The Overcomer in Philadelphia

The separation of the Church from the world, and its restoration to visible unity upon the earth! if that be in the heart of the Philadelphian, as in his heart it must be for him to be this, how the Lord's words appeal to us, "Thou hast a little power." Power equal to such work as this is plainly not his; though He will graciously acknowledge what there is. The ideal before him is an impracticable one; though, thank God, this is to be widely distinguished from an unpractical one. Infidels have rightly declared that the Christian standard is an impracticable one; but every Christian knows that to "walk as Christ walked" is very far from an unpractical ideal.
If we are acquainted at all with the feeble efforts of Christians in the direction of which we have been speaking, of their inconsistency with one another, and with their real object, we shall surely realize, that, in the path in which Christ leads us, we have need of the deepest humility, if we would escape the deepest humiliation. It is not my object now to enumerate these; but the warning which the Lord gives to the Philadelphian is surely one that speaks volumes here, for it is upon his heeding it that all depends for him. "Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown." It is in this repect that overcoming is to be accomplished for the Philadelphian. as it is plainly the only evil that is in view.
But with this his "little power" unites, to make the warning more impressive. The unattainableness of the ideal, the little progress that we make toward it, the weakness manifest in others as in ourselves, all combine to dishearten and weary us. That seems to be often the failure of principles which is only the failure to act upon the principles. But this too is saddening enough. Let it be that the principles themselves have only failed by not being carried out, if they are too unearthly - too heavenly - for that which all the history of the Church has proved her to be, would it not be wiser to materialise them somewhat? If a lower path be more practicable, is it not after all the better ? It is not realised that to give up a single point as to the Lord's will is to give up obedience as a principle. How many points we give up is then but a question of detail.
As a matter of fact, it will not be difficult to find the wrecks of failed Philadelphia strewing the centuries since Luther. Every genuine revival, as being the work of the same Spirit, has tended in the same direction. It has brought Christians together; it has separated them from the world; it has proved afresh the power of Christ's word; it has revived the sweetness of His Name. The sense of evils in the professing Church, intolerable to the aroused consciences and hearts of His people, has forced many, in obedience to the Word, to "depart from iniquity." Alas, is it not the constant reproach of such movements that hardly has a generation passed before the spirit of them is departed, they have sunk to nearly the common level of things around; they have no more been able to retain the blessing than a child the sunshine it has gathered in its hand? If wedded to some principle which the natural conscience owns, or some assertion of right which men value as their posses sion, such movements may still grow, and faster than before, while the old men weep at the remembrance of the days they have seen, and realise their temple to be in ruins. So simply all this takes place, that it is easy to see it must take place, unless the power of God prevent the natural evolution. The first generation had to break through natural surroundings at the call of God; they had learned of God, with exercised hearts, and followed Him through suffering and with self-denial. And their children come into the heritage their fathers had acquired for them, necessarily without the exercise their fathers had. Nature attracts them to the path, not warns them from it. They accept easily, and can easily let go. They know not the joy of sacrifice. They have not the vigour gained by painful acquirement. It is easy to predict what will naturally follow; not necessarily from anything wrong in what they hold as truth, but from the incapable hands with which they hold it.
But the argument from such failure seems to be used so disastrously with souls today, that it is worth a deeper consideration. Does "success," as men count success, argue anything as to the goodness before God of that which succeeds? Or conversely, does failure and break-up, to any extent you please to name, prove that that which has been made shipwreck of was evil, or that there was evil at least inherent in it? Carry it out thoroughly and honestly, such a supposition, and see where it will land you. If you know the Apostolic Church, as seen in Scripture, and the blessed heritage of truth with which it was endowed at the beginning: tell me where shall I find this Church, when I come to the beginning of uninspired history? and where shall I find this truth possessed by her even in many of its fundamentals?
The answer is too plain and terrible, Scripture itself preparing us indeed for it. It was needful, even while this was being written, that Jude should exhort to "contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints." And Paul speaks of the '' mystery of iniquity already at work"; and he and Peter of the special evils of the last days. And John could find the signs of the ''last time " in there being already "many antichrists" (I John ii. is).
Outside of Scripture, it is enough to say, in the language of another, that the historical church ''never was, as a system, the institution of God, or what God had established; but at all times, from its first appearance in ecclesiastical history, the departure as a system from what God established, and nothing else." And as to doctrines, "it is quite certain that neither a full redemption, nor (though the words be used once or twice) a complete possessed justification by faith, as Paul teaches it, a perfecting for ever by His one offering, a known personal acceptance in Christ, is ever found in any ecclesiastical writings, after the canonical Scriptures, for long centuries.
But what, then, about this apostolic church which, in some of its most important doctrines, seems to have vanished out of the world in such a manner, for so long a time? Were its principles at fault or what, that it failed so quickly? What principles of Scripture shall we find that will secure us from failure, though they could not secure those who had them at the beginning? Is it not plain that Scripture exhorts us, if we be Philadelphians, to hold fast and does not this recognize the danger of not holding fast? No one need wonder, then, if the wrecks of Philadelphia are strewn along the road ; while Rome retains, century after century, her boasted unity and power over souls. It is accounted for by the simple fact which Scripture recognizes, that error roots itself in the world more easily than truth. And so the Lord asks by Jeremiah (ii. ii): ‘‘Hath a nation changed their gods, which yet are no gods ? but my people have changed their glory for that which hath not profit.’’ Rather, then, may we argue the reverse way, that if, in an adverse world, and with Satan’s power rampant, a people could find a flow of steady increase and prosperity, this exceptional vigour would have to be accounted for, and not the fact of reverses and discouragements.
Yet after all, it should be clearly understood to what the Lord’s warning words refer: ‘‘Hold fast that which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.’ What is that which they are called to ‘‘ hold fast"?
I beg my reader’s earnest attention to the answer which the message itself gives : this is not a certain deposit of doctrine clearly. I do not mean to deny such a deposit - very far from that; nor, if there be such, that it is to be held fast. Necessarily it is; and yet, I say again, this is not what the Lord speaks of here ; whereas in the message to Sardis, it is this this unmistakably.
The comparison between the two is in the highest degree important. To Sardis it is said, “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast and repent.” There a measured amount, a clearly defined deposit of truth is indicated: and this is simple and most instructive, if we recall what Sardis means. A wonderful blessing was given in those Reformation days. Many a truth of immense significance and value for the soul had they "received and heard." And they knew the value of it all; but in their eagerness to secure it for the generations to come, what did they do? They put it into creeds and confessions; and I say not, they were wrong in this. Nay, they had clearly a right to say for themselves and declare to others what they believed they had received from God. Those "confessions"- truly such they were in those days of martyrdom - read by the light of the fires kindled by their adversaries for the signers, are blessed witnesses today of the truth for which, when felt in power, men could give their bodies to the flame, and quail not.
But the wrong was here: they took those creeds and imposed them - with all the emphasis that penalties enforced by a State-church could give - upon the generations following. Their own measure of knowledge was to be that of their children and their children’s children. If there were error in the creed, that error must be transmitted with it. And all this was given into the hands, not even of spiritual men, but of the world-church they had reared up, to care for and maintain!
Necessarily the Spirit was grieved and quenched. He was leading them on - you can see it in Luther’s letter to the Bohemian brethren - far beyond where they actually stopped. He was ready to lead them into "All, truth" (Jno. xvi. 13). They put up their Ebenezers not to show simply that thus far the Lord had helped them, but as the Ultima Thule of knowledge. What wonder if they really, to those under the sway of these systems, became such! Henceforth it was to "what they had received and heard"in the sixteenth century that they looked back, The word now was no longer, as with the Reformers, when they were reformers, ‘‘On with the Holy Spirit of truth, our Teacher," but ‘‘Back to the Reformation," The words of the Lord to Sardis are therefore precise in the marvellous accuracy which His words necessarily must have. "You have taken," they say, ‘‘the measure of truth you have, as if it were truth: well, you have limited yourselves how much; hut at least be true to what you have got: ‘be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain that are ready to die'. " In view of infidel criticism everywhere undermining today the foundations of Scripture itself, how are the Reformation churches responding to this?
But Philadelphia is called to ‘‘hold fast," too. Yes, but what what she has, of course; and that is a little power, and Christ’s word kept, and His Name not denied. Notice that there is ito longer a measured quantity "what thou hast received " ; nor is it His "commandments" or His "words," but His word." The distinction is so clearly drawn in the gospel of John (xiv. 21—24) that, although it may be familiar to most who read this, I shall briefly state it.
Love is not to be measured by profession or by emotion, but by obedience. "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them," says the Lord, "he it is that loveth Me." The response to this is "and he that loveth Me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself unto him," But there is a deeper love than that manifested in keeping commandments. It is that which takes account of all His word, whether positive command or not. And here the response is greater correspondingly. "If a man love Me, he will keep my word" - so it should read, not "words"; "and my Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make our abode with him." Here it is plain that there is a fullness and permanency of communion not to be found in the previous case.
Philadelphia has kept - is keeping, as long as she remains Philadelphia - not His commandments, but His word: this as a whole. Not, of course, that she knows it all : that were impossible. But, just for that reason, she has not a certain amount of truth which she has received, and to which she is faithful. She is like Mary at His feet, to listen and be subject to whatever He has to communicate. His word as a whole is before her. Not limiting the Spirit, she will be led on; for He leads on, Her ear is open. She has the blessedness of the man "that heareth Me," says the eternal Wisdom, "watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors."
Of course, this is no peculiarity of any special time; it is God’s way at all times to lead on the soul that is just ready for His leading. And at all times of special revival this has been seen especially. But of late, many will recognize that Scripture has been opened to us more as a whole than at any former time since the apostles; and that this has been in connection with such a movement as had the features, if I have interpreted them aright, of what in the Apocalypse is called Philadelphia. Certain great truths being recovered to the Church have helped to open up in a new way the Old Testament as well as the New. The dispensations have been distinguished; the gospel cleared from Galatian error; the place in Christ learned in connection with our participation in His death and resurrection; the real nature of eternal life, and the present seal and baptism of the Spirit in contrast with all former or other operations and gifts; the coming of the Lord as distinct from His appearing: do we not owe it to the Lord to acknowledge without reserve what His grace has done? and must we not connect it with the fullness of Christ’s word here, in contrast with the "what thou hast received and heard" of Sardis?
We must recognize it in order to admit the question, which to me, I confess, grows more solemn daily: Is this attitude still maintained, and is it to he maintained? are we to go on with the Lord still learning, still to learn? or to make even these blessed truths a measure with which we shall content ourselves? A large measure is still a "measure"; and once getting back to merely "what we have received" is after all to accept the bucket (or say, the cistern) in place of the flowing well. At the feet of Jesus, who will presume to say we have the measure of His blessed Word?