Consecutive Only, or Concurrent? a Question About the Four Last Churches

 •  15 min. read  •  grade level: 10
It is God's prerogative to declare the end from the beginning- on several occasions has He done this. In both the Old and in the New Testament we meet with it.
Israel's history has thus been traced out, and that in a double way. Jacob, on his dying bed, foretold the political fortunes of that people. (Gen. 49) The Lord, in the arrangement of their ecclesiastical calendar, traced out in order His dealings with them in grace. (Lev. 23)
But there are other interests dear to God's heart of which the word speaks- the kingdom in which the Son of His love will be displayed as His King; and the church through which God's all-various wisdom is now made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenlies. Of the glories of the kingdom, and of the previous humiliation of the King, the Old Testament prophets have sung. But between these events a great gap is found in time. The Lord's humiliation has ended for eighteen centuries. The establishment of the kingdom in power is still a matter of the future. Of truth about the kingdom during this long gap in time the Old Testament can tell us little. It is here that the parables of the kingdom, all given us by the Lord Jesus Christ, come in, supplying, like the pieces of a child's puzzle map, what was wanted to make the picture complete. With these parables the outline about God's kingdom becomes. complete.
But side by side in the New Testament, with the truth about the kingdom, we have another revelation of and concerning the church, which, though heavenly in character, as the complement of Him who is its Head, and His bride likewise, has nevertheless an earthly history, ere it enters into its full relations with Christ as the wife of the Lamb. Of the church's earthly history we have in measure an outline given us by Christ Himself in the addresses to the seven churches in Asia, recorded in the prophetical book of the New Testament, the Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto Him to show to His servants things which must shortly come to pass. This outline is prophetic in character. It does not describe the rise and spread of the church in apostolic days. That one must look for in the Acts, and in the historical notices of the work found in the epistles. Nor have we, it should be remarked, in any of these seven different addresses the planting of these churches described. God's assembly had evidently existed for a time in each of these towns, ere the Lord addressed them to state what He saw was their then condition, and to show how He would minister to souls in such different states, warning and encouraging as was needed.
The order in which these churches are noticed is the order in which, starting from Ephesus, one might have visited them, passing on through Smyrna northward to Pergamos, and then returning southward by Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia, till Laodicea was reached. But another reason there evidently was for writing to them in this order, which none but He, who sees the end from the beginning, could then have known; for the state of these different assemblies, illustrative of the church' condition, we now learn, and as the number seven intimates, would comprise a full outline of its history from apostolic days to the Lord's return. Yet surely till our day that could not have been fully understood.
All these assemblies were, it is clear, co-existing, though when a church was planted in most of these places is hidden from us; for with the exception of the first and last named assemblies, namely, Ephesus and Laodicea, we only learn in scripture of the existence of the others from the mention of them in the book of the Revelation. All of them, however, then co-existing, all of them together made up the "things that are " of Rev. 1:1919Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter; (Revelation 1:19), distinct from the things that shall be after these. On this point the word is definite. John was to write the things that are, and the things that shall be after these (ἃ μέλλει γίνεσθαι μετὰ ταῦτα). He performed his task as regards the first in Rev. 2, 3. He was then told to come up by the Voice which spake to him (Rev. 4:1), surely the same as that of Rev. 1:1010I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, (Revelation 1:10), to see what must be after these (ἃ δεῖ γενέσθαι μετὰ ταῖτα). The seven churches then are the things that are, the dealing in judgment with the world (Rev. 4-20.) comprises the things that must be after these. Not that the church as a visible professing body would necessarily cease to exist on earth ere the events described in (Rev. 4-20.) would begin to take place; but after the commencement of events, which start from Rev. 4, that on earth would be no longer owned as the assembly of God. Hence the phases of church history, illustrated by the condition of these seven assemblies, and in the order in which they are taken up, must all appear as phases of the Christian assembly, ere the door is opened in heaven. A word will make this plain. In Rev. 1:1313And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. (Revelation 1:13) the Lord is seen as the Son of man, in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, amongst which He walked (Rev. 2:11Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; (Revelation 2:1)), and delivered His judgment of each, and to all of them. In the vision of Rev. 4. 5. He is seen as the Lamb in the midst of the throne, no longer on earth, for what He owned as the church was no longer here, but in heaven.
But here a question comes in. Granted what has been said, Are these phases consecutive in existence only, or are there any two or more of them concurrent likewise? Consecutive they are and must necessarily be as to their appearance, but they need not be, as in fact we learn they are not, consecutive only in existence.
In the address to the angel in Thyatira; we meet for the first time with the notice of the Lord's coming, "That which ye have already, hold fast till I come." (Rev. 2:2525But that which ye have already hold fast till I come. (Revelation 2:25).) This hope is spoken of not to the overcomer, though "the rest" of Rev. 2. 25 did surely overcome. It is a hope set before those who were already keeping Christ's works. We get the two, the overcomer and the one originally faithful addressed together, yet distinguished.
And he that overcometh, and he that keepeth my works to the end. (Καὶ ὁ νικῶν καὶ ὁ τηρῶν.) The overcomer in Thyatira would share with the keeper of Christ's works to the end, as the overcomer in Sardis would share with the one who had always kept his garments undefiled. "He that overcometh shall thus be clothed." (Rev. 3:55He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. (Revelation 3:5).) It is plain, then, from Rev. 2:2626And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: (Revelation 2:26) that there will be the Jezebel character of evil continuing, and those called "the rest" till the Lord comes. The Thyatiran phase, therefore, goes on to the Lord's coming in the air for His own, it being the first of the seven phases of the church history of which we read, that it will continue to that date. And we may now see, viewing these epistles in their prophetic order, that the Lord intimated that the Thyatiran phase of things must appear ere He would come. Yet He expresses it in such a way, that none then could have said, "He will not come in our day."
Thyatira, viewed as illustrative of a phase in the church's history, takes in the whole professing church before the Reformation, being the last of those addresses which viewed the church as a whole. It was characterized by corruption in doctrine, whilst the godly manifested themselves by their works. So it is works the Lord dwells on with approval, not doctrine or word. Jezebel most likely signifies the papacy. But as the papacy, though most conspicuous, did not overrun the whole area of the professing body, one can see why, in addressing the angel as responsible for Jezebel's influence being permitted in the assembly, the Lord, nevertheless, distinguished him throughout from her. Of her deeds, that of her children, and that of those who committed fornication with her, we read in Rev. 2:20-2320Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. 21And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. 22Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. 23And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works. (Revelation 2:20‑23). All this is about Jezebel, viewed as distinct from the angel, though suffered by him, so that she taught, &c. The Lord, addressing the angel, says, "I will give unto every one of you according to his works." (Ver. 23.) Here the angel, it appears, comes in for judgment.
Following on the Thyatiran phase comes the Sardian. Not that the former had or has ceased, but the Lord had worked in a new way, recovering truth at the Reformation. The Sardian phase is consequent on the recovery of truth, but when that truth had ceased generally to have power over the consciences of those who professed to hold it. For, as we have already remarked, in none of these addresses have we the state of the assembly as just founded, but its state after it has had time to be proved whether it would continue faithful or not. Thenceforward there are two phases of the church concurrent, namely, unreformed churches on the one hand, and reformed churches on the other. Now these, as we see, continue, and we learn will continue to the close of the true church's existence on earth.
A third phase- necessarily from its character, more recent in appearance- is illustrated by the church in Philadelphia. Here there is no call to repentance as in Sardis, but the angel is exhorted to hold fast what he has, that no man take his crown. (Rev. 3:1111Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. (Revelation 3:11).) In this address he is identified with the whole assembly; no faithful ones being now viewed, as in the two previous addresses, distinct from him. Here, too, for the first time have we the promise of the church being kept out of the tribulation. (Rev. 3:1010Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. (Revelation 3:10).) To the overcomer, and to the faithful in Thyatira this is implied (Rev. 2: 28), but here only is it assured to the whole company, and that not conditionally. It is an unconditional promise addressed to them all, because they had kept the word of Christ's patience, though at the same time they are told they must persevere to the end. Beyond the rapture then, as regards earth, this phase of the church's history does not continue. What characterizes Philadelphian condition is faithfulness to Christ, His word, His name, His patience. In a word, the principle which characterized the saints in Thyatira and in Sardis, faithfulness to Christ—His works in Thyatira, keeping the garment undefiled in Sardis- is the principle descriptive of the whole company in Philadelphia.
After this comes the last phase, the Laodicean- profession without reality. Nothing had they which the soul needed, to have part with Christ. No sense was there of anything lacking, nor any intelligence of the condition they were in consequent on the fall. Gold, raiment, eyesalve, all three is the angel exhorted to buy (for this the right reading ἐγχρίσαι "to anoint," not ἔγχρισον, makes plain), he being described, representing the assembly, as the wretched and the miserable one, and poor, and blind, and naked. But it is said that the Lord's words in Rev. 3: 19 prove the existence of saints within the assembly. As regards the assembly in John's day the existence of such would be proved by their opening the door to the Lord Jesus. On that of course we can say nothing, for nothing has been declared about it. But His words, it should be observed, are addressed to the angel, as the Lord goes on to say, "Be thou zealous, therefore, and repent." His Christless condition, as representing that of the assembly in general, had been already plainly declared. A conclusion then drawn from those words as to the certainty of the existence of real Christians there would prove too much, for then the angel, and the mass there, must be thus regarded. "As many as I love [φιλὤ] I rebuke and chasten." Compare this with the language to the angel in Philadelphia, "They shall know that I have loved [ἠγάπησά σε] thee." The Lord would let all understand that He loved him, and those represented by him. To the Laodicean angel He speaks differently. It is an abstract statement, His way of dealing with those in whom He feels personal interest. He does not say, "I love thee," nor does He employ the word ἀγαπάω, commonly used of divine love flowing out in grace, but φιλέω, only twice elsewhere used of such affection to saints. (John 16:2727For the Father himself loveth you, because ye have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God. (John 16:27); 20. 2.) Addressing this last church on the ground of its profession, the Lord explains why He thus spoke. It was from the love of His heart, and He expresses His personal interest in the everlasting welfare of souls. But how carefully, it seems, He guards against telling the angel He loved him, or the assembly. But when should this phase of the church's condition appear? Necessarily subsequent to the appearance of the Philadelphian phase, for it is its counterfeit unmasked by Christ. Necessarily, too, must it appear before the rapture, for historically the Laodicean phase ends with the assembly being spued out of Christ's mouth. What becomes of that which is spued out is another matter. The land of Canaan would spue out Israel, its inhabitants, under certain conditions (Lev. 18:28; 20:2228That the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you. (Leviticus 18:28)
22Ye shall therefore keep all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them: that the land, whither I bring you to dwell therein, spue you not out. (Leviticus 20:22)
), as it did the old inhabitants. (Lev. 18:2525And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:25).) God's final dealings with both the one and the other were a different matter. So with the assembly in Laodicea. It would be rejected as nauseous by Christ. And certainly what He would spue out, He would never take back, or accept, either in whole or in part.
At length, then, we have four phases of the church's history on earth all concurrent; unreformed and reformed churches, which, in these two aspects, together comprise all Christendom. Then those who are for Christ in truth, and value Him, and those who are for Him only in name. In a word, we have in these four last churches, the church, viewed in an ecclesiastical aspect, namely, unreformed and reformed assemblies, and viewed also in a moral aspect, real Christians and mere professors.
All these seven assemblies co-existed in John's day. There can be then nothing incongruous in any two or more of them co-existing when viewed as phases of the church's earthly history. Now these last four are so viewed, for beyond the Lord's coming, first met with in the body of the address to the angel in Thyatira, we have nothing historically of a later date in the body of the addresses to the angel in Philadelphia, or in Laodicea. Of course the promises to the overcomer carry us in time beyond earth. But in the body of each address, which views the assembly as on earth, and the Lord expressing His judgment of its condition, there is nothing historically later in Philadelphia than the rapture (Rev. 3:10, 1110Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. 11Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. (Revelation 3:10‑11)), and the consequent spueing out of His mouth of the Laodicean assembly. (Rev. 3:1616So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:16).) In Sardis, on the contrary, the event in history yet to be made good, of which the Lord speaks in the body of that address, is judgment on the professing church with the world. In Thyatira, Philadelphia, and Laodicea the event contemplated is that mentioned in 1 Thess. 4:16,1716For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:16‑17), whilst the event contemplated in Sardis is mentioned in 1 Thess. 5. For the announcement of Jezebel's doom, and that of her children, are merely facts, awfully solemn ones surely, but without any date affixed to them to acquaint us with the time of their accomplishment. Now if these different phases were only consecutive, and not at all concurrent, how comes it that in Sardis we historically look on to a later date than to any that we have in the body of the addresses to the angel in Philadelphia and in Laodicea? In Laodicea it is simply rejection, though in the most decided way, without anything being there said as to what will be done with that which is rejected. In Sardis the language implies more than that, and carries us on to a later date.
Looking abroad in this day, what do we find? Christendom divided into unreformed and reformed churches. But the question of the day in both parts of the church is not, "To which do we belong?" but "Is each one really for Christ or not?" One need not here particularize instrumentalities which God is now using, but go where one will in Christendom, where God is working, the question raised with souls is surely this, "Are you a Christian in name or in reality?" and that nothing less than the latter will meet the Lord's approval. Viewing the church in its moral aspect, one sees why no date appears in the body of the two last churches beyond that moment, when the Lord will settle whom He will have by separating, through the rapture, the one class from the other. Viewing the churches in their ecclesiastical aspect, it is equally plain that outwardly reformed churches will be found on earth after the rapture, awaiting their doom with the world; and hence why the date in the address to the angel in Sardis looks on to something later than the rapture.
In Thyatira the Lord first speaks of His coming for His saints, so that phase, one sees, must have come into existence before He would come for His own. In Philadelphia He again speaks of that coming, so that phase must be also in existence before He comes. In Laodicea He gives us nothing beyond it. So as that last phase is now confessedly in existence, how near may be that hour for which we are taught to wait! C. E. S.