How My Church Should Look??? (2)
From the seven Churches in Revelation
A couple weeks ago, we started a new sermon series titled “How My Church Should Look,” a study of seven letters dictated to seven ancient churches by our Lord Jesus Christ to his apostle John and preserved for us in the book of Revelation. Last week we looked at the first of these seven letters, to the church in Ephesus; and we asked the questions is my church a persevering church, is it a discerning church, and is it a loving church.
Today we continue with the next letter addressed to the church in Smyrna, one of the principal cities of Asia Minor in the days of imperial Rome, and two things to point out: first, it is only one of two churches to which Christ speaks no criticism and issues no call of repentance. Second, it is a persecuted church.
Of course, persecution is not confined to the annals of ancient history, it is not something that stopped as civilization emerged from the dark ages and progressed into an era of scientific discovery and enlightenment: it continues to this day. As we look at this first century persecuted church, I want us to remember the twenty-first century persecuted church. So look at your insert.
If you ever visit the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., you will receive a card with information about an actual person who experienced the Holocaust. The idea is for you to identify with that person - throughout your museum visit for you to pretend that you are that person. We’re going to do a similar thing this morning. On your sermon insert, you will see one of three names near the top. Some of you received an insert with the name J. Short, some have the name “Rania,” and some have the name “Sanjeevulu.” Let me briefly share some background about each person, and remember: we’re trying to pretend for the next twenty minutes that you are this person.
You and your spouse have lived in Hong Kong for fifty years. You recently joined a tour group visiting a country known for its repressive regime and human rights violations: North Korea. On one day during your tour, you distribute some gospel tracts translated into Korean. That’s when the trouble starts…
Your Saudi Arabian family has become suspicious ever since finding some Christian articles online you posted and a cross on your computer screen. That’s when problems start…
You are a pastor. One night, while sitting at home with your spouse, there is a knock at the door. When you open it, you see unwanted company: members of a radical Hindu group. That’s when the unwanted company launches their assault.
Alright, now that’s the background. I want to keep you in suspense about what happens to your person until the end of this morning’s message.
Let’s get into this letter and see that Smyrna was already suffering persecution.
Jesus tells the church in Smyrna, “I know your afflictions,” or tribulations per the King James. The Greek word is also translated as persecution and means pressure - this was a church under pressure; and note: they were already suffering persecution in the form of confiscation and slander. First, they were already suffering persecution by having their property confiscated. Jesus says, “I know your afflictions and your poverty…” Why poverty? One reason is found in Hebrews 10:34. “You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property…” Can you imagine having your property confiscated because of your relationship with Jesus Christ? Can you imagine the police knocking down your door, taking away your Bibles and Christian books, your television, radio, cell phone, DVD’s, etc. because you have believed on Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior and are called by his name? That’s what happened to some Christians in Hebrews, and that’s what happened to Christians in Smyrna. But notice: “I know your afflictions and your poverty - yet you are rich;” and in Hebrews, “You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Hebrews 10:34) How were they rich? They had better and lasting possessions; with the Psalmist they could say, “My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:26) No matter what property was confiscated, no man could rob them of God, their personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and his promised presence with them to the end of the age, the indwelling, abiding presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit, the joy of their eternal salvation, their hope of a mansion being built for them in the Father’s house and beatitude in heaven…on and on. They had better and lasting possessions.
The same is true of us. Maybe the government does not confiscate our possessions - maybe they are consumed in a fire or destroyed by a tornado or stolen by thieves: but whether you lose them through theft, repossession, or natural calamity we can still be joyful because nothing and no one can rob us of the better and lasting possessions that are ours in Christ. When the emperor threatened the wealthy bishop John Chrysostom with losing all his possessions, he answered “You cannot take anything. My treasure is in heaven.” He remembered he had better and lasting possessions - and so do we in Christ.
They were persecuted by having their property confiscated. Second, they were already suffering persecution by being slandered. Jesus continues, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”
If you ever read the apologetics of ancient church writers you find some of the slander they had to answer. For example, the 2nd century apologist Tertullian, in a single chapter, had to counter accusations that Christians worshipped the head of a donkey, the cross, and the sun. That’s just a sample of the slander against early Christians. We can guess the Christians in Smyrna were being accused of worshipping a mere mortal and condemned criminal, of being foolish for believing on a false messiah condemned by the Jewish leaders as a blasphemer, etc.
Christians are still slandered today. A 2004 article quotes media consultant and former syndicated columnist for the Boston Herlad, Don Feder, who wrote: “Christians are the only group Hollywood can offend with impunity, the only creed it actually goes out of its way to insult. Clerics, from fundamentalist preachers to Catholic monks, are routinely represented as hypocrites, hucksters, sadists, and lechers. The tenets of Christianity are regularly held up to ridicule.” Think about it: how often is the Bible-believing Christian mocked as an ignorant bumpkin or reviled as a judgmental hypoctrite?
So they were already suffering persecution - confiscation of property and slander. But Jesus tells them that more is on the way. “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…” (Revelation 2:10) Our Lord gave notice to a specific local church here, but he gave notice to the universal church elsewhere, warning his disciples about persecution. Just one passage:
“Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles…Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me…” (Matthew 10:17-18, 21-22a)
We are on notice: the world will hate us and target us for persecution; and we must remember that includes even here in the United States. An article dated September 17, 2012 titled: “Persecution of Christians On Rise - In U.S.” lists several reported instances of persecution: “A federal judge threatened incarceration to a high school valedictorian unless she removed references to Jesus in her graduation speech. A public school official physically lifted an elementary school student from his seat and reprimanded him in front of his classmates for praying over his lunch. (Just two more instances). The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs banned the mention of God from Veteran’s funerals, overriding the wishes of the deceased’s families. A federal judge held that prayers before a state House of Representatives could be to Allah but not to Jesus.” These are all instances from the right here and right now.
I’ve shared this prophetic pronouncement from an American Catholic leader before who stated that he will die in his bed, his successor will die in jail, and his successor will die as a martyr.
Now, we might hear that dire forecast and be afraid; yet notice what our Lord tells the persecuted church of Smyrna: “Do not be afraid.” They were told “Do not be afraid,” and likewise we ought not be afraid; but why not? Four reasons from these verses:
1) The Person Who’s Been Persecuted
Jesus identifies himself in this letter’s address as, “…him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” (Revelation 2:8) It’s always comforting to hear from someone who knows what you’re going through. Such a person is Jesus to those who suffer persecution. Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20) Some are slandered: Jesus was accused of being a demon-possessed Samaritan and a blasphemer. Some are put to death as martyrs: Jesus here reminds his audience that he was put to death. He’s telling his disciples in Smyrna - look, you’re being persecuted, and I know how you feel, I know what it’s like because I’ve been there.
b. The Purpose of Persecution - Jesus says, ”I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you...” How often does the devil try to destroy the people of God with tribulation, while God uses tribulation to try his people? Jesus says you will be tried; and remember what we read elsewhere of trials?
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverence must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
I was reading about the 9 week basic training for army recruits and one man described it this way: “Want to know what it‘s like to be in the Army. Try standing in one place, ramrod straight and perfectly still. If a mosquito bites you, don’t slap it. If sweat rolls into your eye, don’t wipe it away. And if you scratch your thigh, do 20 push-ups and jump back into position.” Those who have been through boot camp can tell you about the running, forced marches, getting yelled at, crawling through mud - but all this hardship teaches perseverance and perseverance makes you a more prepared, more mature, better soldier. For Christians, trials of any kind teach perseverance and perseverance makes us more mature and complete Christians.
c. The Period of Persecution - “...and you will have tribulation ten days.” Jesus is not saying that there will only be ten literal days of persecution; rather, that this period of persecution is not interminable; it is limited; and against the backdrop of eternity, what are ten days?
d. The Prize of Persecution - “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
There is more than one word for crown in Greek. The word used here is the word stephanos, the word for the wreath worn by victors in atheltic competitions. Jesus says, “If you remain faithful even to death, you will receive the prize due those who overcome and finish the race - the crown, the victor’s prize. And this crown, this victor’s prize is worth even the worst persecution: it’s the crown of life - eternal life.
As we conclude, let’s go through what happened to your person.
John Short was arrested by police and detained for two weeks before being released.
“Rania” was insulted by her brother before being murdered by her father for her conversion. He first cut off her tongue and then burned her to death.
Sanjeevulu was hit over the head and stabbed. Neighbors and church members rushed both him and his wife to the hospital. While there, his heart stopped beating but he briefly revived after other pastors and church leaders prayed over his body. While his wife survived the attack, he died from his injuries after saying “God forgive those people who did this to me.”
These are just a few of our brethren - and Christians worldwide are being persecuted. Let us remember to pray for our persecuted brethren.
One last thing: we said persecution is pressure. I would ask if we are a church under pressure - but we already know that answer: yes. Some of us may be under pressure in ways similar to the Christians in Smyrna - we might be experiencing slander from former friends or estranged relatives or co-workers because we no longer are living according to the world’s priorities - they laugh at us and insult us because of our Christian faith and practice. Some of us may be under pressure in other ways - remember Satan put Job under pressure, not in the guise of jail or martyrdom but the pressure of the loss of possessions and the loss of children and the loss of physical health - and maybe there is someone here today under pressure from a chronic or degenerative or terminal illness, or maybe you’re under financial pressure with credit collectors calling your phone and bills piling up. Maybe you’re under pressure from your peers or pressure at work or whatever.
What can we do? One suggestion: we pray for each other. Many already pray - but let us all pray and keep praying for each other. If you look in the pew you’ll notice an index card. If you are under pressure, please write down your pressure and give the card to me or Frank and we will share this information with just each other if you want - it’ll be confidential. And we will pray for you. Just give it to me or Pastor Frank. But you can also share it with others in this church through the prayer chain or Bible study or what have you. We are all members of one family, we are all brethren, and we need to pray for one another in all the pressures we face day by day. The apostle Paul wrote, “And pray in the Spirit on all occassions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” (Ephesians 6:19) With that said