1. And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.
2. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.
3. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.
4. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.
5. He 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.
6. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Vs. 1-6.—As hitherto in these epistles we do not discover a “presiding minister” above an elder, so neither do we in this one find any hint of a “bishop and pastors.” All Christ’s bishops are elders, and “all are brethren.” (Acts xx. 17, 28.) Prelacy,—that is, preferring one pastor before another in office, is expressly prohibited by the church’s only Lawgiver. (Matt. xx. 25, 26.) The attempts to annul this law of Christ has caused more sin and suffering to his disciples than any one external agency of the devil. The whole history of the church furnishes the evidence of this.
The church in Sardis is addressed by him who “hath the seven spirits of God and the seven stars,” who has authority by office to give the quickening influences of the Spirit to the dead, and his reviving influences to the dormant; for revival presupposes life. Their “works were not perfect before God,” however they might appear to men. The majority were in a languishing condition, had “given themselves over to a detestable neutrality” in the Lord’s cause. And as the whole body is justly characterized by the major part; this church is described as “dead.” “Be watchful,—remember,—repent.” These duties point out the prevailing sins, namely, slothfulness, forgetfulness and security. Where these predominate, “things that remain are ready to die.” And there is no other remedy but that of applying to the “Seven Spirits of God,” which Christ is ready to shed abundantly on all who make believing application.
Christ threatens to “come as a thief” upon those who do not “watch.” In similitudes, we are not to indulge a licentious fancy in our attempts to interpret them. The objects of the thief’s visit and that of Christ are not the point of resemblance; for “the thief cometh not but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.” The point, and the only point of resemblance, is the suddenness of the visit. Ignorance or neglect of this rule of interpretation has been a fruitful source of error, especially in expounding Revelation.
In this epistle, the order hitherto observed by the Saviour is reversed. What was praiseworthy in other churches was first noticed. Here the commendation follows the reproof. “Thou hast a few names,” etc. A virtuous minority are “undefiled in the way.” They have nobly withstood the prevailing contamination, and therefore Christ will admit them to fellowship and honor. The victor shall be “clothed in white raiment,”—grace shall be perfected in glory; and their names, which were inscribed in the book of life,—the register of the church of the first-born, shall be confessed by Christ “before his Father and before his angels,” as having “followed the Lamb,” when others went back like Orpah. (Ruth i. 15.) Let those who, having “put their hand to the plough,” are tempted to “look back,” consider “what the Spirit saith” to the church in Sardis.
7. And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth;
8. I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and has not denied my name.
9. Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.
10. Because 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.
11. Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
12. Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God; and I will write upon him my new name.
13. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Vs. 7-13.—This church, like the one in Smyrna, is “without rebuke,” in the midst of similar trials.—Christ’s message is prefaced, as usual, by some description of himself, implying his supreme deity and authority. “He that is holy, he that is true,” is more than a creature. As “there is none good but one, that is God;” so, “there is none holy as the Lord,” (Jehovah,) (1 Sam. ii. 2.) Here is another, among many plain proofs, of our Saviour’s proper divinity. His divine authority is held forth in his “having the key of David,” etc. A key is the symbol of authority, (Matt. xvi. 19,) and the reference is to that prophecy, (Isa. xxii. 20-24,) in which the mediatorial dominion of Christ is set forth, by calling Eliakim to the place of authority in the room of Shebna. “The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder.” It is in virtue of this extensive grant of power from the Father, that the Lord Christ has a right, as Mediator, to send his ambassadors into all nations, to call sinners (rebels) back to their rightful allegiance; and also to execute deserved punishment upon all who do harm to his servants. (Ps. cv, 15.) In the exercise of his rightful authority, he has set before this church an “open door” of liberty, of opportunity, of activity; that she may put forth her “little strength” in keeping Christ’s word and confessing his name amidst opposition, reproach and violence; for it is obvious, that when impostors fail to reach their objects by deceit, they will resort to forcible measures. Because this church was unable to purge herself by corrective discipline,—having but “a little strength,” therefore Christ declares his purpose to strip these lying Jews of their cloak of hypocrisy, and exhibit them in their true character a “synagogue (church) of Satan.” (James ii. 2.) Seeing that in apostolic times there were apostles, ministers, churches of the devil, is it to be supposed that we violate the law of charity, if in our own degenerate age, when heresies abound, when ecclesiastical order is trampled upon, we venture to apply the language of the Holy Spirit to unholy and profane amalgamations? No, it is part of the special business of Christ’s witnesses to unmask specious hypocrites and warn of danger from false teachers, (2 Cor. xi. 13-15; Gal. i. 6, 7,) that “their folly may be made manifest to all men.” (2 Tim. iii. 8, 9; 2 Peter ii. 1, 3.)—The cruel enemy, who in the day of prosperity boasts of his success, in the day of adversity becomes the most arrant coward and cringing suppliant,—whether it be Saul or Shimei. (1 Sam. xv. 30; 2 Sam. xix. 18.) Haughty persecutors have been changed to humble suitors for an interest in the prayers of their victims,—”to worship before their feet.” “The word of Christ’s patience” may signify any truth or doctrine of the Bible which is of supernatural revelation. The same idea is suggested by the phrase, “the present truth,”—any divine truth which may come to be opposed or denied, especially as it may bear upon the personal glory of our Redeemer. Love to Christ is often tested by an enlightened and firm adherence to the “truth as it is in Jesus,” when “false apostles will sell it for a mess of pottage.” (Prov. xxiii. 23; 2 Cor. xiii. 8.) The first promise here is of a temporal kind, of protection in time of general danger. The “temptation” thus predicted may refer to some of those “ten persecutions” waged by the Roman emperors against the Christians, as that of Trajan in particular; but doubtless, like many other predictions, it was to have more than one fulfilment. The expression, “all the world” does indeed sometimes mean the Roman empire, (Luke ii. 1;) but perhaps it would be rash to affirm, that it is to be always thus limited. Like “the kingdom of heaven,—the kingdom of God,”—phrases which have unquestionably a two-fold signification, so it will be safer to consider this expression as of a similar kind. All other churches would be exposed to trial, from which this one would be exempted. The trial might consist of persecution, or the spreading of heretical principles and wicked practices, followed by apostacies. At such a time of trial, a firm adherence to the “doctrines which are after godliness,” would be imperative duty, and the only way to secure the victor’s crown. The gracious reward of fidelity here promised is a permanent and honorable place in the heavenly temple,—the temple of Christ’s Father, whose name the citizen of the New Jerusalem should bear for ever, and should be known and recognised as “fellow-citizen with the saints.” These names may be safely interpreted as importing, “son, daughter of the Lord Almighty, citizen of Zion, Christian.” As “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch,” so their gracious Master will “confess their names before his Father and the holy angels.” (Acts xi. 26; Rev. iii. 5.)
14. And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write: These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
15. I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
16. So then, because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
17. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.
18. I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see.
19. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
20. Behold, I stand at the door and knock: If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
21. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
22. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Vs. 14-22.—It appears that in Paul’s time a Christian church had been planted in Laodicea. (Col. ii. 1; iv. 16.) This church had the benefit of his ministry as well as that of Ephesus: and as both these churches were comparatively near to all the other five, we may suppose that a man of his zealous, active and persevering character and habits, would “impart unto them some spiritual gift.” (Rom. i. 11.)
It is evident that this church had degenerated more than all the others. In her there is nothing to commend. Her officers and members are described in their real character by him who is the “Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the beginning of the creation of God.” Each of these titles speaks the divine dignity of Christ. They are all to be understood in an absolute, not in a comparative sense. As “there is none good (absolutely so,) but one; that is, God,” Matt. xix. 17; so Christ only is the “Amen” in such sense that he “cannot lie” as a “witness.’“ He “speaks that which he has seen with his Father.” (John viii. 38.) Jesus is, moreover, the “Beginning;” the author, owner and sovereign ruler of “the creation of God.” This is clearly taught in Col. i. 15-18, where the same person, who (in v. 18) is called “the beginning,” as here; is (in v. 17,) said to “be before all things;” by whom (v. 16,) “were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth.”—Creation is a work proper to God only. But our Redeemer has “created all things.” Now, according to Heb. iii. 4, “he that built all things is God;” therefore he of whom these things are spoken is “the Most High God.” And so said the inspired prophet long ago, “For thy Maker is thine husband.” (Isa. liv. 5.) In the language of Jeremiah, (x. 11,)—thus do we say to Arians, Socinians, and other self-styled Unitarians,—“The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens:” and their blinded votaries, “except they repent, shall all likewise perish.”—However far the body of this church had declined, it does not appear that they had yet, as a community, gone the length of “denying the Lord that bought them.”
Spiritual pride, self-sufficiency, seems to have been the prevailing sin among these degenerate professors. Like the Pharisee, they would boast of their riches, the spiritual gifts which they possessed, by which they flattered themselves that “they were not as other men.” Possibly they might excel in knowledge, that “knowledge which puffeth up;” in utterance,—“great swelling words of vanity,” by which they gained both “filthy lucre” and the admiration of an ignorant and carnal multitude. Such is too often the actual condition of ministers and people, when they are all the while under the power of sin, and wholly “blind” to their spiritual destitution. Self-deception is fatal; and it would be just in the Lord Jesus to give such persons up to their own hearts’ lusts. So he threatens,—“I will spue thee out of my mouth,” as a man’s stomach loathes that which is nauseating. The like figure is used by Isaiah, (lxv. 5,) personating his Lord when describing similar characters:—“These are a smoke in my nose,”—intolerably offensive.—To us the case of this church would appear hopeless. It is not so, however: on the contrary, he assures them that these sharp rebukes proceed from love. “As many as I love, I rebuke, and chasten.” (Heb. xii. 6-8.) And from the “counsel” which he gives, as farther evidence of his love, we learn wherein this church was lacking,—in grace, justifying righteousness, and the saving self searching illumination of the Holy Spirit. As this church had not the promise of exemption from the coming “temptation,” (v. 10,) the “gold tried in the fire” of persecution will be indispensable to preserve any from apostacy, whereby their cloak of hypocrisy would be removed, and they be exposed to “shame.”—Christ “stands and knocks.”—If the church refuses him admittance, yet if but one will “hear his voice and open the door,” he will certainly communicate such consolations,—the “joy of his salvation,” that it may be said they sup together. (Song v. 1.)
This, as before, is the “hundred-fold,” promised in this life, as a foretaste and pledge of heavenly felicity.—There is added, a participation in his honor and authority; for those who suffer with him shall also reign with him. (2 Tim. ii. 12.) Whilst “this honour is to all his saints,” it is to be conferred upon them by Christ. This assertion may seem to contradict what Christ said to the mother of Zebedee’s sons, (Matt. xx. 23,)—“to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give.”—No, it is not his to give,—“but, except to them for whom it is prepared of his Father.” Then it is his to give,—his right. Of the honor and felicity promised to such as “fight the good fight of faith,” none can have an adequate conception without actual experience. (1 John iii. 2.)
Although the fundamental doctrine of the Trinity in Unity be not expressly taught or asserted in these epistles, it is nevertheless often and plainly presupposed. Each epistle begins and closes with express mention of two divine persons as equally the author. What Christ says, the Spirit says to these churches. But there is a third divine person often mentioned who is called “God,” and “Father.” (Ch. ii. 7, 18, 27, etc.;) and in the first verse of chapter third, one speaks who has the seven Spirits of God,” where the Trinity is included. Thus, while in these epistles this important doctrine of the adorable Trinity,—a doctrine which lies at the very foundation of a sinner’s hope, is obscurely revealed, as being clearly discovered in the preceding parts of the Holy Scriptures; the subsequent part of this book of Revelation is intended, among other objects, to demonstrate the distinct subsistence and economical actings of the co-equal and eternal Three, in the protection and salvation of the church, and in the control and moral government of the universe.
Again, on the groundless and chimerical assumption of those expositors who view these epistles as prophetical of seven successive periods of the destiny of the church general, the last estate would be worse than the first,—Laodicea being the worst of all. But this is obviously contrary to the description contained in Ch. xx. 1-10, where the saints are represented as in possession and exercise of all their purchased and social rights. Neither does authentic history prove that the church of Christ was more prosperous under the “ten persecutions” by the heathen Roman emperors than in the apostolic age, as the superior condition of the church in Smyrna to that of Ephesus would require. The very contrary is true; and hence the groundlessness of such interpretation, however respectable the names of its authors. The object of our Saviour in all the instructions, counsels, warnings, rebukes and threatenings addressed to these several churches is doubtless the real benefit of his people in after generations;—just as his dealings with the church in Old Testament times, “were written for our admonition and learning.” (Rom. xv. 4; 1 Cor. x. 11.) Moreover, some persons have inferred from our Lord’s treatment of these churches, a divine warrant for the existence, and an imperative Christian duty for the charitable recognition, of all the conflicting and antagonistic organizations of our time, popularly styled Christian churches. But as the designation, “Christian churches,” is in the apprehension of some too general, the term “evangelical” is used by them as restrictive of the term “Christian.” Still the question will present itself,—What constitutes a church “evangelical?” And this question is still without any definite answer. Perhaps no two persons would include in one category the same denominations of professing Christians. For example,—Is a community to be considered a Christian church in which the “doctrine of Balaam” is taught? Does the law of charity require the recognition of an organization as a Christian church, in which a “Jezebel would be suffered to teach, and to seduce the servants of Christ?” Is that a Christian church which denies the supreme deity of Christ, and rejects the seals of the covenant of grace,—the only charter of the Christian church’s existence, on earth? Or is that combination to be viewed as a Christian church which has no regular ministry, but expressly rejects the “pastors and teachers” of Christ’s appointment and the morality of the sabbath? These, and many other questions of similar or analogous import, will suggest negative answers to all who fear God, respect his authority, and are free from the bewildering effects of popular error.
It ought to be considered that all these seven churches were one church, as originally constituted, having the same,—that, is, a divine, scriptural organization. And although in the divine forbearance, they were still owned by Christ, notwithstanding the errors, heresies and immoralities which had crept into them; yet it is manifest that he threatens some of them with divorce, total extinction in case of impenitence. He has indeed fulfilled his awful threats in making them a desolation. Is it reasonable to suppose that he would reorganize these, or recognise others which incorporate the same or the like corruptions in doctrine and practice for tolerating which he has “removed their candlestick,” or “spued them out of his mouth?” (Absit blasphemia.) To say so, or write so, does not manifest the “charity which rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.” Alas! the present condition of the church general contains frequent evidences, that our Saviour’s affectionate counsels, solemn warnings, and awful threatenings, are neither duly pondered nor dutifully regarded.