THE MESSAGE TO LAODICEA.
Unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; T/iese things saith the Amen, t/ie faithful and true witness.
Revelation iii. 14.
Third Sunday after Epiphany, 1878.
The Revelation of S. John was w ritten, as everyone allows, after the Epistles of the other Apostles included in the Canon of the New Testament . A great change has passed over the history of the Gospel, since the period recorded in these earlier writings. Death has deprived the Church of three great leaders. S. James in Jerusalem, S. Peter and S. Paul in Rome, have been crowned with the martyr's crown. Of the chief Apostles—the pillars of the Church—S. John only survives. The doom has been pronounced on the once Holy City. The eagles are gathered about the carcase of the dying or the dead. Jerusalem has fallen, or is even now falling. 'Old things are passed away' The temple services, the Mosaic ritual, have ceased for ever. The original home of Christianity is a mass of ruins. The surviving disciples of the Lord—and, foremost among them, John the son of Zebedee—go forth to settle among the Gentiles. 'Behold, all things are become new.'
Henceforth the Churches of Asia Minor are the centre of life and activity in the Christian community. These brotherhoods had from the first received more than their proportionate share of attention from the earliest and greatest teachers of the Gospel. They had been founded by S. Paul, and they had been watered by S. Peter. Their names, their histories, their privileges, their failings, are recorded for the instruction of later ages alike in the Epistles of the great Apostle of the Gentiles, and in those of the great Apostle of the Circumcision. We may well suppose that there was something eminently hopeful, or something eminently critical, in the state of these Asiatic Churches, that so much labour should have been bestowed upon them by their Apostolic teachers. For now, when S. John, driven into exile by the catastrophe which has overtaken the Holy City, is compolled to seek a new home, it is in this same region that he fixes his abode. These Churches of Asia Minor are henceforth his special care. To them he is commissioned to deliver his Lord's messages from his retirement, or his banishment, in Patmos, rebuking, comforting, instructing, exhorting each individually according to its special needs and its special failings.
It has been thought by some that the letters to the Seven Churches arc prophetical of seven successive stages in the history of Christendom. It is much more probable that the simpler view of their bearing is the correct view. They are words of warning and encouragement addressed to the immediate wants of the several communities; and they are varied accordingly. They present to us the Churches in a later stage of growth than the Epistles of S. Paul or S. Peter. They exhibit manifold diversities of type, which only lapse of time could develope. One is steeped in poverty, and yet is rich withal. Another abounds in wealth, and yet is a miserable pauper. The imminent peril of one is the bigotry and narrowness of Judaism; the besetting temptation of another is the license of Gentile profligacy. One is commended for its zeal against false teaching; another is reproved for its indifference to heresy. In one there is a falling-off from the fervour of its earliest love; in another the last works are more than the first . The Churches have passed through several years of experience. They have been tested by the fiery trial of persecution; or they have undergone the not less searching ordeal of prosperity. With all these diversities of character they serve as types, as illustrations, of the different features, which may distinguish Christian communities from time to time. Only in this sense should they be regarded as prophetical.
The message to Laodicea is perhaps the most striking of the series. In other Churches definite failings are rebuked, and definite good deeds are praised. In Laodicea no positive sin is named, and no positive excellence is singled out. In other Churches errors of doctrine are denounced. In Laodicea no heresy is so much as hinted at. We are told nothing here of the hateful deeds of the Nicolaitans, as at Ephesus and Pergamos; nothing of the Jews falsely so called, the synagogue of Satan, as at Smyrna and Philadelphia; nothing of the woman Jezebel, the false prophetess, who seduces the servants of the Lord, as at Thyatira; nothing of the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock in the way of the children of Israel, as again at Pergamos; nothing of those false teachers who sounded the depths of Satan, as again at Thyatira. The Church of Laodicea was, so far as we are informed, perfectly orthodox, perfectly respectable. And yet in the uncompromising sternness of the rebuke, in the sustained severity of the denunciation, this letter far surpasses all the others. Standing last of the seven, it derives a singular emphasis from its position. It is the Lord's parting message to all His Churches.
And for this reason too it has a wider application than the rest. The special circumstances of the other Churches give a special character to the messages addressed to them. Hence they contain lessons more especially adapted to exceptional crises of a Church, as, for instance, when it is directly assailed by persecution from without, or when it is insidiously undermined by false teachers from within. The Laodicean Church, on the other hand, represents the unobtrusive and indefinite temptations of ordinary times and ordinary men—the false security, the easy indifference, the unruffled self-satisfaction, of individuals and of Churches, when they are not roused to a sense of their true condition by any unwonted circumstances.
Of Laodicea two historical notices are preserved, bearing on her condition at this time, and illustrating the message in the Apocalypse—the one in secular history, the other in an Apostolic Epistle.
Only a few years before S. John wrote, a heavy blow had fallen on Laodicea. The whole region is S. P. S. IS
highly volcanic; earthquakes were and are frequent here. On this occasion however the shock was more disastrous than usual. The city was in great part thrown down. But the Roman historian, who records the incident, adds another fact also of importance. It was usual for these cities of Asia Minor, when suffering under such calamities, to receive aid from the imperial treasury. Laodicea neither asked nor obtained any such relief. So great were her own material resources, that she recovered herself from the blow without any assistance from without. It was a proud satisfaction, we may well imagine, to this easy, prosperous commercial city thus to show her independence and self-sufficiency before an admiring world.
The notice of Laodicea in an Apostolic Epistle, written within two or three years of this event, is hardly so flattering. Giving directions to the Colossians, S. Paul charges them to interchange letters with their neighbours of Laodicea. At the same time he sends this message to the Church of the Laodiceans; 'Say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.' The misgiving, which prompts this warning, does not stand alone. In other passages of the same Epistle the Apostle betrays uneasiness about the Church of Laodicea, as well as about the neighbouring Church of Colossse. He speaks of the conflict, the mental solicitude, which they cause him. He says that Epaphras also is very anxious about them, always struggling, always wrestling for them in his prayers, that they may stand firm in the faith. Evidently they are in a very critical state, when S. Paul writes.
The message in the Revelation is the sequel both to the laudatory notice in the Roman historian, and to the uneasy misgiving of the Christian Apostle. We see from it into what a spiritual condition the Laodiceans had passed through their national prosperity mentioned by the one. We learn also from it that there was only too much ground for the anxious forebodings entertained by the other. '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. 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 naked- ness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.'
It is the great work of God's word to contrast the real with the apparent, to strip away all conventional disguises, and to reveal the truth in things moral and spiritual. This agent is described elsewhere under the image of a keen, double-edged knife, piercing, probing, dividing with infinite skill and precision, anatomizing and laying bare the inmost thoughts and desires of the heart. This 'Word of God'—as the Apostolic writer uses the term—this Divine Voice, speaks to us in many ways. Sometimes it whispers to us in the secret communings of our own hearts; sometimes it deafens us with the thunderclap of a sudden and cruel catastrophe. Sometimes it addresses us through the utterances of inspired Prophets or Apostles, when the old familiar text which we have slurred over time out of mind with listless eyes, appears suddenly ablaze, each several letter traced out in lines of fire by the visible hand of an invisible power on the palace walls, an unwonted and an unwelcome guest breaking in upon the banquet of our pride and self-complacency. Sometimes it pierces us through the taunts of an enemy of the faith, scoffing at the contrast between the selfish, mundane life which we lead, and the sublime creed of self-renunciation which we profess. But, from whatever side the knife may strike, the hand which wields it is the same.
Has it ever happened to any here, that in the midst of your false security, when all seems going on well with you, when you have got to look upon yourself—your comfortable position, your high character, your reasonable orthodoxy, your orderly and religious life—with no small complacency and self-satisfaction, its keen, cold edge has been suddenly felt . A message has come to you, as it came to the Church of Laodicea, startling you out of your apathy. You know at once from Whom it has come. There is a directness, there is a distinctness, there is a searchingness, about the message, which cannot be misunderstood. It is the voice of the Amen—the voice of the Faithful and True Witness. You recognise—you cannot help recognising—its truth and its fidelity. It tells you that, though you fancied yourself spiritually rich, you are miserably poor; though you thought you were clothed in comfortable and seemly raiment, you have been going about in shameful tatters; though you were proud of the range and the keenness of your vision, you were wholly blind. The prosperous, easy, self-complacent, self-admiring man finds himself to be after all utterly beggared in that which alone is true wealth. Struggle as you will, you cannot dispute the verdict . Your own conscience subscribes to it, and your own judgment seals it.
1. It tells you that you are poor. You thought that you had all the appliances needed for any emergency which might arise, that you were prepared by Christian principles for all the possible catastrophes of human life. Were you not rich in the precious treasure, well-stored with religious maxims, well-versed in religious services? So long as you were prosperous, these served your turn very well. But the message came—came in the sudden blow which scattered your stores of worldly wealth, or in the cruel bereavement which snapped the thread of your deepest affections and your fondest hopes. And then the truth flashed upon you; then you made a discovery of your real self. The fountain, which flowed freely in the sunshine of prosperity, was frozen hard and dry by the winter of affliction. It was a painfully bitter experience to you to find that your religion, of which you thought so highly, was so inadequate, so conventional, so unmeaning, so hollow and unsubstantial after all. You sought God, and you could not find Him. You had to begin to build up your religious life anew fiom its foundations.
2. It tells you also that you are naked. You have set great store on your irreproachable character: you have guarded your fair fame with scrupulous care. You were proof against the assaults of direct opposition; you could have battled bravely with the storms of adverse fortune. These might do their worst and succeed; and yet you could have preserved a dauntless courage; your spirit would not have been broken. But you wore a proud and sensitive selfconsciousness, the mantle of a stainless and unblemished reputation. You persuaded yourself that no man could rob you of this. And as long as you were so clothed and so protected, you could bear any vicissitudes that might overtake you. The moment came, which stripped you of your comely robe—perhaps through some trifling neglect or inadvertence of your own, perhaps through accidental circumstances over which you had no control. A misunderstanding of an ambiguous word, a misinterpretation of a doubtful act, a mistaken identity, an anonymous libel, a malicious scandal, has torn to shreds the garment which you had woven for yourself with so much care, and which you prized so highly. And you are left bare and defenceless, exposed to the chilling scorn and the scoffing taunts of an unsparing world.
3. Again; it tells you that you are blind. Under ordinary circumstances you see your way clearly enough. You have no doubt about the path you ought to pursue. You have no moral difficulties, no inward struggles. You have enough of conscience, enough of insight, enough of moral discrimination, to steer your course through the common shoals and quicksands of life. But a great crisis comes, a trial of unwonted perplexity. And under the intensity of the moral struggle you break down. It is a conflict between two opposing claims; or it is, more likely, a conflict between an obvious duty on the one hand, and a strong affection, or a mastering aversion, on the other. If your spiritual life had been what it ought to have been, what it seemed to others to be, what even you yourself thought it to be, the decision would not have cost you a moment's perplexity. As it is, you hesitate, you waver, you cannot see your way. Your moral vision grows more and more indistinct. The light within you is darkness.
In this hour of adversity or bereavement, in this downfall of your shattered reputation, in this agony of intense moral conflict, you find out your real self. The Faithful and True Witness speaks directly to you: 'Thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.' He denounces for the past, and He advises for the future. 'I counsel thee to buy of Me gold, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed; and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.' 'This sense of destitution, of nakedness, of blindness, this humiliating self-revelation, this very bitter scourge— what is it, but an instrument of mercy in My hands, bringing thee to a knowledge of thyself and of God?' 'Be zealous therefore, and repent.'
But what is the cause of this hapless condition? How shall we explain this poverty in wealth, this nakedness in sumptuous clothing, this blindness in keen vision? The image in the sequel is the answer to this question.
'1 know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or hot.' The words are at first sight startling. It is not uncommonly, I imagine, assumed that these words 'hot' and 'cold' stand for 'good' and 'bad;' that they denote the godly and the godless respectively. Thus the text seems to countenance the idea that there is more hope for the reckless profligate, than for the respectable citizen who is without any deep sense of religion; or in other words, that the bad man is better than the partially good. Such an interpretation is burdened with difficulties. It even involves a contradiction in terms. Scriptural teaching and moral instinct alike repudiate it. The words 'hot,' 'lukewarm,' 'cold,' therefore cannot mark different degrees on the moral thermometer. The metaphor must be otherwise explained. It is doubtless taken from the practice of mixing hot or cold water with the ordinary wines drunk by the ancients, according to the season of the year or the hour of the day. Each had its proper time, its proper use, its proper quality. Each was good in its way; each answered its purpose. But the tepid, lukewarm water is useless, insipid, nauseous. The palate and the stomach alike reject it . Thus the hot and the cold represent those who set themselves in different ways to realise some ideal, who make it their business to act up to some standard. The standard may fall short of the Gospel ideal. The aim may not be the Christian aim. But the vigorous, energetic, single-minded pursuit of it is elevating and ennobling in itself. The man of science, or the scholar, who prosecutes his researches with a devotion which seeks no reward beyond, will serve as an example of what is meant. The unconverted heathen, who availed himself of his opportunities and fulfilled his work, who was a patriotic citizen, who was an honourable and assiduous merchant, who was a brave and devoted soldier, stood on a far higher level than the apathetic, indolent, heartless disciple of Christ, in spite of his superior enlightenment and his larger advantages. He was at least not lukewarm. His life had a meaning and a use. It had a force and a savour in it.
The danger of Laodicea will be the danger of all Christian men and all Christian communities in a season of unruffled calm, of external prosperity, of settled routine. It is a danger which threatens a Church like our own, with its considerable endowments, with its well-appointed ordinances, with its legal position and its acknowledged respectability. It is a danger which threatens a country like our own, where material appliances abound, where the stream of social and political life flows smoothly and uninterruptedly, where religious ordinances are regularly performed and respected. It is a danger also which lies very near to any ordinary congregation of churchgoing people, exempt for the most part from the severest exigencies and the hardest experiences of life, who have their conventional duties and amusements, their conventional social and domestic engagements, their conventional religious observances; and whose spiritual life therefore runs a risk of degenerating into a conventional routine. For it is just here that convention must have no place. In the common avocations of life, even in the external ordinances of religion, it is inevitable, and it is right, that rule and habit should to a great extent prevail. But if any man's inward life has become conventional, has become crystallized, has been hardened into a dry, mechanical system, then that man is dead, though he liveth. The spiritual life must be always healthy, always fresh, always growing and expanding, always gathering fresh experiences and throwing out new developments.
If this is your danger or mine, then to us the message of the Faithful and True Witness is especially addressed; speaking ever and again in these momentary shocks which ruffle the tenour of our lives, or in these sudden flashes which startle the slumber of our consciences, rebuking our apathy, denouncing our lukewarmness, warning us to be zealous and repent.
Rebuking and denouncing and warning; but yet at the same time guiding, comforting, encouraging, speaking in tones of infinite love and assurance and hope. Close upon this stern and startling message, these words of uncompromising reproof, follows the gracious invitation, freely extended to all, closing the letter to the Laodiceans and with it the appeal to the seven Churches, speaking clearer and lingering later even than the words of condemnation and rebuke:. '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. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me on My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne.'
As we hear the words, we are reminded how this striking image has been transferred to the canvas by the genius of a living artist. We recall the calm, patient figure waiting, at the door, the sad, earnest, reproachful look of tender compassion, the hand uplifted in the act of knocking, the ear attentive for the faintest sound of a response from within. We remember well the scene of neglect and desolation around; the door bolted and barred, the hinges and the fastenings rusted, the thorns and briars straggling across the entrance, the pathway overgrown with tangled weeds and poisonous fruits. As we gaze, wc seem almost to hear the repeated knock, low but clear, sounding hollow through the empty chambers and passages. Has it occurred to us to ask ourselves whether this striking picture may not be too true a parable of our own lives—if not of the whole, at least of large portions of them—to enquire, whether this scene may not even now be enacting, and we ourselves the unconscious actors?
To keep our ears open to each sound of His voice (however soft and low), to answer the first summons of His knock (however faint and distant)—this is our most pressing need. It is very rarely that His voice will be heard clear and ringing, very rarely that His knock will startle with its loudness. But the less obtrusive appeals He makes to us day by day. At each repeated call, we are bidden to open our hearts, and lay before Him our inmost thoughts, our keenest desires, our hopes, our fears, our temptations to evil, our aspirations after good. This if we do, He will come in to us; will establish Himself an inmate in our hearts; will become our most welcome guest, and our most generous host; will cheerfully receive from us such meagre entertainment as alone we can give; will set before us in turn the lavish banquet, which His wealth alone can dispense.
This if we persevere in doing, He will not only admit us as guests to His table, He will even seat us as kings on His throne. For we shall follow in His steps, shall conform to Him, shall grow into Him, shall be one with Him, as He also is One with the Father. His kingdom shall be our kingdom, as His rule of life has become our rule of life: for He also overcame, and is set down on His Father's throne.