D Andrew Burr
Rev 2: 24 (from “I do …”), 25
We sometimes speak of these chapters, 2 and 3, as if they comprise a series of seven letters. In fact, the Lord makes clear that that is not His intention: these addresses to the assemblies are part of the content of a single book which was to be sent to the seven churches in Asia; and the result of that would of course have been that they would have learned not only of the address to themselves, but they would also have read the addresses to the other six. I wonder if anybody might have been prompted by something that was said to one of the other assemblies, as well as seeking to be exercised by what the Lord had addressed to themselves. And, if I apply this verse in speaking about all seven of these assemblies, I think that would be a legitimate thing to do.
We do not know who took this book from Patmos, where John was and where this book was written. They would have sailed from Patmos to the then port of Ephesus, and then proceeded from one place to another - as it happens, the logical order is the order in which the seven addresses are given. Each of these places is neighbouring to the one before. They would have passed by other places where there had once been assemblies - Hierapolis and Colosse now in ruins; Laodicea rebuilt from the ruins of the same earthquake. It would have been a sober journey to make, because the messenger might well be aware of what Paul had said to Timothy about these very places; “Thou knowest this, that all who are in Asia … have turned away from me”, 2 Tim 1: 15. And perhaps they would have gone back further in their minds and remembered when Paul began to minister in Ephesus. It says in relation to that time of service that “all that inhabited Asia heard the word of the Lord”, Acts 19: 10. In other words, others in slightly earlier times had taken this same route, not now with the solemn content of this book, but with the precious truth of the word of God, establishing assemblies in all the cities of that province of Asia. And now I think the brethren who received these letters would have to ask themselves, in the light of what I have read, what is it that we have and how are we to hold it fast? I wonder if we might think about that question and use what the Lord speaks of to these churches which had turned away from Paul to prompt our own thoughts about what it is that we have, and whether we have the desire and indeed the affection to hold it fast.
It is interesting that the Lord should begin what are now these two chapters by speaking of what He Himself has. It says He “holds the seven stars in his right hand”, Rev 2: 1. It should be a great comfort to us all that, in whatever circumstances local assemblies may be found, all is in the hand of the Lord. I am glad that it is so. There is a sense in which things have been committed to our responsibility, as we shall see, but the Lord holds things in His hand, the right hand of power. Without this, all would be lost, nothing could ever be recovered, nothing could ever be safe: all would be at the mercy of heresy, and opinion, and a party spirit, and all these things; but He holds the assemblies in His right hand. It might seem that some are ready to fall, that one or two might be dropped; but He presents Himself as holding to the full thought, the seven stars in His right hand.
There are things to notice that He says to all the assemblies. He speaks to them all of His coming, as we shall perhaps see; but He also says, “I know”. And that is a precious comfort to me too; it has been a stay to my soul in times of difficulty. One might turn to the Lord in prayer, and one might think one has to tell Him a lot of worries; and these two words are His answer - “I know”. So, He holds the seven stars in His right hand, and He knows. He knows things I will never know; He knows what is transpiring in the hearts of His people, He knows why things are happening, and He knows how they might be resolved.
I am not now speaking of what the Lord knows in Ephesus; I want to speak about what they had: let us just consider what He says that Ephesus has. What the Lord speaks of in Ephesus is a lamp, a candlestick. This lampstand in Ephesus is really rather remarkable. We could deduce from what the Lord says that each of the churches had a lamp, but He speaks of the lamp in Ephesus. He speaks of the lamp in the gospels too, and in that connection he refers to a city set on the top of a mountain (Matt 5: 14, 15); and Ephesus had been like a lamp on the top of a mountain. There was something about the early church - what is recorded of the assembly in Ephesus speaks to us of the public testimony that there was at that time in the assembly. As I have already quoted, “all that inhabited Asia heard the word of the Lord”. Think of that: “a city situated on the top of a mountain”. Think too of the power in which that testimony was being held forth: even the civil authorities were afraid of the power that there was in the church; the Jews were forced on to the defensive by the power and glory of what was shining out in the church. The power of Satan itself was forced to yield. Think of that remarkable occasion in Ephesus, a public occasion, when they brought all these books of magic charms and burned them, Acts 19: 19. Why? It was a response to what was shining in this lamp. And now the Lord says He would take the lamp out of its place.
What had happened, and how quickly had it happened? I think it has been calculated that Paul’s letter to Ephesus was written within some five years of his two years of ministry there. You read that letter and you might be astonished at the apparent spiritual progress that the company had made. By the time he writes his second letter to Timothy, which I think was about another five years later, “all who are in Asia … have turned away”. Some say that John wrote this book at about the same time as that epistle, and they had left their first love, Rev 2: 4. As Paul said to the Galatians, “I wonder that ye thus quickly change”, Gal 1: 6. What had happened in Ephesus? Well, we know that Paul told them what was going to happen: men among the elderhood in Ephesus, people to whom he spoke in that interview in Miletus, became “grievous wolves” and they drew away the disciples after themselves, Acts 20: 29, 30. Their object was to make themselves a focus and not the Lord Jesus Himself. And what was lost was love - first love. Paul speaks of “holding the truth in love” (Eph 4: 15), and that is what had been lost in Ephesus. It has been said that first love was His love for them – my impression is that it is reciprocal; and now others were claiming the affections of the brethren in Ephesus. And as a result, their own love for Christ was waning; and what the Lord says here is that it is not possible to hold the public testimony without love for Christ; and if you want to hold that profession without reality, then judgment will come.
Now, it has also been observed that there is a contrast between what the Lord says to Ephesus here, and what Paul says to Thessalonica. To Thessalonica, Paul speaks of, “your work of faith, and labour of love, and enduring constancy of hope”, 1 Thess 1: 3. We see in Revelation 2: 2 that the things in Ephesus that related to their profession, their work and activity remained – “thy works and thy labour, and thine endurance”; but the spiritual context for them - faith, hope, love - had gone; the thing had become, as it were, a shell. And the Lord is not willing for something like that any more to be the vessel of public testimony: the lamp is taken out of its place. How solemn that is! We can think of the Christian testimony in the time in which we are. You may say this is a Christian country, or that we live in a Christian civilisation, and so on; but the church, as a public profession, is not now capable of performing as we read of it in the Scriptures, with the power and glory of a heart held by love for Christ; that public shining, and influence, and glory, gone. It will not be reinstated publicly before the Lord comes.
It is in God’s ways that vessels of testimony that have been taken up fail. It is not God’s way to reinstate them publicly; and failure in responsibility does not remove that responsibility. More precious still, however, it does not take away what the Lord Jesus Himself has won for us. That is a very precious thing, and it is true, beloved, for you personally. You might have to regret that there are ways in which you have failed in your responsibility; but the place that is promised you with Christ is secure. And why is that? It does not rest on what you may do; it rests on what He has done. How wonderful that is! What a comfort, whenever we feel we have failed, or whenever we think about failure in whatever setting it might be, that nothing can change what He has done, because it is finished. And it is very interesting that, when He speaks to the overcomers in these seven assemblies, what He promises them are things He has, which He can give to an overcomer as a gift. The tree of life, the crown of life, the white robe, the white stone; a place in the city of my God, my throne: they are things that belong to Him, and they remain in His gift even though we may have failed in the public profession.
Smyrna is an interesting answer to what is lost in Ephesus. They do not appear to have anything, and they are under pressure and under attack, but the Lord makes a wonderful promise of “the crown of life”, v 10. Who receives the crown of life? The Lord promises it to those who are faithful, but there is another answer to that question in Scripture. James says that God has promised the crown of life “to them who love him”, Jas 1: 12. The very thing that had failed in Ephesus is found still in this assembly in Smyrna. How wonderful to think of that! I can prove that it is something they had by pointing to the reward they were going to receive; because that reward is promised to people who love Him. And therefore - although he does not speak of it - that feature must have remained in Smyrna, even though the Lord speaks of what had been left by Ephesus.
Now, when we come to Pergamos, He says, “thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith”, Rev 2: 13. How thankful we can be that things like that have been preserved. It is right and very easy to speak about the failure and mixture that has come into the Christian profession, but it is still a Christian profession; the name of Christ is still here. There are people who hold it - there are many of them and we can thank God for them, people who hold the name of Christ. Then as to holding fast the faith: think of the way that the Scriptures have been preserved to us. Look at the history of darkness, and heresy, and politics, and all kinds of corruption that have come into the history, and yet we have the Scriptures in their purity, the Holy Scriptures; and especially we have the New Testament. It has been preserved in spite of all that. It might be said that the Scriptures were preserved by closing them, and denying the laity the access to them that we enjoy. That may be so, but the Bible was preserved and we have it now, and we can learn from it, be guided by it as I trust we are this afternoon.
And then He comes to Thyatira, and it is where I read; but I want to draw attention to the point that I just made. I remember it being pointed out to us in London that there is only one assembly whose present love for Christ is expressly mentioned. You might say it must be Philadelphia, but it is not; it is Thyatira. We often compare Thyatira to the Roman church; the state of darkness there is very grievous: the woman Jezebel is permitted, and all this false line is gaining dominance to the point where overcomers have to keep things going in spite of the state of things in the church, and yet love for Christ was there. He knew it: He says, “I know … thy love”, Rev 2: 19. I do not want to be sentimental about these things, but there is something precious, there is something that is carried through; there is something that companies with more responsibility have failed in; but there in the midst of all this darkness and confusion that has rolled over the history of the church, there is still love for Christ. And it needs to be held, it needs to be held fast, beloved. It is not an option. It is love for Christ that makes us faithful. It is love for Christ that produces loyalty to His interests. It is love for Christ that seeks to preserve a pure and sanctified place to which He can come. These things depend on the heart we have for Christ. We used to hear it said as to the open division that there was heartlessness as to Christ. What a painful thing it is if we ever have to acknowledge that something that made itself its object, and tolerated things for which He died, was ever allowed in the circle in which He Himself walks, as He describes in this section.
I come to another point when He speaks to Sardis. I am not going into the detail of what we have been taught about these assemblies, but He says to Sardis, “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard”, Rev 3: 3. That is what they had: they had what they had heard, and they had what they had received; and I hardly need to ask, beloved brethren, how much have we received? It is not only what we have in this precious book, the Holy Scriptures, but think of the teaching that we have received as to it. Think of the way that the service of God has been unfolded and entered into by us; think of the way that the truth and the glory of it has been delivered to us. I make no claim in saying that; I am pressing things on our responsibility rather. Think what we have received: the glorious truth that the Lord Jesus does have a body here, that that body is separate from the world around us; that He is coming - as He says here; that the Holy Spirit has come and can be received; that He should have liberty in the church to unfold divine truth; the glorious truth as to eternal life and the basis of our relationships with God and with one another. The truth is all to be worked out, and can be practically experienced in the Christian circle in which we have found our fellowship together. All these are spiritual blessings, and the Lord tells Sardis to think howthey had received them. Some of us are old enough to remember the kind of people who taught us these things, their faithfulness, and their sobriety, and their diligence in relation to the Lord’s claims and His rights in their local meeting; their readiness to stand for Him, and against things that would claim His place. And we received things from them, and we received things through them from the Lord. And we need to remember that. It pains me greatly to hear claims that these things are tradition - indeed, out-dated tradition. How wrong to say such a thing: how did you receive them? I did not receive them as a tradition, and I cannot imagine that what I received will ever be out-dated. Beloved, what a privilege it is to be the recipients of anything that the Lord should have given in such a way. And it has not simply come to us in books: the Lord tells them to remember what they had heard. We live in a wonderful time of recovery in which different ones - diverse gifts - have ministered the truth in our hearing, and set it out to us in a living way; and we let it go at our enormous loss. The Lord says, “what ye have hold fast”.
And then we are familiar with what He says to Philadelphia; He says, “hold fast what thou hast, that no one take thy crown”, Rev 3: 11. It is not the crown of life; that is something different. We have more than one crown - there is a crown of righteousness as well - but let “no one take thy crown”. Mr Stoney said in relation to the crown that it is the highest thing you have got. He used to speak of the way, when a frost comes, it is the top shoots that go, vol 1 p290. You might say this is what had happened in Ephesus: the top shoots had gone. You can see the effect on the plant as a whole, its growth and development, its shape and appearance. All these things are affected by letting the highest thing we have go. How easy it is to accommodate ourselves to something lower down. It seems easier, there is less exercise, there is less difficulty, there is less challenge, there is less opposition. The Lord says, ‘Do not let it go’; “that no one take thy crown”.
You need to have energy, you need to have a measure of power, if you are going to hold something fast. One kind of person who loses things for not holding them fast is a person who goes to sleep; but you might lose it also, though awake, because you have allowed weakness. And the weakness comes, I believe, from neglecting our relationships with the Lord Jesus and with the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus would revive us in these things, so that precious things we have should not roll away from us.
I come finally to Laodicea, and it has struck me how Laodicea is in many ways different from the other six. The first thing that makes a difference is this, that, to the other six churches, the Lord speaks of His coming as future; but in Laodicea He has already come. And, although there are things to judge, He has not come for judgment. He says, “I am about” to do that. That is a great comfort because it might be thought that things have already passed under the judgment of the Lord, and we live now in a time when that judgment is being executed, but that is not so; the judgment is still to come. But the Lord is present; unhappily, He is present but outside. And that is something we need to reflect upon: the Lord is not presenting His coming as future but He is using the fact of His coming to test what entrance He has into the local assembly. We were reading in the gospel the other day and the Lord says, “And if he come in the second watch, and come in the third watch” (Luke 12: 38) - not ‘or’, “and”. He might come in relation to any matter, and the question is whether the door is open for Him to come in.
Another thing that is different is that the Lord does not commend anything in Laodicea; and He does not say that there is anything that they have. In fact, the problem in Laodicea was that what they imagined they had was of no value to them. He counselled them to buy; they did not have what they needed - a solemn position, the climax of the course of departure traced in these addresses. But He still appeals to “any one”; and I think the precious thing is that what He promises to any one who opens the door is nothing less than He would have promised to someone in the brightest, happiest day in the church’s history. There is no greater privilege than what He offers to Laodicea. Of course, when it comes to the public and responsible side, He does not give the overcomer anything to do - while judgment is being exercised, they sit; but in relation to the precious inward and spiritual side, the blessing He promises remains. I am again reminded of a word of Mr Stoney’s when Peter in Luke 18 tells the Lord, "we have left all, and followed thee", v 28. He asks, ‘And what had He given them? Nothing but His company!’, vol 1 p42; And here it is promised to this person who opens the door in Laodicea: His company: “I will … sup with him, and he with me”, Rev 3: 20. What a precious thing that is, and there it is in the Lord’s gift as freely available as if no failure had ever occurred.
I just close on this note. It would be tempting to say that all this is individual, that we do not have to come to the meeting to get this; we could stay at home and all this would be ours: this is a promise I could enjoy in my own front room. I venture to say that it would be a travesty to interpret the Lord’s word in that way. It has become a habit with me to associate Revelation 3: 20 with other scriptures. So, for example, the Lord says in Matthew 18, “where two or three are gathered together unto my name”, v 20. The “any one” is not just an individual but - albeit in a small number - one of like-minded individuals. I think of persons in 2 Timothy 2 who open the door for the Lord Jesus; it says, “pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart”, v 22. The foundation is personal; it must be; everyone has to come into this on their own exercise and responsibility. But the Lord is not proposing here something private and exclusive, as if fellowship rightly held is no longer possible or necessary, in which the precious portion proposed in Scripture within the Christian circle has in some way given place to something else.
And the closing point I want to make is that all these wonderful, precious things, the things we share, the things we have, the things the Lord gives us, the things we have heard; all those things - the crown and all that goes with it - we enjoy now in the Christian circle. Beloved, we compromise it to our immense loss: the Christian circle is the most precious thing that exists here on earth. All around is a world of evil, under the domination of the ruler of this world; and in that world itself, God Himself has created a circle to which the Lord can come and bring all these precious gifts. And we have a spiritual relationship with each other which makes the enjoyment of those things a reality.
May He bless the word.
7th February 2015