THESE words are taken, my brethren, as you will remember, from one of the Seven Epistles, addressed by our Lord as the Great Head of the Church, to one of the Seven Churches of Asia. And they are, I think, a peculiar comfort to us in the Church of England to-day.
Though nothing is further from my purpose than to rouse any spirit of controversy and discussion tonight, I must say that I am most thankful to God, for the evidence derived from this Epistle that the Church of England is a true part of the Church Catholic. I think we have cause for deep gratitude here. This is strong evidence against the wrong use of certain parts of Holy Scripture which give special prominence to the Apostle S. Peter. The Church of Rome uses certain passages of Holy Scripture in such a way as to be injurious to our claims to belong to the Church Catholic.
There are other passages which speak of S. John, in a way which is quite enough in itself to refute the false inferences drawn by them about S. Peter. It was S. John who was chosen to write what has been called the Divine Gospel. It was S. John who rested his head on our Lord's bosom. To S. John was committed the care of the Blessed Mother--the second Eve--the mother of all living. And after the Resurrection when these two Apostles were following our Blessed Lord, and S. Peter asked about S. John, "What shall this man do?" our Lord then gave evidence to S. Peter that it was not necessary for Him to communicate His mind through S. Peter to S. John, but that He could deal with S. John in His own way. "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" It was not only through S. Peter that our Lord could communicate with S. John. If I, the Divine Head of the Church, will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? What I do, thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter: follow thou Me.
So when we come to these Seven Epistles, it was to S. John that the great vision of the Revelation was granted, and these Epistles, or letters, were delivered to S. John, to be passed on by him to the Angels of the Seven Churches. They were not given to S. Peter, or to any successor of S. Peter. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the One Blessed Head of the Church, here gives His mind to S. John. It is not, as I said before, for any purpose of controversy that I speak thus, but as an expression of deep gratitude and thankfulness to God for this evidence of the oneness of the Church Catholic.
This particular Epistle contains lessons very valuable to us in the Church of England now. The letters were addressed in the first place to the Seven Churches of Asia, but they have, as their concluding sentences show, a general application, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches."
So our Lord's intention was catholic, and the application for all time and space. As they are letters, or Epistles, from the Great Head of His Church, to His Church, after His Ascension, so time after time they are ever found fresh to meet the needs of the Church of Christ.
Let us look together at some of the lessons in this Epistle most applicable to ourselves now.
The chief point in this Epistle, or letter, to the Church of Thyatira, in so far as it commends her, is this--that her last works were more than her first. It praises her for her perseverance, and her progress, and her patience, and her faith, and her charity, and her service, and then come the words quoted in the text, "That which thou hast hold fast till I come."
She had made great progress, what did she need? Her danger was this--letting it slip. "Hold fast till I come." I know thy love, and thy patience, and thy service--I know all these--and what is so remarkable, that thy last works are more than the first--" Hold fast till I come." It is not common to find last works more than the first. It is very sad, but when people begin well, they generally deteriorate. Not so with the Church of Thyatira. She had been faithful: she had showed the marks of progress, and the Great Head of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ, looked down upon her and knew this, and that her last works were better than her first. She had done, and was doing well. What is, then, the warning contained in this Epistle? While praising her, and seeing no sign of decay in her love, and her patience, and her faith, and her service--seeing no sign of decay in all this, and granting this also, that her last works were more than her first--still there is a warning given by the Great Head of the Church, in words which convey an historical allusion. Notwithstanding all these things, the Great Head of the Church says, "I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce My servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols."
There is this charge brought by our Lord, as the Great Head of the Church, against the prosperous and progressing Church of Thyatira. She had admitted the influence of Jezebel. And what does this mean? What was the historical influence of Jezebel? She was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Zidonians, a worshipper of false gods, and she was a follower of false gods herself. She was a worshipper of false gods, and when she married Ahab, she influenced her husband to a degree of wickedness not known before. Before this time, indeed, the calves had been set up in Bethel, and the people, out of a sense of false fear, worshipped before them; but still the general idea was not to separate from the worship of Jehovah. Out of fear, and for political reasons, the times of the ceremonies were different, and this was wrong, but still they had kept to the true God, and to the Mosaic Law.
So, though they invented new ministries, they did not really wish to separate from God. But when Ahab married Jezebel there was a great departure from the true faith. We read in the book of Kings that "Ahab took to wife Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Zidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him. And he reared up an altar to Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. And Ahab made a grove, and Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him."
This, I think, is what the evil of Jezebel really was, the bad influence which led Ahab to a distinct departure from the true God to no god--for the idols of the heathen are no gods--nothing at all! It was a distinct step towards atheism, a step away from the true God to the abandonment of God. And this evil influence spread, as it always does, to the daughter of Jezebel, Athaliah, who married the king of Judah.
And what follows? What always does follow departure from the true faith--moral confusion. "To seduce My servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols."
Surely this warning should be pretty plain to us! We can easily understand it. And if the prospect was true for the Church of Thyatira, while she was holding the true faith, and while her love was strong, that this Jezebelism was in her midst, and was her great danger, and if, as we have seen, the danger of this Jezebelism is two-fold, a departure from the true God to no god, and what naturally follows upon this, a breaking up of the moral law--moral chaos and confusion--what about ourselves? My brethren, if our Lord Jesus Christ looked down upon the Church of Thyatira and praised her, and yet saw this great danger in her midst, if He now looked down upon us, might He not possibly see the same danger, and give us the same warning?
It would not be humility in us, it would be idleness, or ingratitude, or indifference, if we did not realize, at least in some degree, that we have had great advantages, and have had great things done for us by God, and that, thanks be to Him, "the last works are more than the first." It is evident to us all that the position of the Church of England has been one of great opportunities, and that, as far as she has gone, she at least holds that position still.
Let your memories go back some time, and watch the rise of the civil power in this country. This little island, this dot in the midst of the sea, has become all-powerful in the world around. We must not shut our eyes to this fact. It is not pride to think of it. This little spot of dust has been raised to such power and influence that she rules the millions of India; she has the control of Canada; she holds Australia and New Zealand, and the islands; and of late months we have been called--and it is not wrong, but right--to feel proud of the courage and manliness, of the steadfastness and spirit of self-sacrifice, which has been exhibited as on the old pattern, by our soldiers and sailors during the war in Egypt. All this warrants our saying, that in these things, at least, "the last works are more than the first."
It would be ingratitude, not humility, not to look at these things. "Whoso is wise will ponder these things, and he shall understand the loving-kindness of the Lord." It is far better to look these things in the face, and so to acknowledge the loving-kindness of the Lord.
Then look from the civil power to the Church in England. She was here before the days of Augustine. She was the same Church before the Reformation, and at the Reformation when she cast away some errors, she did not cast away her Catholicity, but retained it as certainly as any portion of Christendom, and, as an integral part of her being, she retained her ancient three-fold ministry.
In the seventeenth century, when there was that great confusion about the Prayer Book, when the Archbishop and King were beheaded, what an evidence it was, in the midst of all that confusion, what an evidence it was of the real existence of that hierarchy which it was their wish to extirpate! And their banishing the Prayer Book, what an historical evidence it is that after the Reformation that Prayer Book contained the old Ordinal, and that the old hierarchy was still ours, and the old three-fold ministry. It is a most precious evidence of the existence of the real ministry--the very wish and endeavour to extirpate it, proves its existence. And then, at the beginning of this century, during the first quarter of it, there was that wonderful gift of evangelical fervour and devotion, sent to rouse the Church after all the coldness and deadness of the last century; that wonderful glow of evangelical fervour passing over the dead bones, renewed their life. And then, in the second portion of the present century there was the still more wonderful revival of the teaching and practice of the Primitive Church, and the wonderful flood of light which followed the translation of the Library of the Fathers. And then followed the revival of the corporate action of the Church in Convocation, and in her synods and congresses, and the greater activity among her bishops, owing greatly to the zeal of one, whose utterances people have found it more easy to criticize, than to follow the devotion and self-sacrifice of his private life. [The reference is to Bishop Wilberforce.] Then followed the willing co-operation of the laity in all kinds of Church work, in building churches, and singing in church choirs, rebuilding and establishing schools, now so countless that they seem to be studded all over the land, where before there were none. In all these things too, "the last works are greater than the first," and it would be ingratitude not to acknowledge it.
Then look at the Church abroad. Look at the number of bishops now in America. A hundred years ago there was not one, now there are 60, and some three thousand clergy, and millions of church people. There is all this--and then look at the Church in India. At the beginning of this century there was no bishop in India. People had to trust to the zeal, the laudable zeal, of religious societies, but there was no bishop. Now they have been working there for years! "The last works are more than the first."
So in Africa, and Australia, and the islands of the Pacific. And not only have the numbers of the bishops wonderfully increased, but they are not unworthy successors of the bishops of early times. I speak of such men as Gray, and Selwyn, and Patteson, and Steere, and Milman. Any Church might be proud of such men, of the steadfastness of their lives, and of the constant martyrdom of their lives and wills. And this list might be swollen unutterably by the names of many, both men and women, not so well-known here, but recorded indelibly in heaven among the saints of God. It is not humility, it would be indifference, or idleness, or ingratitude, not to look at, and consider all this. Wonderful things have been done for us here in this Church of England, and "the last works are greater than the first."
And yet, if it was true of the Church of Thyatira that her last works were greater than her first, and if the warning of God about this Jezebelism was necessary to her, in spite of all her love and progress, and if Jezebelism means giving up God, and is a distinct step from the worship of the true God, to no god, and the result of this is moral confusion, is it not possible that such a warning is also necessary for us to-day? If our Lord and Master looked down on the Church of England now as He did on Thyatira of old, and said to us, "I know thy works," would He not also see need to repeat His warning? Would He not see a tendency to forget God, a tendency to give up God, a tendency to wink at atheism, and to substitute no god for the true God; and beware of what follows upon a separation from the true God--moral confusion, breaking up the marriage laws, the end of which is not to be compassed!
In conclusion, if these things are so, let us consider what are our responsibilities as members of the Church of England. God has done great things for us. God has given us wonderful gifts, and has shown us great mercies. But is it not true that the Jezebelism is a great danger in our midst? Is it not true, is it not a clean and clear fact that bare atheism is constantly to be met with--that one meets it almost daily--that one may, any day, sit next a man at dinner who does not believe in the future life or in the existence of God? How is this state of things to be met? What are we to do? Do not think that the remedy is for one or two clever people to write books and answer their arguments. Not so! look at S. John Baptist sending his two disciples to our Blessed Lord, to ask Him, "Art Thou He that should come?" that is, art Thou the true Messiah? He did not, for answer, refer them to some learned Jewish priest, or doctor. He pointed to the evidence of the poor. "Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them." Jesus Christ then draws His evidence of His being Who He is from the lives of His people. Your lives, dear people, will be the most powerful answer that can be given to those who doubt the truth. This is what, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to say to you. I do believe that you can't get out of it. Some few may be able to write books and to use clever arguments. Let them write by all means! But no argument will be half so convincing as the sight of any parish church with its crowded congregation of devout men and women; a church full of people, not only saying that they believe, but showing forth their faith by lives full of honesty, full of love, full of purity. This will be far more convincing than the largest library, full of the oldest and cleverest books--the holy and devout lives of Christian men and women! All this involves great responsibility. God has done great things for us, and without boasting we must say that the last works are more than the first, but Jezebelism is a great danger to us. What, then, are we to do?
Here is one thing. Could we not do something to improve the way we spend our Sundays? Sunday is the Lord's Day. Surely, it cannot be right for us to spend it altogether as a free day! Most of the people who argue that Sunday should be a free day, do not do so in order to vindicate their freedom from Jewish bondage, or because it was the day on which light was first made, or because it was the day of the Circumcision, or because it was the day, most probably, on which the Manna fell, and they would feed on the Heavenly Manna, the Bread which came down from heaven, or because it is the day of the Resurrection, and they would rise, on it, nearer to heavenly things. No; I fear, too often, it is simply because they are tired--honestly tired--and they desire only to secure their own ease and comfort. Now can't we take a little trouble about this? Rise up early and come to Holy Communion--come early, and fasting, with disciplined bodies. Never mind so much about the outside weather. Then break off anything worldly. Get up from your comfortable chair--leave your cheerful fire and your interesting book--come to church at the cost of some self-sacrifice. Give some evidence that it is the Lord's Day, and the day of the Resurrection. I do not mean that you should practise morbid self-mortification, but I do mean that, at the cost of some self-sacrifice, you should throw in your lot with those who keep Sunday as the Lord's Day, and who welcome it and love it for His sake.
Again, there is another way. Be very careful not to make any real intellectual difficulty you may feel a cause for avoiding your duty. By a false inference, intellectual difficulties are often made reasons for neglect of duty. For instance, some one may come to me and say, "Can you tell me the origin of moral evil?" I answer, "No, I cannot. God has not revealed it. It is a real intellectual difficulty." "Oh, then," say they, "it does not matter whether I lead a good or bad life!" Not so. Though I cannot tell you the origin of moral evil, that does not free you from the responsibility of acting as if you did not know the difference between right and wrong. Can you look me in the face and tell me that you do not know the difference between right and wrong? You do know it--you are convinced of it! Can you look me in the face and tell me you really believe there is no God? I doubt it. It may be difficult to explain all intellectual difficulties--and many are real difficulties--still that does not free you from the responsibility of doing what you know to be right, and of avoiding what you know to be wrong!
You will acknowledge that you are bound to do your best to prolong life; yet you cannot tell me what life.
Once again, there is a third thing you may do. There is a very real responsibility connected with the books, and newspapers and reviews we read. There is a great responsibility about these things. Books are of three kinds. The first kind deny the existence of God, or try all they can to throw doubt on the existence of God, or on the future life, or question the existence of the soul, or the real immortality of the soul. That is one kind. I do not suppose that any one here would be guilty of using such books, or of giving them to their family to read.
Books of the second kind say nothing at all about God. These are extremely interesting, and deal with various subjects, nature and science, and how the world has been brought under the subjection of man by steam and electricity, and of all the wonderful stores of knowledge which are being brought to light in these days--or about plants, or animals--but never a word about God!
Now, this is a great danger--spending much time, and care, and pains on mere intellectual training and progress, apart from God. Now, I want to put you on your guard about this. This Church of Thyatira was a progressive church, and her last works were more than her first, but Jezebelism was rife in her midst; and here in England we are in great danger of this spirit of Jezebelism if we constantly study the literature of the day, from which God is altogether left out.
Books of the third kind tell you emphatically of God, and first and foremost the Bible, the Book of books. I must say this, plainly and simply and straightforwardly, if you do not read and study the Bible, science may be all very well, nature may be all very well, but if you study these entirely apart from the Bible, you are in great danger of becoming imbued with the spirit of Jezebelism, and of forgetting Jehovah. "The Lord made heaven and earth. The gods of the heathen are no gods; it is the Lord Who made the heavens." Again and again we are told in the Psalms that it is the Lord Who made heaven and earth.
Now let me say it once again. It is quite plain to us here in England that though our last works are more than our first, and that Jezebelism is the danger we have to fear, and that the only evidence we can successfully offer to resist this is the evidence of our lives--if we do not read and study the Bible, we shall be ourselves in danger of slipping into this atheism, of forgetting God, of turning from the true God to no god!
There is one more thing I want you to notice. This Church of Thyatira probably owed its origin to one woman, whose heart the Lord had awakened--Lydia. While she was engaged in the ordinary business of life, the Lord opened her heart to receive the Light of the Gospel. It was probably with this one woman that the Church of Thyatira began, and all the excellence and progressive work of that Church teach us this lesson. How great a work one person may do for God, whose heart the Lord has really opened! So any one of us may do much to stop this Jezebelism which is amongst us now--one husband, one wife, one brother or sister, one child, one servant even, might do a great deal, and bear witness for God, and all you want is this, that the heart may be opened by the Lord. Let it but be that the heart is really given to Jesus Christ, and it is beyond calculation what Jesus Christ may do by one! It was through one simple little handmaid that Naaman's cure was brought about. It has been so, again and again! God has been pleased to bring the great by the simple, the rich by the poor, the many by the few! Jonah fled away when told to go and preach to Nineveh--he did wrong, but he repented, and turned and opened his heart to God, and one single man, and that man a penitent, swept that great city Nineveh, and saved it for the Lord! And" here in England there is absolutely no limit to what one single person may do by the Will of God, if they will but open their hearts to the Lord, and to the fullness of His love.
There are many different ways in which the Lord opens the heart for Himself. Sometimes it is by great sorrow--sometimes by the memory of past sin forgiven. Many and many a penitent has carried the Gospel far and wide when their hearts have been opened by contrition. Or sometimes God opens the heart by the great gift of human love, and the bride and bridegroom, while opening their hearts to each other, open their hearts to a fresh reception of the Love of Christ. The great gift of human love softens and opens the heart, not only for the love of man, or of woman, but for the Love of Christ.
And sometimes He vouchsafes to open the heart by that most blessed knowledge which comes from Christ Himself, that joy of all joys, the consciousness of His Own Love for the individual soul. It is borne in upon the soul, in spite of all the evidence of its own sin, in spite of the ever increasing heap of omitted duties, of things left undone, in spite of the ever increasing evidence of fragments of purposes unfulfilled. Oh, I know it, I know it; it is the great central joy of my life! I can see it, I can feel it, the Love of Jesus for me, for my soul! He died for me. He gave His very life for me!
And if our hearts are really opened to Him, anything may be possible to us. Like Lydia, we may do great things for Him, and what does it matter if it is at the cost of some pain and self-sacrifice?
May God Himself put into the hearts of each one of us in what way we may each contribute our part to stop this spirit of Jezebelism now abroad in the midst of England, and England's Church, so that when the Great Head of the Church looks down upon us, as He did on Thyatira, He may see our works, and our love, and our patience, and keep us true to Him for ever!