************ Sermon on Revelation 2:8-11 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 28, 1999
"Smyrna: The Rich Church"
He stepped forward, and was asked by the proconsul if he really was Polycarp. When he said yes, the proconsul urged him to deny the charge.
"Respect your years!" he exclaimed, adding similar appeals regularly made on such occasions: "Swear by Caesar's fortune; change your attitude ..."
The governor pressed him further: "Swear, and I will set you free: curse, denounce, Christ."
"For eighty-six years," replied Polycarp, "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 ...
The rest followed in less time than it takes to describe: the crowds rushed to collect logs and branches ... When the pyre was ready ... Polycarp prayed ... When he had offered up the Amen and completed his prayer, the men in charge lit the fire, and a great flame shot up.
(From: Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity, pg 81)
What did I tell you this story? Polycarp was a member and the bishop of the church of Smyrna. You may think Polycarp's faith and courage are exceptional. Yet, as we shall see from the second letter of John to the seven churches of Asia Minor – the letter to the church in Smyrna – 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.
As Polycarp shows us, it was exceptionally difficult to live as a Christian in Smyrna. This was the result of two things. First, located in Smyrna was 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." Second, in Smyrna there was a large Jewish population that was actively hostile to the Christian faith.
Once again, as in all the letters, it is Christ Who is speaking: "These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again." This title is borrowed from the vision of chapter 1:
(Rev 1:17b-18) "... I am the First and the Last. (18) I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades."
How instructive is this title of Christ. We find this title at least five times in the book of Revelation (1:8; 1:17b-18; 2:8; 21:6; 22:13). "I am the First and the Last." Elsewhere Christ adds to this, "I am the Alpha and the Omega ... the Beginning and the End" (1:8; 21:6; 22:13). This speaks of Christ's pre-existence, of how He existed in eternity before all time. And, this speaks of Christ's post-existence, of how He exists in eternity after all time. God and Christ are the One Who begins and the One Who ends, the Creator and the Consummator, the One from Whom and to Whom are all things.
To Christians in Smyrna and around the world experiencing persecution and martyrdom this title of Christ is so very comforting. This title is 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.
I Rich in Spiritual Matters
A When Christ looks at the church of Smyrna He says, "I know ... your poverty." 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 off to them. Furthermore, the city and people of Smyrna – incited by the Jews – 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 person and wore on their back. They were first century street people.
B Yet, the Lord Jesus can say, "you are rich." As the world measures wealth the church of Smyrna was poor. But as the Lord Jesus measures wealth the church was rich.
What riches does the Lord have in mind here? 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.
C The church of Smyrna is poor in worldly goods but is rich in Jesus Christ. Rich in Jesus – that's the only way that Smyrna or Ephesus or Trinity or First church can be rich. We can be rich only in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul says,
(2 Cor 8:9) For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.He Who is God became a man and took on the nature of a servant; He humbled Himself to the point of death. And, by His impoverishment we become rich – rich in grace, mercy, redemption, glory, and the wisdom and knowledge of God. In and through and by Jesus Christ is the only way any church can be rich.
D You've probably realized by now that there are two radically different standards of wealth. There is the standard of the world that measures wealth in terms of income, possessions, goods, money, housing, and clothing. And there is the standard of God that measures wealth in terms of the Gospel of grace. There is an earthly treasure and there is a heavenly treasure.
Let me ask you, congregation, which standard of wealth is yours? Is your goal in life treasure on earth or treasure in heaven? Do you want the world to say or do you want God to say, "He is rich!"? Is your aim in life a million or two million dollars in the bank or is it growth in the grace, knowledge and love of God?
Certainly by the standards of this world we are rich and not poor. With our indoor plumbing, central heating and air-conditioning, washer and dryer, refrigerator and stove, car, telephone, TV, stereo, VCR, warm and cool-weather clothing, inner-spring mattress, freezer, and vacations – to name only a few – we are even better off than Solomon in all his glory. In fact, we are far better off than over 90% of the world. Yes, in worldly terms we are rich.
Now, let me ask you, are we also rich as measured by the standards of God? Are we also rich in spiritual terms? Do we abound in grace and truth? Are the treasures of the Gospel and kingdom as richly ours as are the treasures of this world? Or, have we sold our soul for the riches of this world? Think about that!
II Rich in Faithfulness
A Christ looks at the church of Smyrna and He can also say, "I know your afflictions." In mind here are such things as difficulties, pains, troubles, hardships, persecution, imprisonment, derision, poverty, inner distress and sorrow, anxiety, fear (cf 2 Cor 11:23-27).
Jesus warned His disciples they could expect these sorts of afflictions: "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (Jn 15:20); and, "In this world you will have trouble" (Jn 16:33). The Apostle Paul warned, "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22).
These predictions became true for the church of Smyrna: it suffered many afflictions; so many, in fact, that the suffering and death of Polycarp was the rule rather than the exception.
B "I know your afflictions," says Jesus. "I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." 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. In their eyes it was blasphemy to worship a Galilean peasant who had died a criminal's death.
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." 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 righteousness. So instead they are children of the devil (cf John 8:31-47). They are "a synagogue of Satan." By their bitter and mindless opposition to the church and its message they have become servants of Satan.
In His letter, Jesus even 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."
C "The devil will put some of you in prison." 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 us fail the test. He would love to have us, unlike Polycarp and the Christians of Smyrna, deny Christ and renounce our faith in Him.
D "The devil will put some of you in prison." Yet Jesus can say, "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer." 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 supreme. Don't forget, Jesus is the "Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End" (Rev 22:13). Our soul is in God's hand 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. 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.
E Christ says, "Be faithful, even to the point of death." 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."
What a rich church! Even under persecution they did not abandon spiritual riches for worldly riches. They stayed with the riches of the Gospel.
F Today, thank God, we in North America are not tested and persecuted in our faith the way Smyrna was. Yet, I often wonder, if it was a choice between Christ and my life, or between Christ and my family, what would I do? What would you do?
We may not be persecuted today, we may not have to make the choice between the riches of the Gospel and the riches of the world, yet we too are called to be faithful. You see, the same enemy attacks us that attacked Smyrna – that ancient enemy, the Devil. His methods may have changed but his goal is the same – to make us fall from the faith and the Lord. He may not attack us head on as he did with the church in Smyrna but he still attacks, nibbling away at the foundations of our faith, trying to make us compromise a little bit here, a little bit there, until eventually we no longer have a faith to uphold.
"Be faithful," our Lord says to us. "Be faithful, even to the point of death." "Be faithful, in spite of ridicule." "Be faithful, whatever the cost in money or time."
And, if we are faithful, we too are a rich church, a rich people, in whom may be found all the riches of the glories of God in Christ.
III Rich in Salvation
A Any church, any Christian, that is faithful to Christ the way Smyrna and Polycarp were, receive from Christ "the crown of life." The Apostle James says,
(James 1:12) Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.Not only those who are tested but all those who are God's children, all those who have the true riches of the Gospel, all those who are true children of Abraham, will receive the crown of life. Theirs is the victor's wreath. Theirs is the joy, theirs is the glory, of life everlasting. Theirs are the riches of heaven and the richness of life with Christ.
B 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. And, theirs is the "crown of life" which no one can snatch from their hand.
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
What does the Spirit say? He says that a rich church is a church that is filled with the grace and Gospel of Christ, a rich church is a church that is faithful to God even in afflictions, a rich church is a church that receives life everlasting.
Do you hear, have you heard, what the Spirit says to the churches?
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
Back to Index of Sermons Page