Church in Smyrna
Let’s turn to Revelation 2 if you’re not there. If you need an outline, raise your hand. Revelation 2. We’re going to be focusing in on verses 8 -11. This is the second letter of seven letters to the churches.
And the point, the big idea of this passage is this: Jesus prepares his church for suffering. Jesus prepares his church for suffering. Picture Jesus like a coach that knows the big game is coming, and he is training us. This is not an elite training. This isn’t just training for special Christians who want to be on the travel team. No, this is for all his followers. All Christians. This is basic 101 Discipleship. “In this world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said. All Christians sooner or later, in other countries and in America will experience tribulation. And the reason we must prepare is because there’s something about suffering that makes us feel nameless, aimless, lifeless.
Let’s look at those one at a time. First of all, suffering can make us feel nameless, meaning anonymous, forgotten, unknown, unloved. There’s something about the coldness of pain that triggers a response in us that feels so isolating that everything within us is screaming, “God has forgotten me. I am unloved. There is something wrong with me. I’ve been set aside. I’ve been rejected. I’m not loved.” It makes us feel nameless.
Secondly, aimless. Pain feels random, arbitrary, even pointless or haphazard, chaotic. The reason is typically because suffering doesn’t come with a purpose statement, and this is a planner’s nightmare. There’s no itinerary, timetable, schedule. So it can feel like we’re driving in the dark without headlights, and it can cause us to question everything. Suffering can make us feel aimless.
And then it leads thirdly, to make us feel lifeless. Suffering can make us feel lifeless, especially when it comes in waves. Suffering typically carpools. It doesn’t just come alone. Often you get hit with a wave, and you feel like you’re drowning, and just when you come back up, another wave, and often another wave. And you can feel like a bobber in the water lifeless, just trying to stay afloat.
Suffering can be stifling, suffocatingly hard. It can take our breath away and, in the end, make us feel subhuman. And for these reasons and many more, Jesus is committed to prepare us – and we need to let that sink in – Jesus is committed to prepare us to suffer.
This is not the message you’re going to hear, even in most evangelical churches. The message is often, Jesus is committed to alleviate your suffering. Jesus is committed to prevent all suffering. If you’re loved by him, you will always experience positive things, fun things, enjoyable things, comfortable things. But it is impossible to come to that conclusion and read this letter from Jesus. You can’t.
But I find it hugely encouraging that Jesus isn’t just sending us toward difficult things, but he is revealing himself to John in order to write this letter to a suffering church in Smyrna. And as we’ve seen, there are seven of these, seven literal churches, which were real churches in real difficulty. But that seven idea carries that idea of completion, which communicates well beyond those seven churches to us today.
Notice where Jesus begins. Before he does any training, he gives some of his qualifications, and you’ll notice this at the beginning of every letter. Jesus begins by describing something about himself directly taken from the vision in chapter 1. We saw in chapter 1, you cannot understand the book of Revelation without seeing Jesus. It is a revelation of Jesus Christ. And so we see at the beginning of this training verse 8, “The angel to the church in Smyrna write.” And here it is, “the words of the first and the last.”
This is Jesus saying, describing himself. “These are the words of the First and the Last.” I love words, love to learn, love to read, but what Jesus is saying is, “Yeah, you’re going to hear in your lifetime a lot of words from a lot of voices from within, from around you. But these are the words of the First and the Last.” These are the words of the One who spoke creation into existence, breathed out life, and all there is. These are the words of the One who, when he took on flesh and came to his own, his own did not receive him, rejected him. He suffered. He died.
So the very One who spoke creation into existence was rejected by creation, but the words that were hurled on the Word did not stick as he was dying on the cross, and that’s what he means by “the First and the Last.” He always has the final word. He is the Word!
So you’re going to hear a lot of voices. You’re going to hear a lot of words, but there is One who is the first and the final Word. And he is meeting with us, and he is training us and speaking to us. We want to hear your word. We want to listen to your voice, cast aside other words, other voices, other names that try to define us.
Look at the end of verse 8, “Who died and came to life.” How does someone who is eternal die?
As a man, Jesus really lived and really died. As God though, as Hebrews, I love the way Hebrews 7:16 puts it. “He became a priest.” And then it refers to his death, but then his resurrection, “by the power of an indestructible life.” So yes, as the God/Man, he did die. But the power of his indestructible life caused his life to have the final word. He rose from the dead. This is the One who is teaching us to suffer, the One who has been there and done that. He knows what it’s like to have lies hurled at him. “If you’re the Son of God, come down,” who knows what it’s like to be misunderstood and misrepresented and mistreated. He is come to us and is saying, “I have a word for you.”
You say, “Well, what does that have to do with me and my suffering?”
Think of the fact, like Colossians 3, that our lives, if you’re in Christ, your life is hidden in the life which is indestructible, inextinguishable, cannot be snuffed out. The power of his indestructible life flows in us. This is the One who is preparing us to suffer. So in contrast to the way that suffering tends to make us feel nameless, aimless, lifeless, look at what Jesus says of our suffering.
First of all verse 9, he knows us. He knows us. “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but they are a synagogue of Satan.” “I know your tribulation.” That word tribulation is a very general word for suffering or affliction. And it’s important.
I want to plead with some of you who might be going through hard things, and you watch a story like Hea Woo’s story, and you say, “Well, I’ve never suffered like that so, therefore, I don’t know what suffering is.” No, don’t try to grade suffering. It doesn’t help anyone.
Jesus is saying in a very general way, “I know your tribulation. I know your poverty.” The city of Smyrna was especially patriotic and committed to the imperial cult. A refusal to worship the emperor in Smyrna meant exclusion from social and political life. This exclusion could have resulted in missed promotions, joblessness, property confiscation that led many of the Christians in Smyrna to poverty. Jesus is saying, “I know your tribulation. I know your poverty, and I know your slander.”
The kind of slander he’s referring to here is very specific, verse 9, “of those who say they are Jews and are not.” Paul, the Apostle Paul in Romans 2 and Romans 9 emphasized the fact (remember Paul was a Jew), he emphasized the fact that you can be a Jew outwardly but not inwardly, physically but not spiritually. And here he called these so-called Jews “a synagogue of Satan.” Very strong words. But what he’s referring to is, when you reject your own Messiah, you are linking yourself, aligning yourself with Satan, who rejects Jesus.
So why was the Jewish opposition so significant at this time? Well at various times throughout the Roman Empire, the Jews worked out a deal with the Romans. It was kind of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, where if the Romans would let the Jews worship God alone in their synagogues, the Jews would agree not to create disturbances. And they created this stability within, between each other. Well the Christians in the 1st century came along, and from a Roman perspective, they were just eccentric Jews. Romans viewed, because most of the early Christians were Jewish, Romans viewed the Christians as under this umbrella of Jewish exception. You can worship in your synagogues as long as you don’t create any disturbance of the peace.
But what happened even very early, if you look at Acts 13, you look at Acts 24, you will see Jewish leaders, (this is what this word slander means) stirring up the Roman opposition against Christians by essentially saying, “Those Christians are not with us. They refuse to worship Caesar, they should not fall under the umbrella that we enjoy (protection from Roman persecution), they are creating a disturbance of the peace… Get ’em!” And that led to some Christian leaders, like Tertullian in his Scorpiace, chapter 10, describes synagogues as “fountains of persecution.”
It was so intense. Now tragically, now that we look back on church history as a whole, eventually when Christians gained political power, they returned the favor to Jews, and church history is littered with examples of anti-Semitism. That is insane from a Christian perspective. How can Christians be anti-Semitic when their Savior was Jewish? How can Christians be anti-Semitic when all the disciples were Jews, all the apostles were Jews, and the early Christians were Jewish. The roots of everything we believe. We are children of Abraham when you believe in Jesus. You can’t be anti-Semitic and follow Jesus.
However at this time, the persecution was intense from Jews toward Christians, using the Roman Empire to accomplish this end. And Jesus is saying, “I see it. I know, I know your tribulation. I know your poverty. I know the slander that you’re enduring. I have experienced that as well.” So he is moving toward his church. But notice the little parentheses that I skipped in verse 9, “but you are rich.” Don’t just miss that. Earl’s going to kill me for doing this. Sorry, Earl.
A couple weeks ago, eating lunch with Earl Maloney here in our church. And I asked him a question because Earl works miracles with cars. (Don’t ask him to fix your car.) And I said, “What is it like when a tow truck pulls a smashed car in? And I mean this thing is just mangled, and then you go to work to dismantle this thing, repair this thing, put it back together. And then when it’s done, it’s like a brand-new vehicle. I can’t do that. I don’t have the patience or ability to do that.
I said, “What does that feel like? That must be amazing.” And he pulled out his phone, showed some examples. It’s just stunning to see a car just smashed and then turn out like brand new! And he said this. He said, “You know, when I see that smashed car, I don’t see the smashed one, I see the finished one.” And as he’s describing this, I’m thinking that comes right from Jesus! That ability to see like an artist who can see what the paint is going to look like before it’s even done, when it looks all messy. Like anybody who creates things, that comes from our Creator God.
And that’s the way Jesus sees us in the middle of our tribulation, in the middle of our poverty, in the middle of people slandering. When people are claiming we are nameless and forgotten and unloved and poor, Jesus just slides that in there, “Hey, by the way, you’re filthy rich. If you could see yourself through my eyes, the things I have in store for you, the things I’m providing for you. If you could somehow, and this is the point of Revelation, if you could somehow come up where I am and get out of the fog of war, see you the way I see you, see what I have in store for you. You are not nameless! You are not forgotten!” I prayed with somebody this morning with Isaiah 43. Listen to this,
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
So here he is not promising a cushy life. He is not promising that you won’t go through hard things, but he is saying that when every voice around you and within you is screaming that you are forgotten, that you are unloved, that your situation is hopeless, that’s not how Jesus sees it at all. “I know you, and I will not forget you.” Jesus knows us.
Number 2, Jesus tests us. He tests us. Look at verse 10.
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested.”
Question: are trials from God or the devil? Don’t you love those questions? Yeah. Many people say today, “Well, trials have to come. These bad things have to come from the devil because the God I worship would never let a bad thing happen to a good person.”Well, that is true. The Bible also says,
“There’s none good. No, not one.”
Skip that verse. The Bible looks at these things in a more sophisticated way than we do.
The same trial that the devil can mean for bad, for evil, God can mean for good. And typically, trials don’t have name tags. God doesn’t say, “Hey, this one for me. This one…” No, Jesus is saying here, he throws it on the fact that the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. So this is the Lord of the universe saying this. So ultimately, as we see in the book of Job, God is in control of this trial whatever means he allows or uses. And like a marathon, the same marathon that can kill the untrained runner can actually empower the trained one.
Verse 10, “For ten days you will have tribulation.” It’s uncertain exactly what he’s referring to with “the ten days.” I believe he’s talking about Daniel 1:12-15. Daniel and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego undergo, specifically calls it a test for ten days. They were commanded to eat at the king’s table, which in that day when you ate at the table of the monarch, it meant you were completely loyal, fully loyal, absolute loyalty to that monarch.
And there seems to be a parallel here in Smyrna. Christians in Smyrna refused to eat the festival meals held in honor of the guardian gods of the city. Remember, many of those cities had guardian gods. They believed you worshipped these gods. You keep them happy, and they will create this shield around your city. They’ll protect, and they’ll bless, and they’ll do all this stuff.
So for a Christian, if you’re holding a meal in honor of the guardian gods, you can’t participate because you know who ultimately gives and protects. And the Christians at Smyrna were faithful not to participate in a similar way as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were faithful. But the idea, it is very interesting the way he says, “ten days.” It could be ten literal days, or he could be communicating that the trial you are about to experience, the test, it has a time limit. It’s going to feel endless.
You’re going to be tempted to feel, as we saw at the beginning, aimless, like this is random. Jesus says, “No. This test is for ten days,” communicating the fact that, “I’ve got this under control. It has a time limit. It is not endless. It is not aimless. There is a real purpose to this time of testing.” Jesus knows us. He tests us.
And then number 3, Jesus gives life to us, gives life to us. Second part of verse 10,
“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
“I will give you a crown which is life!” Life as a crown! Endless royalty as sons and daughters of the King. Verse 11,
“He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”
There are two kinds of death. The first can be induced by cancer, car wrecks, and kings. That death is physical and temporary. The second death can only come from God. The devil does have the power to steal and to kill, but his leash is not long enough to extend beyond the grave. And that is why Jesus said in Matthew 10:28,
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Jesus assured Martha,
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live.”Though he dies the first death, yet shall he live on forever. [No second death!] And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Do you believe this? Whether you believe that or not will change the way you view suffering. So will we be discipled by Jesus, trained by Jesus in suffering? When we suffer and we are tempted to believe that we are nameless, aimless, and lifeless, Jesus moves near to assure us, “No. I know you. I am testing you.” Not the negative way, in other words, wanting us to fail but wanting us to flourish. “And I give life.” So let’s tie these things up and find some practical ways to move forward in training.
First of all, training for suffering is a call to solidarity, a call to unity. Will we remember our brothers and sisters around the world?
“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
In 1 Peter 5:9 Peter said,
“Resist him [Satan], firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.”
Brothers and sisters, when we suffer, it is not as though we’re rejected. It is a sign that we’re on the team. Suffering is a team uniform as our Savior suffered, as our brothers and sisters around the world suffer. When we move toward need and pay a price for that, not that we’re seeking suffering at all. But when we do suffer, it is not a sign of rejection. It is a sign of solidarity. We are in this with our brothers and sisters around the world. They know what it means to suffer. We as Americans struggle with that. Somehow, we think we’re different from all other Christians.
Number 2, training for suffering is a reminder for all of us to be prepared. It’s a reminder to be prepared. 1 Peter 4:12,
“Beloved, [loved ones] do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
We need that, don’t we? We need that reminder. American Christianity can easily become soft and spoil. And that is way more dangerous than any suffering we experience. So this may be a big takeaway we can all walk away with today as far as how to train for suffering. Memorize promises of God when you don’t think you need them. Right?
Some of you say, “I’m in a fairly stable time right now. I don’t even know what you’re talking about all this nameless, aimless stuff.” Well, then right now would be a really good time for you to plunge into the Word and lock in on some of these promises and say them over and over and over again every day saying, “God, if you take me into a different season, I’m not going to be fatalistic. I’m not going to live in fear. But if you lead me into a different season of life, I want to be prepared.” Because the time to prepare for the big game is not when the big game is happening. You want to train before the big game. You want to train when you can get on the practice field, and meditate on the promises of God, and get them in your heart and head, and prepare.
Christians don’t purposely move towards suffering, but whenever you move toward need, there will be suffering. You can’t help anybody. You can’t even love anyone without, at some point, paying a price for that. And the only other option is to try to seal yourself up as C.S. Lewis talks about, and then it’s like entombing yourself. Talk about suffocating. So it’s a reminder to be prepared.
Thirdly, training for suffering is a chance to grow in steadfastness. To grow in steadfastness, to build spiritual muscle. James 1:2,
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.”
Now stop and think about that. I know some of our trials seem so silly compared to what our brothers and sisters face. Some are very, very serious. But I’m saying, there are times when we look at our trials and say, “I don’t even know if I can categorize that as a trial without being a wimp.” But don’t do that. What James is saying, “Count it all joy when you meet various trials.” Because, for some of us, if we try to think, “How am I going to do in the big life-and-death trial?”
No. Don’t worry about that. Work out with the little trial. Count the little trial. You don’t start with the big weights. Start with the little ones and build up.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Now I have complained to God about this, but the fact is there is a kind of spiritual steadfastness and strength that will not come apart from suffering. I hate that. I wish we could take a pill or read a book. How to be Super Spiritually Strong While Sitting on Your Couch. That would be awesome. It reminds me of some of those workout things where you’re just kind of moving around on your couch like abs of steel! What are those? Three easy payments. No. No. That is a joke physically, and it’s a joke spiritually.
Notice the joy though in James 1:2 is not in the trial. It’s not like “Yippee! I got bad news from the doctor.” No, if that’s your attitude, you need help.
The joy isn’t in the trial. The joy is in what God is going to do in us through the trial. It’s the fruit that he bears. The spiritual muscle he produces. The glory he brings to his name. The opportunities that flow to love people through the tears, through the struggle.
And finally, training for suffering is an opportunity to confess Christ. Matthew 10:32,
“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, and whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
It is not an accident that Smyrna received no rebuke. Did you notice in this section of this letter? No call to repentance. Suffering forces us to choose and sifts out fake Christians. It is easy to compromise, as we’re going to see from some of the other letters, in order to prevent suffering. Just say you agree. What is the big deal?
This really hit me a few years ago. There was a terrorist attack. Someone I love greatly, I’m on the phone with. You could hear the gunfire. This is in another country, a Muslim country. And right down the street terrorists had taken over this one restaurant and were holding guns to people’s heads and demanding that they say what they believe, like whether they were a Muslim or Christian.
Twenty-five people were killed. You’re not going to see this on the news but knowing someone who knows some of the people who were in there. Some of the people who survived that attack were not Muslims but were able very easily to say that they were. And they knew pieces of the Koran enough to quote and get away alive.
And it really made me think about what it means to follow Jesus because there are religions that allow you a lot of flexibility in a moment like that. If you believe in a secular religion, like atheism or agnosticism, and somebody holds a gun to your head, save your life, dude! Say you’re a Muslim! What does it matter? Quote the Koran and even some other religions like Buddhism. There were some who were Buddhists who were able to survive the attack.
Here’s the problem with being Christian. You can’t do that! Either Jesus is the way or he’s not. Either he is the truth or he’s not. He gave us no wiggle room. Either he is Lord, or he is a liar or a lunatic! But you can’t say both. And there are so many religions. Today, you will be indoctrinated if you go to colleges today, secular colleges. “We all believe the same thing, it doesn’t matter, so when somebody puts a gun to your head, whatever! They’re all heading in the same direction.”
Christians can’t do that. And that is why so many are dying every day around the world, and that is why Jesus is preparing us. It’s one of the reasons he wrote this letter. Because believing in Jesus is not believing in jello. It really means something. He is Lord of lords. He is King of kings. And even in the little trials and the big trials, we get to confess. He’s got me. He’s got us today. Some of us have enough belief in the sovereignty of God to blame him for things, but not enough to trust him. And that is a pitiful place to be. Jesus is calling us to press through, to lock in on who he really is.
So, how did the Christians in Smyrna do through this training? We don’t have a record of how they all did, but we have amazingly complete records of one Christian in Smyrna who read this, heard this letter. His name is Polycarp.
Let me show you a timeline so you get a bearing as far as where where he fits. Around A.D. 65, the apostle Peter and Paul were martyred. In 69, Polycarp was born. Around the turn of the century around 100, John died. 115, Polycarp became the bishop of Smyrna. He had been discipled by the Apostle John, the guy who wrote Revelation. And in 155, Polycarp was martyred. To me, it’s very fascinating to think as I was reading some letters that Polycarp wrote, to think of the fact that he was trained how to suffer well by Jesus in this letter to the Christians at Smyrna. Polycarp was in his 80s.
He had pastored for many years in Smyrna when the Roman authorities targeted him. Some of his friends were tipped off and came to him and pleaded with him to make a run for it. He had had a dream the night before. His pillow was in flames in his dream, and he was convinced that he was going to die a martyr that day.
The Roman authorities showed up to his home. They arrested him, and on the way to the Coliseum, some of the guards pleaded with him. You know, they loved to see people mauled in the Coliseum, but not an 80-something-year-old man. And they said, “Just say Caesar is Lord. What does it matter? Just say it and you’re free. You go free.” And this is how he famously responded.
“Eighty-six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
And he held out his hands, and he died a martyr that day.
Father, thank you for the grace you give our brothers and sisters to confess you boldly, no matter what the cost. I acknowledge I feel so weak. We as Americans acknowledge, we have been blessed and at times have grown soft, lethargic, and often have unbiblical views of suffering. So thank you, Jesus, for training us this morning.
Thank you for reminding us when the voice of suffering screams that we are nameless, aimless, or lifeless, you remind us we are known. Yes, we will be tested, but you give life. You grow us through the very means that the enemy wants to use to destroy us. So Lord, we don’t want to be like the seed that fell on rocky soil and sprang up but had no depth of soil, so it withered away.
Lord, we don’t want to endure for a while, but when tribulation or persecution arises, we fall away. Lord, give us a permanent confidence in you that is prepared, so we are prepared to confess you before men and women. Lord, not that we’re going to be unnecessarily offensive. But we must be winsome, we must be courteous, but we must confess you. We must not cave in.
And thank you that you use times like this, under your Word by your Spirit, to speak to us and strengthen us and prepare us. We praise you in Jesus’ name.