Revelation 2: 8 - 11
We often face situations in life that buffet our faith in the Lord - our family members or ourselves face injustice - we encounter health problems - our non-believing family members die suddenly - we see Christians whom we know and who love the Lord encounter bad things in their lives or their family members. When we encounter such situations in our life, we often wonder “Does the Lord really love us?” What is the Lord’s attitude towards these situations? What does He feel about such situations?
When we visit orphanages or hospitals for handicapped children, we see many life tragedies, like children who lack mental and emotional abilities because their brains are not developed. We wonder “Why do such things happen?” How does the Lord view such situations? How should we face and react to such kind of situations? The needs of the human heart are the same wherever you go. The problems of life are the same everywhere.
There are times when life goes bad for all of us. The letter from Jesus to the church at Smyrna helps us think biblically about the struggles of life, especially the struggles that come because of our Christian faith. Because of its beauty, Smyrna was known as -
The Ornament of Asia
(MAP) About 60 kms north of Ephesus - a natural harbour - 1st century home to the city of Smyrna. Today Smyrna is called Izmir, a leading city in modern Turkey. (PICTURES) In AD 26 a competition was held - which city would win the right to build a temple for Caesar-worship. Smyrna won that contest and took great pride in its loyalty to Rome. Surrounding the hill that dominated the city - find temples to various pagan deities. A number of Jews migrated to Smyrna and became an important part of the business scene. They bought and sold goods bound for Rome to the west and Persia to the east.
Because of the prevailing paganism and because of the citywide emperor worship, Christians in Smyrna found themselves under unrelenting pressure. The loyal citizens of Smyrna would publicly declare, “Caesar is Lord.” This no faithful Christian could ever do. So the believers in Jesus found themselves unpopular and continually criticised. To live in Smyrna meant you were in a hotbed of Caesar-worship and pagan sacrifice. That put the Christians at a distinct disadvantage.
Smyrna is 1 of only 2 churches in Revelation for which our Lord has no words of rebuke (other is Philadelphia). The silence of our Lord is striking when you consider his harsh words for other nearby churches. It is not because of any false sympathy that keeps Jesus from rebuking them. A deeper reality is at work here.
Their suffering had made them strong. It had stripped them of everything except Jesus himself. Here was a church obviously in trouble. Their enemies clearly had the upper hand. What do we know about Jesus from his message to the suffering saints of Smyrna? Through these brief words, we will find much to encourage us in our own struggles.
1. Jesus Knows Your Trouble v. 9a
“Afflictions” does not describe the ordinary troubles of life - refers to catastrophic pressure - used of a man being crushed by a massive boulder. When the sky falls in around us, when all hope is lost, when darkness surrounds us and the enemy closes in, Jesus says, “I know your afflictions.” I think of the suffering believers today living in Muslim lands or those brave Christians facing attacks from angry Hindu mobs in India or the saints in Nigeria who are hacked to death by fanatical Muslims. These things happen every day around the world. It has been so since the beginning and it still true today.
2. Jesus Knows Your Poverty v. 9b
Christians in Smyrna evidently came from the lower rungs on the economic ladder. If they once had been rich in worldly goods, those days were long past. No doubt many had lost their jobs in the trade unions because they would not say, “Caesar is Lord." To these poverty-stricken Christians, Christ says, “But you are rich!”
Is he mocking them? It all depends on how we value time versus eternity. If this life is all that matters, then the words of Jesus are nothing more than pious nonsense. What good is it to say, “You are rich!” to those who are starving? It all depends.
No man who knows Jesus is ever truly poor. No man without Jesus is ever truly rich.
Steve Jobs - left behind a multi-billion dollar fortune. He left it all behind. Whatever has happened to him and wherever he is, it has nothing to do with his great wealth while he was on the earth. If he thought he would disappear into nothingness, he was wrong. If he thought he could achieve Nirvana, he was wrong. If he thought his life on earth was the only life there is, he was wrong. His earthly wealth can protect him no more.
So it is for all the rich of this world. How foolish we are to think that the little bit that we amass in this life matters in eternity. Will the God who made the stars be impressed by a yacht? Will he be blown away by a mansion - or 2, or 3? Will he be impressed by a fleet of BMWs? He laughs at the puny pretensions of the high and mighty.
Jesus knows your poverty - and he knows your riches too. He sees your faith lived out in hard times. He notes the prayers you pray through your tears. He hears your desperate cries for help. Strangely those hated Christians in Smyrna were the richest people in town.
You’ll never know if Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have. When Jesus is all you have, then you will discover that Jesus is all you need.
Because the Christians at Smyrna were so poor, they learned early on that Jesus really is all you need. That’s why Jesus says, “But you are rich!” No man is poor who has learned to depend on Christ alone.
3. Jesus Knows Your Enemies v. 9c
Who are these people who are called a “synagogue of Satan?” This fearful description applies to those Jews in Smyrna who had joined forces with the pagans to accuse the Christians of treason against Rome. In taking sides against the church of Jesus, they were in effect taking sides against the Lord himself.
God does not take lightly those who attack his children. Because Christians did not worship idols but instead worshiped God who is invisible, they were sometimes considered atheists. Their opponents heard rumours about eating and drinking the body and blood of the Lord in the Lord’s Supper and called them cannibals. Because Christians were despised and marginalised, they seemed like a virus that needed to be removed from Smyrna.
Religion itself remains the greatest obstacle to the spread of the gospel. Religion blinds a man to his need of God because it leads him to think that he can contribute something to his own salvation. Millions of people have a religion based on superstition. They put their trust in some outward factor as their hope for heaven. Such people will someday be sadly disappointed. Others trust in inherited religion: “Daddy was a deacon. Mommy was a Sunday School teacher.” They act as if salvation is inherited like you inherit the colour of your eyes. It doesn’t work that way. No one else can believe for you. You have to believe for yourself if you want to go to heaven.
Never be surprised when religious people hate you. They hated Jesus too. Then they crucified him.
4. Jesus says, “Do not Fear.” v. 10a
Our Lord has perfect knowledge of all that is about to happen to us. What surprises us does not surprise him. Our Lord sometimes allows the devil to attack us severely. How exactly did the devil put some of the believers in jail? No doubt he stirred up the Jews to collaborate with the pagans to incite animosity so that the Christians ended up in jail, having no way to refute the false accusations made against them.
Our sufferings are limited by the Lord. Jesus tells the church that the severe persecution will last for “10 days.” We may think, “That doesn’t sound so bad.” Let’s see how we feel after being fired from our job, beaten senseless, our house plundered, our wife abused and our children physically attacked. Will it seem so small then?
I cannot explain why some people seem to suffer much more than others. While it is true that “into each life some rain must fall,” some folks seem to have a perpetual monsoon pouring down upon them. After thinking about this for many years, I have concluded that all our speculations are just that—idle speculations that do not help us much at all.
Let us rest our soul in this. The God who made us knows our limits, and though we are sorely tried, He knows what we can endure and will not ever give us more than we can bear. If Jesus says you will suffer for 10 days, no force on earth can make it last 11 days! It won’t end early, but it won’t go long either. The time limit on our trials has been determined by the Lord. That is why he says, “Fear not.” The Lord knows what he is doing, and he is doing it. He will accomplish his purpose concerning us.
5. Jesus says, “Be Faithful.” v. 10b, 11
There is one important fact we must not miss. Jesus never promises to remove the trials of life. He never says to the church at Smyrna, “Just believe in me and everything will get better.” The Prosperity Gospel has infected the church around the world and created a generation of Christians who are materialistic, worldly, and spiritually anaemic. Because they have no theology of suffering, they are not ready when suffering comes.
Jesus never says, “Believe in me and I’ll give you an easy life.” He says, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” No doubt many of the believers in Smyrna paid the ultimate price for their faith. Having followed Jesus in life, they now follow him in death.
Now we see the importance of Christ’s title v. 8 - “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” These are the extremes. The First and the Last. Death and Life. Jesus is Lord of the extremes. He is there at the beginning, and he is there at the end. Because he conquered death, death itself cannot conquer us.
Polycarp - one of the first well-known martyrs of the Christian faith. For many years he served as Bishop of the church in Smyrna. During a wave of persecution in AD 155, when a mob demanded his death, Roman officials tried to save his life by offering him repeated chances to deny his faith in Christ. He refused each time. When given one final chance to save his own life, he replied in words that echo across the centuries: “For 86 years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
As the soldiers prepared to nail him to the stake, he refused, saying, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” The fire was lit and Polycarp burned to death. As the flames consumed him, he was heard to pray, “I thank you, O Lord, that you have deemed me worthy this day and this hour to take up the cross of Christ with many witnesses.”
“Where do you get men like this?” God has his Polycarps all over the world today. They are the brave men and women who will not bow the knee to Baal, who will not swear allegiance to Caesar, who will not give up their Christian faith and who will not return to Islam. They would rather die than surrender what Jesus has given them.
We will all die someday. The question is - Will we be faithful no matter what? The call from Jesus remains the same. Fear not! Be faithful! Heaven is waiting for us. Death may come but it cannot take from us what God has given us. The world gives fame, and the world takes it away. So be it. We are rich today and poor tomorrow. We have a job and then we don’t. We are healthy and then cancer strikes. We have a happy family and then it seems to fall apart. Our friends say they love us and then they disappear.
Heaven is just around the corner. To those who stand strong in the midst of trials, the best is yet to come. We will receive the “crown of life” and reign with Jesus forever. Be encouraged, child of God. Buckle up and stay in the game. Don’t run from the troubles of life. You are richer than you think. And heaven is just around the corner. Amen.