State Road, Del., February 14, 1883
Dear Brother Respess:
In the commencement of the third chapter of the Book of Revelation is recorded a message to the angel of the Church of Sardis. There are several remarkable points in this message; and as they have been somewhat upon my mind, I propose to make them the subject of the present letter.
John appears to have had a kind of general oversight and pastoral care over these seven churches – named in the second and third chapters – to whom he sent these messages. What the Spirit said to these churches we may understand as being said to any and all churches in like condition, in any and all countries, unto the end of time. Nevertheless, I have long understood these churches to be representative in their character, and prophetic of church history, in the order in which they are placed. If they do present to us a succession of church states, the consciousness of this fact will aid us materially in applying the admonitions and instructions where they belong – the only difficulty being to fix rightly the point of time and attendant circumstances where one of these periods ends and another begins. Pursuing this track of investigation, we find Ephesus named first, and of course representing the gospel church state in its primitive organization, and during the apostolic age. Remarkably enough, apostles are mentioned – while they are not mentioned, or referred to, in any of the succeeding messages; and the fact is also mentioned of pretended apostles having been tried by the church, and found to be imposters. In regard to the purity of the church, as we might expect to find it under the ministry of the apostles, it may be observed that but one sentence of fault is found with her, and nothing more or higher is enjoined upon her, or required of her, that a return to her first love, and her first works. This admonition may have been designed for the later years of the period of time allotted to her. A period of bitter persecution and proscription follows, during which the saints are called to suffer all manner of tortures for the truth”s sake. This period, according to this view, is represented by Smyrna – of which church not one word of censure or reproof is said, but instead thereof: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give the a crown of life.”
Passing over the succeeding names to the fifth in course, which is called Sardis, I think it will not be to difficult to determine its place and time. It will do no harm at least to examine what is said to this church, and of it, and see how it will apply to a certain period of recent date, of the church”s history. It is known to those who are at all conversant with church history, that a few generations back, there was quite a general uprising in many of the Old countries against the oppressions and persecutions which had been so long endured; and that where resistance failed, that the discovery and settlement of America afforded and asylum. The multitudes of those who had been victims of religious proscription and fiendish cruelty, finding a place of retreat and shelter in the New World, led, as we are aware, not only too the enjoyment of freedom from persecution, but to the establishing of religious liberty as an inalienable right of the people. I need not speak of the growth and triumph of this principle. That such a triumph of human rights, and vindication of liberty of conscience, should influence the more enlightened of the Old countries was to be expected. The event has been that in many countries the very idea of religious freedom has become popular; and those who had long been trodden down under the heel of tyranny, and overwhelmed with reproach, suddenly find themselves the subjects first of sympathy and afterwards of popularity. Religious profession and the Christian name rapidly become respectable. It becomes, indeed the surest pathway to popular favor. Now what shall we see? That the element of human nature that ever courts public favor, would as soon seek it in the church as anywhere else. The church will be sought unto by ambitious men of the world. She will soon be filled up with a mere empty profession. She will rapidly conform to the world, and open her doors to all kinds of worldly attractions. But one sentence need be said. It covers the whole ground. It tells the whole story: “Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” Her having, or retaining, a name as a living church is not all that is implied in this sentence. she has a reputation among men. She has become popular. she has risen from her proscribed position to notoriety and fame. She has become respectable and influential in the eyes of the world. she enjoys her popularity, and hence courts it; and congratulates herself upon her wonderful progress and prosperity. Now, let any candid inquirer after truth look over this picture – beginning at the time that open persecution ceased, and following on to, perhaps, about forty years ago – and see if he, or she, can not see Sardis, and her state. Let them remember the interdiction, that there should in no wise enter into the city any thing that defileth; and consider whether of not almost everything that defileth was not, and still remains, in many churches, to be admitted? If we have ever studied the Old Testament worship, and observed the sacredness and purity of the sanctuary; or given any attention to the clothing of the worshiping priests (its purity extending even to the fabric, or material, of which it was composed), we could hardly fail to have understood something of the sacredness of that worship, and the purity in heart and life of those worshipers, of which the former dispensation was typical. They were clothed with the garments of God”s salvation, which constituted for them a righteousness which was comparable to fine linen, clean and white. they were covered with it, as with a robe. They were adorned with it as with the attire of a bride. These garments are clean as the fountain of living waters. They are white as no fuller on earth would whiten them. They are white as the light. Do our modern churches have these garments on? Have they ever worn them? If they have, have they been satisfied with them? Have they been aware of their sacred and heavenly beauty? Will it be pretended that they have kept them unspotted from the world? I find myself shrinking from the task of recording the answers to these queries; so instead thereof, I will leave the reader to answer for himself.
“Rich fairs and shows in the halls were held,
And the world and his children were there;
Laughter and music and feasts were heard
In the place that was meant for prayer.”
“Thou hast a few names, even in Sardis, that have not defiled their garments.” Those who know any thing of the garments with which the Lord has clothed his people, must know how defiling and polluting are many of those things with which they have been brought in contact. Whoso is wise, and Haas observed these things, will be well aware that in the general apostasy it was, and is, and remains true, as recorded by the inspired evangelist: that a few names of churches, and a few names of individual members, have kept their garments in all their original purity, free from stain.
I will here say that when churches, as a body, become corrupt, or conformed to the world in doctrine or practice, so as to have their names blotted from the Book of Life, that individual members suffer sometimes, and lose their standing, because of their connection nominally with said churches, while their own individual garments are clean. It is only, “Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.”
We have not seen Sardis repenting, nor watching. She has paid no attention to preserve the things that remained. He whose eyes were like a flame of fire, has come upon her, and she did not know the time of her visitation. What remains to us now is to hear the Redeemer”s loving voice to his people, and note its effect. There are a few names whose garments are free from the prevailing defilement, and they shall walk with Him, for they are worthy. “Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord; and touch not the unclean; and I will receive you. And I will be a Father to you; and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” These few names thus called out in their acknowledged purity, constitute the materials for a purer church state, and a purer worship. They are the materials out of which the church is reorganized, and which is afterward recognized as the Philadelphian state. This is the state of Brotherly Love, and gospel fellowship. There is no fault found with her. Her enemies shall know that her Redeemer has loved her. She has a little strength, and much to discourage her; but the Lord hath set before her an open door, that no man can shut. she has overcome the world, and this is the victory – even her faith. “She shall go no more out.” “He will lay upon her no other burden” than that which she has already. “Hold fast until I come.”
“A pillar there no more to move,
Inscribed with all my names of love;
A monument of mighty grace –
Thou shalt forever have a place.”
I submit these considerations to the candid reader. May I ask a candid and impartial examination of them? Wisdom is worth searching for, as for hid treasures; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared unto her.
Yours in Gospel fellowship,