David Jeremiah - The Suffering Church
What do you say to somebody who is suffering? How do you counsel people who are going through great times of sorrow and tribulation? What would you say to an individual whose family has been torn apart because of the stand they have taken for Christ? What if your neighbor has lost his job and was experiencing poverty? How would you reach out to him, and what would you say? Here before us is our Lord's own formula for encouraging those who are going through suffering and sorrow and pain. It is a personal letter, written to a church that was living in tremendous pressure. The word "Smyrna" actually occurs three times in the New Testament in connection with Jesus Christ.
See if you can pick it up as I share it with you. At the birth of Jesus, when the wise men came from the east and opened their treasures, they presented Jesus with gold, frankincense, and Smyrna. At the crucifixion of Jesus, those who stood by offered our Lord wine mixed with Smyrna to help deaden the pain of his suffering. At the burial of Jesus, Nicodemus came with Joseph of Arimathea, and the two men took the body of Jesus down from the cross, they wrapped his body with linen, and in the folds of the linen, they placed a hundred-pound weight of aloes and Smyrna. Isaiah the prophet has an interesting omission in his prediction concerning the second coming of Christ. Listen to Isaiah 60, verse 6, "All those from Sheba shall come, they shall bring gold and incense, and they shall proclaim the praises of the Lord".
Isn't it interesting that when he talks about the second coming, myrrh, or Smyrna, is left out? Jesus will never again come to this earth with myrrh as the suffering Savior. When he comes again, he will be the sovereign Savior, and there's no need for Smyrna when he returns. Now, no one knows for sure how the church in Smyrna got started. Paul had directed a 3-year campaign, the Bible says, when he was in Ephesus, and he caused all of Asia to hear the Word of God. That surely would have included the little island of Smyrna. And the word "Smyrna" perfectly describes the church. The Christians in this city were persecuted. And as one writer says, "They were lying embalmed in the precious spices of its suffering".
And this is one of the two churches in the list of seven churches to which the Lord does not say anything negative. He doesn't say anything negative. Remember last week, Ephesus was a good church, but the Lord said, "Nevertheless, I have somewhat against you because you have left your first love". When you read the letter to the Smyrnians, you don't find anything that he says that's negative. What was there about this congregation that caused it to suffer so much, so much so that myrrh is a significant representation of the church itself? Smyrna was the first city ever to build a temple to honor Rome and Tiberius the emperor.
To the average Christian, Rome has always been held in disrepute because of the published reports of her cruel treatment of the church. We consider the Romans kind of like tyrants. But the people of that day did not consider Rome like that at all. The citizens of Rome loved their government. The Pax Romana, or the peace of Rome, took from the Roman people the fear of any kind of war. War was abolished simply because Rome had become so strong that no one could ever attempt to attack her. And the Roman government was also responsible for linking together the great systems of roads that pushed the empire into an almost instant touch with one another. The Romans banished pirates from the high seas, and they established a system of law that governed the disputes of the people.
No, no, no, if you lived in Rome back in those days, you loved Rome. Rome made everything work for you. Rome took care of all your needs. You didn't despise Rome at all. The emperors began to be worshiped. And, at first, they resisted it, then reluctantly they accepted it. And finally, not only did they accept it, they expected it, and actually began to accrue to themselves the attributes of deity. By the time the book of Revelation was written, emperor worship was compulsory. John was banished to Patmos and the churches were persecuted because they would not bow down to Caesar and declare their loyalty to Rome. The persecution was not so much religious as it was political. To be a Christian in the Roman Empire was to live in jeopardy every day. And in Smyrna, a city that prided itself as the center of emperor worship, it meant pressure and poverty and persecution.
Some Christians in Smyrna were tortured on the rack, which was a wheel about 2 feet wide and about 8 feet tall. The ankles of the dissenter would be chained to the floor, and his wrists to the wheel or the rack. And every time the believer was asked to recant and refused, the rack would be tightened until his limbs were actually torn from his body. Other Christians were burned in boiling oil. Others were crucified. Many were thrown to the hungry lions before 50.000 bloodthirsty people in the coliseums. The most painful torture was to be burned slowly at the stake. No, my friends, the suffering of the Christians in Smyrna is described for us in Christ's letter by three words: pressure, poverty, and persecution.
Notice, as you look at your Bibles, "I know your tribulation". In the letter to the church, Jesus says, "I know your tribulation". And the word "tribulation" is the Greek word "thlipsis," which means pressure. The picture is one of placing a heavy rock upon a man's chest until it crushes him to death. And they also experienced poverty. Notice it says in the text, "I know your poverty". They were penniless and poor, and were suffering from abject poverty. Their poverty was due to their faith in Christ. Not only were they mobbed and looted and robbed, they were boycotted in the city. When people knew that they were followers of Christ, they were banned from making a living. The trade unions and the businesses shut them out because they considered them disloyal to the emperor, and thus to the empire.
And such was the experience of the Christians who lived in Smyrna. They suffered from pressure and poverty and persecution. "I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan". Every day in Smyrna, things became worse and worse for men and women who called the name of Christ. Now, to this suffering family of believers, Jesus writes this letter, and he tells them two things. And I want you to see what he said. This is where the advice of the Lord to suffering people comes in. One is a negative prohibition, and the other is a positive instruction. The first thing he says to them in verse 10 is, "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer". Jesus comes to the people of Smyrna with a simple instruction. "I don't want you to be afraid". Suffering, imprisonment, and martyrdom are to be met with the gracious Word of the Lord, "Don't be afraid".
You say, "Pastor, that's easy to say, not so easy to do". If there's any one emotion that I think people have felt during these days we're experiencing right now, it's kind of a quiet fear. "Where is this all going? What's going to happen? What's going to happen in our culture? What's going to happen in our economy? What's going to happen in our faith"? And if we're not careful, we can allow our lives to be run by fear. And the Lord Jesus comes to us in the midst of our troubles, and says to us, "If you have me, you don't have to be afraid, for I have overcome the world". If you've come here and you're going through a lot of stuff, maybe you think I'm going to tell you to buck up and try harder and work harder. All I want to say to you is what Jesus said to the church in Smyrna, "Don't be afraid". You don't have to fear what is happening, what may happen. Fear not. But notice there's another word from the Lord Jesus that's even perhaps more important. He says in verse 10, "Be faithful until death".
Now, there's some disagreement as to what this means. I mean, does this mean to be faithful until you're killed for your faithfulness? Or does it mean just to be faithful all through your life until you die a natural death? Really doesn't make any difference. The severity of the persecution at that time, I would be inclined to think that Jesus was saying, "You may end up losing your life for your faith, but be faithful unto death," because if you will notice a little bit later in this text, Jesus sees life from eternal perspective, and he wants us to learn how to do that as well. And even though this is a short letter, there are five things I want to tell you that we need to know about this letter that will help us not be afraid, but to live in faith. The opposite of fear is not courage for the believer. The opposite of fear for the believer is faith, faith in God, faith in what God has said, faith in who God is, faith in what he has promised us.
Now, notice these five things come right out of the text, so let me just give them to you quickly. First of all, the Lord wanted the believers in Smyrna to know that the reputation of Christ was better than the reputation of Rome. He says in verse 8, "These things say the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life". Now remember, the description of Christ was chosen by the Lord from the vision of chapter 1. It was meant to disarm fear. In fact, in Revelation 1:17, we read, "When I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand on me, saying to me, 'Do not be afraid, for I am the First and the Last.'" It is awful hard when you live in the midst of the struggles and challenges of life to remember that this world is not our home, we're just passing through, that this isn't everything there is or will be, that this is a moment in the scheme of God's plan. And he is the First, and he is the Last.
The reputation of Christ was better than the reputation of Rome. Number two, the recognition of Christ was better than the recognition of Rome. Notice what Jesus says to them in verse 9, "I know your works. I know your tribulation. I know your poverty". He was not just aware of their problems. He uses a word for "know" that goes much deeper than that. It is the word "oida," and it means to know by experience. What Jesus was saying to the church was this. "Whatever you're experiencing, I know it. I don't know just about it, I have experienced it myself". And we've learned this from the book of Hebrews that, "We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin". You can almost hear the Lord as you pray to him and say, "Lord, do you know what I'm going through"? And you hear the Lord say, "My child, I know. I don't know just about it, I've already been there. I've experienced it".
The reputation of Christ was better than the reputation of Rome. And the recognition of Christ was better than the recognition of Rome. But keep reading. The riches of Christ were better than the riches of Rome. Verse 9, "But you are rich". These words were meant to strengthen the church. They were very poor, yet they were very rich. The Lord's values were very different from those of the Jews and the paganizers. Jesus commands us to lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven. And Paul says that true ministers of God would be, "Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, and yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things". Is that not true? 2 Corinthians 8:9 says, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich".
And the Lord Jesus speaks to the suffering church, and reminds them that though they may have no money, they don't know where the next meal is coming from, when it comes to their relationship with the Lord Jesus, they have a richness that the world cannot possibly comprehend. Number four, the reckoning of time by Christ was better than the reckoning of time by Rome. Revelation 2:10, "You will have tribulation ten days". You may think, "Pastor, this that I'm working on right now, that I'm going through right now, it's never going to end". But I say to you it is going to end. And God has every day numbered. He will not allow you to go through more than he will help you experience. And, in the midst of it all, he is showing you the importance of eternity in comparison to the temporal issues we face in this life. To the believer in Smyrna, the clock was moving slowly.
How many of you know trouble seems to slow time down? But God lives and moves in a different time zone, and fearlessness and faithfulness are enhanced when we understand this truth: it's but for a moment. It's just for a little while. And the Lord has great plans for his people. Finally, the rewards of Christ were better than the rewards of Rome. Revelation 2:10 and 11, "I will give you the crown of life. And he who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death". The athletic games of the Roman Empire were a cause for much pride among its citizens. Part of the pride of Rome was attached to the great pageants and their games. The crowns won by the Roman citizens were flaunted in the faces of believers. But Christ reminded these suffering saints that they were in a different race. They would win a different crown.
The Bible says in Revelation 4:10 that when we receive these crowns at the judgment seat of Christ, we are going to cast them at the feet of the Savior. This prize would be a great motivation to courage and faithfulness in times of trial. The crown is the positive reward. But notice the 11th verse of the second chapter. There's kind of a negative reward, if you will. Revelation 2:11, "He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death". Every one of us in this room will die the first death if the Lord Jesus doesn't come back soon. But there are a lot of us in this room that will never die the second death. The first death is when you die and your soul is separated from your body temporarily. But the second death is separation of your soul from the Lord God forever and ever and ever.
Listen again to what the Lord God said through Jesus Christ to this church, "He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death". The original language here is very strong. It says literally, "He shall in no wise, on no account be hurt of the second death". The first death is a shadow of the second death. And it is the first death that seems so dreadful to us. So will the second death. Christ reminded the believers of a tremendous fact: the world lives to die, but the believer dies to live. The Christian church in Smyrna had nothing to fear from martyrdom. No matter how cruel the torture, the Romans could never separate them from God. Separation from God is the second death, and the separation of the soul from the body is the first death. If Christ tarries in his coming, all who are alive will experience the first death, but those who have put their trust in Christ will never, ever, ever experience the second death.
The simple truth is wrapped up in this little slogan, "If you were born once, you will die twice. But if you've been born twice, you only have to die once". Thank God for many of us here who have been born again. We have been born twice. We may have to go through physical death, but on the promise of the Word of God, we shall never, ever experience spiritual death, the second death. You say, "Well, what does that have to do with these believers"? These believers realized that many of them would give their lives for their faith. And the Lord Jesus reminded them that's nothing to fear. In fact, Luke chapter 12 says it this way, "Do not be afraid of those who will kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear. Fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell. Yes, I say to you, fear him"!
And Jesus said to the believers in Smyrna, "You don't have to fear him. You don't have to fear the second death". Because of your faith in Jesus Christ, they may take your life through some of those terrible persecutions I mentioned earlier, but they can't take from you the one thing that matters ultimately, and that's your eternal relationship with Almighty God. The reputation of Christ is better than the reputation of the world. The recognition of Christ is better than the recognition of the world.
You don't have to be known by the world, but if you're known by Christ, you're somebody. The riches of Christ are better than the riches of the world. The reckoning of time by Christ is better than the reckoning of time by the world. And the rewards of Christ are better than the rewards of the world. When you're going through stuff, like we're all going through stuff right now, how important it is for us to get our head out of the sand and out of the doldrums, and get our eyes upon God, and our heart and our head in his Word, and remind ourselves that the really important things are already ultimately taken care of for every single one of us who know the Lord. And he who gave to us his Son, will he not also freely give us all things?