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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:Encouragement for the Persecuted
Text:Revelation 2:8-11 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Persecution
 
Preached:2015
Added:2015-11-18
Updated:2015-11-18
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 18:1,10                                                                                              

Ps 119:60,61                                                                                                  

Reading – 1 Peter 4

Ps 66:4,5,7

Sermon – Revelation 2:8-11

Hy 35:1,2,3,4

Hy 53:1,2,3,4 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in the Lord, are these the best of times, or the worst of times? Some might say that economically, these are good times: we live in a prosperous country, with many opportunities for work and business. Others might say that socially, no time is better than this one, with attitudes of tolerance, and a society that is generally law-abiding and peaceful.

Yet when it comes to the church of Jesus Christ, we could give many reasons that these are not good times. For there’s a mounting assault on the Lord and his people. We see this in the media, and we hear it from our leaders in government. It’s also part of public opinion these days: Christians are dismissed as narrow-minded, the Bible as irrelevant, and Jesus as just another good guy—certainly not the only way to God.

And for the church of Christ in many other places, it’s so much worse than we experience. Our brothers and sisters in places like China and North Korea aren’t allowed to meet together for worship. Or think of the horrific ways that Christians are treated in the Middle East, when they are routinely tortured and slaughtered by Muslim radicals. As we look at the church, we see that it’s a time of real trial and persecution. Of course, God always gives reason for optimism. His Word is still being preached throughout this world, and it’s being received by many thousands in faith. Yet there’s no mistaking that we’re in a time of distress.

That the church is undergoing hardship is nothing new. Hatred of the Triune God is almost as old as this world. And attacks on those who belong to God have been happening since the beginning. Persecution, violence, hatred—it’s an old theme. Also when John wrote the book of Revelation, the church was being hard-pressed. John himself had been exiled to the island of Patmos, out in the Mediterranean.

Persecution’s an old theme. But just as old is the theme of God’s protecting love. He’ll not abandon his church—even in times of oppression, when it seems like unbelievers and other religions have all the momentum. Even then, God holds out this promise: in Christ, He’ll never leave his people. This is our theme from Revelation 2:8-11,

“The First and the Last” encourages his persecuted church in Smyrna:

  1. what they have already suffered
  2. what they have yet to suffer
  3. what they may hold onto in suffering

 

1. what they have already suffered: The book of Acts doesn’t tell us anything about Smyrna and the church there. For instance, it’s never mentioned as being on Paul’s itinerary during his missionary journeys. What is reported is the general spread of the gospel throughout the provinces of Asia—and so this good news must’ve come to Smyrna too. And Jesus says to his church there, “I know your works…” (v 9). We might want to conclude from that word “works” that this was an active congregation, one where the seed of the Word was bearing much fruit. Even so, it wasn’t easy being a Christian in Smyrna. Christ mentions right away their “tribulation” (v 9). The original word for “tribulation” describes not just trouble, or any struggle, but oppression.

From the history books we know about the later persecution of Christians. Some of the Roman emperors made an official policy of suppressing the church, and the opposition was widespread. But at this stage, persecution tended to be very localized—it might be in one town or city, but not the next. There’s a couple hints of this trouble in the other six letters to the churches. In Smyrna however, there was tribulation, real and deadly.

What was it about Smyrna that made it a tough place for Christians? To introduce it a little, Smyrna was about 35 miles from Ephesus. It too was a large and wealthy centre, with a good location for trade. Along with Ephesus and Pergamos, Smyrna was one of the principal cities in Asia. But Smyrna had a unique feature, and that was its devotion to the cult of the emperor. Back in the days of the Roman Empire, the practice arose of giving honour and veneration—even worship—to whomever was Caesar. After all, he was almost god-like in his power and influence, ruling almost the entire known world. Roman cities vied for the privilege of erecting a temple to Caesar, and Smyrna was one of the first.

You can well imagine then, how a Christian might be faced with questions of loyalty. Is Caesar the Lord and King? Or is Jesus the Lord? In a place like Smyrna, devoted to the glories of empire, that question would be taken very seriously.

Jesus mentions a different kind of threat, though. Smyrna had a large population of Jews, and many of them were hostile to the Christian faith. He says, “I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not” (v 9). That might be confusing: Were they Jews, or weren’t they? Were they only pretending?

To understand this, we should think of how the New Testament speaks of the “true Jew.” Paul explains in his letter to the Romans that being a Jew isn’t an outward thing, but a matter of the heart. By race or ethnicity a person might be a Jew, but if they’ve rejected the promised Messiah, then they’re not a true child of Abraham. If Jews really believed the Old Testament Scriptures, then they’d also believe in Christ. But these ones did not.

Such were the people opposing the Smyrnan believers: so-called Jews, “a synagogue of Satan” (v 9). That puts it very starkly, doesn’t it? It says that those who willfully oppose the church are actually on the side of Satan. Those who deny Christ aren’t just exercising personal freedom, but they’re on the side of the devil. This is that ages-long opposition between those belonging to God, and those loyal to Satan.

They were “blaspheming,” says Jesus. We don’t know what that sounded like. Maybe they were mocking the name of Christ. Or they were misusing the LORD’s name by calling down curses on the church. We don’t know. But this was a vehement and hateful attack. In the book of Acts too, there were Jews who brought accusations against the church as a way to get them into trouble.

So the church of Smyrna was suffering. In fact, one of the most well-known martyrdoms of the early church took place in Smyrna: the martyrdom of Polycarp. He was a leader in that generation immediately after the apostles. And Polycarp was burned at the stake in Smyrna for refusing to acknowledge Caesar as Lord. On the day of his death he is said to have declared, “For eighty-six years I have served the Lord, and He has done me no wrong. So how can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

But that came later. How else did the believers in Smyrna experience tribulation? We mentioned blasphemy already, but there was also poverty: “I know your works,” Jesus says, “tribulation and poverty” (v 9). Though they lived in a prosperous city, they were poor. It could be that most of the believers came from the lower classes of society, or they lacked money to begin with. But it’s more likely this poverty was because of persecution. Maybe their goods had been confiscated by the authorities, or vandalized by the crowds. Maybe they’d been boycotted economically. At any rate, there’d been real financial hardship on account of their devotion to Christ, even poverty.

In our time and place this can be a hard thing to relate to. Do we really experience poverty because of our Christian faith? To be sure, there’s a financial commitment that we make as followers of Christ. And giving money to God is not just “paying our dues.” So often Scripture says that this is a real and tangible way to show our gratitude to him, when we give the firstfruits of our earnings to promote the spread of the gospel, and when we support the work of the deacons among the poor. There’s a financial cost too, of having separate schools where our children can be taught about God’s Word and his world. But we need to look at this idea of poverty in the right way.

Because it’s not about how much money we give for the kingdom—even though that’s important for all of us to reflect on carefully. No, basic to this letter and its message for us is the deeper truth that Christians will suffer. Not just those in China and the Middle East. But Christians everywhere will suffer. I point you to Peter’s words to the persecuted people in his congregation, “Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you” (4:12). He’s saying that persecution isn’t strange. Hardship as believers shouldn’t come as a surprise. As those who follow Jesus—who himself was tormented and even killed—we will, says Peter, “partake of Christ’s suffering” (v 13). We will share in them, if we live as bold Christians in our city. We will share in them, if we don’t shy away from our calling in this world. We’ll suffer if we don’t speak when it’s time to defend the faith.

Also if we present the kind of service that God calls us to, there will be hard times. It happens, when you deny yourself sinful pleasure for the sake of being holy. It happens, when you start to make personal sacrifices to be a better parent, or a better spouse, or a better office bearer, or a better neighbor. It happens, when you strive to be a more active member of the church. Because it hurts to give things up. It’s difficult to witness for Christ. If we’re serious about putting Christ’s words into practice, the suffering will come. We can be sure of it. Are we glad to endure trouble for the Lord’s sake? Do we profess the name of Jesus, even to those who’d roll their eyes at us? Would we serve Jesus, even if the cost was higher than it feels right now? Or should the cost feel higher than it does?

The Smyrnans were suffering. Yet Jesus reminds them of what is theirs, “I know your poverty… but you are rich” (v 9). In the eyes of the world, they probably had very little: they had no political power, no worldly influence, no material wealth. But in the most basic and ultimate sense they had everything they needed. You are rich! For they knew the Lord—that great and exalted King—and they were blessed with his Spirit, and they had a glorious future. The Spirit says something similar to the Hebrews. He speaks of the trials they’d endured, and also the outlook they could still have: “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and enduring possession for yourselves in heaven” (10:34).

That’s a powerful reminder for us, that we look at our value and worth in the right way. We’re tempted to count our worth according to human standards of annual income, total assets, education level, or appearance. Instead, look at your value through a heavenly lens. Our worth is not in what we own! But our worth is in Christ, and it’s totally in Christ. If we know him and the rich redemption He gives, then we can gladly be poor for his sake.

 

2. what they have yet to suffer: The church at Smyrna had suffered already. But there was worse to come, worse things than insults or economic hardship. Jesus tells them, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer” (v 10). And what would this suffering be? “The devil is about to throw some of you into prison” (v 10). I don’t think anyone likes to visit prison, but for first century people, this was a more chilling prospect than it is for us. Prisons back then were abysmal places that you’d be lucky to survive. Most often, prison was a place where you waited for execution.

Again we need to notice Satanic involvement in this activity. We just saw the synagogue of Satan, now we hear that “The devil is about to throw some of you…” In his frantic attempts to retain the shreds of his tattered kingdom, he’s always hostile to the followers of Christ, and he’ll use worldly governments to do his dirty work. The coming persecutions are another part of that cosmic conflict between the devil and Christ.

But did prison-time mean they’d be somehow outside of Christ’s care? Behind stone walls and beyond his reach? Not at all. Notice how Jesus already knows what the devil’s got up his sleeve. He knows what it will look like, and He even knows how long it’ll be. That’s because behind all the devil’s cruel attempts is the absolute decree of God. The trials we face in—indeed, any of the sorrow and losses in life—these things don’t come to us from Satan, but they come from the Father, who does no wrong.

This is why Jesus can even describe the suffering in a positive way: it’s coming “that you may be tested” (v 10). The LORD can use the very worst of Satan’s scheming in order to make us stronger, and more holier. Even when the church is assaulted, and believers are harassed, the outcome isn’t our destruction but our purity. Christ desires that we would trust God more fully, and love his will more eagerly.

The testing will come, “and you will have tribulation ten days” (v 9). While it lasted, the tribulation would be fierce, but from the outset Jesus says there’s a limit to it: “ten days.” That doesn’t mean ten literal days, but it’s a round number, one symbolic of completion. The period of the church’s suffering would seem long, it’d even be painful, but it wouldn’t be endless. In fact, even before it starts, Jesus has seen its conclusion. And seen the hope of glory beyond!

How gracious our Lord is, to give this note of caution to his church. Reading this letter, they can get ready for what’s to come, gird themselves, be alert. And while we’re not in Smyrna anymore, we too can take warning from these words. For in his Word the Lord tells us similar things about the suffering to come; He says, “In this world you will have trouble.” And Paul tells us, “Those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” It will happen. We shouldn’t think it strange, or that it means God has somehow failed us.

We should also know how severe it can get. For the church of Smyrna, the time of testing could well cost some their lives. This is why Jesus says, “Be faithful until death” (v 9). Some might get thrown in prison, and never leave. Some would make the ultimate sacrifice. Again, this has always been a reality for the followers of Christ: facing death. Not to dwell on the brutality that we see in the headlines, but this truth does help us to make sense of how Muslim radicals have been treating Christians in the last while. This is not new: Jesus always told us that loyalty to him can come at a high cost. Be faithful unto death!

Yet before He describes any of this future suffering, even before mentioning the prospect of death, the Lord gives a powerful encouragement: “Do not fear.” That’s such a frequent command in Scripture that we might read right over it. But it’s so powerful. Especially here, when the threat of jail and martyrdom might cause them to give up their faith. Or when we get nervous too, about what’s come, Jesus says, “Do not fear!”

He also said it in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul.” Do not fear. As believers in our Lord Jesus, we can have a rich confidence, even facing an unknown future, even facing a bloodthirsty enemy. We have confidence, not in anything we contribute. But it all goes back to who our Saviour is, to his greatness and glory, for He is the First and Last, the living One.

 

3. what they may hold onto in suffering: When some people speak, they just have this way of making you believe them. Because of their character, you’d trust anything they said. That’s what our Saviour is like, and we hear that even as He introduces himself at the beginning of this letter, “These things says the First and the Last” (v 8). “The First and the Last” is an old name for the LORD, one that comes from the book of Isaiah. For instance, chapter 44. God’s people were troubled then, because soon they’d be taken into exile in Babylon. Their homes would be destroyed, the temple laid waste, everything good that they knew would be ruined. Looking at this misery unfold, it’d be hard not to wonder: Just what was God doing? Or did God even know what was happening to them?

But listen to how God assures suffering Judah: “I am the First and I am the Last… The things that are coming and shall come, let them show these to them. Do not fear, nor be afraid. Have I not told you from that time, and declared it?” (vv 6,8). God is saying that He knows what’s coming. Even when Judah agonizes in exile, God reassures them. For God has proclaimed it, foretold it long ago. He’s known it all along, because He’s from the beginning. He is the beginning: the First! So even the persecution of his church takes its place in the Lord’s plan. Every cause, every effect, originates in God’s perfect will, so there’s no need to be afraid.

And aren’t these words that we need to hear? Not just the Smyrnans, but we too. We have our troubles. In this world we have our enemies, and our fears. Yet Christ comforts his beleaguered church with who He is. He is the “First and Last.” He has everything under his dominion. He’s the King in charge, not presidents, not prime ministers, not imams and radicals, and not the devil. And nothing can take this position away. Nobody can go up to heaven, and shove Christ off his throne. Our Saviour in heaven is Lord. He sees all, and guides all, and governs all.

So when it seems like the enemy is enjoying an unbroken string of victories, we rest in who He is: faithful to his promises, steadfast in his love, unfailing in his power. Christ is still on his throne, and still working for his glorious end. For He is also the “Last,” the “Omega,” the one in whom everything culminates. For Christ has ordained all things for his glory and our good.

And consider a bit more who our Saviour is. He’s the originator and director of all, the First and the Last, and He also “was dead, and came to life” (v 9). With that personal introduction, He’s not just telling us what happened to him once upon time. He’s giving us his credentials: He was dead, but He came to life! He reminds us of the victory that He already won over Satan, and over the grave. And his victory is a guarantee of our own victory—the victory of all who are joined to him by faith.

In that knowledge, we can be so confident. And by that knowledge, we’re called to remain steadfast: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (v 10). The people of Smyrna knew about crowns. They saw them handed out at the games, when a garland of flowers or olive leaves would be presented to the champions of the track and the field. That’s what we get if we persevere: not a fading crown, not earthly accolades that soon get forgotten, but from Christ we receive a crown that endures, the crown of life.

But to receive it, you have to overcome. To receive it, “Be faithful” says Christ. Be faithful against the devil’s constant temptations. Be faithful when laughed at and ridiculed for Jesus’ sake. Be faithful in tribulation and suffering. Be faithful where God has placed you, and gladly serve him there. Be faithful, even until death.

And one more time, Christ assures his suffering church of Smyrna, his suffering church in every time and place, “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death” (v 11). By standing with Christ, the second death won’t touch you. What is the “second death?” It’s mentioned a few times elsewhere in Revelation, like in chapter 21. There it says that those who are cast into the lake of fire experience the second death. The second death is the death of eternal condemnation, the death more horrible than anything we can imagine, the death of final separation from the God of life.

But that won’t hurt you—not if you live by faith. On this earth you might well die bodily—if Christ doesn’t return before then, you will die. You might even become a martyr, and suffer greatly for the cause of Christ. But for the believer, such a death doesn’t last. For the believer, the greatest losses and deepest heartaches and heaviest sacrifices are as nothing, compared to the surpassing riches of knowing Christ our Saviour! That’s something to hold onto, now and always.  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2015, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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