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Cyrus, king of Persia, and thus united to the Persian dominions, and under the kings of Persia, it became the residence of the Satraps of Asia. Sardis was one of the twelve cities that were destroyed in the seventeenth year of the Christian era by earthquakes. It must have been afterwards rebuilt, as there certainly was an externally flourishing Church in the time of St. John. It was eventually overrun by the Turks, and received the name of Sart, by which name it is still distinguished. I shall have reason to speak particularly of the fate of this city hereafter. These are all the historical notices necessary for our present purpose, and I take up the epistle. In considering this epistle, we have
I. AN INTRODUCTORY DESCRIPTION OF OUR SAVIOUR.
II. A DESCRIPTION OF THE AWFUL SPIRITUAL CONDITION OF THAT CHURCH.
III. A WORD OF COUNSEL AND A THREAT.
IV. AN EXCEPTION TO THE GENERAL CHARGE OF SPIRITUAL DEADNESS; and
V. THE CONCLUDING PROMISE.
I. In general there are no parts of these epistles so difficult of explanation as the brief sentences by which they are introduced. In the present case, commentators have widely differed as to the meaning of the declaration, “he that hath the seven Spirits of God.” By Dr. Clarke it is confidently asserted that seven angels are meant, and the argument by which he arrives at his conclusion is, that this is a Jewish phraseology, and that the ancient Jews, who, in representing the throne of God being wont to
consider it as the throne of an eastern king, supposed that there were seven ministering angels before this throne, as there were seven ministers attendant on the throne of a Persian monarch. He appeals in support of this opinion to the apocryphal book of Tobit, 12th chapter, 15th verse, in which it is said—“I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One.” He also appeals to some of the Jewish writers, one of whom uses the phrase, “ God said to the seven angels,” &c. And another, “The angels which were first created, minister before him." He says these writers sometimes represent them as seven cohorts, or troops of angels, under whom are thirty inferior orders. Dr. Clarke also thinks that these seven spirits mean angels, because, in the 5th chapter of this book and 6th verse, the seven spirits of God are spoken of as sent forth into all the earth, which is appropriate only to angels, who are called in Hebrews, 1st chapter,“ ministering spirits, sent forth to minister to the heirs of salvation.” I am inclined to think, however, that more is intended than this, because this explanation does not bring the introductory description into any obvious connexion with the subsequent parts of the epistle; and we have learned by a minute investigation of the preceding epistle, that there is a very nicely adjusted harmony between all the parts of each epistle. We shall seek further then for an explanation, at least apparently more consistent with the scope and design of the address to the Church at Sardis.
By the phrase, “he who hath the seven Spirits of God," I would understand, he who hath in his hand
or power the dispensation of the Spirit; for as, the number seven has ever been considered as the number implying perfection in the figurative language of Scripture, so the declaration seems to imply that the Lord Jesus Christ, as head of the Church, has in his gift all the powers, graces, and operations of the Holy Spirit, to dispense at the determination of his own most righteous pleasure. It is also probable that the number seven is used in reference to the seven Asiatic Churches, and to the seven angels or bishops to whom the several epistles were addressed; our Lord intending to intimate, by this peculiar description of himself, that to every Church and to every minister, there is a dispensation and a measure of the Spirit given, suited to their peculiar exigencies; a measure by which they are to profit, and which will not be withdrawn until it is forfeited by a failure in its due improvement. When we consider the circumstances of this Church at Sardis, there is a very peculiar fitness in this introductory description ; for as you will learn before this discourse is concluded, this epistle was sent to a Church cold and dead, and to a ministry most lamentably languishing and inefficient, and it will at once be seen why our Saviour represents himself as having the disposal of all spiritual influence, viz: that they might apply to him in full confidence to revive his work in the hearts of those connected with a Church in so deplorable a condition. This view of the subject is confirmed by the concluding part of the introduction. These things saith he, “who hath the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.” The seven stars are unquestionably the seven angels or bishops of these Churches. They were placed in their or
bits by Christ, and they were accountable to him for the faithful and zealous discharge of their duties, and the use which they make of the influence to them imparted. If a paraphrase of this part of the epistle may be attempted, I would explain it thus in one general consideration. That the Lord Jesus Christ is the universal Lord and director of all spiritual influence; that by a mysterious co-operation with the Holy Ghost, he wields and directs the secret power by which the hearts of individuals are regenerated and sanctified, and by which every thing like a revival of pure and undefiled religion is brought about, carried on and perfected; and that he has in his hands the ministry, by which, as an instrument, his purposes of grace are to be accomplished. For in the dispensation of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit usually works through the medium of the ministry, and the ministry is utterly useless and void without that efficient co-operation; and in this epistle he tells to a languishing and formal Church, that he has in his hand both the instrument by which he works, and the power which gives to the instrument all its efficiency. And this is in a special manner appropriate to this Church of Sardis, as will be seen when we consider,
IIdly. The description of the awful spiritual condition of the Church at Sardis—“I know thy works and that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.”
This, my brethren, is a brief reproof, but it is one of most deep and cutting severity. If we look attentively at its terms, we shall find that there are two things particularly pointed out. This was said of a Church as a general characteristic. A Church takes
its character from the character of the majority of those who compose it. Where the majority are in a state of spiritual growth, there the Church to which they are attached is in a flourishing condition. Where the majority are in a cold and lukewarm state, there the condition resembles that of death. I have but a word to say as to the condition of the Church of which this text was originally spoken.
1. This Church of Sardis had gained a high reputation for religion; it had “ a name to live;" it had a living name, or to all appearance, it was a most vitally flourishing Church. In this term every thing is implied. The Church, to all casual observation, was pure in the doctrines which it maintained; it was perfect as it regards all its external and internal arrangements; every thing was done decently and in order; there was a most zealous and scrupulous adherence to all the forms and ceremonies of religion; in fine, there was peace and unity within, and there was the appearance of every thing that was fair and beautiful in the Christian profession. This was the appearance which the condition of the Church wore to the eyes of men, and this was the high reputation in which it stood before the world. Was this its real state? Man looketh on the outward appearance, but God looketh on the heart. The omniscient Saviour, upon whom no deceptions can be practised, says in the context—“I know thy works.” He then tells us the real state of this Church. “Thou hast a name that thou livest, but art dead.” All this fair show amounts to nothing; it is all hypocrisy or formality; it is a splendid outside, while within is absolutely nought; it is the cleansing of the outside of the cup and platter; it is the whit