Smyrna: the Double Assault of the Enemy
(Rev. ii. 8 - il.)
THE decline of the Church opens the way for the power of
the enemy to display itself; and the assault is a double one - from without and
within at the same moment. The result is, however, very different in the two
cases. The outside assault is failure, for it is impossible that the Lord
should leave His saints to be subdued by power beyond their own; while the
defeat of Satans wiles is another matter. Here they must put on the whole
armour of God, that they may be able to stand in the evil day. We shall be able
from this point to trace an instructive correspondence beween the history of
the kingdom as developed in the first four parables of the thirteenth of
Matthew and that of the Church in the first four addresses here. There also the
failure (or partial success) of the good seed is the first fact insisted on,
and then follows the inroad of the enemy. The two are put in connection by the
words, "While men slept, the enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat."
Here, as not in the parable, the open assault is connected with the secret and inward one, and we shall see, if the Lord permit, that the two are really parts of one whole, the one favouring the other. The roar of the lion is well calculated to frighten souls into the secret snare; and in this regard we could not say that it had no success. God, on the other hand, suffers it to alarm His people into their place of refuge; and with true souls this would be its effect. The test is permitted to manifest the condition of things, and it is His way to allow such tests ever, as in all dispensations we shall find to be the case. Alas, for the invariable result as to man! but He will be glorified through all.
Let us look briefly first at the open attack which, as it makes a figure in ecclesiastical history, gives us a date to attach to the period before us. Even those who do not see the historical application of these addresses generally admit a reference in the "tribulation ten days" to ten persecutions under the Roman emperors. That there were just so many can hardly be made out, and the expression need not be pressed so literally. It is quite plain, nevertheless, how the address to Smyrna suits this period, which lasted from Domitians persecution now begun, right on to Constantine, - that is, for over two centuries. This was undoubtedly the martyr-age of the Church as a whole, although the persecution may have been more bitter locally in other periods. The power of Rome, absolute as it was throughout her wide-spread empire, when wielded against Christianity, left little room for escape any where, while as a heathen power it was antagonistic to all that professed the name. The address to Smyrna, therefore, comes exactly in place here; and the very name - "myrrh," - used, as this was, in the embalming of the dead, reminds us of how "precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." Indeed this is manifest all through the address. It is as "the First and the Last, who" yet "was dead, and is alive," that He speaks to them. In the voice of One who though divine stooped down to death and is come out of it, and who gives them thus only to drink of the cup of which He has drunk, and to be baptized with the baptism wherewith He has been baptized. How fully can He say, "I know thy tribulation"! and how sweet the commendation, "I know thy poverty, but thou art rich"! Yea, "blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for My sake: rejoice, and be exceeding glad."
The times are so changed, we look back with a shudder to the sufferings endured at these times, unable, as it would seem, to comprehend the blessedness of this link of sorrow with the Man of sorrows. And yet we can see, even through the lapse of intervening centuries, how the "Spirit of glory and of God" rested upon these sufferers. The Captain of their salvation was at all charges for them, and as the sufferings of Christ abounded in them, so their consolation also abounded by Christ. They had heard His voice saying, "Fear not those things which thou shalt suffer; be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."
Multitudes were thus faithful; but we are apt to form a wrong estimate of the times gilded by the glory of this faithfulness. Just so, in the address to Smyrna, the Lords undisguised and tender sympathy with His own under persecution hides from the eyes of many the evil which is pointed out by Him as there in terms of indignant reprobation. By most, "The blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not" is supposed to refer to the well-known and constant enmity of the unbelieving nation against the followers of their rejected Messiah. It is evident that they are treated as outside of those whom the Lord is here addressing, and that the "angel" is not, as elsewhere, charged with responsibility for their presence. But so neither are the Nicolaitanes, or the followers of Balaam at Pergamos, or the woman Jezebel at Thyatira, addressed directly by the Lord, while no one doubts, nor can it be doubted, that they formed part of the respective assemblies. The question of responsibility is a more difficult one, and we shall be obliged to consider it a little later.
"Those who say they are Jews and are not" might be taken, no doubt, as parallel to the apostles words that "they are not all Israel which are of Israel," and "he is not a Jew which is one outwardly." Still it would not seem that they would so much need to profess themselves such, if they were of the nation really; nor does it seem that so much would be made of the falseness of a profession for which there was after all a certain justification. If this, too, were really the character of those in question, there is no significance, that one can see, in the appearance here as regards any divine judgment of the churches.
The moment we realize the adversaries here spoken of as judaizers within the professing church, we find that we have in them as much the formal root of decline as in first love left we had the internal principle. The mention of them at this point becomes a necessity really for the perfecting of the picture of what has in fact taken place. With the heart-failure first reproved, it is the key to the condition of things which is all around us, it characterizes the state of ruin which has come in. It is this which has robbed Christians of the enjoyment of their place with God; it is this which has put them back into the world out of which grace had called them; it is this which has built up once more a priestly hierarchy as necessary mediators between a mixed and carnal people and a far-off God. It is this which is indeed the triumph of the great adversary, although God be as ever sovereign above it; and no name could more fitly designate the instruments by which he has degraded the Church of God into the synagogue than the name by which the Lord brands them here - " the synagogue of Satan."
The title precisely indicates the change accomplishing. The Church of God is indeed every way the precise opposite of Satans synagogue. The word which we translate "church" is, as well known, properly "assembly," - a title which, if it had been retained in our common version, would have prevented the possibility of some significant perversions. The assembly could not be confounded, for instance, with a material building, though spiritually indeed Gods house. Nor could it be the clergy merely, as from Romanism, though by more than Romanists, it has been made to signify. These applications of the term are but indications of the very change of which we are now speaking. The assembly of God in Scripture is Christs body, the fellowship of those who are His members, and of none but these. It is true that the responsibility of this place may be assumed by those who are not such, and so we find the assembly in Sardis pronounced by the Lord to be dead, and not alive. Yet in the divine thought this is what the assembly is, and at the Lords table every one declares this: "we being many are one bread, one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread."
Thus it is the assembly, or gathering, of those who are Christs members, called out by grace out of the world., and this is what the word used means.
"Ecclesia" is the assembly of those called out; while "synagogue" means merely a "gathering together," no matter of whom. The latter, of course, was the Jewish word, as the former the Christian; and they exactly express the difference between the respective gatherings. Christ died, "not for the nation of Israel only, but also that He might gather together in one the children of God which were scattered abroad." Outside of the Jewish fold He had sheep to bring in, and inside of it not all were His sheep. Judaism did not unite the children of God as such, as is plain, and its separation was not of believers from the world, but of Israel from the Gentiles. So, consequently, the children of God were not given their place with God, and had no Spirit of adoption - did not cry, "Abba, Father." God was saying, "I am a father to Israel" - and this which comes nearest to Christian knowledge shows in fact the contrast. Relationship was by birth, not new birth, and did not mean justification and eternal life, as it means now. Those who belonged to the family of God might perish forever, and those outside His family might be saved eternally.
Judaism decided the eternal state of none. As a dispensation of law, it could give no assurance, it could preach no justification. For if the law says on the one hand "the man that doeth these things shall live in them," it says also "there is none righteous - no, not one." And that was not merely the effect, but the designed effect: "We know that whatsoever the law saith it saith to them that are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God." It was thus ordained for the probation of man, a probation necessary before grace could be proclaimed; but on this account it could but as a means of salvation bear witness to its own incompetency.
The announcement of that new covenant under which Israels sins and iniquities would be no more remembered was such a witness. Thus, as the law could not justify, it could not bring to God. The unrent vail is the characteristic of Judaism as the rent vail is of Christianity. "Thou canst not see My face, for there shall no man see Me and live" is the contrasted utterance to His who says, "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father;" as is "who can by no means clear the guilty" the opposite declaration to that of the , gospel, that we "believe on Him who justifieth the ungodly." The darkness is passed from the face , of God, and the true light - for God is light - shineth. We walk, therefore, in the light, as God is in the light, and have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth from all sin. : The judaizing of the Church means therefore, first of all, the putting God back (if that were possible; possible for our hearts it is) into the darkness from which He has come forth; replacing the peace which was made for us upon the cross with the old legal conditions and the old uncertainty. Darker than the old darkness this, inasmuch as the Christ for whom they only looked is come, and come but to put His seal upon it all: come, and gone back, and declared little more, at any rate, than was said before, and only definitively shut out hope of any further revelation Thus in the Judaizing gospel confidence is presumption "No man knoweth whether he is worthy of favour or hatred" is quoted as if from Paul instead of Solomon. In fact, is not Ecclesiastes scripture as well as Romans? and will you make scripture to contradict scripture? Did not Christ say, also, "I came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill"? and ought we not to follow Him?
Peace is of course lost, and in the dread uncertainty that everywhere prevails, who can distinguish any longer between Gods children and the world? Yet Judaism had its family of God, its ordinances which separated them from those around, its absolutions by the way which encouraged hope, while yet, as continually needed, they sanctioned no presumptuous assurance. The Christian family could still exist, baptism and the supper of the Lord take the place of the old Jewish ordinances, the Christian ministry conform to the Levitical priesthood, and the Church become more venerable by her identification with that of the saints from the beginning, and richer for the inheritance of all the promises from Abraham down.
This is assuredly the transformation that has taken place, and that began so early that we have but few traces of the manner of its accomplishment, or its agents either. We open the page of uninspired history, and the terrible transformation has been already achieved. In fact, so fully, that it presents the only difficulty in the application of the address before us to the period of heathen persecution. One would hardly suppose from the Lords words here that (as it would appear) the witnesses for Him, faithful to death as they were, were nevertheless thoroughly implicated in this descent from Christianity to Judaism. It would hardly seem as if the "blasphemy" or slander of this Jewish party had been directed against them, or that the Lord could ignore their reception of these satanic doctrines.
The real question is, how far could we expect the history, meagre in proportion to its earliness, and which has come down to us through centuries of darkness and hostility to the truth, to reveal to us the struggle with these Jewish teachers, so generally successful as they were? I do not think we could expect it. An age which would forge the names of those in repute to spurious documents, often with the express design of giving authority to some favourite doctrine, would hardly hesitate to remove the too suspicious traces of opposition to prevalent views and practices from the history of the early church. That there should have been no such struggle is scarcely to be credited. And the words of our Lord here may well be taken as an encouragement rather to believe that there were even many who were doubly faithful in this time of trial; faithful amid the outside persecution, and faithful also against what could and did soon develop into no less bitter persecution within the professing church.
Of one thing we may be sure, that the true history of the Church remains to be written, or is written only before God. That which fills mens histories is hardly, save in responsibility, the Church at all. Solemn it is to realize the completeness of the ruin, almost from the first; and yet this has been the case in every dispensation. How long did our first parents live in paradise? Of the generation before the flood, what was the record? and what of Noahs sons? Of Israel in the wilderness, but two of all that as men left Egypt got into the land. In the land, how soon does Bochim succeed Gilgal! The priesthood fail on the day of their consecration. The first king falls on the battle-field, an apostate. The hands that have built the temple to the true God build the shrines of idols. The remnant, brought back from Babylon, murder one of their latest prophets (Matt. xxiii. and the awful history of the chosen people closes with the crucifixion of the Son of God.
What hope, then, for the Church? And here the blessing bestowed only makes the ruin the more awful: the corruption of the best becomes the worst corruption. "The annals of the Church," says the Romish historian, "are the annals of hell." How solemn a witness to the application of the words here, "who say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan"!
Not that we must brand with this name the masses who fell into the snare prepared for them, still less the generations afterward succeeding to the fatal heritage. It is applied, as we may easily see, to the earnest and active propagators of the heresy rather than to those whom they seduced to follow them. The Word of God, while teaching us to be open-eyed as to the character of things around us, teaches us carefully the need of making a difference as to those who may profess the very same principles. Indeed, as to persons, love will ever hope the best that it is possible to hope. It will not be blinded into putting good for evil, or sweet for bitter; and for evil principles it never can have even the smallest toleration: can it tolerate poison in that which is mens food? But it is another thing when the question of what is in the heart is raised. We are never really called to judge what is in the heart, while we are called to judge what is manifest in the life and ways. "I wot that through ignorance ye did it" was said to those who had had part in crucifying Christ; and. it was but the echo of the Lords own plea for them.
But whatever our judgment may be as to persons, the evil abides, and its effects are in the present day all around us. The Judaizing of the Church means the vail replaced before God, souls at a distance, in uncertainty and darkness, the Church and the world confounded, the children of God deprived of their place and privileges, the world made Christian in form, the Church more and more degraded to its level. The development we shall see at length in the after-addresses.
Chapter Five Nicolaitanism, or the Rise and Growth of Clerisy. (Rev. ii. 6, 15.)
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