"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."—Rev. iii. 5.
THE brightest examples of earnest Christianity are generally found amidst widespread indifference. If a man does not yield to the prevailing tone, it is likely to quicken him into strong opposition. So it was in this Church of Sardis. It was dead. That was the summing-up of its condition. It had a name to live, and the name only made the real deadness more complete. But there were exceptions: souls ablaze with Divine love, who in the midst of corruption had kept their robes clean, and whom Christ's own voice declared to be worthy to walk with Him in white.
That great eulogium, which immediately precedes our text, is referred to in the first of its triple promises; as is even more distinctly seen if we read our text as the Revised Version does: "He that overcometh, the same shall thus be clothed in white raiment"; the "thus" pointing back to the preceding words, and widening the promise to the faithful few in Sardis so as to extend to all victors in all Churches throughout all time.
Now, the remaining two clauses of our text also seem to be coloured by the preceding parts of this letter. We read in it, "Thou hast a name that thou livest"; and again, "Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not denied their garments." Our text catches up the word, and moulds its promises accordingly. One is more negative, the other more positive ; both link on to a whole series of Scriptural representations.
Now, all these declarations of the blessedness of the victors are, of course, intensely symbolical, and we can but partially translate them. I simply seek now to take them as they stand, and to try to grasp at least some part of the dim but certain hopes which they partly reveal and partly hide. There are, then, three things here.
I. The victor's robes.
"He that overcometh, the same shall (thus) be clothed in white raiment." White, of course, is the festal colour. But it is more than that: it is the heavenly colour. In this book we read of white thrones, white horses, hairs "white as snow," white stones. But we are to notice that the word here employed does not merely mean a dead whiteness, which is the absence of colour, but a lustrous and glistering white, like that of snow smitten by sunshine, or like that which dazzled the eyes of the three on the Mount of Transfiguration, when they saw the robes of the glorified Christ "whitened as no fuller on earth could white them." So that we are to associate with this metaphor, not only the thoughts of purity, festal joy, victory, but likewise the thought of lustrous glory.
Then the question arises, can we translate that metaphor of the robe into anything that will come closer to the fact? Now, I may remind you that this figure runs through the whole of Scripture. We find, for instance, in one of the old prophets, a vision in which the taking away of Israel's sin is represented by the High Priest, the embodiment of the nation, standing in filthy garments, which were stripped off him and fair ones put on him. We find our Lord giving forth a parable of a man who came to the feast, not having on a wedding garment. We find the Apostle Paul speaking frequently, in a similar metaphor, of putting off an ancient nature and putting on a new one. We find in this book, not only the references in my text and the context, but the great saying concerning those that have "washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb," and the final benediction pronounced upon those who washed their robes, that they may "have a right to enter through the gate into the city."
Putting all these things together—and the catalogue might be extended—we have to observe that the signification of this symbol is not that of something wholly external to or apart from the man, but that it is rather that part of his nature, so to speak, which is visible to beholders, and we may translate it very simply—the robe is character. So the promise of my text, brought down so far as we can bring it to its primary element, is of a purity and lustrous glory of personal character, which shall be visible to any eye that may look upon the wearer. What more there may be found in it when we are " clothed upon with our house which is from heaven," if so be that "being clothed we shall not be found naked," I do not presume to say. I do not speculate, I simply translate the plain words of Scripture into the truth which they represent.
Bat now 1 would have you notice that this, like all the promises of the New Testament in regard to a future life, lays main stress on what a man is. Not where we are; not what we have ; not what we do or know, make heaven, but what we are. The promises are clothed for ns, as they must needs be, in sensuous images, which sensuous men have interpreted in far too low a sense; or sometimes have not been even at the trouble of interpreting. But in reality there are but two facts that we know about that future, and they are smelted together, as cause and effect, in the great saying of the most spiritual of the Apostles: "We shall be like Him"—that is what we shall be—" for we shall see Him as He is." So, then, purity of character, when all the stains on the garments, spotted by the flesh, shall have melted away ; purity of character, when temptations shall have no more food in us and so conflict shall not be needful ; purity like Christ's own, and derived from the vision of Him, according to the great law that beholding is transformation, and the light we see is the light which we reflect—this is the heart of this great promise.
But notice that the main thing about it is that this lustrous purity of a perfected character is declared to be the direct outcome of the character, that was made by effort and struggle carried on in faith here upon earth. In this clause the familiar "I will give" does not appear ; and the thought of the condition upon earth working itself out into the glory of lustrous purity in the heavens is made even more emphatic by the adoption of the reading to which I have referred: "Shall thus be clothed," which points us backwards to what preceded, where our Lord's own voice declares that the men who have not defiled their garments upon earth are they who "shall walk with Him in white." The great law of continuity and of increase, so that the dispositions cultivated here rise to sovereign power hereafter, and that what was tendency, and struggle, and imperfect realisation upon earth becomes fact and complete possession in the heavens, is declared in the words before us.
What solemn importance that thought gives to the smallest of our victories or defeats here on earth! They are threads in the web oat of which our garment is to be cut. After all, yonder as here, we are dressed in homespun, and we make our clothing and shape it for our wear. That truth is perfectly consistent with the other truth on which it reposes—that the Christian man owes to Christ the reception of the new garment of purity and holiness. The evangelical doctrine, "not by works of righteousness which we have done," and its complement in the words of my text, are perfectly harmonious. We cannot weave the web except Christ gives us yarn, nor can we work out our own salvation except Christ bestows upon us the salvation which we work out. The two things go together. Let us remember that, whilst in one aspect the souls that were all clad in filthy garments are arrayed as a bridegroom decketh his bride with a fair vesture, in another aspect we ourselves, by our own efforts, by our own struggles, by our own victories, have to weave and fashion and cut and sew the dress which we shall wear for ever.
II. Notice here the victor's place in the Book of Life.
"I will not blot out his name out of the Book of Life." I have pointed out that in the former clause the characteristic "I will give" is omitted, in order that emphatic expression might be secured for the thought that in one aspect the reward of the future is automatic or self-working. But that thought is by no means a complete statement of the truth with regard to this matter; and so, in both of the subsequent clauses, we have our Lord representing Himself (for it is never to be forgotten that these promises are Christ's own words from heaven) as clothed with His judicial functions, and as determining the fates of men. "I will not blot out his name out of the Book of Life" That is a solemn and tremendous claim, that Christ's finger can write, and Christ's finger can erase, a name from that register.
Now, I have said that all these clauses link themselves on to a whole series of Scriptural representatives. I showed that briefly in regard to the former; I would do so in regard to the present one.
You will remember, perhaps, in the early history of Israel, that Moses, with lofty self-devotion, prayed God to blot his name out of His book, if only by that sacrifice Israel's sin might be forgiven. You may recall too, possibly, how one of the prophets speaks of "those that are written amongst the living in Jerusalem," and how Daniel, in his eschatological vision, refers to those whose names were or were not written in the book. I need not remind you of how our Lord commanded His disciples to rejoice not in that the spirits were subject to them, but rather to rejoice because their names were written in heaven. Nor need I do more than simply refer to the Apostle's tender and pathetic excuse for not remembering the names of some of His fellow-workers, that it mattered very little, because their names were written in the Book of Life. Throughout this Apocalypse, too, we find subsequent allusions of the same nature, just as in the Epistle to the Hebrews we read of the " Church of the first-born whose names are written in heaven." Now, all these, thus put together, suggest two ideas : one which I do not deal with here—viz., that of a burgess-roll—and the other that of a register of those who truly live. And that is the thought that is suggested here. The promise of my text links on to the picture in the letter, of the condition of the Church at Sardis, which was dead, and says that the victor will truly and securely and for ever possess life, with all the clustered blessednesses which, like a nebula unresolved, gather themselves, dim yet radiant, round that great word.
But what I especially note here is, not so much this reiteration of the fundamental and all-embracing promise which has met us in preceding letters, the promise of a secure, eternal life, as that plain and solemn implication that a name may be struck out of that book. Theological exigencies compelled our fathers to deny that, but surely the words of our text are too plain to be neglected or misunderstood. It is possible that a name, like the name of a dishonest attorney, shall be struck off the rolls. Do not let any desire for theological symmetry blind you, brother, to that fact. Take it into account in your daily lives. It is possible for a man to " cast away his confidence." It is possible for him to make shipwreck of the faith. Some of you will remember that pathetic story of Cromwell's deathbed, when he asked one of his ghostly counsellors whether it was true that "once in the covenant, always in the covenant?" He got the answer, "Yes"; and then he said, "I know I once was," and so died. Brethren, it is the victors whose names are kept upon the roll. These people at Sardis had a name to live, and they thought that their names were in the Book of Life. And when it was opened, lo! a blot. Some of us have seen upon the granite of Egyptian temples the cartouches of a defeated dynasty chiselled out by their successors. The granite on which this list is written is not so hard but that a man, by his own sin, falling away from the Master, may chisel out his name. A student goes up for his examination. He thinks he has succeeded. The pass-lists come out, and his name is not there. Take care that you are not building upon past faith, but remember that it is the victor's name that is not blotted out of the Book of Life.
III. Lastly, the victor's recognition by the Commanding Officer.
"I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels." There, too, we have a kind of mosaic, made up of previous Scripture declarations. Our Lord, twice in the Gospels—and on neither occasion in the Gospel according to St. John—has similar sayings; once about confessing the name of him who confesses His name "before the Father "; once about confessing it "before the holy angels." Here these are smelted together into the one great recognition by Jesus Christ of the victor as being His.
Now, I need not remind you of how emphatically, to this clause also, the remark which I have made with regard to the former one applies, and how tremendous and inexplicable, except on one hypothesis, is this same assumption by Christ of fjudicial functions which determine the fate and the standing of men.
But I would rather point to the thought that this promise carries with it not only Christ's judicial recognition of the victor, but also the thought of loving relationship, of close friendship, of continual regard. He "confesses the name "—that means that He takes to His heart, and loves, and cares for the person.
Is it not the highest honour that can be given to any soldier, to have honourable mention in the General's despatches? It matters very little what becomes of our names upon earth, though there they be dark, and swift oblivion devours them almost as soon as we are dead, except in so far as they may live for a little while in the memory of two or three that loved us. That is the fate of most of us. And surely " the hollow wraith of dying fame" may "fade wholly," and we "exult," if Jesus Christ confess our name. It matters little who forgets us if He remember us. It matters even less what the judgments pronounced in our obituaries may be, if He says, " That man is Mine, and I own him." Ah! brethren, what a reversal of the world's judgments there will be one day ; and how names that have been blown through a thousand trumpets, and had hosannas sung to them, and been welcomed with a tumult of acclaim through generations, will sink into oblivion and never be heard of any more, and the unseen and obscure men who lived by, and for, and with Jesus Christ, will come to the front! Praise from Him is praise indeed.
Now, brethren, the upshot of it all is that life here derives its meaning and its consecration from life hereafter. The question for us is, do we habitually realise that we are weaving the garment we must wear, be it a poisoned robe that shall eat into our flesh like fire, or be it a fair vesture, clean and white? Do we brace ourselves for the obscure struggles of our little lives, feeling that they are not small because they carry eternal consequences? Are we content to be unknown because well known by Him, and to live so that He shall acknowledge us in the day when to be acknowledged by Him means glory and blessedness beyond all hopes and all symbols ; and to be disowned by Him means ruin and despair? You know the conditions of victory. Lay them to heart, and its issues, and the tragical results of defeat; and then cleave, with mind and heart and will, to Him who can make you more than conquerors, who will change your frayed and dinted armour for the fine linen, clean and white, and will point to you, before His Father and the universe, and say, " This man was one of My faithful soldiers." That will be honour indeed. Do you see to it that you make it yours.