"There were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God" (Revelation 4:5b).
I want first to say a word as to the occasion of this book of the Revelation, and of these first chapters in particular.
A sufficient period had elapsed from the time that the Lord, through His servants, had first sent His word to the Church, and to these churches in particular, to find out what was their continual reaction to His word. A sufficient time had been allowed for the truth given to find a really concrete expression. The first of these messages is addressed to Ephesus. We know from the book of the Acts how that church came into being, and what the first reactions to the message were. We know that, some considerable time afterward, the apostle Paul, who had ministered long and fully amongst that company of the Lord's people, wrote to those believers a very great letter. He probably wrote it about the year 60 or 61. Now John is writing, at the command of the Lord, probably between the years 80 and 90. We will not argue over dates; there is some difference of opinion on this matter; but I do not think that all the things that had come about in the churches could have developed as quickly as is implied by the date assigned by some people to the book of the Revelation. My point is that, if these dates are right - 60 or 61, to 80 to 90 - a sufficient period would have elapsed to provide a very good test amongst the believers of the results of the ministry which had been given.
Response and Reactions Tested
Now the Lord, taking account of that sufficient period, in His own mind, has Himself returned to the churches, in this revelation to John, in order to investigate, to search out, to test, and to draw the conclusions. Each message concludes with the words: 'He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith' - seven times. And here, in symbolic representation, the Holy Spirit is spoken of as 'the seven Spirits of God before the throne'. The Holy Spirit, as a burning lamp, is searching, testing, and bringing about a verdict. As it has ever been - it was so in the life of Israel, and it has been so more than once since - that after a certain time, when we have come into knowledge of the Lord, or of the things of the Lord; when we have been recipients of His grace, of His mercy, and of His truth - the Lord says: 'It is time: the time has come when we should weigh up the result of that; it will not do just to leave it all to some future date when it is too late to adjust.' The time of visitation has come, when we have got to measure up to what the Lord has given, to what the Lord has shown. It is a time of searching, a time of heart-burning, a time of Holy Spirit exercise.
I wonder if you are able to recognise the working of that principle in our own time? We need not look far afield, but there is no doubt that that is what is happening in the world. It has happened in an almost terrible way, we might say, in China; and it is happening in other parts of the world, and spreading. In its own way, it is beginning to work in the west: there is a deep exercise of heart; wherever we go we find Christians who are troubled about the state of things in the churches, and in their own lives; there is a sense that things are not all well, not what they ought to be. In some places, of course, we are not able to discern a great deal of exercise and distress, but we do know that something is going on. It is as though the Spirit of God is moving to bring everything to the judgment bar, and judgment is to begin at the house of God.
Well, we need not look out into the world - it may be what the Lord is doing with us. But it is true to His method and to His principle: in His mercy, in His grace, He does not leave things too long. When He sees that an adequate time has elapsed, He comes and He says: Now then, are you sure that you are up to the level of all that you have received? Can you really measure up to the light that has been given? Can you answer, in experience and spiritual history, to all that I have made known to you? How far are you [in] that which you know so well, by teaching, preaching and other means? That is what is here, undoubtedly - a time point for judgment.
A Time of Adversity
But there is another thing here. As we come into this book of the Revelation, we come into a situation of great trouble, adversity, suffering. These churches, for instance, were existing under conditions of considerable difficulty. You can see the marks of this in what the Lord says; He takes note of it. It is a very difficult time for the churches here, and for the whole Church - a time of great adversity.
Historically, that had two sides. On the one side, there was the great revival of Jewish opposition, which had been provoked, in its turn, by the action of Rome. Rome had come down with a heavy hammer on the Jews, and they were standing for their very life: so they must have a scapegoat; they must have someone to blame for the events complained of, so as to divert the trouble from themselves. They therefore blamed the Christians; they said it was the Christians who were responsible for this and that. And so there was a tremendous revival of Jewish antagonism to Christianity; a renewed upsurge of militant Judaism, of which the New Testament is full, with its hostility to Christ. These churches were up against that; it was everywhere.
On the other side, there was the tremendous hatred and antagonism of pagan Rome. This was the time of the great persecutions; the time in which ten million Christians were slaughtered, either by the lions in the arena, or else by being soaked in oil and pitch and made living torches for a festival, or in some other way. And the Lord came at that time. We need to keep that in mind as we read those words of His: "I know where thou dwellest, even where Satan's throne is" (Rev. 2:13). 'I know...' The Lord knows the conditions in which His Church has to live in this world; He knows the sufferings of His people; He knows all their adversities. Let me repeat: We must not always read these messages from the standpoint of the Lord's wrath, anger, judgment. There is the note here all the time of appeal, of entreaty and of love, finishing every time with: 'To him that overcometh will I give...' His heart is with them, and for them.
We have pointed out that there is something very much like that in this world today. Over a very large part of the earth it is like that. On the one side, the 'Jewish' - that is, the religious - antagonisms; on the other side, the pagan antagonism of the world. Oh, the sufferings of many of the Lord's people today; multitudes of them! And who is to say that we in the West are not going to pass into the crucible - that it will never come our way? But whether it be in our lifetime, or in the Lord's knowledge lying ahead, perhaps not so far ahead, the Lord comes. With what purpose? Is it to put His finger upon the wrongs, to be saying all the time, Well, that is wrong, and that is wrong, and that is wrong; just to be condemnatory?
The Lord is Faithful in Judgment
No. This is the point, and this is the inclusive message of this whole section. He is saying: 'You cannot stand up to this world situation; you will never be able to go through triumphantly unless you are in a condition to do it. You are not going to get through just because you are the 'Church', so-called; because you are 'Christians', so-called! Your victory, your coming through triumphantly, your ability to stand up to the situation, requires that what you profess to be, you are; that things are true about you; that such things as will weaken your testimony and destroy your life be eliminated; and that such things as are required for your very life be brought in.' The Lord is saying, in effect: 'Adjustment is necessary for your very life - for your very life.'
We know that this is true in our own physical experience. We do not like the doctor's probing and investigation; it can be painful. But no one in his senses would say to a doctor, 'Please just cover it all over; make nothing of it; just take no notice.' The Lord is not like that. There has to be probing; there has to be a getting down to the root of the trouble. It is very painful, but we know quite well that our very life, our very continuance, depends upon it. The Lord knows that quite well. So, whatever there is here of judgment, even of condemnation or rebuke, it is all with the positive object of securing our very life - the life of the Church. He is faithful and true - so He is described here (Rev. 3:14; cf. 19:11). It is a good thing for any Christian, going through seemingly painful handling of the Lord, to be able to arrive at that: The Lord is faithful!
What is faithfulness in relationship? Would to God that we had more grace to let people be faithful with us! We like to be faithful with them, but we do not like them to be faithful with us. Being faithful means their not allowing us to go on to our own hurt when they can see the thing that is doing the hurt; saying, 'Look here, brother, look here sister, I am not taking the position of one superior and better, but I do see that you are hurting yourself, doing injury to yourself, you are spoiling your own life by doing this or that; you are limiting your own influence in this way.' That is faithfulness. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend" (Prov. 27:6). The Lord here is a 'Faithful and True Witness'. He must, from time to time, come and say, 'Now, look here, we have gone on for quite a time, giving, waiting, working. There are things that are spoiling, limiting, hurting. We must deal with these; we must get them eliminated.'
The Universality and Heavenly Position of the Church
We pointed out that the opening up of this whole matter was, significantly enough, with Ephesus. And Ephesus is the key to the whole; for, by His address to Ephesus, the Lord comprehends the whole: "He that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand" (2:1). He says that to Ephesus, as though He were speaking to all. And we know that when Paul wrote his letter to Ephesus - so-called - it was a circular letter for the churches in Asia. The whole is comprehended by this approach to Ephesus. We look at Ephesus; we remember what the Lord had given there.
First of all, that letter, that marvellous letter of Paul's, presents, as no other writing in the Bible presents, the great truth of the absolute universality of the Church: something far more than what is local, something far more than what is earthly, something far more than what is temporal. It is universal. There is a marvellous revelation of the Church there!
Then, as to where that Church really is. The letter was written to the company in a city called Ephesus; but when you begin to read it, the Church is not all in Ephesus by any means - indeed, you are taken a long, long way from Ephesus. You find, when you are looking for the Church of the letter to the Ephesians, that you have to go to Heaven to find it - it is 'seated together with Christ in the heavenlies' (Eph. 2:6). Would to God that that had got the grip on us that it ought to have done! Let us get our eyes and our mentality off the earthly aspect of things, and let us be gripped by this truth: If there are people who are really born from above, who are really indwelt by the Holy Spirit, baptized in one Spirit into one Body, no matter where they are, who they are, what their connections may be here on this earth, that earthly connection is not the important thing, the ultimate thing. By reason of their birth, and by their union with Christ in Heaven, they are in Heaven positionally - they are positionally above all that!
We only spoil things when we come down to this sorry earth level with Christians, and look at them according to their designations and titles and so on - let us get above that. If you truly love the Lord Jesus, no matter what you are in, you are my brother, you are my sister; we are the heavenly family. We do not shut our eyes to all the problems that will arise. Yes, they will arise, but it will be in another realm. And when they arise, do not let us allow them to move us from our heavenly position - that of our true relatedness to Christ in Heaven. If we keep to that, we make for possibilities; if we come down to earth level, we close the door at once to so many spiritual, Divine possibilities. Where are you looking for the Church? If you are looking for it down here, you will be grievously and despairingly disappointed; you will have to look higher than that. Now, you see, the trouble with these churches in Asia was that they had come down on to an earthly level. And as you read each message - oh, the earthliness, the wretchedness of what had come in! It had changed their whole position from heavenly to earthly.
The Real Conflict
Turning again to that letter to Ephesus, we find ourselves in a conflict, a conflict which is above and behind all that is going on here on this earth. These letters in the Revelation, and the letter to Ephesus as inclusive, had a very practical meaning for those who received the message. Is it Nero, that devil incarnate, there in Rome, who is causing all this suffering? Is it a later Emperor, not much better, if any? Is that it? Is it all these things which are affecting the bodies of the saints and their situations? The apostle in his letter says: Look further; look behind the men, the instruments; look behind what they are using and what they are doing, and you will see other 'world rulers of this darkness'; you will see 'principalities and powers' that are higher than Nero or any of the others; you will see multitudes, 'hosts of wicked spirits' at work behind it all; and it is in that realm that our conflict lies. We are not fighting Nero; we are not fighting... (put in any name that you like!); we are not fighting men or regimes here on this earth: we are up against the ultimate forces of this universe, the forces of darkness.
Forget that, let that slip out of your consciousness and recognition at any time, and what happens? You quarrel with people; you let in all kinds of other considerations where men are concerned; you put this down to that and that; you account for it on human grounds, and what a mess we get into when we do that! If only the Church would look this thing straight in the face, and say: Yes, I know the frailties of people; I know the imperfections of men and of women, and they seem to be the real trouble spots, but back of it there is another force at work to ruin the testimony of the Church. The determining factor here is the testimony of Jesus, and it is against that that these wicked spirits, in their countless hosts, are so terribly at work. You and I have to be very careful that we are not the unconscious and unwitting instruments of those powers to weaken the testimony of the Lord, coming down to earth by our human judgments, appraisements, evaluations, standards, criticisms, and what not. Don't come down there! If you do, it is confusion - and it gives pleasure to the enemy.
That is the meaning of Ephesus. And in at any rate five cases, these messages stand very closely related to that great factor - that they had forgotten that they were in a heavenly warfare, they had forgotten that they were in a heavenly position, and they had come down, and had taken it all on in an earthly way.
Resources for the Conflict
But we cannot leave it there. This wonderful letter, which brings those things to light so strongly and fully, also tells us of the Church's resources in the battle and for maintaining its heavenly position. Wonderful things are spoken of in that letter as to our resources.
One wonderful phrase in the prayer of the apostle is this: 'that He would grant you to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inward man' (3:16). That is something for position and for conflict. 'Strengthened with might by His Spirit'. He repeats that in his letter to the Colossians in another way: 'that ye may be strengthened with might according to His glorious power' (Col. 1:11).
And then, for the warfare, 'the whole armour of God' (Eph. 6:13) is provided - everything that is required!
Now, the Lord had given that revelation long since, and He comes back and says: 'You have left your first position and your first works, as you have left your first love. Repent and do the first works - get back on to the original ground; recover what you have lost as to position.' Clearly He is saying, in effect: 'If you recover the position, I will see to the resources - 'He that overcometh, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne' (Rev. 3:21); 'to rule the nations' (2:26,27)'. What promises!
What is the point? We are not through yet; the work is not finished yet; there is still something to be done, and the testimony of the Lord must be preserved to the end intact. The word of the Lord to us is this: Make sure that you are not allowing to come in, for the weakening and spoiling and curtailing of your testimony, those things of this earth, of this creation, that are of the enemy's projecting. Make sure that you are not allowing them to come in. Take a very strong stand against everything of that kind. Stand together against this vicious foe. Maintain your heavenly position, and there you will find heavenly resources, and the Lord with you.
The Lord use this word for our strengthening.