When Suffering Strikes (Manuscript)
The following is an unedited manuscript.
There are two universal languages in the world: first, music; second, suffering. We need not understand words to understand either of these languages. Both have ways of communicating far more deeply than verbalization ever could. Both say more, much more, than just the sounds an ear can hear. Back from history, the believers of Smyrna speak to us today. Founded a full millennium before Christ walked the earth, this ancient city has a long, colorful, and suffering past. Within our text this morning, we will look deep into a scene that dates back to the end of the first century, during a time when a pocket of believers in Smyrna endured intense affliction. So intense was their suffering that the Lord personally sent them a letter of encouragement via the pen of John. It was designed to help them (and us) persevere. Follow along as I read these four verses in Revelation, chapter 2, beginning at verse 8. “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, ‘These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: (9) “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (10) Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation 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 shall not be hurt by the second death.”’"
Friends, we learned two weeks ago with the church at Ephesus that the first mark of the New Testament church is love for the Lord Himself. The second mark is seen in the church at Smyrna, and it’s the ability to suffer and endure, which is really a demonstration of how effective and strong our love for the Lord really is. Someone once said that all believers are like spiritual teabags. When we get dunked up and down in hot water, whatever is inside of us comes out. This past week, if things got hot, tense, tight, and hard, what came out of your life? Was it an aroma like Christlike myrrh? Or was it something less than that? Listen, suffering, persecution and martyrdom has indeed been the calling of the Church of the Lord Jesus throughout her entire history. At one time the book Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was a perennial best seller cataloguing the stories of men and women who gave their life for Christ. Today, Voice of the Martyrs magazine updates us on the persecution and sufferings of our brothers and sisters around the world. Open Doors does the same. Time Magazine reported the number of Christian martyrs doubled between 2010 and 2013 (Jan. 8, 2014). Nigeria led the way in 2012. Syria in 2013. Iran, Rwanda, North Korea and the Sudan are not far behind. It is estimated that 100-150 million Christians have been martyred every year in recent decades. Some estimate that 65% of all those martyred have taken place since the dawn of the 20th century (EWTN News, 5-10-02). My friends, the truth of the matter is that more people have died for their faith in Jesus Christ in the 20-21st centuries than all previous years of church history. This does not take into account those imprisoned, tortured, and persecuted.
If the Lord tarries, we here in these United States could see the hammer of persecution begin to pound us with all kinds of persecution and suffering like many believers all over the world today are experiencing.
We need to understand what it is that keeps people faithful unto death. In order to be faithful unto death, the knowledge of Jesus must be greater to us than the reality of death itself.
Four impactful truths about Jesus: Who He is (v.8), What He knows (v.9), What He commands (v.10), and What He promises (v. 11).
- Who He is - v. 8 Jesus tells John to write “to the angel of the church in Smyrna.” Now, before we get into the context of the letter, let me make a few comments about where this church ministered. It was in the city of Smyrna, which today is modern day Izmir, in Western Turkey. It, by the way, is the only one of the seven cities of Revelation 2-3 still in existence today. Smyrna was located about 35-40 miles north of Ephesus and, as you can see in this slide, it would have been the next stop a first century “postman” would make in his rounds to deliver these seven letters. Back then the Romans called Smyrna the “Beauty of Asia,” and referred to it as a city of “life” and “strength,” possibly because it had been destroyed once and then rebuilt by Alexander the Great. Smyrna had a stadium in which famous games were held each year. It had a magnificent library and one of the largest theaters in Asia Minor. Plus, it claimed to be the birthplace of Homer, yes, that Homer who wrote all those books about Greek history. What is important to understand about Smyrna is the fact that it was a city very loyal to Rome. Their reverence for Rome was so strong that in 195 B.C. Smyrna was the first city in the world to erect a temple to the “goddess Roma” a temple for the worship of the spirit of Rome. And then in A.D. 26, when all the cities of Asia Minor were competing for the privilege of erecting a temple to the godhead of the emperor Tiberius, Smyrna won! And with that Smyrna overcame her greatest rival, Ephesus. Now in the beginning, emperor worship was nothing more than a spontaneous demonstration of gratitude (patriotism) to Rome, but toward the end of the first century it all changed under the rule of Domitian, who was Caesar of Rome. Domitian made Caesar worship compulsory. Domitian made emperor worship law all over Europe and if any city was to take this kind of law seriously it would be a city like Smyrna that had such a love affair with the Roman Empire. So, this will be important to understand in our study because once a year, every person had to burn a pinch of incense and say three words, “Caesar is lord” out loud. When they did this, they would receive a certificate, a certificate that was required to get a job and make a living. Domitian was a murderous dictator who launched extensive persecution against the church, which reached some kind of fever pitch in the city of Smyrna for believers were unwilling to make this claim. Can you imagine sitting among the gathering of God’s people in Smyrna on a cold Sunday morning before sunrise? A small, lamp-lit room houses the remnant of beaten and beleaguered church members. In the dim light the pastor unrolls a scroll and begins to read with a calm, quiet confidence. The entire group seems to hold its breath when they hear the message comes from the risen Lord Jesus Himself. What a letter of encouragement this would be then and now, for Jesus tells them (us) who He is.
- First and Last - “These things says the First and the Last.” Jesus repeats this description of Himself from Revelation 1, verse 17, “The First and the Last.” Turn to Isaiah 41 and let me show you just one verse where God calls Himself the First and the Last. Isaiah 41:4 we read, “. . .I, the Lord, am the first; and with the last I am He.” If you’re taking notes Isaiah 43:10, Isaiah 44:6 and 48:12 are all places where God uses this same expression to identify Himself. Here in Revelation that same title is used to designate Jesus Christ. Revelation 22:13, Jesus again says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.” This is to say then that Jesus Christ is none other than God Himself. And yet though they be One He is distinct. Jesus is the infinite God-Man. Do you remember what Thomas said seeing Him resurrected for the first time? “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). Look at what else Jesus says:
- Dead and alive - “Who was dead, and came to life.” What a tremendous and encouraging statement for a group of suffering believers. It’s recorded in John’s gospel that Jesus earlier had said, “Because I live, you will live also” (John 14:19b). There is a song that says Because He lives—I can face tomorrow. There is nothing more powerful for us in a time of suffering than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is greater than death. Let me tell you that by applying to our fears the knowledge that Jesus is greater than death, it will help us to be courageous and persevering. The Lord Jesus is God and He became man, entering into time, space, and history for the very purpose of dying. Friends, that is how much He loved us. That is the heart of the gospel. Jesus died as man for sin and now lives by His resurrection as the glorified God-Man. “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed” (I Peter 2:24).
- What He knows - v. 9 The Greek word for know is eido. It’s the knowledge of experience. Jesus told those of Smyrna that He was no stranger to pain.
- He knows our works - There is never anything that you’ve done for the Lord that He doesn’t know about. But so often you hear folks say how discouraged or burned out that what they do for God seems to go unnoticed. No one seems to thank them and they feel so insignificant. Don’t get discouraged because Jesus knows what you do.
- He knows our tribulation - The word tribulation in Greek is thlipsis which means, “trouble or pressure.” This is a word that was used in the day for a man crushed to death by a huge boulder. Jesus is saying, “I know the crushing pressures in your life.” Without a doubt, the pressure in the church at Smyrna was two-fold: first, was the hatred they endured by the Jews who lived in their city. We will see this a little later. Secondly, the pressure of Caesar worship, which we discussed earlier was extremely difficult. These believers refused to claim “Caesar is lord.” So, they don’t get a job and they are severely persecuted. Friends, don’t miss this very important principle here: the church that suffers persecution becomes purged, becomes pure. Hypocrites don’t stick around to be persecuted. False Christians don’t want the pain. They don’t need it. They’re not willing to make the sacrifice. Persecution, trials, tribulations and suffering will always destroy false faith, but those same things will strengthen true faith. So, we look at this church and we see a model of a suffering church. And they are being commended by Jesus Himself for they have been faithful even unto death. We need to know also that it’s inevitable that there will be some suffering for us. II Timothy 3:12 states, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” I found it interesting to discover the the Greek word “Smyrna” means “myrrh.” Myrrh was a fragrant spice used as perfume. It was obtained when the flowering myrrh tree—or thorn bush—was crushed giving off a fragrant smell. It was used for Jesus’ burial. Jesus knew what it was like to live under the death sentence—for the suffering Savior would die for the sins of the world.
- He knows our poverty - “know your poverty (and then notice this little footnote) (but you are rich). The Greek word ptocheia happens to be the strongest word for poverty and it mean destitute. This was no doubt owing to the fact that their jobs and homes and livelihoods had been taken away. Many of the believers in Smyrna probably endured similar acts to that which the Jews suffered in Nazi Europe. Their homes were vandalized in broad daylight. Their shops were broken into and all the goods stolen. But don’t you just love the phrase Jesus gives, “but you are rich”? Let me try to explain that phrase with this example. Suppose your are a very poor person. Some of you are probably thinking, “This does not require much of an imagination.” I mean, you have nothing in your bank account. You do not have money for gas, food, or utilities, and the bank is going to foreclose on your home. However, suppose I am a millionaire. Now that will require some imagination. I come to you and say, “Listen, Hank—or Laura—I’ve been doing some research on my family tree and you’ll never believe this but your great-great uncle was my great-great-great grandfather’s nephew. We’re actually way distant cousins. And, as is my custom, I give every family member of mine one million dollars. So here’s your check for one million dollars.” I hand you the check and now what do you do? You run to the bank. However, before you get there, let me ask, “Are you poor or rich?” Keep in mind, you have not deposited this money into your account, but you’re going to the bank as fast as you can. You would answer, “I’m rich!” But oh? All you have is a piece of paper in your hand. Ah, but you know the signature is good and that this piece of paper is supported by the wealth of your donor. Friends, you have a check, effectively written with your name on it. And the riches of heaven are your inheritance. You might be poor right now but at the same time you have the riches of God.
- He knows our endurance - “I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” These may have been Jews as far as their racial origin is concerned but spiritually speaking they were not true Jews. Paul brings this to light in Romans 2:28-29, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” These were Jews who had not accepted Christ as Messiah. They produced a false claim and their true identity was given by Jesus, “but are a synagogue of Satan.” One of the most troubling passages of Scripture for Jewish people is right here. To put the word synagogue with Satan is extremely hard to take, but this is what Jesus says. He was saying in a sense, though physically Jewish, they are spiritually pagan. Jesus told the Jewish religious leaders, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do” (John 8:44). This is telling us that if you want to look for the devil, you don’t find him among the alcoholics because his demons can do that work. You won’t find him among the pornographers for the demons can also do that work. You look for the devil in the midst of religious institutions. He loves giving people a false sense of security through his distortion of the gospel. Jesus is saying to this church, you have endured the slander from those who claim to be religious but who use their religiosity to persecute the church. Is this happening today? Religion persecuting true born-again believers? Absolutely! In fact, this past week a sitting president for the first time ever, called on countries in the UN to put a stop to the persecution of Christians.
- What He commands - vv. 10-11
- Call to fearlessness - “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death”
- Prediction of suffering - Jesus doesn’t say, “It will over with soon.” No, He doesn’t say that. He says more is coming. But don’t be afraid. It reminds me of Psalm 56:11, “In God I have put my trust; I will not be afraid.” Friends, be of good cheer for Jesus says, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Does this in some sense apply to us in America today? The answer is unfortunately, yes. Try giving a valedictorian address and mentioning Jesus.
- Person behind suffering - The devil—know your enemy. Paul told the Thessalonians, “But the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one” (II Thessalonians 3:3). Peter warned the believers, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil (adversary means enemy) walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom He may devour” (I Peter 5:8). Make no mistake, Satan is the enemy of the believer.
- Purpose of suffering - Satan is always trying to destroy true faith and it doesn’t matter how hard it gets for you, He can’t destroy true faith. Example: Job, period. He said, “Though He slay me yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15). Sometimes God brings trials and suffering in our lives to strengthen us and to send the signal to the domain of Satan that true believers will persevere. One pastor said to his congregation, “Don’t you understand that when Jesus throws you into the furnace to test you that He always keeps His hand on the thermostat. And the heat and temperature is determined by Him.”
- Period of suffering - Ten days. There are different thoughts on this statement. We’re not sure if it’s a literal 10 days or 10 periods of time. But here’s the point and don’t miss it. The length of time of the persecution is determined by Jesus Christ. And if Jesus Christ says the persecution will be 10 days there is no combination of demons on earth that can make it 11.
- Call to faithfulness
- Through suffering - We will have tribulation. Be prepared for the jarring truth that those who opposed and rejected Christianity in the first century, will be like those who are going to oppose and persecute us. Not only will they say we are wrong, they will say we are bigoted, dangerous and evil. We will be slandered as anti-choice, anti-diversity, anti-gay, anti-inclusive, anti-tolerant. Our response? Don’t be afraid, stay faithful.
- Unto death - “Be faithful unto death.” G. Campbell Morgan, a pastor and author from a century ago, pointed out that this word “faithful” is from the same Greek root which means to be convinced; to be convinced in Jesus’ power and His grace and His will and His plan. In other words, remain convinced even in the face of death that Christ is worth following and faithfully follow Him. To illustrate the hatred that existed in this city we look no further than to the most famous martyr at this time the pastor of the church in Smyrna, Polycarp. He had been a disciple of the apostle John. Polycarp was taken to the arena in front of a frenzied mob and the proconsul gave him the choice of making a sacrifice to Caesar and claiming “Caesar is lord,” or face death. He then made one of the most famous statements in Church history, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” And with that, this man in his 90’s, who had been faithful to serve the Lord, was burned at the stake.
- What He promises - vv. 10c-11 He promises victory!
- A crown of life - James 1:12 says, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation [trials] for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” What’s coming for us is far better than anything experienced in this life
- A consequence of no consequence - No second death. If you have been born twice—physically and spiritually—you die once. But for those only born once physically, the consequence of all consequences for rejecting Christ is the second death. Revelation 20 tells us what it is. Listen, “And they [those who have rejected Christ alone for salvation] were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:13-15).
- My Lord knows all about me and my circumstances
- If things stay the same, stay faithful, there is no reason to
fear or run
- If things get worse, He will see me through
Conclusion: As we close this morning, we need to be reminded of Jesus’ words in John 15:20, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” Dear Friends, eternity is coming and it’s a long, long time. A really long, long time.
Maybe you’ve heard this story that came out of the Boxer Rebellion in China. It was called the Boxer Rebellion because they were trying to rid China in the early 1900’s of Western influence and in that rebellion many, many Christians were martyred. It was one of the darkest moments in Asian history. Or was it? One incident during that terrible time, at least, shined like a beacon. It happened at a little mission school, not long after the Boxers took over Peking which is now called Beijing. They surrounded the little missions college and rounded up every student—Chinese Christians—and they herded them into a room to wait for execution. A few of the boxers broke into the chapel, pulled a large cross off the wall, their commander knew how to use it for his evil purpose. He had the men throw it out into the muddy courtyard where it sank halfway into the mud. There he gathered the horrified students together and told them that they were “free to leave and that they could go back home to their friends and families if they liked.” But he then gave one condition: “On your way out, you will have to step on that cross, trampling it into the mud. If you do, you’re free to go home. If anyone refuses, you will be shot immediately.” For the first eight students, it was an easy enough decision. One by one they stepped out into the courtyard, trampled on the cross, and then walked to their freedom, while the Boxer troops laughed and cheered them on. But things hit a snag with the ninth student who was a tiny nineteen-year-old young lady. She had come to Christ at the mission college and she was in no way going to dishonor her Savior by stepping on that cross. She bowed and prayed for God to give her the grace to do what she knew she should do, and she quickly walked around the cross in honor of her Savior and she was immediately shot. After her decision, she was followed by ninety-two of her classmates who also went to their death by refusing to dishonor the cross of Jesus Christ. Scoffers would ask, “Did she win in this life?” No, at nineteen years of age she was shot and killed. Many would say, “What a waste!” Friends, nothing is ever wasted in God’s economy. Martyrs have always inspired generations of Christians to live courageously for Jesus Christ even when facing death. Because after death all we face then will be our Savior saying, “Well done, [you] good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). One courageous teen in China inspired others. Remember the Columbine shooting? Cassie Bernall who refused to deny Christ was shot and killed and the many she inspired to follow Christ.
Friends, never turn down an opportunity to represent Jesus, no matter the cost, “Be faithful unto death.” Persevere until the end! We are on the winning side!