YOU are not to think of an angel with six wings. This is neither a Michael nor a Gabriel. I cannot give you this man's name, but you may safely take it that he was simply one of the oldest of the office-bearers of Ephesus. No, he was no angel. He was just a chosen and faithful elder who had begun by being a deacon and who had purchased to himself a good degree, like any one of yourselves. Only, by reason of his great age and his spotless character and his outstanding services, he had by this time risen till he was now at the head of what we would call the kirk-session of Ephesus. By universal acclamation he was now the "president of their company, and the moderator of their actions," as Dr. John Rainoldes has it. This angel, so to call him, had grown grey in his eldership and he was beginning to feel that the day could not now be very far distant when he would be able to lay down his office for ever. At the same time, it looked to him but like yesterday when he had heard the prince of the apostles saying to him those never-to-be-forgotten words-"Take heed to thyself, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made thee an overseer, to feed the flock of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood." And, with many mistakes, and with many shortcomings, this ruling and teaching elder of Ephesus has not been wholly unmindful of his ordination vows. In short, this so-called angel of the Church of Ephesus was no more an actual angel than I am. A real angel is an angel. And we cannot attain to a real angel's nature, or to his office, so as to describe such an angel aright. But we understand this Ephesus elder's nature and office quite well. We see his very same office every day among ourselves. For his office was just to feed the flock of God, as Paul has it. And again, as James has it, his office was just to visit the widows and orphans of Ephesus in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world of Ephesus. And he who has been elected of God to such an office as that in Ephesus, or in Edinburgh, or anywhere else, has no need to envy the most shining angel in all the seven heavens. For the most far-shining angel in the seventh heaven itself desires to look down into the pulpit and the pastorate of the humblest and obscurest minister in the Church of Christ. And that because he knows quite well that there is nothing for him to do in the whole of heaven for one moment to be compared with the daily round on this earth of a minister, or an elder, or a deacon, or a collector, or a Sabbath-school teacher.
Now, there is nothing so sweet, either among angels or among men, as to be appreciated and praised. To be appreciated and praised is the wine that maketh glad the heart of God and man. And the heart of the old minister of Ephesus was made so glad when he began to read this Epistle that he almost died with delight. And then as His all-seeing and all-rewarding way always is, His Lord descended to instances and particulars in His appreciation and praise of His servant. 'I know thy works. I chose thee. I gave thee all thy talents. I elected thee to thy charge in Ephesus. I ordained thee to that charge, and my right hand hath held thee up in it. Thou hast never been out of my mind or out of my eye or out of my hand for a moment. I have seen all thy work as thou wentest about doing it for me. It is all written before me in my book. All thy tears also are in my bottle.'
We have an old-fashioned English word that exactly sets forth what our Lord says next to the angel of Ephesus. 'I know all thy painfulness also,' He says. It is a most excellent expression for our Master's purpose. No other language has produced so many painful ministers as the English language, and no other language can so well describe them. For just what does this painfulness mean? It means all that is left behind for us to fill up of His own painful sufferings. It means all that tribulation through which every true minister of His goes up. It means cutting off now a right hand and plucking out now a right eye. It means taking up some ministerial cross every day. It means drinking every day the cup of the sinfulness of sin. It means to me old Thomas Shepard more than any other minister that I know. "Labour," as our bloodless version has it is a far too dry, a far too wooden, and a far too tearless, word, for our Lord to employ toward such servants of His. Depend upon it He will not content Himself with saying "labour" only. He will select and will distinguish His words on that day. And to all who among ourselves have preached and prayed and have examined themselves in and after their preaching and praying, as it would seem that this angel at one time did, and as Thomas Shepard always did, their Master will signalise and appreciate and praise their "painfulness" in their own so expressive old English, and they will appreciate and appropriate His so suitable word and will appreciate and praise Him back again for it.
His patience is another of the praises that his Master gives to this once happy minister. I do not suppose that the angel of Ephesus counted himself a specially happy man when, all unthought of to himself, he was laying up in heaven all this eulogium upon himself and upon his patience. But all the more, with such a suffering servant, his Master held Himself bound to take special knowledge of all that went on in the Church of Ephesus. And to this day and among all our so altered circumstances, patience continues to take a foremost place in the heart and in all the ministry of every successor of the true apostleship. Nay, patience was not only an apostolic grace, it was much more a Messianic grace. Patience was one of the most outstanding and far-shining graces of our Lord Himself as long as He was by far the most sorely tried of all His ministers. And He has all men and all things in His hands to this day that He may so order all men and all things as that all His ministers shall be put to this school all their days, as He was put all His days by His Father. The whole of every minister's lot and life is divinely ordained him so as to win for him his crown of patience, if he will only listen and believe it. "I know all thy patience," said our Lord to the angel of Ephesus.
I do not the least know who or what the Nicolaitans of Ephesus were, and no one that I have consulted is any wiser than I am, unless it is Pascal. And Pascal says that their name is equivocal. When that great genius and great saint comes upon the Nicolaitans in these Epistles, he has an original way of interpretation all his own. He always interprets this name, so he tells us, of his own bad passions. And not the Nicolaitans of Ephesus only; but the Egyptians, and the Babylonians, and as often as the name of any "enemy" occurs in the Old Testament, and it occurs in the Psalms continually, that so great and so original man interprets and translates them all into his own sinful thoughts and sinful feelings and sinful words and sinful actions. That is I fear a far too mystical and equivocal interpretation for the most of us as yet. To call the Nicolaitans of Ephesus our own wicked hearts, is far too Port-Royal and puritan for such literalists as we are. Only, as one can see, the minister of Ephesus would be swept into the deepest places, and into the most spiritual experiences, both of mysticism and of puritanism before their time, as often as he set himself, as he must surely have henceforth set himself every day of his life, to hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, whoever they were, and at the same time to love the Nicolaitans themselves. To a neighbour minister in the same Synod our Lord sends a special message about the sharp sword with the two edges. And it would need all the sharpness of that sword and all its edges to divide asunder the deeds of the Nicolaitans from the Nicolaitans themselves in their minister's heart. To divide them, that is, so as to hate their evil deeds with a perfect hatred, and at the same time to love the doers of those deeds with a perfect love. The name Nicolaitan is equivocal, says Pascal.
A litotes is a rhetorical device by means of which far less is said than is intended to be understood. A true litotes has this intention and this result that while, in words, it diminishes what is actually said, in reality, it greatly increases the effect of what is said. What could be a more condemning charge against any minister of Christ than to tell him in plain words that he had left his first love to his Master and to his Master's work? And yet, just by the peculiar way in which that charge is here worded, a far more sudden blow is dealt to this minister's heart than if the charge had been made in the plainest and sternest terms. To say "nevertheless I have somewhat against thee" to say "somewhat," as if it were some very small matter, and scarcely worth mentioning, and then suddenly to say what it is, that, you may depend upon it, gave a shock of horror to that minister's heart that he did not soon get over. You would have thought such a minister impossible. Had you heard his praise so generously spread abroad at first both by God and man you would have felt absolutely sure of that minister's spiritual prosperity and praise to the very end. You would have felt as sure as sure could be that behind all that so immense activity and popularity there must lie hidden a heart as full as it could hold of the deepest and solidest peace with God; a peace, you would have felt sure, without a speck upon it, and with no controversy on Christ's part within a thousand miles of it. But the ministerial heart is deceitful above all other men's hearts. And these shocking revelations about this much-lauded minister have been recorded and preserved in order that all ministers may see themselves in them as in a glass. Now, there is not one moment's doubt about when and where all this terrible declension and decay began to set in. His Master does not say in as many words just when and where matters began to go wrong between them two. But that silence of His is just another of His rhetorical devices. He does not tell it from the housetops of Ephesus, as yet. But the minister of Ephesus knew quite well, both when and where his first love began to fail and he to fall away. He knew quite well without his Master's message about it, that all this declension and collapse began in the time and at the place of secret prayer. For, not this Ephesus minister only, but every minister everywhere continues to love his Master and his Master's work, ay, and his Master's enemies, exactly in the measure of his secret reading of Holy Scripture and his secret prayerfulness. Yes, without being told it in as many words I am as sure of it as if I had been that metropolitan minister myself. You may depend upon it; nay, you know it yourselves quite well, that it was his habitual and long-continued neglect of secret prayer. It was from that declension and decay that his ministry became so undermined and had come now so near a great catastrophe. 'With all my past praise of thee, I give thee this warning,' said that Voice which is as the sound of many waters, 'that unless thou returnest to thy first life of closet communion with Me, I will come to thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of its place. I gave thee that congregation when I might have given it to another. And I have upheld thee in it, and have delivered thee out of a thousand distresses of thine. But thou hast wearied of me. Thou hast given thy night watches to other things than a true minister's meditation and prayer for himself and for his people. And I will suffer it at thy hands no longer. Remember from whence thou hast fallen, and repent, and do the first works.'
And now with all that in closing take this as the secret prayer of the angel of Ephesus the very first night after this severe message was delivered to him. 'O Thou that holdest the stars in Thy right hand, and walkest in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks. Thou hast spoken in Thy mercy to me. And thou hast given me an ear to hear Thy merciful words toward me. Lord, I repent. At Thy call I repent. I repent of many things in my ministry in Ephesus. But of nothing so much as of my restraint of secret prayer. This has been my besetting sin. This has been the worm at the root of all my mistakes and misfortunes in my ministry. This has been my blame. O spare me according to Thy word. O suffer me a little longer that I may yet serve Thee. What profit is there in my blood? Shall the dead hold communion with Thee? Shall the grave of a castaway minister redound honour to Thee? Restore Thou my soul. Restore once more to me the joy of Thy salvation, then will I teach transgressors Thy ways, and sinners shall be converted to Thee. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise. Do good in Thy good pleasure unto Zion; build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.'