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#7 Smyrna

August 12, 2008

Today we will look at Christ’s letter to the Church at Smyrna. This letter is very different from the one that was sent to Ephesus. There are no words of condemnation. This letter is inspirational and encouraging as well as a bit frightening in that it deals with persecution, suffering and martyrdom. But it is also full of hope in that we see the end of our faith, heaven! (Rev 2:8-11) 8“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: 9‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’


The characteristics of Smyrna are very different than that of Ephesus. While Ephesus was “busy” we hear nothing about them being persecuted for the sake of Jesus’ Name. Smyrna on the other hand was faithful to Jesus. There was no lack of love here. In fact it was precisely because of their love and devotion to Jesus Christ that the Church of Smyrna was suffering. And we see here the truth of what the scriptures say concerning trouble arising from the world. Sinful humanity hates anything that has to do with godliness. They hate the light and will not come to the light so as to be saved. Instead they will do all they can to put that light out. What they don’t know is that the gates of hell will not prevail against the kingdom of God!


Think about what our Lord is telling us as we look at these several verses and see how they relate to the reality of the Christian life. The first is Acts chapter 14:22.  Paul and Barnabas knew the reality of suffering for Jesus Name! They had come to Lystra to preach the Gospel. When they saw a lame man they healed him. The first reaction of the people of this pagan city was to offer sacrifices to them thinking they were the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes. It took a lot of effort for Paul and Barnabas to put a stop to this. But it seems that no sooner had they quieted the crowds that jealous Jews from Antioch and Iconium came. These members of the synagogue of Satan stirred up the people to the point that they forgot the wondrous miracle of healing and tried to kill Paul by stoning him. After they thought he was dead they dragged him out of the city. But God was merciful and raised him up on his feet.


And the first thing Paul did was re-enter the city of Lystra. The next day he went to Derbe and then returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, all places where there were people who wanted him dead. This act of murderous rage did not dissuade him from his God appointed task of preaching the truth! In each of these places we read that he and Barnabas spent time teaching and (Ac 14:22) strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying ,“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” And of this truth, Paul was a living example! Just from this particular example that we have before us, we know that Paul’s faith was no sunny day idea. In (2Cor. 11:25) he lists the tribulations he suffered saying, 23 “Are they servants of Christ? I can go them one better. (I can’t believe I’m saying these things. It’s crazy to talk this way! But I started, and I’m going to finish.) I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. 24  I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, 25  beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. 26 In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. 27 I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather. 28 And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. 29 When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut. 30 If I have to “brag” about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me like Jesus. 31 The eternal and blessed God and Father of our Master Jesus knows I’m not lying. 32 Remember the time I was in Damascus and the governor of King Aretas posted guards at the city gates to arrest me? 33 I crawled through a window in the wall, was let down in a basket, and had to run for my life.


This is more trouble than most people would face in a lifetime! Paul’s life is an example of the suffering that could be ours if God so chooses to allow it. It is also an example of the grace He supplies to His suffering people! It is a very real truth that apart from Him we can do nothing. But it is also a very real truth that we can do all things through Him who gives us strength. And Paul is a living example of living faith. He actually lived what he taught or “practiced what he preached. He really believed the word of God and the God of the word. He knew that he was a participant in an unbreakable relationship with the Creator of the universe. And because of this he was able to bear up during his times of trouble.


In fact he did more than just bear up. In (Ro 5:3) we are allowed to see the inner workings of his renewed heart as we hear him saying, “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance;” And in that great doxology of faith he says in (Rom 8:35-39) 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  37But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Because of all the mercy and grace and sustaining power that we have in Jesus Christ our Lord, even in persecution we can be (Ro 12:12) rejoicing in hope, for we know that if they kill our bodies, we will be in heaven with our Lord Jesus Christ. We can be persevering in tribulation, knowing that the trial of our faith produces patience: that we are growing into the likeness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  And we can be devoted to prayer, for it is in our communion with our God that we find strength in our time of need. And we can pray for our enemies, that God would visit them in mercy and save their souls. In the midst of our trials we can walk with Jesus as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did, trusting in Jesus Christ (2Co 1:4) who comforts us in all our affliction (for this purpose) so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. As we come to our text what do we see but Jesus Christ Himself speaking words of truth and comfort to His suffering people. This was a wonderful, refreshing message to the Church. They knew they had not been forgotten or cast off.


We read (Rev 2:8-11) 8“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, Who was dead, and has come to life, says this: Jesus tells the church of Smyrna that He is the beginning of all things and the end of all things. He is the One who called them out of darkness into new life in Him. And He declares that He is the living God unlike the idols of the nations which are merely chunks of stone and wood which can neither see nor hear nor speak. He says to them: 9‘I know your tribulation. How does He know? Has He been watching from heaven? Yes but He is much more than just a casual observer! He is intimately acquainted with all our ways. He alone is the Living God who created all things. He is the One Who has brought this time of testing upon His people. Just as He raised up the Jews to hand over Jesus to the Romans for crucifixion so He has caused the people of Smyrna to persecute the Christians there. This Church is in His Almighty hands and He has brought this upon them for their good and for His glory!


Now what was the city of Smyrna like? It had been around a long time: the first historical reference that I found was that they were destroyed by the Lydians in 627 B.C. After that they were little more than a village until Alexander the Great captured Sardis and then the city was re-established. Even before Rome was a great power Smyrna was its greatest ally. The city of Smyrna had petitioned Tiberius Caesar to build a temple for the purpose of worshiping him.  They were very loyal subjects to Roman. They billed themselves as “The First City of Asia. And they took their Emperor worship very seriously. To the Romans, even though there were other deities, (they worshiped the Greek pantheon of Gods) the Emperor was their living God. The Roman people understood the reality of the power of the Emperor to kill them or honor them. They worshiped that which they could see and touch. The Christians worshiped an invisible God whom neither the Romans nor the Smyrnians knew. They did not understand that it is He who created all things. Who knows but that some emperor declared that he was the creator of heaven and earth! Even if they didn’t, I’m sure some of their most loyal subjects would have done so.


And so for someone to come and teach that a man named Jesus Christ whom no one can see, that He is God and the emperor is not, was not only against all human logic, it was also treason. In such a setting, when someone came to faith in Jesus Christ, they were shunned, fired from their jobs, kicked out of their families and abandoned. If they would not recant there profession of faith they could face wild animals in the arena or burning at the stake like Polycarp, the Bishop of the church of Smyrna. Jesus knew all of this. And He was with them in their suffering, carrying them and sustaining them by His omnipotent power. Through Him they would be able to bear up under the pressure and the torture. They would be able to stand firm in the faith and bear witness of the truth. The next thing Jesus says is “I know…your poverty In the eyes of the world these people were poor. Having been cast off by their society and families they were reduced to beggars.  But what they lacked in material things they more than made up for in spiritual blessings.  (but you are rich), Their cups overflowed. They had stored up for themselves riches in heaven where moth and rust could not corrupt and where thieves could not break in to steal.


Remember the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In the eyes of the world the rich man had everything anyone could want. He had money to swim in, hot and cold running servants and enough food to feed an army. Then there was Lazarus. He was a beggar. He was covered with sores. He had no food and would have been grateful to have received the crumbs that fell from the rich mans table. In the eyes of the world the rich man was blessed and Lazarus was under a curse. But when they both died a strange thing happened. The rich man went to hell where he suffered agony. And Lazarus was carried to Abraham’s bosom. He who was ‘blessed’ was now in horrendous agony.  I remember watching a movie once where a certain employee had been called into the manager’s office. You see the employee had claimed to have seen and talked with God.


The manager pointed to a portrait of the owner of the store and began declaring his virtues. Of course he was a very rich man, in the eyes of the world. But it would also appear that he was a very religious man as well.  The employee was told that this man “had personally gotten down on his knees with 3 U.S. Presidents and the Joint Chief’s of staff. When asked what he thought, the employee said, “I hope he would be encouraged to know that his prayers are heard.”  The manager replied, “So and So has come to the place in his life where he can be assured that his prayers are heard.” Here, I think, is a good description of the rich man both in his own eyes and in the eyes of the world. But where was he after death? He was in that horrible place of torment called hell. All his riches were worthless now! Compare his state with the poor man, Lazarus, who had nothing of this worlds goods. Though he was poor in the eyes of society, he had something infinitely more valuable than all the money in the world. He knew God. How can I say this? Where was he after death? He was in heaven! Though He had been poor in the eyes of the world, in reality he was the true rich man.


Consider the state of the rich man in the light of what Jesus said in (Mark 8:36-37) “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? 37 Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” The Church of Smyrna was in the same place as Lazarus. They were poor and destitute in the eyes of the world but they were rich toward God.  They had to suffer many things, tribulation, poverty and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, Remember what Paul said, “just because someone is born a Jew does not make them true people of God. It is only those who have the same faith that Abraham had. Abraham believed God, trusted God followed after God with his whole heart. And those who have like faith can be called Israel. These Jews from Smyrna were humanly speaking, descendants of Abraham. But in truth they hated God which is why Jesus Himself said “but (they) are a synagogue of Satan.  Such a title should cause all questions about their conduct to cease. They are of their father the devil and do the deeds of their father. He was a murderer from the beginning. He is a liar and the father of lies. They were merely following in the footsteps of their father. Since they hated God, it is only natural that they would hate His Son: their Messiah. And they would do all they could to oppose Him even if someone as respected as Gamaliel would stand up and warn them not to be found fighting God! 


Jesus continues saying 10‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Here He is preparing His children ahead of time for the trial that is about to come! In this world you have tribulation. All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. Remember the words of Jesus in (Lu 12:4) “I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. He tells them, Behold, the devil whose arm is the Jews of Smyrna, and who himself is a tool in the hand of God, is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, The purpose of testing is to see whether or not they are His. Gill (I have paraphrased him) says “that their graces might be tried, that is, their faith, love, zeal, courage, and faithfulness.


Suffering times are trying times, where the true sheep and the religious goats are revealed. It is in the fires of persecution that we see whether men are real Christians or not; whether they have the true grace of God or not; and whether the principles they hold are right and true, are worth, and will bear suffering for. Jesus continues saying “and you will have tribulation for ten days.”  There is a whole lot of speculation about whether this is a literal 10 days or not. Some think it refers to 10 specific periods of persecution covering 10 centuries while others think it is a shorter time. I think the most important point here is that it is a time of trial: a time of proving the faith of men and women. And once again I must quote those words of Paul, (2Ti 3:12) “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Or again from another translation; “Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there’s no getting around it. (2Ti 3:12) 


Are you prepared to suffer for your faith? Before you start swaggering like John Wayne and say, “you betcha pilgrim” take a hard look into your heart. The words may come easy but when the reality arrives, all swaggering comes to an end. If you don’t really love Jesus then you will very quickly abandon your “faith.” Again I see here a place where we must examine ourselves. Is your faith, the God given kind or the self grunted up kind?  Jesus tells His church, Be faithful until death, literally, keep on becoming faithful” or “keep on proving faithful unto death” as the martyrs have done: as Jesus did…and I will give you the crown of life. 11‘He who has an ear, he who is able to hear this truth, who has the Spirit of God dwelling with in him, let him hear let him take heed to what the Spirit says to the churches. These are no mere idle words of man.


They are the very words of Jesus Christ our Lord. And listen closely to this closing statement: He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’ There will be no more suffering once you have passed from this life! You will be safe in the arms of Jesus. And our God tells us in (Re 7:17) “The Lamb on the Throne will shepherd them, will lead them to spring waters of Life. And God will wipe every last tear from their eyes.” (Re 21:4) He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” Instead the song of the angels will ring in our ears and we will join with them in their chorus as they sin “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God almighty.


Jesus said in (John 16:33) “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, This is a stated fact from the lips of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. We must be prepared to suffer for our faith however terrible it may seem to even think about. But we will not be alone on that day for Jesus will be with us. He said you will have trouble. There will be times of suffering and tribulation.  But He also said that He would “neither leave us nor forsake us!” He said, “I am with you always, even to the very end of the age! The scriptures tell us that trouble will come as we seek to live for Jesus but as we rest in Him we can have peace that passes all understanding. His peace will guard our hearts and our minds even as we undergo persecution. And here is the anchor in which we can rest secure take courage; I have overcome the world.”

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