The text for the sermon today is Revelation 2:8-11. Our text can be found on page 1028. These are the words of God:
8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.
9 “ ‘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. 10 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. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ (ESV
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Smyrna, the modern-day Turkish city of Izmir, was a wealthy harbor town in the Aegean Sea, north of Ephesus. The church was likely planted by Paul at the end of his third missionary journey.
Christ, who will shortly tell them to be faithful unto death, has already blazed that trail for them. (v. 8) The Smyrnean Christians suffered economic hardship as their former friends who were Jewish informed on them to the Roman authorities, yet they were richer than they appeared. By lying about Christians, these Jews have joined the church of Satan, who is the accuser of the brothers. (v. 9; 12:10)
During the early to mid-first century, the Christian church enjoyed a degree of protection under the umbrella of Judaism, but in the aftermath of the Neronian persecution which targeted Christians, Jewish synagogues actively distanced themselves from Christianity.
There were other reasons for Jews to inform on Christians. Ignatius tells us there was jealousy that Jews were converting to Christianity and Justin, in his Dialogue tells us that the Jews considered the Christian worship of a crucified criminal as the Messiah a blasphemy.
Though the economic suffering was painful, Christ warned that intensified persecution was coming. The state will soon sponsor direct attacks on Christian congregations and members to throw them into prison. They will follow the model set by Christians like Daniel and his friends in Babylon. (Dan. 1:12-15) Faithfulness to death will receive the victor’s crown. (v. 10)
The passage ends by calling every church to heed the words of Christ. Tribulations rise in every age. The church conquers through faithful obedience will not be condemned (v. 11)
WHAT IS PERSECUTION?
Several forms of persecution are mentioned by the Lord Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount. First, there is the persecution of the righteous by the wicked.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The wicked take God’s good gifts such as power and wealth and misuse them against the the righteous who are weak and poor. The Psalter is full of this kind of persecution, and it’s always happening. In a sense, all of human history since Genesis 3 is a history of persecution.
The second form of persecution Christ mentions is that which targets Christians for being Christians.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Formal persecution of Christians by the state, or by outsiders waxes and wanes throughout history (Domitian, Soviet Purges), and we ought not be surprised when it rears its ugly head. Though Satan cannot stop the advance of the gospel into all the nations, he may still inflict persecution to try to hamper the church’s mission.
WHY DOES CHRIST ALLOW PERSECUTION?
Amazingly, Christ never tells Smyrna to pray that the tribulation might come to a close. When we read the book of Acts, a record of the earliest persecutions, the disciples never once asked God to remove the persecution. Instead, the prayer is for boldness and faithfulness in the face of persecution. This is because those first disciples understood that the same God who sent Daniel into the lion’s den, and his own Son to the cross, is the same sovereign God who has allowed persecution to come to them.
While it isn’t wrong to ask God for mercy, if “getting out of persecution,” is a higher priority than faithfulness to Christ in persecution, then the persecution won’t have done you any good.
Jesus tells the Smyrnean church that even though the devil meant to destroy them, he, Christ, meant to vindicate them as true believers through their faithfulness. In other words, every single persecution is a trial, a test of the genuineness of your faith in Christ.
The time of testing is in his hands. Some of us are looking at the trajectory of our nation. We see parental rights being stripped. We see churches being forced to not meet. And we wonder, what is happening? But Revelation 2 tells us what is happening: you are being tested. Your faith is being tried. And you don’t conquer by changing the culture. You conquer by being faithful to Jesus Christ regardless of the consequences.
WHAT DO WE DO WHEN FACED WITH PERSECUTION?
Christ gives the Smyrnean church two commands: first, they are not to fear. This cannot mean that God is prohibiting the natural fear of starvation, poverty, or even death. Those are good fears, given to us by God to keep us in our creaturely place. Rather, those fears are not to overwhelm us. They are not to grow to such a size that we believe God has been rendered impotent to save us.
Second, they are to be faithful unto death.
Polycarp, one of the best-known ancient Christian martyrs, was a member of the Smyrnian church. According to the ancient church fathers Tertullian and Irenaeus, Polycarp became the senior minister of the church after he was ordained by the apostle John. No doubt this letter from Christ via John to Smyrna was a great encouragement to Polycarp.
Polycarp was in his twenties when this letter came to the church of Smyrna, and he died when he was eighty-six. On February 22, AD 156, this venerable bishop, who had fled from Smyrna at the urging of his local church, was tracked down in a hiding place twenty miles from Smyrna. He made no attempt to flee but instead offered food and drink to his captors. When they asked him if he had any special requests before being martyred, he asked for two hours for prayer. The officers granted his request, then bound him and brought him back to Smyrna for trial.
Two weeks later, Polycarp was led into the amphitheater, where he would be put to death before thousands of people. The proconsul said: “Polycarp, I will have respect for your old age. Swear just once by the genius of Caesar,2 and I will immediately release you.” Polycarp replied: “Eighty-six years have I served Christ, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” The proconsul persisted, saying: “The wild beasts are ready. If you refuse to swear by Caesar, you will be thrown to them.” Polycarp answered, “Bid them be brought.” Infuriated, the proconsul responded: “As you despise beasts, I give you one last opportunity to change your mind. Else I shall destroy you by fire.” But Polycarp refused to recant.
Polycarp was brought to the stake. Before he was fastened with cords, he said, “I have one request; leave me unfastened, for I will die voluntarily for my Master’s sake.” The captors left him unfastened as they kindled the fire. Wind drove the flames away, prolonging Polycarp’s agony, but also giving him more time to confess Christ. Over the flames and wind, Polycarp cried out, “O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of Thee, I thank Thee that Thou hast thought me worthy this day, this hour to share the cup of Thy Christ among the number of Thy witnesses.” That so angered one soldier that he took his sword and pierced the old man who refused to run from the flames of death.
And at that moment, a crown was set on Polycarp’s head. It was the crown that Jesus had already won for him, and for you.