Faithful Amidst Persecution

Revelation  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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As Christians, we must be faithful amidst persecution.

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As we look into today’s message, we’ll be traveling to Smyrna. Revelation 2.8 “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:” Smyrna was situated about 35-40 miles NNW of Ephesus. It was a gorgeous city with beauty throughout. It curved around the bay of Smyrna and was at the base of a mountain. Montpelier, Vermont, is also a beautiful city at the base of a mountain. When you read about Smyrna of that time period, you almost feel as though this would have been a perfect vacation destination.
The population was around 200,000, about three times the size of Portland, ME, or a third of the size of the city of Boston. There were temples, public buildings, and even a library. The layout of the city was designed and meant to be beautiful. Aristides said: “Smyrna city was a flower of beauty, such as earth and sun had never showed to mankind.” Even one of the streets was known as the street of gold. On each end of the street, you would see the temples of Cybele (sib-uh-lee) and Zeus. All along the street, were temples to Apollo, Asclepius, and Aphrodite.
The city was also a center for emperor worship. In fact, during this time period, it was required of every Roman citizen to worship the emperor on the threat of death. This was done annually, when each citizen would have to burn incense on the altar to the image of Caesar, saying something to the effect, Caesar is Lord. If the citizen fulfilled this requirement, they were given a certificate.
Interestingly, the name of the city fits well with what would happen to those not cooperating with emperor worship. Smyrna comes from the same linguistic root as the word for myrrh. You might remember that myrrh was one of the gifts brought by the wisemen to Christ after His birth, signifying the suffering which He would undergo for humanity. It was also used to embalm Christ’s body after His death.
What exactly is myrrh? It is a perfume substance which must be broken to release the fragrance. You can see the symbolism of suffering and death and brokenness. Interestingly, Smyrna is referred to as the suffering church.
In verse 8, we already have heard that Christ is the One Who is eternal and the source of life itself. He was once dead and has come back to life. This gives credibility to the reality that He is the only One Who can comfort us during our suffering and has the answer to death itself.
From the picture of suffering, we can make a connection between the potential for suffering for Christ while living in this political, pseudo-religious city. Even though the requirement to offer worship to Caesar may have been merely an expression of political loyalty than religious worship, most Christians refused to do this.
What a difficult predicament for a believer to find themself. Almost 60 years later, Polycarp was burned alive at 86 years of age for refusing to do this token worship. During a great period of persecution, Polycarp was arrested and brought before the governor. When he was offered his freedom if he would curse Christ, he replied: “Eighty and six years have I served Christ and He has done me nothing but good; how then could I curse Him, my Lord and Savior?” He was then burned alive.
Even in our modern era, when the Japanese occupied Korea in 1937-40, they ordered Christians to worship at their Shinto shrines. Many Christians refused and were imprisoned and tortured for their faith.
Do you think this type of thing can happen today, in our so-called enlightened and tolerant times? It may not be as blatantly obvious as bowing down to an idol or some false deity. It can happen in even more subtle ways. If one wants to function in our culture, there seems to be a lot of demanding that we conform and agree with whatever the loudest voices suggest. Beware of anything or anyone who suggests that we must give allegiance and honor to anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ. And if you and I do choose to take a stand for Christ, which we should, then be prepared to experience persecution.
As Christians, we must be faithful amidst persecution.

Be Faithful When Persecuted By the Religious

Revelation 2:9 (NASB95)
‘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.
By the use of the phrase, I know, Jesus, being God, shows that He knows everything. Jesus speaks specifically about three things in the church, which it was currently experiencing. He knew of their tribulation, poverty, and blasphemy.
Tribulation seems to be the overall characteristic of all the negatives which were oppressing the church. This may have covered any negative situations and attacks which were orchestrated by Satan, using all kinds of means.
Let’s go on to the issue of poverty. This seems to be speaking of outward poverty, not spiritual poverty. It doesn’t seem like there would be such a thing in a city as cosmopolitan and artsy as Smyrna. Yet, the church was impacted, resulting in outward, financial poverty. It seems that the emperor, Diocletian, actually encouraged pagans and Judaizers to persecute the church at Smyrna. They were encouraged to go so far as to rob them, cheat them, deny them fair trading or even goods. The purpose was to make the Christians come to the point of destitution or abject poverty. The hope was to break them and make them knuckle under and give worship to Caesar.
It sounds quite familiar to many of us in the western culture, especially in North America. Even now, if Christians are unwilling to accept and accommodate behavior that is contrary to God’s Word, then the government or certain business or particular groups will do their worst to harass God’s children. They will file complaints; they will protest at our churches or homes; they will make up false statements accusing us of things which we don’t do; they will stop at nothing. This is what will lead to poverty, even as we’ve seen some business having to shut their doors because they would not bend to political correctness.
Yes, this does happen to God’s people and has been going on for centuries. In Smyrna, the organized religious community of Judaizers were also walking hand in hand with the government. They would receive special treatment. However, what was even worse was the Judaizers chose to persecute the church because of its religious beliefs and practices.
This was what Christ labels as blasphemy. This was slandering by the Judaizers towards the church at Smyrna. Slander has as its purpose to destroy someone else. These Judaizers claimed to be the true Jews, but Christ had stated that they are not at all. Even though they had a blood line that goes back to certain individuals giving them the legal Jewish status, that definitely did not qualify them to be a true Jew. How can I say this? Read Galatians 3.16,29 “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” 29 “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” These verses describe the true descendants of Abraham as those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ.
Then Christ describes what they really are in the last part of this verse, a synagogue of Satan. In other words, they are doing the very work of the source of persecution; they are servants of Satan. It has been said that Satan is the author of persecution and wicked men are his instruments. What a commentary upon those who thought they were religious and assumed they had an in with God.
Church, we must beware! The Bible talks of those who will turn to a form of godliness that is not at all godliness. They will gather about them people who will say and do what they want, making them feel comfortable with what they are hearing and doing. They will malign and slander and make derogatory comments that may actually sound as if they are exercising sound judgment and might even contain elements of biblical thought and reasoning. But just like Satan, they take the truth of God and twist it, making it a lie. This can come from those who may portray themselves as Christians, but are not at all followers of Christ.
Church, we are to be faithful to Jesus Christ and His calling, even when persecuted by the religious.

Be Faithful When Persecuted By the Political

Revelation 2:10 (NASB95)
‘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.
There are those who deny that this verse has anything to do with the political arena; however, I would disagree. You see, the only people capable of putting others in jail are those in political authority, by manner of legislating certain laws and carrying them out. The only other viable alternative is to be in a police state where the military becomes the law. Either way, it is political.
Here, we read of Christ encouraging the church at Smyrna to not be fearful about the suffering that is ahead of them. We wonder, what fearful things might the church at Smyrna suffer? First of all, through Satan’s manipulation, some are about to be thrown into prison. Secondly, there is the promise of a period of ten days of persecution. Finally, there is most likely going to come death.
I’m going to take a moment to talk about something that we don’t care to recognize. Throughout the Bible, we find ourselves a bit frustrated that there is a certain promise that is not to be found. Amidst all of God’s wonderful promises, nowhere do we find a promise that we will always be removed from terrible situations. However, just like the church at Smyrna, we can rejoice that we have the presence of God during those difficult times.
But that still leads us to the unanswerable question. Why do Christians suffer? Why did they then and why do we today? Actually, the Bible does give us some hints. According to Hebrews 12.6 “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives.” So, it may be due to sin. It doesn’t have to be our own sin, though. We only need look at the news or walk around awhile in this world and see that sin is everywhere. Our senses are constantly splattered with the meaningless shedding of blood from murders. Our minds are barraged from hearing about disease and death caused by sinful lifestyles. Innocent individuals, even those belonging to Jesus Christ, suffer.
Some suffering may be a result of God’s sovereign purposes of bringing glory to Himself. Most all of us can think about the senseless suffering which Job experienced.
Some suffering may be a direct attack from Satan or his demons, as Paul experienced with his thorn in the flesh.
It’s interesting to note that their suffering was for a relatively short time—ten days. This may have been to show where their true loyalty was. The harsh reality for some was that this ten days, whether actual or simply a short time period, would probably end in execution. That is usually how the first century Roman world functioned.
Something else which we should notice is that this church has no criticism leveled against it by Christ. Being fearful is not a negative thing, nor a critique, but rather a recognition of what those believers probably experienced because of their hostile environment.

Follow-up

Revelation 2:11 (NASB95)
‘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.’
Here, in verse 11, as this letter comes to a close, we find the information necessary to lay ourselves in the hands of Christ. We read about the one who overcomes not being hurt by the second death. Let’s jump ahead to Revelation 20.11-15 “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” The second death is that eternal separation from God and being consigned to the lake of fire for eternity.
So, to the church in Smyrna, and to the many local churches throughout the world today, we can and should rejoice. In the midst of today’s suffering, as well as what may be ahead for us, we also must recognize the bright and glorious future that awaits us.
To the church at Smyrna, death was a very real possibility; in fact, a probability. But just like the early church, we should not focus on physical death. There should rather be a fear of God’s eternal judgment of the second death, to those who do not believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. We need to do all we can to proclaim Jesus to a world in rebellion against Him. We must be faithful amidst persecution, whatever form it may take.
In the movie, Apollo 13, there is a scene from day six of that mission being plagued by multiple problems. The astronauts needed to make a critical course correction. If they failed, they might never return to earth.
To conserve power, the onboard computer that steered the shuttle had been shut down. Yet, the astronauts needed to conduct a 39-second burn of the main engines. But—how to steer?
Astronaut Jim Lovell determined that if they could keep a fixed point in space in view through their tiny window, they could steer the craft manually. That focal point turned out to be their destination—earth.
Lovell focused on keeping the earth in view, as those of us who saw the movie watched, holding our breath. By not losing sight of that reference point, the three astronauts avoided disaster.
Remember Hebrews 12.2 “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
When going through persecution , the only way to be faithful is to fix your eyes on that one fixed point, who never changes; Jesus.
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