12/3/2020 11:37:03 AM
Letters to the Seven Churches: Smyrna
Pastor Kyle Bitter - Midweek Advent 1 - Wednesday, December 2, 2020
The year was about 95 AD. The small group of Christians in the city of Smyrna, located in modern day Turkey, were feeling besieged on every side. The roots of their struggle go back a couple of decades to a time when the Roman emperors started claiming to be gods as a way of solidifying their power. They then expected their subjects to honor them as gods. From a human perspective, they weren’t asking anything too huge. A pinch of incense burned before a statue of the emperor, an occasional sacrifice offered at his altar, or some other simple demonstration of commitment to the state and the emperor is what was expected. But Christians were unable to participate in such worship acts in good conscience, so they walked past the statues and didn’t visit the altars. And maybe it could have just stayed like that. Quiet religious objection, but not making much fuss, were it not for their enemies. This group of enemies seems to trace their background into Judaism. These were people who had wanted nothing to do with Jesus, and they also wanted nothing to do with his followers, and they saw in this an opportunity to get the Christians in trouble with the Roman authorities. Rumors started to circulate. The Christians were religious objectors (true) and because of that, they were trying to undermine the emperor’s authority and the whole empire itself! Such slander had about the effect one might expect as Christian beliefs foreign to the Romans were dragged out into the public sphere and grossly misinterpreted. Damage had been done to their status in society, to their income, and even at times to their physical health and well-being! What were they supposed to do?
You know, the temptation is always there to fight fire with fire. And the Christians in Smyrna could have done that. You want to talk about subversive behavior? There had actually been wars and rebellions between the Jews and the Romans! And not all that long ago! Just 25 years earlier in 70 AD, the Roman legions had ripped through the holy land, destroying Jerusalem and the temple and pursuing a group of Jewish rebels down to a mountaintop fortress called Masada where they expended tremendous amounts of resources as the rebels had held out to the very last person! You want to talk about subversive behavior – maybe the Romans just needed a reminder of who the real troublemakers were!
It’s not the same group of enemies today, but people who don’t want to have anything to do with Jesus himself still don’t want to have anything to do with his followers either, and once again the devil uses this same source of conflict to make life difficult for children of God. Challenging biblical truths are dragged out into the public sphere and misconstrued, and slanderous accusations abound. What could be viewed as simple differences of beliefs are instead portrayed as hate. What is actually legitimate and loving concern about someone’s eternal spiritual welfare is misconstrued as intolerance or bigotry. Entire Christian organizations are publicly maligned as hate groups, in most cases without even giving Christians a chance to speak for themselves! And the fallout is hard too. Families are divided and friendship are strained, and it seems unlikely that any of this is on track to get better in the future. What are we supposed to do?
I suppose to an extent you can ignore false things that are said and let your kindness as a child of God speak for itself, but that’s not always possible. What do you do when faced with a hard conversation with a family member or co-worker? What do you do when you’re maligned in the public sphere of social media, for all the world to see? The temptation is there to fight fire with fire, to engage in heated arguments and discussions. To point out examples of hypocrisy and double standards – to try and find ways to make your attackers look silly!
And sometimes it’s quieter than that: just write off the people who slander Christianity as beyond hope. Why bother talking to them, why bother trying to be kind to them, why bother looking for a chance to witness to them? They’ve chosen their path – just let them walk it!
When children of God fall into such temptations, nothing good results. You might feel like you are fighting for Jesus, winning those arguments, contributing to the fight, pushing back against the sinful world…but as that plays itself out the devil wins victory after victory. The love of Jesus and his promise of forgiveness is lost in a cesspool of human confrontation, and all too often children of God find themselves sucked into sinfulness, doing grave spiritual damage to ourselves and others.
For the Christians in Smyrna, a letter arrived from the aged apostle named John. The slander they were forced to endure had not escaped the notice of God, and he had a message of encouragement for them – encouragement that transcends time and helps us today too. “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 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. 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. (Revelation 2:8b-11 – NIV84). It’s a short letter but filled with truth and symbolism that encourages Christians who are struggling with the attacks of a sinful world.
Jesus already Won
You can see that from the very beginning. Don’t miss the one who spoke these words! “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” (Revelation 2:8 – NIV84). These are the words of the Son of God – who has been there since the creation of the world and who will be here until he returns at the end. The Son of God, who took on human flesh and entered the world as that child in the manger. The Son of God who endured slander and lies told about him like none before or since. The son of God who never fought fire with fire, but instead went to his death out of love for even those who slandered him in so many ways! On the third day he came out of that grave, still undefeated! The lies and slander had not slowed him in the slightest, and despite the allegations of his enemies he triumphantly claimed his throne in heaven. The victory had been won. Sin and Satan were defeated, no matter what had been said about Jesus.
In the same way, it didn’t matter that the first century Christians had been driven into poverty because of the slanderous things being said about them – Jesus had still won, their sins were still forgiven, and the riches of heaven still awaited them no matter how much poverty they experienced on earth. Jesus said, “I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich!” (Revelation 2:9a – NIV84). In the same way, it doesn’t matter how effective slanderous attacks might against God’s people today might seem to be, or how many people might seem to be buying into it. Jesus still won, and the riches of heaven are waiting for you too!
You already won
The rest of the letter invites us to look at life from the perspective of Jesus’ victory. “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last.” Jesus isn’t going anywhere! He was there at the beginning and he will return at the end, and in the meantime, he directs all things for the good of his people. That means that even the hard things that happen can only occur with his allowance and can only last for as long as he chooses to allow them, and not a second longer. And so, he says: “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.” (Revelation 2:10a – NIV84). Slanderous accusations and other hardship will happen, but only for a time and then they will end, and when they end, we will get to see our victory with our own eyes.
Jesus invites us to envision our victory with the picture of an Olympic athlete – and it fits. Like a runner struggling to finish a race, so there will be times when the weight of a sinful world is heavy, when the hills are steep and it hard. There will be times when you have to dig deep just to keep going, and there will be times when it seems like it’s easiest to just give up. So why does the Christian keep going? Why does the athlete keep running? Jesus said: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.” (Revelation 2:10 – NIV84). A crown – not of olive branches but of eternal riches in heaven! Not the applause of a crowd cheering a sporting event, but the smile if your Savior waiting with open arms to welcome you and show you the riches he’s prepared for you!
At times, portions of scripture like this can almost seem as though they are too good to be true. It’s not that easy! And it isn’t – life in a sinful world can be hard. But in one sense, it’s as simple as can be. God keeps his promises. There are plenty of examples in history, but let me share one with you that you may not have heard before. The annals of church history after bible times record the story of a pastor named Polycarp. He served this very church in Smyrna and was likely one of the first readers of this letter – perhaps reading to his congregation when it first arrived. Decades later, Roman authorities demanded that Polycarp himself, now and old man, renounce his faith or die. He is said to have responded with these words: “Fourscore and six years (86 years) he has been faithful to me. Can I be unfaithful to him now?” Polycarp paid the price for his words. On February 23rd, 165 he was burned at the stake. Sad though it was, that was not a day of tragedy. It was a day of God keeping his promises – giving one of his children the strength to be faithful even to death, and that was the day when Polycarp received his crown of life! So, what will it look like for you and me? By God’s grace, that kind of thing has not been a common experience in our part of the world, and we pray that it never will be. But no matter what we find ourselves facing, God’s promise still stands. He did come into our world at that first Christmas. He endured the slander of a sinful world and was faithful to the point of death, and he did that so he can give you the crown of life. In the meantime, you and I are set free from the need to win against a sinful world. We don’t have to win the arguments. We don’t have to defeat the lies. Jesus already did that, and there is no changing it. We are free to just share the good news when God grants us the opportunity, and leave the rest in his hands. Amen.