Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.Seven
I think, of all fearful passages in Holy Scripture, the Epistles to the Churches of Sardis and Laodicea are the most fearful. Sardis was looked on as a model Church, no doubt prided herself and was envied by others, for her spiritual endowments, gift of tongues and the like. Imagine then, how like a thunderbolt it must have fallen upon them, when they came together on the Sunday that followed the receipt of this epistle, and the Bishop read the words of Him that cannot be deceived and cannot err, for his own most terrible condemnation and theirs: 'Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead'.
I. The Lord's Title.—The number seven recurs and recurs in the Apocalypse. The seven candlesticks, the seven lamps of fire, the seven seals; seven horns and eyes of the Lamb; seven angels and seven trumpets; seven seals; seven thunders; seven heads of the dragon; seven crowns on those heads; seven heads of the wild beast; seven mountains; seven kings; sevenfold ascription of praise; seven invitations to come; and the division of the whole book into seven visions.
What especially does seven mean: it means and it is, the sign of God's covenant relation to man, and especially to His Church, Jewish or Gentile.
II. Have three and four any Mystical Meaning of their Own?—Most surely yes. Three sets forth God; four, the world. These numbers, brought into contact and relation, express, in seven, the token of the covenant betwixt the two.
I need not show you that three is the number of God. But now about four. Not to speak of the four elements and the four seasons, which are not mentioned in Holy Scripture, we have the four winds. In Ezekiel, 'Come from the four winds'. In St. Matthew: 'They shall gather together His elect from the four winds of heaven'. In the Apocalypse 'Four angels standing on the four corners of the earth,' holding the four winds of the earth. See in Revelation, the four living creatures, emblems of all created life, and in Ezekiel, with four feet and four wings; the four beasts in Daniel, lion, bear, leopard and monster, representing the four great world-powers successively to arise; the four metals in the great world-image; gold, silver, brass, iron; the same metals again when the offerings of regenerated earth are catalogued in Isaiah. 'For brass I will bring gold, and for iron I will bring silver, and for wood brass and for stones iron.' The four Gospels, type of the preceding through the whole world; the sheet St. Peter saw knit at the four corners, full of all manner of beasts; the four horns in Zechariah, the sum-total of all the world powers as arrayed against the Eternal; sword, famine, evil beasts, pestilence; and compare that with St John's vision, when power was given to the rider on the ghastly horse to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death (that is disease), and with the beasts of the earth. The enumeration of diseases by St John, 'impotent, blind, halt, withered'; and finally, the repeated enumeration of the inhabitants of the world, by 'kindreds and tongues, and people and nations'.
Thus you see how the world is reconciled to God in this most mysterious number; and what the God of Grace orders, the God of nature typifies. What is the sign of the covenant between God and man but the rainbow with its seven colours.
—J. M. Neale, Sermons on the Apocalypse, p. 28.
I. What strikes me first of all as the great characteristic in common of these two unhappy churches [Sardis and Laodicea] is the absence of all mention of external trouble or inward temptation. Ephesus is vexed by Nicolaitanes; Smyrna shall have tribulation ten days; Pergamum is twice said to dwell 'where Satan's throne is'; 'where Satan dwelleth'. Thyatira is tempted by 'that woman Jezebel' to the lusts of the flesh; Philadelphia is harassed 'by them of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but do lie'. But dead Sardis and miserable Laodicea have no fears, no trouble, no enemy. Satan knew too well to harass them. They were, as the Prophet says, settled upon their lees. What is true of Churches is true of individuals. Therefore there may be comfort or there may be warning here. Who would not rather be tempted with Philadelphia than have the peace of Sardis? And notice this Next to Smyrna and Philadelphia, to whom not one word of blame is said, perhaps Thyatira comes highest; she whose last works of love were more than the first; that is a glorious advance. She it is who is attacked by the most loathsome temptation; that of 'that woman Jezebel'. Now, whether this were really the founder of a sect, or merely a personification of the Gnostics, still the trial to the Church was the same. They taught that it was a small thing for a man to despise the temptations of the flesh, if he fled from them and avoided them. No, they said; the true, the glorious victory was to remain superior to such pleasures while tasting them to the full; to give up the senses to all they could desire, while the spirit remained in a calm, pure region above them. This, they said, was defying Satan in his own kingdom and stronghold.
And a masterpiece of Satan's that was; and thousands it drew away to hell. And singularly enough, the very name, Jezebel, has an analogy with the teaching. We know, from the Old Testament, the kind of life she led; we know from other history that she, before her marriage to Ahab, was the priestess of Astarte, the Venus of the Sidonians, and yet her name is said in the Old Phoenician, to mean pure; just as Agnes in Greek.
II. Temptations, let them be what they may, if only they are resisted, are the mark of growth; it is that terrible stagnation, when nothing has to be resisted, that all true servants of our dear Lord ought earnestly and His dearest servants most earnestly, to pray against.
III. Sardis, at this time, was not only one of the most luxurious, but one of the most populous of the cities of Asia Minor. Notice then: our Lord will not allow the few names, insignificant in the eyes of the world though they might be, to think that they are overlooked by Him. And only a few names, rather than a few? Surely with reference to that Book of Life in which the names of all who have fought the fight well—who have run the race well, are even 'now enrolled'. But see how our dear Lord takes care that, even in the general condemnation, even when He so speaks of the Church as dead, He is careful that His own dear servants, few though they be, should feel that they are not overlooked by Him. It is the old story over again, 'Wilt thou destroy the city for lack of five?' And the five, though they were not to be found, yet had they been found, would have been precious in the Lord's sight.
—J. M. Neale, Sermons on the Apocalypse, p. 38.
'There was no such thing as a dead particle in his faith,' said Dr. Martineau once of a friend; 'it was instinct with life in every fibre.'
In the correspondence of Zachary Macaulay, when he was governor of Sierra Leone, the following entry occurs:—'To Lady Huntingdon's Methodists, as a body, may with great justice be addressed the first verse of the third chapter of the Revelation. The lives of many of them are very disorderly, and rank antinomianism prevails among them.'
References.—III. 1.—R. E. Hutton, The Crown of Christ, p. 401. A. Maclaren, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 305; ibid., Expositions of Holy Scripture—Revelation, p. 232. III. 1-3.—H. S. Holland, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lix. p. 33. III. 1-6.—C. Anderson Scott, The Book of Revelation, p. 113.
Youth has an access of sensibility, before which every object glitters and attracts. We leave one pursuit for another, and the young man's year is a heap of beginnings. At the end of a twelvemonth he has nothing to show for it—not one completed work.
References.—III. 3.—F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 35. J. Keble, Sermons for the Sundays after Trinity, p. 441. J. Keble, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany, p. 248. Expositor (5th Series), vol. x. p. 152.
The words that introduce the message to the Church in Sardis prepare us to see that the central thought of the message itself is the operation of spiritual power. 'These things saith He that hath the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.' The 'seven spirits of God' symbolise the fulness of Divine power, and the seven stars the earthly subject through which this power is prepared to operate. It is with the victorious life we now deal, that we may learn the lesson how to live, and learn it in the most inspiring way, namely, by the vision of those that have lived and gloriously triumphed. We shall consider:—
I. The character of earth's best manhood. 'Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments.' We do not mean to say that these commended few in Sardis were the élite of the whole earth, that they were paragons of perfection, and had reached the highest summit of human virtue. The important matter is that they were the élite of the society in which they lived. The true test of a man's power is the way in which he does battle with his environment, and rises above the common level of his surroundings. There is no heroism in the world like that of the man who lives in the world and grandly reveals that he is not of the world.
II. In considering the character of earth's best manhood, we could not possibly fail to think of the 'Perfect Man,' and, therefore, the 'Perfect Man,' Jesus Christ. And it needs no long consideration to realise that 'the relation of earth's best manhood in general to that of Jesus Christ' is a question of transcendent importance. There are two tendencies of thought that go far to rob us of our best inheritance in Jesus Christ. One tendency is that which makes Jesus Christ only another name for God. The other tendency is that which reduces Jesus Christ to the earth-born level of poor imperfect men like ourselves, only knowing life's secret a little better than most other men and threading its ways with greater skill.
III. By union with Christ a character of sterling worth is developed. The statement in our text is very clear and emphatic. 'For they are worthy.' We must take care in this connection not to confound things that are distinct. It is not by merit that we obtain salvation; it is in salvation that we find our merit. God's kingdom comes to us, though we are utterly unworthy of the glorious gift; but, when we have received the kingdom, it invests us with high worth and dignity.
—John Thomas, Myrtle Street Pulpit, vol. II. p. 13.
References.—III. 4.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. ii. No. 68. J. W. Veevers, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xix. p. 274. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—Revelation, p. 243.
White Raiment (A Whitsunday Address)
Throughout the greater part of Christendom, today is celebrated under the name of Whitsunday. It is the Sunday commemorative of the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost descended on the Church. From the earliest times that Pentecostal Sunday was a favourite one for the sacrament of baptism. Its memories of the outpouring of the Spirit made it peculiarly appropriate for that. And it was thus it got its name of Whitsunday, from the white garments of the little children, who, on that day so hallowed by its unction, were brought to the font to be baptised. It is white-sunday; the day of the white robes; the day when the church was beautiful in white. It is the only Sunday in the year which enshrines a particular colour in its name. And so I venture to speak to you this evening on some of the suggestions of that colour, which is so often mentioned in the Bible, and always with an element of symbolism.
I. First, then, I ask you to observe that white is emblematical of purity. It is the symbol of purity in every language; the outward sign of it in every ritual.
Now I dare say there are some who feel a sense of shame when they hear that. If white be the sign and sacrament of purity—God help them, they shall never wear it Is there no young man who has been Jiving foolishly since he awoke to the liberty of manhood? Is there no young woman who is very different from what she was a dozen years ago? 'Character,' said Mr. Moody once, 'character is what a man is in the dark,' and if we knew what you were in the dark, would there be any hope of white apparel? I answer most emphatically, yes. That is the gospel I am here to preach. It is not to the heart of childlike innocence that the white raiment of our text is promised. It is to every one who overcomes; who rises from his past, and is ashamed; who cries, from the very margin of despair, 'Create within me a clean heart, O God'.
II. Then once again, I want you to observe that white was the colour which indicated victory. It was so, not only in the Bible, but also in the literature of Greece and Rome. Today, we do not so regard it. It is not significant of triumph now. The white flag is the symbol of submission, and the white feather is the badge of cowardice. But in the ancient world of Jew and Pagan there was no such sinister suggestion in it: it was not the colour of the coward then; white was the colour of the conquerer.
Do you see then another facet of our text—he that overcometh shall be clothed in white? It means that the battles which are won in secret, shall some day be the vesture which we wear. Our hardest conflicts are not fought in public; our hardest conflicts are on a hidden field. Out of our hidden triumphs God is weaving the robe that is to deck us by and by.
III. Once again, I ask you to observe that white is the colour which expresses joy. It does so because it is the colour of light, and there is something gladsome in the light. We do not speak about the day of sorrow; we speak and sing about the night of sorrow. 'The night is dark, and I am far from home,' is the utterance of one in heaviness. But light is gladsome, and it heartens us, and it summons forth the music of the birds, and so there has always been the thought of joy in the radiance which is the badge of day.
And so our text hints at this other truth—a truth which we can never lay to heart too much. It tells us, in the symbol of apocalypse, that overcoming is the road to joy.
IV. Once again I want you to remember that white is the livery of heavenly service. It is the garb which all the angels wear, and the angels are the ministers of God. Has not our Master taught us thus to pray, 'Thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven'? The type and pattern of perfect service is the unceasing ministry of angels. Flying abroad upon the wings of help, the angels were always habited in white. And so the colour came to speak of service; of instant and questioning obedience; of readiness to do the will of God, though the path of ministry was to a grave.
—G. H. Morrison, The Return of the Angels, p. 119.
White and Scarlet
This, it is true, was not the way in which the martyrs overcame; but if God grant us to come within a thousand degrees of them in glory, it will be enough. They have a more glorious portion. 'The shield of the mighty men,' says Nahum, 'is made red, the valiant men are in scarlet.' The mighty men are the martyrs; the scarlet is the glorious colours of their own blood. And so again, Solomon, speaking of the Church, says: 'She shall not be afraid when the cold cometh, for her house hold are clothed in scarlet'. That is, she shall have no cause to fear when others are falling away from God; seeing that she has so many who have given their lives to prove the strength of their love to Him.
—J. M. Neale, Sermons in Sackville College Chapel, vol. iv. p. 22.
Reference.—III. 5.—A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—Revelation, p. 250.
Our knowledge of the moral part of the divine character, of His veracity—as well as of His justice—comes from our own moral nature. We feel that God is holy, just as we feel that holiness is holiness; just as we know by internal consciousness that goodness is good in itself, and by itself; just as we know that God in Himself is pure and holy. We feel that God is true, for veracity is a part of holiness and a condition of purity. But if we did not think holiness to be excellent in itself, if we did not feel it to be a motive unaffected by consequences and independent of calculation, our belief in the divine holiness would fade away, and with it would fade our belief in the divine veracity also.'
—From Bagehot's essay on The Ignorance of Man.
Reference.—III. 7.—R. E. Hutton, The Crown of Christ, p. 417.
The Open Door
I. Notice, first that when it is translated 'Thou hast a little strength,' which would rather be an acknowledgment of power than weakness, it ought to be 'Thou hast little strength'. 'My strength is made perfect in weakness.'
You must join the two verses together, 'I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it,' with His title who has thus opened it, 'He that hath the key of David upon his shoulder'. And you may take the door in two senses. The power of spreading the gospel among the surrounding heathen, as St. Paul speaks, 'A great door and effectual is opened unto me'. Or, it may be, that more blessed door, the entrance to be abundantly ministered unto the kingdom of heaven. Either way, the reason that follows is one of those divine arguments so infinitely above the reasonings of man. 'I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it, for thou hast little strength.' What, impossible to be conquered, because we are weak? Even so; because that very weakness enlists omnipotence on our side. It was, no doubt, from reasoning after the manner of men, that our translators put in contrary to the Greek, that word a. Not so the Holy Ghost. It is something after the same method of argument as that sublime passage of Tertullian: 'The Son of God went about healing disease and infirmity; it is possible because it is unlikely, and died on the cross for us; it is probable because it is incredible; and rose again the third day; it is certain because it is impossible'. And take the opposite side of the picture, and see how St. Paul speaks of that, with the bitterest irony he ever allows himself to use: 'Now ye are full, now ye are rich; ye have reigned as Kings without us; and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you'.
II. 'I have set before thee an open door.' That is, in the other sense, that gate which is of one solid pearl and which leads into the King's city, that city whose light is like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; that gate through which nothing shall in any wise enter that defileth.
III. The key which opens the kingdom of heaven, and government which is exalted above all powers, both in heaven and earth, is none else than the Cross. That is the key, and the only key, which unlocks this door; and a singular thing it is, how the old type has kept its place physically, when the metaphorical meaning has long been forgotten. Did you ever see an elaborate key in which the wards were not made crosswise? And notice this, on account of that special promise to Eliakim [The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder] the Jews connected the idea of a key with that of the coming of the Messiah. Further, mediaeval saints tell us why it should have pleased our Lord to submit to the necessity of bearing His cross on one shoulder; namely, that is, that we, bearing it after Him, must bear whatever our special cross is, for ourselves.
—J. M. Neale, Sermons on the Apocalypse, p. 53.
References.—III. 7-13.—C. Anderson Scott, The Book of Revelation, p. 126. A. B. Davidson, Waiting upon God, p. 331. III. 7-22.—G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. p. 358. III. 8.—J. Keble, Sermons for Easter to Ascension Day, p. 25. J. Duckworth, A Book of Lay Sermons, p. 171. J. M. Neale, Sermons on the Apocalypse, p. 46. III. 8, 10.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxx. No. 1814. III. 8-11.—R. Glover, Christian World Pulpit, vol. 1. p. 68. III. 10.—A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—Revelation, p. 259.
Faint Yet Pursuing
I. Notice that the same command is given to two of the seven Churches, and in both cases is joined to the same declaration. To Thyatira it is written, 'That which ye have already hold fast till I come. To Philadelphia, 'Behold, I come quickly; hold that fast what thou hast,' till I come. I wish we had these words constantly in our hearts; a hard struggle to carry on, a hard race to run, but then it is only 'Till I come'. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might—because the night is at hand when no man can work—because it is only 'Till I come'. There is but a short time to do deeds of love; there is but a short time to fight the good fight of faith; there is but a short time to exercise hope. 'Behold, I come quickly.... So much the more as ye see the day approaching.'
II. 'That no man take thy crown.' St. Bernard says: 'It is well said; thy crown. For to all that have contended here, although in different fights, to all that have run well here, although in different races, a special crown is appropriated; as the martyrs shall wear a diadem of ruby, the confessor of gold, so also for chastity is there a crown of snow-white brilliancy.' And not so only, but as the cunning artificer decks the crown which he has in hand with many and various jewels, according to the riches and the pleasure of him for whom it is made, so each good work done by the elect in this world forms as it were a separate gem in the diadem of their blessedness on high. Each therefore has his crown; as each has his own sorrows and trials in this valley of misery, so each has his own reward and coronation in the kingdom of glory; according to the saying, 'The heart knoweth his own bitterness, and a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy'.
—J. M. Neale, Sermons on the Apocalypse, p. 62.
There is less sand in your glass now than there was yesternight. This span-length of ever-posting time will soon be ended. But the greater is the mercy of God the more years ye get to advise upon what terms, and upon what conditions, ye cast your soul in the huge gulf of never-ending eternity. The Lord hath told you what ye should be doing till He come.... All is night that is here, in respect of ignorance and daily ensuing troubles, one always making way to another, as the ninth wave of the sea to the tenth; therefore sigh and long for the dawning of that morning, and the breaking of that day of the coming of the Son of Man, when the shadows shall flee away. Persuade yourself the King is coming: read the letter sent before Him, 'Behold, I come quickly'. Wait with the wearied nightwatch for the breaking of the eastern sky, and think that ye have not a morrow.
—From one of Samuel Rutherford's Letters to Lady Kenmure.
The Alienated Crown
Each Church and each separate disciple has a distinctive vocation, and in the counsels of God, a specific and unmistakable prize associates itself with the faithful fulfilment of that vocation. The fact that the crown lost by one passes to another, brings to mind the good faith of God and the largeness of His plans. So imperatively benign are the Divine purposes, that there can be no diminution in their scope. The Lord will never take back what He has once resolved to give for the blessing and enrichment of His people. This exhortation implies that the partial and temporary failure of the individual does not imply the final failure of the race.
I. We need to concern ourselves first of all with the personal significance of these words, although they were addressed to the representative of a Church, and have a collective application. Many incidents of the Scriptures illustrate and enforce them. Great in character as was Moses, and invested with enduring honour, he failed to attain all the glory it was God's will to put upon him. The lesson comes home to us again as we read the history of David. And in the New Testament we find yet more striking and tragic illustrations. Judas was one whose crown was taken by a worthier disciple. The promise of great things hides itself in lives which, to the outward eye, are unpromising, meagre, poverty-stricken. God could not create men to put before them from the beginning the prospect of a crownless immortality. Did not some of us in the days of our youth give the promise of an eminent usefulness we have since failed to realise? Others then promised less, but they more than surpass us now. The crown meant for us is passing to more royal souls.
II. This solemn warning reminds us of our national perils, as well as of the losses which sometimes threaten us in our life of individual piety and service.
(1) Many signs seem to show that the crown of honour England has worn as a Christian nation may pass to less luxurious peoples of simple creed and strenuous life. It is impossible to contemplate, without a sad shrinking of heart, the idea that our free citizens are governed to a greater extent than they know by the representatives of demoralising trades.
(2) Whilst the Christian communities in our midst have grown in intelligence and self-respect, they are in danger of losing some of the high distinctions they once possessed as Christ's representatives to the people He seeks to befriend and save.
References.—III. 11.—J. Keble, Sermons for Easter to Ascension Day, pp. 262, 272. W. E. Beet, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xix. p. 248. III. 11-13.—Bishop Wilberforce, Sermons, p. 91.
A Pillar in the House of God
As we hear these words let us do as did the seer of this vision, let us turn to see Him Who speaks to us. To you and me it is spoken by the high King of heaven. To you and me is offered the blessedness that shall never end.
I. See to whom this great word is spoken. 'Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the house of My God.' Does there rise before us a hero like David, fearless, splendid in his courage, hurling with unerring aim the pebble from the sling? Nay, listen again, 'I know thee, that thou hast a little strength'. The word is spoken for the lowest and the least. Is it then for some sublime achievement, some unearthly endurance that this high reward is given? No, the achievement was a very simple one of which the world heard nothing and no record was kept upon earth. 'Thou hast kept My word and hast not denied My name.' So, then, every one of us may come and hear this glorious promise from the lips of our great Captain and Saviour: 'Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the house of My God'.
II. And more than this. He who speaks is not only the great and glorious Captain of the Lord's host; not only the tender and pitiful brother who for us men and for our salvation came into this world to live and to die and to rise again—He Himself is the force by which we are to overcome. Look then at the overcoming love which is ours in Christ. All the holy influences that come to us, the gracious promptings and whispers of His Almighty love, are the prophecies and pledges of His might in which we may overcome.
III. The little strength becomes a pillar by overcoming. He who becomes a pillar, in the temple of God must first be rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ. Christ is our life. 'If a man abide not in Me he is cast forth and withered.' 'Him will I make a pillar. Not by and by, but now and here.'
—M. G. Pearse, The Preacher's Magazine, vol. IX. p. 337.
What the Church of God requireth is 'pillars'—pillars strong and steadfast. What, alas! the Church possesseth to her damage is 'caterpillars' innumerable. It is obvious to all who will but see that havoc is being made of the Church of the Living God by this great army of 'caterpillars'—the crawling, creeping Christians who are of the earth, earthy. These fill too frequently positions of power in the organisations of the visible Church, and hence the cry on all sides of failure, damage, and defeat. We turn with grateful hearts to the 'pillars,' to the true workers, the real supporters of the Church of God. 'Him that overcometh,' the conquering man, the victorious saint, 'will I make a "pillar" in the temple of My God'.
I. We want granite pillars, strong and durable, in those days of ecclesiastical and social quakings, if the Church is not 'to be moved away from the hope of the Gospel'. The most popular theology is the theology of indefiniteness. The symbolism of this theology is, 'I know not anything'. In Ephesians IV., where St. Paul is speaking of the 'perfecting of the saints,' he lays it down as a condition that, without definite, dogmatic teaching, the Church cannot be edified, and he warns them against being 'tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine'. We are pleading for firmness in holding fast the essentials.
II. We want marble pillars—shafts of beauty in the corridors of His House of Prayer, beautiful with the beauty of holiness. We are persuaded that the greatest, the most telling power in the world is the power of a blameless life. What men think over is not words nor works, but the man's life—his character; not what he says, nor what he does, but what he is, is the criterion.
These, then, are the two pillars: granite and marble—strength and beauty, the Jachin and the Boaz of this glorious temple. The Church requireth both. Firmness, strength, stability: for the times demand these. Purity, truth in the inward parts, and the beauty of holiness: for this generation lacketh these.
—T. J. Madden, Addresses to All Sorts and Conditions of Men, p. 126.
References.—III. 12.—Bishop Kennion, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. p. 104. J. Keble, Village Sermons on the Baptismal Service, p. 227. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—Revelation, p. 275. III. 12, 13.—G. E. Biber, The Seven Voices of the Spirit, p. 137.
The Laodicean Church
No thoughtful person can read the letters of our ascended Lord to the seven Churches in Asia without observing that there is a great diversity in the condition and character of these Churches. Four of the Churches had a mixture of good and evil; something to commend and something to condemn. Two of the Churches have nothing in them but good. There is one Church, however, of which nothing good is said, all evil, not a single virtue left; not one at least is named in the letter to Laodicea. To this, the worst, the most degraded, the only Christless Church of the seven, would we now direct attention. Let us consider:—
I. The condition of the Church of the Laodiceans.
(1) The Church's estimate of herself: 'I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing'. Self-sufficiency, and that self-sufficiency based on her material wealth. (2) Christ's estimate of the Laodicean Church: 'Thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked'. 'Thou art neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of My mouth.' Why does He prefer a state of utter coldness to lukewarmness? absolute indifference to hypocrisy? (a) May it not be because there is more honesty in the man who is utterly indifferent to religion, and avows it, than in the hypocrite. (b) A second reason may be, that there is more likelihood of the conversion of the cold than of the lukewarm. The humiliating, damning feature in the condition of this Church is that she is without Christ, without a Saviour.
II. The appeal of Christ. (1) The appeal is based on Christ's character. To arrest the attention of the lukewarm Laodiceans, He announces the authority and truthfulness of Him who speaks to them.
(2) The appeal is based on the All-sufficiency of Christ. (3) The appeal suggests conditions. 'Buy.' (4) The appeal is based upon promises.
—Richard Roberts, My Closing Ministry, p. 56.
References.—III. 14.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xii. No. 679. R. E. Hutton, The Crown of Christ, p. 427. F. W. Farrar, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 353. Expositor (6th Series), vol. iii. p. 125. III. 14-21.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xx. No. 1185. E. J. Boyce, Parochial Sermons, p. 107. III. 14-22.—C. Anderson Scott, The Book of Revelation, p. 141.
Unhappily in matters political the curse of a flabby amorphous eclecticism is upon too many of us; watching the conflict of principles or policies in a dazed and bewildered frame of mind, we persuade ourselves that we are philosophically impartial when we are only indolently indifferent. 'Which train are you going by, sir—up or down?' 'I'll wait and see!' and both engines rush out and leave the unhappy vacillator to his reveries, till by and by the platform is cleared, and the station is shut up for the night, and the gas lamps are turned down; and there is no moon, and no stars, and no shelter, and the wind is rising.
—Dr. Jessopp, in the Trials of a Country Parson.
Mr. Bagehot somewhere speaks of those unabsorbed, purposeless, divided characters which seem to puzzle us. They complicate human life, and they do so the more effectually that they typify and represent so much of what every man feels and must feel within himself. In each man there is so much which is unmoral, so much which has nothing to do with hell or heaven; which occupies a middle place not recognised in any theology; which is hateful both to the impetuous "friends of God" and His most eager enemies.'
References.—III. 15.—H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Sunday Sermonettes for a Year, p. 88. H. R. Gamble, Church Family Newspaper, vol. xv. p. 72. Expositor (5th Series), vol. ix. p. 47. III. 15, 16.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlviii. No. 2802. III. 15-19.—A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—Revelation, p. 283.
Lukewarmness implies that a great deal has gone before, that a height has been climbed, and that from cowardice, human respect, or weariness, we have come down from it. Like certain phenomena in geology, it is at once our evidence of a former state of things, and of the catastrophe which overthrew it. He who was never fervent can never be lukewarm.... It is a great grace, a prophecy of a miraculous cure, to find out that we are lukewarm; but we are lost if we do not act with vigour the moment we make this frightful discovery. It is like going to sleep in the snow, almost a pleasant tingling feeling at the first, and then—lost for ever.
—F. W. Faber.
Then hath the Tempter come upon me, also with such discouragements as these: 'You are very hot for mercy, but I will cool you; this frame shall not last always: Many have been as hot as you are for a spurt, but I have quenched their zeal'. And with this, such and such who were fallen off would be set before mine eyes. Then I should be afraid that I should do so too. But, thought I, I am glad this comes into my Mind. 'Well, I will watch, and take what heed I can. Though you do,' said Satan, 'I shall be too hard for you; I will cool you insensibly, by degrees, by little and little. What care I,' saith he, 'though I be seven years in chilling your heart if I can do it at last? Continual rocking will lull a crying child asleep. I will ply it close, but I will have my end accomplished.'
—Bunyan, Grace Abounding, sec. 110.
What if it has pleased God that I should have been born and bred and have lived ever since in the tents of Esau? What if—by no choice of my own—my relations and friends should have been the hunters and the fighters? What if, during a weakly youth, I was forced to watch—for it was always before my eyes—Esau rejoicing in his strength, and casting away his birthright for a mess of pottage?... And what if, when I tried, I found that Esau would listen to me; that he had a heart as well as Jacob? What if he told me at the same time that he could not listen to Jacob's private chaplains; that he did not understand them, nor they him; that he looked on them with alternate fear and contempt? If I said to myself more and more clearly as the years rolled on, I will live for Esau and with Esau; if I be called a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, the friend of publicans and sinners, there is One above us who was called the same, and to Him I commit myself and my work; it is enough for me that He knows my purpose, that on Crimean battle-fields and Indian marches, poor Esau has died with a clearer conscience and a lighter heart for the words which I have spoken to him. If I have said this, whom have 1 wronged? I have no grudge against Jacob and his preachers; only when I read the seventeenth verse of the third chapter of Revelation, I tremble for him, and for England, knowing well that on Jacob depends the well-being of England, whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual, and that my poor Esau is at best food for powder.
—From a letter written by Charles Kingsley in defence of his methods and life.
'The accession of George I.,' says Sir Leslie Stephen, 'marked the beginning of a period of political stagnation which lasted for nearly half a century. The country prospered and waxed rich. Harvests were abundant; towns began to grow; and the seeds of much that was good and much that was evil in our later history were sowed.... The governing classes enjoyed the power which they had acquired by the Revolution, and were content to keep what they had gained. They would oppress nobody actively; on the other hand they would introduce no reforms. Their highest virtue was in leaving things' alone.... The church retained obnoxious privileges on the condition of making very little use of them; and the nation indolently drifted towards the unknown future, carelessly contented for the most part.'
References.—III. 17.—Expositor (5th Series), vol. vi. pp. 259, 332. III. 17, 18.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxviii. p. 1677. III. 17-19.—Bishop Pereira, The Record, vol. xxvii. p. 444. III. 17-20.—Bishop Percival, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 142. III. 18.—F. J. Madden, Tombs or Temples, p. 38. III. 19.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iii. No. 164.
At Kelso, some will long remember his remarks in visiting a little girl, to whom he said, 'Christ gives last knocks. When your heart becomes hard and careless, then fear lest Christ may have given a last knock.'
—Bonar's Life of M'Cheyne, p. 143.
The Closed Door
Let us look at these words with reference to the Person Who speaks them, and consider, in its various aspects, the striking picture which they represent.
I. The Closed Door.—It was closed in the case of the Laodiceans by lukewarmness. But there are other things which are effectual in closing the doors of our hearts.
(a) Sin in its numberless forms. The sin that is practised openly in defiance of God; the sin that hides itself from the light, and which none but God can see; that 'easily besetting sin,' so nurtured and encouraged as at last to become a part of our nature, that sin of unfaithfulness that finds a refuge in broken vows and careless indifference to all God's Ordinances.
(b) The love of the world. The craving after the goods of this life, which tends to spread itself over the whole entrance, so as to shut out all influences that aim at the life beyond.
(c) Pride. The pride of intellect, for instance, that does not scruple to assert that true knowledge lies in Sight and not in Faith; because, forsooth, the laws of finite man have no power to grasp the Infinity of God!
(d) Self-righteousness, which depends upon its own powers for the attainment of the spiritual life.
All these tend to close the door of a man's heart Which of us has the door closed against Christ?
II. There is One Standing at the Door.—Who is He? He is a King; the same King that St. John describes in the former part of this book as 'Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty'. Is not this a matter for wonder that such as He should stand and knock for entrance at the door of our sinful hearts? Wonderful indeed! And yet not so wonderful, if we consider that this is He Who left His Father's Throne and came down from Heaven to take our nature upon Him, that we might have boldness through Him to come near to the Throne of Grace. Surely, then, He has the right of all others to demand admittance.
(a) Mark his wondrous condescension. He has bidden us come to Him; to ask, and we shall have; to seek, and we shall find; to knock, and it shall be opened unto us. And yet, so great is His love, He comes to us that He may bring us to Himself, lest in our blindness we neglect our own salvation, and the Day of Redemption pass by, and leave us unredeemed.
(b) Mark His wondrous patience. He comes to His own; but His own receive Him not He comes to those whom He has redeemed, by manifold sufferings, by agony and Bloody Sweat, by a bitter death upon the Cross; but He finds no hand stretched out to welcome Him. His 'Israel' will not hear, His people will not consider. He comes as a Friend; but lo! the door is shut; there is no one to watch for His coming, there is no one ready to receive Him. Nay, even when He has knocked, He has been refused admittance; and yet—He waits there still! He has stood by while others have been admitted—the world with all its empty vanities; the flesh with all its selfish desires; sin with its fair outside and deceptive promises; Satan himself with his legions of evil angels. He has looked through the open door, and seen the house within filled with destroyers and enemies, and He has not turned away, although these have been preferred before Him. He stands there still.
III. As He Stands He Knocks.—And each of us has heard these knockings, although in different ways, sometimes without asking who it is that knocks, sometimes without hearing the answer; sometimes without fully understanding what the sound has meant. And why? Probably through indifference; or, perhaps, because we have not wished to be disturbed; or, perhaps, because the weeds and brambles of the world have overgrown the door so thickly that the sound or the knock cannot penetrate. And all this time we have fancied ourselves secure, because we have heard no sound!
IV. How has He knocked?—In many various ways.
(a) By the joys and sorrows that have been our lot all through life, whereby He would remind us that He is the Author of all joy, and the Comforter of every sorrow.
(b) By changes in the world around us, and among those best known to us, whereby He would point us to Himself when our unsatisfied souls cry out for something strong to rest upon.
(c) By the Ordinances of His Church whereby He calls us into communion with Himself, and feeds us with the spiritual Food which alone can strengthen the spiritual life.
(d) By the Seasons of the Church's Year which point to His all-holy Life as the pattern and example of our life, and by the Seasons of the natural year which teach the lessons of life and death, bidding us look beyond to the Cause of all things, and recognise in Him the source both of Resurrection and Life.
All these are so many ways in which He has knocked for entrance; and in whatever particular we have neglected our duty toward any or each of these, it has been to shut the door of our hearts against Him, and to refuse to hear His Voice, however plainly He has spoken.
V. He Calls as well as Knocks.—He lifts up His voice and speaks to us, lest we should not know Who it is that seeks admission, and says, 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock.' And this He does in. two ways.
(a) By His Holy Word, by which He proves the truth of His Mission and appeals to man's conscience, bidding him weigh his own soul in one scale and the world in the other, and then consider with himself what advantage he shall gain if he barter the one for the other.
(6) By means of that living Voice within, bidding us seek the sweet influence of God's Good Spirit to nourish the new-born life, lest the tares of the world choke it, and the heat of temptation wither it, and it bring no fruit to perfection. So does the patient loving Jesus stand and wait at the door of our hearts, seeking an entrance that He may fill us with 'all joy and peace in believing'; so does He call week after week, and month after month, by all the means His Love has furnished for our souls' good; and so does he still wait and watch, if peradventure the careless soul inside will at last hearken and open the door, and admit Him.
VI. He is Ready also to Depart.—He will not tarry for ever. He stands patiently now; He has waited and watched long and anxiously, and He will wait still, as long as there is hope; but He will not compel an entrance. All gifts of grace are His, and may be yours for the asking: He will grant you preventing grace, that may awaken and predispose you in all your words and thoughts and deeds; and assisting grace, that may help you forward in your heavenward path, and give you power to bend your will to His.
But His Spirit will not always strive with man.
References.—III. 20.—H. S. Holland, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lix. p. 21. F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. iv. p. 185. H. R. Heywood, Sermons and Addresses, p. 12. J. Bunting, Sermons, vol. i. p. 110. A. Maclaren, The Wearied Christ, p. 91. Expositor (6th Series), vol. iii. p. 341. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—Revelation, p. 302. III. 21—Ibid. p. 312. R. J. Campbell, City Temple Sermons, p. 134. Ibid. The Examiner, 28th June, 1906, p. 625. Expositor (5th Series), vol. v. p. 184. III. 21, 22.—G. E. Biber, The Seven Voices of the Spirit, p. 157. III. 22.—A. G. Brown, Preacher's Magazine, vol. i. p. 37.
Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.
Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.
Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.
He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
And 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;
I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.
Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.
Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.
As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.