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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

the Angel of the Church in Sardis

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THEMISTOCLES, Plutarch tells us, could not get to sleep at night so loud was all Athens in the praises of Miltiades. And the ministers of the other six churches in Asia were like Themistocles in the matter of their sleep, so full were all their people's mouths of the name and the renown of the minister of Sardis. When he went to the communion-seasons at Ephesus and Smyrna and Pergamos and Thyatira, for years after the captivated people could tell you his texts and at every mention of his name they would break out about his preaching. His appearance, his voice, his delivery, his earnestness and impressiveness, and his memorable sayings, all contributed to make the name of the minister of Sardis absolutely a household word up and down the whole presbytery. Now it was after some great success of that pulpit kind; it was immediately on the back of some extravagant outburst of his popularity as a preacher, that his Master could keep silence no longer toward the minister of Sardis. In anger at him, as also at those who so puffed him up; both in anger and in love and in pity, his Master sent to His inflated servant this plain-spoken message and most solemn warning. 'Thou hast a great name among short-sighted men. Thou hast much praise before men, but not before God. All men think well of thee, but not God. All thy great sermons are so much sounding brass before God. And what is not already spiritually dead in thee is ready to die, and will soon be for ever dead, unless thou dost become a new manner of minister, not before men, but before God.'

"Of all men in the world," says James Durham, "ministers are most obnoxious to this tentation of vanity. And that because most of their appearances are before men, and that in the exercise of some gift of the mind which is supposed to hold forth the inward worth of a man more than any other gift. Now when this meeteth with applause, that applause has a great subtility in its pleasing and tickling of them, and is so ready to incline them to rest satisfied with that applause." Durham is right in that. For praise and popularity is the most dangerous of all drugs to a minister. Dose a minister sufficiently with praise, and you will soon drown his soul in perdition, if God does not interpose to save him. He is as happy as a king all that day after a sufficient draught of your soul-intoxicating praise. He is actually a sanctified and a holy man all the rest of that day. His face shines on all the men he meets all that day. He loves all the men he meets. He even walks with God all that day. But you must give him his dram again on his awaking tomorrow morning, else as soon as he has slept off his debauch he will be a worse man and more ill to live with than he was before. To him who lives on praise all the world is as dark as midnight and as cold as mid-winter to him when he cannot get his praise. The wings of an angel sprout in his soul as long as he gets enough praise, but he is as good as in his grave when he opens his mouth wide and you do not fill it. It is true that is a very weak mind which values itself according to the opinion and the applause of other men. But then it is well known that God chooses the weakest of men to make them His ministers. For many reasons He does that, some of which reasons of His all His ministers know, and some of which reasons the wisest of them have not yet found out. "It were vain," says one of the wisest of ministers, "to pretend that I do not feel in me that mean passion that can be elated by applause, and mortified by the contrary; but there is nothing under heaven that I more sincerely and totally despise, and nothing which ever makes me so emphatically despise myself. I feel it infinitely despicable at the very moment the passion for praise is excited, and I hope by degrees, as time goes on, to be substantially delivered from it. I have a thousand times been astonished that this mean passion of mine should not have been completely extirpated by the sincere and deliberate contempt I have long entertained for human opinion. Opinion, I do not mean, as regarding myself, but as regarding any other person, or any other book. To seek the praise that comes from God only, is the true nobleness of character; and if a due solicitude to obtain this praise were thoroughly established in the soul, all human notice would sink into insignificance, and would vanish from our regard." By the end of his ministry the angel of Sardis will subscribe to every syllable of John Foster. But he is a long way from that as yet, and he will need to have some plain words told him about himself, and about his ministry, before he comes to that.

For one thing, admitting and allowing for all the good work His servant did, I have found it far from perfect, his Lord says. But perfection in the work of the ministry at Sardis or anywhere else is quite impossible; and thus it is that when we look closer into our Lord's words we find that it was not so much absolute perfection that his Master demanded, as ordinary honesty, integrity, and fidelity. What He really said was this, 'I have not found thy work at all filled up on its secret and spiritual and God-ward side. On its intellectual and manward side I have nothing to complain about-but not before God.' You see the state of the case yourselves. No man can long command pulpit popularity without hard work. And it is not denied that this minister paid for his popularity with very hard work. He was a student. He took off his coat to his sermons. He wrote them over and over again till he got them polished to perfection. And his crowds of polished people were his reward. But while doing so much of that kind, and no man in all Asia doing it half so well, at the same time he left a whole world of other things not done. Milton did all his work from his youth up under his great Taskmaster's eye. And so did the minister of Sardis. Only his taskmaster was the great crowds that hung on his elaborated orations. Take away the eyes and the ears of those captivated crowds and this thrilling preacher was as good as dead. "Dead," indeed, is the very word that his Master here so bitterly charges home upon him. "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead." His preaching was all right. None of his neighbour ministers, not the most accepted of God and the most praised of God of them all, could preach half so well. His preaching was perfect; but his motives in it, his aims and his ends in it, the sources from which he drew his pulpit inspiration, his secret prayers both before his sermons were begun, and all the time they were under his hand, and while they were being delivered, and still more after they were delivered,-in all these things,-"thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead." 'Be watchful, and strengthen these things,' said his Master to him. 'It is good to study, only strengthen it with much faith and with much prayer before God. It is good to give thyself to reading, only read and write in the presence of God. It is good to bring up thy very choicest work to these great congregations of thine, only seek their salvation in every sentence of thy great sermons. It is good to take captive with thy wonderful eloquence the attention and the admiration of these crowds, only do so in order to take their hearts captive, not to thyself as heretofore, but to Me henceforth. Strengthen, I say unto thee, the things that remain and are ready to die. And above all else, and with a view to all else, and as a means to all else, strengthen thy closet-prayer before God. Strengthen it in the length of it, and in the breadth of it, and in the depth of it, and in the height of it. Strengthen it in the time you take to it, in the intensity you put into it, and in the way you work it up into your sermons, both in their composition, and in their delivery, and in the way you continue to wait and to pray after your sermons; to wait, that is, not for the applause of the hearers, but for their profit and My praise.'

And his heart-searching Master still proceeds with His pastoral counsels to this minister of His, very unwilling to give him over to the decay of soul into which he has fallen. "Remember how thou hast received, and heard, and hold fast, and repent." As if He were to say to some such minister among ourselves-'Remember thy conversion, and the spirit of truth and love that was instilled into thee, and that made thee turn into this ministry of Mine. Remember thy college days, and the high hopes and generous vows made to Me in those days. Remember also how I delivered thee when in thy deep distresses thou didst call on Me, and what communings and confidences used to go on between us. Remember thy ordination day, and the laying on of the hands of the presbytery, and the way thy heart swelled within thee as they pronounced and enrolled thee a minister of Mine.' Yes, even to call such things to remembrance, my brethren, will work together with the seven Spirits that are in Christ's right hand, and with many other things, to set a fallen-down minister on his feet again, and to give him a new start even after he is as good as dead and deposed in the sight of God. Ay, such remembering and such repenting will yet save this all but lost minister of Sardis, and it will save some ministers among ourselves who are quite as far gone as he was. And as he was saved through this Epistle, so will they; and like him they will yet receive the heavenly reward that is here held out to us all by Him who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.

The last thing of the nature of a threat that is addressed to the minister of Sardis is this, "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." There is a certain note of terror in that warning which is here addressed to all ministers, the most watchful, the most prayerful before God, and the best. And yet, no; for perfect love casteth out all such terror; perfect love to Christ, and to His work, and to His coming, delivers them who through fear of His coming have all their days been subject to terror. If I love you, you cannot come too soon to me. And the more unexpected your coming is to my door the more welcome will you be to me. If I am watching and counting and keeping the hours till you come, you cannot come on me as a thief. Christ could not come on Teresa as a thief as long as she clapped her hands for His coming every time her clock struck. He cannot come too soon for me if I am always saying to myself,-why tarry the wheels of His chariot? If my last thought before I sleep is about you I will be glad to see your face and hear your voice the first thing in the morning. When I awake I am still with Thee. The name of that chamber was Peace, and its window opened to the east. And every night after he received and read this Epistle, the minister of Sardis always slept in that chamber till the sun-rising.

And now that the tide is beginning to turn in this Epistle, and in this minister's heart and life, this so unexpected word of encouragement and comfort is spoken to him, "Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments: and they shall walk with Me in white: for they are worthy." It was with the minister of Sardis somewhat as it was with Thomas Scott when he was first awaking to his proper work. Scott in his youth had been ambitious to be an author, but he was now beginning to see that preaching was second to nothing on the face of God's earth; and that it had praise of God as nothing else had when it was well done. Scott's preaching was not yet well done by a long way, but it was far better than it once was. And one of the best proofs of its improvement was this, that his parishioners began to come to ask guidance from him in the things of their souls. But at that stage Scott had put all he know into his sermons and he had little to add as pastoral counsel to his inquiring parishioners. And it would be something like that in Sardis. Some of his people had somehow been kept in life all through their minister's declension and death. There is nothing more surprising and touching than to see how a tree will sometimes cling round a rock and will suck sap and strength out of a cairn of stones. "How do you manage to keep yourself alive, then?" I asked an old saint who is in a case not unlike those few names in Sardis. "O," she said, "I have an odd volume of Spurgeon's Sermons, and I have a son at the front." I did not ask her, but I suppose she meant that the thought of her son in his constant danger made her life of intercessory prayer in his behalf perfect before God, and all Spurgeon's readers will bear her out about his sermons. Even in Sardis, their sons in constant peril, and a volume of some first-century Spurgeon, kept alive those few names all those years that their minister was dead.

And then to put the copestone on this far-shining case of a minister's recovery, and to send him back to his work till, like his much-tried neighbour in Thyatira, his last years should be far better than his first, this splendid seal was set on his second conversion-"to him that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment: and I will not blot his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels." It will be on that day to the minister of Sardis like that great day when Joshua stood before the angel of the Lord and Satan stood at his right hand to resist him. Satan will resist him and will tell to his face how he sought his own things in the early days of his ministry and not the things of his people or of his Master. How he swelled with vanity in the day of his vanity. How his own name was in every thought of his and nothing else but his own name. Only let his name be blazoned abroad, Satan will say, and he was happy and all about him were happy. And so on, till Christ will stop the accuser's mouth, and will confess His servant's name. The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; even the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee; is not this a brand plucked out of the fire? And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment. And I said, Let them set a fair mitre upon his head. So they set a fair mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord stood by.

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Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'the Angel of the Church in Sardis'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. 1901.

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Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020
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