************ Sermon on Revelation 2:8-11 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on November 11, 2007
"The Persecuted Church"
For many years Polycarp was spared the persecution that Rome visited upon Christians. When friends discovered Polycarp was about to be arrested, they insisted on hiding him. Soon the soldiers discovered where he had been taken. Even though Polycarp could have escaped and gone into hiding elsewhere, he refused. When Polycarp saw the soldiers coming, he went out and greeted them warmly and offered them food. As they were eating, he requested that he be allowed to pray before they took him away. His request was granted. For two hours he prayed fervently out loud.We have to say that Polycarp was faithful to the Lord unto death.
When he was done praying they set him on a donkey and took him into the city to be tried as one who was an adversary of the authorized pagan religion. When he arrived, they sat him in a chariot and began to urge him to say that Caesar was God and offer a sacrifice to him. They said, there is no harm in that is there? At first he refused to answer. Finally, after they continued to press him Polycarp said, "I shall not do what you would persuade me to."
This made his judges very angry.
One of the judges tried to get him to deny his faith by saying, "Respect your years! Swear by Caesar's fortune. Repent, and say 'Take away the Wicked'."
The governor pressed him further: "Swear, and I will set you free: curse, denounce, Christ."
It is at this point that Polycarp gave his famous response: "For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has never done me wrong: how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?"
"I have wild beasts," said the proconsul. I shall throw you to them, if you don't change your attitude."
"Call them," replied the old man ...
"If you make light of the beasts," retorted the governor, "I'll have you destroyed by fire, unless you change your attitude."
Polycarp answered: "The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished: there is a fire you know nothing about--the fire of the judgement to come and of eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly. But why do you hesitate? Do what you want." ...
The proconsul was amazed, and sent the crier to stand in the middle of the arena and announce three times: "Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian." ... Then a shout went up from every throat that Polycarp must be burnt alive ...
They took Polycarp to the stake and were going to nail him there. He spoke up and said, "Let me alone as I am: For he who has given me strength to endure the Fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to stand without moving in the pile." They merely tied him to the stake.
He prayed before the fire was kindled. Upon his "AMEN" the executioner lighted the fire.
What did I tell you this story? Polycarp was a disciple of John and the bishop of the church of Smyrna the church to whom the second letter of Revelation was written. You may think Polycarp's faith and courage were exceptional. Yet, as we shall see, Polycarp was no different than his fellow believers. Polycarp and the other believers of Smyrna willingly put their lives on the line for Christ Jesus.
I The Letter's Introduction
A This letter starts off the same way as the letter to Ephesus that we looked at the last time we looked at Revelation. It starts off the same way as all the letters: "To the angel of the church in Smyrna write ..." The angel of the church represents the church herself. So, Jesus is writing to the church of Smyrna and to the other churches of Asia Minor and to us.
B Permit me to say a few things about the city of Smyrna that are very relevant to our study this evening.
Smyrna proudly called itself "first" among the cities of Asia. This was inscribed on her coins: "First of Asia in beauty and size." Smyrna was a city of wealth and culture. Smyrna was famous for her athletic games. She was distinguished for her contributions to science and medicine. She was built in a place of beauty. In the center of the city, sitting like a crown, was Mount Pagus.
Originally, Smyrna was built around 1000 B.C. In 600 B.C. it was destroyed. In 290 B.C. it was rebuilt. Smyrna was equated with Phoenix, the mythological bird that died and arose. It was a city raised from the dead.
As early as 195 B.C., Smyrna foresaw the rising power of Rome and built a temple dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius; this meant Smyrna was a center for emperor worship; this further meant the Christian confession that "Jesus is Lord" was in direct conflict with the Roman confession that "Caesar is Lord." Anything the emperor hated, the people of Smyrna hated too Christians were at the top of this list as we see with Polycarp.
Smyrna also had a large Jewish population that was actively hostile to the Christian faith.
Finally, the name "Smyrna" means "myrrh" the fragrant incense used for anointing, perfume, purification, and embalming. Smyrna smelled of money and culture and power and sophistication. But that was not the only smell coming from this city. The lower part of the city had a drainage problem so smelled of sewage and other pollutants.
C As I said last time, in each one of the seven letters Jesus identifies Himself with words and pictures from chapter 1. Notice how Jesus identifies himself at the start of His letter to Smyrna:
(Rev 2:8) These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. (Cf Rev 1:17)Remember, the city of Smyrna thought of herself as "First of Asia." Along comes Christ and says, "I am the First." Christ is saying "I am the First as Maker and Creator. I am the First in Asia, Africa, India, Palestine, and everywhere else." Not only that but Christ also says, "I am the Last." Christ is saying, "I am the Last One you will someday face as Judge. I cannot be escaped or ignored."
But there is more to Christ's self-identification: "These are the words of him ... who died and came to life again" (Rev 2:8; cf Rev 1:18). Remember, Smyrna thought of herself as being Phoenix-like the city that arose from the dead. Along comes Christ and says, "I died and came to life again." Smyrna was raised by the power of men but Jesus was raised by the power of God. Smyrna was raised for a time but Jesus was raised never to die again. And, Jesus is the One Who brings life out of death.
To Christians in Smyrna and around the world experiencing persecution and martyrdom these titles of Christ are so very comforting. These titles are a reminder that life and death, that beginning of life and end of life, are all in Christ's hands. He stands above all and rules over all, even the womb and the grave.
II The Evaluation
A These continue to be the words of Him Who "walks among the seven golden lampstands" (Rev 2:1). These are the words of Him Who lives in the church and with the church. These are the words of Him Who knows and loves His church. These are the words of Him Who sees all things and knows all things. And, He likes what He sees in the church of Smyrna.
As an aside, let's take a quick note of what Jesus likes in each of the churches of Asia Minor. In Ephesus, He likes their discernment; they recognize false prophets who teach heresy and are in ministry not to serve God but to feather their own nests. In Smyrna and Pergamum, He likes their faithfulness under trial. In Thyatira, He likes their growth in the grace and knowledge and service of Christ. In Sardis, He sees a group that is holy. In Philadelphia, He sees a church that keeps God's Word. Interestingly, Laodicea is a rich church with lots of money; yet, Jesus sees nothing to like.
In contrast to Jesus, when the world looks at what it likes about the church it tends to focus on numbers and influence. The TV show, "60 Minutes", did a recent story on Joel Osteen's church and calls it the biggest and fastest growing church in America. The media loves to portray Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback, in his interaction with top political figures. All too often the modern church buys into this mentality and puts most of her focus on attendance records, church budgets, campus size, the number of ministry staff, and so on. What impresses the world is not the same as what impresses Jesus. Jesus reminds us that it is more important to be faithful than to be powerful. It is more important to be true than to be rich. It is more important to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ than to have a good reputation in the world.
B When Jesus looks at the seven churches of Asia Minor He also sees much to chastize. He says to Ephesus, "You have forsaken your first love" (Rev 2:4). Pergamum believes in toleration, in accommodation, in compromise in order to live and work and do business and earn a living in the community. Thyatira is tolerant and accommodating of sin and heresy. Sardis doesn't know it, but she is a dying church. Laodicea is accused of being lukewarm. But Jesus finds nothing negative to say about Smyrna. She is a small church, a struggling church, a church without any influence or power. Yet, Jesus has nothing negative to say!
Again, what a contrast between Jesus and the world. Smyrna is a church facing afflictions, poverty, and slander. The world sees these as negatives as problems, tragedies, and weaknesses. But Jesus considers these to be strengths.
C "I know your afflictions ..." (Rev 2:9). We saw these afflictions with the martyrdom of Polycarp. We saw these afflictions with John (Rev 1:9) he was banished to Patmos, an Alcatraz-type island used as a prison colony where prisoners worked in a stone quarry.
"I know your afflictions ..." (Rev 2:9). Is this a negative? Not if we look at this the way Jesus does. The church of Jesus Christ in Smyrna was hated and persecuted just like Jesus was hated and persecuted (Jn 15:19; 16:1-4). She was like Christ. That is never a bad thing. The world sees a church that is weak and persecuted but Jesus sees a church that shares in His sufferings. Remember that Smyrna is a city of contrasting odors. Our Lord indicates that He smells the stench of persecution from the city of Smyrna; and, He also smells the aroma of a pleasing sacrifice from the Christians of Smyrna.
D "I know ... your poverty ..." (Rev 2:9). As the world measures wealth the Christians of Smyrna were very poor. The Greek word used here tells us they were more than poor; they were destitute. Their poverty was so great they were reduced to begging in order to live.
The Christians of Smyrna were mostly from the lowest classes of society: the orphans and widows, slaves and servants, the blind and lame. In a city that confesses "Caesar is Lord" those who confess that "Jesus is Lord" would find it hard to make a living for most jobs and business opportunities would be shut to them. Furthermore, the city and people of Smyrna were openly hostile to the Christian faith, so Christians often had their property confiscated by the authorities or looted by the mobs.
In material wealth and goods the Christians of Smyrna were poor. They had no fancy church buildings or padded pews; many had no home, no job, no income; they lived on the charity of others; often their only possessions were what they carried on their back. In the midst of riches, they were first century street people.
"I know ... your poverty ..." (Rev 2:9). Is this a negative? Again, not if we look at this the way Jesus does. The world sees a church that is poor and struggling, people who are hungry and homeless. But Jesus sees a church that is rich spiritually rich.
Think of the contrast here. The city of Smyrna is economically rich but spiritually poor. The church of Laodicea is the same way she also is economically rich but spiritually poor (Rev 3:17). By way of contrast, the church of Smyrna is economically poor but spiritually rich. Jesus says, "I know ... your povertyyet you are rich!"
In what way is the church of Smyrna rich? The church of Smyrna is rich because she experiences the Lord's kindness, knows God's glory, receives the Lord's blessing, and is aware of the depth of the wisdom and knowledge of God (Rom 2:4; 9:23; 10:12; 11:33). This church is rich because she knows Christ and is filled with the Word of God (Col 1:27; 3:16). This church is rich because she experiences God's grace and mercy and has a glorious inheritance in heaven awaiting her (Eph 1:7; 1:18; 2:4). This is indeed a rich church!
To the world this wealth is poverty and folly (cf 1 Cor 1:20-31). But that's because the world sees in only one dimension the physical realm. When the world looks at the church of Smyrna all that it sees is a lack of worldly goods and a desperate human poverty. But when the Lord Jesus looks at the church of Smyrna He sees in another dimension the spiritual. And, in this dimension He sees a church that is rich, wealthy beyond compare.
Smyrna, remember, smelled of earthly riches. Jesus smells the aroma of spiritual riches instead. Which leads me to ask, what kind of aroma comes from us?
E Jesus says, "I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan" (Rev 2:9). The Jews of Smyrna attacked and persecuted the church. The Jews were upset about the Christian confession "Jesus is Lord." For the Jews there was only one Lord and that Lord was not Jesus.
You need to realize that the Jewish faith received special protection from the Roman authorities. The Jews made sure this protection was not extended to the Christian faith which was regarded, at first, as nothing but a Jewish sect. In fact, it was Jews who often stirred up the mobs against Christians. It was Jews who helped collect the wood to burn Polycarp even though it was on the Sabbath. It was Jews who were the first to complain to local authorities about the Christian faith. And, as we saw with Saul before he became Paul, it was Jews who actively persecuted Christians.
Jesus uses harsh language about these Jews who persecute His church: they "say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan" (Rev 2:9). An important distinction is made here between outward and inward Jews. An outward Jew, like the ones in Smyrna, are Jews by race and religion. But in reality, inwardly, they are not Jews because they have rejected Jesus as their Messiah and confirmed their rejection by persecuting His body the Church. Who, then, are the true Jews? True Jews are the people of the Messiah; true Jews are Christ believers (cf Rom 2:28,29).
The Jews of Smyrna are not really Jews. They can claim to be children of Abraham but they lack Abraham's faith and Abraham's righteousness. So instead they are children of the devil (cf John 8:31-47). They are "a synagogue of Satan" (Rev 2:9). By their bitter and mindless opposition to the church and its message they have become servants of Satan.
"I know the slander of those who say they are Jews ..." Is this a negative? Isn't this what Jesus faced? Aren't they participating, again, in the sufferings of Christ? Isn't this what you can expect if you confess Christ?
III The Exhortation
A In His letter, Jesus warns the church of Smyrna about further persecution: "I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution" (Rev 2:10).
"The devil will put some of you in prison" (Rev 2:10). Here Jesus identifies for us the real enemy of God's people. The church of Smyrna can be excused for thinking it is the Jews or the Roman authorities or the emperor worshipers or the city fathers who are afflicting them. But, in reality, it is Satan who is responsible for their affliction. Their struggle, as the Apostle Paul puts it in Ephesians 5, "is not against flesh and blood" but against the Devil and his whole dominion.
Satan has one goal or aim: to alienate man from God. To accomplish this he would love nothing more than to destroy the church of Christ and the message of Christ. To accomplish this he would love nothing more than to have Christians renounce or deny Christ. By persecuting the church the Devil tests her allegiance to the Lord. He would love to see her fail the test. He tried that with Polycarp. He tried that with John. He tried that with the Christians of Smyrna.
B Notice how Jesus expects them to respond: "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer" (Rev 2:10). And, in Matthew 10 Jesus says, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul" (Mt 10:28a). Jesus can tell the church to not be afraid because He "is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again" (Rev 2:8). Our soul is in Jesus' hands and there it is eternally secure. The Devil may have power over our body, he may kill our body, but he has no power over our soul.
"Do not be afraid," says Jesus. He predicts ten days of persecution for the church in Smyrna (Rev 2:10). We don't know whether this is symbolic for a long or a short period of time. However long the persecution may be, the assurance is given that there is a limit to the activities of Satan. He will persecute and the church will suffer for "ten days." But that's it. Then the time of persecution is over and Satan's chance is finished. It is God, not Satan, Who has the last word.
C Notice how else they are to respond. Christ says, "Be faithful, even to the point of death" (Rev 2:10). The Christians of Smyrna are urged to be faithful. Actually, the Greek says, "Continue to be faithful." They have been faithful in the past; now they are urged to be faithful in the present too, in the face of new and terrible afflictions. They are urged to be faithful and true to the Lord even if it means death.
And they were. This church, her members, her bishop, they were all faithful. Many, like Polycarp, were faithful "even to the point of death."
Are you this faithful? Are we this faithful?
Any church, any Christian, that is faithful to Christ the way Smyrna and Polycarp were, receive from Christ "the crown of life." Smyrna thought of Mount Pagus as the crown of the city. Jesus promises a crown far more beautiful for His followers. Jesus promises to bring life out of death. Jesus promises life everlasting. Jesus promises that even though they die they will live forever.
Jesus' final word is, "He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death." The second death is explained to us at the end of Revelation (Rev 20:14,15; 21:8). The first death is physical death. The second death is the eternal torments of hell fire. Those who are faithful to Christ will never have to fear the second death. Of course they won't have to! Christ suffered the torments of hell so they don't have to.
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
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