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CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Revelation 3:1. Sardis.—Modern, Sart; once the capital of the old Lydian monarchy, now a village of paltry huts. Seven Spirits of God.—Most writers see in this the endowment of Christ with the Spirit, so as to be judge in His Church. But this idea involves unduly pressing the word “hath,” which more naturally suggests “hath in control” than “hath in possession.” Stuart understands our Lord presented here as having the seven presence-angels under His control, or at His disposal—having them as His attendants and the ministers of His will. In whatever sense “hath” is applied to the “seven Spirits” it is applied to the “seven stars.” Art dead.—Spiritually; a figure for being in a cold and lifeless state (Matthew 8:22; Romans 6:13; Ephesians 2:1; Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13).
Revelation 3:2 Watchful.—Wakeful; the opposite of the present drowsy condition of the Church. Lit. “become watching,” “become as one who watches.” Things which remain.—Implying that some things had died out, and that some things were dying out, through neglect and disuse. In getting back energy for flagging things, there might come also restoration of lost things. Perfect.—Or up to the standard, “fully done, in weight and tale and measure.”
Revelation 3:3. Hold fast.—Compare the counsel to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:14; 2 Timothy 2:2). As a thief.—Unexpectedly, so as to find thee in a wholly unprepared state. (See Matthew 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:4; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 16:15.)
Revelation 3:4. Names.—This is thought to imply a Church roll. It may, however, only be a figure for “persons.” Defiled their garments.—“Clean white garments are very natural emblems of innocence. Hence, to be clothed with polluted garments, i.e. garments soiled and stained, is an emblem of a character which is soiled and polluted.” (See Zechariah 3:3, seqq.) Those are described whose outward lives had been free from impurity.
Revelation 3:5. Be clothed.—Or shall clothe himself (περιβαλεῖται). Book of life. Roll, or register, of the citizens of heaven. Names are blotted out of city registers when death occurs, or when crime is committed, and forfeiture of privilege ensues. Confess his name.—See Matthew 10:32; Luke 12:8.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Revelation 3:1-6
Death and Life and Peril of Life in a Christian Church.—There is scarcely more than a doubtful allusion, in this epistle, to the secular or religious conditions of the city of Sardis. That some of the members of the Church had not “defiled their garments” implies that there was some peculiar peril of moral defilement in their daily associations. There are ruins of a stately temple still remaining, which was dedicated to the mother-goddess Cybele; and her “worship, with its eunuch priesthood and its orgiastic rites, was one which tended, as much almost as that of Dionysos or Aphrodite, to sins of a foul and dark impurity.” The city was a very interesting one. It was famous for its purple dye, for its coinage, and for the manufacture of a compound metal, known as electrum. It was the ancient capital of the Lydian monarchy, and through its agora, or market-place, flowed the Pactolus, with its golden sands. But this epistle directs exclusive attention to the Christian Church in Sardis, and it is chosen as one of the seven Churches to receive direct messages from the Living Christ, because it was, in some way, a typical, or representative, Church; and in connection with it may be illustrated the universal Divine dealings with Churches that answer to this type. In what, then, is this Church a type of certain Christian Churches which may be found in every age? Its most marked peculiarity, the consequences of which the searching Spirit of Christ discovers and brings out to view, is, that the Church had been left for years in quietness and peace. It had not been touched by any of the persecutions that had afflicted sister Churches. The members lived as citizens in the esteem of their neighbours, not rousing opposition by any active resistance of the heathenism around, but, perhaps in an exaggerated and unworthy way, “following peace with all men.” The apparent consequence was a look of well-to-do-ness; a general prosperity; much orderliness of public service; fair charities; and conditions that seemed to indicate healthy Christian life. Sardis had the name and repute of a living Church. But there are peculiarly subtle influences always bearing upon individuals, and nations, and Churches, that go on a long time in undisturbed and prosperous quietness, with no changes to put virtue to the proof, and no warfare to put noble qualities to exercise. The supreme moral peril for a man is found in years of continued and unqualified worldly prosperity. The supreme test of a nation comes in prolonged periods of peace. And Churches that never know storm, or stress, or strain, are in grave danger of dropping down into listlessness and worldliness. The one thing that the individual, the nation, and the Church, lose in periods of unbroken outward material prosperity, is spiritual life, soul life. Bodily life, material life, social life, thrive well under such conditions, and they may come even to simulate, or stand instead of, spiritual life; but souls grow in times of conflict and trial. Pressure of distress, affliction, or evil, forces the soul into the activity in which alone it can thrive. Of some it is said in God’s Word, and in a very striking way, “Because they have no changes, therefore they forget God.” Life—soul life—cannot do with long-continued smoothness and ease. The law is an ever-working one, “Through much tribulation we must enter the kingdom.”
“The path of sorrow, and that path alone,
Leads to the place where sorrow is unknown.”
The prophet Jeremiah illustrates the truth by a very suggestive figure: “Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity; therefore his taste remained in him, and his scent is not changed” (Jeremiah 48:11). The Church in Sardis, then, is a type of those Churches that have known years of unbroken outward prosperity and peace. We always are disposed to make mistakes about such Churches, and to over-estimate their spiritual condition. The Living Christ, who “walketh among the candlesticks,” makes no mistakes. Let us see what He may be finding, to-day, to be the truth concerning such Churches, by what He found to be the actual, rather than the apparent, state of the Church in Sardis. In dealing with the previous Churches, we have seen that, in each case, the Living Christ is pictured as present in a precise relation to the conditions and needs of the Church. That is equally true in this case. We have to be assured that He is never deceived, or carried away by mere appearances. He goes in behind the show of things to the inward reality. He can searchingly search. He can deal with motives. He can test for signs of spiritual life. So He is figured, in relation to Sardis, as having the seven Spirits, or the perfect Spirit of God. He has the Divine eye, which the psalmist felt. “searched and knew him,” and which the Christian teacher spoke of as “discerning the thoughts and intents of the heart.” The Church in Sardis might be so satisfied with itself that it would find it hard to believe it could be as Christ declared it was. Let them know, then, that the Living One, who moved among them, saw secrets with absolute precision, for He had the seven Spirits of God. There can be no appeal from His searching inspection, and unhesitating decision. But that is not all the figure in which Christ is presented to this Church. He is also “He that hath the seven stars.” Now, the “stars” are the angels, or ministers, of the Churches; and this allusion to the Living Christ as having, or holding, the stars in His right hand, is evidently intended to suggest that He meant to subject the minister of this Church in Sardis to an unusually searching test. It was possible that he might be found as spiritually dead as were the average of the members of the Church. It might even be that his yielding to subtle, worldly influences had sealed the spiritual death of the Church. “His faith, as well as the faith of the Church, may have sunk into a superficial, though perhaps an unostentatious, state.” And if so, it was well that the Divine rebukes should seem, in a very direct way, to be pointed at him. In the inspection of this Church notice—
I. The Living Christ does not stop with mere signs of life.—There is almost an abruptness in the way in which they are mentioned, and brushed aside. “I know thy works, that thou hast a name, that thou livest.” “These things bring you men’s praise, and even men’s confidence, but I am not interested in them; I want to know what is behind them.” The show and the fame of Christian life is not always a genuine expression of spiritual life. Many a consumptive patient makes a brave show of life when he is just dropping into the grave. Other things besides spiritual life can secure the commonplace goodness of a man, and of a Church. A moral man may not be a Divinely quickened man. An apparently healthly Church may have really lost its vitality. The leaves of the tree do not fall at once when the fresh springs of sap are stopped in their flowing. Presently, if there be no sustaining life, the signs of life will surely fail. But when the Living Christ searched the Church in Sardis, and its minister, the evil, the spiritual death, was only in its beginnings. The tone of His address is more than usually severe. The conditions were subtle. The discovery of the insidious evil was physician’s work. The seeming flush of health really was but the hectic flush of disease. The very little, dull, but steady, pain and swelling, of which no notice was taken, was the sign of cancerous growth, and a living death. Signs of life in a Church! Services maintained; numbers increasing; propriety of conduct winning public respect; generous meeting of responsibilities; service of charity to the poor; kindly sympathies with one another in times of sorrow;—Christ, the Living Christ, passes them by, with a glance of approval; they are good as far as they go. He goes in behind them to test the vitality, the spiritual life, of which they should be the expression. And He may have to say, “I know thy works; thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead.” “In Sardis there had been no open scandals. It was still recognised by the other Churches as a living and true member of the great family of God—was even, it may be, winning their admiration for its seemingly energetic vitality. And yet the chill and the paralysis, which were the forerunners of the end, were slowly creeping in upon its life; death, not life, was already master of the position, the dominant characteristic of the Church as a whole, and perhaps of its spiritual ruler in particular” (Plumptre).
II. The Living Christ is anxious about flagging life.—Nothing can be done by agencies within the Church’s control for those in the fellowship who are quite spiritually dead. There is no hope for them, save in the awakening trump of some direct Divine dealing. But, while this may be the condition of a few, the Living Christ fixes attention on those whose vital force was but failing—who were but beginning to die. And the searching Eye noticed that it was on certain sides of Christian life that they had begun to die, as trees show signs of hastening death in particular branches. This, however, only made their spiritual condition the more perilous, because they might easily be satisfied with the things into which spiritual life still streamed, and might fail to see the significance of the death that was doing its work in other things. When we live, crediting ourselves with, and getting the credit of, superior piety, it is very easy to blind ourselves to the actual conditions of spiritual peril in which we are found. But there is hope in dealing with those whose spiritual life is only flagging. The Living Christ bids them “establish the things that remain” alive, but “are ready to die.” He tells them that He had not found their works perfect, they were not good, not alive, all round the tree, and the death in some of the branches would inevitably spread to all the other branches. And He solemnly warns them—with a most arousing warning—that when deadly disease stealthily creeps upon a man, and is left unchecked, it has a way of leaping upon him at last, and clutching him with one hopeless grip. They will find it even so with flagging, diseased, deteriorated, spiritual life. “If, therefore, thou shalt not watch, I will come as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” Plumptre says: “The angel of the Church is called to wake up from his slumbers, and then to strengthen in himself the energy, the zeal, the love, the hope, the faith, which were so nearly dying out. In doing this he could not fail to help the persons, also, in whom this flagging of all spiritual vigour had been most conspicuous, or, in the language of the epistle to the Hebrews, ‘to lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.’ ”
III. The Living Christ recognises those in the Church who are truly and healthily alive.—For such there always are, even in a spiritually decaying and dying Church. The Lord always has His “remnant.” In a prosperous Church they are often found among those who are poor in this world’s esteem. And almost always they are found among the severely afflicted ones—those who have the trials and persecutions in their own personal experiences, which the Church, as a Church, may so perilously lack. They are always the salt of the Church, the hope of the Church. And they are sure to gain the loving recognition of the Living Lord who “walks among the candlesticks.” But the description given of the sign of life in them which their Lord recognises is singular and suggestive. “Thou hast a few names in Sardis which did not defile their garments.” They walked the foul highways of immoral Sardis clean. But the suggestion is not one of merely careful, watchful walking—one of mere ordering of conduct and relationship. It reminds us of Christ Himself, who walked the earth in spotless white, though He touched the leper and ate with sinners. He had such vigorous life in Him that neither His soul nor His body could take stains. That is the idea of the undefiled few. They have such vigorous spiritual life that as they go to and fro among defiled men and things they take no stains; they throw off all infections; cleanness and health are guaranteed to them by vigorous life. And these shall “walk with Christ in white.” They shall come into such a near and sympathetic fellowship with Him as only they can know who are alive as He is alive. If it be true that death creeps on from a spot to a limb, and from a limb to a vital organ, we need not miss seeing the answering truth—that life is active to resist encroaching death. Every really living Christian in a Church is an active, energetic power. The undefiled few preserve, as does the salt; they work as does the leaven; they spread as does life; they fight evil and death, even as the White One Himself ever did, and does. The hope of every Sardis lies in her present, searching Lord, and in her “undefiled few.”
IV. The Living Christ encourages effort to recover life by giving gracious assurances and promises.—“To him that overcometh” the stealthy, insidious influence of this prolonged Church prosperity and peace, that braces himself to resist the evil, and nourishes his soul-life into healthy vigour and activity, these assurances come. “He shall be arrayed in white garments”—a fitting array for the white-souled, and for the servants of the White Christ. Their whiteness shall come out and clothe them, and so take the attention of men and be a powerful witness for Christ. Their “name shall not be blotted out of the book of life,” as the names of the dead citizens must be, and the names of the dying citizens are in peril of being. And the Living Christ shall find His personal pleasure in them. He shall speak about them to His Father and to the angels; glad in those who are quick, and strong, and healthy, in that Divine life they have through Him. “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 Church in Sardis. Beware, lest any of you succumb to the oppressive moral atmosphere that is around the Churches of Christ in these days of national prosperity, wealth, worldliness, and peace. In that atmosphere, spiritual life finds it hard to thrive. It has this subtle influence upon us: it nourishes self-indulgent life, mental life, artistic life, and even a sort of philanthropic life; and Churches are so easily deceived with these things, and induced to call them spiritual life. And then the real spiritual life moves slowly in the veins of the Church, and then it becomes stagnant in places, and then it mortifies. He who hath the seven Spirits of God looks at the facts, not at the seeming, and behold, He must say this: “I know thy works, that thou hast a name, that thou livest, and art dead.” Dead in places, dying in other places—only a few parts really alive. What an alarming picture of a Christian Church! This is the arousing warning given to it: “Remember, therefore, how thou hast received and didst hear, and keep it and repent. If, therefore, thou shalt not watch, I will come as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” Resist the creeping lethargy, arouse yourselves, shake off the sleep of hastening death. Be among those who overcome and live, and, because alive, walk the earth with the Living, White Christ.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Revelation 3:1. A Name to Live.—It is the reputation for piety possessed by the Church at Sardis which is referred to. Living with the credit of superior piety, it was easy to grow satisfied with the reputation, and to forget to keep open the channels through which grace and life could flow, and to fail to realise that the adoption of habits of life higher than those around them, or those who lived before them, was no guarantee of real spiritual life; for, as Mozley says, “the real virtues of one age become the spurious ones of the next.… The belief of the Pharisees, the religious practice of the Pharisees, was an improvement upon the life of the sensual and idolatrous Jews whom the prophets denounced. But those who used both the doctrinal and moral improvements as the fulcrum of a selfish power and earthly rank, were the same men, after all, as their fathers, only accommodated to a new age.” Self-satisfaction, which springs up when a certain reputation has been acquired, is the very road to self-deception. The remedy is progress, forgetting the things behind, lest, looking with complacency on the past, moral and spiritual stagnation should set in, and spiritual death should follow.—Bishop Boyd Carpenter.
Seven Spirits of God.—The Spirit is thought of, to use the later terminology of the Nicene creed, as the “Giver of life,” and of all its sevenfold gifts; the seven Spirits of chaps. Revelation 1:4 and Revelation 5:6 were but forms of that Divine life which He—one, yet manifold—imparted. He also “hath the seven stars,” which represent the guides and teachers of the Church; He is able, that is, to bring together the gifts of life, and the ministry, for which those gifts are needed. If each star shines with its peculiar radiancy, it is because it is under the power and influence of the sevenfold Spirit; if it has no life or light, and ceases to shine, there is the danger of its falling away from its place in that glorious band and becoming as one of the “wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever” (Jude Revelation 3:13).—Dean Plumptre.
True Church Life.—The Church to whom this statement was made was that of Sardis, and the remarkable thing is that this strong condemnation is pronounced while yet no flagrant vices are charged upon its members. They appear to have been sound in creed, respectable in conduct; yet, after all, they were dead.
I. There are certain things which secure for a Church a good name, which yet are no sure indications of spiritual life.—
1. Numbers may give a name to live while yet there may be death.
2. Wealth may give a name to live.
3. The absence of immoral conduct is no sure indication of life.
4. A sound creed is no indication of a Church’s life, because it may have been departed from, or a Church may put the creed in place of the Saviour, or its members may have gone soundly to sleep upon its sound creed.
II. A sure indication of life is the fruit.—“I know thy works.” The threefold test of a Church’s life is—
1. Works of faith.
2. Works of love.
3. The patience of hope. The patience of hope is the work of hope. “If we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.” This patience is not simply quiet waiting, it is also active perseverance. Hope is the mainspring of effort, and a hopeful Church will be a persevering Church, with no such word as weariness in its vocabulary.—W. M. Taylor, D.D.
Revelation 3:4. The Undefiled Few.—To the Church in Sardis the message is one of almost unmingled reproof. Christ is represented as having the seven, or perfect, Spirits of God, therewith looking this Church through and through; going in behind the appearances of life, discerning the beginnings of spiritual death. Sardis was a tree fair to look upon, with leaf and flower; but the blight had stricken it—the blight of worldliness and self-indulgence. But that Eye, which is so quick to detect the evil, is yet more lovingly quick to discern the feeblest traces of good. “Even in Sardis” that Eye rested on an undefiled few, who were steadfast in heart, who were clinging to Him in trustful love, who were trying to walk the soiling streets of Sardis with unspotted garments. Such as they Christ will never pass over in forgetfulness; such true and earnest hearts need great comfortings; they shall have them, if need be, from the very lips of Jesus. To such He says, “They shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.”
I. The undefiled few.—
1. The figure used of unstained garments indicates those who have not brought disgrace upon their Christian professions by their outward life. This is, indeed, only one of the lowest forms of Christian virtue.
2. But more than this is meant. Sardis was famous, even among the degraded cities of that day, for the abandoned profligacy of its inhabitants. In comparison with those around them, their garments were undefiled.
3. There is yet a deeper reference here. The truly undefiled are they who keep up their integrity of heart, amidst all the faintings and fallings of their life.
II. Their present power.—In every branch of life, or phase of history, you find God has had a few who were leaders—leaders of thought, opinion, enterprise, active effort, and pure living. These are the salt, preserving the rest from corruption. Such was the service of the few in Sardis.
III. Their future glory.—This appears to embrace two things:
1. They who struggle after goodness now, shall find themselves settled in goodness then for ever.
2. Above all, these undefiled few shall have a communion with Christ of an extraordinary intimacy and preciousness. “They shall walk with Him in white.”
Walking in White.—White can hardly be called a colour. It is the soul of a thing shining through a simple and transparent medium. White shows the purity that a thing is. Illustrated by the white cactus. White is the emblem of innocence for children, and virtue for the redeemed. Illustrate priests in white. Church dressed as Bride—snow, wool, pure spring flowers. The text is in the book of Revelation. Can that book be won for Christian uses? The key to it is white, whiteness. Explain the prologue as a thesis worked out in the book. Compare the gospel of St. John, which has a similar beginning thesis. The first chapter is the vision of the Living, White Christ. He is with His Churches. He finds that they are all not-white. He is ever with them, to make them white. He uses the varied forms of earth-tribulation as His agents. As the process goes on through the ages, we get occasional glimpses of the heavenly, and there some sanctified wholly. The book closes with the vision of the Holy City for the holy ones, and the cry to Jesus to hasten the perfecting of His work.
I. We are not white.—St. John says, “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” It is the fact concerning us all, that we “have not kept our garments unspotted from the world.” We could not bear the searching of the full sunshine, or the testing of the spring-time. The White One searches all who are satisfied with themselves—searches words, thoughts, affections, tone, relations. How severe His searchings are, is seen in His messages to the Seven Churches of Asia. Ephesus had left its first love, Smyrna needed tribulation. There were a few things against Pergamos. Thyatira was self-indulgent. Sardis had a name to live, but was dead. Philadelphia had but “a little” strength.” Laodicea was lukewarm. However self-satisfied we may be, revealing times are sure to come, which humble us in the dust. This is our severest testing. True whiteness will not take stains, any more than Christ took leprosy. The only thing that can be said of us is, we have not been among stains. Who of us is clean every whit?
II. Christ is white.—Let us say, was white, that we may feel His was a human whiteness; and that whiteness, kin to us, He has carried above. This is the impression left by the scene of the Transfiguration. This impressed the apostles. They speak of Him as “holy, harmless, undefiled.” He “did no sin.” This is the point of the vision seen by St. John. God could see no stains on Him, though He walked earth’s highway. Man has tried his utmost to find stains on Christ; and what, at the most, do they ever find? Destruction of the swine, egotism, whip of cords, cursing of fig-tree. Do not say He was white because He was God. He was white as man. Then there must be a secret in His human whiteness. It was His sanctified Will. The blood is the physical life. The Will is the moral life. The blood must be pure. The Will must be right. Our trouble is that our Will is not right, therefore stains come and stay.
III. Christ is working to make us white as He is.—He wants it. It is the aim of His infinite love. In our deep hearts we want it. Why do we so love white flowers? Have you lost the present, living, cleansing, saving Christ out of your life? Are you only resting in something He once did? Then you have not learned the lesson of the book of Revelation. Then you have not seen the supreme glory of Christ. He maketh white. He is making white. In two ways.
1. As sunshine make sails look white.
2. As washing makes white paper in the paper mills. The book of Revelation describes God’s tearers, and chemicals, and rollers.
(1) The great Son cannot bear to see any stains on His brothers. Therefore He refines, as silver is refined, seven times.
(2) The great Son wants His own purity for every brother. His is purity within. We are anxious about a covering robe. The robe of immortality lets the white (that we have become) shine through. This, then, is Christ’s present work in us—His sanctifying of tribulation. He is getting our Wills turned wholly to righteousness. Death-time is the final process in the cleansing of the Will. In recognition of this, we get white wreaths for the dead. Christ’s glory for the future is this: we shall be clean, as He is. He can work on to secure that end. He can make us suffer in securing that end. And we ought to respond to His working in us. Triumph for the sin-stained is the Christ-won, everlasting, white robe. What becomes of bodies or of garments that keep on getting stained, and never get washed? It suggests the future of all who are out of Christ.
Revelation 3:5. Erasure of Names from, the Book of Life.—“A process of erasure is ever going on, besides the process of entering. When the soul has finally taken its choice for evil; when Christ is utterly denied on earth and trodden under foot; when the defilement of sins has become inveterate and indelible;—then the pen is drawn through the guilty name; then the inverted style (stylus) smears the wax over the unworthy characters; and when the owner of that name applies afterwards for admittance, the answer is, “I know thee not: depart hence, thou willing worker and lover of iniquity!”—Dr. Vaughan.
Christ’s Book of Life.—I. Christ has His Book of Life, a register and roll of all who shall inherit eternal life.—
1. The book of eternal election.
2. The book of remembrance of all those who have lived to God, and have kept up the life and power of godliness in evil times.
II. Christ will not blot the names of His chosen and faithful ones out of this Book of Life.
III. Christ will produce this Book of Life, and confess the names of the faithful who stand there before God and all the angels.—He will do this as their Judge, when the books shall be opened; he will do this as their Captain and Head, leading them with him triumphantly to heaven, presenting them to the Father.—Matthew Henry.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 3
Revelation 3:1. Sardis Famous for Toys.—“The games of children are pretty nearly the same the world over. Wilkinson has described some of the toys of the ancient Egyptians, found among the ruins and tombs of that remarkable land. Similar remains are found in various parts of Western Asia, the more graceful being the work of the Greek race, and of their nearest neighbours in the western part of the Peninsula. Sardis, the capital of Lydia, was celebrated of old for its manufacture of children’s toys, as Nuremberg is in Germany now. In that same region a great variety of articles in terra-cotta are found, exhibiting no little taste in the imitation of nature’s models. Miniature horses, cattle, dogs, fish, chickens, lions, and deer, an ass with its pack-saddle, dolls with arms and legs that could be moved by the pulling of a string, comic figures, or caricatures of hunch-backs, deformed negroes, satyrs, and idiots; also whistles, marbles, and many other things in a sufficiently good state of preservation, which compare well with similar products of our modern civilisation. The religion of Islam, indeed, forbids such representations now, yet it cannot prevent little girls playing with dolls, nor boys amusing themselves with mimic horses, sheep, and carts, nor both from eating the sugar birds, horses, and men of the candy-seller, himself a Muslim.”—Van Lennep.
A few mud huts, inhabited by Turkish herdsmen and a mill or two, contain all the present population of Sardis.
Revelation 3:5. White the Royal Colour.—Most persons believe that purple was the colour of royal robes in our Lord’s day. So the author believed when, riding over the valley of Sharon, he saw a lily in bloom, and was satisfied that it must be a genuine facsimile of the New-Testament flower. On dismounting from our horse, we found its rich velvet corolla to be of a dark purple. “There,” we exclaimed, “is the lily that vied with Solomon in his glory.” But careful investigation has compelled us to give up our impression. We are satisfied that the royal colour of all the monarchs in our Lord’s day was white. The Persian mingled the blue with the white (Esther 8:15; confirmed by Xenophon). Solomon’s royal attire, when visited by the Queen of Sheba, was white (Josephus, I. Rev. 8:7; Ecclesiastes 9:8). The high priest, on the great day of atonement, wore a robe of white linen (Exodus 28:2; Exodus 28:40). Mordecai’s was blue and white, with a crown (Cyropedia, lib. viii. 23). Alexander entered Jerusalem robed in white. Our Lord, in coronation robes, appeared in white on Mount Tabor. The kings slain were so many that their robes made the battle-field “white as the snow in Salmon” (Psalms 68:14). Herod’s robe was resplendent with silver tissue, woven through the linen (Acts 12:21; Josephus). Angels who appear to Cornelius, and were seen at the sepulchre, were clothed in white, and the saints, advanced to thrones and crowns, wear white coronation robes as kings and priests unto God (Revelation 1:6; Revelation 3:5). “Shushan, the Persian word for lily, signifies white” (Gesenius). Pilate clothed our Lord in a purple robe (worn of Roman nobility). Herod clothed Him in a white robe (Greek, “gorgeous,” or “shining”), Luke 23:11.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Revelation 3:7. Philadelphia.—Situated at the foot of Mount Tmolus, and named after Attalus Philadelphus, King of Pergamos. It was a centre of the wine trade. Holy and true.—ἅγιος, not ὅσιος. It represents the holiness of consecration rather than that which is ethical and indwelling. The word “true” implies that He will be sure to keep His word. Key of David.—See Isaiah 22:22, Access to, and control over, the house of David, i.e. the regal house or palace, is plainly designated by the key; in other words, regal dominion is its meaning. Christ’s actual management and control in His Church are implied. Openeth, etc.—With reference to occasions and opportunities of service. An opportunity of Christian service should be thought of as a Christ-opened door. In at such doors His Church must be ready to enter.
Revelation 3:8. Open door.—For the figure compare Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3. An opening for some form of missionary work is clearly suggested. The safety of a Church lies more truly in enterprising service than in self-culture. The healthiest Church is the most active one. No man can shut it.—So they need not fear the opposition indicated in Revelation 3:9. Little strength.—This is praise, not covert blame. “The point is that his strength is not great, not that he has a little left in spite of the strain upon it” (Simcox). Thou hast some energy. Plumptre thinks “the words point to something in the past history of the Church of Philadelphia and its ruler, the nature of which we can only infer from them and from their context. Some storm of persecution had burst upon him, probably, as at Smyrna, instigated by the Jews, or the Judaising section of the Church. They sought to shut the door which he had found open, and would have kept so. They were strong, and he was weak; numbers were against him, and one whose faith was less real and living might have yielded to the pressure. He had kept the Word unmoved by fear of man.”
Revelation 3:9. Synagogue of Satan.—The antagonistic Jewish section; but the term suggests that they were doing their evil and hindering work in a secret and underhand way, as if they were serving Satan, the deceiver. Worship before thy feet.—As suppliants in a time of grievous distress. The idea is that troubles were at hand which would ruinously affect both Jews and Christians, but rest so heavily on the Jews that they would be glad to gain the help and defence of the Christians.
Revelation 3:10. Hour of temptation.—Trial which severely tests faithfulness. Terrible persecutions burst on the Churches, arising from heathen panic and suspicion.
Revelation 3:11. Take thy crown.—That which is reserved for the faithful combatant. “Perseverance is essential to the final reward of the Christian.”
Revelation 3:12. A pillar.—A figure from the use of pillars in supporting ancient temples. The classical architecture involves the use of pillars. See Galatians 2:9. “What pillars are to a temple, literally considered, the like will such Christians as those in Philadelphia be in the spiritual temple built by the Saviour.” The idea of established, permanent goodness is suggested. And the man who proves strong under strain is made a strengthener and supporter of others. My new name.—Inscriptions were often made on pillars, and they have been actually found on the sides of the four marble pillars which survive as ruins at Philadelphia. The allusion is to the golden frontlet inscribed with the name of Jehovah (Revelation 22:4; see also Revelation 9:4; illustrate by Exodus 28:36). Stuart says: “The name of God, inscribed on one’s forehead, designates the generic idea of one devoted to objects and purposes spiritual and heavenly; the name of the New Jerusalem marks the peculiar city to which the conqueror belongs; the new name is that which is peculiar to the Christian as such—to a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. With such a distinction impressed upon him, or at least borne upon the frontlet of his mitre, the conqueror would be recognised and acknowledged by all as entitled to his place in the New Jerusalem.”
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Revelation 3:7-13
A Church Above Censure.—Godet says: “No church receives richer praise than Philadelphia, the sixth; it seems as if she had but one step to make in advance to obtain her admittance into the church triumphant.” Three facts connected with Philadelphia may be noted, as having some historical interest:
1. Like Sardis, it had severely suffered from the great Asiatic earthquake in the reign of Tiberius.
2. That of all the Seven Churches it had the longest duration of prosperity as a Christian city, and is still a spacious town, with the remains of not less than twenty-four churches.
3. That of all the seven its name alone appears in the catalogue of modern cities. We may assume that the address was sent directly to, and in precise adaptation to, a particular person, the “angel of the Church”; but he is to be regarded as the embodiment of, and representation of, the whole Church.
I. A Church with an ability.—“Thou hast a little strength.” And He recognises the “little” who never “breaks the bruised reed nor quenches the smoking flax.” The little strength suggests that the Church had been subjected to severe strain, but had not lost its vitality. It had been weakened, but it had not lost hold. The difference between this and other Churches lay in this: the Living One saw them weakening and losing vitality; He saw this one keeping its life and trying to get its full strength. Their light was going out; its light was trying hard to keep in. It is precisely that “little strength” which Christ still looks for. It is the sign of ability; it is a basis of possibilities—a sphere in which Divine grace can hopefully work. Churches cannot but feel the strain of circumstances and persecutions, they cannot but be weakened thereby. But they need not wholly fail. Evan under the extremest pressure they can keep a “little strength.”
II. A Church with an opportunity.—“I have set before thee an open door.” That figure distinctly indicated special opportunities for engaging in the missionary work of the Church. It is a special honour for a Church to have such opportunities; but it is also true that in the generous missionary activities of a Church are to be found the best security for its continued vitality. The Church alive enough to do earnest Christian work is alive enough to resist the influence of evil. Recalling the texts in which the figure of the open door is used, Plumptre says: “In all these cases the open door refers to the admission of the Gentile converts into the great house of God, the widening opportunities for the mission work of the Church which the providence of God placed in the preacher’s way. That phrase must, in the nature of things, have become current in the Churches which owed their very existence to the labours of St. Paul; and when it came to the ear and was recorded by the pen of St. John, it could not fail to recall the same thought and to signify the same thing.” No greater sign of Divine approval can come to a Church than the opening before it of larger and wider possibilities of usefulness.
III. A Church with a security.—“I also will keep thee.” God always is to His people as they are to Him. He meets them, responds to them; is always as they are, but always better to them than they are to Him. “With the merciful Thou wilt show Thyself merciful.” Keep the faith, then; God will keep the promise. The keepers will be kept ones. “He who had ‘kept the word of the endurance of Christ,’ the message which bade him endure, should in his turn be ‘kept’ from (or in) that hour of trial or temptation, the ‘fiery trial’ of 1 Peter 4:12, which was about to spread over the ‘whole world’ of the Roman Empire.”
IV. A Church with a fixity.—“Will I make a pillar.” The main idea of a pillar is of a thing put to an important and responsible service, and permanently kept to the doing of its work. Goodness is sure to get permanency. And good work, missionary service, shall gain continuity. Nothing shall hinder the work of the Church, and it shall be its joy to keep at work. Of this we may always be sure: more work comes as our reward for faithfulness in using opportunities given.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Revelation 3:7. Key of David.—Some early commentators saw in this key the key of knowledge which the scribes had taken away (Luke 11:52), and understood this expression here as implying that Christ alone could unloose the seals of Scripture and reveal its hidden truth to men. In support of this they refer to Revelation 5:7-9. The fault of the interpretation is that it is too limited; it is only a corner of the full meaning. He who is “the True” alone can unlock the hidden treasures of truth. But the use of the word “David,” and the obvious derivation of the latter part of this verse from Isaiah 22:22, points to a wider meaning: Jesus Christ is the true Steward of the House of David (compare Hebrews 3:2; Hebrews 3:5-6). The faulty, self-seeking stewards, the Shebnas of Jerusalem and Philadelphia, vainly claimed a right of exclusion from synagogue or church, where Jesus, the God-fixed nail in the sure place, upon which the bundle of earth’s sorrows and sins might securely be suspended (Isaiah 22:23-25), the Eliakim of a greater Zion, had the key of the sacred and royal house. In this the chamber of truth was one treasure, as the chamber of holiness, the chamber of rest, the chamber of spiritual privileges, were others. In other words, though in a sense, the keys of spiritual advantages are in the hands of His servants, “He still retains the highest administration of them in His own hands.” The power of the keys entrusted to apostles gave them no right to alter “the essentials of the gospel, or the fundamental principles of morality.”—Bishop Boyd Carpenter.
True Mora Strength.
I. Its connection with Christ.—
1. He recognises it (Revelation 3:7). A glorious and faithful description of Christ is this. He is holy, true, supreme.
2. He honours it (Revelation 3:8). He is the key of all spheres, and opens a sphere of usefulness for the morally strong.
3. He imparts it. He is the moral power. All true moral strength is derived from Him. What power He had over circumstances, Society, temptation!
II. Its influence over error (Revelation 3:9).—These Jews were of the “synagogue of Satan.” He had synagogues then; he has churches and chapels now. The general idea is that false religion shall pay homage to Christian moral power, which comes in contact with it as
(1) a morality;
(2) an institution;
(3) a theology. It appeals to man’s craving after self-interests, worship, truth.
III. Its future reward.—
1. Preservation (Revelation 3:10). The strong in truth and Christ have ever been, and ever will be, supported in trial.
2. Visitation (Revelation 3:11). Death comes to usher us into everlasting blessedness.
3. Exaltation (Revelation 3:12). Three ideas here:
1. Stability—pillar. Utility—a pillar is a support.
3. Divinity—“write upon him the name of My God.”—Caleb Morris.
Revelation 3:11. “Behold, I come quickly.” Possibly the bishop of the Church at Philadelphia was Demetrius (John 3:0). If this is the case, we have before us a holy man, who, probably, was not a very resolute one, and was placed in a position of much difficulty. Such a bishop had, as a rule, two kinds of difficulties to contend with. There was a fermentation of thought on the frontiers of the apostolic Church in which Jewish and heathen ingredients were constantly producing one or another form of so-called Agnostic error—one phase of which is described in the epistle to the Colossians, and another phase in the epistles to Timothy and Titus; and this was a constant subject of anxiety to the primitive rulers of the Churches of the Lesser Asia. Besides those dangers from within, there was the constant danger of popular violence, or of official persecution, from without. Each Jewish synagogue, and, still more, each heathen temple, was the centre of a strong anti-Christian fanaticism which might at any moment arouse the passions too violently to be appeased with anything short of bloodshed. Demetrius—if he was the bishop—had hitherto made head against the anxieties around him. Hitherto he had kept the Word, he had not denied the name of Christ, he had the promise which past faithfulness always commands, while, at the same time—since no such promise can suspend man’s freedom to rebel or to obey—he is warned of the urgent duty of perseverance. If our Lord’s words are understood of His Second Coming, it is obvious that we must assume the good bishop of Philadelphia died without witnessing their fulfilment—nay, he has been in his grave for something like eighteen centuries, and our Lord has not yet come to judgment. The event has shown that the predictions uttered by our Lord at the close of His ministry referred only remotely to His Second Coming, and immediately to the destruction of Jerusalem. But this saying of our Lord, “Behold, I come quickly,” cannot have referred to the destruction of Jerusalem; and yet, if it meant the Second Advent, the bishop of Philadelphia did not witness the fulfilment of it, and it is still unfulfilled. St. Peter warned Christians that this delay would be used in after times as an argument against Christianity. The scoffers would probably rest rather on the indefinite postponement of Christ’s coming, than on any supposed intrinsic impossibility attaching to it. St. Peter meets this by reminding us that God necessarily looks at time in a very different way from that in which man looks at it. To man it seems that an event will never arrive which has been delayed for some centuries, and so that judgment, long apprehended, but long delayed, will not really take place at all, but may well at once be classed among the phantoms of a morbid and disordered brain. With God it is otherwise. Long and short periods of time do not mean to Him what they mean to us. “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years.” To us “long” and “short” are only comparative epithets; they mean a comparison of some given period of time with some other which we have before our minds. To God a period may be little enough by comparison with the standard of eternity. “Quickly” is a relative term, which may mean one thing when man uses it, and another when it is uttered by the Eternal Being. In death our Lord comes to each of us. There are two things about death which are full of meaning, and which do not admit of any sort of contradiction. The first is the certainty that it will come to each of us some day; and the second is the utter uncertainty of the day on which it will come. When the end before us is so certain, and the date of its approach so utterly uncertain, man’s true wisdom cannot be doubtful. It is a matter on which the most clear-sighted philosophy and the most fervid religious faith are entirely agreed: it is to sit easily to the things of time; it is to keep the eye fixed on that which will follow after time; it is, day by day, to untwine the bands and cords which scenes and persons among whom we live here are constantly winding around our hearts, that we may be ready at a short notice to quit them for the world in which all is lasting and all is real. Duty will not be done less thoroughly because done while conscious that this is a passing scene, since, if it is done rightly, it will be with an eye to that higher existence for which it is a preparation. The expected coming of Christ throws a flood of light upon various aspects of human existence. We are struck with the insignificance of life. If Christ’s coming means anything, it means the introduction of a life which has no end. The coming of the Lord means that all the wrong-doing and the passions on men, which create so much misery, will have had their day. It means the exercise of man’s highest powers to the fullest extent of their capacity, the beginning of an existence in which thought and heart and Will will rest in perfectly ecstatic satisfaction on their one true Object, and an existence which will last for ever. If a large number of human beings are disposed to look almost exclusively upon the darker side of life here, there are others who regard it chiefly as an opportunity for enjoyment, and often of lawful enjoyment. The pleasures of sense, kept within limits, do promote happiness. But the devotion to the pleasures of sense is an illusion which will vanish at the coming of the Lord Jesus. Many value wealth as a means of gratifying ambition. They value the consideration and respect which are paid to high position. The coming of Christ is the coming of One who has taken the measure of human life, and Who, by His incarnation and His death, has put His own mark and certificate on real greatness. Many devote themselves to knowledge of polite letters. That pleasures of intellect are higher than those of sense, and even higher than those of public life, is sufficiently indisputable. But the seat of true enjoyment or happiness is not in the intellect; it is in the heart. There are those to whom the service of God, manifested in His blessed Son, incarnate, crucified, and risen for man, is the main object of human life—men who, living in this world and doing their duty in it to the best of their power, yet are not of it; men who set their affections on things above and not on earth, and look forward to the day “when He who is their life shall appear,” in the humble hope that they too will appear with Him in glory. For them Christ’s message is sent: “Behold, I come quickly; hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.”—Canon Liddon.
Revelation 3:12. Monuments in. Heaven.—In every one of the seven epistles to the Churches our Lord describes his correspondents as so many warriors. Nothing is promised but to “him that overcometh.” What is the promise announced by the Captain of our salvation to him who has bought a sword, and finally achieved a victory?
I. Some great change must be wrought in men before they could suitably be likened to pillars in a temple.—More is made in Scripture of the vanity of the soul by nature than of the body by nature. We shall do wrong unless we take the benefit of the contrast between what sin makes us, and what Jesus Christ makes us. If the Christian is a pillar, we must not imagine he is a pillar of support, as being necessary to the temple. The pillars are to be thought of as pillars of commemoration. Monumental pillars were reared in the Grecian cities of Europe and of Asia, within the temples of their gods, to celebrate a battle and announce a victory. The monument was sanctified by the temple, and the temple was adorned by the monument. The simple, bold doctrine of the similitude amounts to this, that a good man, in glory, will preserve the fame of his victories fresh in the memories of eternity; he himself will be the monument of past battles, past conquests. The Christian will live on, to tell his own tale among the ranks of the redeemed. The Christian warrior, in truth, never dies, for, the moment when he drops his sword on the bloodred plains of the Militant Church, without a moment of inaction he passes to chronicle his prowess in the Church Triumphant.
II. The assertion that the good man in glory will be his own monument must nevertheless, be qualified.—How far have we got? Only to the point that a warrior in Christ’s army shall be, in heaven, a memorial of the battles he fought on earth, just as the pillars in the temple preserved the exploits of the ancients; only with this great difference, that the pillars of antiquity have long since been removed, but the pillars of the Church will remain for ever. But what, after all, is a pillar? Has the marble monument done anything? If you think of the marble is it not wholly and entirely as the workmanship of the artist who chiselled and fashioned it? You really look at the characters on the sculpture; you look at the names of the men to whom the marbles are inscribed. When it is said that the Christian will be a monument to himself, what is “himself”? Who is he? Is it to the honour of the man that the pillar will be set up in the temple? What of the inscription on the pillar? If the monument is not for itself, for whom is it? God’s name is first on the monument. “I will write upon him the name of My God.” Then comes the name of the city of God, the new Jerusalem. And then the new name—“Immanuel, God with us.” The source of your victory, the motive of your victory, and, last and best, the Author of your victory. I am to fight the good fight of faith only because upon me, if I conquer, three other names will be inscribed above—God; Heaven; Immanuel. My only, or chief, reward is to be, that I shall display to the myriads of God’s creatures the exceeding riches of His grace. This would be no promise to others, but to the child of God it is the sweetest and richest of all.—Henry Christopherson.
Gibbon says: “Among the Greek colonies and Churches of Asia, Philadelphia is still erect—a column in a scene of ruins—a pleasing example that the paths of honour and safety may sometimes be the same.”
The Pillar a Monument.—
1. He shall be a monumental pillar in the temple of God; not a pillar to support the temple (heaven needs no such props), but a monument of the free and powerful grace of God—a monument that shall never be defaced nor removed, as many stately pillars erected in honour to the Roman emperors and generals have been.
2. On this monumental pillar there shall be an honourable inscription, as in those cases is usual. (Illustrate by the names inscribed on the Arc d’Etoile in Paris). On this pillar shall be recorded all the services the believer did to the Church of God, and there shall also be put the new name of Christ, the Captain of His salvation.—Matthew Henry.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 3
Revelation 3:7. Philadelphia.—“We arrived at Allah-Shehr, the ancient Philadelphia.… entering the town through chasms in the old wall, but which, being built of small stones, did not appear to be particularly ancient: the passage through the streets was filthy in the extreme, though the view of the place, as we approached it, was extremely beautiful, and well entitled to the appellation of the ‘fair city.’ … We walked through the town, and up to the hill on which formerly stood the acropolis. The houses were mean in the extreme, and we saw nothing on the hill but some walls of comparatively modern date. On an adjoining hill, separated from the first by a deep fosse, or a narrow ravine, were similar fragments of walls; but we observed a few rows of large square stones just appearing above the surface of the ground. The view from these elevated situations was magnificent in the extreme; highly cultivated gardens and vineyards lay at the back and sides of the town, and before it one of the most extensive and richest plains in Asia. The Turkish name, ‘Allah-Shehr’—‘the city of God’—reminded me of the Psalmist: ‘Beautiful for situation is Mount Zion,’ etc. We returned through a different part of the town, and, though objects of much curiosity, were treated with civility; confirming Chandler’s observation that the Philadelphians are a ‘civil people.’ It was extremely pleasing to see a number of turtle-doves on the roofs of the houses; they were well associated with the name of Philadelphia. The storks retain possession still of the walls of the city, as well as of the roofs of many of the houses. We called upon the bishop at three o’clock, who received us with much kind attention.… At five o’clock we accompanied him to his church; it was Palm Sunday, and the service extremely long. I could not help shedding tears at contrasting this unmeaning mummery with the pure worship of primitive times, which probably had been offered on the very site of the present church. A single pillar, evidently belonging to a much earlier structure, reminded me of the reward of victory promised to the faithful member of the church of Philadelphia—‘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.’ ”—Arundell.
Revelation 3:12. Pillars in Temples.—Turner, in his “Nineteen Years in Polynesia,” records the views entertained by the Samoans in reference to a future state. In that state the chiefs were supposed to have a separate place allotted them, called Pulotu. The house, or temple, of the great king of these subterranean regions was supported, not by pillars of wood or stone, but by columns of living men—men who on earth had been chiefs of the highest rank. Chiefs, in anticipation of death, were often pleased with the thought of the high honour which awaited them, of being at once the ornament and support of the mansion of the great chief of their Pulotu paradise. What a striking coincidence have we here with the language of Scripture, and one which throws an additional interest around our instructions, as we read the words of Him who exhorted His people to perseverance by the cheering declaration, applicable to all, high and low, rich and poor, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of My God”!
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Revelation 3:14. Laodiceans.—The city of Laodicea was situated on the banks of the Lycus, near Hierapolis and Colossæ. Archippus was possibly the angel of this Church, in the sense of being its chief pastor. Laodicea received its name from Laodice, wife of Antiochus, the second King of Syria, by whom it was re-built and beautified. Amen.—Here only used as a personal name. Faithful.—In the sense of trustworthy (see Revelation 1:5). “Trench suggests the three things necessary to constitute a true witness. He must have been an eye-witness of what he relates, possess competence to relate what he has seen, and be willing to do so.” But the assertion is here made in view of the severity of the message sent to this Church. However searching and severe, it is assuredly faithful and true. Beginning of the creation.—See Colossians 1:15. This may mean, the first of a new spiritual creation, or the Author of creation—the material world being conceived of as due to the agency of the Divine Son; or the first created being; or the beginning (in the active sense) of the creation; i.e., the Creator of all things—primary source of all creation. The appropriateness of this declaration concerning Christ comes to view as we realise the special temptations of this Church to the worship of inferior divinities. “Like Colossæ, this Church was exposed to the risks of angelolatry, of the substitution of lower principalities and created mediators for Him who was head over all things to His Church.”
Revelation 3:15. Cold nor hot.—Plumptre suggests that it was specially exposed to the chilling and enervating influence of wealth. To passionate and intense natures there is nothing so irritating as the “superior” man who can always keep the happy medium, and never gets excited about anything. Wealthy people are especially tempted to take things easy, to take even their religion easy. “The term ‘hot’ denotes the temper of fervent love, a love that warms and animates the whole life, the temper, we must remember, of the apostle who records the message.” The term “cold” simply implies the absence of enthusiasm. “The tepid temperature has, as its physical effect, the sickening sense of nausea, and in its moral aspect causes, in most earnest minds, a loathing that is not roused by the state described as ‘cold.’ ”
Revelation 3:17. Sayest.—In a spirit of blind self-confidence. Rich.—Lit. “I am rich, and have gotten riches.” The repetition implies satisfaction in the riches (Hosea 12:8). Wretched.—The worst kind of hypocrites—hypocrites without knowing it. There is no more subtle peril than self-deception concerning our spiritual condition—the self-deception that comes of self-confidence.
Revelation 3:18. Buy of me.—There is perhaps a touch of irony here. Gold tried.—Lit. “fresh burnt from the fire.” Eye-salve.—Collyrium was the common dressing for weak eyes.
Revelation 3:19. Rebuke and chasten.—See Proverbs 3:11; Hebrews 12:5. Zealous.—Implying rousing themselves out of their careless, lukewarm temper.
Revelation 3:20. Stand at the door.—Compare Song of Solomon 5:2.
Revelation 3:21. My throne.… His throne.—Both to be treated as figures. “The promise of sharing the throne is the climax of an ascending series of glorious promises, which carry the thought from the Garden of Eden (chap Revelation 2:7) through the wilderness (Revelation 3:17), the temple, (Revelation 3:12) to the throne.” The conquerors in the strife are, “in some sense which we cannot as yet fathom, made partakers of the Divine Nature” (2 Peter 1:4)—sharers in the holiness, the wisdom, the love, and therefore in the glory and the majesty, which have been from everlasting.”
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Revelation 3:14-22
A Self-Satisfied Church.—The city of Laodicea was situated between Philadelphia and Colossæ. It was either actually founded, or re-built, by Antiochus II., the King of Syria, and named after his wife, Laodĭcé. In St. John’s day it was celebrated for its wealth, which was derived chiefly from commerce. In the interest of the apostle Paul, the Church in Laodicea was associated with the Church in Colosse. Neither of those Churches, however, seem to have enjoyed his personal ministry, for writing to the Colossians he says, “For I would have you know how greatly I strive for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh.” (Colossians 2:1). He refers to an earnest Christian work which one of His disciples, Epaphras, had done in Laodicea and the neighbouring towns, and the form in which he sends his message to Archippus suggests that this person was the angel, or minister, of the Church at Laodicea (Colossians 4:12-17). The tone of St. Paul’s references indicate considerable anxiety concerning the spiritual condition of the Church, and we can well understand that, under the enervating influence of increasing wealth, the evils that he noticed and feared grew into perilous strength in the latter days of St. John, and gave occasion to the most cutting and reproachful of the seven epistles. The key-note to the moral condition of this Church is found in its wealth. It was not disturbed by heresies, or broken up by persecutions. Its members were in comfortable circumstances. The services could be maintained without strain, there was nobody in the Church of a contentious disposition to disturb the peace, so they had drifted into an easy going way, and satisfied themselves with simply keeping things up to a fair average level. Their full strength went into their weekly money-getting, and they got through their Sabbath obligations and duties as respectably and as easily as they could. It would be very possible to find an instance of just such a Church in these days of ours; for Laodicea is a type, and a type as distinct as either of the others to which attention has been drawn. It is full of suggestion to us that the Living Christ, moving to and fro among the Churches, is arrested by the actual condition of this apparently prosperous Church. It reminds us that He who has the seven Spirits of God is never deceived by the appearance of prosperity in a Church, but searchingly estimates its tone, and mood, and temper, and may thus discover and reveal a condition of things which will altogether surprise the members of the Church, who may expect commendation, and have to receive severe reproaches and warnings. We have seen that some particular feature of the vision of the Risen and Living One is taken, in order to point the application to each Church. Here He who walketh among the candlesticks is figured as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.” Amen is not elsewhere used as a personal name. It means, “verily,” and is the firm assertion that a thing is true, and so it can be made a proper name, and stand for Him who is the truth. The word the Living One had to speak to this Church would surprise and humiliate it. And the very first response that the Church would make, when it received the message, would be this: “It is not true; it cannot be true.” The very possibility of such a response must be anticipated, and guarded against, so the epistle begins with the solemn declaration that it comes from Him who is the absolute and indisputable truth, the “Amen, the faithful and true witness.” Dean Plumptre thinks that the words “faithful and true witness” should be regarded simply as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “amen.” It affirms the competency of the Living One to make this testimony, seeing that He combines in Himself all those qualifications which a witness ought to possess. The other form in which the Living One is presented is more difficult to explain. “The beginning of the creation of God.” It is probably the solemn assertion of His absolute and perfect knowledge of all things, from the very beginning. From Him nothing is hid. Effort has been made to explain this term by comparing it with the figures found in the epistle to the Colossians—“First-born of every creature,” “first-born from the dead”—and by assuming that the Laodicean Church was exposed to the temptation of worshipping inferior principalities. But this is to bring in a set of new ideas, unrelated to the point of the Divine message. He who is truth, sees truly, and witnesses truly, has something to say to which this Church is bound to give good heed, however it may surprise and distress them.
I. And what is the message?—
1. It is a searching revelation of the Church’s unrecognised weaknesses. And the first thing noticed is its listless indifference. It was lukewarm about everything. It was dying, as Churches can die, of moderation and respectability. It might, in its apparently sound and safe prosperity, be the envy of other Churches. Its very evenness, its persistently keeping at a dead level, was a supreme offence to Christ. Nobody in the Church brought any disgrace upon the Christian name, but nobody brought any particular honour upon the Christian name. The Church did not make the holy and inspiring witness of consistency in keeping at a high level of Christian attainment and service. It was simply easyful, indifferent, content to go on, aiming at nothing and doing nothing. The “lukewarm are neither earnest for God, nor utterly indifferent to religion. They are perhaps best described as those who take an interest in religion, but whose worship of their idol of good taste, or good form, leads them to regard enthusiasm as ill-bred and disturbing; and who have never put themselves to any inconvenience, braved any reproach, or abandoned any comfort, for Christ’s sake, but hoped to keep well with the world, while they flattered themselves that they stood well with God.” Such a state of lukewarmness is unreal and sickly, and yet thinks that it is a true and healthy state. Carlyle calls it “the hypocrisy which does not know itself to be hypocritical.”
2. But the Living Christ, in searching this Church, does not stop even with thus showing the fact of its condition. He reveals the root of the evil, in the spirit of self-satisfaction which has gained power in the Church, and has eaten out its heart of love and zeal for Christ. “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing.” Dean Plumptre says: “The underlying grounds of the condemnation, the secret working of this tepidity of the soul, are brought before us in these words. It is clear that the imagined wealth here is that of spiritual, not temporal, riches. In regard to the latter, the boast would probably have been true, and would have called for no such stern contrast. And yet it is not the less true that it was the possession of the riches of this world that made the Laodicean angel and his Church so satisfied that they had the riches of the other. They took the ‘unrighteous mammon,’ not only as a substitute for the ‘true riches,’ but almost as a proof that they possessed them. Outward ease and comfort took the place of inward peace; prosperity was thought a sure sign of Divine approval. We cannot read the history of the Church of Christ, or look around us, or retrace our own experience, without feeling that it has often been so, both with Churches and individual men. Lethargy creeps over them; love is no longer active; material success, multiplied endowments, the power of giving money as the one embodiment of love to God or man—these have been the precursors of decline and of decay.” The man who is in a comfortable and well-satisfied frame of mind, because all his material wants are thoroughly provided for, can seldom be brought to believe that his spiritual state can possibly be wrong. And it is precisely the same with a Church that experiences years of steady and unbroken prosperity; it becomes so hopelessly satisfied with its spiritual state, that it resents even the searching appeals of the ever-living Head of the Church. And there is no condition for the individual and for the Church so dangerous as that self-satisfied frame of mind. In spiritual things it has need of nothing. Its spiritual state is quite satisfactory to itself, and unless that self-satisfaction can be broken up, and the truth of its spiritual condition revealed to it, that self-satisfaction will surely bring its doom.
3. With an almost withering severity, the Living Christ declares that the self-satisfaction the Church was nourishing as to its spiritual state was but a sign of its moral blindness. If they could see facts, they would see that, as a Church, they were “poor, and miserable, and blind, and naked. They were not even, as they assumed, keeping to a fair spiritual level. They had sunk low: they had lost tone. They thought themselves rich, but where were their spiritual riches? Could they show them when called upon to do so? Where were their spiritual garments? Could they appear clothed in them when called upon to do so? The Living Christ suddenly calls upon them to bring forth the signs of their spiritual life. They can find none, and now their blindness is forcibly removed, and they are compelled to appear before Him as they are, and to see themselves as they are, poor, and miserable, and blind, and naked. What a humiliation!” The sin of this Church came out of its being too comfortable. It was not serious enough about anything. And this is often the secret of self-centredness. It satisfies a man with his narrow circle of interests—which, like the famous chamber-prison of fable, is ever narrowing and narrowing, until at last it crushes all life worth living out of the man.
II. And what is the advice given by the Risen and Living Lord?—“I counsel thee to buy of Me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eye-salve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see.” Precisely the work for the sake of which the Living Christ is ever moving among the Churches is the rehabilitation of the spiritual life of the Churches. The condition of this Church was bad, but it was not hopeless. Something could be done. Provision for the recovery of position, and health, and spiritual tone, were at command. That provision can be supplied only by the Church’s awaking from her lethargy, beginning really to care for its spiritual condition, mourning over the condition into which it had allowed itself to drift, and making fresh, direct, personal applications to her Lord for reviving and restoring grace. In his “Holy War” Bunyan pictures Mansoul awakened to recognise the Laodicean state into which it had fallen, filled with zealous anxiety, and sending messengers, with pleading entreaties, to her absent Emmanuel. “Buy of Me,” as only we can buy of Christ; with penitence, and zeal, and prayer, and holy yearnings, but without money and without price. “The gold” which Christ will thus “sell” to him who seeks it—the treasure of holiness, and peace, and joy—is that which has been “tried in the fire”; and this, as in all like cases, implies chastisement and suffering. The “white garments” that hide the shame of nakedness, the true holiness of life which alone prevents the exposure of that “inner vileness” of which even the saints of God are ever painfully conscious, are those which have been made white in the blood of Christ, which symbolises suffering. The “eye-salve” which gives clearness of vision, does so, not without the pricking smart that clears away the blinding or beclouding humours. And the counsel is urged by this gracious persuasion; the Living One who rebukes them, loves them, and rebukes them because He loves them. For love can never let sin alone when it finds sin in the objects of its love. And the love that rebukes will not stop with rebuke; it will go on to chastening, it will be followed by discipline that may secure full deliverance from the sin. The very familiar Revelation 3:20 receives its proper explanation only by observing its insertion at this precise point of the epistle. It is usual to sever it entirely from its connection, and to regard it a figure of Christ’s seeking admission to the human heart. And that may be justifiable, but it was not in the mind of this writer, nor does it bear direct relation to the subject of this epistle. In Holman Hunt’s suggestive picture, “The Light of the World” is represented as an august person, artistically and symbolically arrayed, standing with a lamp in his hands under a midnight sky, on the outside of a walled enclosure, the entrance-gate of which is barred. He stands as one who has knocked over and over again, and received no answer; and you observe that the wild vine and bramble have grown over the gate, showing how long and resolutely it has been closed. But in this epistle the Christ is the Living White One standing at the door of a Church. He has come to deliver His searching and arousing rebukes. He stands, as it were, outside to deliver His rebuke; and now He waits—“stands at the door and knocks”—waits to see if the Church will respond aright, and give Him welcome to do His cleansing and reviving work. He will not at once begin His chastenings. They must come if the Church does not fittingly respond to reproof and rebuke. But He will wait—hopefully wait. “Judgment is His strange work, mercy is His delight.” He would so much rather work the recovery of the Church with its will than against it. But there is a very remarkable change in the appeal of Christ as He stands waiting. His rebuke and counsel had been sent to the Church. His appeal is directly addressed to each and every individual member of the Church. “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.” The responsibility of rightly answering the reproof of Christ is made to rest on each single person. It could easily be shifted off, and made to appear the general duty of the Church. Christ demands that it shall be the direct answer of each man. The recovery of a lethargic and lukewarm Church is the recovery of its individuals, one by one. The promise to the overcoming soul and overcoming Church is the full enjoyment of the highest spiritual privilege, the privilege that can only be enjoyed by the most spiritually-minded. “I will give to him to sit down with Me in My throne; as I also overcame, and sat down with My Father in His throne.”
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Revelation 3:14. Laodicea.—A Church of which the state is described in the darkest colours, and whose future seems to be compromised. She is threatened with immediate rejection—“Spue thee out of My mouth.” There is here mote than an expression of indignation; it is one of disgust. Laodicea has fallen as low as a Church can fall, while still bearing the name of a Church.—F. Godet, D.D.
Revelation 3:15. Hot.—The heat commended by implication is not the “self-conscious, galvanised earnestness which, in days of senile pietism, passes for zeal. It is an earnestness which does not know itself earnest, being all too absorbed in its work. It is self-forgetful, and so self-sacrificing, rather than ambitious of self-sacrifice. It is, in short, kindled of God, and sustained by converse with the Divine One.”—Bishop Boyd Carpenter.
Revelation 3:17. Self-deception.—Why should a man repent of his goodness? He may well repent, indeed, of his falsehood, but unhappily the falsehood of it is just the thing he does not see, and cannot see by the very law of his character. The Pharisee did not know he was a Pharisee. If he had known it he would not have been a Pharisee. The victim of passion, then, may be converted—the gay, the thoughtless, or the ambitious; he whom human glory has intoxicated; he whom the show of life has ensnared; he whom the pleasures of sense have captivated;—they may be converted, every one of them; but who is to convert the hypocrite? He does not know he is a hypocrite; he cannot, upon the very basis of his character; he must think himself sincere; and the more he is in the shackles of his own character, i.e., the greater hypocrite he is, the more sincere must he think himself.—Mozley.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 3
Revelation 3:14. Laodicea.—This city was originally called Diospolis, and afterwards Rhoas. It was re-built and beautified by Antiochus II., King of Syria, and named after his wife Laodicé, by whom he was subsequently poisoned. In Roman times it was a very principal city among those of the second rank in Asia Minor. It suffered in the Mithridatic war, but ere long recovered; it was also well-nigh destroyed by a great earthquake, A.D. 62, but was repaired by the efforts of its own citizens, who asked no help from the Roman Senate. Laodicea was in Southern Phrygia, called Phrygia Pacatiana, not far from Colossæ, and about six miles south of Hierapolis. It was distinguished from other cities of the same name by being termed Laodicea on the Lycus. Its commerce was considerable, being principally in the wools grown in the neighbouring district, which were celebrated for their fine texture and rich hue. A village, called Eski-hissar, stands amidst its ruins.
Revelation 3:19. God’s Love in Affliction.—It is rerelated that a poor but worthy inhabitant of Paris once went to the bishop of the place, with a countenance beclouded and a heart almost overwhelmed. “Father,” said he, with the most profound humility, “I am a sinner—I feel that I am a sinner—but it is against my will. Every hour I ask for light, and humbly pray for faith, but still I am overwhelmed with doubts. Surely if I were not despised of God He would not leave me to struggle thus with the adversary of souls!” The bishop thus consoled, with the language of kindness, his sorrowing son: “The king of France has two castles in different situations, and sends a commander to each of them. The castle of Montelberry stands in a place remote from danger, far inland; but the castle of La Rochelle is on the coast, where it is liable to continual sieges. Now, which of the two commanders, think you, stands the highest in the estimation of the king: the commander of La Rochelle, or he of Montelberry?” “Doubtless,” said the poor man, “the king values him the most who has the hardest task, and braves the greatest dangers.” “Thou art right,” replied the bishop. “And now apply this matter to thy case and mine, for my heart is like the castle of Monielberry, and thine like that of La Rochelle.”
Revelation 3:20. Christ at the Door.—The love of Christ has to come to sinful men with patient pleading and remonstrance, that it may enter their hearts and give its blessings. Some of you may remember a modern work of art in which that long-suffering appeal is wonderfully portrayed. He who is the Light of the world stands, girded with the royal mantle clasped with the priestly breast-plate, bearing in his hand the lamp of truth, and there, amidst the dew of night and the rank hemlock, He pleads for entrance at the closed door which has no handle on its outer side, and is hinged to open only from within. “I stand at the door and knock. If any man open the door, I will come in.”—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Knocking at Doors.—The gates of the rich and the doors of the caravanserais and other large buildings have a knocker made of a bent bar of iron hung by a hinge, so as to strike upon a broad-headed nail. Otherwise there is always a ring set in the door, by which it is pulled to, and this is used as a knocker by striking it against the door with the open palm. Officers of justice rap on the doors with the ends of their staves of office, and some people, impatient of delay, try to make more noise by striking the door with a stone. The sleep of Orientals is proverbially heavy, and loud and repeated knockings at doors are sometimes heard at the dead of night, accompanied by the reiterated shouts of some belated traveller.—Van Lennep.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Revelation 3". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28