asia, Philadelphia is still erect, a column in a scene of ruins; a pleasing example that the paths of honour and safety may sometimes be the same" (ch. 64.). But this grave censure, and the awful consequences that ultimately ensued, lend urgency to the inquiry as to -
III. THE SAD CHURCH CONDITION THE CENSURE INDICATES. Probably it pointed:
1. To a slackening in those qualities for which they had been commended. And the moral atmosphere of a place like Ephesus could not but try them very severely. Even Timothy had to be warned against yielding to the sensuality of the place, and also against that rigorous asceticism to which tempted ones often resort as a sure defence against such sin. But the needs be that there must have been for such exhortation shows how strong the stream of evil tendency was in the place, and how difficult to continuously maintain that firm stand which in the first ardours of the Christian life they had taken and for a long while been faithful to. And undoubtedly this is how, in our own day, this leaving of our first love shows itself. What sincere Christian heart is there that has not once and again been pierced as he has remembered how true this censure is for himself? That sad but well known hymn of the saintly Cowper, "Oh for a closer walk with God!" is but one continued comment on this all too common sin. And so common has it become that we now almost expect that there will be this slackening of zeal when the first novelty of discipleship has passed away. The "goodness" of such will be, we all but assume, "as a morning cloud and as the early dew that goeth away." And the present all but impossible practice of personal and private pastoral dealing with individual souls lets this condition of things go on with all too much facility. But he who is faithful with himself will mark with sorrow the decline of his own spiritual life. When he has to drag himself to duty; when prayer and worship and work for Christ are turned from, in heart if not in act; when there is no longer any glow or fervour of feeling Christwards; when temptation, once resisted and spurned, now approaches and solicits, and is suffered so to do; - all these, and others like them, are symptoms, sure and sad enough, that the Lord has this against him, that he has left his first love. And this fact shows itself also:
2. In the altered spirit in which work is done. And this, we expect, was the gravamen of the charge as it referred to the Ephesian Church. We are not told that they had left off their works. But it was possible for them to continue and even to increase them, and yet this censure to be deserved. For it is the motive at which the Lord looks. Ere ever he would restore the recreant Peter to his apostleship, thrice over was the question asked, "Lovest thou me?" as if the Lord would teach him and all of us that love to himself is the one indispensable qualification of all acceptable service. And if from any one out of a multitude of other motives - mixed, and maybe mean, manifold certainly, as they are sure to be - the works we do are done, for all acceptance with Christ they might as well, and sometimes better, have been left undone. You may work and labour, suffer and be patient under it, hate many evil things and persons, and yet there be scarce one shred of love to Christ in it all (cf. 1 Corinthians 13.). It is well, indeed, for us to ask ourselves not merely what we do, but why? The answer to that might lead to some strange self revelations, but they would be salutary too. Without doubt they would be if they led us to listen to -
IV. CHRIST'S ENCOURAGING CALL TO COME BACK TO HIMSELF. For he does not close this letter without such call, which may "he who hath ears to hear" hear indeed. In what was said on the common characteristics of these letters, it was noted how they all taught that all might overcome. Victory was possible to all; none need despair. And this lies in these last words of the letter. It said to the Church at Ephesus, "You need no longer yield to that which draws you away from me; you can resist, you can overcome, and so return to me whom you have left." Such is the force of the words, "to him that overcometh." And then, that the possible may become the actual, Christ holds out the prize of victory, the recompense of their return to their first love (ver. 7). The promise seems to point back and on. Back to the primeval Paradise from which our first parents and all their descendants were shut out, lest they should eat of the tree of life. Now it is promised that that prohibition shall be withdrawn, the flaming sword of the cherubim "which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life," shall be sheathed, and access granted once more. But the Paradise shall not be the primeval one, but the heavenly, "the Paradise of my God" - so the Lord speaks of it. Far more, then, than all that has been lost shall be theirs if they repent and return, and so win the victory and overcome. The temptations to which they were exposed were forever clamouring that they should seize upon the sensual pleasures of this short life, and fill it up with them, such as they were. But the Lord's promise holds out to them the prize of a pure and perfect and perpetual life in the presence of God, and amid the pleasures forevermore which are in the Paradise of God. And that prize is held out to us as to them, and if it work in us our Lord's will and purpose, it will lead to that diligent culture of the soul, by constant and fervent prayer, and by the cherishing of all spiritual affections, and by yielding to all the Christward drawings of which once and again we are conscious; and so the soul's first love left and lost shall be found again; though it was as dead, yet shall it be alive once more. - S.C.
I. THE STARS. The Lord himself has told us whom these represent - the angels of the Churches; and in a previous homily we have given reasons for understanding these angels as the chief pastors of the several Churches. "If each Church had its angel, who had a letter addressed to him, who is spoken to in words of rebuke and exhortation, who could sin and repent, who could be persecuted and die, who could fall into heresies and be perfected by suffering, it seems to me a violent and unnecessary hypothesis that a superhuman being is in question." Furthermore, the name "angel," when applied to these august beings who dwell in the immediate presence of God, does by no means set forth their nature, but only their office and function of "messenger," which is what the word means. And is it not a most appropriate name for a Christian pastor? Not alone does he represent the Church over which he presides, and is largely responsible for its character and condition; but also he is, or should be, strictly speaking, their messenger, their angel. For is it not his bounden duty to go from them to God, and from God to them? Woe betide him if he fail herein! "God forbid," said the venerable Samuel, "that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you" (1 Samuel 12:23). And God forbid that any pastor now should sin against the Lord and his own soul and the souls committed to his charge by ceasing to pray for them. The path to the throne of grace should be a beaten track by him, and he should carry to their Lord their sins and sorrows, their cares and wants, and plead them as his people's messengers and representative before the Lord. And he should come from God to them. It is ill when he goes into his pulpit or pastoral work if he has not first been with God, and come from him to his people and his work. Yes, pastors are, or should be, "angels," in that their office is to go to and fro between their people and God as his messengers and theirs. But wherefore are they called "stars"? We are not distinctly told; we can only conjecture and suggest. Stars:
1. Are symbols of honour, dignity, authority, rule. "A star," it is said, "shall come out of Jacob;" and this is explained by the added parallel sentence, "and a sceptre shall arise out of Israel" (Numbers 24:17). And wherever stars are symbolically spoken of, this idea of dignity and authority is seldom wanting. The Lord lovingly appoints this symbol that he might let all men know, however much his faithful pastors might be despised by the world for their poverty and manifold meanness, as the world counts meanness, nevertheless in his esteem they rank high, they are as stars. Now, if any pastor, on the strength of this august symbol, should demand all manner of deference and submission, and find that instead thereof he gets only contempt and disregard, let him not blame anybody but himself. If he demand deference, he will not get it; but if he deserve it, he will be likely to get too much of it. The honour and authority of the ministry must be such as is spontaneously given; it can be had in no other way. But this symbol tells also:
2. Of the pastor's duty.
(1) He is to lighten the darkness of men, as the stars were to give light by night; the darkness of ignorance, of sorrow, of sin.
(2) He is to reflect the light of the Sun of Righteousness. Not by his own light, but by light reflected, is he to enlighten others.
(3) He is to keep his appointed course, in obedient, reverent service rendered unto God. "Wandering stars" are outcast from God. Men should ever know where to find the minister of God; his orbit - the holy ways of God - he should never quit.
(4) He should be above the world - his conversation in heaven, his citizenship there.
(5) He should be a sure guide for men's souls, as are the stars to the benighted, the traveller, the mariner; and, like the star of Bethlehem, he should ever guide men to Christ.
(6) And passing from the symbols to that which is meant, we find that pastors and Churches will very much resemble each other. "Like priest, like people," is true, but so is "Like people, like priest." A minister who, though he should be, is yet not as an angel, nor as a star, may, by his faithlessness, dim and darken, if not destroy, the light of the lamp he was appointed to tend. A congregation, a Church, a parish, - to what depths may it not fall under the influence of a prayerless pastor! And, on the other hand, one who comes to the sacred office in all the ardour of his "first love" may, by the chill freezing atmosphere in regard to God and his cause which he finds around him, be gradually dragged down to their level, and become even as they. Ah! what would any do were it not that the Lord holds the stars in his right hand, and walketh amidst the lamps of gold?
II. THE LAMP. We regard this word as every way more congruous than "candlestick." Candlesticks are not only a modern and mean article of furniture, but they were never used in the temple or tabernacle at all, and they suggest anything but the sacred and elevated idea that is here intended. We know that by these golden lamps the Churches are meant. But why are they thus called? Not without reason, we may be sure.
1. The lamps are to give light. That is their function. They are "lit not for themselves, but for their uses." Continually is this emblem made use of to tell of the character and conduct of Christ's people, what it is or should be. Radiant, cheering, silent, penetrating, beneficent, revealing, manifesting its source, but not itself. We see the sun, but not the rays which stream from it. So men are to see our light, but to glorify not us, but God. Such should the Churches be.
2. Their light is not their own. The lamp must be lit and fed. In vision Zechariah saw this truth set forth when he beheld the great temple lamp, and by the side of it the two olive trees, from which, through golden pipes, the sustaining oil was continually supplied. Christ lights every one of these lamps, and if, like John the Baptist, we are a burning and shining lamp - lamp, not light; Christ is the Light giver - and if, as he was, we are light, it is because "we are light in the Lord." And the Holy Spirit nurtures the light. That was the meaning of Zechariah's vision. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts" - such is the added explanation of the vision. Thus the light of these lamps of gold is not their own; they neither impart it at the first nor sustain it afterwards. Christ and the Spirit of God are the sources of the Church's light.
3. Their light is committed light. Each lamp has one burning light, but that one is made up of the combined illumination of every member of the Church. Just as the character of any given Church is the resultant of the varied spiritual forces that each member supplies, so the light of its lamp is the combined effect of the light in each individual. "A Church is not to be merely a multitude of separate points of brilliancy, but the separate points are to coalesce into one great-orbed brightness."
4. It is to be consecrated light. All in the ancient tabernacle and temple that was used in the immediate service of God was to be of gold. The gold showed that the service of the vessel, or instrument, or whatever it was, was for God, dedicated and due to him. And this truth the gold of which the lamps are formed sets forth. Churches are for God, for his service and glory. May all Churches heed this!
III. THE LORD. What is the relation between the stars, the lamps, and the Lord? Is it not that of:
1. Owner? He holds the stars in his strong right hand. They are his. He walks amid the lamps of gold as amid the possessions of his own house.
2. Protector? Who shall pluck the stars from his hand, or loosen his blessed hold? Who shall touch one of those lamps to hurt or harm it whilst he walks continually in their midst?
3. Searcher? The stars and the lamps are ever beneath his eye. He says to each one, "I know thy works."
4. Disposer? We are in his hand and power, to be dealt with as he wills. Though none other but he, yet he can unloose the grasp in which the stars are held, and can remove the lamp out of its place. May he forbid that this awful necessity should ever arise, for then the light of stars and lamps alike are quenched, and the blackness of darkness forever is their portion! And:
5. All this (vers. 1-4) he is evermore. "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." Not for the primitive Church alone, but for the Church of all ages, is this most surely true. Today may every faithful pastor say to himself, "I am my Lord's; he holds me in his right hand." And every Church of Christ may by faith behold him walking today - to cheer, to bless, to restore, to uplift, to chide, to strengthen, to quicken, to console, to save - amid the lamps of gold. - S.C.
I. THE SIGNAL OF THE LOSS OF THE VITAL SPRING OF THE CHURCH'S RELIGIOUS LIFE. The outward forms may be perfect, zeal may be maintained, patience unwearied, orthodoxy untarnished; but if love - the soul's secret energy - be impaired, time only is needed to bring the Church to utter decay.
II. IT IS AT ONCE THE CAUSE AND INDICATION OF A FALLEN CONDITION OF THE CHURCH. "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen."
III. IT EXPOSES TO THE JUDICIAL LOSS OF ALL. "Or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place." The means of recovery are:
1. Recollection. The thoughtful recall of the Church to its earlier condition. The very watchword of the epistle is "remember" - compare, contrast thy present with thy past state.
2. Repentance - ever to follow the recollection, which is the needful after thought, the first step in the process of true repentance. How would a faithful review bring the keen sense of loss, and lead the Church to rue its loss and fall and danger!
3. Renewal. "Do thy first works." A true repentance will declare itself in works answerable to amendment. To every one that truly heareth and "overcometh," the words of promise hold out the cheering assurance of life "in the Paradise of God." - R.G.
I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THESE LETTERS COMMON TO ALL. What are these? what are the points on which they all seem to agree?
1. In all Christ assumes different aspects. He does not appear to all alike. He approaches each in some special character. Thus:
(1) To Ephesus he appears as one "who holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, and who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks."
(2) To Smyrna he appears as "the First and the Last, who was dead, and is alive."
(3) To Pergamos as he of" the sharp sword with two edges."
(4) To Thyatira as "the Son of God, who hath his eyes as a flame of fire."
(5) To Sardis he appears as "he who hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars."
(6) To Philadelphia as "he that is holy and true, and hath the key of David."
(7) To Laodicea as "The Amen, the faithful and true Witness."
2. In all Christ addresses himself through a special officer. "Unto the angel." Who is the "angel" is a matter of controversy, and, to me, of little interest. Some seem very anxious to make him a bishop. If by "bishop" is meant a man who lives in a palace, fares sumptuously every day, rolls in chariots of wealth, and is invested with high-sounding titles, I do not think he could have been a bishop. No doubt he was the appointed messenger of the little community - one who had to receive and convey communications of general interest.
3. In all Christ declares his thorough knowledge of their moral history. Not merely the muscular, but the mental; not merely the works done by the body, but the works done in the body.
4. In all Christ promises great blessings to the morally victorious. "To him that overcometh." It is not said that every conqueror can have the same reward. To one is promised the "tree of life." To another, "to eat of the hidden manna," to receive a "white stone, with a new name written on it." To another, "power over the nations." To another, to be "clothed in white raiment." To another, to be made a "pillar in the temple of my God." And to another, "to sit with me in my throne," etc. To every moral conqueror there is a promised reward.
5. In all Christ commands attention to the voice of the Spirit. "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." "The Spirit" - the Spirit of truth and right, of love and God.
6. In all Christ's grand aim is spiritual culture. His admonitions, promises, and threats in' each case tend in this direction.
7. In all Christ observes a threefold division.
(1) "There is a reference to some of the attributes of him who addresses the Church.
(2) A disclosure of characteristics of the Church, with appropriate admonition, encouragement, or reproof.
(3) Promises of reward to all who persevere in their Christian course and overcome the spiritual enemies who assault them" (Moses Stuart).
II. CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH SOME OF THEM DIFFER.
1. We find two, namely, Smyrna and Philadelphia, who received commendation. They do not seem to be blamed for anything in doctrine, discipline, or manner of life. Of Smyrna it says, "Thou art rich," that is, "rich" in the elements of moral goodness. Of the Church of Philadelphia it is said, "Thou hast kept the word of my patience."
2. Two of them, namely, Sardis and Laodicea, are censured. Of the Church of Sardis it is said, "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead." Of the Church of Laodicea, "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot."
3. Three others are both praised and blamed. Those written to Ephesus, Pergamos, and Thyatira contain mingled censure and commendation. In some respects they deserve the one, and in some the other. In three cases, however, the approbation precedes the blame, thus showing, as Moses Stuart says, and as Paul in his Epistles shows, that it was more grateful to commend than to reprove. - D.T.
character of the author. Hence the words of truly great men, intellectually and morally great, are the most blessed of all the blessed things we have; they are the organs of the highest light and choicest life. Hence the words of Christ have a value unsurpassed and unsurpassable. They are spirit and they are life. No words have ever sounded on our atmosphere or appeared on the pages of universal literature approaching his in intrinsic value or spiritual usefulness. Here are his words after he had tabernacled on this earth for thirty long years, endured the agonies of crucifixion, slept in the darkness of the grave, and been in eternity for nearly three score years. Such words assuredly claim our supreme attention. They are addressed to the Church at Ephesus. For homiletic convenience the words of Christ in this epistle may be divided into four classes:
(1) Those which concern himself;
(2) those which concern the congregation;
(3) those which concern the Divine Spirit; and
(4) those which concern moral conquerors.
I. THOSE WHICH CONCERN HIMSELF. These refer to two things.
1. To his relation to the Church. "These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks." The "seven stars" are the leading ministers of the seven Churches. These he holds in his own hand. He holds the universe in his hands; he holds all men in his hand, good or bad. But the true ministers of his Word he holds in a special sense. He holds them with all the care and tenderness with which a loving father holds by the hand his weak and timid child on a dreary and dangerous path. Not only does he hold the ministers of these Churches in his hand, but he moves amongst them. "He walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks." "Christ," says Dr. Vaughan, "walks himself among his candlesticks, and each separate lamp, of all the thousands which make up the branches of one candlestick, is as much trimmed and tended and fostered by Christ himself as if there were no ether but that one, and as if there were no human agency at all constituted for its oversight."
2. To his knowledge of the Church. "I know thy works." He knows human works as no one else knows them. He knows not merely the overt acts, but inner motives; not merely the deeds done by the body, but in the body. His eye peers into those deep and vast regions of soul into which no other eye can pierce. "I know thy works." He knows what is in man. In the works which he knows are comprehended the trials endured. "Thy labour, and thy patience." The painful discovery of falsehood in those who called themselves apostles or ministers of Christ, and also all declension in what is good. "I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love." The fact that Christ so thoroughly knows us should make us real, solemn, circumspect, earnest.
II. THOSE WHICH CONCERN THE CONGREGATION.
1. He credits them with the good they possess. "Thou hast patience, and for my Name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted." There are four things which he sees in them to commend.
(1) Their repugnance to wrong. "Thou canst not bear them which are evil [or, 'evil men']." To loathe the wrong for its own sake is one of the finest features of character. It is common, perhaps, to hate evil men when they are in poverty, suffering, and disgrace; but in such hatred there is no virtue. To hate evil in men of great possessions and high offices, millionaires, premiers, princes, kings, is in truth somewhat uncommon; albeit evil in such is more heinous, more loathsome and damnable, than evil anywhere else. It is sublimely grand to see men loathing the wrong as seen in the principalities and powers of this world.
(2) Their patience in toil. Work is the duty of all, and the work of a genuine Christian in this life is most self sacrificing, laborious, and trying. Hence patience is required - required, on account of the opposition it has to encounter and the tardiness of the results. Wherefore, beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable," etc.
(3) Their insight into character. "Thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars." It is a rare thing for men to discern the real character of their fellow men, especially of that of their religious teachers - those who have set themselves up as "apostles." Hence the popularity of pulpit charlatans. All honour to the men at Ephesus; their eye was keen enough and heart brave enough to try the character of their teachers, which on scrutiny they found to be "liars."
(4) Their hostility to error. "But this thou hast, that thou hatest the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate." "We may suppose," says one of our most learned modern expositors, "that the Nicolaitanes were the antinomians of the Asiatic Church - persons who taught that the conduct is immaterial if the faith be right; that a man may say he hath faith, and, if so, may be indifferent altogether to his works; or who at least, if they did not teach this, yet encouraged the deceitful heart in drawing this inference, by failing to set strongly and even sharply before men the utter ruin of an inconsistent and unholy life, and then not least, but most of all, when that sinful life is combined with the loud profession of a saving faith." Error is an evil in whatever character it appears and region it operates. Error in chemistry, surgery, medicine, mechanics, navigation, etc., is often fraught with terrible results. To oppose error, therefore, is a virtue.
2. He reproves them for the declension they manifest. "Nevertheless... thou hast left thy first love." Christly love is the life and sun of the soul; it is the beginning and end of genuine religion. Without charity - love - we are nothing. There is a danger of this waning. Some of the angels have lost it. Many good men have experienced its decay. This is a great evil; it is the sap leaving the tree, and the foliage withers, and death descends from branch to root. Christ implies that men are responsible for this loss. Where this love exists it can not only be maintained but increased - the spark may be fanned into a flame.
3. He urges them to reform. In order to increase this waning love, he exhorts them to do four things.
(1) To remember. "Remember... whence thou art fallen." Review the past, and call to mind the sweet, delicate, blooming affection of thy first love, with all the fresh joys and hopes it awakened. This memory will help resuscitation.
(2) To "repent." Repentance does not mean crying, confessing, and throwing yourself into ecstasies, but a change in the spirit and purpose of life.
(3) To reproduce. "Do the first works." Go over thy past life, reproduce thy old feeling, and reattempt old effort. This can be done; we can relive our lives, the best as well as the worst portion of them.
(4) To tremble. "Or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of its place." "Terrible warning this! Let declension go on, and ruin is inevitable. This is true with individuals as well as with communities. In losing the candlestick, what a loss! The loss is midnight" (Caleb Morris).
III. THOSE WHICH CONCERN THE DIVINE SPIRIT. "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God." Two things are here implied.
1. That the Divine Spirit makes communication to all the Churches. He speaks through material nature, through our spiritual constitution, through human history, through Jesus Christ. "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son." Blessed thought! The Divine is in communication with the human, and has constant and special communication with the Churches. Christ, the Incarnation and the Minister of the Spirit, hath said, "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." The Spirit's words, as of old, bring life, order, light, and beauty out of chaos.
2. That proper attention to these communications requires a certain ear. "He that hath an ear." What is the ear? Not the mere ear of sense, nor the mere ear of intellect; it is the ear of the heart, the ear of sympathetic love. It is said that Christ opened the "ears of his disciples, that they might understand the Scriptures." The moral ear and eye of man are closed against the manifestation and voice of God. "The natural man discerneth not the things of the Spirit." Unless a man has the sentiment of melody in him, you may peal into his ear the most magnificent strains of music, and he feels no inspiration. Nothing comes to him but sound. As he who lacks an inward sympathy with the loftiest class of thoughts can listen unmoved to the grandest utterances of Plato, Milton, or Shakespeare; so he who lacks the ear of spiritual sympathy will be utterly unaffected by the communications which the Spirit makes to the Churches. "He that hath ears to hear" - it does not matter who he is, rich or poor, rude or cultured - "let him hear."
IV. THOSE WHICH CONCERN MORAL CONQUERORS. "To him that overcometh will I give [to him will I give] to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God [in the Paradise of God]." Observe:
1. Life is a battle. Enemies abound within and without. Spiritual excellence can only be reached by struggling, strenuous and unremitting.
2. Life is a battle that might be won. "Him that overcometh." Thousands upon thousands have won the battle and shouted, "Victory!" at the close.
3. The winning of the battle is glorious. "I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God." "The reference to conquering is a prominent feature of St. John's other writings. The word, used but once in the other three Gospels (Luke 11:22), and but once by St. Paul (Romans 12:21), is found in John 16:33; 1 John 2:13, 14; 1 John 5:4, 5; and occurs in all these epistles to the Churches. The promise of the tree of life is appropriate:
(1) To the virtue commended. Those who had not indulged in the licence of Nicolaitanes shall eat of the tree of life.
(2) To the special weakness of the Ephesians. To those who had fallen, and lost the Paradise of first loving communion and fellowship with God (comp. Genesis 3:8; 1 John 1:3), is held out the promise of a restored Paradise and participation in the tree of life (comp. Revelation 22:2-14; Genesis 3:22). This boon of immortality is the gift of Christ: 'I will give.' It is tasted in knowledge of God and of his Son (John 17:3); it is enjoyed in their presence (Revelation 22:3, 4)" (Bishop Boyd Carpenter). - D.T.
hic labor hoc opus est - this is toil indeed. Our text brings before us the case of those who have thus gone back, and whom the Lord is lovingly rousing to the resolve that they will regain what they have lost. Note -
I. WHAT THEY LEFT AND LOST. It was that blessed early condition of peace and joy Godward which the beginning of the religious life so often witnesses. "All things were new - Christ was new, the Word a new light, worship a new gift, the world a new realm of beauty, shining in the brightness of its Author; even the man himself was new to himself. Sin was gone, and fear also was gone with it. To love was his all, and he loved everything. The day dawned in joy, and the thoughts of the night were songs in his heart. Then how tender, how teachable! in his conscience how true! in his works how dutiful! It was the Divine childhood, as it were, of his faith, and the beauty of childhood was in it. This was his first love; and if all do not remember any precise experience of the kind, they do at least remember what so far resembled this as to leave no important distinction." There was fervour of feeling: a great outgoing of the soul towards Christ; much prayer, and that very real; hearty service; delight in worship - the sabbath, the sanctuary, the sacred service; the avoiding, not sin only, but its occasions, the "hating of the garment spotted by the flesh;" in short, there was a close walk with God. Blessed, blessed time, the primeval Paradise of the soul, the golden age, the leaving of which one might mourn, even as our first parents mourned when they were driven forth from Eden to the thorns and briars of the wilderness!
II. How IT CAME TO BE LEFT. Many are the explanations that might be given. In some, absorption overmuch in business; in others, the influence of unspiritual and worldly companions; in others, intellectual doubts, insinuated into the mind by unbelieving or sceptical books; in others, the chill moral atmosphere of the Church itself; in others, some lingering, lurking lust reasserting itself; and so on in ever increasing variety; but each one knows for himself how the going back was brought about. But that we may not make sorry those whom God has not made sorry, we would add the caution not to regard every fluctuation of feeling as proof of this going back. Some are forever tormenting themselves in this way, and so kill the very love they are looking for, and in looking for it. "The complications of the heart are infinite, and we may become confused in our attempts to untwist them." Men dig at the roots of their motives to see that they are the right ones, and the roots of tender plants cannot stand such rough handling. But whilst there are some who distress themselves when they have no need, there are more who have great need, and yet are not distressed as they should be. Let such consider -
III. WHAT COMES OF LEAVING OUR FIRST LOVE.
1. The Spirit of God is grieved. Can a father see his child turn cold and sullen towards him, and not be grieved? And in view of such turnings back from him, must not our Lord be in a very real sense "the Man of sorrows" still?
2. Sinful men are hardened in their sin. Their boast is that there is no reality in religion; that it is all a spasmodic passing thing; that the fervour of it in the beginning will soon cool down, and here is another proof that there is nothing in it.
3. The Church of God is distressed. Its members had relied upon those who have gone back, had hoped for much good from them, had looked to see them carrying on and extending the work of God around them; and now they are disappointed and made ashamed. The enemies of God blaspheme, and those who have gone back are the cause.
4. And they themselves suffer most of all.
(1) They are miserable; they have enough of religion left to give them disrelish for the ways of the world, but not near enough to give them the joy which belongs only to those who are whole hearted in the service of God.
(2) And they are on the verge of great and awful judgment. If they still go back, it will be "unto perdition;" and if, in God's mercy, they be made to stop ere they have gone to that last length, it will most likely have to be by some sharp scourging process, with many tears, and amid terrible trouble both without and within. What a pitiful journey that must have been when the wretched prodigal resolved at length that he would "arise, and go to his Father"! In what humiliation, fear, shame, distress, he had to urge his weary way along the return road! Only one thing could have been worse - that be should not have come back. Oh, you who are forsaking Christ, if you be really his, you will have to come back; but no joyous journey will that be for you. No, indeed! It never has been, and never can be. Still blessed be the Lord, who forces you to make it, difficult and hard though it be. It is the hand which was nailed to the cross, and the heart which there was pierced for you, that now wields the scourge which compels you, in sorrow and in shame, to come back to him whom you left. But -
IV. WHAT FOLLY IT IS TO LEAVE HIM AT ALL. Ministers of Christ are so fond, as well they may be, of proclaiming God's pardoning love, that they too much pass over his preserving love. We take it too much for granted that men will go off into "the far country," as that foolish younger son did; and we forget that much-maligned elder son who stayed at home with his father, and who was therefore far more blessed than the other could ever be. He could not understand his father's gentleness to that ne'er-do-well brother of his - as many still, and ever since the gospel has been preached, have failed to understand God's gentleness to returning sinners; and so he complained. But how did his father answer him? It is too little noted. "Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine;" the meaning of all which was, "What, my son! you complain at my forgiving and welcoming your poor wretched brother! you who are so much better off, you complain!" Yes, he was better off; his lot, as is the lot of all those who never leave their first love, is far the preferable one, and there is no need that we should choose the other. Never let it be forgotten that he who brought you to himself will keep you near to and in himself, as willingly as, surely more willingly than, he will receive you after you have gone astray. To be pardoned, ah! well may we thank God for that; but to have been preserved, to have been "kept from the evil so that it should not hurt us," to have been "kept in the love of God," - for that more thanksgiving still is due; and may God grant that we may be able forever and ever in his blessed presence to render it unto him. - S.C.
I. OF THE SAINTLINESS OF THE CHURCH AT SMYRNA. This is attested in this letter.
1. Negatively. No blame is given; there is not one word of censure, as there certainly would have been had there been occasion for it. He who could say with the authority of omniscience, "I know," and whose eyes were as "a flame of fire," would have at once discerned fault if fault there had been. No; this Church seems to have come nearest of all to that ideal Church which is "without blemish, having neither spot, nor wrinkle, nor any such thing." But this is attested also:
2. Positively. Direct affirmation of their high and holy character is given by the Lord's declaration, "Thou art rich" (ver. 9). Yes; rich in the favour and love of God; rich in the gifts of the Holy Ghost; rich in the blessed prospect of the crown of life, which assuredly should be theirs; rich in present knowledge, consolation, and hope; rich in the help and blessing they should impart to others. Poverty there might be and was in regard to this world's wealth, but over against it was to be set, and doubtless they did so set it, the wealth of the kingdom of God which they knew was theirs. Let us ask ourselves - Would we have sided with them in their estimate of the relative value of the two riches? Would we have counted the spiritual wealth they chose greater riches than all the glittering, present, and tangible treasures of the world? They made such choice. Pray for grace to do the same.
II. THEIR SORROWS. "Many sorrows shall be to the wicked," saith God; but once and again, and maybe yet again it will be so, many sorrows have befallen God's saints, even the most loving and faithful of them. It was so with the suffering Church at Smyrna. Their sorrows are described as:
1. Tribulation. Already the storm of persecution had burst and was beating fiercely on the despised community that dared defy the pagan population, and the worship that was established in the city. Judging from what we know actually took place there and elsewhere at this period, there would be no lack of persecutors of all sorts in whom the deep hatred of the Christians, which had become all but universal, would urge them on to the infliction of all manner of suffering which might well be, and could only be, described as "tribulation."
2. Poverty. In wealthy cities such as Smyrna, where buying, selling, and getting gain was the all-absorbing occupation, and where success, which meant wealth, was, as elsewhere and as in our own day, all but worshipped, poverty was not merely odious, but even infamous. And in all probability the poverty of not a few of the Christians at Smyrna was directly traceable to the fact of their being Christians. They would be shunned and disliked, and it is easy to see how soon, under such circumstances, men who had been prosperous hitherto would fall into poverty. And the temptation to abandon a faith which involved such results must have been very strong, especially when they could not but know that they would abandon their miserable poverty at the same time, and return to the prosperity which they had lost. Ah! if now Christ could only be served at the cost which the Christians at Smyrna had to bear, how many would come to his service? how many would continue in it? But Christianity has long ago found out a way to make the best of both worlds, though whether to the enhancement of her power and glory may be gravely doubted.
3. Slander. The strong word "blasphemy" is employed, for the revilings of their enemies would, as such ever do, glance off from the Lord's servants to the Lord himself, and would become blasphemies - revilings against the Lord. What form these took, or on what they were based, we do not certainly know; but with the records of the New Testament and of Church history in our hands, we may reasonably infer that they had to do with the relations of the Christians:
(1) To the government of the day; accusing them of sedition and disloyalty, for which their persistent refusal to offer sacrifice to the emperor would afford plausible pretext.
(2) To society. Not a few of the popular games and festivals, as well as more social gatherings, involved sacrifices to idols, and from these the Christians would stand rigidly aloof. Thus they would be regarded as morose, misanthropical, and in other ways odious. They would be, as they were, denounced as haters of the human race.
(3) To morality. It was charged against them that their assemblies, which they were commonly obliged to hold at night, were for the vilest of purposes. There was no vice or crime which was counted too bad to charge them with.
(4) To God. The Jews would say of them, as Christ forewarned his disciples that they would, even as they had said it of him, that they were servants of Beelzebub (cf. Matthew 10.). Hence any who slew them thought they did God service. Such probably were some of the blasphemies which were spoken against them, and which they had to bear as best they might. Foul-mouthed Jews, "synagogues of Satan," and no true children of Abraham, as they said they were, but were not, together with those of "the baser sort amongst the heathen, would be quick to invent and spread these slanders, and to wound with worse than words if but they had the power. And they were to have it (ver. 10); for:
4. Their prospects were ever darkening. Very interesting in the light of this letter is it to read what is told us of Polycarp, St. John's own disciple, and who was, if not the very angel, yet an angel of the Church at Smyrna to whom this letter was sent. We possess a letter of his writing, a description of his character, and a detailed record of his martyrdom. And this last so beautifully illustrates the prophecy, the charge, and the promise of this letter, that it is well worthy of our notice in connection with what is here said of the Church of which he was the beloved, the honoured, and faithful pastor, when he won the martyr's crown. In the year of our Lord 167 a cruel persecution broke out against the Christians of Asia Minor. Polycarp would have awaited at his post the fate which threatened him, but his people compelled him to shelter himself in a quiet retreat, where he might, it was thought, safely hide. And for a while he remained undiscovered, and busied himself, so we are told, in prayers and intercessions for the persecuted Church. At last his enemies seized on a child, and, by torture, compelled him to make known where he was. Satisfied now that his hour was come, he refused further flight, saying, "The will of God be done." He came from the upper story of the house to meet his captors, ordered them as much refreshment as they might desire, and only asked of them this favour, that they would grant him yet one hour of undisturbed prayer. The fulness of his heart carried him on for two hours, and even the heathen, we are told, were touched by the sight of the old man's devotion. He was then conveyed back to the city, to Smyrna. The officer before whom he was brought tried to persuade him to yield to the small demand made upon him. "What harm," he asked, "can it do you to offer sacrifice to the emperor?" This was the test which was commonly applied to those accused of Christianity. But not for one moment would the venerable Polycarp consent. Rougher measures were then tried, and he was flung from the carriage in which he was being conveyed. When he appeared in the amphitheatre, the magistrate said to him, "Swear, curse Christ, and I will set thee free." But the old man answered, "Eighty and six years have I served Christ, and he has never done me wrong: how, then, can I curse him, my King and my Saviour?" In vain was he threatened with being thrown to the wild beasts or burned alive; and at last the fatal proclamation was made, that "Polycarp confessed himself a Christian." This was the death-warrant. He was condemned to be burnt alive. Jews and Gentiles, the whole "synagogue of Satan," here described, alike, hastened in rage and fury to collect wood from the baths and workshops for the funeral pile. The old man laid aside his garments, and took his place in the midst of the fuel. When they would have nailed him to the stake, he said to them, "Leave me thus, I pray, unfastened; he who has enabled me to brave the fire will give me strength also to endure its fierceness." He then uttered this brief prayer: "O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received a knowledge of thee, God of the angels and of t he whole creation, of the whole race of man, and of the saints who live before thy presence; I thank thee that thou hast thought me worthy, this day and this hour, to share the cup of thy Christ among the number of thy witnesses!" The fire was kindled; but a high wind drove the flame to one side, and prolonged his sufferings; at last the executioner despatched him with a sword." So did one of Christ's poor saints at Smyrna die, "faithful unto death," and winner of "the crown of life," and never to "be hurt of the second death." But if these were, and they were, the sorrows and sufferings that they had to endure, what sustained them? Note, therefore -
III. THEIR SUPPORTS. For it is evident such would be needed. The very word of the Lord to them, "Fear not," indicates how great the peril was of their being crushed and heart-broken under the tribulations through which they were called to pass. Despondency and despair threatened them. To meet this their Lord was ready with his aid. It was given in manifold ways. He did not merely say to them, "Fear not," but showed them abundant reason wherefore they should not fear.
1. And first and chief: His own Name. "I am the First and the Last... alive" (ver. 8). Here, as throughout these letters, that aspect of our Lord's character is turned to the Church addressed which it most needed to consider and lay to heart. It was so with the Church at Ephesus. They were reminded of the Lord's nearness to and. knowledge of them and of his power and purpose to dispose of them according as their work should be. And now here, when he would comfort and strengthen the fearful, he tells them that about himself which could not but lift up their hearts, as doubtless it did. "I am the First;" i.e. "I am at the head and beginning of all things; all were ordered and arranged according to the counsel of my will; nothing comes by chance; nothing has been left unprovided for. "And the Last;" i.e. "When men and Satan have done their all, and nothing is left more that they can do, and they shall have gone to their own place, I shall remain, and of my kingdom there shall be no end. Therefore, remember, the eternal God is thy Refuge, and underneath thee are the everlasting arms." "Which was dead;" i.e. "I have entered into all that can by any possibility be before you. I, of my own will, went down into the pain and darkness of death; I know all about it, O my people, and know how you feel, for I was in all points tried like as you are. And I entered into death that I might be the better able to help you. And see, I live! Sin and hell did their worst against me, but, behold, I am 'alive forevermore" When the apostle saw the vision of his Lord, and fell at his feet as dead, it was this same word, this same august Name of the Lord, that lifted him up again. And it was to do the same for the depressed and desponding Church at Smyrna. And next:
2. His knowledge, so perfect and complete, of them and all that concerned them. "I know thy works," he tells them, and then he goes on to give them details which showed the fulness of his knowledge. And that which they could not but believe, for the proof of it was before their eyes, would help them to believe in his knowledge when it affirmed what as yet was very far from being evident to them. He said to them, "Thou art rich." He, then, knew of treasure store of good which they did not; of recompense of reward so vast that their present poverty should be all forgotten. And he knew that all the accusations of their enemies were not true, as, perhaps, sometimes, in their more misgiving moods, they had half feared some of them might be, and were in consequence staggered beneath them. But now he came and declared them to be not true, but "blasphemies." They need trouble themselves, therefore, no more about them. And he knew the future as well as the present; what the devil, through his willing workmen, would do to them. He knew it all; knew why he would do it - "that they might be tempted," not tried, but seduced, and made to deny their Lord. He saw through it all, and now told them of it to brace them more firmly for the struggle before them. And he knew that the struggle, though sharp, should as certainly be short. "Ten days," he says, as we say, "A mere nine days' wonder;" by which we mean a merely passing, temporary, brief thing. So their trial should be so short that it should hardly have begun before it was ended. And should some of them be condemned to die, as they would be, let them be faithful right up to that point, and death should prove to them the goal of the race, where they should find their Lord, the Judge, waiting with the crown of victory in his hand, reaching forth to bestow it upon them. And this is how further the Lord cheers them, by
3. The glorious prize he promises them. That prize was life; the crown was the life; the life eternal, blessed, holy, forever with the Lord. So that the moment the headsman's axe, or the flame of fire, or the fangs of fierce beasts, put an end to the poor troubled life they now had, that moment the Lord should give them, in place of it, this crown of the eternal life. So that even death could only do them good, and as to the second death, most assuredly - such is the force of the Greek - that should do them no harm; that which should be the overwhelming horror of Christ's enemies should not even come nigh unto them, the overcoming ones, but life, eternal life, life with their Lord forever, that should be theirs. Oh, is not all this a "sursum corda" indeed? And it is but the type of what the same ever-blessed Lord will ever do. Hence he says, "He that hath an ear, let him hear." Well, then, my tried and tempted brother, mind that you hear. And you, godly working man in shop or factory, with a multitude of mocking mates, who well nigh wear your life out with their ungodly ways; and you, dear boys or girls at school, who have to run the gauntlet of sneers that stab, and taunts that torment your very soul; and whosoever you may be, child of God, that has to bear tribulation for Christ; - you have ears to hear; then do hear, for Christ meant this word for you. - S.C.
Fear not." This rallying word of the great Captain is strengthened, and the heart of the Church is assured -
I. BY THE CHARACTER OF HIM WHO UTTERS IT. "The First and the Last, which was dead, and lived again." The assurance from the revived Lord, who had conquered death and proved himself superior to it, would be the most cheering to them who were threatened with death. If they suffer with him, they shall also reign with him.
II. BY THE ASSERTION THAT ALL IS ENDURED IN VIEW OF THE LORD OF THE CHURCH, "I know thy tribulation." The eye of the sympathizing Lord is upon them. They are not forgotten - forsaken. Jesus is near.
III. BY THE TEMPORARY DURATION OF THE AFFLICTION. "Ye shall have tribulation ten days." It is a measured time, and a brief one. It is not forever. The Lord, who placed bounds to the sea, has put a limit to the sufferings of his Church. It shall pass away. "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."
IV. BY PROMISE OF THE FINAL REWARDS OF ETERNAL LIFE, and by assurance of exemption from the "hurt of the second death." The first death may conquer them and lay them low, but they shall ultimately triumph. If fidelity be maintained even unto and in spite of death, the highest rewards shall be given. "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." - R.G.
(1) Wealth is, poverty;
(2) fiends in religion;
(3) saints in persecution;
(4) duty in trial; and
(5) victory in death.
I. WEALTH IN POVERTY. "I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, but thou art rich." "I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty." The poverty here is secular, not spiritual; the wealth spiritual, not secular. These two conditions of being arc separable, and are, in the vast majority of cases in human life, detached. Sometimes you find, as in the case of the Laodiceans, secular wealth associated with spiritual poverty; and modern society here in England abounds with examples of this condition. Secular princes, moral paupers; but in Smyrna the case is different. It does not seem morally proper that, according to the order of administrative righteousness, these two conditions should be separate. The sight of secular abundance, where there is moral destitution - the destitution of true virtue - is repugnant at once to our conscience and our reason. Nor is the sight of virtuous affluence in connection with secular indigence and want a less incongruous sight. Antecedently, we should have concluded that, under the government of righteousness, in proportion to a man's moral excellence will be his temporal prosperity; and the converse. Looking at these conditions, separate as they seem to have been in the case of Smyrnaean Christians, which is the better? Decidedly the condition of spiritual wealth with secular poverty, and for the following reasons:
1. Secular wealth is of contingent value; spiritual is of absolute worth. All earthly property is but life leased, and all life leased property decreases in value every day. Not so spiritual; in all worlds and in all times it is of equal worth.
2. Spiritual wealth is essentially virtuous; not so secular. There is no virtue in the possession of material wealth. It comes to a man sometimes independently of his efforts, and often by efforts that involve the sacrifice of all the great principles of religion and fair dealing. Wealth may, indeed, often stand as the effect and sign of great tact, keensightedness, and resolute perseverance, but not always, alas! of righteous dealing. The history of fortune making is too often the history of low cunning, moral falsehood, and legal fraud. Moral wealth, however, is virtue itself; all must feel it is praiseworthy; it secures the "well done" of conscience, the approval of all pure intelligences, and of the great God himself. It is intrinsically meritorious and praiseworthy.
3. Spiritual wealth is essentially a blessing; secular often a bane. Virtue is its own reward; it is the paradise of the soul. But secular wealth often undermines the health, enfeebles the intellect, and carnalizes the heart.
4. Spiritual wealth is inalienable; secular is not. How often temporal wealth takes to itself wings, and flies away! At death all goes; not a fraction is carried into eternity. Not so spiritual. Character we carry with us wherever we go.
5. Spiritual wealth commands moral respect; not so secular. A wretched flunkeyism shouts "Hosannah!" to a man in lordly mansions, or wrapt in purple robes, however corrupt in heart he may be. But strip the hero of his grandeur, and reduce him to pauperism and beggary, and the miserable devotee will recoil with disgust. But spiritual wealth commands moral reverence everywhere.
II. FIENDS IN RELIGION. "I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and [they] are not, but are the [a] synagogue of Satan." Though the "Jews" here described are fiendishly bad, they had their synagogue, their place of worship. They perhaps attended to the forms of religion, read and expounded the Scriptures in their own way, but their religion was fiendish. "Are the synagogue of Satan." Satan has ever had much to do with religion. Religion, not godliness, is at once his shrine and his instrument. Religion has been and still is the greatest curse of the world; it is the nursery and the arena of every fiendish sentiment. It was religion that put to death the Son of God himself. There are churches and conventicles that are rather the "synagogues of Satan" than the temples of Christ; in their assemblies there are fiends in human form, service, and voice. They breathe the spirit of intolerant sectarianism and bigotry, and disseminate degrading and blasphemous views of the all-loving Maker and Manager of the universe. The difference between what is called religion and Christliness is the difference between light and darkness - life and death. Satan has ever had his synagogues.
III. SAINTS IN PERSECUTION. "Fear none of these things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days." Christ, when on earth, assured his disciples that they should have "tribulation." In the world they shall have "tribulation." And now from the heights of eternity he sounds the same warning. The words suggest four things concerning their persecution.
1. It was religious. It came from those who belonged to the synagogue, and those who prided themselves on being Jews descendants of Abraham, who was the father of the faithful. A spurious religion has ever been the chiefest and the bitterest fountain of persecution. Inquisitions have been constructed, chains have been forged, tortures have been inflicted, and martyr fires been kindled by the men of the synagogue.
2. The persecution was severe. "I know thy tribulation." It consists of impoverishment, "blasphemy," and reviling, and imprisonment. "Cast some of you into prison." Corrupt religion dries up the fountains of social sympathy in the human breast, dehumanizes human nature - turns man into a devil.
3. The persecution was testing. "That ye may be tried." As if Christ had said, "You are to be subject to a trying, a sifting, a testing process. It must be shown, to yourselves and to those who look on, what there is in you of empty, hollow, cowardly profession. I cannot excuse you from this necessity."
4. The persecution was short. "Ten days." It is idle, puerile, to inquire what exact period of time is involved in these words. I take the idea to mean brevity. It is a short period. All the afflictions of the good are brief. "Our light affliction," etc. The storm may be sharp, but it will be short. Great trials seldom last long. The sufferings of the good here are not penal, but disciplinary; not judicial, but paternal. "What son is he that the father chasteneth not?" etc.
IV. DUTY IN TRIAL. How are the trials to be endured?
1. With courage. Servile fear is at once an uuvirtuous and pernicious element in the mind; it is inimical to the healthy growth of our faculties, and to the maturing of our moral manhood. Hence Christ everywhere proscribes it. He enjoins courage: "Fear not," be intrepid, be brave, endure with magnanimity, struggle with invincibility. "None of these things move me," said Paul; and:
2. He enjoins faithfulness. "Be faithful." Do not let the fiercest storms cause you to swerve one iota from rectitude. "Quit you like men;" "Be strong in the Lord." Be faithful to your God and your conscience.
3. He enjoins perseverance. "Unto death." If you can be faithful up to death you will be faithful afterwards, for your obligations will remain, your temptations will be gone.
4. He enjoins reflectiveness. "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches." Let the mind ever rest in deep and devout thought on the Divine which is speaking everywhere on all things.
V. VICTORY IN DEATH. "He that overcometh shall not he hurt of the second death." The "second death" is the death of the soul, the death of that which makes all life valuable. From such a death the truly loyal and faithful shall be delivered, and, more than this, he shall have a "crown" and a "wreath of life." A crown stands for the most elevated distinction, the highest honour. This distinction James calls "a crown of life;" Paul, "a crown of glory;" Peter, "a crown of righteousness." What is the crown of life? Perfect moral manhood. - D.T.
"On whose still-recurring page I. IN PHYSICAL LIFE. The body that is to become agile, healthy, strong, must not be pampered or allowed to lie at home in indolence. Athletes are not made so. But by discipline, toil, severe exercise. II. IN MENTAL LIFE. What drudgery and grind at tasks arid as sand, and demanding severe effort of mind in proportion to their dryness, have to be submitted to! Scholarship is not to be attained by mere wishing for it. Look at the men who have won prizes in this department of life, and the traces of their toil will be seen furrowed in their countenances, and, too often, in worn and wasted frames. III. IN MORAL LIFE. Innocence is pleasing enough, but if it is to be uplifted into virtue, it must be tried and disciplined. Temptation is the athletic of the soul, the indispensable training for its attainment of high moral excellence. A cloistered virtue is rarely a robust one; it is in the arena of the world, where the stress and strain of fierce temptation will have to be endured, that we gain real strength. And so - IV. IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE. Excellence in any of those regions of life of which we have already spoken is not easily attainable; one obstacle and another stand in the way, and must be overcome. But most of all must we expect to meet opposition when we strive for excellence in the spiritual life. The school is so hard a one that we should never go to it of our own accord, and therefore God sooner or later sends us all there. And some he sends early and keeps them late. And in it are heard strong cries and tears, agonized prayers, and often the moan of pain and the wail of the bereaved. There are broken hearts not a few, and souls overwhelmed with woe. What is the meaning of it all - the disappointment, the weariness and distress, the whole creation groaning and travailing together in pain even until now - what means it, but that our spirits are thus being taught and trained and educated for the higher life of God? Verily for this crown there is no other way than the way of the cross. And that we may the less shrink from it, our Lord himself came down from heaven to earth, and lived here our life, and, above all, bore our cross, only that his was much heavier and sharper than ours. "I love to lie here and look at that," said a poor dying girl to the writer, who was visiting her one day, and noticed a porcelain cast representing our Saviour bearing his cross, which was hanging at the side of her bed; "it helps me," she said, "to bear my pain better." Ah! yes; that Christ has borne his cross does help all who trust in him the better to bear theirs, and so the better and sooner and surer to attain to that spiritual excellence for which all the often stern disciplines of life here are preparing us. - S.C.
I. IN PHYSICAL LIFE. The body that is to become agile, healthy, strong, must not be pampered or allowed to lie at home in indolence. Athletes are not made so. But by discipline, toil, severe exercise.
II. IN MENTAL LIFE. What drudgery and grind at tasks arid as sand, and demanding severe effort of mind in proportion to their dryness, have to be submitted to! Scholarship is not to be attained by mere wishing for it. Look at the men who have won prizes in this department of life, and the traces of their toil will be seen furrowed in their countenances, and, too often, in worn and wasted frames.
III. IN MORAL LIFE. Innocence is pleasing enough, but if it is to be uplifted into virtue, it must be tried and disciplined. Temptation is the athletic of the soul, the indispensable training for its attainment of high moral excellence. A cloistered virtue is rarely a robust one; it is in the arena of the world, where the stress and strain of fierce temptation will have to be endured, that we gain real strength. And so -
IV. IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE. Excellence in any of those regions of life of which we have already spoken is not easily attainable; one obstacle and another stand in the way, and must be overcome. But most of all must we expect to meet opposition when we strive for excellence in the spiritual life. The school is so hard a one that we should never go to it of our own accord, and therefore God sooner or later sends us all there. And some he sends early and keeps them late. And in it are heard strong cries and tears, agonized prayers, and often the moan of pain and the wail of the bereaved. There are broken hearts not a few, and souls overwhelmed with woe. What is the meaning of it all - the disappointment, the weariness and distress, the whole creation groaning and travailing together in pain even until now - what means it, but that our spirits are thus being taught and trained and educated for the higher life of God? Verily for this crown there is no other way than the way of the cross. And that we may the less shrink from it, our Lord himself came down from heaven to earth, and lived here our life, and, above all, bore our cross, only that his was much heavier and sharper than ours. "I love to lie here and look at that," said a poor dying girl to the writer, who was visiting her one day, and noticed a porcelain cast representing our Saviour bearing his cross, which was hanging at the side of her bed; "it helps me," she said, "to bear my pain better." Ah! yes; that Christ has borne his cross does help all who trust in him the better to bear theirs, and so the better and sooner and surer to attain to that spiritual excellence for which all the often stern disciplines of life here are preparing us. - S.C.
The sharp two-edged sword." For this letter is largely illustrative of its work. In Revelation 1. we saw it in St. John's vision; here we see it in the experience of the Church. But whilst the main reference is to that vision, there is farther appropriateness from the allusions to the wilderness life of Israel, with which this letter abounds. Balaam's vile work against them - the sin into which they fell, the sword which Balaam saw in the hands of the angel of the Lord seeking to stay him in his evil way, and the sword with which at last he was slain, seem all to be suggested. Then the mention of the manna belongs also to that same wilderness life. It was well that the ungodly at Pergamos should be reminded of that sword, and the faithful of that manna. But it is from the vision told of in Revelation 1. that the name our Lord here assumes is mainly taken. Note -
I. WHAT IS MEANT BY THIS SWORD. With the Bible in our hands, we cannot long be in doubt on this question; for at once there occurs to the memory the familiar text in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which tells how the Word of God is "quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword." And there is that other which is like unto it in the Epistle to the Ephesians, "The sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God." And in Isaiah we have a similar expression, "He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword." And even human and evil words are thus symbolized, as in the Psalms: "Their words are swords and arrows, even bitter words;" and again, "Their tongue is a sharp sword." And the comparison is a frequent one. The Word of God, therefore, is evidently what is meant by this sword with two edges.
II. THE MANNER OF ITS OPERATION. In this letter this power of the sword is seen at work. In the vision, St. John had observed that the breath proceeding from the mouth of him who was "like unto the Son of man" took the form and shape of a sharp two-edged sword, such as was in common use in the armies of the day. Hence St. Paul, speaking of this sword, says, "The Lord shall destroy the wicked one with the breath of his mouth" (2 Thessalonians 2:8). And in the brightness of the glory with which the entire vision was surrounded, the sword like form seemed to flash and glitter as if it were a veritable sword proceeding out of the mouth of the Son of man. And in this letter we see that sword which the vision symbolized exercising its mighty power. We see:
1. Its point, piercing even to the dividing asunder of that which had been so blended together as scarce to be distinguished or separated. For the character of the Church at Pergamos was like that of well nigh all other Churches, a mixture of evil and good. There was that which could be urged in its favour, and that also which could be charged against it to its shame. And this sword is here seen dividing them.
(1) it separates the good, and there were such.
(a) They had been faithful to Christ's Name. They had loyally stood by it even when to do so had involved awful peril - peril in which one Antipas, who had been eminent for his fidelity, had been slain by the infuriated foe. Yet in those fearful days - days like those of the persecution which arose about Stephen in Jerusalem - the faithful at Pergamos had not flinched.
(b) And the Church had been fruitful. It was no small honour to have nurtured in her midst such a soul as that of Antipas. It is a sign of the marked grace of God when a Church becomes the home, chosen and beloved, of holy souls; when they find in it an atmosphere helpful and stimulating to all that is good within them.
(c) And all this under great disadvantages. "I know," the Lord says, "thy works, and where thou dwellest, where Satan's seat is; 'and this is told of again lower down in the same verse; thus implying the Lord's recognition of the fact that to serve him there was indeed difficult, and so all the more honourable and meritorious, Now, why Pergamos came to be regarded as the devil's headquarters, his seat and throne, it is not easy to say. The place was one of great beauty, adorned with magnificent temples, possessed of a superb library containing hundreds of thousands of volumes. Our word "parchment" is derived from the dressed skins which were so largely used at Pergamos, and on which the books were written. Hence these skins came to be called by the name of Pergamos, or parchment. The place was not, as Ephesus or Smyrna, famous for trade, but for its culture and refinement. It was a sort of union of a pagan cathedral city and university; and a royal residence, gorgeous in its magnificence, further adorned it. Jupiter was said to have been born there, and temples to him and to innumerable gods were on every hand. The whole tone of the place must, therefore, have been utterly opposed to the faith of Christ. It had no liking for the purity, the self denial, and the unworldliness of the Church, but revelled in the very reverse of all these things. All that could sap and undermine the faith and the faithful was there in full force. It was Satan's throne indeed. Now, for that even there they held fast Christ's name, they deserved, and here receive, high commendation from the Lord. But the sword
(2) separates the evil; for there were amongst them
(a) men who held the truth in unrighteousness. This was what Balaam did. No man ever knew, no man ever professed, a purer faith, a holier doctrine, than did he; and yet, blinded by his greed of gain, he held it so imprisoned in unrighteousness that it had no power over him, and left him unchecked to all the wickedness of his heart. Now, there were such men at Pergamos; and where have they not been and are they not still? And
(b) there were those who perverted the gospel to licentiousness. There were the Nicolaitans. And they, too, have had, and have still, their successors: God keep us from being of their number! But then the good and the evil were so blended together that to separate them was beyond mere human power. In the brightness of the good some might not perceive the evil; in the darkness of the evil others might not perceive the good. But the sword of the Spirit severs them. For Churches, for individuals, Christ by his Word does this still. Pray him to do so for ourselves.
2. Its double edge. For it had this as well as its piercing point. And this, probably, that as with the literal sword the soldier in the thick of the fight might strike on the right hand and the left, with the back as well as the front, so with this sword of the Spirit foes on either hand might be smitten down. Thus is it in this letter.
(1) It smites presumption and all high-handed sin. Read the awful threatenings here. How they hew down those who set themselves against the Lord!
(2) Despondency and despair. This is a peril on the other side, a foe to faith as formidable as the other; and by this sword the Lord smites this adversary also. Read the sweet, soothing, soul-assuring promises (ver. 17).
(a) "The hidden manna." It means that support and sustentation of the soul as it presses on through the!wilderness of life, heavenward, which the Lord will give, and does give, to his faithful ones, as the manna sustained Israel on their march Canaanwards. "I am the true Bread from heaven," said Christ (cf. John 6.). It is real, substantial, effectually supporting the soul, as ten thousand facts testify. But hidden, because unseen and unknown by the world. "Your life is hid with Christ in God." What, then, though weary leagues of barren, burning sand lie between God's Israel and their home? here is promise of all need supplied, every want met.
(b) The white stone with the new name; i.e. Christ's faithful shall have given them personal assurance of their membership in the family of God (cf. "The Spirit beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God"). Now, the white stone is that on which a communication is written (cf. Luke 1:63). Hence it tells of a communication, real, in writing as it were, to the soul of the believer. And this communication consists of "a name." When a child is born into a family, a name is given it. So in God's family. To the children of the world it will be said, "I never knew you;" but for his own children there is a name given. And a new name, indicating admission to higher privilege and favour, as did the names of Abraham, Sarah, Israel, Hephzibah, Beulah, Peter. They were all new names, and all told of new grace and favour from God. And a name unknown to all but the receiver. The proofs of the believer's sonship are known only to himself and God. The Spirit's witness: who can put that into words, and tell it out to others? Many a one cannot tell you why he knows he is God's child, but he does know it. The white stone has been given to him, and blessed is he. And is not this a stay against all despair, despondency, and everything of the kind? As the well-known verse sings -
"When I can read my title clear CONCLUSION. All this supposes that you are of the overcoming ones. This word is "to him that overcometh." Not to them that are overcome. But you may overcome. By fervent prayer, by unreserved consecration, by constant "looking unto Jesus" by use of all means of grace, so abide in Christ, and he shall make you "more than conqueror." - S.C.
CONCLUSION. All this supposes that you are of the overcoming ones. This word is "to him that overcometh." Not to them that are overcome. But you may overcome. By fervent prayer, by unreserved consecration, by constant "looking unto Jesus" by use of all means of grace, so abide in Christ, and he shall make you "more than conqueror." - S.C.
I. IT IS THE IMPERATIVE DEMAND OF THE RIGHTEOUS LORD. That he should utter the word of warning and admonition is sufficient. No one ought to wait to find other motive for obedience; every motive is folded up within this one. It is the Lord's cry to repentance. His word only has authority within his Church.
II. IT IS THE JUST AND NECESSARY STEP IN THE PROCESS OF RECOVERY. Repentance alone can save them. Without it judgment must come. The "therefore" throws the Church back upon the consideration why it should repent. The error, the wrong, the departure, demand the lowly penitence, the humble confession, the renewed devotion.
III. BY THE TERRIBLE ALTERNATIVE OF THE DIVINE INVITATION. "Or I come to thee quickly." The Lord comes to his needy Church to supply its wants; to his Church in sorrow to comfort it; but in judgment if it be unfaithful.
IV. BY THE HEAVY JUDGMENTS WHICH ARE THREATENED IF REPENTANCE BE WITHHELD. "I will make war against them with the sword of my mouth." That sword pierces to the depths of the sensitive soul. Of all judgments the Lord's sword is the heaviest. It is the sword of his mouth, his word of condemnation, in which, as in a kernel, all judgment lies hidden.
V. Repentance is further urged BY THE GRACIOUS WORD OF PROMISE, which also is a word of encouragement to the faithful and incorrupt.
1. To him that overcometh will I" - the righteous Judge - "give of the hidden manna" - the secret nourishment of his spiritual life. "Instead of feasting on things offered to idols, I will satisfy him with the true Bread - that which cometh down from heaven. I am that Bread. I will myself be his daily satisfying Portion. He shall feed on that which was sacrificed to God." Christ is the soul's Bread, the soul's Portion, and in him the soul has everything.
2. To him also shall be given "a white stone" - if of acquittal, how precious! To be acquitted at his bar is not merely to be acquitted, but to be received into favour and to be enriched in the highest degree.
3. "And in the stone a new name." Is this a revelation of his own ineffable Name? The greatest bliss of heaven will be in knowing the Divine Name. Truly to know him is life eternal. But it shall be special to each, each having his own position and his own special vision, "which no one knoweth but he that receiveth it." - R.G.
Bergama. Though it has fallen from its original grandeur, it has not become a desolation, or an abode for wild beasts. In the passage before us we have the record of the language which Christ, from the deep silence of eternity, addressed to a congregation of his professed disciples there. In looking into this language we discover
(1) a tone of authority;
(2) a discrimination of character;
(3) a reformative demand; and
(4) a promise of blessedness. Here we have -
I. A TONE OF AUTHORITY. "These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges." A sword is an emblem of authority; a "two-edged one" may express authority as well as terrible force. In ver. 16 of Revelation
1. it is said, "Out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword." It is a moral, not a material sword - the sword of truth; a sword that inflicts no wounds upon existence, but upon the errors and wrongs of existence. Two remarks are suggested.
1. Christ's truth is authoritative. The sword is an emblem of authority. In every utterance of his we have it. "Thus saith the Lord." It comes, not for mere study or speculation, but with a binding force. It is not merely to be studied, but obeyed.
2. Christ's truth is mighty. It is a "two-edged sword." It cuts in all directions, cuts to the central roots of error. What battles it has fought! what victories it has won! It destroys all wrong thoughts, all corrupt passions, all wicked resolves. "It brings into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ."
II. A DISCRIMINATION OF CHARACTER. "I know thy works." The passage suggests:
1. That Christ is fully acquainted with circumstances under which all moral character is formed. Christ describes exactly the moral position in which the Church lived. "And where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is." "Satan's seat" was there. It was the metropolis of a heathen divinity - Aesculapius, the god of healing. "In his honour a living serpent was kept and fed in the temple, while the serpent worship was so marked a characteristic of the place, that we find this reptile engraved on many of its coins. Again, the practice of the priests of AEsculapius consisted much in charms and incantations, and crowds resorted to his temple, where lying miracles of healing were vaunted to be performed, which were doubtless used by Satan to obstruct and counterfeit the work of the apostles and the gospel" (Revelation H.B. Tristram, LL.D., F.R.S.). Here, too, we are told that in this city was held the "doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication." Also the "doctrine of the Nicolaitanes." The people holding these doctrines taught the people to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication. "The eating of idol meats would, in such a city as Pergamos, be as great a stumbling block as caste at the present day in India. To refuse to partake of things offered to idols was not only to renounce idolatry, it was more; it was to abstain from almost every public and private festivity, to withdraw, in great measure, from the social life of the place." Here, too, we are informed, Antipas, Christ's faithful martyr, was slain. Such was the Satanic scene in which the disciples of Christ lived and wrought in Pergamos. Here they formed their character and accomplished whatever good they did. Here is one of the million proofs that man's moral character is not necessarily formed by external circumstances, however antagonistic those circumstances may be. Our benevolent Maker has invested all moral minds with the power not only to rise above external circumstances, but to subordinate the most hostile to their advantage.
2. That the eye of Christ recognizes every part of a man's character, whether good or bad. In all characters, even the best, there is a mingling of the good and bad, and the elements of each are recognized. Mark what is here said concerning the good of the Church at Ephesus. "Thou holdest fast my Name, and hast not denied my faith." Mark also what is said concerning the evil in them. It would seem that they did not sufficiently resist the wrong. "I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication." It would seem from this that they might have done more than they did in expelling by moral force such base and pernicious characters from their midst. So far as they failed they were defective in faith, zeal, and courage. Thus Christ marks the evil and the good in the character of his disciples, approving the one and reproving the other.
III. A REFORMATIVE DEMAND. "Repent; or else I will come unto thee."
1. Repentance is moral reformation. It is not a mere change in theological belief, in outward conduct, or in ecclesiastical relations and rituals, but in the heart, in the master disposition of the soul. It is the turning of the whole from the selfish to the benevolent, from the wrong to the right. It is, moreover, a law binding on all men. His word commands man everywhere to "repent." It is the necessity of all men. "Unless ye repent ye shall all likewise perish."
2. Repentance is an urgent necessity. "Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly." I will come in retributive justice, and that quickly - quick as the lightning. "I will fight against them with the sword of my mouth." Not a material sword, but a moral. His word has a power to destroy as well as to save. A word of his can annihilate the universe. He has only to will, and it is done. His word carries fatal pestilences, devastating storms, and blighting famines. What an argument of terror is this urging the duty of moral reformation!
IV. A PROMISE OF BLESSEDNESS. "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it." The promises here made by the Spirit are to a certain class - those who have conquered. Who are the conquerors in life's battle? Not those who by sword or bayonet or any deadly instruments have destroyed the mortal lives of men. Such are not the victors, but victims to their own vanity, ambition, greed, and brutal passions. The real conquerors in life's battle are those who conquer all the evils in their own nature, and get the mastery over all their impulses and passions. He is the sublimest conqueror who has crushed most of the wrongs and evils of life. Two blessings are here promised to such.
1. The choicest nourishment. The "hidden manna." "I will give to eat of the hidden manna." Though they absent themselves from the sumptuous feasts of idolatry, referred to in the previous verses, they shall have food far better - the "hidden manna." Food fulfils two functions - it satisfies and it strengthens. The best food is that which supplies the most happiness and the most vigour. This "hidden manna," which is Christ, does this.
(1) His doctrines are bread to the intellect. They are full of nourishment for the mental powers.
(2) It is fellowship - is bread to the heart. Loving intercourse with him will develop, strengthen, and gladden all the sympathies of the heart.
(3) His spirit is bread to the whole life. To partake of his spirit, the spirit of supreme love to God, consecration to the true and the right, and universal sympathy with man, is to get that which will invigorate every faculty and fibre of our being. His spirit is indeed the strength of humanity. It is the moral wine that gives at once the highest elevation to soul, and the strongest character. "He that eateth me" - my moral spirit - "even he shall live by me." It promises:
2. The highest distinction.
(1) The sign of distinction. "A white stone." "Perhaps," says Dr. Tristram, "the white stone, the pure and sparkling diamond, may be placed in contrast with the charms supplied to the votaries of AEsculapius, with the cabalistic characters inscribed on them, and which were worn as amulets to protect them from disease. This spiritual stone, inscribed like the Urim, with a name which no man knew, may set forth the revelation which the Lord will make to his faithful people, of mysteries hidden before from kings and prophets, like the hidden, manna and the Urim, seen by the high priest alone, but which revelation of the glory of God can only be known by those who have received him."
(a) This may be a sign of acquittal. In the ancient Greek courts of justice it was customary to signify the judgment pronounced upon the accused by throwing a stone into an urn; the black stone expressed condemnation, the white acquittal. Thus Socrates was convicted and condemned. There will be a public expression at the last day of the acquittal of those who have won the battle.
(b) This may be a sign of qualification. It seems that before the Levites and the priests under the Law were allowed to minister at the altar, they were examined, in order to ascertain whether they were ceremonially clean or not. Ritualistic purity was regarded as the necessary qualification for office. Those who were found to have this qualification had a "white" stone presented to them. He who came forth from the examination bore this sign of fitness for his sacerdotal vocation. Thus the "white stone" here may mean that he who wins the moral battle of life will be regarded as fit for the high services of the celestial world.
(c) This may be a sign of public honour. It was customary in the Grecian games to give a "white stone" to him who had won the victory. He who held this stone was entitled to be supported at the public expense, had free access to all the festivities of the nation, and was regarded as illustrious in all great gatherings. Thus he who wins the moral battle of life shall be publicly honoured. "A crown of glory is prepared for him, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give unto him at that day." He will have free admission into all the honours of eternity.
(2) The character of the distinction. What is the character? It is something new - it is a new name. "In the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it." What is this new name, the knowledge of which is entirely a matter of individual consciousness with him who has it? This is it, "sons of God." No one knows anything of this sonship but he who is the subject of it. - D.T.
The wrath of the Lamb," for much concerning that wrath is shown in it.
I. ITS REALITY. The letter is full of fearfulness to those whom it concerns, and was without doubt intended so to be. There is scarce a soft, gentle word in it, but all is stern from first to last. The inscription, the contents, the very promises at the end, are all marked by the same character. The Church had connived at, or at least had offered no strenuous opposition to, most awful and flagrant wrong, which had been taught and practised in her very midst; and in the wrath that this aroused all their righteousness - and they had much - is little more than named, and seems scarcely mentioned. The letter is hardly anything else than one vehement outpouring of the Lord's wrath and threatenings of his sore displeasure. The symbols show this. The eyes like as a flame of fire, and the feet of incandescent, glowing, molten brass, suggest strongly the twin ideas of rage and ruthless resolve to execute it upon those against whom it is directed. They bring before us a truly terrible aspect of the character of our Lord, but one which is real and actual, though far too much ignored both in thought and teaching. We say and sing far too exclusively, "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild;" and this, notwithstanding the very Gospels themselves give not a few indications of a power of holy and awful anger which he who so graciously took up little children in his arms yet evidently had within him. Hearken how he speaks to the scribes and Pharisees; listen to his reiterated "woes" denounced upon hypocrites; and observe as a momentous fact that the most fearful utterances of the whole Bible fell from our Saviour's lips. And this Book of the Revelation, is it not like the prophet's scroll, written both within and without, and full of scarce anything but "lamentation and mourning and woe"? And all of it is the Lord's doing, either directly or through his agents. The Bible, therefore, gives but little countenance to that far too general idea that the character of Christ is only gentleness and love. And there is, and there ought to be, no such character anywhere. That love which is said to go out to everybody generally goes to nobody in particular, except the man's own self above all. It is a mere easiness and softness, utterly unreliable, and of little moral worth. But when there is real love, the obverse side will be a corresponding wrath against all that injures what is so much loved. What is tenderer, and at the same time fiercer, than a mother's love? Even amid the beasts of the field it is so. A bear robbed of her whelps, woe betide the despoiler if the mother overtake him! And all that wrath which is told of in the Bible, and especially in this book, those eyes which, against the Jezebels that seduce his people, are "as a flame of fire," once wept over Jerusalem and by the grave of Lazarus. If he could not hate, he could not love; and because he does so love, therefore is the wrath of the Lamb so real and terrible a thing.
II. ITS SEVERITY. (Vers. 22, 23.) God does do even now what is meant by these expressions. Out of men's own wickedness he makes whips to scourge them. How dreadful and irreparable is the ruin which even here and now often overtakes the ungodly! There is no need for laboured argument to prove that there is a hell hereafter: many men spend their lives in hell now. Their intense realization of their shame, their fall; the horror which good men have of them; the ruin they have brought upon themselves, and yet more upon those who trusted and loved and depended upon them; - all this is hell, and is a fearful corroboration of the sure teaching of God as to the judgment he forewarns us of hereafter.
III. ITS FORBEARANCE. "I gave her space to repent." Sentence upon an evil work is not executed speedily, and hence men too often, therefore, all the more set their hearts steadfastly to do evil.
IV. ITS JUSTICE. The Lord denounces here, we think, not a person, but a party; some evil knot of persons in the Church, who were to the rest what the woman Jezebel, Ahab's wile, was to Israel - their seducer and leader in all abominable ways. Vers. 22 and 23 seem to imply that there was not one person merely, but a dominant party in the Church, who were guilty of the sins which had so roused the wrath of the Lord. True, we have the phrase, "thy wife Jezebel," and this has led some to suppose that the pastor of the Church was afflicted with a detestable woman as a wife - such things do happen; but when we remember how "the harlot" is the continual name with which corrupt Churches are branded, we are permitted to regard the whole as symbolical. The phrase may therefore be regarded as telling of a pestilent and powerful set belonging to the Church, and therefore it could be said, "thy wife," who were as Jezebel. And we must regard the sins spoken of as being literally what they are said to be. And who that knows the power of these sins to waste the conscience, pollute the mind, ruin the body, paralyze the will, and every way turn man into worse than the very brutes, and so to make the Church in which they were practised a byword, a hissing, and a rebuke, can wonder that, as has ever been the case, the wrath of God arose against them until there was no remedy? Because of them the Flood came, the cities of the plain were overwhelmed with fire, the nations of Canaan were exterminated; and today, given the sin, there, not far off, is the judgment of God. Beware of them, for they "war against the soul," and against all the well being of mankind, so that, in mercy to the human race, God has branded them with his severe displeasure.
V. ITS DISCRIMINATION. "The Lord knoweth them that are his" and his eye was upon them even in that corrupt Church. They had refused to be beguiled by the specious pretences of these ungodly teachers that their doctrines were profound, not for the uninitiated; that they were "deep" things - deep things of the devil, the Lord in indignation adds - though they pretended that they came from above. But this "rest of you in Thyatira" would have none of the doctrine; they spurned it as they should. And now the Lord tells them that no other burden should be put upon them. To have to endure such people amongst them, and to have the Name of Christ so dishonoured, this was burden enough. Therefore only let them abide in all those good and blessed qualities which characterized them, and which he commemorates in ver. 19, and then in that coming glory foretold in Psalm 2. they shall share, and from being despised and borne down with the burden of the wicked, they shall with Christ rule over them, and restrain them effectually as with "a rod of iron," and as now they were powerless to do; and best of all, he who is "the Root and the Offspring of David, and the Bright and the Morning Star" (Revelation 22:16), he will give himself to them; the day star should arise in their hearts, the joy of the Lord should be theirs forevermore.
"Grant, Lord, that I may come
Hold fast" - "Hold fast that which ye have till I come;" with the abundant promise to him who, doing so, triumphantly "overcometh." Leaving ampler exposition, our eye rests upon the one word, "Hold fast."
I. This call to fidelity is RAISED ON THE COMMENDABLE STATE OF THE CHURCH. Happy they to whom the Lord can say, "Hold fast," keep that thou hast, persevere. Of this Church the Lord knows - and knows to commend - its "works, and love, and faith, and ministry, and patience," and growing usefulness.
II. IT IS SIGNIFICANT OF THE LORD'S APPROBATION OF THE CHURCH'S STATE. Here is no word of exhortation to repent. The keen, searching glance of the flaming eyes does not detect any fault in the body of the Church. In the absence of condemnation is the Divine justification and approval. His smile is upon his faithful ones, against whom no accusation can be raised. If a few are faulty in one particular, the bulk of the Church is pure. A difference is drawn between her children and the rest that are in Thyatira: "as many as have not this teaching." The Lord delights in his Church characterized by zeal, by love, by triumphant faith, by unwearied patience, by abundant works.
III. The call to fidelity is MADE NECESSARY BY THE PRESENCE OF GRIEVOUS AND SUBTLE DANGERS. False teachers are abroad - or, at least, a false teacher - against whom, as would seem, some one in power had not been sufficiently guarded. "Thou sufferest," etc. The holiest and most active Church has its dangers from the subtle breath of error - even zeal and love may be drawn aside. The very fervour of spirit which is commended lays itself open, by its own honesty of purpose, to the deceits of the designing. "Hold fast" warns of danger near as truly as it approves of the possession held.
IV. The exhortation is further enforced by A VIEW OF THE TERRIBLE JUDGMENT THREATENED AGAINST THE SEDUCTRESS. (Vers. 21-23.)
V. BY THE EVER-PRESENT THOUGH GRACIOUSLY VARIED PROMISE TO THE FAITHFUL. (Vers. 26-28.) - R.G.
Contemptible") after the overthrow of the Persian empire. The Macedonian colonists appear to have introduced the worship of Apollo, honoured as the sun god, under the name of Tyrumnas. It has been thought by some that the description here given of Christ - "the eyes of flame" - was selected in allusion to this worship of the sun god, under the form of some dazzlingly ornamented image. Certainly close commercial intercourse connected the daughter colony with its mother city. There seem to have been various mercantile guilds in the colony - bakers, potters, tanners, weavers, and dyers. The dye trade was, perhaps, the most important. Lydia, the seller of purple, was in all likelihood connected with the guild of dyers; and her appearance in Philippi is an illustration of the trade relations of Macedonia and Thyatira. To her the Christian community of Thyatira may have owed its beginning. "She who had gone forth for a while to buy and sell and get again, when she returned home may have brought home with her richer merchandise than any she had looked to obtain" (Trench). The population was of a mixed character, and included besides Asiatics, Macedonians, Italians, and Chaldaeans. Of all the homiletic sketches on this epistle, I know of no sketch so clear and comprehensive, so philosophic and suggestive, as that of the late Caleb Morris - one of the greatest, if not the greatest preacher that has appeared in London during the century. Those whom the popular sentiment designates "princes of preachers" seem to me to shrink into contempt in his presence. "There are," he says, "four things in this epistle to which we shall call attention - the commendable in character, the reprehensible in doctrine, the indispensable in duty, and the blessed in destiny." How forcibly every item in this epistle is brought out by these four general divisions! To attempt a plan equal to this in all points of excellence would be presumption. Albeit, as it would be supererogatory and useless to repeat what others have said, I shall endeavour to bring all the important elements of the chapter under one general heading - the moral character of mankind; and here we have it in three aspects.
I. AS THAT IN WHICH CHRIST FEELS THE PROFOUNDEST INTEREST. He who is here called the "Son of God," no doubt feels an interest in every part of the great universe. But material worlds and systems, methinks, concern him not so much as the moral character of God's spiritual offspring. In souls his interest is profound, practical, and permanent. Two remarks are suggested.
1. His interest springs from an absolute knowledge of the primary elements of character. "I know thy works;" and again he says, "I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts." He peers into those spheres of mind into which the vulture's eye cannot pierce, no, nor the keenest eye of angelic intelligence; the sphere where character is generated, where its elements float in invisible germs; the arena where the moral battles are fought, where victories are won and defeats endured. Our interest in objects is often blind, and so it often happens that we are entranced with admiration for objects which we learn from sad experience to be worthless, base, and abhorrent. Not so with Christ. He knows what character really is, its elements whether good or bad.
2. His interest fills him with the deepest concern for the progress of the good. "I know thy works, and charity [thy love], and service, and faith [and ministry], and thy patience." "Charity" and "service" - love and its administrations; "faith" and "patience" - faith in its practical endurance; and all these in their progressive development, and "the last to be more than the first." Moral goodness wherever it exists is progressive. Unlike all other life, the more it grows the more the craving and the more the capability for growth. "From glory to glory," etc.
II. AS THAT WHICH IS TRANSMITTED FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION. In the long black roll of human infamy there is not a blacker name than that of Jezebel, the wife of Ahab. She was "the great seducer to idolatry in the later history of Israel, and as the worship of the Phoenician Astarte, or Venus, was accompanied with the grossest impurity, her name became the synonym of all that was debasing and profligate." Some suppose that this Jezebel in Thyatira, who embodied the character of the old Israelitish, fiendish idolatress, was the wife of the bishop of the congregation at Thyatira. It might be so, for many a worthy bishop has been matrimonially linked to a Jezebelitish woman. Ay, what is worse, many a Jezebelitish woman, married, has entrapped young unmarried bishops to their disgrace and ruin. But I am disposed to regard the name here as symbolical of some proud, persecuting, self-constituted authority on religion, haughtily vaunting claims of superior religious piety and theological intelligence. Now, centuries had passed away since Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, ended her execrable history and passed into the retributive future; yet her character appears in Thyatira, breathing the same passions and repeating the same conduct as of yore. Thus moral character is transmitted. I inquire not into the philosophy of this patent and awful fact in human history, nor into its moral propriety; certain it is that in the present generation the same characters appear as in the generation that lived before the Flood. We offer three remarks on the transmission of moral character, as suggested by the letter before us.
1. The transmitted character does not free the possessor from its responsibility. The party here addressed, whether an individual, a faction, or a community, is spoken of as responsible; ay, and it would seem that even the bishop of the Church had not a little responsibility for the existence of this Jezebelitish character - a character that used its influence on the side of ungodliness, licentiousness, and adultery. The grand mission of Christly men is to expel evil from the community, to crush the wrong, not by force and persecution, but by Divine moral suasion and high Christian example. The work of a Christly man is to slay with the sword of the Spirit all the moral Jezebels within his reach. But whilst the disciples of Christ are held to some extent responsible for the existence of bad characters in their midst, the characters themselves are conscious of their responsibility. The fact that they inherit the bad temper and principles of their ancestors, however near or distant, does not relieve them from the remorseful consciousness that they are the authors of their own character. Every pang of remorse, every tear of compunction, every sigh of moral regret, demonstrate to the greatest sinner that he is the author of his own vile character, and no other.
2. The transmitted character might be got rid of by its possessor. "I gave her space [time that she should] to repent of her fornication; and she repented not [willeth not to repent of her fornication]." Even the wickedest person, man or woman, has time given him for repentance. God hates nothing that he has made. He wills not the death of any sinner, but rather that he should turn and he saved - should repent and live. It was so even with the immoral person here spoken of; time was given her; but she would not use it. There was no will to repent. Therefore, for the sake of others, the time must now be shortened, and after one more trial judgment must follow. Repentance is the method of ridding one's self of a bad character, and this repentance every man can and ought to accomplish. Men are not machines or automatons, but free agents. The will is the rudder of the soul; it either steers the ship into the wished for haven, or drives it on to shoals and quicksands.
3. The transmitted character might entail enormous evils on others. In truth all evil characters must do so. "And I will kill her children with death." All have their moral offspring, children like unto themselves. The evil propagates the evil, as the good the good. "No man liveth unto himself." Our moral children do our work, and that work is like that of Jezebel. Who knows the injury that the moral children of Jezebel did to the bishop and the Christian community of Thyatira? They encouraged licentiousness and idolatry, and committed fornication, and ate things "sacrificed unto idols."
III. AS THAT WHICH DETERMINES THE DESTINY OF MANKIND. Here mark two things.
1. The outcome of the bad. "Behold, I will [do] cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds [her works]." The chamber of voluptuousness shall become the chamber of torture. "And I will kill her children with death." Those in whom she has propagated her foul character, under the cover of higher piety and deeper intelligence, shall meet with destruction. Death shall be their fate - the death of all that makes life worth having. "The wages of sin is death." "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." "I will give unto every one of you according to your works;" your works shall determine your doom.
2. The outcome of the good. Three great blessings are here stated as coming to such.
(1) Freedom from future suffering. "But unto [to] you I say, and unto [to] the rest in [that are in] Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine [teaching], and which have not known [know not] the depths [deep things] of Satan, as they speak [say.];! will put [cast] upon you none other burden." Whilst those whose impious Gnosticism, intolerant spirit and gross sensuality would meet with anguish and death, all who were free from these abominations would be secure from future evil. "I will put [cast] upon you none other burden." You need not apprehend any future evil. Elsewhere we are told that "he will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on him." Another blessing is:
(2) Elevation to true royalty. "But [howbeit] that which ye have already hold fast till I come." Those who hold fast with an unrelaxing grasp all the good they had, triumphed over evil, and held on loyally to the end, shall have "power over the nations." What power? Moral power - power over the minds and hearts of nations. lie only is the true sovereign who governs minds and hearts. All other sovereignties are shams. The morally right has in it the highest elements of might. Right is might, and there is none other. "He shall rule them with a rod of iron." Right is a rod of iron unbreakable and all crushing, dashing to pieces, shivering into atoms all the kingdoms of error and wrong. He is the greatest king of his age who has the most truth and goodness in his soul; hence the "saints one day shall judge the world." Hail the period! merciful Heaven, hasten it! Another blessing is:
(3) Inheritance of the highest possession. "I will give him the morning star." "Morning star" - bright harbinger of a day whose skies shall have no cloud, whose atmosphere no storm, whose sun shall rise and set no more. Christ himself is the "Morning Star." This is the title he gives himself: "I Jesus am the Root and Offspring of David, and the Bright and Morning Star." The good man shall have Christ, and, possessing him, shall have more than the universe itself. "All things are yours," etc. So that out of the moral character of mankind will bloom their Paradise or flame their hell. Therefore what we have good in us let us not only "hold fast," but nourish into higher developments. Let us so cultivate the" Divine tree" that its roots shall deepen, its fibres strengthen, its branches multiply, its foliage become more magnificent, and its fruits more abundant every day. - D.T.
I. CHRISTIAN EXCELLENCE IS AN ATTAINMENT. The words are addressed to Christians at Thyatira, and they are represented as having "charity," or love to Christ, and "patience," or holy fortitude and magnanimity under all the trials of life. These are all elements of Christian excellence, and these they are represented as having attained. They had reached the goodness they possessed by holy efforts in the use of means.
1. Christian excellence is an attainment in contradistinction to a native growth. It does not spring up in the soul as an indigenous germ. It is a seed that has been taken in and cultivated.
2. Christian excellence in contradistinction to an impartation. In a sense it is a gift of God; not in the sense in which life, and light, and air, and the seasons of the year, are the gifts of God, - blessings that come upon us irrespective of our own efforts; but rather in the sense in which the crops of the husbandman, the learning of the scholar, the triumphs of the artist, are the gifts of God, - blessings that come as the result of appropriate labour. We shall neither grow good nor be made good. We must become good; we must struggle after it.
II. CHRISTIAN EXCELLENCE IS AN ATTAINMENT THAT REQUIRES FAST HOLDING. "Hold fast" whatever is attained. Little or much should be retained:
1. Because it is worth retaining. Its value will appear by considering three things.
(1) The priceless instrumentality employed to put man in possession of it. The mission of Christ.
(2) Its essential connection with man's spiritual well being. There is no true happiness apart from it.
(3) Its capability of unlimited progress. It may be as a grain of mustard, but it can grow. What glorious harvests are enfolded in one grain of true goodness! It should be held fast.
2. Because there is a danger of losing it.
(1) Men who have had it have lost it before now.
(2) Agencies are in constant operation here that threaten its destruction. Hold it fast, therefore.
III. CHRISTIAN EXCELLENCE IS AN ATTAINMENT THAT WILL BE PLACED BEYOND DANGER AT THE ADVENT OF CHRIST. "Hold fast till I come." An expression this implying that it will be secure enough afterwards, he comes to every Christian at death. "I will come again, and receive you unto myself." When he thus comes:
1. He crushes forever our enemies. He bruises the head of Satan under our feet.
2. He removes from us everything inimical to the growth of goodness.
3. He introduces us into those heavenly scenes where there will be nothing but what ministers to the advancement of goodness. Take heart) Christian; the struggle is not for long! - D.T.