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We referred last month to the struggle waged by the apostles and their fellow-workers against the inroads of error and declension which threatened the churches of God of their times. This struggle did not take them by surprise. Indeed, as those churches were to be bases of divine operations in the furtherance of the work of God amongst the nations, it was only to be expected that they would be a chief target of the adversary. Before giving some consideration to the sad story of departure from the Faith which occurred in the early centuries, A.D., we turn to the early chapters of the book of Revelation for further light on the significance and importance of churches of God.
The book of Revelation was addressed by the apostle John to the seven churches which were in Asia. Without doubt these were seven existing churches of God. The strange view that the letters to these churches (Revelation 2 and 3) give an outline "of the entire professing church in the seven stages of her decline," though widely accepted, is a fanciful theory without a vestige of Scriptural support. It obscures the true relevance of these letters and robs us of important information and instruction with regard to churches of God.
John was "in the Spirit on the Lord's day," and hearing a voice he turned and saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands One who declared Himself to be "the First and the Last, and the Living One." This vision of the ascended Lord prostrated John. The beloved disciple who once leaned on the breast of the Incarnate Christ lay as one dead at the feet of the Risen One, until revived by the tender touch of His right hand. Strengthened, and encouraged by words of gracious assurance, John is then directed to write the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. The contents of this book are defined by the Lord (Revelation 1. 9) as "the things which thou sawest" (the vision of chapter 1), " the things which are " (referring to the seven churches in Asia) " and the things which shall come to pass hereafter" (the prophetic vision of chapters 4-22).
The significance of the vision which he had just seen (chapter 1) is then revealed to John, and he is instructed to address a letter directly from the Lord to each of the seven churches which arc represented by the seven golden lampstands. This shows that each of these churches was a divine unit accountable to the Lord in regard to its own responsibilities. But the letter to each of the seven churches, together with the succeeding prophecies, were to be embodied in one book and the whole was to be sent to the churches. Thus the churches in Asia were addressed as a group, implying interrelationship and joint responsibility. Note the recurring phrase "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches."
The present ministry of our ascended Lord is a matter of the greatest importance. Perhaps too little attention is given to the nature of the offices He bears and the extent of the service with which He has been intrusted. In relation to the universe, " He is before all things, and in Him all things consist" (Colossians 1. 17); and He is exalted in the heavenlies far above all, the " Head over all things to the Church, which is His Body" (Ephesians 1.22, 23). He also holds the offices of Mediator, Advocate, Intercessor and Priest. But our survey of the present ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ is incomplete if we fail to take into view the disclosures of these early chapters of the book of Revelation. Of paramount importance to Him were these seven golden lampstands-the churches of God in Asia, in whose midst John saw Him walking. Each of them was a golden lampstand, a unit of divine testimony with responsibility to shed divine light in its locality. The maintenance of that light depended on the spiritual condition of the gathered disciples and this was the concern of the One who walked up and down amongst them. He regarded them with sympathy and affection. He had complete knowledge of their circumstances and their difficulties. Nothing escaped His gaze. Those eyes, which were as a flame of fire, could see to the very heart of things, and, unfettered by human limitations, could make an appraisal of their true spiritual condition. Our Lord's personal concern for these churches, and the nature of His activities in regard to them, give an added emphasis to the important place churches of God occupy in His purposes.
To five of these churches He says: " I know thy works"; to one: "I know thy tribulation"; and to the other: I know where thou dwellest." All this is weighed in the balance. Praise where it is merited and encouragement where it is necessary are dispensed with discrimination and impartiality. But the most solemn fact which emerges from a consideration of these letters is that in most, if not all, of these churches there were indications of declension, which, if unchecked, would have serious consequences. It is not our present purpose to examine in detail the nature of the evils which were indicated by our Lord in His messages to these churches. The lessons are clear. Churches of God are liable to departure from the faith in a variety of ways. There is danger of degeneration from complacency, from pride, from lifeless formality, from compromise with the world, and from the tolerance of moral evil. And there is the ever-present danger of the intrusion of doctrines and practices which can only corrupt and destroy. Only by consistent loyalty to the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints can churches of God continue to exist and function as golden lampstands in divine testimony.
It is clear that the evils which had already gained a foothold in the churches of God during the lifetime of the apostles made rapid advances in the early centuries following the apostolic age. This was envisaged by the apostles themselves. The later epistles of the New Testament give clear indications of it. In his address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus the apostle Paul gave the solemn warning:
"I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.... I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace" (Acts 20. 29.82).
The history of the early centuries A.D. is a melancholy record of increasing declension. Despite the heroic witness of many of God's saints who sealed their testimony with their lives, departure from apostolic simplicity and purity in church constitution and practice continued apace. Persecution stayed the process for a while, but when the emperor Constantine adopted "Christianity" as the State religion of the Roman Empire the process of departure reached its climax. Doubtless there were faithful souls and groups who struggled against the tide, but in the main error came in like a flood and apostolic teaching and its authority were discarded in favour of human tradition and expediency.
Many of the doctrines and practices which gained a footing in the early churches and corrupted them were of pagan origin:
Confession to a priest,
The doctrine of Purgatory,
The use of Holy Water,
Prayers for the dead,
Priestly robes and vestments,
Justification by works,
Symbolism of lamps and wax candles,
and many other doctrines and rituals have been tracked back by some writers to the Mysteries of ancient Babylon, Greece and Rome. Those thinking that this is an overstatement should examine the evidence for themselves*. Those doing so will find ample confirmation of the fearful slide from the apostolic pattern which occurred in the early centuries A.D. The evidence is irrefutable. No less an authority than Dr. Edwin Hatch, reader in ecclesiastical history in the University of Oxford, stated in his treatise, 'The influence of Greek ideas and usages upon the Christian Church' (1888):
"The whole conception of Christian worship was changed. But it was changed by the influence upon Christian worship of the contemporary worship of the mysteries and the concurrent cults." We cannot escape the fact that many practices and customs commonly regarded as Christian in their origin are not only devoid of apostolic authority but stem from paganism. This is largely lost sight of in these superficial days. There are many believers in our Lord Jesus Christ who recoil with horror from the ritualism and superstition of Roman Catholicism and yet who make no protest at the flagrant departure from the apostolic pattern which is evident in many of the so-called Protestant movements. And this applies not only to matters of organization and ritual but also to the "modernist" teaching which is largely a re-hash of heresies which were prevalent in the early centuries. More could be said along these lines. The subject merits much fuller treatment than we have attempted here.
Our objective in this series of articles has been to establish the proposition set forth in the opening article, that apostolic teaching and practice constitute the sole authoritative basis to which we must revert for guidance in the prosecution of the work of God in our own day. We there pointed out that apostolic teaching was not only authoritative but comprehensive. Its range includes the cardinal doctrines of the Faith, not only in relation to the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, but also in regard to churches of God which were a vital and principal consequence of apostolic labours. We have also attempted to set forth some of the leading features of the churches of God established by the apostles, and have drawn attention to the very serious departure from the Faith which occurred in the early centuries. And we have commented on the fearful confusion and division which surround us today. We believe that what has been set forth represents an important contribution to the understanding of New Testament teaching on a vital line of truth.
*See The Two Babylons, Alexander Hislop ; The Mysteries and Catholicism, G. H. Peinber, M.A., etc.