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Chapter Three The Seven Churches (Part Two)
We now go on to look at the next part in the marvelous series of this great annotated timetable of the church’s history.
Church of Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6)
Chapter 3 begins with the letter to the church of Sardis. Sardis means “a remnant,” or, “those who have escaped.” This name is very significant and tells its own story too plainly to be misunderstood. It brings before us, prophetically, the great state churches of the Reformation. These churches escaped from Rome, only to fall eventually into cold, lifeless formalism.
The first verse indicates that there was a measure of return to early principles in Sardis. The Lord’s introduction of Himself to this church is very similar to that in the letter to Ephesus, and yet the difference is most marked. Here He is said to have the seven stars; in the letter to Ephesus He was said to hold the seven stars in His right hand. It is, at least, the recognition that ministry belongs to Christ. Ministers are Christ’s ministers-not the church’s. Yet even in the glorious days of the Reformation, the truth was not fully apprehended that ministers are to be controlled by, and subject to Christ without any human intermediary. While the Protestant ministry is very different from the Roman hierarchy, unfortunately human ordination has done much to obscure a proper conception of the servant’s responsibility to the Master.
The Lord declared solemnly, “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (3:1). How sad and solemn the indictment! One might well ask in amazement, how such things could be after the blessing and revival of Reformation days. We need to remember that historically the state churches included all the population of a given country who were supposed to be made members of the church and kingdom of Christ by baptism in infancy. We can then readily understand why such churches, though possibly strictly orthodox, may yet be largely composed of persons still dead in trespasses and in sins. Nothing can be much sadder than vast congregations of people, baptized, banded together as Christians, taking the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, zealous for church and Christianity, and yet often devoid of personal, saving faith in Christ. They trust in forms and ceremonies, and what some have called “birthright membership,” rather than in new birth through the Word and Spirit of God.
What is needed everywhere is a great revival of decided gospel preaching, pressing home on the consciences of men and women their lost condition, despite church membership, if they have not personally received the Lord Jesus Christ. The Word says, “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns” (Jeremiah 4:3). People often say they would like to see more old-time conversions. Well, there must first be the old-time preaching of the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the lost condition of all men by nature as well as practice. Then the old-time conviction will seize on the souls of Christless people and the old-time gospel will be hailed as the only relief.
No wonder the Lord says to Protestantism, “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God” (3:2). He calls on them to remember how they had received and heard and to hold fast and repent. With careful examination it is clear that this message would not have been as applicable to the Thyatira as to the Sardis period. Such words would not have the same force when addressed to Rome as when addressed to the churches of the Reformation.
What did these churches of the Reformation receive and hear? Clearly the great truths were proclaimed fearlessly in the days of the Reformation. These truths were embodied in the creeds of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the instruction of future generations. I am not one of those who waste time denouncing creeds. Credo means “I believe.” Any man who believes anything has a creed. All the great creeds of Protestantism are the carefully drawn-up declarations of the faith of those who had escaped from Roman superstition. They wrote these creeds to make clear to their children what they recognized as the truth which they had received from God. We need not be surprised if we find in these creeds some statements that fuller light and knowledge would lead us to refuse or revise. But these statements of faith hold within them fundamental truths of the Word of God. Take the Augsburg Confession of the Lutherans; the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians; the 39 Articles of the Church of England; and others too numerous to mention. Every one of these creeds insists on the true deity of Christ and the efficacy of His atoning work on Calvary’s cross. All declare that salvation is only through faith, apart from works.
Those creeds stand for the fundamental truths of Christianity. It is not to any minister’s credit today to stand up in the pulpits of denominations advocating such creeds and say, “I have thrown the creed of the church overboard.” When a man reaches that point he either ought to be thrown out of the church whose principles he no longer believes, or he should be honest enough to take himself out. One of the worst features of the present apostasy is that there are thousands of men occupying supposedly orthodox pulpits who, if they could, would destroy everything for which their respective denominations stand.
So we may thank God for the truths contained in these creeds, yet recognize that where the Word of God is bowed to, no creed drawn up by humans is needed. Nevertheless, I believe it is in view of these very confessions that the Lord says, “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard” (3:3). He calls on Protestants to remember the great truths committed to them at the Reformation and hold them fast. They should repent for the slack way in which they have treated these truths in the past.
Once again the Lord spoke of His approaching advent: “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” (3). How different this verse is from 1 Thessalonians 5:4 where Paul wrote of that same wondrous advent: “But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief.” It is very evident, therefore, that the coming of the Lord should be the daily expectation of His own beloved people. It is only to the great mass of mere professors that His return will be as the coming of a thief-that is, as the unexpected and unlooked-for One whose coming will spread dismay instead of gladness.
It is blessed to know the declaration and promise of the Lord in verse 4. Even in Sardis He saw a few names that had not defiled their garments. He declared that they will walk with Him in white for they are worthy. His blood alone has made them so. There are thousands in Christendom who are linked up with much that is unscriptural and are often almost undistinguishable from the mass. Yet they are plainly discernible to His eye, for it is written, “The Lord knoweth them that are his.” To these overcomers the promise is made that they will be clothed in white raiment. Their names will not be blotted out of the Book of Life. Whereas thousands of names, representing a Christless profession, will be expunged from the records in that day of manifestation.
It is not a question of people who have been truly born of God losing that eternal life given them in Christ. As many other Scriptures show, that is an impossibility. In fact, were it otherwise it would not be eternal life at all. But the Lord is referring to those who have a name to live, but are dead. Their names are registered among those who profess to have life in Christ. In reality they are, as Jude wrote, “twice dead”-dead in trespasses and sins and dead to their profession of life.
So in the day of manifestation their names will be eliminated. Only those who have proven by persevering in well-doing that they truly have life in Christ, will be left. They will be confessed before the Father and the angels at the Lord’s second coming.
The Church of Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13)
The next in order is the letter to the church in Philadelphia, which means “brotherly love.” This letter, I believe, brings us to what we may call the revival period. Following the Reformation there came a time when a cold, lifeless formalism seemed to settle down over all Protestant Christendom. It was an era in which men were content simply to confess a creed. As we have already mentioned, they were presumed to be united to the church by baptism. But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there came a great wave of blessing over all those lands where the Reformation had gone. God began to work afresh in mighty power. There were marvelous awakenings all over northern Europe and the British Isles. A half century later the same mighty power began to evidence itself in America. Spirit-filled servants of Christ went through these various countries like firebrands of the Lord, calling on sinners to repent and saints to awaken to their privileges. A little later, in the early part of the last century, God began to arouse many of His people to a deeper sense of the value of His Word and its all-sufficiency for the guidance of His people. This led to the recognition of the fact that Christ Himself is the gathering center for His people. For His name’s sake thousands left all human systems and began to meet in simplicity, seeking to be guided alone by the Word of God.
Now I do not mean to imply that we are to understand any special movement or association of believers to be in itself Philadelphia. But, just as the church of Sardis depicts state churches of the Reformation, so I believe the church of Philadelphia illustrates those in Protestantism who emphasize the authority of the Word of God and the preciousness of the name of Christ. For any particular company to claim to be Philadelphia is but detestable ecclesiastical pretension; God has very evidently frowned on all such conceit.
Notice what would mark in a special way those who seek to walk as Philadelphians. In the first place the very name of this church- “brotherly love”-implies that its members love as brethren. They are born of God, and His love is shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit given unto them. They are characterized by love to all who are Christ’s. How little this characteristic is seen among many who make very loud assertions to being the testimony of the Lord at the present time. There may be much truth and a great pretension to divine ground and maintaining of scriptural principles, but if this first mark of brotherly love is missing you have not yet found Philadelphia.
In the second place, observe the character in which the Lord presented Himself to this church. “These things saith he that is holy, he that is true” (3:7). These words embody a challenge to separation from evil in life and error in doctrine. If we would walk in fellowship with the holy One we must remember the admonition, “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). And if we would enjoy communion with Him who is the Truth, we must refuse Satan’s lies, and love and live the truth ourselves. Hence it follows, as others have stated, that “separation from evil is God’s principle of unity.” Not separation in a cold, pharisaic sense, but separation to Christ from that which is evil.
Next, the Lord spoke of Himself as “he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth; and no man openeth” (3:7). This verse is clearly a reference to Isaiah 22:22. In that Isaiah passage he who had the key of David was the treasurer of David’s house. There it is said of Eliakim, “The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” The remainder of the passage shows that Eliakim was a type of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one on whom should be hung all the glory of His Father’s house. He, by His Spirit, opens the great treasure-house of divine truth, and none can shut it. On the other hand where there is perversity of spirit and an unwillingness to walk in the truth, He shuts and none can open. So He has said elsewhere, “If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness” (Matthew 6:23).
It is blessed to realize that, while Christ is said to have the key of David, there is another sense in which we see that He is the key. By the presentation of Himself to the souls of His people He opens up the treasures of His Word. Thus Christ is the key to the Holy Scriptures, and no other is needed. To understand the Bible you need only to know Christ.
Perhaps there is another sense in which we might apply the words in regard to opening and shutting; they may have an application to service. The Lord Himself opens the doors for those whom He sends forth, and He it is who closes them when He so wills. This is one thing that Philadelphian believers, generally, have found to be true. Christ is Son over His own house, and He has commanded His servants to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Acting on this truth, thousands have gone forth in dependence on Him alone in the homeland and to lands beyond the seas without any organization behind them. They have found the Lord Himself all-sufficient to meet every need and to open and close just as He will. “Faith can firmly trust Him, come what may.” I think the 8th verse emphasizes this second application. There He says, “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.”
Observe these important characteristics of Philadelphia. His Word is kept and His Name is confessed. The keeping of His Word involves a great deal more than just believing the Bible or reading and studying it. It implies obedience to the revealed will of the Lord. It is a blessed thing to realize that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16). What immense scope is there here for faith to act on! This blessed book of God marks out all my path. As long as I seek to walk in obedience, I will never be found in circumstances where this Book cannot guide me. I believe this is what is involved in keeping His Word.
The denial of His Name is demonstrated by the increasing apostasy around us on every hand. Those who have not denied His Name refuse all fellowship with those who dishonor God. Christ is more precious to them than all else. Even for the sake of service, they refuse to link themselves with that which dishonors or blasphemes that worthy name whereby they are called.
It is significant that wherever Philadelphian truth has been proclaimed, the devil has raised up a counterfeit to draw people’s hearts away from the truth. So in verse 9 the Lord spoke of those who will be revealed as the synagogue of Satan, “which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie.” The day will come when they will have to worship before the feet of those who are faithful to the Lord and will know that He has loved them. This verse is undoubtedly referring to the false Judaizing system. Its advocates everywhere oppose the truth of grace and seek in every way to hinder the carrying out of those principles that please the Lord. In their ignorance, these teachers give up the true Christian position, claiming to be the spiritual Israel. They appropriate to themselves Jewish promises and Jewish hopes and would put the consciences of Christians under the bondage of Jewish legalism. Thus they are really doing Satan’s work.
The promise of verse 10, like all the promises to these different churches, is for every true child of God: “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.” This is the Lord’s own pledge to those who love His Name and seek to keep His Word-they will not be left down here to pass through the appalling tribulation that is just ahead of those who “dwell upon the earth.” This expression is found frequently in the book of Revelation. It does not simply mean those who live in the world. A careful reading of the various passages in which this peculiar term is found will make it clear that “the earth-dwellers” are in contrast to those whose citizenship is in Heaven. They are persons who, while professing to be Christians, refuse the heavenly calling. They prove by their earthly-mindedness and worldly ways that they really belong to this world. All their hopes and their treasures are here. The Lord has said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” The coming great tribulation will be a time of fearful trial for them.
The bulk of the book of Revelation considers this hour of turmoil, as we will demonstrate in future chapters. But when that hour comes the church of the present dispensation will have been caught up to meet the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Revelation 3:11 speaks of this, “Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.” The Lord’s return is the hope of every Christian heart. They long to see Him who loved them and gave Himself for them. At His return, they will be revealed before His judgment seat and be rewarded according to service here. Then He will give out the crowns for service in this day of His rejection. Observe that the warning is let “no man take thy crown.” It is not, “Let no man take thy life,” or “thy salvation.” That is eternally secure in Christ. Being born of God, I cannot lose my salvation; but, if I am not a faithful servant, I may lose my crown.
The overcomer will be made a pillar in the temple of the God of our Lord Jesus Christ and will dwell in the Father’s house forever. The name of God, the name of the holy city, and Christ’s new name will be written on him. All that is involved in this is beyond our poor, finite comprehension. It speaks of stability, of security, of fellowship, of intimacy with the Lord Himself, which will make Heaven to the believer-his blessed and eternal home.
The Church of Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22)
Laodicea completes this septenary series. It brings us down, practically, to the last stage of the professing church’s history on earth- the close of the present dispensation. Laodicea is a compound word and means “the rights of the people.” Could any other term more aptly describe the condition of present-day church affairs? It is the era of democratization, both in the world and in the church. The masses of the people are realizing their power as never before. The terrific slogan, vox populi, vox Dei (The voice of the people is the voice of God), is ringing through the world with clarion-like distinctness. Imperialism and every form of aristocratic government is disappearing-at least for the time being. The age of anarchy is almost upon us. Statesmen and capitalists never were more anxious and nervous than at the present time. In World War I we were told our soldiers were fighting to make the world safe for democracy. Soon statesmen will be attempting to raise armies to make the world safe from democracy. The spirit of this ultra-democratic age has invaded a large portion of the professed church. The authority of God and His Word is rapidly being denied. The spirit of the age is exhibited by a large part of the church; hence the striking correspondence between this letter to the Laodiceans and the latitudi-narianism so prevalent about us.
In a day when faithful witnesses to God’s truth are becoming fewer and fewer, the Lord addresses Himself to the church as “the Amen” (that is, the establisher of all God’s promises). He is the faithful and true Witness, who will maintain to the end what is of God, though the great majority of those who profess to follow Him be swept away by the apostasy. He reproves the church for its lukewarmness and indifference to Himself and the truth. He says, “Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (3:16). There is neither burning zeal for His Word, nor yet absolute repudiation of Christ and the Bible. Instead there is a nauseating, lukewarm condition that is abhorrent to the Spirit of God. Lukewarm water is, in itself, an emetic, and this is the figure the Lord here uses. He cannot tolerate such conditions much longer, but will spew out the whole disgusting mass in judgment.
Meanwhile the church goes on in its pride and self-satisfaction, saying, “I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing.” The church does not know that in God’s eyes, it is “miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (17). Never were church dignitaries and carnally-minded religious leaders more satisfied with themselves and their great work than at the present time. Anything and everything is advocated that will make the church popular. The rights of the people alone must be considered; the rights of the Lord Jesus Christ are not even thought of. We have come to a time when, in many places, it is easier to get on without Christ than with Him; it is easier to carry on religious programs without the Holy Spirit than if He were working among us in mighty power. No wonder He says, “I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire [that is, divine righteousness], that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment [that is, practical righteousness], that thou mayest be clothed…and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve [that is, the anointing of the Holy Spirit], that thou mayest see” (18). Yes, there is lots of fleshly energy and human effort being exerted to reclaim the world and make it a comfortable place for men to live in apart from Christ. But the great things of God’s truth are largely neglected. Myriads of so-called church-workers are utter strangers to the new birth, without which no one can see the Kingdom of God.
So we see the Lord standing at last outside the door of the professing church and saying so tenderly, “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” (20). Beloved friends, it is getting late in the dispensation. The Lord who, in the beginning, was in the midst of His church, stands outside that lukewarm system which calls itself by His name, and He knocks in vain for entrance! Yet, individuals here and there open to Him and find His presence offers more than all the earth or the professing church can afford.
We have come down to the closing days of the present dispensation of grace. The Ephesus period passed away long ago, and the same is true of the Smyrna and Pergamos periods. Thyatira, which as we have seen speaks of Romanism, began properly when the pope was recognized as universal bishop, is with us still, and will go on to the end. Sardis, which began centuries later, remains to the present time and will remain until the Lord comes. Philadelphia, thank God, is also here; although it only has a little strength, it will also abide to the end. But Laodicea is more and more in evidence and seems to be almost swamping everything that is of God.
The next great event is the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together unto Him. For this we wait, and our longing hearts cry, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Revelation 3". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29