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In the Old Testament there are very clear prophecies concerning Judah. (Israel had no prophecy. Israel rebelled against God during the time of Jeroboam, and it was the nation which perished first. Evidently, God was not pleased with Israel and rejected her. So Israel had no prophecy.) Judah's prophecy continued through to the Lord Jesus—we can see this from the genealogy in Matthew 1. In the Old Testament there were many prophets whose work had no other purpose than to show us how things will be in the future. For example, Daniel prophesied concerning the condition of the nations. After Judah perished, Gentile nations would be raised up one by one in the following 2,500 years until the coming again of the Lord Jesus. Hence, well-known prophecies, such as those in Daniel 2, 7, 9, and 11, are very detailed concerning the Gentiles. In addition to the prophecies concerning Judah and the Gentiles, there is still the church of God in God's plan. Where is the prophecy concerning the church? When we read the first seven Epistles by Paul, there are no prophecies. It seems as if there are some in Matthew 13, but they are not detailed enough and not sufficiently clear in reference to the church, because they refer to the outward appearance of the kingdom of the heavens. Therefore, we may say that only Revelation 2 and 3, the latter seven epistles, show us the prophecy of the church. Thus far, we have briefly studied through each one and have seen that each has been fulfilled. We have already seen the prophecies which the Lord has shown us and the fulfillment given by history. We thank God that the prophecies have already been fulfilled; it is therefore much easier for us to read the seven epistles according to their fulfillment.
Through these seven epistles the Lord desires to provide us with a guide on how to be overcomers. The Lord is especially telling us how we should behave in order to overcome, and so, through the fulfillment of these epistles, He shows us the way to be an overcomer on this earth. Therefore, this is related to the way in which each one of us walks.
As we look at these seven epistles together, we see that each epistle is divided into four sections. From the first epistle to the last they are all alike. First there is the name of the Lord Himself, then the condition of the church, then the reward to the overcomer, and finally the calling to those who have ears. In each epistle the Lord shows us who He is, what the condition of the church is, what He will give to the overcomer, and then He appeals to those who have an ear that they may hear. There is a calling to the overcomers in every church; each has its own special feature, and the Lord's rewards to the overcomers are also different.
So we should learn that regardless of the condition the church, whenever any church has a problem, if we are faithful before the Lord, we will discover what we must do. The Lord shows us the way to deal with the problem. The Lord says He is the way, He is the reality, and He is the life (John 14:6). So no matter in which epistle and under what circumstances we are, the Lord does not want us to pay attention to the situation, however bad it may be; rather, He wants us to see who He is. Revelation recovers the seeing. Concerning the knowledge of the Lord, we see it by revelation just once. Once we see it, all failures pass away. We must see before God that the difficulty of the church is quite urgent. In this situation we cry for help, but the Lord says that only those who know Him have help. In each epistle the Lord makes one statement about who He is. Will such a Lord as He be able to deal with this situation?
As it is with the church, so it is with ourselves. In difficult circumstances, we must know the Lord who is contrary to our difficulty. Other problems are secondary. The solution to all problems depends on how much we know the Lord. Some are able to bear much, but some can bear only little. The strength to bear, whether much or little, depends on how much we know the Lord. Thus, at the beginning of each of the seven epistles, attention is given to who the Lord is. If a man does not know the Lord, he will not be able to know the church. Many are quite satisfied with the condition of the church today because they do not see. They have not seen who is sitting upon the throne, and they have not seen the different aspects of the glory of the Lord and His virtues. If we know the Lord, we will discover man's sin and the church's sin. The solution to the whole problem depends on how much we know the Lord. Those who only know a little of God have little revelation of God and are more tolerant with presumptuous things. But for each one who stands before the Lord, the Lord removes the toleration for that which is not according to His will. Once we receive revelation before the Lord, He removes everything that is not according to His will. Then we know that if we want to be holy, we will have the Lord; if we do not want to be holy, we will lose the fellowship of the Lord.
Regarding what we have seen concerning the things of the seven epistles, we must understand that we are arguing concerning the problem of the system. Please remember, all of the things in these seven epistles are related to the Lord. If we know the Lord, we will condemn God's people who walk according to their own wishes; if we do not know the Lord sufficiently, we will tolerate their walk according to their own desire. Many times we can tolerate the condition of Christians because we are not faithful enough to Christ. Our lack of faithfulness to the Lord is due to the fact that we still do not have revelation to know the Lord who condemns this as sin. Oh, there are even times when we must choose between the Lord and His people as to whom we must serve.
We already know that the number seven is divided into three and four. After Ephesus, there is Smyrna, and after Smyrna there is Pergamos. These three are of one group, because they have all passed away. The latter four are also of one group. Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea are different from the first three. When Sardis is on this earth, Thyatira is on the earth; when Philadelphia is on this earth, Sardis is on the earth; and when Laodicea is on this earth, Philadelphia is also on the earth. In other words, the last four churches continue their days on the earth together. They do not begin at the same time, but they end at the same time.
The four churches before us today are very meaningful. When the Protestant churches appeared, the Roman Catholic Church had been present for more than a thousand years. When Philadelphia appeared, the Protestant churches had been present for more than three hundred years. When Laodicea appeared, Philadelphia had been present for several scores of years. We who are born in this age today are confronted with something very special: There are four different kinds of churches from which we may choose. If we were born before the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we would have no other way but to be in the Roman Catholic Church. If we were born in the eighteenth century, we could choose to belong to either the Roman Catholic Church or the Protestant churches. In the following century, in 1825, Philadelphia appeared and the brothers rose up; so we would have had three to choose from. Then after 1840, Laodicea appeared. Today there are four different kinds of churches. In all four there are people who are saved—some are better, and some are worse. God put us in a time where there are four ways from which we can choose.
But the Lord also shows us His desire. His desire is not the Roman Catholic Church; this question is past. There is not the least necessity of praying whether or not I should be a disciple of the pope. Although this prophecy is placed in Revelation 2, the need to decide whether or not to choose it no longer exists. All those who study the Bible know that the problem of choosing the Roman Catholic Church is over. There is a difficulty in the fact that many brothers do not know that the problem of choosing the Protestant churches is also over. Does the Lord want us to be in Sardis? Strangely enough, many are rather satisfied to be in Sardis. But if we read the Word of God, the Lord will show us that He is not satisfied with Sardis. The Lord's desire is Philadelphia. Of the seven epistles which we have seen, only Philadelphia is praised by the Lord. In the other epistles the Lord always gives some word of rebuke. Smyrna is better and has no rebuke, but neither does she have any praise. Philadelphia, however, is different. From beginning to end the Lord only praises her. Then you may ask whether we should join the movement of the brothers (as if this movement can be "joined''). Many people in the movement of the brothers have become Laodicea already. Then what should we do? Laodicea is also rejected by the Lord. If we are not careful, instead of catching up with Philadelphia, we will get into Laodicea.
There is a great problem today to which God's children must pay attention. Since 1921 in China, the gospel has become clearer and clearer, those who were saved have increased more and more, and God has directed our attention increasingly to the truth of the church. We began to see that the church is entirely of God, only those who are saved can be in it, and only the words which God has ordained in the Bible are to be kept by the church. During that time none of us ever heard of the movement of the brothers. Not until 1927 did we begin to hear of this kind of work abroad. Through literature which we continually received, we knew there was a very great movement going on, filling all the countries in the world. The Reformation was just such a great movement. But on the other hand, we felt that many among them had fallen into the position of Laodicea. At that time we had a question: What does the Bible say? Should the children of God join a movement? The unity of Christians should be in Christ, not in a movement. So we spent more time to study the Bible. We became increasingly clear that that which is bigger than the locality is not the church, and that which is smaller than the locality is also not the church.
In this age God shows us four different churches. We may put it in this way: There are the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant churches, the brothers who love one another, and the Brethren Assemblies. The fourth one, the Brethren Assemblies, has fallen into the position of Laodicea. As far as this group is concerned, it has become a sect. I asked a certain brother, "Do you think I look like a brother?'' He said, "Yes, you do, but in `your' midst there still...'' Immediately I replied, "Then what are `you'? Is it not enough for me to be a brother? All those who are redeemed by the blood are included in `us.''' If at any time there is a brother saved in Chungking, yet the church in Chungking says he is not a brother, then the church in Chungking has become a sect. A sect requires something more of a man who is a brother before they will call him a brother. Although they may not say that they are the Brethren Assembly, yet there is an invisible boundary placed there.
What kind of people are today's Philadelphia? The church in every place may be Philadelphia, and it also may not be. Actually, there is no way for me to say which one is and which one is not. Perhaps the church in Chungking is Philadelphia and the church in K'un-ming is not. Perhaps Cheng-tu's church is Philadelphia and Lan-chou's is not. Today it has become a problem of locality, just as the seven epistles are for localities. We must reject the Roman Catholic Church, and we must leave the Protestant churches. On the negative side, we can eliminate these two; but on the positive side, are we Philadelphia or still Laodicea? It is easy to withdraw from the Roman Catholic Church, and it is also easy to withdraw from the Protestant churches; all we need to do is write a letter and walk out the front door. But whether or not we are Philadelphia remains a question. This depends on whether or not we have walked out the back door. Philadelphia may not fall back to Sardis, but she may fall into Laodicea. The Lord's criticism of Laodicea is much stronger than His criticism of Sardis. The Lord wants us to learn to exalt His name, for where two or three are gathered together in the Lord's name, there He is in their midst. But we should never exalt ourselves. Whoever claims to be Philadelphia no longer appears as Philadelphia.
Today if you have left the denominations and have seen the church, then only the Word of God can be the standard. Consider a brother who is born again. Can you say that he is not a brother? He is a brother if he knows the truth clearly, and he is still a brother if he does not know the truth clearly. If he stays at home he is my brother, and if he falls into the ditch by the street he is still my brother. If there is a problem, I can only blame my Father for begetting him. The special characteristic of Philadelphia is brotherly love—today this way is the only way for us to walk. But we should never have this kind of attitude: I love the brothers who are clear and the brothers who are lovable, but those who are not lovable I will not love. Whether he is clear or not, that is his business. We should never say, "You are a rebellious one.'' What we see this year, we did not see last year. Perhaps next year he will also see what we have seen this year. While he reads the Bible, the Lord will also show him the light. God's heart is great; so ours must also be great. We must learn to have a heart that is large enough to include all of God's children. Whenever we say "we'' and yet do not include all the children of God, we are the biggest sect, for we are not standing in the position of brotherly love but exalting ourselves. The way of Philadelphia is the way we must take. The difficulty lies in the fact that Philadelphia includes all the brothers, yet some are not able to include as much.
Let me give you an illustration: Before the war with Japan I went to K'un-ming. There was a brother there of the _______ Church who asked me to talk with him. He was a very good brother. When he saw me he said, "Do you remember that I asked you a question in Shanghai? You still have not answered how we can cooperate.'' I said, "Brother, you have a _______ Church in which I have no part.'' He said, "Right, but you need not worry about that; what I mean is that we can cooperate nicely before the Lord.'' I said, "I have a church, and I am in it, Paul is in it, Peter is also in it, and so are John, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Hudson Taylor. You too are in it. The church that I have is so great that all who are in Christ, whether great or small, are in it. You and I have a difference: I only build up one church; you wish to build up two churches. My work is only the church of Christ, not the _______ Church. If your aim is to build up the church of Christ and not the _______ Church, then I can absolutely cooperate with you.'' Brothers and sisters, do you see the difference here? That brother's love was not great enough. He stresses the church of Christ within the _______ Church. He is building up two churches. After I spoke he confessed that that was the first time he saw what it was all about. He held my hand and said that he hoped this question would not be raised again.
Brotherly love means that we must love all the brothers. If one has some weakness, that is another matter. I say that all the children of God must be baptized by immersion, but I cannot say that because one does not do it this way, he is not a brother. He is regenerated if he is immersed in water, and he is also regenerated if he is not immersed in water. We may regard his regeneration as the mistake of all mistakes, but my Father has begotten him. (The Lord forgive me for speaking in this way.) Indeed, when there is opportunity, we must read the Bible with him to let him know that the eunuch and Philip went down into the water and also that the Lord Jesus came out from the water (Acts 8:36-38; Matt. 3:16). Baptism in the Bible is man going down and man coming up, not just two fingers going down and coming up. But we cannot say that he is not a brother because he has not yet done this. The basis of being a brother is life, not baptism. Although we believe that baptism is right, we are not the Baptist Church. The basis of fellowship is the blood and the life of the Holy Spirit, not knowledge, not even the knowledge of the Bible. The only question is whether or not one has the life of God. If he has been regenerated, he is a brother. Loving one another is but to stand in this position. Whenever we bring in other things and add requirements, we are a sect. Consider the matter of the breaking of bread. Paul, a new believer, arrives in a certain place; someone has brought him there, and he really has a testimony. They know he is a brother, so he can break bread. There is absolutely no need for a second requirement. Does he believe that the great tribulation will last seven years? Is the rapture partial or whole? If we inquire of people in this way, we are basically wrong. If we only love the brothers who are the same as we are, we are sectarian, and this is contrary to the testimony of brotherly love. Thank God we are all brothers. Everyone redeemed by the precious blood is a brother. If something of ourselves comes out, it must be pride. Some say, "Only we are right; you brothers are all wrong.'' But the bread must include all the right as well as all the wrong brothers.
When you desire to follow the Lord in such a way, when you desire to love all the brothers, it does not mean that all the brothers will love you. You should realize this. Sardis came out from Thyatira. Although Sardis was following the will of the Lord, it is unavoidable that she would be hated by Rome. Likewise, just as Philadelphia came out from Sardis, the denominations will also be against you. Because they must maintain their organization, they will say that if you act in this way, you do not love your brothers. From their point of view, loving the brothers is equal to loving Sardis, as if loving the brothers and loving the denominations are not two different things. Those who have a motive to maintain the denominations will criticize your love as lacking because you are not building up their denominations. But you must be clear: Loving the brothers themselves and loving the denominations which these brothers love are two different things.
Moreover, we must realize that loving the whole church is simply based upon whether or not one is a brother; if one is a brother, we love him. This is loving the brothers. If we only love a part of all the brothers, then we are only loving the brothers who are within our circle. This kind of love for the brothers is not really love for the brothers, but love for division. If we do not abandon this love of sect, we cannot love the brothers. The love of sect is not only not right; it is positively wrong. Loving a sect is the greatest hindrance to loving the brothers. Unless a man rids himself of the love of sect, he cannot love the brothers. Yet a man who loves the brothers because he has no love of sect will be criticized by others as having no love. This is commonplace; do not think this is strange.
Let us bring up another point. Overcoming is spoken of in these epistles seven times. The Lord speaks to Ephesus: Repent. Overcoming depends on the discovery of the slackening of first love. The overcoming of Smyrna is nothing but the Lord's words: "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life." In Pergamos the Lord is against the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans; therefore, whoever rejects the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans is an overcomer. In Thyatira there are still those who will not follow the teachings of Jezebel. The Lord says, "Hold fast until I come." This is overcoming. The Lord does not ask them to rise to be a Luther. In Sardis there are a few who are living. Although Sardis has nothing complete in herself, the Lord says that whoever is clothed in a white garment is the overcomer. To Philadelphia, although she has trials and hardships, the Lord remarkably says to hold fast that which she has; she has already overcome. As for Laodicea, it is not enough to just have the objective side; she must walk with the Lord subjectively. All of the overcoming refers to the differences among the children of God. The promises for overcoming are given to the churches; therefore, there are two kinds of people in the churches, the overcomers and the defeated ones. The separating point is that God has a plan, a standard. Whoever attains to the standard of God is an overcomer; whoever does not attain to the standard is not an overcomer. An overcomer merely does what he should do. Many have a wrong concept, thinking that overcoming means to be especially good. But remember, overcoming is the minimum degree; overcoming is not to rise above the level, but to come up to the level. If you are able to attain to this standard, you are an overcomer. To fail means that you are not able to reach the plan of God and you fall below the level.
I do not know how you feel, but today there is one thing that makes me very happy: God did not cause me to be born during the age of Thyatira, a period of almost 1,400 years. God also did not cause me to be born in the age of Sardis. We are born in this age, the age of Philadelphia, which has existed just over a hundred years. The Lord put us in the age of Philadelphia that we may be Philadelphia. Today there are many overcomers in Laodicea, but they are but overcomers in Laodicea. In the entire history of the church, there has not been an opportunity that is better than ours.
"He who overcomes, him I will make a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall by no means go out anymore'' (Rev. 3:12). We must pay attention to the word "anymore,'' which means to have gone out at least once. Among the brothers, eight out of ten have gone out before. The Lord's promise here is, I feel, very wonderful. If a pillar in the temple of God goes out again, the temple will collapse. The following three names are special: "The name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem,...and My new name." What is the meaning of a name? There is great meaning in a name. The name of God represents the glory of God. Besides Philadelphia, no other church has received the glory of God. The name of the city of God is New Jerusalem. In other words, Philadelphia accomplishes the plan of God. "My new name." When the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, He received a new name, a name that is above all names (Phil. 2:9-11). Here the Lord reveals that of all the churches, He especially fixes His eyes on Philadelphia. Today we thank God; we were born in an age in which we can be Philadelphia. Although we were born in an age in which the condition of the church is exceedingly confusing, thank God, we can be those of Philadelphia.
Finally, please remember that the Lord speaks the same words seven times to the seven churches: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches'' (Rev. 3:22). We have to pay attention to this word. The Lord's eyes are not only upon these seven churches; His eyes are also upon all the churches in the whole world, past and present, here and abroad. What the Lord says, He says to all the churches. The slackening condition found in the time of Ephesus is quite likely to occur in today's Philadelphia. Although the time of Smyrna has passed away, it is quite possible that it may occur again today. It is often possible for the condition of every church to occur in one church. The church is not that simple. Those special conditions are but the main conditions within a certain period of time. It is possible that all the conditions may occur in the seven churches at the same time.
The Lord says, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'' Two people were walking on the street, and one said, "Just a moment, I hear the sound of crickets.'' His friend replied, "You are crazy; the cars in the street are making so much noise, we can hardly hear ourselves talking! How can you still hear the sound of crickets?'' But he ran to the wall at the side of the street and told his friend to stand and listen. Sure enough, there was a cricket. His friend asked him how he could have possibly heard it. He replied, "Bankers can only hear the sound of money, and musicians can only hear the sound of music. I am an entomologist; my ear can hear the sound of insects.'' The Lord tells us that he who has an ear and can hear the Lord's word, let him hear. There are many who do not have ears and cannot hear the Lord's word. If we have an ear, we must hear. Pray that God will grant us to walk in a straight way. In any situation, no matter what happens, we must choose the way of Philadelphia.