by T. Austin-Sparks
Reading: Revelation 1:4-18.
"The Revelation of Jesus Christ..." (Rev. 1:1).
"And out of the throne proceed lightnings and voices and thunders. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God" (Revelation 4:5).
There is, perhaps, no book in the Bible that has resulted in more confusion than the book of the Revelation. To mention alone, by name, the many conflicting schools of interpretation that it has produced, would be but to open the door to the confusion. And yet it is quite certain that God never intended any part of His Word to lead to confusion. Confusion is not a characteristic of the Lord; He is not a God of confusion. It therefore becomes necessary that we seek to reduce the message of the book to some simple conclusions; and I think the first three chapters, which form a distinct section, may help us to see how the whole book can and should be reduced to such a simple conclusion. We can leave the place names, for the moment; forget Ephesus and Smyrna and Pergamum and the rest, as names, and as places; we can, indeed, leave much of the symbolism - not all of it, because some of it is so obvious - but what we cannot understand we can leave, and we can resolve the section in this way:
Eternal Spiritual Principles
We have to recognise, firstly, that we are here, in these chapters, in the presence of timeless spiritual principles. It is true that they are being applied to particular conditions, situations, and places, but there is something more here than the place and the time and the particular situation. There is a spiritual factor that is governing everything. We are in the presence of those factors which are more than local, more than geographical, more than of a time setting: they are age-long - indeed they are eternal. The very first thing, therefore, that we have to recognise and grasp as we come to this book, and to this section as an example, is this: Here we are being presented with something that is in the mind of God, which touches all these situations that are set forth here; and what we have to do is to get hold of what that is in the mind of God. It is one thing, though it may have many aspects; and to get hold of that one thing is the key both to this section and to the whole book. I will not mention, for the moment, what it is, but we shall come to that presently.
The Lord Calls to Account
Secondly, we are in the presence of one of those critical points - it may be the last - when the Lord calls to account for all that He has given. That is, of course, quite clear in this section, and in fact it governs all the rest of the book. The Church and the churches had received much from the Lord through His apostles and other servants: they had a great wealth of spiritual inheritance. And when the Lord has done anything like that at any time in history, it is as though, at given points, He comes back and says, 'Now, what about it? I have given; I have revealed, I have made known; I have entreated; I have implored; I have besought; I have exhorted; I have warned: now, the time has come when some reckoning has to be made, and an answer given.'
The Lord has, as we know, done that more than once in history; but here we are in the presence of such an occasion, of such a crisis. I say, it may be the last, because this book does stand in relation to the end - to the Lord's coming - does it not? Here is a principle, as well as a time application of the principle. The nature of the crisis is this. The Lord is saying: 'How do you measure up to all that I have given you? How do you stand in the light of the whole deposit that has been made with you?' This crisis is a very serious one, since it involves the issue of continuance or discontinuance: of whether the vessel, the lampstand, remains or is removed. It is a crisis that involves the whole future.
The Lord's Desire is to Bless
Thirdly, we are here made aware that the Lord's desire is to bless. His is a positive attitude, not a negative one. While He has to put His finger upon the things that are lacking, the things with which He does not agree, you notice that He invariably ends His inquest with: 'To him that overcometh will I grant...' The Lord's desire in every case, with every situation, however bad it is, is to bless; He is on positive lines. There may be rebuke, there may be exposure and uncovering; there may be warning; there may be exhortation: but there is a promise suspended before everyone - a wonderful promise. None is obliged to face doom, since all are offered the alternative of the good pleasure of the Lord.
He may condemn, but His condemnation is to clear the way for blessing. He may have to judge; He may have to break; but that is to provide the ground for blessing. He may warn with a solemn voice, but His warnings are coupled with His desire that these people should come into something more of His grace, of His goodness. And we cannot read these promises to 'overcomers' without being profoundly impressed with this - that it seems that the greatest delinquents, those who have failed most, are offered the highest blessing! So it was with Laodicea. You cannot get any further than 'to sit with Him in His throne'; yet that is the offer to Laodicea. All the things that are judgeable are found there, but the highest reward is offered. It is from the very depth to the very height - that is His thought for His people.
Finally, and supremely, we are confronted with that for which the Lord is looking, and, it must be said, that without which He cannot justify the continuance of a vessel of testimony. That is the point upon which our message turns. What is it that the Lord is looking for? Now, many things were thought, by these churches, to be the things that the Lord was looking for, and they were not. It turned out that they were just not the things that the Lord was looking for. He had His own object before Him, and He could not be satisfied with any lesser or other alternative.
That is a summary of this first section, in the first three chapters. I hope that you can see what is the supreme thing - that only, that essentially, for which the Lord is looking when He has given so much to His people.
The Method Employed
From that point we come to the method employed by the Lord, by the Holy Spirit, for reaching the end upon which the heart of God is set. That is seen, in its completeness, in the presentation of the Lord Jesus which we have in chapter 1. That is always God's method; it is always the method of the Holy Spirit: to bring Christ in His supreme fulness into view. No one, meditating upon that vision of the Son of Man, given in that chapter, could doubt that you have there a presentation of the fulness of Christ. How full! I confess that, after meditating upon this for many days, I find the greatest difficulty in knowing how to compass the fulness of every fragment. It is no exaggeration to say that into almost every fragment of this Presentation of Jesus Christ, you could crowd a mass of what is in the Bible. Here, then, the Holy Spirit's method, comprehensively, is to bring back Christ, not partially, but in fulness.
Christ Presented in Fulness
We find here a seven-fold characterization of the risen and governing Son of Man. It is into those seven aspects that everything is crowded. Here is a brief summary of what they are:
(1) The garment, with which He is clothed down to the foot.
(2) The girdle of gold about His breasts.
(3) The head and the hair, white as wool.
(4) The eyes as a flame of fire.
(5) The feet as burnished brass.
(6) The voice, as the sound of many waters.
(7) The sword, sharp and two-edged, proceeding out of His mouth.
Who can comprehend all that? This seven-fold characterization of the Son of Man is presented, projected, in this case, before the churches - that is, before the Church as a whole, representatively. And this seven-fold characterization, in every detail, is to be the basis of the examination which is to take place, and of the judgment which is to be declared. These details are the features that constitute His quest. What is it that the Lord is seeking? The answer is: That which corresponds to these features of Christ. If we can understand what they signify, then we shall know exactly what He is after.
This presentation of Christ is, first of all, personal. But then we find that it becomes corporate. He is holding the churches, representatively, in His hand; He is moving to and fro among them; He and they are, in a sense, closely identified: and what He is really seeking is that that which is true of Himself shall be true of His Church in every place, in every location, in every expression.
The Spirit's Ministry
In chapter 1, verse 4, we find this phrase: "The seven Spirits that are before his throne"; and in chapter 4, verse 5, you have another reference to those seven Spirits, but in a particular form: "There were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God". Seven lamps of fire burning before the throne - of course, 'seven Spirits' is another way, a symbolic way, of speaking of the Holy Spirit. It denotes a sevenfold expression of the Holy Spirit. It is One Spirit mentioned here, as in the symbolism of the 'seven lamps of fire before the throne'. The Throne, we know and understand, is the symbol of government, of authority; and so the whole expression symbolizes the Throne functioning by the Holy Spirit. We know what 'lamps of fire' signify - the word originally is 'torches'. The function of a 'lamp of fire' is, first, to reveal; then, to test, and to determine. We shall have more to say about that presently. This means the expression of Christ, by the Holy Spirit, in a sevenfold characterization. Let us keep in mind that they are before the Throne; it is the Throne that is here in action. It is the Throne that has come into action, by the Holy Spirit, in relation to the fulness of Christ in all the main features of His character.
The picture is quite simple, even through the intricate symbolism. The Throne is the seat of government. The ministry of the Spirit is denoted by the seven-fold 'what the Spirit saith to the churches'. Notice that seven times repeated 'what the Spirit saith...' He is speaking as from before the Throne of government; and what He is saying is, that this One, who is brought into view, is this, and is that, and is that... the seven major characteristics of Christ. Christ is that: the Throne of government stands by that: the Spirit challenges concerning that. That is what the Throne is looking for, requires and demands. The ministry relates to those Divine features which are the features of the Son of Man.
Son of Man
"One like unto the Son of man" (1:13). (The margin corrects 'a son of man', because in the same writer's Gospel, 1:51, you cannot mistake the fact that it is "the Son of Man": Jesus saying to Nathanael: "Ye shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon..." (and it cannot be 'a son of man') "...the Son of Man"; and so it is here.) This One is presented. When you read this description of the Lord, in all its details, and then hear what He says about Himself, does it not impress you that this One is described as 'The Son of man'? Why! you would expect that here, of all places in the Bible, you should find 'The Son of God'. He is the Son of God, but that is not what He is called here, in this particular connection. The Son of man - what does this mean?
It is a title which comprises, firstly, God's original, first thought as to this special creation called 'man'. God said: "Let us make man..." (Gen. 1:26). He was doing a new thing; He was embarking upon a particular kind of creature, a special creation; and, in so doing, He had large thoughts bound up with man-kind. 'The Son of Man' embraces that original thought of God in man. Secondly, it embraces, in the case of the Lord Jesus, God's loss as to His purpose and desire in man. For when man departed from the way of God, God lost in that man what He had intended. And in this Son of Man, God's loss - that of which God has been deprived by man's sin and wilfulness and Satan's interference - is taken up.
But this term 'Son of Man' is also related to God's redemption of man, and, therefore, of that which He had lost. Further, 'Son of Man' includes the Divine perfection of the man which God made. We are getting very near to the vision, now, are we not? And finally, 'Son of Man', as relating to the Lord Jesus, is God's model for all His further activities where man is concerned. There we have the five-fold component of this title, 'Son of Man'. Now we can see what the Lord is after; what the churches and the Church are intended to be, in the mind of God. What God is seeking, what the Son of Man is seeking, what the Holy Spirit in His seven-fold activity is seeking, is one thing - correspondence to the Son of Man! That that Son of Man shall be found repeated in character in all men - the Church is chosen for that.
The 'seven lamps of fire' reveal how far that is true, and how far it is not true. They test everything on that ground: Does this answer to what Christ is like, what the Son of Man is like? and, having found the answer, they judge accordingly. That is the quest - to illumine and search; to discriminate between what is Christ and what is not Christ; and to establish what is. That is the sum of these three chapters.
1. The First Lamp - 'A Garment Down to the Foot'
"Seven lamps of fire burning before the throne". Lamp One. What is the first aspect of Christ with which we are met? What is the ground of the Holy Spirit's quest and activity? "A garment down to the foot" (1:13). This is not the priestly robe, and this is not the kingly robe; this is just a garment. It is not described at all; it is just stated that 'He was clothed', and 'with a garment down to the foot'. He was clothed, and fully clothed, wholly clothed. You remember that the very first effect of man's sin was the consciousness of nakedness. It was sin that brought about that consciousness. We are told precisely, immediately that man had sinned: "they knew that they were naked" (Gen. 3:7). They had a realisation of it; their consciousness was changed, because their nature was changed. And their changed nature was first marked by a sense of shame. You notice that the first genuine work of the Holy Spirit, toward redemption and recovery, is to produce a sense of shame. I am afraid that many supposed, professed, conversions lack that sense, or lack it sufficiently. But any true, genuine work of the Holy Spirit begins there: we cover our face with shame - with the consciousness of our undone-ness, of what the Bible means by our 'nakedness' in the sight of God - with shame.
Now look at chapter 3 of this book, verse 17: "Because thou sayest, I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art the wretched one, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and NAKED..." Few more terrible judgments could be passed upon anybody than that - to have no sense of need, or to have no consciousness of how you really stand before the eyes that are a flame of fire! You think you are all right! You think you are covered! "I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined in the fire, that thou mayest become rich: and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest..." (v. 18).
Suitability to the Lord's Presence
This is symbolic language related to spiritual truth. When the first man fell, God immediately proceeded to make clothing for him, to cover him, to put away from His own sight man's sin. When we come to the Son of Man, the Last Adam, we see Him clothed down to the foot. Surely this means that He has a fine, keen sense and sensibility as to what is fitting to the Presence of God. Is that not searching? In so many matters in these churches, that was the trouble - that they had not that due, fine sense of what is suitable to God, what is right for God, what becomes God. They were putting all sorts of things forward as ground for commendation, but this one thing was so often missing.
This is a principle that is capable of very wide application. Clothes are usually the expression of the person who wears them. Untidy clothes, unbrushed clothes, careless clothing, betrays the person. What a searching word for the whole question of clothing or not clothing, before God, in these days! But the symbolism is spiritual. It is what we are in ourselves before God, as producing shame, self-abasement: but then, thank God, it is what the Son of Man has secured and provided for us in 'a garment of righteousness', that we may stand in the Presence of God. I said a little way back that you could crowd into every one of these fragments a mass of the Bible. Into that one word 'clothed' you crowd the whole of the letter to the Romans, and the letter to the Galatians, and much more. It is this question of the 'righteousness which is through faith in Jesus Christ' - the 'righteousness of God' (Rom. 3:22). 'I counsel thee to buy of me white raiment...' and "the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints" (Rev. 19:8). It is the righteousness of God given to us in Christ, the Son of Man.
Our Standing Before God
You see what a large realm that opens up. How do we stand before God? Are we projecting ourselves before God? In our life amongst the Lord's people, or alone, or anywhere in this world, are we walking as before the Lord? Or are we in any way obtruding our natural life upon the eyes and the consciousness of those around? What a lot of that there is, even in our religion - of feigned spirituality, making an impression of meekness, and so on! - and behind it there is the impression of ourselves. We are right at the foundation of everything here: What is our standing before God? what is our standing before our brethren? our standing at all? It can only be what we are in Christ. It must never be anything other than what Christ has been 'made unto us', as 'Wisdom from God: that is, Righteousness, and Sanctification, and Redemption' (1 Cor. 1:30). In Him we are 'clothed'! "Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 13:14)! "Ye have put off the old man" (Col. 3:9), and in the original language the figure is there quite clearly that of a garment: one garment being put off, and another being put on. 'Ye have put off that garment of Adam, the old man, and ye have put on Christ' - another garment, another clothing.
So the first challenge of the Holy Spirit is this: How much of 'us' is appearing? Are 'we' making an impression? May the Lord save us from wanting to make an impression - from trying to be outstanding and singular and different, in order to draw attention, or to register something that brings us into view. The Lord have mercy on us! It is Christ, as our clothing, who gives us our only fitness, seemliness, for the Presence of God. For indeed, the ultimate question of all these searchings is the Presence of God - standing in the Presence of God. "That ye may... stand before the Son of man" (Luke 21:36). We cannot do that in ourselves, because our natural condition is 'nakedness' and 'shame'. You know how much the New Testament says about this matter: when 'we appear before Him' (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10), and when 'He appears' (Col. 3:4; 1 John 2:28, 3:2), whether we shall be 'naked before Him in that day' (cf. 1 John 2:28). Again, this is a symbolic word. How searching it is! But how blessed it is; how it will drive us again to our most blessed of all blessings - the clothing of a righteousness which is not our own, but the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ. It deals with every aspect of self, of ourselves, coming into the picture. The Spirit as a Lamp of Fire, exposes, searches, determines, with this one end - the Presence of God - in view.
May the Lord lead us to seek more and more that we may have this fine sense of what is proper to God. You will see what that means in the natural. Come into the presence of a person of honour... I remember reading of the 'Seer of Chelsea' - Carlyle - going on a visit to Queen Victoria. Being what he was - philosopher and recluse - he never bothered about how he dressed, and he appeared at the Palace most shabbily. What a scandal it was to Queen Victoria! she never got over it. All his philosophy, all his genius, and everything else, went for nothing: the man had no sense of what was fitting for the presence of a Queen. That is only a side-light. But if it works like that in the natural, how much more for the Lord! When we come together, what is fitting for the Presence of the Lord? But we would be in His Presence at all times. May the Spirit check us up continually on that which is not suitable to abiding in the Lord's Presence. May He say, Now, that is not consistent with the Lord: you will have to 'change your clothes' a bit in this matter!
Is that practical? Is that just teaching - a subject, a theme? Very little could be more searching than that. The Lord lead us to the same quest as that which is in His own heart; for on this matter, remember, He, on the one side, puts the highest value; and on the other side, utters the most scathing denunciation. Listen to Him with the Pharisees - their fine clothes; their garments; their pretences; their outward adornments: He saw right through to their nakedness! How scathing He was to hypocrisy, to pretence! God sees! But there is a blessing for those who will seek continually to cultivate that sense of the honour, the glory, that belongs to the Lord. The Old Testament fragment comes back to us with new force:
"Worship the Lord in holy array" (Ps. 29:2, 96:9).