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EPISTLE TO THE CHURCH OF EPHESUS.
Ver. 1. “Unto the Angel of the Church of Ephesus write.”—Before proceeding to consider this the first Epistle in the series, it may be well worth while to call the attention of.the reader to the symmetry, to what we should call in human composition, the remarkable art, to be traced in the construction of them all; quite justifying the words of Henry More: “There never was a book penned with that artifice as this of the Apocalypse.” They are all constructed precisely on the same scheme. They every one of them contain—
α. A command in exactly the same form to the Seer that he should write to the Angel of the Church.
β. One or more glorious titles which Christ claims for Himself, as adding weight and authority to the message which He sends; these titles being in almost every case drawn more or less evidently 93from the attributes ascribed to Him, or claimed by Him, in the manifestation of Himself which has just gone before (i. 4-20).
γ. The actual message from Christ to the Angel of the Church, declaring his intimate knowledge of its condition, good, or bad, or mixed, with a summons to steadfastness in the good, to repentance from the evil—all this brought home by the fact that He was walking up and down in the midst of his Churches, having in readiness to punish, and having in readiness to reward.
δ. A promise to the faithful, to him that should overcome—the heavenly blessedness being presented under the richest variety of the most attractive, and often the most original, images.
ε. Finally, the whole is summed up with an exhortation which shall give an universal character to these particular addresses, a summons to every one with a spiritual ear that he should give earnest heed to the things, which were indeed spoken to all. In the addresses to the four last Churches the position of δ and ε is reversed.
On comparing these Epistles one with another, we may observe that in two Churches, namely Smyrna and Philadelphia, the great Shepherd and Bishop of souls finds matter only for praise; in two, Sardis and Laodicea, with very smallest exception in the former, only for rebuke. In three 94of the Churches, in Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira, the condition is a mixed one, so that with some things to praise, there are also some, more in one, fewer in another, to condemn. It will thus be perceived at once what far-looking provision is made in the selection of these particular Churches to be addressed, as in the scheme of the addresses to them, for the most varied instructions; for reproof, for praise, for reproof and praise mingled together and tempered by one another; for promises and threatenings. The spiritual condition of the several Churches gives room and opportunity, nay, constitutes a necessity, for each and all of these.
Ephesus, the chief city of Ionia, “Asiæ lumen,” πρώτη τῆς Ἀσίας, as the Ephesians themselves styled it, asserting in this style for Ephesus that primacy which Smyrna and Pergamum disputed with it, had now so far outstripped both its competitors that it was at once the civil and ecclesiastic centre of that Asia with which we have to do. Wealthy, prosperous, and magnificent, a meeting-place of oriental religions and Greek culture, and famous on many grounds in heathen antiquity, it was chiefly famous for the celebrated temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the world, about which we read so much, Acts xix. (cf. Creuzer, Symbolik, vol. ii. p. 515). But Ephesus had better titles of honour than these. It was a greatly 95favoured city. St. Paul laboured there during three years (Acts xx. 31); he ordained Timothy to be bishop there (1 Tim. i. 3; cf. Eusebius, H. E. iii. 4); Aquila, Priscilla, Apollos (Acts xviii. 19, 24, 26), Tychicus (Ephes. vi. 21), all contributed to build up the Church in that city. And if we may judge from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, and from his parting address to the elders of that Church (Acts xx. 17-38) nowhere does the word of the Gospel seem to have found a kindlier soil, to have struck root more deeply, or to have borne fairer fruits of faith and love. St. John too had made it the chief seat of his ministry, his metropolis, during the closing years of his protracted life; from whence he exercised a wide, though not wholly unquestioned, jurisdiction (see 3 Ep. 9, 10) over the whole of “Asia.” How early that ministry there began it is impossible to say, The date of his withdrawal from Jerusalem being itself uncertain, and uncertain also whether he at once chose Ephesus for the middle point of his spiritual activity. From a Church to which so much was given, much would be required. How far it had profited as it ought by these signal advantages, how far it had maintained itself at those spiritual heights to which it had once attained, will presently be seen.
“These things saith He that holdeth the seven 96stars in his right hand.”—The title is borrowed from i. 16: “He had in his right hand seven stars;” cf. i. 20, where “the mystery of the seven stars” is unfolded. It is only when all the titles furnished by chap. i. 4-20 are exhausted, that the Lord seeks them from any other quarter. At the same time there is a significant alteration here. At i. 16 it is ὁ ἔχων, “He that hath;” here more emphatically it is ὁ κρατῶν, “He that holdeth.” The variation is not without intention; ὁ κρατῶν (cf. ii. 25; iii. 11) is stronger than ὁ ἔχων, “He that holdeth” than “He that hath.” He holds these stars in his grasp,—words full of comfort for them, if only they are true to Him; none shall pluck them out of his hand (John x. 28), none shall harm them in the delivery of their message (Matt. x. 30; Acts xviii. 9, 10); or if the malice of their enemies is so far permitted that they are able to kill the body, they shall only in this way prepare for them an earlier and a speedier passage to glory (Acts vii. 56, 60; Rev. xi. 7, 12); but words which are full of fear for the unfaithful, for the idol shepherds (Zech. xi. 17), who feed themselves and not the flock (Ezek. xxxiv. 1-10). Them too He holds in his grasp, and none can deliver then from his hand.
“Who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.”—“Who walketh” is new. The Seer 97had indeed already beheld the Lord “in the midst of the seven candlesticks” (i. 13), but not “walking” in their midst, the word expressing the unwearied activity of Christ in his Church (cf. Lev. xvi. 12), moving up and down in the midst of it; beholding the evil and the good; evermore trimming and feeding with oil of grace the golden lamps of the sanctuary. Marckius: “Ad innuendam clarius perpetuitatem actûs et curam Christi contra conatus oppositos Satanæ.” It is impossible not to admire the appropriateness of these titles, expressing as they do the broader and more general relations of Christ to his Church, for the first Epistle in this series; which constitutes, as this and a thousand other tokens declare, not an accidental aggregate, but a divinely-ordered complex, with all its parts mutually upholding and sustaining one another.
Ver. 2. “I know thy works.”—This is a formula which introduces all the seven Epistles. “Works” therefore are not, as some interpreters would understand them, good works; for Christ uses this language where there were no works which He could count good (iii. 15); as little are they bad works (iii. 8); but the word is used with the same freedom here as in other parts of Scripture, now for those (John vii. 21; 1 Cor. iii. 14); and now for these (1 Cor. iii. 15; Tit. i. 16). “I know thy 98works “has another intention than to express either praise or blame. It declares rather the omniscience of Him who walks up and down among the candlesticks of gold, whom nothing escapes (Amos iv. 13; Ps. xi. 4, 5; John ii. 24, 25; Heb. iv. 13; Rev. ii. 23; Acts i. 24; xv. 8); being words of comfort and strength for all them who, amid infinite weaknesses, are yet able to say, “Search me, O Lord, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me” (Ps. cxxxix. 23, 24), or with St. John, “Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee” (John xxi. 17); but words of fear for every one who would fain keep back any thing in his outer or inner life from the Lord. All is open and manifest before Him with whom we have to do; and this in these words He declares.
“And thy labour and thy patience.”—There was an earlier Angel of this same Church of Ephesus, on whom St. Paul had urged that he should not fail in this labour and patience (2 Tim. ii. 25, 26); and Christ’s commendation here shows that the holy lesson had been laid to heart by him who had now stept into his place, The κόπος, occasioned probably by the earnest resistance which it was necessary to oppose to the false teachers in the Ephesian Church, would naturally fall chiefly on the bishop and presbyters—above all, on the first.99—Κόπος and κοπιάω are frequently used in reference both to apostolic and ministerial labours (Rom. xvi. 12; 1 Cor. xv. 10; Gal. iv. 11); κόπος, often in connexion with μόχθος (1 Thess. ii. 9; 2 Thess. iii. 8; 2 Cor. xi. 27); the latter perhaps marking the toil on the side of the magnitude of the obstacles which it has to surmount, as the derivation μόγις, and the possible connexion with μέγας, seems to suggest (Ellicott); the former alluding to the toil and suffering which in these labours strenuously and faithfully performed is involved. For indeed this word κόπος, signifying as it does not merely labour, but labour unto weariness, may suggest some solemn reflections to every one who at all affects to be working for his Lord, and as under his great taskmaster’s eye. This is what Christ looks for, this is what Christ praises, in his servants. But how often does labour, which esteems itself labour for Him, stop very short of this, take care that it shall never arrive at this point; and perhaps in our days none are more tempted continually to measure out to themselves tasks too light and inadequate, than those to whom al office and ministry in the Church has been committed. Indeed, there is here to them an ever-recurring temptation, and this from the fact that they do for the most part measure out their own day’s task to themselves. Others in almost every 100other calling have it measured out to them; if not the zeal, earnestness, sincerity which they are to put into the performance of it, yet at any rate the outward limits, the amount of time which they shall devote to it, and often the definite amount of it which they shall accomplish. Not so we. We give to it exactly the number of hours which we please; we are for the most part responsible to no man; and when labourers thus apportion their own burdens, and do this from day to day, how near the danger that they should unduly spare themselves, and make their burdens far lighter than they should have been. We may well keep this word κόπος, and all that it signifies, namely labour unto weariness, in mind; and remember ever that it is this which the Lord praises and allows.
“And how thou canst not bear them which are evil.”—Christ has good things to say of the Church of Ephesus, and He, who rejoices in the truth, dwells on these good things first. It is well worth while to observe here the graciousness of the Lord, that He puts thus in the foremost place all which He can find to approve; and only after this has received its mead of praise, notes the shortcomings which He is also compelled to rebuke. Many graces had decayed at Ephesus; of this we may be sure; seeing that the grace of all graces, namely love, had decayed (ver. 4); but in the midst of this decay 101there survived an earnest hatred of certain evildoers and evil deeds. The κακοί here are not exactly equivalent to the κακοὶ ἐργάται of Phil. iii. 2. These last are the prominent workers of mischief in the Church, false apostles, false prophets, and the like; but the κακοί will include the whole rabble of evil-doers as well. It is not a little remarkable that the grace or virtue here ascribed to the Angel of the Ephesian Church and still more strongly at ver. 6, should have a name in classical Greek, μισοπονηρία (Plutarch, Quom. Am. ab Adul. 12), the person of whom the grace is predicated being μισοπόνηρος, while neither of these words, nor yet any equivalent to them, occurs in the New Testament. Φιλάγαθος it has (Tit. i. 8), but nowhere, μισοπόνηρος, nor any adequate substitute for it. It is the stranger, as this hatred of evil, purely as evil, however little thought of, or admired now, is eminently a Christian grace (Rom. xii. 9; cf. Ps. cxxxix. 21). The sphere in which the Angel of Ephesus had the chief opportunity of manifesting this holy intolerance of evil-doers was, no doubt, that of Church-discipline, separating off from fellowship with the faithful those who named the name of Christ, yet would not depart from iniquity (2 Tim. ii. 19). The infirmities, even the sins, of weak brethren, these are burdens which we may, nay, which we are commanded to, bear (cf. Gal. vi. 2, where the same word βαστάζειν is used); it is otherwise with false brethren (Ps. cxix. 115; cix. 21, 22; 1 Cor. v. 11).
“And thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars.”—We translate by the same word the πειράζειν here and the δοκιμάζειν of 1 John iv. 1. What this Angel at Ephesus had done, and effectually done, St. John there bids those to whom he is writing that they should do, namely, prove the spirits of those who came to them claiming to teach as with authority, and to bring a direct message from God (cf. 1 Thess. v. 21; 1 Tim. iv. 1). The touchstone which he there gives, the Ithuriel’s spear which should compel each heretic to start up and show himself in his proper shape, is the acknowledgment or denial that Jesus Christ was come in the flesh (ver. 2, 3). At the same time we must not regard this as so absolutely the touchstone, but that other times and other conditions of the Church might demand other tests. Thus, in the fourth century and during the Arian conflict the Homoousion was that by which the spirits were to be tried. And when our Lord, warning against false prophets, lays down this rule, “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matt. vii. 16), He adds a further test by which all such may be detected. By what methods the Angel of this Church had tried these pretenders to 103the apostolate, and discovered the falsehood of their claims, we are not told; but probably by a union of both these tests. If these false prophets were, as is generally assumed, the chiefs and leaders of the Nicolaitan wickedness, which is presently named by its name (ver. 6), then doctrinally he will have tried them by the touchstone of Christ’s true humanity, whether they would confess this or deny it;—we may be sure that they had that in common with all other Gnostics, which led them to the denial of it;—and practically, by the fruits which they bore; which, being works of shame and darkness, avouched that the workers of them were not, and could not be, sent of Him who is Light, and in whom is no darkness at all. And even were they not precisely identical with the Nicolaitans, on which there will be something to say at ver. 6, these tests would not the less effectually have accomplished this work.
We must not press the word “apostles,” as though it implied a claim on their parts to have seen and been immediately sent by the Lord Jesus Christ, which was necessary for an Apostle in the highest sense of the word (Acts i. 21, 22; 1 Cor. ix. 1), nor even by the mother Church at Jerusalem. It was now too late for either. St. John alone of living men could claim the first prerogative, and Jerusalem had long ago been destroyed. As little are these “which say they are apostles” identical in 104the actual form of their resistance to the truth with those “false apostles, deceitful workers,” who every where sought to hinder the labours of St. Paul, and every where denied the apostolic authority which he claimed (2 Cor. x. 11). Those and these had indeed this in common, that they alike opposed the truth; but those were Judaizers, seeking to bring back the ceremonial law and the obligations of it, see Acts xv. 1, and Galatians, passim; these do not judaize, but heathenize, seeking to throw off every yoke, to rid themselves not of the ceremonial law only, but also of the moral; and to break down every distinction separating the Church from a world lying in the wicked one.1919 This intolerance of error, this resolution to hold fast the precious deposit of the truth, to suffer nothing to be added to it, nothing to be taken from it, nothing to be altered in it, was still the mark and glory of the Ephesian Church at a date somewhat later than this. It is a remarkable testimony to this which Ignatius, writing not many years after, bears, and it admirably agrees with the testimony which the Lord Himself bears here to its zeal for doctrinal purity (ad Ephes. vi.): αὐτὸς μὲν οὖν Ὀνήσιμος ὑπερεπαινεῖ ὑμῶν τὴν ἐν Θεῷ εὐταξίαν, ὅτι ἐν ὑμῖν οὐδεμία αἵρεσις κατοικεῖ· ἀλλ᾽ οὐδὲ ἀκούετέ τινος πλέον ἤπερ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ λαλοῦντος ἐν ἀληθείᾳ. And again, c. ix. ἔγνων δὲ παροδεύσαντάς τινας ἐκεῖθεν, ἔχοντας κακὴν διδαχήν· οὃς οὐκ εἰάσατε σπεῖραι εἰς ὑμᾶς, βύσαντες τὰ ὦτα, εἰς τὸ μὴ παραδέξασθαι τὰ σπειρόμενα ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν.
Ver. 3. “And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast 105not fainted.”—There is a good deal of filling up by transcribers here, and more than one phrase to be omitted. The following version will represent more truly the original as it stands in the best critical editions: “And hast patience, and didst bear for my name’s sake, and hast not grown weary.” It is not hard to see the inducements which led transcribers in the last clause of the verse to change καὶ οὐ κεκοπίακες into κεκοπίακας καὶ οὐ κέκμηκας. They took the verb κοπιάω only in the sense of “to labour;” but how could it be said in praise of the Ephesian Angel that he had not laboured; above all when his κόπος only one verse before was the especial object of the Lord’s commendation, as indeed it is throughout the Epistle? so they changed the word to what we have in the received text and in our Version; “thou hast laboured, and hast not fainted.” But κοπιάω is not only to labour, but implying, as we have seen it does, strenuous and exhausting labour, will often mean farther, to grow weary with labour (thus John iv. 6; Matt. xi. 28: κοπιῶντες καὶ πεφορτισμένοι); and it is this for which the Lord here praises the Angel and in him the Church at Ephesus, that it had borne the burden and heat of a long day’s toil without fainting under, or waxing weary of it. This recurrence to the κόπος of the verse preceding is very instructive, though it is hard, if not impossible, to reproduce it 106in English. “Thou knowest what κόπος is, without knowing what κοπιᾶν is;” and that this is not accidental seems evident from the exactly similar recurrence of βαστάζειν in both verses; “There are things which thou canst not bear, and things which thou canst bear; thou canst not bear the wicked, such false brethren as name the name of Christ only to bring shame upon it; thou hast something of the spirit of him who declared, ‘He that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight’ (Ps. ci. 10), but thou canst bear my reproach, my cross;” cf. Luke xiv. 27, where the same word βαστάζειν is used as here; so also John xix. 17. Wetstein: “Eleganter opponuntur: οὐ δύνῃ βαστάσαι et ἐβάστασας. Ferre potes molestias propter Christum et vexationes; at non potes ferre pseudapostolos.”
Ver. 4. “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.”—“Ἔχω κατὰ σοῦ: cf. for the same phrase Matt. v. 23; Mark xi. 25; and for a similar, Col. iii. 13. This is one of three occasions (see ver. 14, 20) on which Christ has to make a like exception, and to dash his praise with blame. In neither, however, of the other cases is the blame so severe as here, the “somewhat,” which appears in part to mitigate the severity of this judgment, having nothing corresponding with it in the original. It is indeed not a “somewhat,” which the Lord has against the 107Ephesian Church; it threatens to grow to be an “every thing;” for see the verse following, and compare 1 Cor. xiii. 1-3. The great passage on “first love” is Jer. ii. 2: “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown,”—words which set forth the first warmth of gratitude, the first devotion of heart on the part of Israel to its Redeemer and Lord (Exod. xiv. 31; xv. 1), when it seemed as if the flood-tides of a thankful love would never ebb, but would bear it triumphantly over every obstacle which it might meet in its path. Such a “first love” of the Bride to the heavenly Bridegroom, and in Him to all that are his, dwelt largely in the Ephesian Church when St. Paul wrote his Epistle to it; he gives God thanks for their love unto all the saints (i. 15); he draws them without a misgiving into the deepest mysteries of human love and divine (v. 23-33). The suggestion that this leaving of the first love can refer to the abating of any other love but that to God and Christ, grows out of an entire ignorance of the whole spiritual life, the ways by which it travels, and the dangers to which it is inevitably exposed, and which, alas! only too often prove fatal to it.
On the question, When the Apocalypse was composed, we have a certain amount of implicit 108evidence here, in this reproach with which the Lord reproaches the Ephesian Angel; such as has its value in confirming the ecclesiastical tradition which places it in the reign of Domitian, as against the more modern view which assumes it to have been written in the time of Nero. It has been well observed that in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Church of Ephesus there are no signs, nor even presentiments, of this approaching spiritual declension with which the great Searcher of hearts upbraids it here. Writing to no Church does he treat of higher spiritual mysteries. There is no word in the Epistle of blame, no word indicating dissatisfaction with the spiritual condition of his Ephesian converts. He warns them, indeed, in his parting charge given at Miletus of dangers threatening them no less from within than from without (Acts xx. 29, 30); but no word indicates that they by any fault of theirs were laying themselves open to these. Those who place the Apocalypse in the reign of Nero hardly allow ten years between that condition and this—too brief a period for so great and mournful a change. It is inconceivable that there should have been such a letting go of first love in so brief a time. No: that which we have here described marks, as Hengstenberg has excellently said, the rise of another generation—a condition analogous to that of the children of Israel, when Joshua and 109the elders who had seen the great wonders in Egypt were gathered to their fathers (Josh. xxiv. 31). With their departure another order of things commences. A second generation rises up rather with the traditions of earnest religion; than the living power of it. The forms, which were once instinct with life, still survive; but the life itself has, not indeed altogether, but in good part, departed from them. Place the Apocalypse under Domitian, and thirty years will have intervened since St. Paul wrote his Epistle to Ephesus—exactly the period which we require, exactly the life of a generation; the outlines of the truth are still preserved; but the truth itself is not for a second generation what it was for the first; apparently there is nothing changed; while yet in fact every thing is changed. How often has something of this kind repeated itself in the Church.2020 There is a passage in Bishop Burnet’s History of his own Times, which has always seemed to me to throw considerable light on this picture of the Ephesian Church, active, zealous of good works, resolute to maintain a form of sound words, the truth once delivered, and yet with its inner principle of love so far decayed. He is describing the state of the Protestant communities of Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, and of the French Protestant refugees who had found shelter among them’ from the dragonades, the “mission bottée” as it is so facetiously called by some Roman Catholic writers, of Louis XIV. His words, written in the year 1680, are as follows: “I was indeed amazed at the labours and learning of the ministers among the Reformed. They understood the Scriptures well in the original tongues, they had all the points of controversy very ready, and did thoroughly understand the whole body of divinity. In many places they preached every day, and were almost constantly employed in visiting their flock. But they performed their devotions but slightly, and read their prayers, which were too long, with great precipitation and little zeal. Their sermons were too long and too dry. And they were so strict, even to jealousy, in the smallest points in which they put orthodoxy, that one who could not go into all their notions, but was resolved not to quarrel with them, could not converse much with them with any freedom.” Speaking of the French refugees from the dragonades, he says: “Even among them there did not appear a spirit of piety and devotion suitable to their condition, though persons who have willingly suffered the loss of all things rather than sin against their consciences, must be believed to have a deeper principle in them, than can well be observed by others.”110
Ver. 5. “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works.”—There are ever goads in the memory of a better and a nobler past, goading him who has taken up with meaner things and lower, and urging him to mlake what he has lost once more his own; as, to take an extreme instance, it is the prodigal’s recollection of the bread enough and to spare in his father’s house, which makes the swine’s husks and the famine even among them, so intolerable to him. And therefore is it that this Ephesian Angel is bidden to remember the glorious heights of grace, the heavenly places whereon, though yet on earth, he once walked with Christ during the fervency of his first 111love. Perhaps the desire shall thus be kindled in him to scale these heights again. In this “from whence thou art fallen,” an allusion may possibly lie to Isai. xiv. 12, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning.”—“And, as thou rememberest, repent, and do the first works.” Christ does not say “Feel thy first feelings;” that perhaps would have been impossible, and even if possible, might have had but little value in it; but “Do the first works,” such as thou didst in the time of thy first devotedness and zeal. Not the quantity, but the quality, of his works was now other and worse than once it had been.
“Or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”—The “quickly” is wanting in most MSS., and has probably found its way here from ver. 16; iii. 11; xxii. 7, 12, 20. The removing of the candlestick from a place implies the entire departure of Christ’s grace, of his Church with all its blessings, from that spot, with the transfer of it to another; for it is removal of the candlestick, not extinction of the candle, which is threatened here—judgment for some, but that very judgment the occasion of mercy for others. And so it has been. The Churches of Asia are now no more, or barely and hardly exist; but the grace of God, withdrawn from them, has been bestowed elsewhere. The seat 112of the Church has been changed, but the Church itself still survives. The candlestick has been removed, but the candle has not been quenched; and what the East has lost the West has gained. How awful the fulfilment of the threat has been in regard of Ephesus every modern traveller thither has borne witness. One who lately visited the place found only three Christians there, and these sunk in such ignorance and apathy as scarcely to have heard the names of St. Paul or St. John.
Ver. 6. “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”—Very beautiful is the tenderness of the Lord in thus bringing forward a second time some good thing which He had found at Ephesus. Having been compelled to speak sharp severe words, He yet will not leave off with these; but having wounded, He will, so far as it is safe to do so, also heal.2121 On this mingling of praise, so far as truth will allow, with the necessary blame, and the leaving off not with blame, but with praise, Plutarch has much to say in his delightful treatise, “How to discern a Flatterer from a Friend,” which is full of instruction on the true spirit of Christian rebuke. On this, which the Lord so notably practises here, namely the not leaving off with rebuke, but if possible with praise, he beautifully says (c. 37): Ἐπεὶ τοίνυν, ὥσπερ εἴρηται, πολλάκις ἡ παῤῥησία τῷ θεραπευομένῳ λυπηρὰ ὑπάρχει, δεῖ μιμεῖσθαι τοὺς ἰατρούς. οὔτε γὰρ ἐκεῖνοι τέμνοντες, ἐν τῷ πονεῖν καὶ ἀλγεῖν καταλείπουσι τὸ πεπονθὸς, ἀλλ᾽ ἐνέβρεξαν προσηνῶς καὶ κατῃόνησαν· οὄτε οἱ νουθετοῦντες ἀστείως, τὸ πικρὸν καὶ δηκτικὸν προσβαλόντες ἀποτρέχουσιν, ἀλλ᾽ ὁμιλίαις ἑτέραις καὶ λόγοις ἐπιεικέσιν ἐκπρανουσι καὶ διαχέουσιν. Cf. c. xxxiii. It is no small 113praise to love that which Christ loves, and to hate that which Christ hates, and this praise the Lord will not withhold from the Angel of Ephesus.
But the Nicolaitans, whose deeds were the object of the earnest hate of Christ’s servant, as also of his own, who were they? It is not an easy question to answer. Was there, in the first place, any sect existing at the time when these words were uttered, which actually bore this name? I am disposed to think there was not. The other names of this Book, Egypt, Babylon, Sodom, in agreement with its apocalyptic character, are predominantly mystical and symbolic; and in all probability this is so as well; while the key to the right understanding of it is given us at ii. 14, 15; where those “that hold the doctrine of Balaam” (ver. 14) are evidently identical with those “that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans” (ver. 15). We are here set upon the right track. It is probable that we hardly rate high enough the significance of Balaam as an Anti-Moses, and therefore as an Antichrist, in the Old Testament. But without entering more into this, it may be observed that his name, according to the best etymology, signifies “Destroyer of the people” (“qui absorpsit populum,” from בֶלַע and עָם), and Νικόλαος (νικᾶν τὸν λαόν) is no more than a grecizing 114of this name,—such alternation, or duplication, presenting a word, now in its Greek, now in its Hebrew aspect, being altogether in the character of the Book, Greek in language, but Hebrew in form and spirit, and several times recurring in it; thus, Ἀπολλύων and Ἀβαδδών (ix. 11); Διάβολος and Σατανᾶς (xii. 9; xx. 2); ναί and ἀμήν (i. 7). The genesis of the name, which, so understood, will almost exactly correspond to Armillus (= ἐρημόλαος), the name by which the final Antichrist, who shall seduce the Christians to their ruin, is known among the Jews (see Eisenmenger, Entd. Judenth. ii. 705, sqq.), may be accounted for in this way. The Nicolaitans, as we have seen, are the Balaamites; no sect bearing the one name or the other; but those who in the New Dispensation repeated the sin of Balaam in the Old, and sought to overcome or destroy the people of God by the same temptations whereby Balaam had sought to overcome them before. But it was into the fleshly sins of heathenism that he had sought to lead them, to introduce these among the people of God, to draw them to eat idol meats and to commit fornication (Num. xxv. 1-9; xxxi. 16); and this the leading character of his wickedness must be also of theirs.
The Nicolaitans then, or Balaamites, are no sect that in early times bore one of these names or the other; but those who after the pattern of Balaam’s 115sin sought to introduce a false freedom; the freedom of the flesh, into the Church of God. These were the foremost tempters of the Church in the later apostolic times when the Apocalypse was written, and in the times immediately succeeding. The first great battle which the Church had to fight was with Jewish legalism; this came to its head historically, and found its condemnation, in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts xv. 1-31), dogmatically in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, those who refused to accept the Church’s decisions on the matter gradually forming themselves more and more into a schismatical heretical body, not any longer within, but henceforth without, the Church’s pale. But this danger overcome, St. Paul lived to see before the close of his ministry the rise of another, of exactly the opposite error—that, namely, of heathen false freedom and libertinism; while in the later writings of the New Covenant, in the Epistle of St. Jude, in the second of St. Peter, and in the Apocalypse of St. John we find these libertine errors full blown. They all speak of lawless ones (2 Pet. ii. 16), who abused St. Paul’s doctrine of grace (iii. 16), who promised liberty to others, being themselves the servants of corruption (ii. 19), who turned the grace of God into lasciviousness (Jude 4); or, as these Nicolaitans, would fain entice the servants of God to eat idol meats and commit fornication. It 116is not indeed a little remarkable, as attesting the identity of those whose works the Lord here declares that He hates with them whom his Apostles denounce, that Balaam, whose name as we have seen is the key-word to the name which these Nicolaitans bear, and to the works which they do, is set ftorth both by St. Peter (ii. 15) and St. Jude (ver. 11) as the seducer in whose path of error these later seducers were themselves running and persuading others to run.
But it may be urged against this view of the matter that we find actual Nicolaitans in the second century. Doubtless we do so. That there existed in the second and third centuries a sect of antinomian Gnostics, who bore this name, has been denied by some; but on grounds quite insufficient. Irenæus (i. xxvi. 3) is probably in error when he makes the founder of this sect to have been Nicolas, the proselyte of Antioch, of whom such honourable mention is made in the Acts (vi. 3, 5); and who, if this were true, must afterwards have miserably fallen away from the faith; while yet the fault of Irenæus is probably no more than that he too lightly admitted the claim which they made to Nicolas, as the author of their heresy. It is certainly difficult to see what authority any statement of his would retain with us, if we felt at liberty to set aside his distinct assertion of such a sect as existing in his own time. 117But still more explicit are the references made to them by Tertullian (De Præsc. Hær. 46). It cannot be said of him, as it sometimes is of Irenæus, that he knows nothing about them except what he has drawn from these passages of Scripture; for he gives an account of their doctrines, not merely libertine, but Gnostic, at considerable length. Clement of Alexandria also (Strom. ii. 20) speaks without hesitation of the Nicolaitans (οἱ φάσκοντες ἑαυτοὺς Νικολάῳ ἕπεσθαι) as a body existing in his day; and compare iii. 4, where he records their unbridled excessive lusts. He indeed entirely acquits Nicolas the deacon from having had any share in the authorship of this heresy, giving no credit to this boasted genealogy of theirs. The Apostolic Constitutions (vi. 8) do the same. With such distinct notices of Nicolaitans existing in the second century, it seems a piece of unwarranted scepticism to deny the historic existence of such a sect. At the same time, there is no need to suppose that they were the spiritual descendants of actual Nicolaitans, of libertines I mean, bearing this name, in the times of the Apostle. Rather, springing up at a later day, one of the innumerable branches of the Gnostic heresy, they assumed this name which they found ready made for them in the Apocalypse.2222 The fullest collection of all passages of antiquity bearing on the Nicolaitans which I know is to be found in Stern’s Commentar über die Offenbarung, 1854, pp. 141-145.118
It may seem indeed, at the first showing, almost inconceivable that a sect, professing to stand even in the remotest relation to Christianity, should appropriate to itself a name so branded with infamy as in Holy Scripture is this. But we must remember that with many of the Gnostics this was a relation of absolute and entire opposition to nearly all of the Scripture; and the history of these daring fighters against God would supply many parallel instances of blasphemous impiety. Thus, not to speak of the Ophites, there were the Cainites (Tertullian indeed identifies them and the Nicolaitans, De Præsc. Hær. 33), all whose saints and heroes were those whom the Scripture had marked with deepest reprobation, the list beginning with Cain and ending with Judas Iscariot (Tertullian, De Præsc. Hær. 47). When too we keep in mind the intense antagonism of the antinomian Gnostics to John as a judaizing Apostle, contradistinguished from Paul, who with their own Marcion was to sit, Paul on the right hand, and Marcion on the left hand, of Christ in his kingdom, being those for whom this was reserved of the Father (Matt. xx. 23; Origen, in Luc. Hom. 25), assuredly there will seem nothing strange that a name which John branded with worst dishonour, they who gloried in 119their shame should assume as one of chiefest honour;—just as in an infidel publication of the present day which has sometimes come under my eye, there are letters signed in blasphemous earnest with the signature of “Antichrist.”
One point still remains. Is the hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans of this verse identical with not being able to “bear them which are evil” of ver. 2? or, being a grace growing out of the same holy impatience of evil, is there for all this a certain difference between them, so that while that was rather a hatred of error in doctrine, of departure from the faith once delivered, an unmasking of them that said they were apostles, and were not, this is more a hatred of evil done, of the deeds of the Nicolaitans? In other words, is the Lord here recurring to the good thing which He has already found and praised in Ephesus? or is this new praise, and the recognition of a further grace? Most expositors take for granted that Christ here returns to the praise which He has already uttered, that the Nicolaitans therefore are identical with “them that are evil” of the former verse. I cannot think it; but must see here not the repetition of praise bestowed before, which seems somewhat flat, but a further merit which Christ is well pleased to find and to acknowledge in his Church at Ephesus. The deeds of the Nicolaitans were, no doubt, 120the crowning wickedness there, the bitter fruit growing out of that evil root of false doctrine; but whether in root or fruit this evil was equally hated by the Angel and Church of Ephesus.
Ver. 7. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches.”—These words recur in each of the Epistles; with only this difference, that in the former three they occur before, in the latter four after, the final promise. Is there any meaning in this change of place? It is difficult to believe that there is not. The Apocalypse is a work of such consummate art, a device of such profound wisdom, that one is slow to assume any thing accidental in it, any departure from a rule which has been once admitted, without a meaning. At the same time I must own that I have never seen any satisfactory explanation of this. That in every case the words usher in, or commend, truths of the deepest concernment to all, there can be no doubt. This we might confidently argue from the very form of the exhortation; but we further gather it from a comparison of the passages, all of them of deepest significance, where the same summons to attention recurs (Matt. xi. 15; xiii. 9, 43; Mark vii. 16; Rev. xiii. 9); so that Irving (Expos. of the Revelation, vol. i. p. 354) has perfect right when he affirms, “This form always is used of radical and as it were of generative truths, great principles, 121most precious promises, most deep fetches from the secrets of God, being as it were eyes of truth, seeds and kernels of knowledge.” These words then proclaim to us that they are matters of weightiest concernment to the whole Church of God, which Christ is uttering here.
But let us look a little closer at them, and see what other lessons this summons, in the form which it here takes, is capable of yielding. And first the “ear” here is not a natural ear, and this therefore a summons to every man, for every man has such a natural ear, to attend to the words now spoken; but rather the words are an equivalent to the ὁ δυνάμενος χωρεῖν χωρείτω of Matt. xix. 12, and imply that, spiritual truth needing a spiritual organ for its discernment, only he will be able to hear to whom God has given the hearing ear (Deut. xxix. 4), whose ear He has wakened (Isai. l. 4, 5); of others it is true, “their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken” (Jer. vi. 10). And yet for all this the words are in another sense addressed to every one, inasmuch as he who has not this hearing ear, who discovers from the failure of these words of Christ to reach the depths of his spirit, that he has it not, is implicitly bidden to seek it of Him, who can alone give it to any, and who would be well pleased to give it to all. But secondly we are taught by these words how absolute is the identity 122between the workings of the Son and the Holy Ghost; how truly the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son, as of the Father. Christ has been speaking throughout; but now without a word of explanation, what He speaks is declared to be what the Spirit speaks. It is the Spirit who declares these things to the Churches. And in that phrase, “the Churches,” we are further reminded of the universal character which this Epistle and those that follow it possess. It might seem that all which had hitherto been uttered had been uttered only to one Church, to that of Ephesus; nor is it meant in the least to deny this primary destination, that all the reproofs, encouragements, warnings, promises which it contained were designed for Ephesus; but they are not limited to it. Christ will allow of no such limitation. In a form somewhat more solemn He virtually repeats what He once spoke in the days of his flesh, “What I say unto you, I say unto all;” for, standing as He does at the central heart of things, in his particular there ever lies involved an universal; and therefore is it that heaven and earth may pass away, but his words can never pass away.
“To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”—It is deeply interesting and instructive to observe how in this, and probably in every 123other case, the character of the promise corresponds to the character of the faithfulness displayed. They who have abstained from the idol meats, from the sinful dainties of the flesh and world, shall, in return, “eat of the tree of life;” or, as it is in the Epistle to Pergamum, “of the hidden manna” (ii. 17); the same law of correspondency and compensation being found, as I have said, to reign in most, if not all of the other promises as well. They who have not feared those who can kill the body only, who have given, where need was, their bodies to the flame, shall not be hurt by the second death (ii. 11). They whom the world has not vanquished, shall have dominion over the world (ii. 26, 27). They who keep their garments here undefiled, shall be clad in the white and shining garments of immortality there (iii. 4, 5). They who overcome Jewish pretensions (and the earnest warnings of the Epistle to the Hebrews, show us that this for some was not done without the hardest struggle) shall be made free, not of an earthly, but of an heavenly, Jerusalem (iii. 12). The only Church in which any difficulty occurs in tracing the correlation between the form of the victory and the form of the reward, is the last.
But this much said by way of general introduction to all the promises, the promise here may well claim closer attention. “To him that overcometh.” 124The image of the Christian as a conqueror, an overcomer, is frequent with St. Paul (2 Tim. ii. 5; 1 Cor. ix. 24, 25); but such phrases as νικᾶν τὸν κόσμον, νικᾶν τὸν πονηρόν, or simply νικᾶν as here, nowhere occur in his Epistles—the only passage in them which in the least resembles these, or where the word is used to express the moral victory over sin and temptation, is Rom. xii. 21. This use of νικᾶν, with that single and partial exception, is exclusively St. John’s; and the frequent recurrence of it on the one side in his Gospels and Epistles, and on the other in the Apocalypse (thus compare John xvi. 32; 1 Ep. ii. 13, 14; v. 4, 5, with Rev. ii. 11, 17, 26; iii. 5, 12, 21; xii. 11; xxi. 7), constitutes an interesting point of contact between the language of this Book and of those others whereof he was the author as well; and for those who need such arguments, as argument for the identity of the author of those and of this.
It is very noteworthy, and this “I will give,” recurring as it does so constantly in all these Epistles, bids us to note, how absolutely without reserve or qualification Christ assumes for Himself throughout them all, the distribution of rewards, as supreme and sole μισθαποδότης (Heb. xi. 6) in the kingdom of glory (ii. 10, 17, 26, 28; iii. 21; cf. xxi. 6, and 2 Tim. iv. 8). Elsewhere St. Paul has said, “The gift of God is eternal life” (Rom. vi. 22); here it appears eminently as the gift of Christ. And his “I will give,” though still in the future, is sure. It has nothing in it of the δώσω of that ever promising but never performing king of Macedon; who, having ever this same δώσω on his lips, but never the δώσω in his hands, acquired the name of Doson, fastened as no honourable distinction upon him who never crowned the promise with the performance.
In “the tree of life” there is manifest allusion to Gen. ii. 9. The use of ξύλον, the dead timber in classical Greek, for δένδρον, the living tree, there as here is Hellenistic; not indeed exclusively confined to the Septuagint and the New Testament, being found in the Alexandrian poets, Callimachus for instance, as well; indeed, there is an anticipation of it in Herodotus, iii. 47. The tree which disappeared with the disappearance of the earthly Paradise, reappears with the reappearance of the heavenly, Christ’s kingdom being in the highest sense “the restitution of all things” (Acts iii. 21). Whatever had been lost through Adam’s sin is won back, and that too in a higher shape, through Christ’s obedience. That the memory of “the tree of life” had not in the mean time perished, we gather from such passages as Prov. iii. 18; xi. 30; xiii. 12; xv. 4.2323 The Rabbis, of course, know a great deal about this “tree of life.” Its boughs overshadow the whole of Paradise. It has five hundred thousand fragrant smells, and its fruit as many pleasant tastes, not one of them resembling the other (Eisenmenger, Entdecktes Judenthum, vol. ii. p. 311). To eat of the tree of life is a figurative 126phrase to express participation in the life eternal; cf. Gen. iii. 22; Ezek. xlvii. 12;2424 Lucian’s words (Ver. Hist. ii. 14), in his account of the Island of the Blest, sound very much like a scoff at this: αἱ μὲν ἄμπελοι δωδεκάφοροί εἰσι, καὶ κατὰ μῆνα ἔκαστον καρποφοροῦσι. Rev. xxii. 2, 14; 2 Esdr. ii. 12; vii. 53; and Ecclus. xix. 19: “They that do the things that please Him shall receive the fruit of the tree of immortality.” Compare the words of the Christian Sibyl:
Οἱ δὲ Θεὸν τιμῶντες ἀληθινὸν ἀέναόντε
Ζωὴν κληρονομοῦσι τὸν αἰῶνος ⛯ρόνον, αὐτοὶ
Οἰκοῦντες Παραδείσου ὁμῶς ἐριθήλεα κῆπον,
Δαινύμενοι γλυκὺν ἄρτον ἀπ᾽ οὐρανοῦ ἀστερόεντος.
We meet with echoes and reminiscences of this “tree of life” in the mythologies of many nations; or if not actual reminiscences of it, yet reachings out after it, as in the Yggdrasil of our own northern mythology (see Grimm, Deutsche Mythol. p. 756); and still more remarkable in the Persian Hom. This is the king of trees, is called in the Zend-Avesta the Death-destroyer; it grows by the fountain of Arduisur, in other words, the waters 127of life; while its sap drunken confers immortality (Creuzer, Symbolik, vol. i. p. 187, and often).
For the words, “which is in the midst of the Paradise of God,” there can be no doubt that we should read simply, “which is in the Paradise of God.” Transcribers brought their “in the midst” from Gen. ii. 9. Παράδεισος is a word whose history is well worth tracing. The word and thing which it designated are both generally said to be Persian; though this is now earnestly denied by some, who claim for it a Semitic origin (see Tuch, Genesis, p. 68). As is well known, it was first naturalized in Greek by Xenophon, who designated by it the parks or pleasure-gardens of Persia, in which wild beasts were kept, or stately trees grown (Hell. iv. 1. 15; Cyrop. i. 4. 11), being at once the “vivarium” and the “viridarium” of the Romans. Classical Latin did not know the word ‘paradisus’ (see A. Gellius, ii. 20. 4, and the long circumlocution by which Cicero, De Senect. 17, is compelled to express the thing). Where the Septuagint employs παράδεισος, it is commonly to designate the garden of Eden (Gen. ii. 8; iii. 1; Ezek. xxviii. 13), though sometimes employing it for any stately garden of delight whatever (Isai. i. 30; Jer. xxix. 5; Eccl. ii. 5): ἐποίησά μοι κήπους καὶ παραδείσους). The word, when it appears in the New Testament, has taken a great spring. The ideal beauty of that 128dwelling-place of our first parents, perhaps also the fact that it had now vanished from the earth, has caused the name “Paradise” to be transferred to that region and province in Hades, or the invisible world, where the souls of the faithful are gathered, waiting for their perfect consummation and bliss. “Their [the Jews’] meaning therefore was this; that as paradise, or the garden of Eden, was a place of great beauty, pleasure, and tranquillity, so the state of separate souls was a state of peace and excellent delights” (J. Taylor). It is in this sense that Christ allowed and employed the term, when to the dying thief He said, “This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise” (Luke xxii. 43).2525 The most interesting passages in the Fathers on Paradise as this middle state, are Tertullian, De Animâ, 55 (his book De Paradiso has not reached us); and Origen, De Princ. ii. 11. 6. But even this is not all. The word takes a higher meaning yet; for this inferior Paradise is not to be confounded with the heavenly Paradise, “the Paradise of God,” as it is here called, “the third heaven,” where is the presence and glory of God (2 Cor. xii. 2, 4).2626 There is much about both Paradises, the upper and the under, as the Jews were wont to call them, in Eisenmenger, Endecktes Judenthum, vol. ii. pp. 260-320. We may thus trace παράδεισος passing through a series of meanings, each one higher than the last; from any garden of delight, 129which is its first meaning, it comes to be predominantly applied to the garden of Eden, then to the resting-place of separate souls in joy and felicity, and lastly, to the very heaven itself; and we see eminently in it, what we see indeed in so many words, how revealed religion assumes them into her service, and makes them vehicles of far higher truth than any which they knew at first, transforming and transfiguring them, as in this case, from glory to glory.
This “tree of life,” with the privilege of eating of its fruits, as belonging to the faithful overcomer, reappears at the close of this Book (xxii. 2, 14). Indeed it is very interesting to note, and here will be a fit opportunity for noting, the fine and subtle bands which knit one part of the Apocalypse to another, the marvellous art, if we may dare to use an earthly word speaking of a heavenly fact, with which this Book is constructed. Especially these seven Epistles, which at first sight might appear, which to some have appeared, to hang loosely on the rest, to be but slightly attached, do yet on nearer examination prove to be bound to it by the closest possible bands. There is not one of the promises made to the faithful in these second and third chapters, which does not look on to, and perhaps first finds its explanation in, some later portion of the Book. Thus the eating of the tree of life, at 130xxii. 2, 14, 19; deliverance from the second death (ii. 11) receives its solemn commentary, xx. 14; xxi. 8; the writing of the new name of ii. 17 reappears xiv. 1; the dominion over the heathen of ii. 26 at xx. 4; the morning star of ii. 28 at xxii. 16; the white garments of iii. 5 at iv. 4; vii. 9, 13; the name found written in the book of life of iii. 5 at xiii. 8; xx. 15; the New Jerusalem and the citizenship in it of iii. 12 at xxi. 10; xxii. 14; the sitting upon the throne of iii. 21 at iv. 4.2727 Very beautifully Bengel on this matter, though his words refer not to the seven Epistles only, but to the whole Book: “Partes hujus libri passim inter se respiciunt. Omnino structura libri hujus prorsus artem divinam spirat; estque ejus quodam modo proprium, ut res futuras multas, et in multitudine varias, proximas, intermedias, remotissimas, maximas, minimas, terribiles, salutares, ex veteribus prophetis repetitas, novas, longas, breves, easque inter se contextas, oppositas, compositas, seque mutuo involventes et evolventes, ad se invicem ex intervallo parvo aut magno respicientes, adeoque interdum quasi disparentes, abruptas, suspensas, et postea de improviso opportunissime sub conspectum redeuntes, absoluto compendio complectatur; atque his rebus, quæ complectitur liber, structura libri exacte respondet. Itaque in omnibus suis partibus admirabilem habet varietatem, spirasque pulcerrimas, simulque summam harmoniam, per ipsas anomalias, quæ illam interpellare videntur, valde illustratam.”
There is one thing more to observe before leaving this promise,-namely the large amount of evidence in favour of a very interesting reading,—“in the Paradise of my God” (τοῦ Θεοῦ μου). It is not hard to understand the motives which led to 131the omission of this μου—the fear namely of Arian conclusions, or others dishonourable to the divinity of Christ, which may probably have influenced transcribers. Such fears are altogether superfluous, as Arethas long ago observed. This Scripture does but say what innumerable others say as well. The Lord after his resurrection could speak of “my Father and your Father, my God and your God” (John xx. 17); and compare in this very Book, “the temple of my God,” “the name of my God,” “the city of my God” (iii. 12); while St. Paul does not scruple to speak of the God, as well as the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephes. i. 17).
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