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Smyrna: The Church of Devoted Persecution

 

7 Churches in Revelation: (Part II)

by Rev. Jerry Lepasana


Revelation 2:8-11
8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.
9 I know your afflictions and your poverty–yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of 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 at all by the second death.

The month of February has always been regarded by most people as a special month because of Valentine’s Day, a day set aside to celebrate love. For preachers like me, I know I would never go wrong preaching on love during this time. That’s the reason we learned about the church of Ephesus last Sunday, emphasizing our “first love,” Jesus Christ. I thought it would be a worthwhile Valentine celebration to draw our attention to our love for Jesus Christ.

As we move to the second church in Revelation, we’re still going to talk about love. You see, in the Bible, love is always more than words and feelings. It is characterized by actions.  If you say to God, “I love you, Lord,” God is going to respond, “You can’t just say it; you have to show it.” If you examine our text this morning, you will find an important characteristic of love that we cannot take for granted – it is loyalty. You cannot have love without it. If a person is truly in love with someone, he or she will certainly be faithful and devoted, even in tough and trying times. This is the essence of a typical marriage vow saying: “I will take you for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.” Of course, this vow flows out from the Bible.

Mark 10:6-9
6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’
7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,
8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one.
9 Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

Therefore, love and loyalty are inseparable. This truth can be translated spiritually as well. Allow me to put it in a question – Do you love Jesus Christ enough to stick with Him in the midst of hardships and sufferings? Would you still follow Him even if it means following Him would lead to severe persecutions? The truth of the matter is that God will always test the level of our love for Him. Most often, sufferings, persecution, are often the best means to test our faith and love in Christ. No wonder Jesus Himself declared that believers must be prepared to be persecuted.

John 15:18-20
18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.
19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.
20 Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.

When my son, James, had the opportunity to attend the Lausanne Movement 2010 in Capetown, Africa, he told me about the inspiring testimony he heard about an 18 year old North Korean girl. Her father was a former high-ranking assistant to North Korean leader, Kim Jeong II. When she was 6 years old, her father suffered political persecution, forcing them to flee to China. Surviving in China became difficult for the family. After just a few months, her mother suddenly died because of leukemia.  With all the difficulties they were going through, her father agreed to visit a Christian church.  There he found the amazing grace and love of God. As he kept attending church, he fell in love with Jesus Christ and became convinced that he should take the love of Jesus to North Korea and lead his people to Christ. This conviction led him to regularly travel to North Korea, distributing Bibles and sharing Jesus Christ. In 2006, her Father’s work was discovered by North Korea and he was imprisoned. Since then, she never heard from him again and she believes that he has been executed in North Korea for charges of treason and espionage. Alone in China, she was adopted by her pastor’s family and through them she also grew in her love for the Lord. According to her testimony, one night she saw Jesus in her dream and it radically changed her life. She described her dream as Jesus having tears in his eyes. He walked over to her and said, “Sook, how much longer are you going to keep me waiting? Walk with me. Yes, you have lost your earthly father, but I am your heavenly Father and whatever has happened to you happened because I love you.” When she woke up, she prayed to God and gave her life to Jesus Christ. She then decided to go back to North Korea to share the love of Jesus to her people. She knew this decision could potentially lead to the same fate as her father. But she believed it is a great privilege to die sharing the love of Jesus Christ.

Going to our passage this morning, we would see the same heart for Christ from the Christians in the church of Smyrna. Unlike the letter to the Ephesian church, where we found Jesus starting with some commendations to the people, but ending with a strong word of rebuke because they have forsaken their first love, the Christians in Smyrna received all are commendations and no single rebuke. This is an inspirational church!

Let me first give you a little background about the city of Smyrna in Asia Minor. This was a city located about thirty-five miles north of Ephesus. It was known as the loveliest of all the cities in Asia and was sometimes called “the Crown of Asia” or “the Flower of Asia.” But more than its beauty, it became an important city because as early as 26 A.D. during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, a temple was built for the emperor. After it was built, the people were demanded to worship Caesar as a god. Anyone who refused to bow would either be stripped of employment or be executed. Obviously, this was the context of this letter to the church. In order for us to have a better understanding, we’ll divide the passage into three truths.

I           THE VISION OF CHRIST: (v.8)

As we have established last Sunday, all these letters begin with some important descriptions of Jesus Christ. There’s no doubt that our understanding of Jesus Christ determines how we will relate to Him. If our understanding of Him is limited, then our faith in Him would also be limited, not finding Him as sufficient for us.

If you would examine the direct descriptions of Christ in these letters to churches, they are directly related to the church’s specific situation. For the church of Smyrna, here are the two descriptions for Christ:

A. “who is the First and the Last”

This title of Jesus Christ speaks of Him as God who created everything. Literally, this means everything started with Him and will end in Him. The clear message was: in their lives, they can believe that from their conception to their death, He is absolutely in control of everything. Nothing happens that is not known by him or permitted by Him.

B. “who died and came to life again”

This statement is so relevant to the situation in Smyrna. Christ is declaring victory. As He was victorious over death, these believers who are being threatened with death can also experience the same victory. They need not fear. If He lives, they would live also. If you jump to verse 11 – He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.”

The second death, which is death in hell, (Rev. 21:8) is no longer a threat to overcomers or believers in Christ. These faithful believers who, because of persecutions, may experience physical death, first death, are assured of the same resurrection as Christ.

How do you see Jesus Christ? Right beliefs in Christ will provide us with greater confidence in life. There are no insecurities in life for people who are secured in Christ!

II         THE VICTORY IN CHRIST: (vs. 9-10)

This church in Smyrna is being comforted and commended by Jesus Christ because of their faithfulness in the midst of all their suffering. Perhaps in order to fully grasp their situations, we need to highlight some of the specific words used to describe them in the text.

  • “Afflictions”

The word comes directly from Thlipsis which means pressure, a literal crushing beneath a weight. The picture is that the believers were being crushed by a huge weight. Bible scholars believe that more than the antagonism of the people around them, their biggest pressure was coming from the Roman government which was imposing Emperor Worship. They were persecuted if they did not bow down to human authority.

  • “Poverty”

This word comes from Ptocheia, which means absolute, complete destitution. Because of their refusal to obey the government, they were stripped of jobs, properties, and other essential possessions.

  • “Slander of the Jews”

This word suggests the harsh and bitter ridicules of the Jewish community in the city.  Obviously, they were not only persecuted by the Gentiles, but by the Jews as well. I would like to highlight the phrase, “synagogue of Satan.” Synagogues were places where Jews worshipped outside Jerusalem. These Jews who were hostile towards Christians may have been from the seed of Abraham physically, but spiritually were of Satan and under his control or influence. God is clear is stating that people who persecute the believers of Jesus Christ are under the influence of Satan.

With everything they were going through, how could they have remained faithful and fearless in Christ? Is this even possible? Considering the words of Christ to them, we can identify three key sources of victory.

A. Christ is knowledgeable about all our sufferings

When Jesus said in verse 9, “I know your afflictions,” He was comforting them by telling them that He was conscious of all their sufferings for Him. Now this is really encouraging! There are times when we think that what is happening to us or what we do is unimportant to our Almighty God. But the Bible teaches the opposite. God notices everything and He is honored by our faithfulness to Him.

Hebrews 6:10
God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.

B. Christ is able to make up for all we have lost for Him

Another significant truth we should not miss in verse 9 comes from this statement – “I know your . . . poverty – yet you are rich.” Is this a bit ironic? How can they be poor and rich at the same time? This simply means that while it is true that they were destitute materially because of all the persecutions they’re going through, in God’s eyes, they were spiritually rich. I hope we get this truth. There are so many people in this world who are so rich, who, in God’s eyes, are spiritually poor. Even worse, they will be poor in the next life. However, there are people who may be down and out today outwardly, but they are rich spiritually. For sure, they will also be very rich in the next life.

Hebrews 11:24-26
24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.
25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time.
26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than
the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.

Moses is a classic example of someone who shared the same perspective. He was willing to turn his back from all the riches in Egypt and suffer with God’s people because He knew that greater riches await all those who serve God faithfully. Do you share the same belief? Are you willing to suffer for Christ today, knowing He will richly make up for everything?

C.  Christ puts a limit to all our sufferings

The last source of victory comes from knowing that the persecutions, though severe, will only last for a short time. Look at verse 10 and highlight these words, “the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days.”

The Lord encouraged them to not be afraid of their severe persecution because it will only last for a short time, only ten days. Clearly, ten days is minor compared to being imprisoned for an entire year or several years. They could take comfort in the fact that it is just for a limited time.

I believe this is a precious truth that we can always stand on as believers. Indeed, God allows Satan to test us because our tests can bring some godly virtues in our lives that we wouldn’t develop otherwise. God assures us that they don’t go beyond the limitations that He Himself has set. Paul wrote about this truth to the Corinthian believers.

1 Corinthians 10:13
13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

Are you going through some difficult tests right now? Perhaps some of you are being persecuted. Some of you may be going through some tough pressures in life. Remain faithful, knowing that He knows exactly what you are going through. Believe that He will make up for everything if not in this life, in the next life. Lastly, all your tests will not last for a long time. Remain strong and faithful to our Savior, Jesus Christ!

III        THE VALIDATION IN CHRIST: (v.10)

Lastly, as Christ encourages the church of Smyrna to remain faithful to Him, He promises them a crown of life as their future reward. I would like to look at this rewarding time as validation for those who were faithful to Christ.

I know that, for Christians who are faithfully walking with the Lord, serving Him, it is so easy for other people to misrepresent them as fanatics or accuse them of trying to attract attention to themselves by behaving differently.  Case in point: “TEBOWING.” Tim Tebow, at times, has ticked off other Christians in the NFL because of his boldness in the Lord. Some of the other players are telling him to tone it down. To all the Christians who do their best to make a stand for Jesus Christ, let’s remember He has this great promise – He will give a crown of life.

Crowns in this context can be compared to a championship trophy or a championship ring awarded to all the winners. I hope none of us will lose sight of this awarding time when Jesus comes.

Revelation 22:12
Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.

This rewarding time will certainly be special. One by one, we will be called to stand before Jesus Christ and personally be commended and rewarded. This crown is so special that even our own death is a worthy exchange for it. This, I believe, is the implication when He said – “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Death can easily be considered the worst suffering that any believer can go through for Jesus Christ. But if it ever happens, it is still worth it because of the quality of life Jesus will give in exchange for it. I hope we take this to heart. Jesus will never shortchange us. If we honor Him by faithfully living for Him, He will honor us by giving beyond what we deserve. The kind of life that awaits faithful believers will definitely be greater than anyone’s expectation. It will be a life crowned with God’s superlative blessings.

How faithful are you in taking a stand for Jesus Christ today? Have you allowed peer pressure, ridicule, or criticism silence your witness for Jesus Christ? Remember, great rewards are reserved for the faithful. Instead of quitting on Christ because of all the hardships, remain in Him and be faithful, never losing sight of the great life that He has reserved for you in the coming days.