THE SEVEN LETTERS
THE VISION (continued).
The effect on man of the divine presenceShall it be
as when we see Him?The touchThe commission of supreme irnportance -
"Mystery" - Stars, Lampstands, Angels, Churches - What is the angel ? - Local
responsibility, as well as a unity, dependent on grace.
John, the beloved John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, even he falls at His feet as dead ! This is never the effect on man when in the presence of another man. In such case there may be prostration, an acknowledgment of the official dignity of the presence into which men come, but it is quite voluntary. It is only when man finds himself in the presence of God that the prostration is quite involuntary, it is the tribute humanity ever pays to the Divine. Thus had prophet after prophet of old confessed the divinity of the same glorious One; and even at times when He was a humbled Man on earth, did flashes of that same glory cast men down on their faces; as in Gethsemane. (John xviii.)
And soon, very soon, you and I, beloved reader, shall also look upon that same One! Shall we too fall at His feet as dead? No, no, I trow not. For not as Judge, - not in this judicial glory do the Scriptures lead us to look for Him. It is "without sin unto salvation" He comes, and we who are alive and remain to that coming are first "changed in a moment," so that we are no longer in a body of flesh and blood; mortal, corruptible, which ever takes its place in its native dust involuntarily; but in a Body like His own! Wondrous is the grace that has met our deepest need here. Love and joy, not fear, will then be the overpowering emotions, and whilst we shall want no higher place than "at His feet," it is not "as dead" we shall be there; for the dead do not praise (Psalm 115-17).
"And He laid His right hand upon me." The Hand of Omnipotence holding up the seven stars, and from whose shelter He had in an earlier day said that none could pluck His sheep. The touch communicates the strength needed to the Body, and now to the soul and spirit He speaks, "Fear not, I am the first, and the last, and the living (One) and I became dead, and behold I am alive to the ages of the ages, and I have the keys of death and of Hades." It is now, and for the last time in Scripture, He speaks that gracious word so often spoken through the ages to His saints; so often spoken in the days of His sojourn on earth to His disciples, "Fear not." Oh, the wave of calm that must have swept over Johns troubled spirit as he heard it! But He gives a reason why John should not fear, and again that reason is marked with the mystic number present everywhere throughout the Book: - it is seven-fold. Nor is it ever necessary for any to go outside of Himself, for all fear to vanish. All that is needed for John, as well as for you, for me, is a closer intimacy - a deeper knowledge of Himself - so thus He speaks, "I am the First" Long before mountains were brought forth, or ever God had formed the earth or fields, He was. Long before there was any creature to hymn His praise: Angel or archangel or Sons of God or morning- stars, He was there. He has met every intricate problem from the beginning. His are the wonders of creation: and shall we fear?
The Last; after all; though heaven and earth pass away - through all changes of time; when the drama of the ages is over, He is there. Cf. Isaiah xliii :io. "Before me was no God formed, neither shall there be after me." He is the Fountain, Source, Spring of Life; but in order that that life might be the Light of men, He, even He, must suffer death, feel its chill touch, and be within its grasp. Wondrous mystery of humiliation! But death could not hold Him, nor shall it, all through eternal ages, touch Him more. Poor Lazarus, as he left his charnel-cave, brought his grave-clothes with him, for it would not be long before he would need them again; this glorious Speaker left His behind; they were useless to Him now, He should need them again, never. At His girdle hang the keys of those terror-strikers, "Death" and "Hades," the one claiming the material, the other the spiritual part of mans being. Death, what we do see and know so well, with all its gloomy and sorrowful associations; tears, broken heart-strings and all - He has it in His power. And Hades, what we do not know or see - what is on the other side. He has His Hand there. It lies in His power who died for us. He has conquered deaths citadel;- Gods enemy, our enemy is defeated, and Hosea in His case is fulfilled -"O Death, I will be thy plagues; 0 Grave, I will be thy destruction." Why fear if He who died, and died for us, fills all the past and futhre of eternity with the essence of Life? Yet He has gone into death only to deliver us, its prey, and has full power over deaths kingdom forever!
And now we come to a word, the importance of which, to a correct interpretation of the Book, it is difficult to exaggerate. It is the commission from the Lord Jesus;
"Write therefore the things which thou sawest, and the things which are, and the things which are about to take place after these." It is, beyond all controversy, a three-fold commission, dealing with past, present, and future in the three-fold repetition of the one word translated "the things which." He is to record in writing, first, what he had already personally seen; past things: second; what there was, and now is; present things; a certain condition that had already begun and was to continue for a time: and lastly, when that condition should be past and present things were gone into history, what should even then come to pass. It is an ever-widening series of circles, first, in relation to himself, personally, what had come within the sphere of his own vision. Then the wider one in which all the churches had part. And finally the divine point of view, for none can "declare the former things from the begmning before it come to pass," but God (Isaiah Xlviii :3-5).
This would clearly appear to be the Lords gracious way of putting another key of the Book in our hands at its opening. We have already read of the things that John had seen, nor is the importance of these things to be measured by the amount of space they cover. They involve the judicial glories of His Person, and His relation to the assemblies amidst which He was, and this necessarily precedes the actual movement of the Lord in discerning and judging in the midst of those assemblies.
Nor is there any other book in the Scriptures of which the Lord personally and directly gives us the divisions. It is a most gracious and indispensable guide to the correct understanding of this confessedly difficult book; and any system of interpretation that overlooks it, sets it aside or minimizes its value and importance is really self- condemned as far astray, even without further examination.
This fact of the three-fold commission is further continued by the fourth chapter, which after the letters to the assemblies are written, opens with exactly the same words with which this commission closes: "meta tuata" "after these things." John was to write what was to take place after "the things that are" were over; and in conformity with this, chapter 4 opens with "meta tauta," "after these things," I beheld, etc. Thus chapters ii and iii comprise "the things that are."
Had not the divine Speaker, many years before, when Peter asked Him as to Johns specific work, said, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" and whilst we know that this was wrongly understood at the time, so universal was the thought that the Lords return was near, that "this saying went abroad that this disciple should not die," yet John corrects this error, not by saying positively that he should pass away, in every sense; but by a careful repetition of the exact words used, as if to invite our special attention to their force, and may they not - nay do they not suggest, a sense in which John, in his work (for this, mark, is the bearing of Peters question) was to tarry, or be with us, until He come. In conformity with this, John is placed here amongst "the things that are," and these "things that are" go down to the Lords coming and the rapture of His redeemed people. John is here naturally part of "the things that are," and thus he, in a real sense, abides on the earth to their end; he is in that circle, and thus continues to the rapture. Now, this is absolutely true of John, for he is, in the fourth chapter, caught up to heaven, and thus himself stands for that company with which he is vitally connected. All is intensely spiritual, figurative, symbolical, as is the character of this book; but allis in perfect harmony with all Scripture, which must throw its light on every symbol.
Verse 20, "The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candle sticks, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lamp stands are the seven churches." The word "mystery" first strikes us. It refers in Scripture to something on which no previous Scripture throws its light. These stars and lamp-stands must not then be interpreted by the occurrence of the same words in the Old Testament Scriptures at all. We must not conclude that the seven stars have any affinity with those mentioned in Daniel viii and x, etc.; or that the seven lamp-stands are the same, as the one lamp-stand that stood in the tabernacle, or the ten that were in the temple, or the one seen by Zechariah.
Old Testament Scripture has not revealed what these stars, these lamp-stands are; and thus it is a mystery; but we have now a divine interpretation. The seven stars, which John had seen in heaven, stiod for seven angels in heaven, which angels could not see; and the seven lamp-stands which he seen on earth, represented the seven churches themselves on earth, which he could not see. But now we, in our turn, need to throw all the light that Scripture affords us, in order to understand what is meant even by the explanation. The stars that shine during the absence of the sun that, with the moon, are appointed as rulers of the night, are the angels of the seven churches. What then, or who are these angels of the churches?
As to this there has been endless conflict. Naturally ecclesiastical systems that have no plain Scripture for their justification, are not sorry to take advantage of any questionable word to claim its support. Thus amongst other interpretations these "angels" we are assured are what are called today rectors, clergymen, pastors of churches, each church having its own Pastor; who, as a matter of fact, has to do its evangelizing, its teaching, its shepherding, its marrying, its burying, its distribution of the so-called sacraments, with all their benefits. In fact, every single work and gift that Christ, when he "ascended on high and received gifts for men," gave to the church; and more too, even those that He did not give, are now to be centred in one man alone! Well, a man certainly may well be an "angel," for he must needs "excel in strength," (Ps. ciii), if he can fill all these places with their vast responsibilities. But when we go to Scripture, we find that the whole system has not one letter of support. On the contrary, the pastor was a gift quite separate and distinct from any other, and the possession of one gift was prima-facie evidence of the absence of the others. It is true that in certain special cases, as with the apostle Paul, more than one gift might be given to one man, but this is not the rule. He gave some to be pastors, some to be teachers, some to be evangelists; not one man to be all these. We must if we are content to stand firmly on the Scripture, dismiss these claims of clericalism of every character, altogether as having no support at least in the word "Angel."
Nor will it be necessary to look at all that has been written on this matter. I will only give the conclusion at which I have arrived, and, briefly, the path in the Scriptures by which (I trust by the Spirit of God, but that is for others to judge) I have been led to that conclusion. The word angel means, primarily, "a messenger," and as the messenger represents him who sends him, the word has in it strongly the idea of "representative." Thus evidently and clearly is it used in Acts xii. Peter, freed from prison, knocks at the door of the house where many were assembled in prayer on his behalf; the damsel Rhoda recognizes his voice; and, in her glad excitement, overcomes by her vehemence the doubts of the others, until they say "it is his angel." Not his guardian angel in this case surely, as men speak; for why should they think that such would vainly knock, or assume Peters voice so as to be mistaken for him; but it is his spirit, - himself indeed, but not in the body - it is his ghost, who has come representing him. It was a foolish explanation, but it was the best they could think of.
Now turn to Matthew xviii :io, "Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven." This has been assumed to teach that every individual has a guardian angel. I doubt the fact; and this Scripture certainly does not justify it, for it is not true, in any event of all; but characterizes these little ones only. Nor are the "little ones" synonymous with believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, the disciples would not thus despise each other; and it was a veritable child that stood in their midst. But these little ones in their dependence and helplessness, the little place they fill or the little account that is made of them in this world, their simplicity and trustfulness - it is this spirit that is the "angel" that represents them before, and secures the interest and solicitude of the Father of the Lord Jesus. Automatically, as the spirit of the little one develops, and grows up to self confidence, self dependence, rejection of the truth as to his helpless condition, as alas, in the evil trend of human nature, "little ones" but too often do, they take their lot into their own hands and the "angel" in that proportion disappears; otherwise adults as well, and not the "little ones" only, would have an angel in heaven; and this would cease to be the peculiar dignity of the little one alone, as it evidently is here. In new birth and by constant conversions (not by a single one), we learn more and more the absolute dependence of our life, and thus again become "as little children," and sing "Our Times are in Thy Hand, Father, we wish them there."
To turn the light of these Scriptures on the word "Angel" as used in our verse in Revelation; it is not a personal entity, any more than in the case of a little child; not a literal individual, any more than in the case of Peter. It is the ideal spirit that characterizes (and rules, as the stars are rulers of the night) the church; and, as personified, stands as the representative of each church before the Lord here, and whom He addresses; and even in addressing, it is "what the Spirit said to the ie., we are thus specifically told, that "the angels" are not separate and distinct actual persons, for they disappear at the end of each letter, but each one is the spirit that is, at the time, governing or characterizing each church. Just as we now say, in ordinary language, "a company of people is characterized by a missionary spirit," or "such and such a church is governed by an aggressive gospel spirit."
Now no one could truly discern the actual condition of each church - could recognize its "angel," but He whose eyes are as a flame of fire, and He addresses each in exactly that character that their condition demands, - as we shall see later if the Lord will.*
*But some may ask, "Does not the first chapter of Hebrews clearly authorize the idea of guardianship of angels; are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister to them that shall be heirs of salvationf" I reply, Most surely there is no thought of individual guardianship there. It gives angels, who are the highest of created ranks, a place of service as in contrast with the uncreated glories of the Son. All, even the highest archangel, are servants, and so must all ever be, except the Creator Himself. They are servants sent forth to serve those who are the objects of the Sons salvation. Thus is the glory of the Lord Jesus enhanced; the highest of created Intelligences are at the service of those who are the objects of His salva~tion. There is nothing about individual guardianship in it; nor indeed must we let anything rival the Lord Jesus in our thoughts or hearts. He alone, and His most gracious ministry is "better" than even that which was so highly appreciated by the Hebrews of old, the ministry of angels.
Returning to the candlesticks, or lamp-stand, it clearly represents the church on earth as the vessel of the testimony of God. Each separate lamp- stand, as here seen, is on its own base, that is in its individual responsibility. Whatever condition one is in does not necessarily affect the other; one may be approved, another may be blamed, one thay be removed, another may be left. It is not, if one be blamed, all are blamed; or if one removed, all are removed.
The view that sees only the unity of the one church, when looked at in every connection, is thus one-sided and becomes in application, positive error; for there is such a thing as local responsibility as there is individual responsibility, and this is seen here. Indeed, responsibility is necessarily local. Can there be true responsibility and consequent accounting for what is beyond the ken altogether? Does He ever judge thus? There were, and are, sins of ignorance - nor can God lower His standard to human ignorance - nor do His children desire it - but these were all of quite a different character from making one responsible for what another, somewhere else, did. The recovery of the truth of the vital organic unity of the church, which is so denied by the multitude of sects all around, has eventuated in the pendulum swinging so far in the other direction, as practically to nullify every other truth, and every other aspect in which the church is regarded in the Scripture.
We are told that Achans sin brought punishment on the whole of Israel, therefore one sin brings its penalty on the whole church. But it is hardly just to put it in this way. When Israel first crossed Jordan, God was with her as a unit: Achans sin affected that unit, and God could not be with His people with sin, unknown though it was, in their midst. He Himself divinely, and without the slightest possibility of error, makes it known, first showing it by the defeat of Ai, and then the guilty, and ONLY the guilty one, is punished by stoning. If this case is parallel, it must be carried out consistently in every single feature. The whole of Israel must represent the whole of the Lords people now, not a single section of them, and next there must be the same divine wisdom and prescience that excludes all possibility of error, in the discovery of, and the putting away of, the evil-doer. We read of nothing of this kind at the end of Israels history. Quite the reverse, and it is vain for us who are living at a similar end, to affect the powers of the first fresh morning. Not one word of this is written as apology for, or in defence of the slightest degree of any communion of the slightest charac ter, with positive clearly revealed wickedness, or indifference to any degree of evil; but on the other hand, let us take the lesson afforded by these seven lamp-stands, each on its own base, and the seven letters written to seven churches, each needing a different word, for it is here we may learn the Lords mind, as to His churches and their government.
Chapter Six - yet to be loaded...
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