Some commentators, among whom may be mentioned the learned Dr. [John] Gill, a leading Antipedobaptist minister of England, have imagined, that the seven epistles addressed to the Asiatic churches, contain a mystical prophecy of the church general, covering the whole period of her history from the apostolic age till the end of the world. According to this fancy,—for it is nothing more than a fancy, the church in Smyrna, will represent the church’s condition in the second stags of her history, when Arianism prevailed! And the Laodicean must represent her last, and so her worst condition! How will this harmonize with the 20th chapter, where she appears in triumph over all her antichristian foes? This is given as a specimen of the unbridled fancy and licentious imagination with which even good men may be tempted to approach the reading and interpreting of this important and instructive part of God’s word. But Peter informs us that some persons in his time, “wrested” those parts of Paul’s writings which were “dark and hard to be understood” and this was not the worst of their conduct, for they treated “the other scriptures also” in the same reckless and irreverent manner, which were neither dark nor hard to be understood. (2 Pet iii. 16) These epistles are no more mystical or prophetical than those of the apostle Paul. They are simply and properly descriptive, although like all other epistles, they are applicable to the church general in all ages, and equally suited to the case of individuals, as is clear in the close of each—“If any man have an ear let him hear.”
1. Unto 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,
2. I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience and how thou canst not bear them which are evil and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
3. And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
4. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
5. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works, or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.
6. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.
7. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches, To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
Verses 1-7.—This first epistle, addressed to the church in Ephesus, comes from the Lord Jesus, who holds the stars in his right hand who gives commission to the ministry, gives them authority as his ambassadors to negotiate with mankind, communicates to them the light which they diffuse in the world, sustains them in their respective spheres, and controls them as they move in their orbits He walks In the midst of the candlesticks, as the sun in the system of nature, trimming and snuffing the lamps that they may burn more clearly.
This is the second epistle sent from Christ to the church of Ephesus Paul, who is thought to have planted this church, (Acts xviii. 19,) had written to those Christians some thirty years before, while he was a prisoner in Rome (Eph i. 4, vi. 20.) Paul and John were nothing more than Christ’s amanuenses,—“the pen of a ready writer.” (Ps xlv. 1, 1 Cor iii. 7.)—“The angel of the church” is at once a symbolic and collective name, including also the idea of representation—not a pope or any other prelatic personage. No doubt in our Saviour’s estimation the saints take precedence here of the “bishops (overseers) and deacons,” as they do in Phil i. 1, Eph iv. 8-12. All ecclesiastical officers are Christ’s gift to the church, but the object or recipient of the gift is more valued than the gift. And just here is the point where prelates “do greatly err, not knowing the Scriptures.” They have arrogated to themselves the honourary title of “clergy,” and for the sake of distraction, and to give plausibility to then ambitious pretensions, call the membership of the church the “laity,”—contrary to the express decision of the unerring Spirit. Peter cautions the “elders” that they be not as “lords over God’s heritage,”—lot, clergy, where it is obvious that the body of the people, as distinguished from their rulers, are denominated the clergy. Moreover, it is evident to any unbiased reader, that the membership, and not a bishop only, are addressed by our Lord in these epistles, as when he says,—“some of you” (v 10.) Hence it may be inferred that there is no proof in these epistles on which to erect the antichristian hierarchy of diocesan prelacy, and consequently that ecclesiastical government is by divine right, lodged in the hands of a plurality of presbyters.
Christ notices what is commendable, before he administers reproof “I know thy works”—There seems to be an incompatibility between the “patience” commended, and not being able to “bear them which were evil.” But patience under persecution or any other providential dispensation, is perfectly consistent with an enlightened zeal against error and immorality. Indeed, the two graces,—patience and zeal, are inseparable in themselves, and as connected with all the other graces of the Holy Spirit.—There were such in the primitive church, who claimed to be apostles, and who, upon trial, were discovered to be impostors. Paul, in the exercise of the miraculous gift of “discerning of spirits,” could, without presbyterial examination of witnesses, personally detect “false apostles, deceitful workers” in Corinth. (2 Cor. xi. 13.) But John was not at Ephesus, and therefore the ordinary rulers are approved by Christ for the faithful exercise of discipline. Persons who falsify the doctrines and corrupt the order and ordinances of divine appointment, are the worst of liars, and having been by competent authority “found” to be such; they may be so called without breach of charity. When discipline is neglected or relaxed, error and tyranny soon enter, with “confusion and every evil work.” But when false teachers have gained followers and influence in the church, the friends of truth and order will be in danger of yielding to the pressure. They are liable to become weary and faint in their minds,” (Heb. xii. 3;) but zeal for their Master’s honor will animate them to contend for the faith so as to secure his approbation. It is remarkable that so much labor, patience, zeal etc., should be found in this church while chargeable with having “fallen from first love.” Habits contracted in the fervor of early affection to Christ, may continue to influence an individual or a church, when the fervency of affection is sensibly abated. This state of feeling the exercised Christian will confess and lament. Nothing but repentance and reformation in such a case will procure the approbation and restore the favor of Christ. Continued impenitence is threatened with removing “the candlestick,” the gospel, ministry and ordinances.
The Nicolaitanes were a sect of corrupt professors of Christianity of whose doctrines and deeds little or nothing is certainly known. It is most generally supposed that they were a sort of Antinomians, who turned the grace of God into lasciviousness; and there is a tradition, not well sustained, that their heresy was derived from Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, one of the seven deacons of whom we read, Acts vi. 5. The similarity of name seems to have suggested this fancy; for there is no historical evidence that one who was “of honest report, fall of the Holy Ghost and wisdom,” was permitted thus to fall away. Their deeds, however, were hateful to Christ, and therefore hateful to his real disciples: for one of the infallible marks of a state of grace is to hate what,—yes and whom,—our Lord hates. (Ps. cxxxix. 21, 22.) All who read or hear these things are interested in them, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear. What Christ saith in each of these epistles, the Spirit saith; and what is said to each church is said to all the seven; that is, to the whole visible church. “To him that overcometh” false apostles, the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, any doctrines or practices in opposition to the truth of Christ, or militating against the honor of Christ; to such he “will give to eat of the tree of life,” from which Adam was excluded upon the breach of the first covenant. (Genesis iii. 22-24.) What the first Adam lost by the fall, the last Adam will restore with interest, (1 Cor. ii. 9.) The felicity of the saints in glory can be represented only by sensible things; and even then but very imperfectly. (1 Cor. xiii. 12; 1 John iii. 2.)
8. And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;
9. I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich,) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
10. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
11. He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.
Vs. 8-11.—Smyrna is the second in order of the seven churches addressed through the ministry as the official representatives. Our Saviour here assumes those titles mentioned in ch. i. 17, 18, which bespeak his divine personal dignity and voluntary humiliation, his eternal Godhead and true manhood,—“God manifest in the flesh,” having by death triumphed over death, to deliver them who through fear of death were all their life—time subject to bondage. (Heb. ii. 15.) This church was subjected to “tribulation,”—persecution in name, substance and person. The members were either of the poorer sort of the citizens of Smyrna, or rendered poor by fines,—“the spoiling of their goods.”—“But thou art rich,” rich in faith, in good works, in the gifts and graces of the Spirit, the earnest of the heavenly inheritance.—In this place a colony of Jews had gained such social influence as to move the populace, and even the local magistrates, to offer violence to the servants of God. It does not appear that these Jews were professing Christians of any creed, but just such as Paul often encountered in Judea and elsewhere. (Acts xvi. 19-22.) The devil instigated the Jews, and they the Gentiles; and both, the magistrates, to silence the testimony of Christ’s witnesses, by which all were tormented. The design of the devil, who was a murderer from the beginning, was to destroy that church; but Christ’s design was to try her members. Only some were to be imprisoned, and the time of trial would be limited to “ten days,”—a definite for an indefinite, but short time. Those who resist the truth contradict its advocates, and blaspheme the holy name of God, though professing to be either Jews or Christians, are a “synagogue of Satan.” “A crown of life” is promised to such as proved “faithful unto death.” They shall not be “hurt of the second death;” that is, eternal death. (Ch. xx. 14, 15.)
12. And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges;
13. I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.
14. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling—block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
15. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.
16. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
17. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.
Vs. 12-17.—To the church in Pergamos reproofs and threatenings are addressed by him who has the “sharp sword.” Satan had his throne in this place, whence he assailed the true doctrine and disciples of Christ by heresy and persecution. In such a great fight of afflictions there was one distinguished, like Stephen, for boldness and fortitude, who “resisted unto blood, striving against sin.” And wherever there is a “faithful martyr” for Christ, who “holds fast his name, and will not deny his faith” at the risk of his life, his divine Lord will condescend to register his name among that noble company who “by faith have obtained a good report.” (Heb. xi. 2.) The “doctrine of Balaam” and that of the Nicolaitanes led to gross immoralities in apostolic times as of old in the days of Moses. (Num. xxxi. 16.) And thus it appears, that old heresies, which have been condemned, are afterwards revived under new names, and patronized by new leaders. In such a case, we have the authority of Christ for calling them by the same names of those whose principles they adopt, and whose example they emulate. It was no breach of charity, therefore, by our forefathers to designate those who “delated” them to the cruel persecutors in Scotland by the name of “Ziphites,” or to call the archtraitor [James] Sharp,—”a Judas.” The Lord Jesus “hates the doctrine” as well as “deeds of Nicolaitanes,” which are subversive of truth and godliness. Those who oppose the doctrines of Balaam and the Nicolaitanes in any age when these are popular, must expect persecution. But when “troubles abound for Christ’s sake, consolations much more abound by Christ.” This is to “eat of the hidden manna.” Also, the “white stone” or pebble,—the token of justification,—will be given to the conqueror in the Christian conflict. The allusion here is to the mode of procedure in courts of judgment among the ancient Greeks. White stones were east for acquittal; black for condemnation. The manna is hidden, and so is the white stone, both signifying the sustaining and consoling evidence of the Comforter,—the Holy “Spirit witnessing with the spirit” of the persecuted believer, that he is a “child of God.” It is the same thing as the “hundred—fold in this life,” promised by Christ. (Matt. xix. 29.)
It is worthy of notice, in the condition of this church, that while among a minority may be found an “Antipas,—faithful martyr” for the cause of Christ, against those who hold the doctrine of Balaam and the Nicholaitanes: the majority are called upon to “repent,”—evidently for conniving at the destructive errors and immoralities of those seducers. And unless the discipline of the church was employed to “purge out these rebels;” the Master would take the work into his own hand, and “fight against them with the sword of his mouth:” and then such as screened or spared these sinners might expect to partake of their just punishment. Rulers in the church “must give account for those over whom they watch.”
18. And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass;
19. I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first.
20. Notwithstanding, 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.
2l. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.
22. Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.
23. And 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.
24. But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, (as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak;) I will put upon you none other burden:
25. But that which ye have already, hold fast till I come.
26. And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:
27. And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers; even as I received of my Father.
28. And I will give him the morning—star.
29. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Vs. 18-29.—The most lengthy epistle is sent to the church in Thyatira. He who is the “Son of God,” a divine person, possessing the essential attributes of omniscience and immutability, has more to say to this church than to any of the rest. Commending, as usual, whatever was commendable,—their “works, charity, service,” etc.; “and the last to be more than the first:” he has, nevertheless, “a few things against them,”—especially “suffering that woman Jezebel to teach.” Is this “woman Jezebel” to be taken in a literal or figurative sense? Analogy seems to require a metaphorical sense. If, in the preceding epistle, “Balaam” is not to be understood literally and personally, but figuratively and representatively, so Jezebel represents an individual, or rather as that other woman, (ch. xvii. 4,) a faction or sect, who propagated destructive heresy. Jezebel was daughter of Ethbaal, King of the Zidonians, whom Ahab married contrary to the express law of God. (1 Kings xvi. 31; Deut. vii. 3.) She was a violent persecutor of the Lord’s people, because she was given to idolatry; and she was an instigator of all the cruelty perpetrated by that wicked king, “whom Jezebel his wife stirred up.” As Ahab suffered his wife to control his policy, “giving him the vineyard of Naboth,” etc., so it appears, the rulers in this church are blamed for permitting “a woman to teach,” contrary to the law of Christ.” (1 Tim. ii. 12.) She “called herself a prophetess,”—why not then require her to show her credentials? Permitted to usurp the functions of a public teacher, she “seduced Christ’s servants” to join in the abominable rites of the heathen. Spiritual fornication, especially when conducted by female agency, has always issued in that which is literal. This may be verified from the time of Noah and Balaam till the erection of nunneries under the sanction of the “man of sin.” The distinction here between “committing fornication” and “eating things sacrificed unto idols,” intimates that the “adultery” is to be taken in a literal sense. Time was allowed for repentance, “and she repented not.” All this time the rulers were culpable: therefore the Lord himself, as before, will interpose to rectify such gross sin and scandal. This he would do by visiting these impenitent transgressors with some incurable disease which would issue in certain death. So he did in the church of Corinth. (1 Cor. xi. 30.) By this example he would teach “all the churches, that it is he who searcheth the reins and hearts,”—demonstrating his divine omniscience.—“But unto you I say.” Where now is to be discovered, in this address of the Saviour, that “presiding minister,” or diocesan bishop, whom the anti-christian prelates affirm our Lord addresses in all these epistles? “And unto the rest in Thyatira,”—still no prelate addressed; but those laborious and patient ones previously commended, who “had not known the depths of Satan.” Those deceivers pretended to instruct their deluded followers in the “deep things of God;” but Christ calls them “depths of Satan.” It is usual with the devil’s factors to delude credulous persons with pretending to teach them deep mysteries,—“curious arts.” (Acts xix. 18, 19.)
To such as withstood the adversary and his allies, Christ would give no additional injunctions to those which they had received. And to animate them to continued fidelity and fortitude in future conflicts with these enemies of all righteousness, he holds forth an ample reward. He shall share in the honor of his Master, conferred on him by his Father. Whatever may be comprehended in this promise, it can be made good to the victorious Christian only by Him who is divine. None else has “power over the nations,” but he to whom “all power is given in heaven and in earth.” (Matt xxviii. 18.) “The morning star” may signify Christ himself, (Ch. xxii. 16,) or the “first fruits of the Spirit,” (Rom viii. 23,) or the full assurance of grace (2 Peter i. 19 .)
As before, what “Christ saith, the Spirit saith,” and the instruction, warning and threatening sent to the church in Thyatira, was addressed to all churches and to every human being endowed with an “ear to hear.” It is assumed in the beginning of the Apocalypse, that only some will have sufficient education to “read the words of the prophecy of this book,” and such is the condescension of our gracious Master, that those who, by reason of invincible ignorance, cannot read, yet may share in the reward promised to such as “hear and keep” the sayings of this book And no doubt thousands have received this reward since the begun decline of Popery, who were privileged to hear and to “know the joyful sound” of the gospel proclaimed by the heralds of the Reformation in the times of Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others, who were their compeers and successors, many were called from darkness to light, in continental and insular Europe, who could not read.
All are commanded to “search the Scriptures” Now to be able to obey this reasonable command, either all must be instructed in the knowledge of Hebrew and Greek,—the two languages in which the Bible was originally written, or the Bible must be translated into the languages of all nations. But the former supposition is impracticable, and therefore the latter is dutiful. And after all that has been done, and is yet to be accomplished, in translating the sacred writings into the languages of the nations of the earth, the “angels of the churches” will be employed by the chief Shepherd in feeding his flock.