The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;Letter to Ephesus
The Head of the Church has a minute knowledge of all the services of his people. First. There is distinguished labour. "I know thy works, and thy labour." The church at Ephesus had been a working church. It had been operating on the surrounding regions of depravity, darkness, and death. In its early life it was eminently an aggressive church. For my own part, I would have Christ's Church as ambitious as Alexander. As he waved his battle-flag over a conquered world, so would I that the Church might unfurl the banner of a nobler conquest over every nation, and kindred, and people, and tongue.
Second. There is distinguished patience. The "patience" is twice referred to. This patience may be understood as indicating longsuffering in relation to those by whom the saints in Ephesus were surrounded—long-suffering, both in waiting for the germination of the seed which they had sown in many tears, and in the meek endurance of fiery trials. God specially marked this excellence. This meekness of love was known to the Head of the Church; and this suffering in silence was as acceptable as a chorus of praise. The point to be noted here is, that Christ is mindful, not only of the outward manifestations of the spiritual life—such as many labours and many offerings—but also of the hidden graces which cluster round the heart. He sees not only the moral warrior brandishing his sword in the thickest of the battle, but also the wounded and suffering soldier; and sweetly says to such, "I know thy patience." We are too prone to attach high value exclusively to the conspicuous, the declarative, the many-tongued: we must, indeed, prize these as necessary in the assertion and maintenance of great principles; but let us never forget that, what garlands and diadems soever may adorn the heads of the great leaders in moral actions, there is a brilliant crown on the brow of holy, much-enduring, silent patience. It is often easier to fight than to be patient. This backwardness in having patience may be seen not only in the higher ranges of Christian life, but in the lower levels of philanthropic service. If it fall to your lot, for example, to sit through the cheerless day and the dreary night with a loved one who is in the grasp of a fell disease, many friends will offer to join you, if, as they say, they can be of any use: but what do they mean by being of "use"? Often they mean merely so long as they can be actively engaged: keep them in an excited state of action, and all will be well. But how few can quietly and reverently sit still, and watch in loving and hopeful patience the placid countenance of silent suffering! How few can tone themselves to the high strength of doing everything by doing nothing! Patience is undervalued by an excited world; but Jesus notes it in its long vigils, marks it trimming its dim lamp in the solemn midnight, and sweetly whispers his word of commendation, which is always invigorating as the breath of immortality.
Third. There is distinguished jealousy for the right. "Thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars." It must ever be remembered that there is a spurious charity. It is morally impossible that Christians and anti-Christians can have any sympathetic fellowship. Can trumpet blast be clearer than this?—"What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you." The Head of the Church applauds the saints in Ephesus, because they could "not bear them which are evil." There is, indeed, large scope for the exercise of Christian charity, and it is sometimes difficult to determine where her loving streams shall pause; but there is a "hitherto" even to the tides of charity. Woe unto the Church when moral distinctions are lightly regarded! To confound light with darkness, sweetness with bitterness, is to mock the first principles of holy government, and to destroy for ever the possibility of holy brotherhood. While, therefore, we would not presumptuously ascend the judgment-seat, we believe it is impossible to burn in too deeply the line which separates the sympathy of compassion from the sympathy of complacency.
Fourth. There was distinguished persistence in the right course. "And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted." In a Church correctly described by such language there may have been extraordinary fortitude, and this fortitude been attended with singular joyousness and cordiality. The eulogium might be read thus:—"I know thy labour, and yet thou dost not labour, i.e., thou dost not make a labour of thy duties:" in such case duty was not a hard taskmaster. There was such a sunny joyousness and musical cordiality about these saints, that they came to their work—work so hard—with the freshness of morning, and under their touch duty was transformed into privilege. There is a lesson here for Christian workers through all time. Some men have the most unhappy art of turning every service they render into hard toil. When work is done with the hand only, it is invariably attended with much constraint and difficulty; but when the heart is engaged, the circle of duty is run with a vigour that never wearies and a gladness which never saddens. Not only so, the Ephesian saints eminently succeeded in uniting patience with perseverance. They were not only patient in suffering, but patient in labour. They did not expect the morning to be spring and the evening to be autumn, but, having due regard to the plan of divine procedure, combined in wise proportions the excitement of war with the patience of hope. Among ministers in particular I have noticed two evils in the matter of exercising patience,—some exercising it too little, and others exercising it too much. A young minister, fired with a heroic enthusiasm, expects to extinguish the devil and his angels in the first twelve months of his ministry; and because at the end of that period the devil and his angels are just as actively assiduous as ever, he throws up his pastorate and seeks a new battleground. An old minister, to whom the vision has long been closed, and the testimony sealed, who has not a new idea to present, can keep his hold of the pulpit as though he could convince the very pews of sin, and turn the very lamps into saints. Both err. There is something fundamentally wrong in each case; yet not so far wrong in the impetuosity as in the obstinacy. The Ephesians were right: they blended persistence with patience, and were extolled by him who knew the hardest toil, and exemplified the most unmurmuring endurance. The fundamental point is, that Christ knew all this. "I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience." "The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him." Though our Head is in heaven, not a service rendered in his name escapes his benignant notice. There is not a toiler in the vineyard on whose bent form the Master looks not with approbation. He sees the sufferer also. All that he observes influences his mediation, so that in every age "He tempereth the wind to the shorn lamb."
Such is the opening of the letter. It opens as with the noise of many waters. Here is a very cataract of eulogium. The bounding waters flash back the light of yonder countenance, and the very spray dances into rainbows. I would fain linger here; but there is a "nevertheless" which I would gladly escape; still duty calls for the unwelcome second point, viz.,—
That the Head of the Church marks every declension of piety,—"Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee; because thou hast left thy first love." Let me draw your special attention to the manner in which this "nevertheless" is introduced. In the first instance, Jesus acknowledges, with most ample commendation, all the good deeds which had been done by the Church. He gathers all the bright and beautiful flowers of service and suffering, and having wreathed these into a garland, places it upon the chief of the church, and then gently whispers—so low, methinks, that no enemy could overhear—"Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee." This method of reproof is eminently suggestive. It gives a lesson to parents. Would you be successful in reproving your children? Let commendation precede rebuke; let your "nevertheless" be winged with love and hope, and it will fly to the farthest boundary of your child's intellectual and moral nature, and showers of blessings will be shaken from those heavenly wings. It gives a lesson to pastors also. Our words of remonstrance or rebuke will be more successful as they are preceded by every acknowledgment which justice and generosity can suggest. When the Master is compelled, so to speak, to rebuke his Church, he proceeds as though he would gladly turn. The rebuke comes with a hesitation which did not mark the eulogy. He resorts to a negative form of statement—"Thou hast left thy first love." He charges his Church with a lowering of moral temperature; the ardour and brightness of early love have waned. Paul is clear enough in his statement to Timothy that part of a minister's duty is to "reprove" and "rebuke." A difficult part for any man to undertake. A rebuke may be given with so rash and vengeful a tone as to create disgust and resentment in the offender; or it may be uttered with so grieved and trembling a love as will melt obduracy into penitence. Rebuke is to be distinguished from coarse and brutal scolding; it is not to be uttered with the frantic blare of trampled dignity, but with the solemn pathos of wounded affection. Jesus weeps even while he rebukes, and those sad tears carry the reproving word to the innermost fibres of the heart.
Look at the declension spoken of. First. This declension is described as having begun in the heart. Christ does not charge the saints at Ephesus with having changed their doctrinal views; but, placing his finger on the heart, says, "There is a change here." You know the enthusiasm of "first love." Love is blind to difficulties. She bounds up the steeps with alacrity and joy. She cannot be deterred from her purposes by any representation. Tell her of the river, and she answers, "I can swim"; remind her of awful precipices, the guardian walls of capacious and terrific sepulchres, and, spreading her golden pinions, she replies, with laughter, "I can fly"; tell her of burning deserts, on which no palm tree throws its shade, through which no river rolls, and her courage bursts into uncontrollable enthusiasm as she recounts the story of her past endurances. She burns up every excuse. She calls every land her home. "The range of the mountains is her pasture." "She rejoiceth in her strength; she goeth to meet the armed men; she mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted, neither turneth she back from the sword." A right royal force is this "first love." If any work is to be done in the Church—if any difficulties are to be surmounted—if any icebergs are to be dissolved—if any cape, where savage seas revel in ungovernable madness, is to be rounded, send out men and women in whose hearts this "first love" burns and sings, and their brows will be girt with garlands of conquest. Our business, then, is to watch our heart-fires. When the temperature of our love lowers, there is cause for terror. It is instructive to mark the many and insidious influences by which the gush and swell of affection are modified. Take the case of an admirer of his minister, and mark how the stream of love subsides. In the first instance, such an admirer thought that his teacher would ever play the harp of comfort or busy himself with abstract doctrines; but he finds that he has miscalculated—that his minister is master of many styles—that his pulpit is now a green hill, down which silvery streams roll, and in their rolling bid the traveller drink and be glad—and that anon his pulpit is an Etna, whose sides shake with surging billows of fire, and whence issue devouring flames; he finds that his minister can not only sing the sweet, soft songs of love and hope, but can command a sarcasm before which vice grows pale, and staggers with amazement,—that he carries a sword which has cloven many a vaunting foe. In course of time the admirer cannot bear this. The minister is dealing too faithfully with his conscience. The man knows that he has broken both the tables of the law, and now that he is being smitten with the avenging stones, he decries the minister who was once his idol, and his fickle love is turned into another channel. Long ago a drum-headed lad said to me, "Your sermons make my head ache"; but he has never looked at me with a smile since I asked him whether that was the fault of my sermons or of his own head. Or take the case of one who has been distinguished for much service in the cause of God, and see how the fires pale. He becomes prosperous in business. His oblations on the altar of Mammon are costlier than ever. He toils in the service of self until his energies are nearly exhausted, and then his class in the school is neglected; the grass grows on his tract district; his nature has become so perverted that he almost longs for an occasion of offence, that he may retire from the duties of the religious life. Could you have heard him in the hour of his newborn joy, when he first placed his foot in God's kingdom, you would not have thought that he ever could have been reduced to so low a moral temperature. What holy vows escaped him! How rich he was in promise! He was like a fruit tree in the sunny springtime, perfectly white with countless blossoms, and passers-by prophesied that every branch would be laden with luscious fruit. But look at him now; turn the leaves over, and with eager eyes search for fruit, and say, Is the promise of spring redeemed in autumn? Innumerable influences are continually in operation, which would cool the ardour of our first enthusiasm for Christ. Satan plies us with his treacherous arts; the world allures us with its transitory charms; our inborn depravity reveals itself in ever-varying manifestations; pride and selfishness, ambition and luxury, appeal to us in many voices, and beckon us with a thousand hands. Let men of rich, deep, manifold experience tell me how difficult it is to nourish and maintain our pristine love for Jesus, and how essential it is to fight our battles on our knees if we would keep our treasured love safe from the grasp of the arch-plunderer of the universe.
Second. This declension may be accompanied by an inveterate hatred of theological heresy,—"But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate." The Nicolaitanes held corrupt doctrines, and indulged in corrupt practices, hence the Divine Head commends the church at Ephesus for protesting against such depravity; the point, however, on which we remark is, that while the saints were thus earnest in repelling a false theology, their own love for Jesus and his service was waning. The head may be right while the heart is going in a wrong direction. I am indeed anxious that we should maintain a Scriptural theology, that we should "hold fast the form of sound words"; at the same time we must remember that a technical theology will never save a soul; and that a mere verbal creed will never protect and increase our love for the Lord Jesus Christ. It is right to denounce heresy. We are bound by our covenant with Jesus to resist the devil, in what guise soever he may reveal himself. But beware, lest while you are hating the deeds of the Nicolaitanes your love is decreasing. It is not enough that you are able to put a multitude of heretics to flight; you must watch your love-fires, and continually supply them with the fuel of heaven.
Third. This declension evoked the most solemn warnings and exhortations,—"Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent." Observe the terrible consequences of heart alienation. These solemn words show: (1) that the Church in its collective capacity may incur the divine displeasure. There may be good individuals in the fellowship, yet the com munity as a whole may be under the frown of him who "walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks." (2) That the Church in its collective capacity must betake itself to repentance. This is evident when we remember that there is certain work properly denominated Church work. Take, for example, either home or foreign evangelisation. It is not my work solely as an individual to "go up and possess the land" of heathenism: but it is our work as a Church to carry the light of heaven into "the dark places of the earth." It can only be done by individuals, in so far as they are atoms in a fabric—parts of a whole. If, therefore, we have neglected to enter the door of opportunity as a Church, the cry of the angry Saviour is, "Repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly." (3) That Jesus will unchurch every organisation that is unfaithful to his name; he threatens to "remove thy candlestick out of his place." Such language may well make us pause. Organisation is not spiritual brotherhood. Tell me not of gorgeous temples, of skilful arrangements, of complete machinery; I tell you that you may have all these in an unparalleled degree, and yet "Ichabod" may be written on your temple doors! What is your spiritual life? Is your ecclesiastical mechanism the expression of your love? Is every wheel revolving by the breath of your sympathy? Is your heart the great motive power? I would turn you in upon yourselves, and in the name of Jesus adjure you to judge your hearts. Do this now,—not a moment is to be lost; you may lose your "candlestick," you may be unchurched, and your temple may become a pit for "the bittern and the owl to dwell in." We must determine our condition in the light of these assurances. The eye of Jesus is marking every declension: and as our love declines, his anger burns. There is a limit to his forbearing meekness. Those that continue to offend him shall assuredly "lie with the uncircumcised, and with them that go down to the pit"; and when he ariseth in his fury the earth shall stagger with amazement, and the sea shall retire from his presence. Oh, Church! hear the warning cry.
Jesus concludes his letter with words which warrant us in affirming,—
That the Head of the Church has the richest blessings in reserve for all who overcome their spiritual enemies. "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God." Almost every word in this promise is an idea:—"Overcometh"—the word tells of battle and victory. There is intimation here of an enemy. There is a hell in this word, and in it there is a devil. That your spiritual life is a fight you need not be reminded: every day you are in the battlefield; you live by strife. "Eat"—the word tells of appetite. Desire is in this word, and desire satisfied. Our desire for more of God shall increase as the ages of our immortality expire, and yet increasing desire is but another way of saying increasing satisfaction.—"The tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God." These words are old; they ring in the ear as familiar sounds, and such they are; for hardly can we overpass the first page of the Bible, until we read of "the tree of life also in the midst of the garden," and now that we come to the last pages, again we hear the rustling of its amaranthine leaves. It is but little we can say concerning such a tree: no worm is gnawing at its root, no serpent coils around its stem, no sere leaf trembles upon it as the prophet of a coming winter; its every leaf is jewelled with purer dew than ever sparkled on the eyelids of the morning. A tree! 'Tis but another word for beauty, for beauty walks forth in ever-varying manifestations. A tree! 'Tis but another name for progress, for the circling sap bears through every fibre life and fruitfulness. A tree! Shall we assemble around that central tree? We cannot do so until we have assembled around the Cross. The Cross is at once our tree of death and our tree of life; nay, the Cross is but the earthly name of yonder tree in heaven; the Cross is that tree in dreary winter, shaken by savage storms, reft of every leaf, the throne of all-conquering death; and yonder tree is but the Cross in the genial summer of the better land, bursting into leaf, blushing into blossom, struggling into fruit; and I tell you that you can never stand beneath its branches until you have touched it in its old name—the Cross! the Cross! and having done so, you shall by-and-by approach the eternal tree, and you shall eat its precious fruit, and that fruit will be all the better for having been plucked and offered by your Brother's hand.
Almighty God, we thank thee for voices that come from other worlds, bringing sweet music and saving gospels. We know thy word when we hear it. There is none like it; that voice is as a rushing mighty wind from heaven. May we always listen for the voices from beyond, and reply to them with obedience and thankfulness. Thou hast set us in a great school: many are the teachers sent from God: thou hast taught us on every scale and according to every method; thou hast addressed thyself to our understanding, and our love, and our conscience, and our immortality. In this great school we have had prophets, mighty men gifted with penetrating vision, charged with the thunders of eloquence, gentle souls that wept with us in our distress, mighty souls that could deliver us in our despair. If we have listened to common teachers when we might have listened to prophets, the good God of the prophets forgive us. Enable us always to listen only to the great, the tender, the wise, the sympathetic; may we shed off from us all weakness, frivolity, pettiness, and cry mightily after that which is sublime, divine. We have a book of thine own writing in our school; may we read none other, may we seize the Book of God and clasp it to our hearts, and read it with our inner eyes, and listen to no other. The Lord open our eyes that we may behold wondrous things out of his law; may Christ himself open our understanding that we may understand the Scriptures. Whilst we are in the school do thou never leave it; when we have clone with the prophets may we be passed on to the angels, and evermore attend the school of God. May we be poor learners in the school of darkness, may we forget every lesson of iniquity; may our memories be quick, vivid, tenacious in all matters in the school of the Father, and utterly forgetful of all things learned in lower schools. Forbid that we should be wise about the earth, and foolish about heaven; able men in handling nothings, and fools in handling infinite quantities. The Lord give us sight clear and penetrating; the Lord give us eyes in our heart. Help us to show to the world that we have been with Jesus and have learned of him: write upon us the signature of thine approval as students of Christ: give us certificates and prizes from heaven; may we be rich with assurances that we have not learned the Gospel of God in vain; may we be as heroic in patience as we are heroic in service, may our resignation equal in brilliance any exhibition of fortitude thou hast enabled us to disclose; may we add to our faith virtue, and crown the pillar with charity. The Lord look upon us according to our need; our life is one long want, our days are supplications; we awake hungry in the morning, at night we wonder what the day to come will bring forth. Thou hast put within us a very little, and that thou mayest take from us any moment; we can only grasp according to the breadth of our span, and our hand is so small there is nothing in it even when it is full: may our heart be a hand infinite in its grasp! We want the upper things, the better things, the summer of heaven, the beauty of eternity. Help us to pity those who have less than we have—less money, less strength, less enjoyment of life; who live in a cave when they would gladly swing and curve and sing in the firmament. Oh, the misery of the world! Its life is one long sigh; there is sighing at the wedding feast, there are tears among the flowers. Oh, the earth, the earth, the earth! scene of tumult and sorrow, despair and death. But is it not a redeemed one, though so little? Has it not been bought back with blood? Is it not the choicest of the stars? Is not the earth celebrated with infinite fame amid all the ranges of the worlds because it held the Cross? May we look upon the earth as a redeemed place; may we see at the root of every flower some drop of saving, all-vitalising blood. We thank thee for that red rain; the earth has never been thirsty since; behold, thou hast satisfied the longing of thy creatures, thou hast given thy saints delight. Look upon all those whose faces are turned down that their hearts may be turned up towards the heavens: fathers and mothers, widows, orphans, some lonely because the mother is dead, and some afraid to go out because the father's hand is missing. Look upon those who do not care for the morning because it can bring no brightness, and who are not afraid of the night because they have seen all that darkness can do. Oh the earth! the misery, the tragedy, the heart-break, the almost conquest of hell! Come, thou Son of man, Saviour known on Calvary, and turn the issue backward, and take thy place, for the crown is thine, since thou hast borne the Cross. Amen.
And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;Letter to Smyrna
Christ reveals himself to his people according to their moral condition. In support of this assertion it is only necessary to read the superscriptions of the letters "unto the seven churches which are in Asia." By the title or representation which the Son of man assumes, we may anticipate the revelation in which he is about to appear. His very names are vital with moral significance, as the very hem of his garment is impregnated with remedial power. A casual examination of the superscriptions will illustrate the point. Take for example:— First. "To the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges." Given such a superscription to find the moral purpose of the epistle which it introduces, what may we expect from a Divine speaker who bears "the sharp sword with two edges"? Can you expect him to utter words of gentle sympathy and consolation? Would such words be in congruity with the attitude and weapon of battle? From such a superscription may we not naturally infer a purpose to smite, to avenge, to "break in pieces the oppressor"? You find that such an inference is justified by the exclamation of the offended Judge,—"Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth."
Second. "Unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass." Can there be any hesitation in foretelling the moral intent of such a superscription? When the Son of God enters a church with "eyes like unto a flame of fire," that church may expect examination, scrutiny, trial, penetration that cannot be resisted. A glance at the epistle will show that the aspect and the purpose are in perfect harmony:—"I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works."
Third. "To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth." Is such a superscription at all enigmatical? He who lays his hand upon the doors of the universe, and bears upon his shoulder the key of David, is surely about to commission his saints to arise and grasp some opportunity that is fraught with eternal blessing, to enter upon a course of service which will involve and sanctify the highest interests of humanity. Is such an anticipation warranted by the genius of the letter? Let the letter answer:—"Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it."
Fourth. "Unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive. The introduction prepares the way for a gush of tenderness; such a reference to the most pathetic facts of his earthly history must anticipate a stream of infinite pity and tenderness, and that such anticipation is realised will be seen as we proceed. The Church in Smyrna was a suffering Church. It sat in the dust, and its lamentations were turned into mockery by a malicious and triumphant foe. Its history was one of toil and tribulation, and the prophetic throbs of the coming time foretold suffering, imprisonment, and death. The Church assumed a mourner's attitude and gathered sackcloth round its trembling frame; and to such a Church how could the Saviour come, but in the tenderest aspect of his holy and blessed nature?
Enough, then, may be seen from these four examples to, support the assertion that Christ reveals himself to his people according to their moral condition; and when I say to his people, I mean to the saint alike in his individuality and in his confraternal relationship. In this, I am persuaded, we have an explanation of the varying experience of the Christian, and of the diversified and changeful mission of the Church. To one man, or to one Church, Christ presents himself bearing "the sharp sword with two edges"; to another, with eyes blazing with penetrating light; to another, as holding the key of opportunity; and to another, as grasping infinitude, and girt with the memorials of death and the pledges of ascension. It is possible to have all these, and many more, visions of the selfsame Saviour. Our apprehensions of his identity are regulated by our moral conditions, so that every man has only to declare what aspect of Christ he beholds, in order to declare the attitude and tone of his own soul. With this before us as a general principle, it will not be difficult to show how such a superscription would animate and sustain the Church in Smyrna. The reasonings of that Church might easily fall into some such form as this:—
First. As our Saviour is the First and the Last, all things must be under his dominion.
"The First"—Who can reveal the mystery of these words, or number the ages we must re-traverse, ere we can behold the first gleam on that horizon which encircles God as an aureole of un-waning light! The expression takes us back over immeasurable gulfs in which the centuries have sunk; we wing our way beyond the dust of every empire; pass every orb which burns in mysterious silence in the domes of creation; penetrate far beyond the sound of the song of the oldest seraphim; we enter the solemn pavilion of the unpeopled infinitude; no voices sing, no footfall resounds, no heart throbs; we stand trembling at our own temerity in the palace of the solitary God,—in a silence so terrible that it speaks; we are there, before the "Be" of infinite power has hurled the orbs through the silent voids; all this, and infinitely more, we must realise in order to attain the dimmest apprehension of the mystery of being the First
"The Last." Another mystery! This expression bears us onward until the surging sea of life is for ever hushed, until the divine government has answered all the purpose of Infinite Wisdom. Over what cemeteries we must pass, I know not; we must advance until the Creator exclaim from his throne, as the Redeemer cried from the Cross, "It is finished!" Thus far must we go, or remain for ever in ignorance of the secret which vitalises the declaration, "I am the Last." Now see how the eyes of the suffering ones brighten! Their reasonings are set to music. "As our Saviour," say they, "is the first and the last, all things must be comprehended in his dominion." If we look back, beyond the birth of time, or the worship of angels, or the fabrication of worlds, behold, he stands in solitary sovereignty—divine, yet human—a God in the silence of his own unity, yet a slain Lamb receiving in anticipation the adoration of a grateful universe: and if we look forward, we behold him in the far-off horizon, King of kings, and Lord of lords, crowned with unnumbered crowns, human as when on earth, yet divine as in the unbeginning eternity.
Second. As our Saviour was dead and is alive again, so we, who are now enduring the fellowship of his sufferings, shall know the power of his resurrection. The process is—suffering, death, resurrection: all who follow Christ pass this discipline. The story of the resurrection is far from having been fully told. The angel sitting at the head of the grave could tell us much more, could we but command the courage to listen to the radiant messenger. "I was dead." The counsels of eternity are epitomised in this declaration. The problem over which the ages bent in perplexity—at which they looked again and again in the wonder of a great agony, and which they bequeathed to posterity with a hope that was broadly streaked with the blackness of despair—is, in reality, solved by this fact. All the love which glows in the infinite heart is expressed in words so simple,—"I was dead"—"Alive again." Let me inquire around what centre the Church assembles. Do you hasten to reply, The Cross? I answer, Not there only. The Cross first, but afterwards the grave! "If Christ be not risen from the dead, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." In the centre of the Church is an empty tomb, and to a doubting world the Church can ever answer, "Come, see the place where the Lord lay." And, "seeing" it, what then? Why, from the sacred rock a living stream breaks, and as the countless multitudes drink, they exclaim, "These are the waters of immortality."
Need more be said to establish the congruity between the method of revelation and the moral condition of the Church in Smyrna? Could suffering have been approached with greater tenderness? Never was Grief asked to look through her weary and swollen eyes at an image so beautiful and inspiring as this; and all the saints of God who are called to the discipline of pain may gaze on the same aspect. When thou art in sadness, O child of God, go, see the place where the Lord lay; when all thy aspirations darken into clouds, and hang heavily around thee, go, see the place where the Lord lay; when thy questionings, and wonderings, and yearnings beat back upon the soul whence they issued, finding no rest on earth, no entrance into heaven, go, see the place where the Lord lay; and as thou art gazing in thickening perplexity on the forsaken rock, a voice, tremulous with music which cannot be described, shall, by the sympathetic pronunciation of thy name, recall thy fondest memories, and unseal the fountains of unutterable love.
Christ assures his people that he is intimately acquainted with every feature of their history. "I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty." You can conceive the thrilling joy with which these words would be heard by the suffering saints of Smyrna. It is something to know that every wound, every pang, every sorrow we endure for Christ is perfectly known to him, who carried our sorrows and bare our sicknesses. How deep soever the secrecy in which your tears are showered, the eye of Jesus is full upon you in every crisis of woe; and when, in the bitterness of imagined solitude, you exclaim, "Oh, that I knew where I might find him!" He reveals himself through the darkness of your grief, and says, with his own infinite gentleness, "I know, I know." Is not that enough? The "I know" of love is the smile of God. There is a child, let us suppose, who is called to suffer much on behalf of his father; that father is in a position which enables him to observe every action of the sufferer, without the sufferer himself being immediately aware of the paternal supervision. The watcher marks how bravely his boy conducts the defence; how he resists every blow, and hurls back every bolt, having first made it hot by his eager grasp, on the head of his enemy; sees the quiver of his lip, and the gleam of his eye, and all the passion of his insulted love; and as the suffering child looks around in his weakness, and pants for greater power, the strong and all but adoring father clasps him to a grateful breast, and interrupts the hurried utterance of the weary one by saying, "I know, I know." And it was well he did know, for among the many things which must be seen to be appreciated, filial heroism occupies no obscure place. You may tell that the lip quivered,—but to have seen it! You cannot describe the flush of passion in words worthy of its warmth: your own eye must be upon it, and you must immediately receive the mystery into your own wondering and thankful heart. Men make but poor work of painting a sunset; and a thunderstorm is never so degraded as when it is talked about. Thank God! Jesus sees our sufferings, is present in the cloud of our sorrow, needs not to be told what the soul has undergone, but breaks in upon the gathering darkness with words which bring with them the brightness and hope of morning, "I know, I know."
The fact that Jesus knows all that we suffer for him should serve three purposes:—(1) It should embolden us to seek his help. He is within whisper-reach of all his saints. All the desires of the heart may be expressed in one entreating sigh—one appealing glance. The soul's necessities may be too urgent to set forth in words. We have seen a little child lift its tiny finger and point to an object which it desired to possess, and that outstretched finger has been prayer enough to avail with the loving mother. Ay, and there have been hours in the experience of every saint in which he could but point, or yearn, or glance, or groan, without uttering a word; and in such hours the heavens have often dropped upon him the most golden blessings. Seek the help of the all-knowing Saviour; he stands by thy side, only shrouded lest his glory might quench the flickering of thy frail life. (2) It should inspire us with invincible courage. As the presence of a valorous leader stimulates an army, so should the assured guardianship of the Son of God inspire every soldier of the Cross. The shadow of Christ falls upon us, and that shadow is stronger than a thousand shields. "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world," is an assurance which strengthens our faith that "if we suffer, we shall also reign with him." Does your courage fail? I point you to the Son of God, whose eye is evermore gleaming upon you. He knows your frame; he remembereth that you are but dust; he giveth power to the faint, and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. You fail, but he never! "He fainteth not, neither is weary." I say, then, that his presence amongst us, and his consequent knowledge of all the circumstances which constitute our history, associated as that presence is with "exceeding great and precious promises," should inspire the saint and the Church with invincible and immortal courage. (3) It should clothe us with profoundest humility. That we can do anything for Jesus is a fact which should extinguish all fleshly pride. The true honour is that which most abases the carnal man. That Jesus should permit his Church to receive a single blow, which was intended for his own heart, is a circumstance which should not only awaken the most rapturous joy, but overwhelm us with the profoundest sense of our unworthiness to sustain so transcendent a dignity. He might have deprived the Church of this luxury of suffering in his stead; but it hath pleased him, in the infinite fulness of his love, to permit us to be wounded for the sake of his name. The apostles appreciated their high calling in this matter of doing and suffering: when their cheek was smitten, and their honour insulted, and their name cast out as an abomination, their hearts were filled with ecstatic joy—"they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer for his name." Humility and joy there held sweet fellowship. The voice of God and the history of believers upon this question concur in a loud and penetrating call upon all ages of the Church: "Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you." "We glory in tribulation,... knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience experience; and experience hope: and hope maketh not ashamed." "I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." Such is the sweet assurance of Christ, and such the resulting experience of suffering saints. Are you a sufferer? To thee Jesus says, "I know." Is not that enough? The tear, indeed, falls downward, but the sound of its falling flieth upward to the ear of God.
Christ reveals to his suffering saints the fact of their imperishable wealth. Turn your attention to the ninth verse, and determine which is its brightest gem. The verse is this:—"I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan." Can there be any doubt as to the most golden expression in such a verse? Look at the parenthesis, and you have it! Such a parenthesis could have been dictated only by the Son of God. How like the effusion of the Infinite mind! A volume in a sentence—noontide in a glance—eternal harmonies in a breath—heaven in a parenthesis! Often, in hours of trouble, I have looked at this sentence and its surroundings. It flashes upon one so unexpectedly. It is a garden in a wilderness, a song of hope mingling with the night-winds of despair. Slowly we pass over the dismal words, "Thy works, and tribulation, and poverty," and with startling suddenness we overpass the separating parenthesis, and then—then! Outside of it we have cold, shivering, desolate "poverty"; and inside "an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away"! Think of it! The very typography is suggestive; only a parenthesis between "poverty" and "rich"! And is it not so even in reality? What is there between thee, O suffering saint, and joys immortal? What between thee and heaven? What between thee and thy soul's Saviour? Only a parenthesis—the poor, frail, perishing parenthesis of thy dying body. No more. There is but a step between poverty and wealth. The history of transition is condensed into one sentence, "Absent from the body, present with the Lord." Let the parenthesis fall, and you will see him as he is. Sometimes, indeed, it becomes, as it were, transparent, and the saint has seen the coming wonders, while as yet they were unrealised. Hear the words of a dying martyr,—"Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God." Hear the words of another, who was bound to the altar,—"I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing."
When, therefore, we estimate the wealth of a good man, we must remember that there is a moral as well as a material, an invisible as well as a visible, property. The good man is an heir, and his heirship relates to possessions which no human power of calculation can compute. In the days of our inexperience, we imagined that one word could be amply explained by another; we deemed that all interpretations of language could be discovered through the aid of the lexicographer. We have lived to see the vanity of such imagining. Some words alter their meaning according to the character of the speaker who employs them. Character is the lexicon which gives the true meaning of moral terms. A word often alters its meaning according to the position of the circle in which it is employed. Take, for example, this word in the parenthesis,—the word "rich." Of this word almost every man has a definition of his own. You may have had occasion to visit a poor man, and, as you have encouraged him to talk, he has told you that if he had from twenty to thirty shillings per week he would account himself "rich." But go to the lord whose land the poor man cultivates, and see whether the poor man's definition of "rich"will be accepted by the baron. And so, the higher the circle into which you penetrate, the more will significations vary. Pass, then, into the highest circles of all, where the Lord Jesus sits enthroned amid his own unsearchable riches, and ask him what is the meaning of the word "rich." O Son of God, in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead, by whom were all things created that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers, reveal to us the meaning of thine own language; make this word, as it were, a rent through which we may catch a glimpse of our bright reversion in the skies, and give to us the exceeding comfort of an imperishable hope! Happy the Church into whose history this parenthesis is interjected by the Son of God. If you as a Church ask me how you may ascertain whether you are "rich," I should answer, (1) Is your faith strong? (2) Are your labours abundant? (3) Are your spiritual children numerous? Every holy, faithful, laborious, humble, trustful Church may claim this divine parenthesis; and how much soever the tempests may howl around it—there may be poverty on the one side and persecution on the other—the time shall come when this parenthesis alone will express your glorious and blissful destiny. But mark, you cannot enter, so to speak, the parenthesis without going through the exterior discipline. This parenthesis sums up the results of many a battle, intermingles the grace of God, and the work of Jesus, and the response of man; it marks the ultimate evolution of a history in which the light of heaven and the darkness of earth have played mysterious parts; it is the dawning of eternal day upon those who have served the Saviour through the weary watches of the tempestuous night.
Christ comforts his suffering ones by disarming their fears. "Fear none of those 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." I cannot arbitrate between contending critics as to the precise signification of the expression "ten days." It may, indeed, be that the word "day" is to be regarded as equivalent to the word year, and that the "ten days" refer to the ten years of sore persecution which befell the Asiatic Churches during the reign of the tiger-hearted Diocletian. This may be the case, but I care not to fabricate a strong plea in its favour. It is enough for me to secure a firm footing on the general principle which underlies the prediction. That general principle is, that there is a limit to the suffering of the Church. Persecution is an affair of "ten days." Diocletian is the tyrant of a vanishing hour. To-day he raves in madness, tomorrow his last yell has for ever expired. "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment." The Apostle triumphantly contrasts the brevity of suffering with the duration of glory. Hear him! the words seem to quail under the weight of thought with which they are charged; brighter and brighter flames the vision as the Apostle towers to the summit of his climax. "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." The "ten days" of oppression vanish in the infinite perspective; the fires of martyrdom pale before the effulgence of a sun which burns with eternal lustre; the sigh of suffering is lost in the pealing harmonies of unceasing song. In prospect of suffering, Christ says to his people, "Fear not." But why this counsel? Does it not stiffen the heart as a word of chilling mockery? O Son of God, why tell the people not "to fear"? It is because he knows the full interpretation of suffering. Suffering is education. Grief is discipline. Let me remind you that the suffering referred to is external. The house is smitten, but the tenant is infinitely beyond the sphere of flood, or flame, or steel. Let me further remind you that those sufferings have been overcome. Suffering is a vanquished power. "I have overcome the world." We have fellowship in our suffering, a fellowship that is mastery. Are you in Gethsemane? Do the winds howl drearily around you? Is it a sevenfold darkness that shuts out the light of the stars? Ah me! I know full well the meaning of your great suffering; the iron hath been crushed through my own swelling heart, and I can therefore sympathise with the children of grief. You say you hear the approach of the ruffianly band, and that the flare of the traitor's torch falls upon your drenched cheek. True. Yet, courage! Snatch that torch from his grasp, hold it to the ground—close! What see ye? A footprint? Ay! Any inscription? Ay! Read it—dash off the new-starting tear, and read! Speak aloud! Refrain not! "Be of good cheer; I have overcome." Why, it is the footprint of Christ! He has been standing just where you are! You have not gone farther down the troubled valley than your Master; you cannot get beyond the sphere of Christ; your suffering cannot lay claim to originality; every pang has been anticipated; your streams of grief mingle with his rivers of sorrow. We "know the fellowship of his sufferings." Every woe bears the inscription, "Overcome."
We can identify this "Fear not" as the solemn word of Christ. It is a form of expression peculiarly his own. It bears his image and superscription. We often heard him employ it when he walked amongst us in the form of a man. When we were tossed on the troubled sea, he came near and said, "Fear not; it is I." When we were few in number, and the objects of a haughty scorn, he gently said to us, "Fear not, little flock, it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." When he told us that bonds and imprisonments awaited us in every city, he added, "Fear not them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do." We were well accustomed to his "Fear not"; and now that he has ascended to the throne, and once more addresses us in this familiar tone, we exclaim with reviving courage, It is the voice of the Conqueror—the cry of the King!
Christ soothes and nerves his suffering saints by the promise of infinite compensation. "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." The word compensation is to be accepted in this connection with the fullest recognition of those limitations which the regenerate mind will instantly suggest. The help which analogy can afford in the understanding of Christ's promise is but partial—necessarily and most happily partial—yet it may shed a trembling ray on the central question before us. The saints are not for ever to lie under the cruel imputation of unworthiness. As in the case of a man who has been wantonly defamed and injured, is it enough that his peers pronounce him merely "Not guilty"? Is no account to be take of the wrongs he has endured? Are his wounds to be unmollified, except by the healing power of tardy time? In the name of humanity, No! "Not guilty" is to be translated into "innocent"; justification is to be succeeded by compensation; well-attested faithfulness is to be adorned with a crown. It is so, only in an infinitely higher degree, in the spiritual life. Jesus Christ will not only deliver his saints from the sphere of suffering; he will introduce them into the sphere of eternal rest and joy. There is "a recompense of reward." The languid eye of the suffering saint is turned to no merely negative heaven; it kindles into eloquent brightness as it gazes upon the "inheritance incorruptible," and the crown radiant with immortal glory. Every pang is to become a pleasure, every scar an abiding memorial of honour. We have to do with the faithfulness; Christ with the crowning. Long endurance on our part will not tarnish the promised diadem. It is there, look ye!—there, just on the other side of the golden clouds; and when life's last gasp shall expire, ye shall stand as crowned kings in the Infinite presence.
Blessed conjunction—"Thou" and "I," the suffering saint and the promising Saviour! "Be thou faithful, and I give." As it is personal suffering, so also shall it be personal reward. And what will the glorified saint do with that crown of life? Wear it? Methinks not. It will suffice him to feel its first pressure—that will be heaven enough!—and, having felt that, surely he will cast the crown at the feet of the Lamb, saying, "Thou only art worthy to be crowned."
Almighty God, thy claim upon our worship is unceasing, for thy mercy, like thy majesty, endureth for ever. Thou dost never withhold thine hand from giving good gifts unto thy children. As thou hast made them in thine own image and likeness, and hast implanted within them desires which the world can never satisfy, so thou dost specially reveal thyself unto them day by day, appeasing their hunger with bread from heaven, and quenching their thirst with water out of the river of God. Oftentimes have we said concerning thy Son: "We will not have this man to reign over us." But when we have tasted the bitterness of sin, and have been convinced of our own emptiness and helplessness, when heart and flesh have failed, when by the ministry of thy Holy Spirit we have come to understand somewhat of thine own holiness and mercy and love, our hearts' desire has been that Jesus might sit upon the throne of our love, and rule our whole life; that he might be King of kings and Lord of lords, our Redeemer, the Mighty One of Israel. We desire to live unto the glory of God, to understand the meaning of the gift of life with which we have been blessed. Thou hast entrusted us with solemn responsibilities; enable us to understand their meaning, to feel their pressure, and to respond with all our hearts to their demands. Let thy blessing rest upon us. May this house be unto us as the gate of heaven; may weary souls recover their strength and tone. May desponding hearts be revived and comforted with the consolation of God. May worldly minds be given to feel that there is a world higher than the present; that round about us is the great sea of thine eternity! May we be prepared for all the future, having our hearts cleansed by the precious blood of Christ We depend upon thy Holy Spirit; we will not look unto our own resources except as they present themselves as the gifts of God. We will rely upon thy power; we will cry mightily unto our God. Thou wilt hear us; thou wilt redeem our souls from all fear; thou wilt inspire us with immortal hope; thou wilt clothe us with adequate power. Show to us, more and more, the meaning of the mystery of the Cross. May we find all that is deepest and truest in our own life symbolised in that Cross. May it be the answer to our sin, the remedy of our diseases, the one hope of our wondering and anxious souls. Now unto him that is able to keep us from falling, and to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.