It is, and has ever been, the tendency of our nature to settle down at a point where an awakened conscience has experienced a measure of ease. We become dull in responding to the claim of the latter, especially when it is brought under the influence of fuller light; listless if invited to try sweeter pastures beyond a point of present attainment, having found comfort here - a comfort perhaps not now enjoyed as hitherto; and energy of heart flags, no longer counterbalancing the premature desire for rest; all leading into a state of moral prostration, in which there may certainly be an abundance of outward activity, but only as a form of godliness without the power. This comes not as a consequence of evil altogether, but through a selfish use of what grace has given. (Deut. 32:15.)
Many details of Old Testament history verify such a law; but the grace which records this testimony to what man is, as warning for us, has moved alongside its unworthy object, and ever and anon found opportunity to address the lulled conscience, and recall the callous heart to a sense of its need. Israel, in the days of Hezekiah, Josiah, and Ezra, furnishes striking illustrations; and we constantly notice in the recipients of blessing, as accompaniments and evidences of the operations of divine grace in them, acknowledgment of guilt, subduedness of expression, and self-abasement, together with a readiness to apprehend, and willingness to take, the path provident grace rendered available for the truehearted in the midst of failure. Thus Ezra, as mouthpiece for those who "trembled at the words of the God of Israel," speaks with shame and blushing of "a little reviving in our bondage." (Ezra 9:4, 6, 8.) This does not preserve the remnant from again wandering grievously through love of ease and self-occupation (Hag. 1:4; Ezra 4:23, 24; Ezra 5:12), affording never-failing grace a fresh occasion of shining forth in urgent appeal through the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The people were forgetting the prime object in their restoration (Ezra 9:9); (how full of instructive warning to us, gathered for worship, as well as testimony!) and are rallied, but again fail, as seen in Malachi 3, to which Calvary forms, as far as their responsibility was concerned, the lamentable sequel.
Nor can we here end with the history of perpetual backsliding, of this sad tendency to failure. Perfectly revealed as grace now is, one might almost entertain the not uncommon thought, that of failure there could be no more, were it not that such Scriptures as 2 Tim., 2 Peter, Jude, etc., teach the reverse. The failure warned of, and foretold by the apostles, has indeed come in, and one can see its withering shadow flit along the pages of history from the very days of the apostles themselves to the great white throne. There it ends, and for ever, thank God. Rather does perfect grace manifest the wretchedness of what induces failure, and how deep are its roots in weak unworthy man. And not alone have we God's grace and man's sin thus reciprocally proved, but the New Testament also in several places prophetically furnishes a development of the latter. (1 Cor. 10:5-10; Jude 11, etc.) Again, there is a blending of the former with the latter in an historical way, as in the case of Israel, in the epistles to the seven churches of Asia; for here the spiritual eye discerns more than a mere superficial hearing in Christ's words. (Rev. 2:3) The epistles, though doubtless primarily addressed to the assemblies named, then existing, are believed to constitute a resumé of the Church's history, responsibly considered, from the time of John to the moment when it will be rejected as an irretrievably failed testimony, the saints being, about the same juncture, taken away to be for ever with the Lord. One can admire the divine wisdom displayed in veiling the history so as to be of effect to those whom it immediately concerned; and the beautiful consistency shown in avoiding the formal shape which would in them interfere with immediate expectancy of our Lord's return, and thus also with the sanctifying effect of "that blessed hope" (1 John 3:3; Col. 3:3-5, etc.); whilst the gracious Shepherd's care for us is also manifest, who now can peculiarly profit by it, the whole thing being fully before us, in a day of such peculiar need.
As has often been explained, each epistle gives marks distinctive of seven phases or stages through which the Church has to pass. The second, third, and fourth replace the first, second, and third respectively. The fourth and last three co-exist at the Lord's return (Rev. 2:25; Rev. 3:3, 11, 21), each arising in the order given, and each in turn characterizing the state of things in the Church, from the Lord's point of view.
It is also very widely admitted that several phases have had their day, and that even the marks of Philadelphia have also been discernible in these days, when everybody is beginning to feel that events rush forward toward the solemn climax. But whether or not the stage of the Church's history, marked by Philadelphian intelligent devotedness to the Person of our precious Lord, has ceased to be characteristic, and that in this respect the phase determined by Laodicean indifference to His claims has taken its place, may still be questioned, though doubtless a well-defined Laodicean position even now exists alongside Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia, lacking only development. But may we not inquire, Does the Philadelphian assembly of our day, the true expression of the Church as Christ's Body, as well as the evident testimony to failure in its responsible aspect called forth by abounding grace after centuries of darkness - does this enjoy an immunity from the tendency which caused departure from the Pentecostal state, and which, as we have seen, brought in such complete failure after a similar manifestation of grace to the remnant restored from Babylon? Can we boast of better prospects, as to faithfulness, at the Lord's second coming than obtained at His first?
We see a remnant in Thyatira, another in Sardis, and room for a true heart even in Laodicea. There is, however, compunction felt in supposing the possibility of the same in Philadelphia at the Lord's return; for this would imply decline in the mass, by no means flattering, but full of warning for each soul; but surely its suitability to the Lord's eye, at one point in its history, no more precludes the possibility of its decline than that the beautiful thing He set up at Pentecost should so completely fail. As a matter of fact, individuals do drop out of Philadelphia - abandon the confession of the truth as a whole - and pass on to Laodicean ground, not so often to Thyatira or Sardis, which are too wide of the truth. But what if they lack the honesty which leads some to the place characterized by lukewarmness, and remain in the form of godliness unsustained by its power? One can easily see, from the state of things and of persons, where the truth is professed in many cases, that though Philadelphia should go on to the Lord's coming, alongside a gradually developing Laodicea - ultimately characteristic - Laodiceanism may give increasingly distinct colouring to much of the material built upon the ground of the truth. Many who outwardly tread God's path in ecclesiastical matters may, by boastfulness, perhaps based on the nature of the position they occupy, deny the truth they profess, and be distinguished by little else than a feeling best expressed in Laodicean words: "I am rich and increased with goods," etc. Blessed grace indeed it was which removed the accumulations of eighteen centuries, and discovered to us the sure foundation of God with its seal; but how ill does boasting in the matter comport with the beautiful example seen in Ezra's case, already alluded to! (Ezra 9:6-8.)
Hence, without assuming anything beyond the mere possibility of such a state of things being found amongst us at any time (and oh, are we free from it?), it is evident that upon the ground where once the Lord could address a poor weak company in terms of loving, encouraging approval, circumstances may be apprehended - if they are not come - which would test all, cause some to drop aside, prove others to have little more than a form of godliness without the power; and, as a consequence, render faithful testimony to our Lord, largely individual in its character, brighter perhaps as hearts true to Him realize the effects of growing laxity. There can be little doubt that the truth alone must ever guide faith. They who walk in it can assert nothing short of this; i.e. that they occupy ground established by what it teaches, while pressing its claims upon all who profess allegiance to it untruly - this, together with a clear testimony to the nature of the position so established, as well as to the power which can alone set and maintain any truly on it. But in view of all this one can conceive how powerlessly and arrogantly the claims may be made and the testimony given, how easy it is in giving an answer: to "every man that asketh," etc., to slip from the becoming "meekness and fear" of a consciously unworthy receiver into the spirit of the sad boast already mentioned; so that the anomaly enters of a believer even on Philadelphian ground possessing traits of Laodicean state!
Again, it is clear that an influx of formation through want of watchfulness (Jude 4; Matt. 13:25) - as possible now as at the outset of this (the Church) period - would surround those really true to the Lord with numbers, for the sake of advantages or to suit some taste, who, it might be easy enough to perceive, are, not even seeking to walk up to their profession, just as in the case already spoken of, of the restored remnant gathered to their true centre - Jerusalem. There were the few mentioned in Malachi 3 who "feared the Lord and thought upon His Name" associated with others, outwardly on the true ground, who were quite otherwise-minded. (See vv. 14, 15, etc.) This is a solemn contemplation, and the prospects, should the Lord tarry, offer little to cherish a boastful spirit. But amid the gloom of such reflections, there exists one point of purest light, this precious consolation, that God's aim in everything is the glory of His Son this too, it may be, at the cost of a painful manifestation of failure in those who occupy the privileged place of testimony, when the testimony only denies the Name it professes to set forth. The true heart, ever also desirous of this, may continue in the enjoyment of sweetest communion whatever betides - a communion of which that aim, forms both the link and theme. It is a mercy God has given us "a nail in His holy place". (Ezra 9:8; Isaiah 22:23); the real secret of enlightenment and a "little reviving," as well as a "remnant to escape," which at every step proves its increasing feebleness. May God so keep our hearts occupied with Christ above, that while learning His perfections as the Father delights to unfold them to us, we may be able calmly to view all the tossings, which do but manifest the weakness of man, and the unchangeableness of condescending grace!