The Prophetical Addresses to the Seven Churches: Lecture 1

LECTURE 1
BEFORE entering into the detail of the addresses to the seven churches, of which it is my purpose to speak, it would be well to say a few words as to the general character of the book in which they are found. It is exceedingly important that we should get a right and distinct apprehension of certain great principles which run through the whole book of Revelation, or we shall not understand what God is spoken of in it as doing. And here, remember that it is from Scripture alone that we gather what the purpose of God is, and what God is about in doing what He does, and in doing it as He does.
The first chapter introduces the whole book. It is a revelation given to Jesus Christ to show unto His servants things which must come to pass preparatory to the appearing of Christ. It is a wonderful thought that God should make such communications, as is also the way in which He does it. For God cannot write as man does, merely to recount what interests or affects the passions of men. But when God writes, it is in order to bring out something by which to test our souls, and bring them into fellowship with Himself. Take the gospels for instance. They are not written merely to give an historical account of Christ when down here, but to unfold to our souls God's purposes and ways of grace, in the work and Person of His Son. And it is only as we thus learn what God's thoughts and ways are, that we are able to understand what God is doing in any part of His ways.
The book of Revelation is a book of judgment all through. God is revealed in the book, as one about to execute judgment. This applies to the church itself, as seen in chapters 2 and 3. It is seen on the earth-subject to judgment. The prophecy may speak of the things which are under judgment, and of the means by which judgment may be averted; but still it is all through judicial, if we except the description of the glorious state of the church as the heavenly Jerusalem. But, even so, it is the case even as regards the church, when active, as she appears on white horses in chapter 19. Until we get hold of this truth clearly in our minds, the intention of the book can never be understood.
Then, again, we do not find the name of Father in this book in connection with the saints. The Father is spoken of in connection with Christ (chap. 2: 27; chap. 3: 5, 21), but this only confirms the remark in the text. It is used also in chapter 14: 1, where the name of the Lamb's Father is written on the foreheads of the hundred and forty-four thousand, and even then it is His Father, though His name be on their foreheads; neither is there the relationship of the bride, the Lamb's wife, until the marriage of the Lamb is spoken of as taking place. The system and relationships in the book of Revelation are of another character altogether. It is God dealing with what is on the earth, according to the responsibility. This simple thought prevents very many mistakes. And further, it is not only judicial in its character, but judgment connected with the earth-that is, that men are responsible upon earth for that which is committed to their trust. So that, if even the church is spoken of in this book as being on the earth, its responsibility is the subject spoken of, and as such it comes under judgment. Thus you get the earth as its subject.
The next important remark is, that the whole character of the book is prophetic. " Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear, the words of this prophecy." And even when the seven churches are addressed, the language is prophetic. It is not so in the various epistles in the previous part of the New Testament. They are communications addressed to the churches or saints, directing their present conduct in the relationship in which God in grace had set them with Himself and the Lord Christ.
I say these addresses are prophetic; that is, they are the announcement of results and consequences which would come upon those to whom they apply, as forming a public body, in the way of judgment-not the ministration of grace and direction in a sure and subsisting relationship as to which no change is suffered. It is not a present blessing intended for the speaker, and those who would receive it at the time as having ears to hear. We see this same difference in the Old Testament prophets and in the prophetic passages scattered through the epistles. If you look into 1 Peter 1:11, 1211Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. 12Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into. (1 Peter 1:11‑12), you will see what I mean. " Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things." This is the proper character of prophecy. It is addressed to one and intended for others. It does not say, as the Holy Ghost in the epistles-" us"; it is a revelation of things future. A prophet did not prophesy about himself. The Spirit of Christ reveals to the prophet things about others, and not about Himself. The difference afterward is, that these same things were reported to the saints by them that had preached the gospel with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven. When the Holy Ghost is speaking in the saints, He reveals the things of which He speaks as belonging to themselves; and therefore it is that when the Holy Ghost speaks in the saints, He constantly says " us." We do not find this little word " us " in the same connection anywhere in the Old Testament. " He hath loved us and washed us "-" to the glory of God by us "-" who hath blessed us "-" according as he hath chosen us "- " having predestinated us "-" who hath delivered us "- " and hath raised us up together, and hath made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus." It is not merely showing things to come. When the Holy Ghost shows any of the things of Christ, He includes all saints-" that we may be able to comprehend with all saints." In a word, the Holy Ghost, thus speaking takes in all saints, as now associated in the blessing, and appropriates all that God has given us " in Christ Jesus." Only it is not all enjoyed yet, so that we have still to hope to the end " for the grace that is to be brought unto us at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
We have here three steps: first, the Spirit of prophecy in times past ministering in the prophets not unto themselves; secondly, the Holy Ghost sent down to announce the salvation; thirdly, He becomes the seal, the earnest, the anointing, by which our portion is known and enjoyed, as the Spirit of expectancy, because while here in the body we have not actually got that we shall have. We have the earnest, but we wait for the adoption, to wit, " the redemption of the body." Still, the Spirit of God, as dwelling in the church, in His proper church character, gives the consciousness of the present enjoyment of what He reveals in those two emphatic words " us " and " we."
We saw very lately, in speaking on Heb. 9, that at the end of the age Christ was taken up into heaven, and while He is up there, before He returns to this earth again, a work is going on by the Holy Ghost, a body is being gathered and associated with Him-the Head in heaven at God's right hand, as in Psalm 110. " Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thy foes thy footstool." In virtue of the Head being thus exalted to the right hand of God, He sends down the Holy Ghost to gather a body to be identified with Him in glory, to have the same glory as Himself, to be members of His flesh and of His bones. Here is the proper church character of the Spirit; not prophecy, not the communication of what is to happen on earth to others, but the seal, earnest, and assurance of blessings which are our own, testifying how God hath blessed us-not somebody else-and abiding with us till Christ come. Then, blessed be God, there is not a particle of the precious dust of His redeemed that will be left behind; for " he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit," and Christ will take the whole man, spirit, soul, and body, to the fullest enjoyment with Himself forever.
When the Spirit of God comes to be a prophetic Spirit, it is quite a different thing. His testimony must be applied to an earthly thing. He never prophesies about heaven. If the Holy Ghost comes and says, All the glory in heaven is yours, this is not a prophecy of some event—i.e., a revelation. In one sense we are there. We realize our fellowship in heavenly places, while waiting down here for the accomplishment of all to take place, waiting for the redemption of the body.
But when I come down to the earth to think of the earth, even if I have to deal with the church, however sure its everlasting privileges viewed in its true character, it is before me as a responsible body on the earth-" the things which are " responsible according to the measure of the privileges in which it is left down here.
And it is of the last importance to keep fast hold of this truth, or we shall not understand the actings of God. The Holy Ghost dwelling in the church associates me with Christ. If righteousness is the question, I am the righteousness of God in Him; if life, He is my life; if glory, He says, " the glory which thou gavest me I have given them." All that He has is ours, save and except His Godhead, in which there is no need of course to say that He is, as regards us, alone.2 All that Christ has belongs to me, for " he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit." Prophecy could not deal with this, for it was a mystery, hid from ages and generations, hid in God; but by the Holy Ghost it has now been told out that the living church is in living union at this present time with Christ, at God's right hand in heaven-Christ, the Head, in heaven-the church, the members, on the earth. The Old Testament saints could not talk about a man in heaven having members on the earth. Members on the earth would have had no meaning for them; and Christ must have been rejected from the earth before I could talk of His being as the Head in heaven, having members on the earth. When I get down to prophecy, then I get the church let into the knowledge of what God is going to do on the earth.
When the churches are addressed in Rev. 2 and 3, the Spirit never speaks of grace flowing down from the Head to the members of the body; and even when we see the saints on high, they are presented, not as one body, but as separate worshippers, having an object in heaven to worship, kings and priests to God. Indeed, the Spirit does not speak of the church as the body of Christ in these addresses, but of certain companies in certain circumstances, and not as members of a body, nor of the living power of grace working down here to produce blessing; but of the conduct of those who have enjoyed the advantages of this grace when they had been set in this place of blessing. It does not speak of what the church is, but of what the church has done. It is not the church's condition as set in grace by the power of the Holy Ghost (for the Holy Ghost which had put them there is not spoken of as working, or dwelling in them); it is the church's responsibility. You will not find all through, as I said before, the Father's love to the children, nor yet the Holy Ghost, as the soul (so to speak) of the body, linking it to the Head, nor the power of grace, of which the marriage of the Lamb is the grand result. But it is the church in a given condition on the earth, subject to judgment. There is nothing here about union with Christ. But we find this-the testimony of what Christ is to each state of things spoken of-His present judgment of which He reveals. This makes it very simple and easy of apprehension, and also full of profit to our souls in the way of warning; while the privileges in which we are set are the spring of all blessing, which makes it so true that " the joy of the Lord is our strength."
But what we do get in Rev. 1:11The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: (Revelation 1:1) is very precious and full of instruction. " The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass." Now this, evidently, is not Christ as the Head of the body in heaven, the Holy Ghost working in the members, to edify that body. In the epistles that relationship and position are clearly brought out. But here it is the revelation which God gave to Christ to show (not to the sons, but) to His servants things which must shortly come to pass. Again, this is not the Holy Ghost, as in the epistle to the Ephesians, bringing down instruction to the children and the bride, and showing them their relationships to the Father and the Bridegroom, but it is a revelation to servants of things that are coming to pass on the earth, " and he sent and signified it by an angel." The ministration of angels thus comes in, showing the prophetic character of this passage. Observe, further, that this is not the unfolding of the riches of Christ Himself by the Holy Ghost, but a message by an angel. Verse 2, " Who bare record "-not of fellowship in Christ, or of the fullness of Christ-but " of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ." The testimony of Jesus Christ is not His fullness, but His witness borne to something else. And mark here how we have now got down to events on the earth (and these are never the fullness of Christ in heaven); we must get our minds clear on this point. Verse 3. Then there is the promised blessing to those that read and hear this prophecy.
Verse 4. " Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne." The grace and peace here are not from the Father and the Son, but from Jehovah. The salutation, especially as regards the Holy Ghost, is not the same thing as in 2 Cor. 13:1414The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen. <<The second epistle to the Corinthians was written from Philippi, a city of Macedonia, by Titus and Lucas.>> (2 Corinthians 13:14), although, no doubt, the seven Spirits allude to the Holy Ghost, the number seven being the symbol of perfection in its diversified power. The title here given to the Spirit is in connection with the display of the power and intelligence with which the earth is governed. (Compare chap. 5: 6.)
Verse 5. " And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth." " And from Jesus Christ "-Christ is the last mentioned of the three, as showing how entirely He is brought out here in connection with the government of the earth. " The faithful witness "-the one who infallibly showed out what God is, and indeed all truth, when He was on the earth. " The first begotten from the dead "-this is the power of the resurrection " from the dead " down here. " The Prince of the kings of the earth "-His place in power over all dominion here below, a place He has yet to take as to actual possession of it. He is not here called " the Son of the Father," nor yet spoken of as the Head of the body, the church; nor yet as the Lamb in the midst of the throne, but as the Prince of the kings of the earth, thus showing that it is simply His connection with the earth that is taken up here.
But then, mark, the moment Christ is mentioned, how the heart of the church goes out with the joy of its own proper and personal relationship with that Christ: " unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father." This never fails; when Christ is spoken of, no matter what the subject is, He is still our Christ, with whom we are livingly associated, so that it is impossible to hear His name only without its drawing forth the response of the soul, and the acknowledgment of what Christ is to it. If I think of the judgment even, and of Him as the Judge, I say, " I am associated with Him "; in all things He is my Christ. If in this life the wife of some eminent man saw him coming, she would naturally say, There comes my husband, because her own relationship is in her thoughts, and first in them. So of the church with Christ, whatever character He is revealed in. So it is at the end of the book, when the prophetic part is closed, we find another response of the same kind; the moment He says, " I am the bright and morning star," instantly the church responds according to her hope in Him, and says, Come. " The Spirit and the bride say, Come." And so should it ever be with us: Christ Himself should be filling up every thought and affection of the heart. It is just this that gives its value to every character of testimony to Christ, to every part of His glory. That which concerns Christ concerns me, whatever the immediate subject may be. If my heart is occupied with Himself who possesses the coming glory, unless I find Him in the glory, the glory itself would be nothing to me. I always want something that concerns Christ; and because it concerns Christ, it must necessarily concern me. It is perfectly true that some subjects, even connected with our Lord, are more interesting than others, and that in proportion as they bring us into closer connection with Himself.
The crown of Jesus in that day will be composed of many diadems, and each one, though worn in respect of others than the church, will form part of our joy, because part of His glory, for we should be unhappy if we thought He could lose any part of His crown and glory. Our joy does not only consist in the knowledge of individual salvation, as our individual salvation is not the end of our joy. Although, blessed be God, it is the beginning to us, there is not one thing, however apparently disconnected with it, that can ever lose its value in the eyes of a saint, viewed in its connection with the glory of Christ. We may see this carried out at the deathbed of a Christian; if Christ Himself has been his joy, all that belongs to Him will be precious. If the soul has been merely occupied with the work of Christ, in bringing salvation to itself, there will be peace, because it knows salvation; but if the Person of Christ has become the object of affection and the soul is occupied with Himself, such a one has a constant spring within of joy, as well as settled peace; for when Christ is the personal object to the soul, it possesses a joy which the mere fact of knowing we are saved (blessed as it may be) will not continuously give. If Christ fill the heart, it will not be merely that I am happy because I am saved, but the thought of Him to whom I am going will fill my soul with joy. It is true that I am going to heaven, but the thought that makes heaven a heaven to my soul is, that Christ Himself is there; there is some one to go to. The Person I have loved on earth, I am going to be with in heaven. And thus it is always expressed in Scripture. For the spirit, it is departing and being with Christ.
From the very beginning of the book the church is put in a separate place; her priestly place is in heaven (outside the sphere of the action of this book, or rather inside, within the veil) above, in the place from whence the book came. Such, then, as speaking on earth in verse 5, are the church's thoughts" unto him that loved us." There is no question of judgment: He " hath loved us "; no uncertainty as to condition: He hath " washed us from our sins in his own blood." The believer's place is no longer a question when the prophetic witness of the book begins. Christ hath died and is risen again, " and hath made us kings and priests," which titles we get without our responsibility bringing them into question. Responsibilities we have, but Jesus hath washed us, and we are conscious of the place in which we are set, having the answer of the heart in which the Holy Ghost dwells.
The place of the church is unquestionably settled before anything else is unfolded. This same principle is more elaborately brought out in Eph. 1 The church is first of all placed in the very same acceptance that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself is, before it is shown the " mystery of his will." This is not prophecy, but the church being placed, as Christ Himself, to be the reflection of His glory. First, thus " accepted in the beloved," God then, in the aboundings of His grace in wisdom and prudence towards her, lets her into the secret of His thoughts and purposes as to the glory of Christ, in gathering together in one all things in Him.
The Spirit closes it all with an Amen, and now begins with the earth, and speaks of the effect of Christ's coming on the inhabitants of it.
Verse 7. " Behold, he cometh with clouds, and every eye shall see him, and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him." Not so the church. I am not going to wail when I see Christ. Ah! how my face will brighten when I first get a glimpse of Him; though, alas! if our affections are not right, it cannot be a present joy to think of being caught up to meet Him. And here I would ask, Is there anything allowed that would make you wish the Lord's coming delayed, any mere natural affection even that comes in, turning the eye and the heart away? If the heart is wrapped up in Christ, and we feel what it is to be in such a world, not of toil merely, but of sin, what a thought to be with Christ out of it! Surely there is not a chord in the heart of the saint that does not vibrate exactly contrary to the feelings of those whose eyes shall see Him and wail! And yet the positive hope, the joy of seeing and being with Himself, is a yet fuller and more abiding source of joy than deliverance itself. When I say, " Every eye shall see him," then it is wailing with the poor world; but when I say, " My eye shall see him," then every feeling of my soul will bound up with joy-the very opposite of wailing. Am I looking even only to be spared? Did not Christ say, " I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and receive you unto myself? " which was really saying, " This world is not good enough for you; I cannot stay with you here, where sin and sorrow are stamped on all around; but when the place is prepared, I will come and take you to be with me where I am." What an entire difference between the two aspects of the coming of the Lord!
Verse 8. After seeing His glory and dominion we get the glory of His Person, " The Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending "-the Almighty. It is not the Father here. What a difference between looking for what the Almighty One will do upon the earth, and being taken up to my Father's house and talking of what my Father is for us there!
There are three great names in which God reveals Himself to man. Firstly, to Abraham, in Gen. 17 " I am the Almighty God [El Shaddai], walk before me and be thou perfect." It was like saying, I am the Almighty: therefore do thou trust in me. What is called perfection is a response to the character in which God is revealed to us. " He suffered no man to do them harm, and reproved even kings for their sakes," Psa. 105:1414He suffered no man to do them wrong: yea, he reproved kings for their sakes; (Psalm 105:14).
Secondly, when He comes to Israel He takes another name. In Exodus we find Him revealing Himself to them as Jehovah, the ever-existing One, going on to accomplish all His promises.
Thirdly, to the saints now, it is as Father. They are taken into connection with the Almighty and Eternal Jehovah, in the relationship of children to a father, in the enjoyment of eternal life imparted to them. " I will be a Father unto you... saith the Lord Almighty." Hence we cannot answer to this revelation but by the spirit of adoption, and being really children, and possessing the nature and Spirit of Him who is our Father. Hence it is not said, as in the case of the titles, Almighty and Jehovah, " Be ye perfect with "; but when the Father's name is revealed, which Christ has done, " Be ye perfect as." We do not trust Him as strangers; we walk with and like Him as children. So that it is as Father that we know Him, who is Almighty; and Christ says, it is eternal life to know the Father and Himself. Again, " He that hath seen me hath seen the Father "; and again, " He that killeth you will think that he doeth God service; and this they will do, because they have not known the Father nor me." They think they are serving God when they are killing God's children; but the Father and the Son they do not know. We have seen that this title of " Father " is not that in which God is revealed in the Revelation; He is in those of Almighty and Jehovah.
Verses 9-13. " I John... was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ." Mark again, here, the character that Christ takes in connection with the seven churches, as well as with the world. It is not as the Head of the body, as the source of grace to His members below, but as one walking in the midst of something outside Himself, and pronouncing His judgment on their external state. Verse 13. We see, though Christ here is revealed as the Son of man, He is also Jehovah, and bears all the characteristics of the Ancient of days in Dan. 7 " His head and his hairs were white like wool." In Daniel, the Son of man is brought to the Ancient of days. In Revelation3 I: 14, He is shown as Himself the Ancient of days, " His eyes were as a flame of fire " to pierce into the heart in judgment. " God is a consuming fire." " And out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword "-thus holding all authority with the sword of judgment.
Verses 17, 18. " And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. He saith unto me, Fear not, I am the first and the last; I am he that liveth and was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore." It is wondrously encouraging to the soul to think that He that is divine, the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, besides whom there is no God, is the very One who went down under the power of death for my sins, and then, by rising again without them, has not only forever put away every sin, but has delivered me from him who had (and justly too) the power of death, that is, the devil, and brought me up into the very presence of God. He " once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God." It is this which gives such settled peace to the soul; for if I have come to God, I have nothing more to seek. " He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." If my soul has seen Christ dying on the cross for its sins, I have met God there also in the solemn question of judgment; and then I have come to God through a dead and living Christ; and having come to God Himself, I have got all that earth below or heaven above can give me. For this meekest, this lowliest One, who was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, is the very God to whom I have been brought, and that now without the least spot of sin which could make me ashamed in His presence, so that I am with Him in perfect love, all cause of fear being forever removed; and He lives to reveal Himself to us in the power of an endless life.
Verse 19. To return to the prophetic part-we get here what is very important: the three great parts of the Book of the Revelation very distinctly stated. First, " the things which thou hast seen "-that is, Christ walking among the candlesticks. Secondly, " the things which are "-the time condition, or external state of the churches, or professing church on earth; not the eternal state and unchangeable privileges of the church, as the body of Christ. Thirdly, " the things which shall be hereafter "4—the prophetic things, the closing events in dealing with the world.
Chapter 4 shows the church in heaven. In speaking of the things that are, I do not (because Scripture does not) in any way allude to the eternal state of the church in its union with Christ, as its Head in grace, but to a time condition, an external state, of the church considered as responsible here below during a given period; and this time condition, this external state, judged in the seven churches. Again, I repeat, it is not our " spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ " that are spoken of here, but that in the midst of which Christ is walking, outside Himself on the earth. On earth He needs a candlestick-a light; not so in heaven, there is no need of a candlestick there-no candle there to give light, " for the glory of God doth lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof." But on earth He needs light-bearers, and therefore the character of candlesticks is given to the seven churches-to be the "light of the world." They are lighted from heaven, to give light on the earth, in the dark places below-to bear testimony to Christ, while He is away in heaven, hid in God. And it is to test these light-bearers, that Christ walks as the Son of man amidst the candlesticks. It is true that our life is hid with Christ in God; but while walking on the earth, we are to shine as lights in the world, the displayers of what heaven can produce-to be living in heaven while walking on the earth; as Jesus spoke of Himself when on the earth, " the Son of man which is in heaven."
Verse 20. " The mystery of the seven stars " gives the thought of power-subordinate power, and the angels5 are the symbolical representatives of the churches. Spiritual power, as representing Christ on earth, was what the church might have displayed. Throughout Scripture, superior power is symbolized by the sun, and subordinate power by the stars. The angel of anything means the representative of that which was not itself in presence there, as even the angel of Jehovah. So when Peter knocked at the door, it was said " This is his angel "; and of children, " their angels." For an illustration of what I mean, when Jacob had met the angel at Peniel, it is said, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed, but he called the place " the face of God." So Moses was with the angel in the bush. And in this way we have the angels of the seven churches.
Let us now take up the general idea. We have seen that we have not the church looked at here, as in union with Christ its Head; nor seen in its proper heavenly character (although that should be manifested by it), but in its time state, as under the eye of the Lord for judgment. Instead of Christ as the Head of the body, what is set forth here are the responsibilities attaching to the body in its time state, and certain conduct expected for privileges received. Nor is it the giving of these privileges, but the use we have made of these privileges which is treated of. Let us look at particular times of blessing to the church in illustration of this. The Reformation, for instance, was a work of God's Spirit; and God comes, as it were, looking to see what man has done with this His working-how men have used the blessing they then got through the revival of His truth, judging what use they are making of privileges then given them. What comes out of the three hundred years elapsed since the Spirit of God worked so mightily? The work of His own Son, the gospel of His grace, justification by faith, was, we know, that which then came out to light. What has this resulted in in the professing church? It is as though He had said, " What more could be done? I sowed good seed, I planted a choice vine, and now I have come for fruit; and where is it? " None of the seven churches consequently is viewed as the work of God in itself. What takes place is a judicial investigation, and God is not judging His own work (I need scarcely say), but man, on the ground of responsibility, according to that which he has received through that work.
I see in Scripture a complete and very definite distinction in speaking of the church of God. The sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow, was the testimony of the prophets before the Holy Ghost was sent down. Christ said, " On this rock I will build my church "; it was not yet formed. We do not get Christ as the Head in heaven, until redemption is an accomplished thing; I am not here speaking of individual salvation, but of the body of Christ. In Stephen we get another step: a man on earth, filled with the Holy Ghost, sees heaven opened, and the Son of man at the right hand of God. In Paul, again, is a yet further point-that is, union with Christ. Christians are members of Himself, and this is not merely by participation in His nature, partakers of the divine nature, but by the power in which He was raised, union by the Holy Ghost to Himself the Head: " Why persecutest thou me? " If my hand is hurt, I say I am hurt, for my hand is a part of me. But then there is another character which this body consequently has, it is " builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit." Now the church being the place where God dwells, and set on the earth for the manifestation of God's glory, God then comes to judge what the fruit of these privileges has been when put into man's hand. It is not the fact of the Holy Ghost dwelling in the church that is spoken of here, but the use that men have made of it.
There are two principles on which God always judges His people: first, their original state, the point from whence there has been departure, the blessing He began with; secondly, that point to which His ways are tending-the hope set before His people-the fitness for the blessing with which He is going to meet them at the close, on the manifestation of His presence.
We may take Israel, by way of example, as showing out the principle. In Isa. 5 God says, " What could have been done more for my vineyard that I have not done in it? " And then in chapter 6, where the glory of the Lord is seen, its manifestation proved, not only that the state of Israel did not answer to the blessing conferred upon them at starting (for Isaiah says, " I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips "), but that their state was not suited to the glory to which the Lord had taught them to look forward. The remnant according to grace are always preserved, while the rest are judged.
But to return to the condition of the church: the Lord first shows the privilege He has given, and then asks if the walk has been according to it; as He says to the Ephesian Church, Have you left your first love? Yes, you have. " Remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen." " I have loved you, and given myself for you," was the just measure of the love to Him, in which they should have walked, as " the church of God, which he has purchased with the blood of his own"-put under the guardianship of the blood as to all holy conversation, as seen in type in the priests. The blood was put on the hand, the foot, and the ear, both of the leper to be cleansed and of the priest at his consecration, so that nothing dishonoring such a guardianship was to be allowed. Then comes the question, Have we acted according to the blood that has been put upon us? has nothing passed in mind, act, or walk, but what has been according to God? The Lord always exercises judgment in a church, though He has long patience with it. He showed His long-suffering toward Israel for more than seven hundred years after He had pronounced judgment by the mouth of Isaiah, and God never lowers the standard of the claims of His first blessing, though He may be patient when His people fail.
To Sardis He says, " I have not found thy works perfect before God "; yet how low was it fallen! We may bow ourselves before the Lord under failure, but though we always find that grace which lifts us up again, still God never lowers the standard of what ought to be produced, nor could we even desire that God should. No true saint could desire that He should lower the standard of His holiness in order to let us into heaven.
I could not accept (through grace) anything short of the picture of the church as God first gave it. Take even man as man: alas! I have lost innocence; but can I accept any standard lower than the total absence of sin? Nor is this all; for God now raises up a more excellent object of desire before my heart, in which He replaces what is lost by the full revelation of Himself, His own glory in His people. Hence the saint has to judge his state, not by that from which Adam fell, nor even by the first state of the church only, but by the Christ he has to meet.
There are thus two ways in which God is judging: the departure from the first condition of blessing; and then how far the fullness of the blessing to which God is calling us is met. Thus it is by our past blessing and our future blessing that God judges us. As we see in all the addresses to the churches their departure from original blessings, and the inquiry how far their present condition corresponds with the blessing to which they are called, and which is spoken of in promise. Paul could say, " This one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, I press toward the mark ": when a man can say this, then his conscience is good and happy with God in view of the glory before him. But this I would desire to press on all your souls-that your standard is wrong, and your affections are wrong, if you are doing anything but following the Christ of glory presented to the eye of your heart. You know well the church has not kept its first love. O remember that though He is patient, He cannot lower the standard, and therefore " repent." There is abundant grace to lift up and to restore; but my conscience could not be happy if God lowered the picture He has given me of the church.
Man has lost innocency; but blessing has come in by the cross, and though I have not attained the glorious result of that redemption manifested in the glory of Him that accomplished it, " I press toward the mark "; my conscience could not be happy otherwise. Suppose the thought of the Lord's coming to receive us to glory were very present to us, how many things would disappear! How many objects that we now cling to, how many sorrows and cares that burden us, would be nothing, were the hope of His coming steadily before our eyes! " He that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure."
But the church has lost her first love, and has also lost her expectation. The hope of the Lord's coming makes Him very present to our souls, so as to judge the condition in which we are. You are called to meet Jesus; are you in such a position as would make you ashamed before Him at His coming?
There is also, I may add, another principle which is a motive to holiness in the church, the presence of the Holy Ghost. It is said, " Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God." Do not do anything inconsistent with His presence any more than with the glory to which you are going, of which He is the witness. In the first three churches there is no reference to the Lord's coming; but after that time, when failure had completely set in, then the Lord's coming is the thought presented. It is our joy and our hope, to sustain us when all else fails.
I would just recapitulate what I have said. The character of the book of Revelation is prophetic. We do not at all see the church here, as indwelt by the Holy Ghost, giving the knowledge of Christ as the Head of the body, or fellowship with the Father and the Son. All is judicial. Christ is distinctly the Judge, first, of the church, and then of the world- of the church looked at in its earthly condition, of course, not in its heavenly. The whole book is divided into three parts- the things seen, the things that are, and the things that shall be after them. And, as we have seen, God has two great ways of judging. He sees if we are profiting by the blessings already given, and if we are walking in a way suited to the promised glory.
There is a return in grace expected according to privileges bestowed, and an answer of the heart to the glory He is calling us to. Having blessed us, He expects the response, " Even so, come, Lord Jesus." He looks for fruit from His grace towards us, and I am to see unto what I am called by it. Not that I have attained, but I press forward in the power of a new life, " forgetting the things that are behind." God has set His heart upon blessing us in a certain manner; and what He looks for is that our hearts should respond to this knowledge of the heavenly calling.
May we taste now what God has called us to in fellowship with His Son. May it get such hold on our affections that we may be enabled honestly to say, " This one thing I do." The Lord open and fill our eyes with the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, and cause us to walk in the power of that hope-of seeing Him as He is and being with Him and like Him forever.