Good morning, my name is Victor Labrada, let me also welcome you here this morning.
Last week Pastor Kent began a 7 week series Letters From Heaven, the letters to the seven churches in revelation chapters 2 and 3. All 7 churches were in the Roman Province of Asia, which corresponds to the western part of modern day Turkey. All of the cities referred to, no longer exist– except the one referred to today. I’ll ask Will Sherman to read our Scripture passage for us this morning.
8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.9 “‘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 are a synagogue of Satan. 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, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto 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. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’
This is the word of the Lord. Let’s pray— Father bless my preparation, bless those who are persecuted for your names sake.
Of all seven letters to the seven churches, only two contain no criticism, the one to Smyrna and the one to Philadelphia. Yet I get the feeling this is not a letter that the Smyrnans were eager to receive:
We got a letter from King Jesus! He says he knows our tribulation and our poverty, and he says we’re rich, surely spiritually rich. And he knows how we’ve been slandered, and he says not to fear. Yeah that’s it more or less.
He says some of us are going to be thrown into prison, ten days, and we might die, but to remain faithful until death..
Ten days? Ten years? Ten emperors? Is it a reference to the old testament. That is unclear, but the church in Smyrna is told a few things clearly: Jesus presence in persecution, Jesus purpose in persecution, and maintaining perseverance through persecution. Presence, purpose, perseverance.
In verse nine, Jesus says this to his church in Smyrna-
9 “‘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 are a synagogue of Satan.
How does Jesus even know that? I thought he left. When Jesus ascended he went farther away physically, but much closer spiritually, because of our union with him through the Holy Spirit.
Three ways the Bible tells us this—
- At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, what does Jesus tell his disciples? He tells them to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And to teach them to observe everything he has commanded. But there’s something after that. He says— Behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.
- When Stephen, the first martyr, in Acts 7, was being stoned to death, Stephen looks up and sees Jesus standing, not sitting on his throne but standing. Deeply interested in what was happening.
- Later on in Acts, remember before Paul was Paul, he was Saul the Christian Hunter. When Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians Jesus stops him in his tracks and in a bright light and loud voice says— Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? That’s how closely Jesus identifies with his body of believers.
And he tells the church in Smyrna, I know your tribulation and your poverty, and the way you have been slandered. What is there tribulation? Poverty? Slander?
Smyrna was a port town, their greatest export was Myrrh, which is why they were called Smyrna. That’s how you say myrrh in Greek. Myrrh was used from everything from painkiller to perfume. It was like the most famous essential oil of the time. The city of Smyrna was said to be the most beautiful city in the Roman province of Asia. They had a reputation for emperor worship and won a patriotism competition in 29 AD.
So this clearly became a problem for the Smyrnan Christians who confessed that only Jesus was Lord, and wouldn’t partake in the festivals and offerings made to the emperor.
Not only would this put Christians in an awkward social situation, but it probably meant they couldn’t make good business connections either, leading to their material poverty.
But what kind of slander were they experiencing? Many rumors were said about Christians, that they ate the literal flesh of their savior, that they sacrificed babies, that they partook in incest. But the slander of the Jews in Smyrna at that time was likely not that.
Christians, for the first thirty years or so after Jesus, death, burial, resurrection and ascension, were in Roman eyes just another sect within Judaism. Many Christians at that time were Jews and met in the synagogues. The Jews overall had certain protections no other religious group had at the time.
But the Christians kept insisting that Jesus was God, and that circumcision wasn’t necessary, and that Jesus had declared all foods clean. So the unbelieving Jews in Smyrna began to educate the Romans on the differences between Jews and Christians. These followers of the Way, of the false Messiah Jesus, they are not Jews at all!
So Jesus says to these accusers “no, you’re not Jews at all.” The true Jews were the ones who are worshipping the Messiah alongside gentiles in the church. Those other ones are Synagogue of Satan.
Satan is brought up twice in the letter to smyrna, once by the name satan and once as devil. Both mean accuser or slanderer, but the first one is from the Hebrew root, Ha-Satan and the second from the Greek word for accuser, Diabolos. In a short space, Jesus calls these accusing Jews the synagogue of Ha-Satan, and then names him the diabolos as well. Diabolos literally means to across-throw, Someone who throws accusations, flings stuff. The accusation thrower will throw some of the Smyrnan Christians into prison. Why?
Satan from time to time, will ask God permission to test believers, to see their true colors. And God from time to time lets him, because God enjoys proving Satan wrong.
This for the Smyrnans, is the purpose of their persecution— that they may be tested. This is the purpose of their persecution. This is not necessarily the purpose of all persecution, but the purpose for the persecution the church in Smyrna would undergo.
This is a hard pill to swallow, and would not make it into the brochure for Christianity, but the Smyrnans are not being punished for lack of faith. They have shown themselves faithful having been tested, and will be tested more.
A famous example of this kind of persecution comes from Smyrna. 60 years after the letter to Smyrna was written, the lead pastor of the church in Smyrna, Polycarp was arrested. He was commanded to offer incense to the Caesar at that time. The arresting officer said to Polycarp, “What harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord’ and offering incense and saving yourself… Swear by the divinity of Caesar… Take the Roman oath and I will let you live.”
Polycarp’s response— “Eighty six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.”
God does not spare his beloved affliction, he carries his beloved through affliction. Even to the point of death and beyond.
APPLICATION This is the exact reverse of what passes for most Christianity today. If you have more faith you won’t suffer. The truth— if you are faithful you will suffer.
This is easiest to see in the plight of our Christian brothers and sisters worldwide.
According to Open Doors, an organization that keeps track of Christian persecution around the world, Christian persecution is seeing a rise in regions of West Africa and in Asia. Last year, there were 1350 Christian martyrs in Nigeria. Remember Boko Haram? They still terrorize Nigerian Christians to this day.
And what about CHINA? There are so many examples of Christian persecution in China I will only tell you this, search online for Pastor John Cao and Pastor Wang Yi. China has renewed its persecution of “unauthorized” churches in recent years and these two pastors are the most famous to be imprisoned.
A fellow pastor Jian Zhu had this to say—The persecution of Christians [in China] is the worst I have seen since 1979… Christians have a worldwide brotherhood, and the government sees this as a threat.– Chinese Pastor Jian Zhu
CHINA— There are 100 million Christians in China right now. Pray for them, they are not foreigners. If you believe you are citizens of heaven and the family of God, if there is any continuity between us and the church in Smyrna, then those Christians in China, or Nigeria, or India or wherever are your brothers and sisters, and when believers from every tribe and nation are gathered before Jesus all wearing robes washed white with his blood, they will not brag about their country but about their savior.
So why don’t American Christians suffer more?
I want to be careful with my words here and clearly state that comforts and freedom afforded to Christians in this country have been a blessing. But, the blurring of lines between the political entity known as America, and the Church has allowed for the rising of a kind of cultural Christianity. Where you are Christian because you’re an American, and you’re a real American because you’re Christian. There was a time where you had to be a Christian to be a mayor, and where, for the most part, the culture at large followed a Christian sense of morality. But that’s not the same thing as following Jesus.
Cancel culture, that is, the online mobs that try to get celebrities or movements cancelled, will cancel cultural Christianity. Cancel culture will cancel cultural Christianity. It is not wrong to resist persecution, but when the day comes where Jesus’ true followers have no true friends on Capitol Hill, or on TV, then Jesus followers’ will have lost nothing of ultimate importance.
The day will come when being a Christian will bring you no material benefit. Where you will probably lose business, lose money, lose sleep, because of your commitment to Christ. And on that day, many people will walk away from the faith, because they merely found Jesus useful. And Jesus will have no use for them, or for cultural Christianity.
But Biblical Christianity has withstood every attack to this point, the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the church. And many Christians have lived and died for Christ not because he was useful but because he is beautiful, he is the savior, he’s the king I tell you.
When do you find out if you just find Jesus useful? Persecution and your perseverance in it.
How should a Christian persevere through persecution? The same way Jesus did. Jesus’ disciple Peter writes 1 Peter 2:21–24
21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
Jesus introduces himself to Smyrna by calling himself the first and the last, who died and came to life. He not only came to life but to give life—verse 10 Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.
The crown of life simply means eternal life. And only Jesus can give it out. Jesus wore the crown of death on the cross, so we could wear the crown of life. In the last verse of our passage Jesus gives us this assurance:
The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. Put in another way, born once die twice, born twice die once.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Death is the worst thing Satan can throw at you, and that’s the worst thing he could throw at Jesus too. And yet he conquered death, and every follower of Jesus will as well.
Later on Revelation, the martyrs ask Jesus how much longer they will have to wait until they are avenged, and Jesus tells them to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they had been. And in the last chapter, a few verses before the end of the bible
12 “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
When Christ comes again, he comes in judgment. Blessed are the persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.