Fear & Faith - Revelation 2:8-11
No one is quite sure whether it was the 22nd or 23rd of February - It all depends upon whether it was a leap year.
An old man had been arrested in what is today the second largest city in Turkey (Izmir). It was somewhere around the year 155 AD. The crime seemed trivial enough it involved a mere refusal to offer a little incense to the Roman emperor. The imperial authorities seemed tolerant; a citizen was free to worship any number of gods - provided the state ceremonies were observed first & there were gods by the thousand in this City!
What was intolerable was the claim that any deity might have unique authority, to the exclusion of others! And this is where Polycarp, the old man, fell foul of the authorities in the beautiful City of Smyrna.
The sheriff tried to reason with Polycarp as he sat with him in a carriage. 'What harm is there in saying 'Lord Caesar', and in offering incense, and thus saving yourself?'
But Polycarp, the elderly Bishop of Smyrna, shook his head. Perhaps it was his association with the apostle John (who received the words of the book of Revelation some 50 or 60 years before) that steeled his courage. As Bishop of Smyrna, he would certainly have read the second of the seven letters in Revelation chapter 2 that is our focus tonight. Were the words of that letter from Jesus to the church he now led, in his mind as he was led to the stadium? (2.10). 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.'
In the stadium, the Roman Proconsul gave Polycarp every chance: 'Swear, and I will release you; curse the Christ.' Polycarp's reply was memorable: 'Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?'
Polycarp was burnt to death that same day for his faithfulness to King Jesus. (From The Church Overcomes R Bewes Mowbray 1984 p14)
That true story is a powerful reminder that the letters of Christ to the 7 Churches of Asia were addressed to real situations & real challenges.
That really should be no surprise to us, for these letters connect the ordinary everyday lives of Christians in local churches to the cosmic battle between Christ & the devil. The book of Revelation (of which these letters are a part) remind us clearly that the outcome of this battle is already decided because of the victory of Jesus in his death & resurrection, yet the struggle goes on. It will continue until it will end when Jesus returns to earth in triumph.
Meanwhile, in this in-between time from Jesus' ascension to heaven after his death & resurrection until he returns, we face struggles. Struggles that are really the mopping up campaign after the decisive victory but these struggles are real & are worked out in the front line of local church life & activity.
What we have then in these 7 letters are representative egs of the daily struggle of churches in all ages. That means that some of these words of the ascended & glorified Jesus are more poignant at particular places & particular times, but they are all his word to his church today. That means we here at St John's in 2003AD need to 'hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches', through them.
You'll see from the sermon notes firstly that;
1) Jesus Knows what Local Churches Face v9.
As in all 7 of these letters, Jesus speaks to the church after an introduction with the words 'I know..' Jesus tells them he knows & he understands their situation.
In the vision of Jesus that precedes the letters we're told that Jesus is 'among the lampstands' a picture meaning local churches (1:13) & in a different image 'in his right hand he held 7 stars' the essence of these churches & their leaders (1;16, 20).
Jesus is present with his people, he holds them in his hands, Jesus knows & understands the very specific challenges his churches face.
Here in Smyrna we discover that Jesus knows, v9, their 'afflictions' & their 'poverty'. In human terms these believers are under serious pressure, they face a very heavy burden. Part of this is their economic situation. The word for 'poverty' here means not that they had nothing beyond what they needed, but that they had 'nothing at all'.
Now Smyrna was a Port, it had a population of about million & had a magnificent stadium characteristics perhaps not unlike Hull! But unlike our fair City it was famed for it's affluence compared to other parts of the region, it was known as the 'Glory of Asia' for it's impressive buildings; Pagan Temples, amphitheatre & Library.
Yet the Christians were in extreme poverty.
But though they were desperately materially poor, Jesus says 'You are rich'. In terms of spiritual matters, in terms of the benefits of belonging to Jesus, they had great wealth. It is interesting that this is one of only 2 out of the 7 churches in Rev 2,3 who are not lovingly rebuked for something. They seemed to have nothing, but they had everything that mattered.
App; This is a radical idea in our prevailing culture Actually it's not what you have that matters, but who you are or perhaps better who you belong to!
This is important to us in our situation we must steward our resources faithfully, we must use our money for God's glory - & that will include giving to support gospel work through our church, Proj Newland & so on. But when we see 'success,' when we see giving increase, buildings improved, impressive literature & technology used for gospel purposes, that is not our real wealth we mustn't trust in that, our real wealth is Jesus. That's something I suspect, believers who have nothing in this world appreciate better than we do. (p)
Jesus goes on to fill out a little of why they are so poor & what their humanly overwhelming pressure has been provoked by; v9b 'I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.'
This Church family in Smyrna were being given a lot of stick from the local Jewish Community it seems. The Christians were the innocent victims of untrue 'slander' probably unfair accusation that they were being disloyal citizens. The trouble came from those who 'say they are Jews and are not'.
-It may well be their poverty was the result of people pillaging their homes because Christianity was not legally permitted & so there was no protection in law for believers. Certainly when Polycarp who we heard about at the start was martyred some decades later, it is recorded that Jewish opposition to Christians was such that Jews gathered wood for the fire on which he was burnt!
As Apostle Paul makes clear in Romans (2:25,28-29) to be a true Jew means more than mere outward membership of the race, indeed such was the behaviour of these people towards the Christians in Smyrna, that they had becomes agents of the devil not God as they claimed; their slander & opposition showed they were a 'synagogue (assembly) of Satan.'
Jesus continues to forewarn the church family what is ahead; v10 '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.'
Persecution, prison, testing even to point of death. were ahead for the Christians in Smyrna we saw an eg of it with Old Polycarp's martyrdom. But we need to remember what we learn from the rest of revelation & rest of the NT; that suffering is certain for the Christian in some form. Jesus warned his disciples 'No servant is greater than his master; if they persecuted me they will persecute you also' (John 15:20) & the Apostle Paul told Timothy 'Anyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted'. (2Tim3:12)
Testing times will come, but the Christians are reassured there will be a limit to them. 'will suffer persecution for ten days.' Jesus says in v10.
This seems to be a symbolic period - 10 days was the period of Daniel's testing in the OT (1:12-15). It suggests a serious ordeal but one that will end - opposition is certain but it will be limited. As we'll see later even if suffering ends in physical death it will not mean spiritual death for the Christian. (P)
For many Christians in our world today challenges like the ones Christians in Smyrna faced 1900 years ago are real experiences. There is 'Slander', unjustified opposition, persecution & they can come from many sources though behind them will be the hand of Satan, the slanderer, the accuser, (Rev 12;10).
I remember a year or so ago taking a minister from an Asian country round the Riverside area & talking to him about the church he lead. He is forbidden to speak about the nations dominant religion from the pulpit, it is illegal to share your faith with someone from this faith, Christians in society are barred from a decent education, their employment is restricted to menial jobs & so they are the poorest. I have heard of other situations where Christian children aren't allowed to learn to read or write if anyone's found teaching them, there are severe penalties.
There are sadly situations today in 2003AD where to become a Christian will result in ostracism, imprisonment or even death. I read recently of a 22 year old woman in that same Asian City as my Minster friend who began attending Bible studies with a Christian. When her family discovered this they arranged to have her marry someone who would oppose her new faith in Jesus, she fled into hiding but was found by her family & shot dead by her brother. He said he was doing his religious duty by killing an Apostate.
In the last edition of the Evangelicals Now Newspaper there are other sobering contemporary egs. The government in Belarus have introduced what has been called 'Europe's most repressive law' allowing only occasional religious meetings in homes, & strong restrictions on Church's.
In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu conversions to Christianity from the main Faith have been outlawed. In the state of Orissa 4 Christian families were recently beaten in the streets for refusing to take part in a religious festival. The organization 'Open Doors' (who some in our church pray for) report Christians from southern Mexico being under a death threat from the local Mafia type group, &
I haven't mentioned the most shocking & chilling egs I could find.
The situation in Smyrna is real life for some Christians today - there's an important reminder to pray for persecuted believers & suffering churches in the world.
Jesus knows he knows what we face in local Churches - he understands & 2)
2.[Jesus who knows] calls us to faithfulness even to death v10b
None of us know what kind of testing could be ahead of us, but Jesus command is clear; v10 'Be faithful, even to the point of deathand I will give you the crown of life.'
Like Polycarp at the start, Jesus wants us to stick with him, stand up for him whatever we face. Now this is a very easy thing to say isn't it?
Appl- It's been a great challenge to me as I've been thinking about this letter this week would I be prepared to stand up for Jesus in these situations? Would we as a local church family pass this kind of test?
In many ways we have had it easy in this country a nation, which has officially embraced a form of the Christian faith as national religion, enshrined many Biblical ideas in our way of life & legal system provided protection for freedom of expression. But this is not the case for perhaps the majority of Christians throughout history & not the case in many situations in the world today. And indeed you don't have to be an expert futurologist to see that things could quite soon be rather different here.
Take the current headlong rush into overturning many moral & legal values based on the Bible we've seen in recent years & along with that claims to tolerance that are in fact intolerant of people who question the views of influential opinion formers.
So will it always be possible to publicly say certain behaviour is wrong? Will there be freedom to believe & argue that there is only one way to be rightly related to the true God & that is through Jesus Christ? When we're in these situations will we be faithful to Jesus & stick to him & his teaching?
On a less grand scale there is strong philosophical dogmatism in some educational circles that is violently opposed to the Christian worldview & values.
Some friends of mine in the North of England who run a Christian after school club in a Primary School like our Explorer Club night, J Club at Riverside & King's club in Dunswell were recently summoned before school governors & told it was out of order to have an exclusively Christian club; they should make it a multi faith group & they wanted a governor to join the leadership team to check what was being taught!
When we're in these situations will we be faithful to Jesus & stick to him & his teaching? (P)
It's probably true to say that the test about being faithful to Jesus is in the small things, the everyday things. Our tests come in being prepared to admit we're Christians to our neighbours, being honest at work, standing up for Jesus at school or university or work where there is teasing perhaps, or some downright opposition. (P)
Having said this, for most of us we're a long way from being in a Smyrna-type situation. So considering the freedom we have compared to what many Christians face in the world, makes me wonder if this letter is not an indirect encouragement to be bolder in our witness.
Can I ask; Are we often too polite? No one wants to cause unnecessary offence or to put people off by being brash but are we not often, so careful not to do this that we miss opportunities to even admit we are part of a church or believe certain things that affect human life now & eternally so profoundly? We have opportunities many of our Christian brothers & sisters in the world, cannot imagine. (p)
These are very challenging things. Yet, as so often with the way God teaches us through the Bible, we are given the great encouragement that the one who calls us to be faithful is victorious, gracious & therefore trustworthy.
2)Jesus who knows us & calls us to faithfulness, promises & guarantees our eternal life v8, 10c, 11.
[In the face of these challenges to be faithful, Jesus gives us an encouragement & a promise;]
Encouragement; ; v10 'Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer'.
It is said, though I haven't counted them, that there are 365 occasions in the Bible where we read something like; 'Do not be afraid'. That's one for every day of the year! God knows that we find it easy to be anxious & to be fearful, so he encourages us v10 'Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer'.
We need to remember when we belong to Jesus that God is supreme, he can work his purposes out, even through the devil & evil people. The reality of suffering should not make us fearful.
Also a promise It is put negatively & positively.
Negatively v11, those who 'overcome', who stand firm under pressure for Jesus 'will not be hurt at all by the second death.'
This 'second death' is described later in Revelation (Rev 20: 11-15 esp v6, v14. 21:8). It is the death of judgement that comes after physical death. It is eternal death, hell, for those who have not received the benefits of what Jesus has done in his death for sinners. Jesus' promise is that faithful church members, trusting in Jesus, will, 'not, certainly not be hurt at all' by this judgement of eternal death.
Jesus makes his promise positively too; v10 'Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. Literally 'Be faithfulI will give you the crown of the life'. There is a reward for faithfulness to Jesus not just escaping Hell but receiving the eternal life won by Jesus.
The promise speaks of a 'Crown'; the victory wreath won in the Olympic style games Smyrna was famous for. Jesus promises eternal life; not life that merely goes on forever but life as it's meant to be, life in the new creation, where as ch 21 puts it 'They will be God's people & God himself will be with themwill wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning, or crying or pain.' (21:3,4). (p)
This encouragement & promise are rooted in Jesus himself the supremely faithful one & ultimate overcomer; v8 'These are the words of him who is the First and the Last
Jesus is the 'first & last'; He was present at creation (the 1st) & will still be there when history as we know it ends (the last). Jesus is not restricted by the constraints of time he is always available to help his followers. He is, in that sense, outside circumstances & therefore we can turn to him when gripped by fear or under pressure.
And these words are from the one v8 'who died and came to life again.'
To believers who literally faced death for following Jesus being reminded by Jesus himself that he had broken the power of death through his death & resurrection, is wonderfully reassuring.
Billy Graham once spoke of walking through cemeteries in various parts of the world & looking at old gravestones. He realised that the most frequent inscription is 'Here liesfollowed by the name of the person, the date of death & possibly concluding with few lines in praise of the departed.
Billy Graham continued 'How different is the epitaph on the tomb of Jesus! It is neither written in gold nor cut in stone. It is spoken by the mouth of an angel & is the exact reverse of what is put on all other tombs; 'He is not here; He has risen as he said he would' (Mt28;6).
The resurrection of Jesus is an epitaph, which reads 'Here lies defeated death!'
The message of Jesus to the church in Smyrna & then to us is 'Do not be fearful but faithful.'
He knows the reality of our situation, he calls us to be faithful under pressure (like old Polycarp we heard about at the start) but his promise of eternal life is sure sure because it's based ultimately not on our faithfulness but his death-defeating victory.
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