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Introduction to Alethea In Heart Ministries

The Revelation of John - Chapter III
Commentaries on the Entire Bible

By Rev. Henry Cowles
Professor of Church History and Prophesy at Oberlin College, and Main Editor of
The Oberlin Evangelist (responsible for giving us most of Finney's sermons).





Three letters to as many churches make up this chapter;—to Sardis (1-6); to Philadelphia (7-13); to Laodicea (14-22).


1. And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.

Sardis, renowned in the age of Cyrus and of the fall of Babylon, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, the home of Croesus, but now an utter desolation impresses the modern traveler with a sense of the retributions of divine justice that the church nearest dead spiritually of the seven should be before us today conspicuous only for its sad and silent ruins!—For "the seven Spirits of God," see notes on 1: 4. It was every way pertinent that Jesus should resent himself before this church in his exalted perogative and office of sending forth the Holy Ghost. The subordinate agents also (the "seven stars" being the angels of the seven churches, 1: 20) are his servants.—The fearfully solemn and specially significant declaration—"I know thy works," means here—I know how unsubstantial, deceptive, hypocritical, thy religion is. Thy spiritual life is but a name: in reality, as to most of thy nominal members, thou art only dead. The name they have before the world stands for the external only: the inward vital elements are mostly wanting. At the heart, death reigns.

2. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.

Some languishing graces still retained a perceptible vitality. Christ exhorts them to give most watchful attention to the nourishing and invigoration of these lest absolute death supervene and nothing be left but a mass of spiritual corruption.—The form of expression—"I have not found thy works perfect before God," is common in Hebrew in the sense—I have found them fearfully far from being perfect—really the very opposite of perfect before God. The closing thought, "before God," suggests that their standard of judging of their own piety had quite omitted this element—God's view of it—a fatal omission!

3. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shall not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.

"How thou hast received and heard" the gospel; how it came to thee in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; how in those first experiences, the Holy Ghost wrought with power on some hearts and brought forth some fruits of true holiness. Recall those first experiences; hold fast whatever of them may yet remain, and repent; return to that first life and first love. Else I will come upon thee suddenly, as the thief comes by night with no forewarning. Their case was so bad, so offensive to God, there could be only the shortest delay of judgment—only the forbearance of one brief hour.

4. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.

"Even in Sardis," conceives of their church and city as being notoriously corrupt. Even there, amid such almost universal wickedness and moral pollution, a few, counted by individuals only, were yet undefiled. Remarkably they had lived in a place so filthy morally and their garments were yet unsoiled. What can not the grace of God do?—The closing promise takes its cast from this description of their character. They shall walk with me in white—those men who have withstood such temptations, who have kept their garments without stain amid such surroundings—verily they are worthy to walk in white with their risen and glorified Redeemer!

5. 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.

6. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

Closing the letter in the usual form, viz., the reward promised to "him that overcometh," the drapery of the promise remains unchanged—"shall be clothed in white raiment" (see 19: 8). "The book of life" may be studied in 20: 12, 15, and 21: 27, and 13: 8. The last words come from the promise of Christ as recorded by Luke (12: 8); "Him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God."


7. And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shuteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth;

This, of old the second city of Lydia, is still respectable among the inland cities of Asia Minor, said to have three thousand houses.—The tone of this epistle differs widely from either the one that next precedes or the one that follows it, for here the Lord found much to commend.—Among the descriptive points named by the Lord Jesus in this letter, the words "the holy" refer rather to what is assumed throughout chap. 1 than to any one expression. Every feature given there involves perfect holiness.—"He that is true," reminds us that this writer is the same John who wrote the gospel (14: 6, and 17: 3), and also the Epistle (5: 20); while the "key of David" can be nothing other or less than the regal power of the great Son of David which in Rev. 1: 18 is expressed in the phrase, "I have the keys of Hell and of Death;" meaning, I am the Arbiter of all the future destinies of men, having power to open and to shut the realm of the dead to whom I will, Death being only my servant, and my power being supreme. The corrected text, following the oldest authorities, gives the phrase thus: "I open, and no one will shut: I shut, and no one will open."

8. I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.

As to the form of expression, this "open door" follows the preceding verse: "I have the key of David, opening (i. e., the door) and none will shut," etc. But still the question remains, does the language in this verse contemplate an open door for Christian labor in this life, or an open door of entrance upon the better life to come? The language admits of either construction. It may be said that the preceding context favors its reference to the future world—the following context, to the present. I incline to accept the lead of the following context and assume its reference to an open field for Christian labor and usefulness, with however the implied idea that for those who work faithfully for Christ here, entering into the doors he opens and toiling in true fidelity till he calls them away, the other door will be opened for an abundant entrance into his everlasting kingdom. He who has power to open heaven and hell can also control all the present agencies of providence and can open doors for Christian work before all his true servants. Therefore let such servants rejoice in all their toil and labors, for their reward is sure—"Kept my word," I take to include both preserving it in its purity and obeying it in honest sincerity and faithfulness. Error and vice were in those days (as often) sustained as a doctrine; hence the pertinence of the commendation, "kept my word."

9. Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.

Here are the same pernicious teachers whom we saw (2: 9) in Smyrna, making unbounded pretensions to be first and best among the worshipers of God, but being in truth only a "synagogue of Satan."—Their presence in so many of these seven churches testifies that when these letters to the seven churches and this book of Revelation were written, this form of heresy, this antagonism between Judaism and Christianity, was still in its strength, and consequently, beyond all reasonable doubt, that Jerusalem had not yet fallen.—Our passage declares that God would give his faithful servants in this city such tokens of his presence and such demonstrations of his power and love as should bring these proud and false Jews low at their feet, to acknowledge his favor to them. This teaching pledges to all God's faithful servants in every age that he will appear in their behalf to give them signal success and ultimate honor—will "show that he has loved them."

10. Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.

"Kept the word" should have the same meaning here as in v. 8. "The word of my patience" must mean my injunction to stand fast even at the cost of suffering affliction. "Patience" has the old sense of suffering, and refers here to the pre-intimations which Christ had often given that his faithful servants must encounter suffering for his name. "They will cast you out of the synagogue; yea, the time cometh that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service" (John 16: 2). "Yea, all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3: 12).—"I will keep thee," etc., plays upon the twofold sense of the word "keep." Because they had kept his word in the sense of a sacred treasure to be preserved in its purity and a rule of life to be obeyed with unflinching and unswerving fidelity, therefore Christ will keep them from all the harm which Satan had plotted to bring upon them.—His language implies that a fierce and wide-spread persecution was about to come upon all the churches for their stern and searching trial.

11. Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.

"I come quickly." But this coming can not be the final one or the last judgment, because that coming was then certainly remote, and Jesus never indicated the time when it should occur (Mark 13: 32). For reasons more fully given in my notes on 1: 7, it may be supposed to refer somewhat definitely to coming to destroy Jerusalem, considered as the first great persecuting anti-Christian power, the general thought being—I am about to make special manifestations of my presence and power in retributive vengeance on the present persecutors of my people, and also for the salvation of my faithful friends.—This coming will be an hour of crisis and of stern conflict: therefore hold fast thy profession; stand firmly for Jesus; a few days of terrible struggle —and then, if faithful, thy crown is made sure; but one hour's apostasy will be at the cost of thy crown!

12. Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.

13. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

"A pillar in the temple of my God" is thoroughly a Jewish conception, beautifully pertinent here however since it involves the several ideas of a permanent fixture; an ornamental and essential part of the structure; and of a tablet upon which shall be scribed the name of God, the name of his heavenly city, and "my new name"—that of Jesus the Conqueror. The reader will notice the abundant allusions to the main features of chap. 21: "The new Jerusalem which came down from God out of heaven," etc.—Of this wealth of honor and glory laid up for the faithful servants of Jesus—those especially who stand firm through the scathing fires of persecution, it is but little that we can say in detail, for "it doth not yet appear what we shall be." That it defies all illustration by models of earthly splendor; that it will surpass all our present conceptions; that it will utterly distance our highest imagination—so much is most abundantly plain. Language and symbol labor to set it forth, yet with an apparent consciousness of inability to do it justice. Let him that hath an ear hear these words of glorious promise, and let his soul be fired, thereby to unlimited endurance of toil or pain or shame for Jesus.


14. And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;

As to these descriptive epithets (taken substantially from 1: 5) "the Amen" is explained in the clause that follows—"the faithful and true Witness," i. e., He who came from heaven to bear witness to the truth of God, to reveal God to man truthfully, with no imperfection, no admixture of error. Inasmuch as one of the most solemn responsibilities of his persecuted people was the bearing of a faithful testimony for God in the face of fire and death, there was special pertinence in placing their own living Christ before them as the ever faithful Witness.—"The beginning of the creation of God" has been explained by some to mean, the Being first created by God, the eldest among all created existences. The fatal objection to this is that it assumes Christ to have been created, while the scriptures represent him as the Untreated One, eternally existent, and really the Creator of all things. (See especially John 1: 1-3.)—Moreover, some take the word "beginning" in the sense of the author of existence, the First Cause of beginning to be, to all who are created. The objection to this lies, not against the doctrine it would teach, but against such a usage of the word, this usage lacking adequate support. Another meaning may be given to the leading word by a well established usage and with a result which is in perfect harmony with the uniform tenor of the scriptures, viz., that of Prince, Supreme Lord. In the passages where this word (arche) has this meaning, our English version translates it by the word "principalities." (See Eph. 1: 21, and 3: 10, and Col. 1: 16, and 2: 10, and Rom. 8: 38.) These cases show conclusively that the word is applied to beings of great power and of high authority—real princes. So is Jesus the supreme Prince of the created universe. It was pertinent to say this to the church of Laodicea in precisely its circumstances at that moment. There can be no room for doubt that this is what Jesus meant to say.

15. I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

16. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.

While water, either cold or hot, is agreeable to the taste and not pensive to the stomach, it is a well known fact that lukewarm water is distasteful, offensive, nauseating. Upon this fact, the figure before us rests. The main point of inquiry in this passage is in How far shall we carry this figure: how much shall we make of it? Does heat in water precisely represent fervor of feeling in religion so that we may carry the analogy entirely through and infer from these words (1.) that God loves the most ardent souls, in the highest possible tone of fervid emotion; (2.) that he also hates the other extreme—the cold, frigid souls—even as men who labor in the summers heat love cold ice water; but (3.) that the men of medium temperament, the men not hot and not cold, are loathsome to him? Whoever shall press the figure to this extent will find reason to recoil from some of its points as against both scripture and common sense. It is much better not to press a figure of speech to more service than it was made to perform; and state important moreover to see the precise point of comparison between the material image and the spiritual reality it would ilustrate.—Guided by the nature of the figure and by the context, we reach this result, viz., that the thing condemned is not a mere tone of truly religious emotion, but is a proud self-conceit, a self-sufficiency which is real emptiness and vanity—which supposing itself rich, is miserably poor, etc. This sort of piety Jesus declares to be loathsome and nauseating to him, even as lukewarm water is to the human stomach. This is all. There is no attempt to run an analogy between heat in water and heat in religious emotion; there is no purpose of pushing this analogy through and making it bear at all possible points, or as the phrase is, "go on all fours." Figures of speech are too useful to be so badly abused as they sometimes are shall we not say) especially those found in the Bible—"I would thou wert cold or hot" may be construed to mean, I would that thou were any thing else rather than lukewarm. Nothing else can be so loathsome to me as their vain self-conceit.

17. Because 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:

18. 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 nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see.

"Rich," "increased with goods," having "need of nothing" is said not of earthly wealth but of spiritual and heavenly. To suppose these phrases to refer to the merchant's "goods"—to the supply of our physical wants—would carry with it the doctrine that God counsels us to buy of him "gold," the literal article; and "white raiment"—not stainless piety, but spotless cloth—all which is only a glaring absurdity!—The original makes the words for "wretched," "miserable," specially expressive by prefixing the article—Knowest not that thou art the wretched one, the miserable one—above all others, by special preeminence. The sentiment is plain: dismiss this vain and loathsome self-conceit; anoint thine eyes with eye-salve so that thou canst see the things that are—thyself as thou art seen by God's eye. Then having emptied thy heart of this delusive self-conceit, come to Jesus to be fed and filled with his bread of life; come in thy conscious nakedness to be clothed; receive Jesus in all his proffered relations—thy wisdom, thy righteousness, thy sanctification, thy redemption (1 Cor. 1: 30), "all in all;" so shall it be well with thee.

19. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

It is because I love thee that I now seek to put thy real case before thine eyes, and shall proceed by discipline and chastisement to every hopeful effort to bring thee to myself. All whom I truly love, I labor thus to save. If I find them puffed with vain conceit, I spare no rebuke and no chastisement, if so I may save them.

20. 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.

If we construe this verse in harmony with the preceding contest, we shall get a doubly forcible and precious sense from it—thus: Behold, I come even to you of Laodicea; conceited, proud though many of you are, yet come with my riches, my white raiment, my eye-salve; and I knock at your door, and there I stand yet a while waiting for admittance. If any man of you shall hear my voice as in the rebuke just now spoken, and shall open his heart's door and make me welcome, coming for such a purpose and with such love for his soul, then I will indeed come in unto that man, and I will sup with him and he shall sup with me. A feast of joy, as when the prodigal returns and once more sits do down with his loving father in the old and now joyous home! So much Christ has said to inspire hope in the darkest bosom—so much to impress himself upon these conceited Laodiceans, that they may receive all riches and all joy from his hand.

21. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.

22. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

o the overcoming one, blessings of surpassing richness are promised: What more could the Savior promise than this?—a reign jointly shared with himself on his own throne! "Come up here and sit with me in the glory of my kingdom!" How can we lift our thought to measure the glory of such a promise? What shall we think of the love and of the longing to save that prompted it? What of the guilt involved in treating it with cold indifference, or abuse, with stolid rejection and contempt?

Thus close these wonderful letters to the seven churches. Were words ever spoken more full of faithfulness to the souls of men; full of appreciation for all that is praiseworthy; more full of love for all classes; more fraught with watchful and wise solicitation for their stability and endurance in the terrible conflict through which they were so soon to pass?

Next Chapter (IV.).

Previous Chapter (II.).

Preface | Introduction | I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XII | XIII | XIV | XV | XVI | XVII | XVIII | XIX | XX | XXI | XXII
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