Monday, February 7, 2011

The Revelation of Christ's Expectations (Faithfulness)

Part 5 of a series through the book of Revelation

WHAT IF?

The second church Jesus addresses in Revelation is the church in Smyrna. This church was a persecuted church.

Persecution of Christians still exists today. According to one recent estimate, 100 million Christians presently face persecution. These persecuted Christians live in countries, such as North Korea, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, India, Nigeria, and China. Right now, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman in Pakistan, is sentenced to death for blasphemy.

What if you were faced with the decision to either deny Christ and live or remain faithful to Christ and die? What would you do?

Jesus expects us to be faithful to Him, no matter the circumstances and no matter the consequences.

CHRIST’S MESSAGE TO A SUFFERING CHURCH

Smyrna is the only city of the seven that still exists today (Izmir).

Among the seven churches in Asia, the church in Smyrna is one of only two churches that Christ does not rebuke. The other church not rebuked is the church in Philadelphia. Surprisingly, these two churches were the least significant of the seven in terms of numbers and influence. The lesson? It’s more important to be faithful than to be powerful.

The message to the church in Smyrna gives us four reasons to be faithful to Christ during times of suffering:

1. When you suffer, Christ is still in control.

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life” (v. 8).

The title “the first and the last” is found in the book of Isaiah. “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: ‘I am the first and the last; besides me there is no god’” (Isaiah 44:6; cf. 48:12).

When you suffer, God hasn’t forgotten about you. Even in suffering, He can work out His plan for our lives. Jesus recognized this truth. Before His crucifixion, He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

2. When you suffer, Christ is still able to bless.

“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. 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” (vv. 9-10a).

The Christians in Smyrna were experiencing “tribulation,” “poverty” (they were poor economically but rich spiritually--in contrast to the Laodiceans, 3:17), and “slander.” We view these things as problems, but Jesus sees them as strengths. He is able to use suffering to bless. The greatest example of blessing coming out of suffering is the cross.

We often pray, “Lord, thank You for the freedom we have to worship” (as we should). But if we didn’t enjoy this freedom, would we pray, “Lord, thank You for persecution”? Many years ago, Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Apologeticus). Persecution purifies and grows the church.

The slander against the church was coming from Jews in Smyrna. The city had a large Jewish population. Smyrna was a center for emperor worship. (Only Jews were exempt from worshiping the emperor.) The Jews may have been informing the Roman authorities of the Christians’ refusal to participate in worship of the emperor. These Jews considered themselves the people of God, but they were actually doing the work of Satan (“adversary”). Jesus calls them the “synagogue of Satan.” (Christians should never promote anti-Semitism. Both Jesus and John were Jews.)

Would the church be “tested” by God or the devil? Perhaps both. The Greek word for “tested” (peirazo) can mean either “tested” or “tempted.” So the “tribulation” may be a “test” from God and a “temptation” from Satan. God will “test” their faith, and Satan will “tempt” them to abandon their faith. Whenever we suffer, it is both a test and a temptation.

The “ten days” may be symbolic, referring to a manageable period of time. (The “ten days” may be an allusion to Daniel’s ten-day “test” in Daniel 1:12-14). The time of tribulation for the Christians in Smyrna would be limited to "ten days." (However there was no guarantee that the imprisonment would end in freedom. There was the possibility of martyrdom.) “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

3. When you suffer, you have the promise of a reward.

“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (v. 10b).

“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, [Jesus] said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it’” (Mark 8:34-35).

Smyrna was famous for its games. The prize for the victor was a crow (or olive wreath). The apostle Paul, who was probably a sports fan, wrote, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:25 NIV).

Those who remain faithful to Christ will be given the “crown of life.” “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12 NIV).

Many people work extremely hard to earn a prize or reward (gold medal, university degree, etc.). Shouldn’t we strive to win the crown of life? There will be no greater honor than to receive a crown from Jesus.

4. When you suffer, you have the hope of ultimate relief.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers [overcomes] will not be hurt by the second death” (v. 11).

What is the “second death”? “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power.... Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:6a, 14; cf. 21:8).

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Be faithful to Christ, not fearful of man.

In verse 8, Jesus is described as the One “who died and came to life.” We will die—some Christians will even by martyred—but death is not the end. It’s only the beginning.

“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’ (Revelation 14:12-13).

FAITHFUL TO THE END

In Smyrna, there was a disciple of John named Polycarp (69 – 155 A.D.). Later, he became the bishop of the church in Smyrna. Polycarp was burned at the stake for refusing to renounce Christ and proclaim, “Caesar is Lord.”

“For eighty-six years I have been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9:3).

“You threaten with fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will” (11:2).

Are you willing to be faithful to Christ, no matter the circumstances and no matter the consequences?