On Sunday evenings this session we are looking at the first three chapters of the book of Revelation. Our studies are entitled "Christ's Word on Basic Issues". And our subject tonight is Persecution as we look at Revelation 2.8-11 and the church in Smyrna.
By way of introduction let me remind you that chapters 2-3 of Revelation contain cameos of seven churches - and each cameo gives you vital marks or characteristics of a true church. Last week we looked at the church in Ephesus, and the lesson there was about the need for "love". We now come to the second cameo of the church in Smyrna (modern Izmir in Turkey and a little along the coast from Ephesus). And Smyrna teaches you that the second mark of a true church is Persecution.
You say, but how relevant is that for us today? The answer is: very relevant. A recent study of Christian persecution says that "in more than 60 countries world-wide, Christians are harassed, abused, arrested, tortured or executed specifically because of their faith." Only certain high profile cases, however, get onto the news, such as the case of Abdul Rahman. He was arrested by the police in Afghanistan in February for being a convert from Islam to Christianity and on trial for his life in March. Thankfully due to international pressure he was released. But it was not widely reported that over the last couple of years at least five Afghan Christians were not so fortunate. They were captured and murdered by Afghan extremists for abandoning Islam.
I've heard recently of attacks on Christians for being Christian in Palestine, Egypt, the Sudan, Iran and Iraq. In Iraq, we are told, Christians "routinely disappear from the sidewalks in Baghdad; others are kidnapped and held for ransom." This year Churches have again been bombed and people killed. As one Christian put it: "we have no militia to defend us." Nor are either Iraqi or American officials willing to protect them.
Then in parts of India Hindus are attacking Christians. There are attacks around the world. Yes, persecution is real today. Nor should you be surprised. Jesus taught his disciples: "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (John 15.20). And Paul told the young church leader Timothy: "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Tim 3:12).
But we need to take this passage seriously not just because it is still relevant. We must take it seriously because John is reporting the actual words of the risen Jesus Christ. It is a letter from Jesus Christ himself. Look at verse 8 and the words addressed to John:
"To the angel of the church in Smyrna write. These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again."
So who is the "angel" of the church in Smyrna? Some say they are the "guardian angels" of the various churches; others that they are the leaders of those churches. It doesn't really matter. For this letter is not just for one person (heavenly or earthly), but the whole church. And it is not just for the whole of the little church in Smyrna but the whole Christian church throughout the world and down the ages. What, then, does Jesus say about Smyrna and to Smyrna and for us today? Well, first, he says something about THE PRESENT situation in Smyrna; secondly, something about THE FUTURE; and, thirdly, he gives advice on HOW TO RESPOND and stand firm in the face of persecution.
First, then THE PRESENT
In verse 9 Jesus tells us of the current situation in Smyrna:
"I know your afflictions and your poverty - yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan."
The church of Smyrna was being persecuted. That is what "afflictions and poverty" refer to. However, we don't know exactly what this present persecution or affliction was. But we do know there are (and always have been) various sorts of persecution. On the one hand there is fierce persecution that comes from the State and means imprisonment and possibly death.
On the other hand there are more subtle but no less real forms of persecution. This often comes not from the State or Police but from your work and colleagues, or from your home and family members, or your class or year group and fellow students. Persecution need not be officially organized. Persecution can come when you refuse to be dishonest or immoral or do something that you know dishonours Jesus Christ. And you then suffer for not doing something that is wrong or for doing something that is right.
Who's in that sort of situation at the moment? Perhaps you have been pressured to be dishonest in your company and you've refused. So you don't get promotion and you lose out financially. Something like that may have been happening in Smyrna. Smyrna was a prosperous town. It was an important urban centre in the Roman province of Asia. But it looks as though, because of their commitment to Christ, the Christians were losing out financially. The risen Jesus says, "I know your afflictions and your poverty." Perhaps people didn't want to employ Christians because of their refusal to be dishonest. Yes, some of them may have been from the poorer sections of the community. However, we do know that in New Testament times, opposition meant people suffered financial loss. In Hebrews 10:34 you read of Christians having to accept "the confiscation of [their] property".
Nor is this more subtle persecution only related to business. Perhaps you are medical and you refuse to do abortions or there is some other ethical issue and you know all about unfair and unpleasant opposition. My wife, who is a doctor, once took a stand against homosexual adoptions as being neither in the best interest of children nor moral and faced unfair and unpleasant opposition.
Or it is an issue in your family and other family members want you to do something that is wrong. That was an issue when I was in Korea some years ago. It concerned ancestor worship on the anniversary of a relative's death. The Korean Christians could not join in. Nor was that easy, as you can imagine. Something like that - having to acknowledge another god - may have been the trouble at Smyrna. In AD 25 Smyrna was granted the right to erect a temple to the Emperor Tiberius and there was Emperor worship in Smyrna. We know that a little later Christians were imprisoned and killed for refusing to say "Caesar is Lord". They knew that Jesus Christ alone is Lord.
You see, the fundamental issue behind Christian persecution in the Roman world was this: Christians believed that Jesus Christ was, and is, the only way. The Romans could cope with various religions and various gods. What they couldn't cope with was this group of people who claimed that Jesus Christ was God's unique and final revelation to the world. They couldn't cope with them saying that Jesus Christ provides the only way you can come to God and teaches the only way you can live for God. That was the problem with Christianity in the Roman Empire. It is the same problem today. That is why there is tolerance of other religions in a way that Christianity is no longer being tolerated. So you now have one local authority in an official calendar having all sorts of other religious festivals mentioned but omitting Christian festivals! Of course, Christianity is open to all. It is the only truly inclusive universal religion. Jesus in John 3.16: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. And "whoever" means whoever. But Christianity at the same time is utterly exclusive. As the apostles taught:
"Salvation is found in no one else [other than Jesus Christ], for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4.12).
Who needs to hear that message tonight? So the exclusivity of the Gospel was the problem in the early Church. It is still the problem today. But notice this also - verse 9:
"I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan."
In Smyrna while no doubt the Romans were involved in the persecution, Jews also were involved. If you read the Acts of the Apostles you will see that often it was Jewish people who were causing trouble for early Christian converts. So beware. Opposition and persecution can come from religious establishments as well as from more secular authorities. And religious opposition often works through "slander".
There was a senior clergyman last week opposing those nearly 1000 Christians who protested outside the Theatre Royal on the opening night of the blasphemous show, Jerry Springer the Opera. They were peacefully singing hymns that echoed right round the Monument and down Grey Street. This clergyman, as reported in The Journal, was publicly saying that: "they (the Protesters) are concerned about something they haven't seen, haven't read and have been whipped up about because they've been told it says something that it doesn't say."
But that is not true and so "slander". I for one saw the production twice on DVD and read the libretto before protesting last Monday evening along with a good number of other people from this church. Of course, such remarks at present don't cause much suffering. But when you are on your own (as people in this congregation tell me) and you are totally misrepresented by religious opponents, even today it can be hard.
Well, if there was persecution in Smyrna, how were the Christians doing? Answer: they were doing fine, spiritually speaking. They were being faithful to Christ. They may have been loosing out in business, but, we are told, verse 9, "they were rich" - obviously in some way other than financially. The Bible talks about being "rich in faith" (Jas 2.5), "rich in good deeds" (1 Tim 6.18) and having "treasure in heaven" (Mat 19.21). These people at Smyrna were rich like that. They had learnt to put Christ first, before money, before social status, before job prospects and before their families even. Jesus said:
"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Mat 10.37-38).
Of course, Christians have obligations to colleagues, friends and family - but never above their obligations to Jesus Christ. And taking up your cross is the way to blessing, as we shall see. But also, as we shall see, there are times when taking up Christ's cross is not just a metaphor but for real. So that brings us ...
Secondly, to what this letter says about THE FUTURE.
Look at verse 10
"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, and I will give you the crown of life."
Jesus tells these Christians at Smyrna that some of them are going to be imprisoned and persecuted, "even to the point of death". One of the best known martyrs of the early church, Polycarp, came from Smyrna. Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna in the middle of the second century when there was terrible persecution going on. This letter would have meant a great deal to him as he discovered the truth of Christ's prediction and meditated over Christ's words of encouragement and how to respond. Let me quote from John Stott's excellent commentary on these opening chapters of Revelation entitled What Christ Thinks of the Church, and the account there of Polycarp's martyrdom. Having been arrested on 2 February AD 156 and having been allowed two hours to pray, we read:
"As they [the arresting party and Polycarp] travelled into the city, the officer in charge urged him to recant. 'What harm can it do,' he asked, 'to sacrifice to the emperor?' Polycarp refused. On arrival, he was roughly pushed out of the carriage, and brought before the proconsul in the amphitheatre, who addressed him: 'Respect your years! ... Swear by the genius of Caesar ... ' And again, 'Swear, and I will release you; revile Christ!' To which Polycarp replied: 'For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?'
“The proconsul persisted: 'Swear by the genius of Caesar ... I have wild beasts; if you will not change your mind, I will throw you to them ... ' Call them,' Polycarp replied. [The Proconsul then said:] 'Since you make light of the beasts, I will have you destroyed by fire, unless you change your attitude.' Angry Jews and Gentiles then gathered wood for the pile. Polycarp stood by the stake, asking not to be fastened to it, and prayed, 'O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of your beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know you ... I thank you for counting me worthy this day and hour of sharing the cup of Christ among the number of your martyrs.'
“The fire was lit, but as the wind drove the flames away from him and prolonged his suffering, a soldier put an end to his misery with a sword."
What would you do in a situation of that sort? Why should we assume, with the denial of Christianity in Europe and the denial of Christian ethics, that Europe is going to remain a safe place for ever? Let's learn, therefore, the lessons from this letter to Smyrna while there is still peace and freedom.”
So thirdly, HOW are you TO RESPOND when persecution is threatening? You can learn four things from these verses.
First, you are not to fear. Verse 10: "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer." If you are someone like Norman Kember being held hostage in Iraq, not knowing whether you are going to live or die, of course you are afraid. So how do you overcome your fear? As we read in Psalm 56 verse 3 - it is faith that overcomes fear: "When I am afraid, I will trust in you."
As you renew your vision of and faith in Christ, so fear is reduced. When I was working in the Sudan for a short period in the 60s, there was terrible persecution of Christians in the South by Muslims from the North. But on one occasion there was a short period of peace and the Cathedral in Juba was able to be opened. At the great celebration service, as the clergy were processing in, someone started to sing a simple chorus, and then all joined in: "Yesterday, today for ever, Jesus is the same; All may change but Jesus never, glory to his name."
That was so right. And Jesus here is encouraging these Christians at Smyrna, to have the same perspective when they are facing persecution. Look at verse 8 ...
"These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again."
Jesus Christ is Lord over all; he is in control; he is the divine Son who is not absent, but by his Holy Spirit present in the churches. He is the one who knows all about each church and individual Christian and their suffering - verse 9: "I know your affliction ... I know the slander of those who say they are Jews." So, your first response is not to be afraid but believing - believing in the greatness and sovereignty of Christ.
Secondly, you are to realize the devil is at work. The Jewish persecutors are, we are told, verse 9, "a synagogue of Satan". And, verse 10, says it is not the Roman authorities that will put you in prison, but "the devil". Of course, men and women who obey the devil are wicked. But they are still winnable for Christ. They are not the ultimate source of evil, for behind them is the devil. That doesn't mean you compromise with their evil in anyway. No! But, says Jesus, you are to pray for them: "I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt 5.44). It is important to keep that perspective.
Thirdly, you are to remember that Christ, "the First and the Last" was the one "who died" (verse 8) to bear our sin. There is forgiveness for all sin - even Peter's denial of Christ just before the Crucifixion - the same Peter who also caved in as a distinguished apostle at Antioch (Gal 2.11). Centuries later Archbishop Cranmer, the great architect of the Church of England at the Reformation, under pressure denied his faith. But he then repented and was eventually martyred for his faith. The good news is as we say so often in this church: "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all [not some] unrighteousness" (1 John 1.9).
Fourthly, and finally, you are to remember that what seems so hard to understand at the time, is, nevertheless, all part of God's good and perfect plan. Hardship, persecution, suffering is a sign that God is working in your life. The bible says, "the Lord disciplines those he loves" (Heb 12.6). And if you are faithful to God and his word, Jesus says, verse 10, "I will give you the crown of life." And in verse 11 there is the promise: "He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death [that is Hell]." Jesus is saying, "heaven awaits". So especially in times of hardship, persecution and suffering remember heaven and God's good ultimate plan.
I must conclude. I do so very simply with the first part of verse 11:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."