Many of our readers, we know, have neither the time nor the opportunity for reading the voluminous works that have been written from time to time on the history of the church. Still, that which has been the dwelling-place of God for the last eighteen hundred years, must be a subject of the deepest interest to all His children. We speak not now of the church as it is often represented in history, but as it is spoken of in scripture. There it is seen in its true spiritual character, as the body of Christ, and as the
"habitation of God through the Spirit." (Ephesians 2.)
We must always bear in mind, when reading what is called a history of the church, that, from the days of the apostles until now, there have been two distinct and widely different, classes of persons in the professing church: the merely nominal, and the real — the true, and the false. This was predicted.
"For I know this," says the apostle, "that after my departure shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them." (Acts 20.)
His Second Epistle to Timothy is also full of warnings and directions as to the various forms of evil which were then but too plainly manifest. A rapid change for the worse had taken place from the time that his first epistle was written. He exhorts the truly godly to walk in separation from those who had a form of godliness, but who denied the power thereof. "From such," he says, "turn away." Such exhortations are always needed, always applicable — as much now as then. We cannot separate ourselves from Christendom without giving up Christianity; but we can and ought to separate ourselves from what the apostle calls "vessels to dishonor." The promise is, that, "if a man... purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work."
It is interesting — though painfully so — to mark the difference on this point between the First and the Second Epistles to Timothy. In the first, the church is spoken of according to its true character and blessed position on the earth. There it is seen as the house of God — the depositary and display of truth to man. In the Second Epistle, it is spoken of as what it had become through the failure of those into whose hands it had been entrusted.
Take one passage from each Epistle in illustration.
Here all is changed — sadly changed. In place of divine order there is hopeless confusion; in place of "the house of God, the pillar and ground of truth," there is "a great house" — practically "the mystery of iniquity." In place of the house being kept according to the will of God and suitable for Him, it was arranged and ordered according to the will of man, and for his own personal advantage and exaltation. Thus early had the evils, which have been the sin and the disgrace of Christendom ever since, made their appearance. But this was overruled for good. The Spirit of God, in great mercy, has supplied us with the plainest directions for the darkest day of the church's history, and has pointed out the way of truth for the worst of times; so that we are left without excuse. Times and circumstances change, not the truth of God.
THE MISTAKES OF HISTORIANS IN GENERAL
Some historians, it is sorrowful to say, have not taken into account this sad mixture of evil vessels with the good — of true Christians and false.
They have not themselves been spiritually minded men. Hence they have rather made it their chief object to record the many unchristian and wicked ways of mere professors. They have dwelt at great length, and with great minuteness, on the heresies that have troubled the church, on the abuses that have disgraced it, and on the controversies that have distracted it. Much rather would we endeavor to trace, all down through the long dark pages of history, the silver line of God's grace in true Christians; though at times the alloy so predominates that the pure ore is scarcely perceptible.
God has never left Himself without a witness. He has had His loved and cherished though hidden ones in all ages and in all places. No eye but His could see the seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed the knee to the image of Baal, in the days of Ahab and Jezebel. And tens of thousands, we doubt not, even from the darkest ages of Christianity, will be found at last in the "glorious church," which Christ will present to Himself, on the longlooked-for day of His nuptial joy. Many precious stones from the rubbish of the "middle ages" will reflect His grace and glow on that crowning day. Blessed thought! even now it fills the soul with ecstasy and delight. Lord, hasten that happy day for Thine own name's sake!
The truly godly are instinctively humble. They are generally retiring, and for the most part but little known. There is no humility so deep and real as that which the knowledge of grace produces. Such lowly and hidden ones find but a small place on the historic page. But the insinuating or zealous heretic, and the noisy or visionary fanatic, are too clamorous to escape notice. Hence it is that the historian has so carefully recorded the foolish principles and the evil practices of such men.
We will now turn for a little, and take a general view of the first part of our subject, namely
The Seven Churches of Asia